Vir­tu­oso tantrums wear thin

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Si­mon West

‘ 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.


Thomas Bernhard

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