Thursday, 23 July 2015

Thomas Bernhard, the reluctant prize-winner

Full title: My Prizes. An Accounting
Author: Thomas Bernhard; translated by Carol Brown Janeway
Genre: Non fiction
Attributes: 130 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (2010)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Thomas Bernhard was the controversial writer par excellence. Reading him is like finding out that nothing’s worth anything, that death takes all, that life, and especially life in the shadow of the state and its institutions, is an evil that must be rejected, even when it’s singing your praises in the choirs of public glory. The self-explanatory title of this collection of narratives (memoirs would perhaps be a better word to describe them) says it all: the volume takes to task literary prizes in nine stories about awards offered Thomas Bernhard during his life. To be more precise, nine stories about prizes and the scorn with which the recipient took them.
What must be said, if only as a parenthesis, is that the moments illustrated in these brief texts are moments of the last century. The solemnity Bernhard describes in them (and takes good care to ridicule) needs to be regarded with that chronological distance in mind. And it must also be regarded with the mind on the Austro-Hungarian festiveness and its must-do conventions: brass bands, public speeches, bratwursts, pints of cold beer, this and that. Of course, not all of the above is described as such in the volume, but some elements are pretty strongly implied, and to good humorous effect. What we witness with every such event are gatherings designed to consolidate that special kind of place known as Mitteleuropa, which celebrated writers for their compliance with the rules of Central-European provincialism.
Which is precisely what Bernhard despised the most.
But despising the spirit while at the same time accepting its prizes is likely to put one in a delicate situation. Hypocrisy springs to mind. It certainly did cross the minds of Bernhard’s contemporaries, especially the ones who missed no opportunity to cast their criticizing nets into his nonconformist oeuvre.
But Bernhard didn’t deny the allegations. On the contrary, he made them himself. Throughout these pieces Bernhard not only reminisced about events, he also remembered the strange state of acceptance-rejection that accompanied the news of yet another award, of yet another festive requirement:
“I had a constant empty feeling in my stomach whenever there was a question of accepting a prize, and my mind balked every time. But I remained too weak in all the years that prizes came my way to say no. There, I always thought, is a major hole in my character. I despised the people who were giving the prizes but I didn’t strictly refuse the prizes themselves. It was all offensive, but I found myself the most offensive of all. I hated ceremonies but I took part in them, I hated the prize-givers but I took their money.”
This passage pretty much synthesizes the entire volume. The short texts give off this constant feeling of uneasiness, even when the voice that narrates lists the advantages that came with the prizes generously offered by the Austrian State: money, fame, and the usual incentives.
So why take those prizes? Why refuse them? There’s a schizoid situation, right there: a demand to choose between two extremes. Bernhard, though, knew better than getting lost in some conceptual Manichaeism. He took the all-or-nothing approach and chose the easiest shortcut, so as to avoid idealizing his scorn. Take the money and run was his philosophy, albeit not literally so.
What’s also interesting to note is how Bernhard refused almost programmatically to write himself up as a writer; a choice likely to contain the answer to all the questions regarding his dualistic approach to prize-giving. The narrative voice of his mini-memoirs is not the voice of a writer.
Exclamation mark!
With very few exceptions (two or three if I remember correctly), the person who speaks is not caught up in writer-like activities. He never writes. He never reads. He talks to his editor once only. He doesn’t give speeches outside the prize-giving ceremonies. He doesn’t participate in public readings. What he does is in itself provincial and lame: he spends time with his aunt (the person who appears in every single one of the texts), he purchases, drives, and wrecks a car, he buys a derelict farmhouse and forgets about it, he hires a suit for one of the ceremonies and spends most of the time reflecting on the suit and almost no time on the literary qualities that had brought him the prize in the first place.
These are the actions that define the narrator of these texts. He’s not concerned with any of the life-and-death situations of Bernhard’s literary texts. And this is where the irony of the volume lies. A person who doesn’t act as a writer is given the honors associated with the profession. He takes them like a simple citizen, almost always surprised by the decision, almost always disgusted by the award-giving committees.
It’s significant to note that the only award he did accept with a degree of pride was the Literary Prize of the Federal Chamber of Commerce. The reason he felt good about this one in particular?
“From the beginning I associated this prize not with my activities as a writer but with my activities as an apprentice salesman [the profession Bernhard had before his writing career] and during the ceremony, which had no connection whatever to the city of Salzburg […] the only thing spoken of by the gentlemen of the Federal Chamber of Commerce who had given me the prize was Bernhard the apprentice salesman and never Bernard the writer.”
So yes, Thomas Bernhard did feel the urge to class himself outside of the literary elite. Which explains the contempt in his tone. But one must not understand him as a total misanthrope. It’s not the literary world as a whole that he despised. He speaks highly of minor but honest Austrian and German writers, and brings up the issue of the eccentric viewpoints that attracted public scorn against him and Peter Handke. It’s precisely because he identified himself as part of a group of intellectuals who did literature for the sake of it rather than for the sake of regional recognition, that Bernhard found pleasure in denying his affiliation to the trade of writers:
“I felt tremendously well among the worthy gentlemen of the merchant class and the whole time I spent with these gentlemen I had the impression I didn’t belong to literature, I belonged to the merchants.”
The message is clear. It stands out as an exercise in disparagement. Thomas Bernhard, a man who worked by Mitteleuropäische Zeit, a time of his own: not chronology but simple passing of time; not history but honest routines.