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Bernhard the Happy Nihilist

March 04, 2011

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Thomas Bernhard

“€œYou must come visit us in Vienna,”€ said Mrs H. as we lunched at Cecconi’s in Miami Beach.

“€œOh, Vienna, yes, I”€™ve been thinking of Vienna recently,”€ I answered, “€œbecause I”€™ve been reading Thomas Bernhard.”€

“€œBernhard! I didn’t realize he was known abroad.”€

Known abroad, ha! As if he was some delicacy in an old Salzburg bakery known only to locals rather than a writer considered by many to be one of the twentieth century’s best not only in the German language, but all of Europe. Bernhard was a bestseller and widely read. His plays were performed in Paris, Berlin, and Bratislava and were awarded many literary prizes. He won all the major prizes for the German language, as he tells with great humor in the newly published My Prizes: An Accounting, a collection of short stories on the humiliation and exhilaration of receiving all these prizes and what he did with the prize money. The volume also includes some of his acceptance speeches. Here is a snippet from the one he gave after receiving the Austrian State Prize:

The state is a construct eternally on the verge of foundering, the people one that is endlessly condemned to infamy and feeblemindedness….In my name and in the name of those here who have also been selected by this jury, I thank all of you.

“€œHe didn”€™t like Austria very much,”€ remarked Mrs. H.

“€œHow he hated Austria”€”in fiction, in fiction. How he hated life”€”in fiction!”€

So they say. Bernhard was the Nestbeschmutzer, soiler of his own nest, who before he died in 1989 made sure to forbid the publication, production, or even recitation of his works (including “€œletters and scraps of paper”€) anywhere in Austria. He wrote things such as: “€œSalzburg, the sworn enemy of all art and culture, a cretinous provincial dump with stupid people and cold walls, where everything without exception is eventually made cretinous”€ and “€œWe”€™re Austrian, we”€™re apathetic, our lives evince the basest disinterest in life…we have nothing to report except that we are pitiful,”€ etc., for pages and pages. Yet he lived there all his life. Bernard the Nestbeschmutzer, Bernhard the nihilist, singing of the desperation, the impossibility of life, but in interviews he smiled and said, “€œOne feels happiness each day you’re happy to be alive and not dead already”€ and “€œI love Austria, I cannot deny that.”€ Ha, ha, provocateur! How he hated Austria”€”in fiction, in fiction. How he hated life”€”in fiction! A nihilist doesn’t write thirteen novels and more than twenty plays.

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