Virtuoso tantrums wear thin
‘ HONOURED Minister, honoured guests, there is nothing to praise, nothing to damn, nothing to accuse, but much that is absurd, indeed it is all absurd, when one thinks about death.’’
Thus began Thomas Bernhard’s speech on the occasion of receiving the Austrian State Prize for Literature in 1968. The formal surroundings, the black-tied dignitaries, would sweep aside the contrariness of most writers. But not Bernhard, who throughout his career never ceased reminding himself and admiring readers that life was absurd when one thought about death.
Bernhard (1931-89) was one of the most significant German language writers of the second half of the 20th century.
He was Austrian but his novels and plays received most favourable recognition abroad. At home he was called a Nestbeschmutzer, a nest-defiler, for his frequent bitter criticisms of Austrian society.
My Prizes is no different in its attacks on his homeland, but what becomes clear is that Austria takes the brunt of a misanthropic nihilist’s grudge against human society at large: What we are speaking of here is unfathomable, we are not properly alive, our existence and suppositions are all hypocritical . . . appearances are deadly and all the hundreds and thousands of hackneyed words we play with in our heads in our loneliness, the words to which we cling because our impotence makes us insane and our insanity makes us despair, these words merely infect and ignore, blur and aggravate, shame and falsify and cloud and darken everything.
In the short pieces that make up this book, Bernhard recounts events surrounding his receiving various literary awards, as well as providing some of his acceptance speeches. Perhaps not surprisingly, Bernhard the character displays the same impulsive, obsessive and uncompromising nature as the protagonists of his novels and plays.
Prizemoney is at the centre of most of these stories. If the inanity of awards and their ceremonies is a symbol for the absurdity of social life as a whole, much of the angst and pleasure here derives from the way Bernhard, too, must play his part because he needs the cash. Caught in such a bind he rails against himself as much as
society with characteristic vitriol. Take another passage from the awarding of the Austrian State Prize, an episode where Bernhard got particularly worked up because he had been awarded the small prize and not the big prize: Secretly I was thinking that the jury was indulging itself in sheer effrontery in giving me the Small Prize when of course the only thing I felt absolutely prepared to accept . . . was the Big Prize . . . it must be giving my enemies on this jury a fiendish pleasure to knock me from my pedestal by throwing the Small Prize at my head.
It is hard to give a sense of Bernhard in the confines of a review because the particularity of his prose is the way he or his characters get caught up in repetitive and ranting monologues that build magnificent pictures of obsessiveness.
A few pages later he is still at it: ‘‘ When people asked me who had already won this so-called Big State Prize, I always said, ‘ All Assholes’, and when they asked me the names of these assholes I listed a whole row of assholes for them and they’d never heard of any of them . . .’’
Once Bernhard receives the prizemoney, he is just as likely to throw it away impulsively, as if to balance out the reckless choices of juries. In two separate and very funny stories he recounts his impetuous acquisition first of a sports car, then a dilapidated house in the country.
Bernhard, one imagines, would have hated the expression ‘‘ life is a series of compromises’’. Once he or his protagonists had determined that life was meaningless, there was no point stepping back from the abyss to make the best of things. In this, he fits into a tradition of the Nietzschean artist- hero who revels in his madness uncompromising individuality.
The results often make for exhilarating reading, perhaps because we take pleasure in his ability to give voice to our own secret outrages at life and humanity. But after a while such inveighing wears thin.
One of the awards Bernhard discusses is perhaps the most important Germanlanguage prize, the Georg Buchner.
Ten years before Bernhard, it had been bestowed on Paul Celan, a poet well aware of ‘‘ the majesty of the absurd which bespeaks the presence of human beings’’. Yet his address on that occasion, the beautiful and now famous Meridian speech, was also able to give voice to the way ‘‘ art makes for distance from the I’’. Like T. S. Eliot, Celan knew of that mysterious need to create and celebrate in the face of absurdity which was articulated in Eliot’s Ash Wednesday: ‘‘ Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something/ Upon which to rejoice.’’
The contrast is telling: Bernhard becomes a spoiled child still railing because the enchanting box of life he had been promised, and which was said to hold a world of delights, turned out to contain a small gift, not a big one. Simon West is a poet, translator and Italianist.