Thomas Bernhard in 1987.
9 February 1931|
|Died||12 February 1989
Gmunden, Upper Austria, Austria
|Occupation||Novelist and playwright|
Thomas Bernhard (German: [ˈbɛʁnhaʁt]; born Nicolaas Thomas Bernhard; February 9, 1931 – February 12, 1989) was an Austrian novelist, playwright and poet. Bernhard, whose body of work has been called "the most significant literary achievement since World War II," is widely considered to be one of the most important German-speaking authors of the postwar era.
Thomas Bernhard was born out of wedlock in 1931 in Heerlen, Netherlands, where, at the time, his mother worked as a maid. Since the autumn of 1931, he lived with his grandparents in Vienna until his mother, who had married since, moved him, in 1937, to Traunstein, Bavaria. Bernhard's natural father died in Berlin from gas poisoning; Thomas had never met him.
Bernhard's grandfather, the author Johannes Freumbichler, pushed for an artistic education for the boy, including musical instruction. Bernhard went to elementary school in Seekirchen and later attended various schools in Salzburg including the Johanneum which he left in 1947 to start an apprenticeship with a grocer.
Bernhard's Lebensmensch (a predominantly Austrian term, which was coined by Bernhard himself  and which refers to the most important person in one's life) was Hedwig Stavianicek (1894–1984), a woman more than thirty-seven years his senior, whom he cared for alone in her dying days and whom he had met in 1950, the year of his mother's death and one year after the death of his beloved grandfather. Stavianicek was the major support in Bernhard's life and greatly furthered his literary career. The extent or nature of his relationships with women is obscure. Thomas Bernhard's public persona was asexual.
Suffering throughout his youth from an intractable lung disease (tuberculosis), Bernhard spent the years 1949 to 1951 at the sanatorium Grafenhof, in Sankt Veit im Pongau. He trained as an actor at the Mozarteum in Salzburg (1955–1957) and was always profoundly interested in music. His lung condition, however, made a career as a singer impossible. After that he began to work briefly as a journalist, mainly as a crime reporter, and then became a full-time writer.
Bernhard died in 1989 in Gmunden, Upper Austria. His attractive house in Ohlsdorf-Obernathal 2 where he had moved in 1965 is now a museum and centre for the study and performance of Bernhard's work. In his will, which aroused great controversy on publication, Bernhard prohibited any new stagings of his plays and publication of his unpublished work in Austria; however, this was annulled by his heir in 1999. His death was announced only after his funeral.
Often criticized in Austria as a Nestbeschmutzer (one who dirties his own nest) for his critical views, Bernhard was highly acclaimed abroad. Nevertheless, while criticised for political reasons by some, he was, during his lifetime, also highly acclaimed in Austria, winning a number of major awards, and was seen by many as the pre-eminent writer of the time.
His work is most influenced by the feeling of being abandoned (in his childhood and youth) and by his incurable illness, which caused him to see death as the ultimate essence of existence. His work typically features loners' monologues explaining, to a rather silent listener, his views on the state of the world, often with reference to a concrete situation. This is true for his plays as well as for his prose, where the monologues are then reported second hand by the listener.
His main protagonists, often scholars or, as he calls them, Geistesmenschen, denounce everything that matters to the Austrian in contumacy-filled tirades against a "stupid populace". He also attacks the state (often called "Catholic-National-Socialist"), generally respected institutions such as Vienna's Burgtheater, and much-loved artists. His work also continually deals with the isolation and self-destruction of people striving for an unreachable perfection, since this same perfection would mean stagnancy and therefore death. Anti-Catholic rhetoric is not uncommon.
"Es ist alles lächerlich, wenn man an den Tod denkt" (Everything is ridiculous, when one thinks of Death) was his comment when he received a minor Austrian national award in 1968, which resulted in one of the many public scandals he caused over the years and which became part of his fame. His novel Holzfällen (1984), for instance, could not be published for years due to a defamation claim by a former friend. Many of his plays—above all Heldenplatz (1988)—were met with criticism from many Austrians, who claimed they sullied Austria's reputation. One of the more controversial lines called Austria "a brutal and stupid nation ... a mindless, cultureless sewer which spreads its penetrating stench all over Europe." Heldenplatz, as well as the other plays Bernhard wrote in these years, were staged at Vienna's famous Burgtheater by the controversial director Claus Peymann.
Even in death Bernhard caused disturbance by his, as he supposedly called it, posthumous literary emigration, by disallowing all publication and stagings of his work within Austria's borders. The International Thomas Bernhard Foundation, established by his executor and half-brother Dr. Peter Fabjan, has subsequently made exceptions, although the German firm of Suhrkamp remains his principal publisher.
Works (in translation)
- Frost (1963), translated by Michael Hofmann (2006)
- Gargoyles (Verstörung, 1967), translated by Richard and Clara Winston (1970)
- The Lime Works (Das Kalkwerk, 1970), translated by Sophie Wilkins (1973)
- Correction (Korrektur, 1975), translated by Sophie Wilkins (1979)
- Yes (Ja, 1978), translated by Ewald Osers (1991)
- The Cheap-Eaters (Der Billigesser, 1980), translated by Ewald Osers (1990)
- Concrete (Beton, 1982), translated by David McLintock (1984)
- Wittgenstein's Nephew (Wittgensteins Neffe, 1982), translated by David McLintock (1988)
- The Loser (Der Untergeher, 1983), translated by Jack Dawson (1991)
- Woodcutters (Holzfällen: Eine Erregung, 1984), translated by Ewald Osers (1985) and as Woodcutters, by David McLintock (1988)
- Old Masters: A Comedy (Alte Meister. Komödie, 1985), translated by Ewald Osers (1989)
- Extinction (Auslöschung, 1986), translated by David McLintock (1995)
- On the Mountain (In Der Höhe, written 1959, published 1989), translated by Russell Stockman (1991)
- Amras (1964)
- Playing Watten (Watten, 1964)
- Walking (Gehen, 1971)
- Collected as Three Novellas (2003), translated by Peter Jansen and Kenneth J. Northcott
- The Force of Habit (1974)
- Immanuel Kant (1978); a comedy, no known translation to English, first performed on 15 April 1978, directed by Claus Peymann at the Staatstheater Stuttgart.
- The President and Eve of Retirement (1982): Originally published as Der Präsident (1975) and Vor dem Ruhestand. Eine Komödie von deutscher Seele (1979), translated by Gitta Honegger.
- Destination (1981), originally titled Am Ziel.
- Histrionics: Three Plays (1990): Collects A Party for Boris (Ein Fest für Boris, 1968), Ritter, Dene, Voss (1984) and Histrionics (Der Theatermacher, 1984), translated by Peter Jansen and Kenneth Northcott.
- Heldenplatz (1988)
- Over All the Mountain Tops (2004): Originally published as Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh (1981), translated by Michael Mitchell.
- The World-fixer (2005)
- Gathering Evidence (1985, memoir): Collects Die Ursache (1975), Der Keller (1976), Der Atem (1978), Die Kälte (1981) and Ein Kind (1982), translated by David McLintock.
- The Voice Imitator (1997, stories): Originally published as Der Stimmenimitator (1978), translated by Kenneth J. Northcott.
- In Hora Mortis / Under the Iron of the Moon (2006, poetry): Collects In Hora Mortis (1958) and Unter dem Eisen des Mondes (1958), translated by James Reidel.
- My Prizes (2010, stories): Originally published as Meine Preise (2009), translated by Carol Brown Janeway.
- Prose (Seagull Books London Ltd, United Kingdom, 2010, short stories); originally published in Germany, 1967.
- Victor Halfwit: A Winter's Tale (2011, illustrated story)
- Peck, Dale (December 24, 2010). "Book Review - 'My Prizes' and 'Prose' by Thomas Bernhard". The New York Times.
- Honegger, Gitta. Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian. Yale University 2001, p. 59.
- "Wiktionary entry 'Lebensmensch'".
- Honegger, Thomas Bernhard, pp. 61-63.
- Der Briefwechsel Thomas Bernhard/Siegfried Unseld, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2009-12-07
- Histrionics: Three Plays, Thomas Bernhard (University of Chicago Press, 1990)
- "The Voice Imitator by Thomas Bernhard - five stories excerpted". Press.uchicago.edu. Retrieved 2011-08-24.
- Website dedicated to Thomas Bernhard: works, essays, reviews
- List of works from the German Wikipedia entry
- Thomas Bernhard's Heldenplatz in the press (German)
- Links to various related resources
- Random Evidence on Thomas Bernhard
- Theo Breuer, Die Arbeit als Leidenschaft, die fortgesetzte Partitur als Leben. Hommage zum 80. Geburtstag.
- Ruth Franklin, "The Art of Extinction," The New Yorker, December 25, 2006 and Jan 1, 2007.
- Frederick, Samuel. Narratives Unsettled: Digression in Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard, and Adalbert Stifter. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 2012.
- Gitta Honegger, Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian, Yale University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-300-08999-6.
- Kay Link: Die Welt als Theater - Künstlichkeit und Künstlertum bei Thomas Bernhard. Akademischer Verlag Stuttgart, Stuttgart 2000, ISBN 3-88099-387-4.
- JJ Long, The Novels of Thomas Bernhard: Form and its Function, Camden House Inc.,U.S., 2001, ISBN 1-57113-224-4.
- Updike, John (4 February 1985). "Books: Ungreat Lives". The New Yorker 60 (51): 94–101. Review of Concrete.
- Ferry Radax: Thomas Bernhard - Drei Tage (Thomas Bernhard - three days, 1970). Directed by Ferry Radax and based on a written self-portrait by Thomas Bernhard.
- Ferry Radax: Der Italiener (The Italian, 1972), a feature film directed by Ferry Radax and based on a script by Thomas Bernhard.
- Media related to Thomas Bernhard at Wikimedia Commons
- German Wikiquote has quotations related to: Thomas Bernhard
- Five stories from The Voice Imitator.
- Shooting of "Monologe auf Mallorca" Pictures by Stephan Mussil
- thomasbernhard.org - Thomas Bernhard in English: works, essays, reviews
- Salon.com review by Ben Marcus of The Voice Imitator
- Bernhardiana, a critical anthology on/of Thomas Bernhard (English/Italian)
- Thomas Bernhard for life A 1986 interview with Thomas Bernhard.
- "The Genius of Bad News" Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books
- "The Darkest Comedian," Adam Kirsch, The New York Review of Books, 10 February 2011