In January 1986 I was given the assignment of producing a documentary on Thomas Bernhard for the TV series Settings of World Literature. The initiative for the assignment came from German television. In February I visited Thomas Bernhard on the
and informed him of the planned co-production of ORF and SDF. He declined to be filmed in island of Madeira . I’m not some sort of local luminary, he said, some sort of national bard, I write world literature. But if you like, we can take a trip to Austria . The film was shot from June 9 to 18 in Spain and the surrounding area. Bernhard and I stayed at the Ritz; he had both stipulated that we should stay there and declined to be paid for being filmed. We worked out the itinerary of the shoot together; there were to be shots in Aranjuez, Avila, Burgos, Escorial, and Toledo; Bernhard wished to visit the bullfighting arena, the Prado, and the book-fair. But for two consecutive days we were unable to do any exterior filming; the state of his health did not permit us to do so. Our team drove to the exterior locations; he stayed in the hotel, refused to see anybody; I had to keep him company. He dragged his feet about being interviewed up until the very end; finally, I read him the riot act: We are going to have a conversation here and now. The team have already practically finished setting up in one of the vacant rooms, please come with me: this is the way it’s got to be! Madrid
FLEISCHMANN: What sort of role do the places you vacation in actually play in literature?
BERNHARD: That depends on where the piece in question is set. A Roman story axiomatically should be set in
and a Spanish one in Rome . But of course I don’t write stories. From coast to coast [for all I know]. Of course place has a meaning for every human being, a great meaning. Two places are more important than all the others: the place where you were born and the place where you die. Spain
FLEISCHMANN: And why do you enjoy traveling to
, to Madrid , so much? Spain
BERNHARD: You’ll have to ask my soul that question. Probably because I enjoy hearing Spanish spoken, and because one should constantly be immersing oneself in some foreign language as if in a bath, such that one understands as little as possible but listens a great deal. For me that language is Spanish. I hardly understand a word of it, but I really enjoy listening to it. For the same reason I read Spanish newspapers, because I hardly understand a word of what I’m reading in them. “La crisis en
”—there is a crisis over there, but in austria you hardly take any interest in it. Just as conversely, a Spaniard in Spain would hardly take any interest in a crisis in Vienna . Spain
FLEISCHMANN: And what does the Austrian crisis have to do with you?
BERNHARD: Nothing at all, because I pretty much have nothing to do with it. After all, I am not a politician. I have nothing I wish to obtain from the state, nor do I have any sort of plan that involves the state. I really have nothing whatsoever to do with it. That is an incredibly pleasant feeling. You live completely on the outside and pay no taxes.
FLEISCHMANN: But of course you do take an interest in what is happening in
BERNHARD: Even less, because of course it’s always the same. At bottom it’s actually completely insignificant. It’s just this tiny little country, filled with people who are adorable and wholesome but also spiteful and unimportant and Catholic.
FLEISCHMANN: You say you’re not interested in
? This doesn’t sound at all like you. You’re tremendously interested in it. Austria
BERNHARD: The things that interest a person most are the things he is unfamiliar with. Once you’re thoroughly familiar with something, it naturally ceases to interest you, and once you’ve set your heart on your native country, then you’ve naturally had enough of it. You can then just let your heart molder there on the wall, on the battlement, [where you’ve set it], where it’s hanging. I’ve hung it up there for all eternity, on the House of Austria. It’s hanging there now; you have to, you know, keep a patient eye on it. From time to time a droplet of blood falls from it. In Januario, just like in
. Are you familiar with this? St. Januarius who bleeds once every January, on the thirty-first, I believe. And it’s the same with my heart on the House of Austria. Time and again, a single droplet of blood. Naples
FLEISCHMANN: Why do you bleed on the House of Austria?
, Austria , to what other place or thing am I supposed to sacrifice my blood? The Red Cross won’t take it, because it’s turned sour; of course they’ll take only fresh blood. But the House of Austria will accept a transfusion from anybody who’s one of its own. Austria
FLEISHCMANN: What do [you] mean [when you say that your blood has] “turned sour”?
BERNHARD: That it’s somehow or other diseased, that it’s somehow or other no longer healthy. But whose blood is actually healthy?
FLEISCHMANN: What is it about the
of today that vexes you so much? Austria
BERNHARD: Absolutely nothing, because I’m not there now.
FLEISCHMANN: What about when you are there?
BERNHARD: When I get back there it will be completely different from what it is now, when I’m not there.
FLEISCHMANN: But don’t you need
and Austria as things to write about? Vienna
BERNHARD: Well, sure, occasionally. There’s nothing you don’t need for a time at some time. But you also always need something new. It’s a good idea to be always leaving a place and also always returning to it; that’s quite important. A change of scene is of the utmost importance.
FLEISCHMANN: Is there not a change of scene happening in
right now? Austria
BERNHARD: It will all be forgotten in three weeks. That’s absolutely no excuse for going there. Until the film is finished, I don’t want to hear another word about what’s been happening over there.
Bernhard continues leafing through his copy of El Pais
The rest of it is nothing but god-awful trash, but it’s interesting; rubbish is interesting.
FLEISCHMANN: How do the titles of your books sound to you in Spanish? Do you like that sound?
BERNHARD: No, on the whole, I don’t. It’s all very nice, but it has absolutely nothing to do with what I’ve written, because in the end it’s just a book by the person who did the translation. A person who sets his own itinerary and inevitably follows it through to the end. It bears absolutely no resemblance to the original. A translation is like a corpse that’s been mutilated past recognition in a car wreck. You try to piece it back together, but to no avail. Translators are truly awful creatures. They are poor wretches who gain absolutely nothing from their translating, not even the most niggling royalties, who work for peanuts, as they say; and on top of that they produce a horrible monstrosity of a text that cancels out its original. When you produce something that is nothing, you should get nothing in return. What kind of fool takes up translating? Shouldn’t he after all be writing something original of his own? It’s a horrible, flunkeyish occupation, translating. In any case, I never look at the translations. The title on its own, though, I do like: Trastorno sounds very nice as an alternative to Verstörung. But to my ears Verstörung almost sounds better. But enough is enough on this topic.
The conversation is interrupted by the noise of a power-drill coming from the room next door.
BERNHARD: This person is drilling a hole for a hook or peg in his bathroom wall. It’s the sound of drilling a peg-hole. Have you never installed a peg in a hole?
FLEISCHMANN: Of course: I know how to drill and to stick in pegs.
BERNHARD: Now everybody can do it in a trice. Baumax makes everything possible. You just get hold of the instructions, and then literally anybody can do it. You buy a drill, and you start drilling and sticking in pegs and hanging things up. That way you get as much as possible done on your own. I don’t do any of that kind of thing [on my own], but I tell other people how I want it done [and get out of the way], so that there are fewer people involved, so that they get more air.
FLEISCHMANN: The number of people present obviously makes no difference in the amount of air.
BERNHARD: How so? In a room containing five people, these people have very little air; in a room with only four people, they have much more.
FLEISCHMANN: On account of which none of them can hang himself!
BERNHARD: Is it really proper to be constantly saying, “Why is somebody hanging himself?”
The noise of the power-drill next door keeps getting louder; we are forced to break off the conversation. Bernhard talks about the bullfight we watched together, and asks us about what we have filmed, whether the death-blow will be visible. He cannot get the horrible image of it out of his head; he says he wishes he had never been a party to such a thing. I remind him that it was his idea to go to a bullfight, that, moreover, it had not been easy to obtain permission to film it; that we had been obliged to pay 30,000 schillings in advance for fifteen minutes of filming time.
Thomas Bernhard at the arena, during the bullfight.
Thirteen bullfighters. These are some truly frightening fellows, they really scare the daylights out of you; they’re really just glorified butchers; I’m not kidding: they’re gruesome, horrible. Of course the archbishop has a skybox. You can see it, right up there. The archbishop, who has always been the most perverse individual imaginable, in sitting beneath the king even as he tells him what to do. Horrible. But what would those paintings from way back when be without these spectacles[?] They simply could not have been painted. Beauty has its price, and high art is terribly expensive when all is said and done. But [it’s] incredibly elegant, right[?] This is almost better than in the Spanish riding school, because here it happens naturally; there it’s drilled into them by rote. The bull, of course, is lying in wait. Look! There he is! He’s really lunging out of there. But a bull this black always makes a splendid showing. The only awful thing about it is that this splendid spectacle has to end so horribly. But not if the bull has anything to say about it; he simply won’t have it. But of course the horrible denouement is now coming after all, because he’s just received his first cut, [on the foreleg], from the picador. He’s approaching him from behind, backhandedly; it’s a completely routine procedure; now this butcher’s assistant walks up and deals him the first blow that cuts through to his innards. He evinces a brutality of a kind that one can scarcely imagine in any other place. Now the poor bull, who up until now has remained completely uninjured, and knows full well what is in store for him, receives the first blow from this holy terror. By way of preparation, as you would prepare a piece of meat for cooking, right[?] And now comes the horrible moment: there, that’s the first one! And it’s getting worse, it’s getting more and more abominable by the second. Naturally there’s practically nowhere else where you can see spectacles as grotesque as this. He will of course have to receive six, seven such penetrating jabs at the stake (laughs) before the cutlet is ready. And it won’t even get eaten at the Ritz afterwards. That’s the perversity of the world for you. Now the matador enters belatedly, as it were, and enjoys an easy, elegant bit of play. He sticks his knife into what can scarcely benefit from any more cutting. It’s just like any other piece of theater, totally duplicitous, right? Minus the theatrical element, it’s vile trash. But sublimely elegant, and like all sublimely elegant things, it’s obviously infernally [evil] at bottom. And as far as the mechanics of the thing go, the bullfight is patently an exemplary piece of dramaturgy. Isn’t it thoroughly gruesome! The way the bull [writhes]! Anybody who’s against all this simply has no understanding of the world.
FLEISCHMANN: Why do people enjoy watching such a thing?
BERNHARD: It’s the primeval drive in man, which permeates all strata of society—the drive to kill. And here it’s, you know, completely out in the open. Civilized man is also constantly killing, in a, you know, covert way, right[?] This is the primitive way; it’s bloodthirsty in the truest sense of the word. Now look: now he really knows that this is the end. The whole thing is carried out in the name of honor, right[?] It’s an honor for the bull to be allowed to die in a gruesome bloodbath, right? Now the bullfighter has no choice, of course, but step up and give battle. He’s stuck the knife in the bull’s back. Now it’s begun! Now the actual battle has begun. It’s often quite grisly.
FLEISCHMANN: What are you thinking about right now?
BERNHARD: About nothing whatsoever; you just, you know, commiserate with the animal. Thinking doesn’t enter into it at all. Man is fitted out in exactly such a way that he wants to have everything vital destroyed. In other words, as a result of the procedure everything comes to exist once again. Now comes the horrible knife-thrust! Ah! (He missed.) It’s a horrible sight, to be sure. This is really, positively, horribly repulsive. Naturally, a catastrophic conclusion like this serves to make glaringly obvious the spectacularity of the spectacle. But in a repulsive way. In any case, man is a helpless victim of his own abominableness. A plain butcher, that is man’s terminal essence, and the more fully [bedresster] a human being is, the more truly abominable he is. Of course this is all ancient history. Isn’t it horrible? But of course the people love it. [It’s O]ver! Now he’s received the death blow, and he’s gone. Isn’t it terrible?
We leave the arena in great haste. Via a nearby stairway, we reach the back exit, passing en route by the suspended carcass of the bull, now bled dry, flayed, and practically stark white. We load up our equipment; parked right next to us are the cars of the butchers and bull hide-dealers. None of us says a word. With unanimous determination, we make for the nearest bar. Bernhard orders us a round of double cognacs. It’ll put the color back into our faces, he says.
For the next day’s schedule we had considered paying a visit to the theater. Bernhard had begun to take an interest in the Teatro español, with its façade adorned with relief portraits of Spanish poets. But now he changes his mind: I’m afraid I’ve simply had my fill of every conceivable form of theater. While conversing with him before the camera, I try to broach the subject of the Church; I am hoping for some spoken commentary to accompany the footage of him that we shot at the square in front of the cathedral in
BERNHARD: The world always has a stronger desire for beauty than for ugliness. If you preach ugliness, then all the people will run away, and you’ll be left with only empty churches. If you preach beauty, the people [will] come flooding in, and you’ll have full churches. If you add a smattering of frankincense to the mix, you’ll have everybody and everything at your elbows: men and women, dogs, cats, mice, rats; they’ll all come flooding into the house of God. But you have to preach the beautiful. To let the beautiful sink in from the start. And of course how you preach is also important. Simply saying, “Everything is beautiful” isn’t enough.
FLEISCHMANN: But you obviously don’t preach in your books?
BERNHARD: I don’t preach at all. I already know everything anyhow, so I don’t need to preach for my own benefit, and I can’t expect to have any effect on other people.
FLEISCHMANN: In point of fact, in your books you have always pitted yourself against something or other; you have very seldom described anything beautiful in them.
BERNHARD: That’s the beauty of my books; the fact that beauty is hardly ever described, so that it emerges on its own.
FLEISCHMANN: But then one might also argue that…
BERNHARD: One might also argue anything.
FLEISCHMANN: One might also argue that in our time it is important for the writer to delineate, so to speak, alternative worlds; to depict the beautiful.
BERNHARD: Anybody who makes it his business to do such a thing is a lousy writer, because a good writer is one who writes what he finds it necessary to write for both his own good and other peoples’. And as ninety-nine percent of writers are constantly worrying about how to make the world a better place and how to ingratiate themselves with their so-called readers, they all write lousy books that nobody is interested in. A true free agent is a rare bird indeed. But the moment he starts asking himself, “Why?” he has already ceased to be a free agent, and he loses everything. He’s got to be either completely free or nothing.
FLEISCHMANN: You once wrote, “Every sentence that is thought, that is spoken or that is written, is simultaneously true and not true.”
BERNHARD: That’s the way it is with everything; that’s the flipside of everything. Say you have a beautiful painting; you flip it over and the back is covered in fly-shit, or somebody has stuck a banknote there—or something completely different.
FLEISCHMANN: When you think back on how it was that you started writing…
BERNHARD: I have absolutely no intention of thinking back on it. Because thinking back on things gets you nowhere. You should only ever be thinking, “What am I going to do in the next half-hour or what’s going to happen in the next instant?” That is interesting. There is indeed no point in thinking back on the past, because whenever you do that you’re always just wandering around some static museum; it’s the same with the entirety of history. It’s truly uninteresting. The only thing that’s truly gripping is what’s going to happen, not what’s already happened.
FLEISCHMANN: But don’t you from time to time recapitulate your work, your life?
BERNHARD: I certainly don’t capitulate; hence I am not about to re-capitulate either. The very form of the word suggests something one should steer well clear of. Something that would be totally false. The only thing that’s gripping is what’s going to happen in the next moment.
FLEISCHMANN: Do you have an idea of what is going to happen?
BERNHARD: You have so many ideas that you generally can’t see anything; it’s pure chaos—that much you know. You have to let yourself be overwhelmed. “Eyes shut,” as the phrase goes, “mouth open.” Then of course something happens. We have been playing the game ever since we were children. “Eyes shut, mouth open”; that’s what the whole mystery of the world amounts to. That’s what you’ve got to hold on to, right on through to advanced old age. You’ve got to be strong [to play it], but most people think it’s childish and [so] they don’t [play it]. I am constantly playing “Eyes shut, mouth open,” and something especially neat is constantly happening as a result.
FLEISCHMANN: Now you’re being sarcastic, ironic, right?
BERNHARD: Yes, maybe. See, there’s a concept for everything. So say somebody sits down to write a book called, for example, The Concept of Irony and its Peculiar Significance for Posterity. And he sits there for four years collecting twelve-thousand schillings a month from the Ministry, so that he ends up crawling for shelter into this pet concept of his, as if it’s some kind of mouse-hole; and then after eight years comes the publication of a book that nobody is interested in. Thus are millions squandered on dissertations, on the cannibalization of concepts. Or are you seriously going to tell me that you’ve read one of these dissertator’s books that stood the remotest chance of being interesting? They’re all subsidized to the gills!
FLEISCHMANN: Must they all be abolished in your opinion?
BERNHARD: All of them should be abolished, all subsidies. Everybody should produce what he is capable of producing and leave the State in peace. Government-sponsored assistance should be abolished. So that, you know, what can’t fly won’t fly. People will do nothing but putrefy and atrophy if you give them a handout. If they have to earn their keep, they’ll be strong. [Now t]hey’re just like muscles that have lost all their tone. If all you ever do is watch other people building up their muscles on television and never build up your own—and that’s what being on a government subsidy is like—then you’ll keep getting weaker and weaker and ever more insufferable and ever more abominable. [These subsidies] should be abolished. That would do the State a world of good.
FLEISCHMANN: But you’re a writer who manages to live comfortably off his own earnings…
BERNHARD: […f]rom hand to mouth. I am basically a hired hand of my publisher, who pays me my wages once a month, and I know exactly why I’m doing what I’m doing in exchange.
FLEISCHMANN: A hired hand you most certainly are not.
BERNHARD: Everybody is a hired hand.
FLEISCHMANN: Not you.
BERNHARD: Everybody hires himself out with the intention of getting a leg up on everybody else by the grace of God, only to fall on his knees more and more often. Once he’s reached the point of lying outstretched on the ground, the good Lord comes down on him, crushes him, and flings him into the celestial slop-bucket. If you will. That’s the world of the hired hand.
FLEISCHMANN: You employ these terms, “the grace of God” and “the Good Lord.” Surely you don’t believe in him, or do you?
BERNHARD: There’s no use in believing in something when you constantly see it. As the Good Lord is omnipresent, I have absolutely no need to believe in him. The Church, you see, has already said, “God is omnipresent.” All right, then: I’ll spare myself the trouble of believing in him. It’s a contradiction in terms; it’s nonsensical. How is one supposed to believe in a church that maintains that it’s omnipresent? Or for that matter in a religion[?] The question hasn’t been completely thought through. But anybody who thinks a great deal comes to nothing.
FLEISCHMANN: Do you truly regard yourself as a writer by vocation?
BERNHARD: It came about like this. It’s like with a shoeshine man, if you ask him—and in the cities of the south you still actually do see a few shoeshine men roaming around—if you ask him if shoe-shining is his vocation, he’ll tell you there’s nothing left for him to do but shine shoes, because [once upon a time] his father said to him, “Get out there and shift for yourself, and make some money.” And because shining shoes looked like the most agreeable way of shifting for oneself at the time, he started shining shoes, and he kept shining them. And it’s exactly the same way with me and writing. Once upon a time they said to me, too, “Get out there and shift for yourself,” and instead of taking up shoes I took up the letters on the typewriter keys, and that’s what I’ve stuck to ever since.
FLEISCHMANN: But of course you have done other sorts of things, in brief stints.
BERNHARD: Like everybody else. Everybody does whatever whenever.
FLEISCHMANN: So what’s an example of something you’ve done?
BERNHARD: You brush your teeth or stick them in; that’s a job in itself. It’s a part-time occupation, just sticking in your teeth and taking them out every day. That on its own is both enervating and gruesome. When you think to yourself that you’ll have to stick them in and take them out a million times. It’s like running some personal import-export business. Brushing your teeth, clipping your toenails every three weeks; if you don’t clip them, they’ll poke through your socks. A gruesome thought. Authentic occupations. But Occupation Number One is wash, stick in, and take out. That’s the first piece of business that one attends to. Everything else is always subordinate to that.
FLEISCHMANN: But in the course of your life you have in fact had or practiced other occupations?
BERNHARD: A whole heap of them.
FLEISCHMANN: So how about some examples of them?
BERNHARD: That would be completely uninteresting; I would be like one of those writers who answer by saying that they washed dishes, scoured pots and pans, then worked in construction, and traveled with truckers, and delivered aid-shipments for the Red Cross, and collected money for the Knights of Malta, then pounded the pavement as a rag-and-bone man for the Red Cross. It’s nothing but a sentimental exhibitionist’s CV that one must at all costs not get into the habit of displaying at the drop of a hat. Well-intentioned but ultimately pointless. A person can also deliver powdered milk to
Africa; that’s also pointless. It’s something the big companies want to get rid of; so you take it down there to the desert, and when you subsequently have to prepare the stuff, you find you’ve got no water. And back in they’re laughing hysterically in their sleeves, because they’ve made a killing off the whole thing. Then the powdered milk keeps coming to the desert sands and polishes everybody off there. That’s what actors do when they go broke. They step off the stage, buy some powdered milk, and go to Africa, twice a year they come back, suck another couple of million out of other people’s wallets and foist themselves upon the poor people of the Sahara Desert. The Bonn has no need of the Böhm family, but the Böhm family most certainly needs the Sahara Desert Sahara in order to extricate itself from its financial difficulties. Such is the drama of charitable benevolence and of the humanitarianism that is nothing of the sort.
FLEISCHMANN: So does this charitable benevolence always go awry?
BERNHARD: Everything one intentionally tries to do will always go awry. You could incorporate it into a distich, like one of Angelus Silesius’s: “Just keep from standing still/And move from here to there you surely will.” “And go awry you always surely will.” In the best of cases, a person tries to do nothing and does what he can manage to do for himself. If a person does something for other people, it’s out of either hypocrisy or an attack of faintness.
FLEISCHMANN: But surely you intend to accomplish something by means of your writings?
BERNHARD: No, actually, I don’t; supporting myself and keeping myself in line is tiring enough as it is. That’s the actual reason [for the writing], right? And if I manage to make some money out of it, so much the better. And if I couldn’t manage to make it pay, I might not write anything at all, because then I would have to do something else, and I wouldn’t have the strength to undertake such high-altitude flights.
FLEISCHMANN: But surely you’ve got to want to change or accomplish something?
BERNHARD: Actually I don’t. You are utterly powerless to change or accomplish anything, because the world follows its own path; everything comes into being, fades away, everything comes and goes, everything is wiped away, so what are you supposed to try to change? You can write down your impressions [as they come to] you, because there are [after all] such things as visions of the future. Even people like me have [such visions].
FLEISCHMANN: So what does the future look like to you?
BERNHARD: One has so many millions of visions of the future that in the presence of the sheer number of them one is quite simply at an utter loss. It’s so difficult to discriminate among them that one simply picks out a couple of them and writes them down. It’s all so much cat-litter. The important thing is to produce something that is regarded as a so-called work of art, just as if you were composing music for, say, mandolin and harpsichord. When it’s finished, you’re delighted to death; when it’s printed you’re doubly delighted, and then you sit back down and tell yourself that it really is just cat-litter after all. And that you yourself have gone to the dogs[,] to stick to the zoological idiom. Of course the theater in
is even more horrible than ours; it’s a thoroughly moth-eaten art [here]—it’s incredibly inane, on account of the fact that the general public takes no interest in art. But people who produce art are constantly shoving art down the general public’s throat. The general public takes no interest in such a thing; art is only for the few, and the people who don’t understand it are only pretending to understand it. The greater the art expert your interlocutor happens to be, the bigger the asshole he ultimately turns out to be, because he’s just reciting a script. And the general public holds it all in such stratospherically high respect because it imagines it amounts to something, but it actually doesn’t understand it at all and moreover wants to have nothing to do with it. Madrid
FLEISCHMANN: Shouldn’t one at least try to establish some common ground here?
BERNHARD: People everywhere are already trying to do that. The politicians are all trying, and the intellectuals are all [constantly] offloading their bullshit on to the hands of the general public. But thank God the general public is fairly savvy and does an about-face whenever things start getting dodgy, and lets them be and leaves them well enough alone with their art and their intellectual bullshit. Intellectualitas: these so-called intellectuals are the champions of assholishness.
FLEISCHMANN: In what sense?
BERNHARD: Well, because what they produce means nothing to anybody. Sheer speculative wheel-spinning that’s constantly moving in circles and accomplishing nothing and that ultimately amounts to nothing. I can see how there might be some point in writing a good poem, in being somebody who writes a couple of good poems over the course of 50 years, or a single novel, whether it’s good or bad. But it’s really hard to rationalize the writing of twenty-thousand novels and five million poems in a single year. I guess I can see how it might help out the paper-mills, if they couldn’t manage to use up their pulp-supply in producing toilet paper; in a case like that it might actually be necessary to print books. Literature would really be a pleasant thing if you could take it in like that: you’d tear a piece off, read it, and flush it. But of course the actual situation wherein people shelve books on their walls is truly horrible, in that after decades of sitting up there, the books start to stink.
FLEISCHMANN: In what sense do they stink?
BERNHARD: Literature always stinks when it’s just lying around; a sensitive person finds it simply insupportable. The whole of it stinks. Haven’t you ever smelled it? Have you no sense of smell? It’s a bestial stench. So somebody ought to go on a lecture tour and tell everyone at all the universities all about this stench. And whatever you don’t drive home to the people in the lecture halls and pound into their heads with a mallet [they] simply take no notice of. As a touring academic lecturer you have to carry a giant mallet with you at all times, and constantly be bashing people with it, so that at least some part of what you’re saying sinks into the people’s heads. But if you bash the people too hard, you clobber them to death, and then there are no people left to bash.
FLEISCHMANN: Does anybody actually enjoy being bashed on the head, though?
BERNHARD: That’s what makes the world go round: bashing people on the head. If you don’t do at least a bit of head-bashing at some point in some place, you’ll just crumble away into a tiny dust particle, and cease to exist. And those people who say you have to show consideration for your fellow man, and do nothing—they’re the hardest bashers of all. Admittedly they do their bashing discreetly. They have a giant hammer, but they keep it hidden behind the scenes. In front of the curtain they’re all smiles, behind it they hammer away.
FLEISCHMANN: Does that mean that you are glad that…
BERNHARD: Whoever exists, must do some head-bashing at some point or other. From childhood onward you obviously have to defend yourself. You see one of your favorite toys thrown into the [Wagerl], and if your mother or father doesn’t punch the bothersome perpetrators in the face often enough, you perish when you’re still a child, you come down with rickets and that’s all she wrote. We hold on to these experiences in our memories, where they, you know, serve as methods.
FLEISCHMANN: Does this mean that it makes you happy when several people [at a time] bash you on the head, figuratively speaking?
BERNHARD: It makes me happy whenever anybody whosoever bashes me on the head, because then I can bash back three times as hard, and of course it’s by bashing hard that you build up your strength. Otherwise you suffer from total muscular atrophy—in both a physical and a spiritual sense; provided, of course, that you have a spirit in the first place. Unless you’re a seer, because they supposedly see everything in a spiritual light no matter what.
FLEISCHMANN: In recent years you’ve certainly done a good deal of head-bashing.
BERNHARD: Most likely somebody mailed me something that I sent back by return post—C.O.D., naturally. It’s always best to send things back C.O.D; it gives you a certain amount of security.
FLEISCHMANN: And now you’re actually quite delighted when
, or some Austrian politician, bashes you from time to time, in that in consequence you can… Austria
BERNHARD: I don’t even notice when such people bash me, because they’re total nonentities, microscopic germs; there’s not even any point in noticing them. In order for me to bash somebody, somebody has to be there when I’m bashing. There’s no point in bashing otherwise. You don’t hit a fly with a giant mallet; rather, you look for a lion to hit with it, because you somehow get the feeling that he actually could tear you to pieces, as the charming idiom goes. That feeling actually makes bashing fun. Bashing a fly or a beautiful woman on the back of the head [is] simply foolish or totally perverse, but even though you don’t ever want to be foolish or perverse, you occasionally are despite yourself.
FLEISCHMANN: And what about bashing the powers that be?
BERNHARD: That is a truly ancient practice—bashing the powers that be—and yet from time immemorial it’s also always been modern. At bottom there’s no need to bash anybody at any time, because if you’re just patient enough to wait a bit, the current crop of bashees simply vanish by attrition. But of course young people can’t wait for anything, and so they bash. If you just wait ten years, they’ll all vanish by attrition. In the park, in the Türkenschanzpark you’ll come across the cabinet ministers whom you once wanted to bash because they were so healthy and so formidable; they’ll all be sitting on a little [chair], partially paralyzed by a stroke, sitting on a little bench and amusing themselves with some Föhn-addled little house-sparrow, and thinking about what they’re going to have for dinner; they’ll all be in full-blown second-childhood; the sauce of their old age will be seeping away; and when nobody’s looking, they’ll take out their dentures and stuff them into their handbag; and the first thing they’ll do when they get back to the restaurant is head straight for the john to stick them back in, and then they’ll gnaw away like nobody’s business. That was once the famous finance minister. These will be the people [whom you once wanted to bash]; you need only wait a while. Their hair is falling out; they’ve got prosthetic legs—well-concealed prostheses: there have been great advances in surgery in recent years. With a bit of perseverance, a total cripple can be transformed into a dashing youth in half a day. From girdles to artificial scalps, everything needed for the transformation is ready to hand.
FLEISCHMANN: So these are the kinds of things you observe every day; they’re what keeps you alive.
BERNHARD: A human being has eyes in order to see while the eyes are fresh and young. As a child you see more than you do when you’re old and slowly going blind, and finally at the end you no longer see anything at all. That’s when people start thinking about the Holy Ghost; in other words, old people see things that don’t actually exist; you don’t need eyes to see such things.
FLEISCHMANN: I sometimes get the feeling that wherever you look…
BERNHARD: You get a feeling only sometimes?
FLEISCHMANN: Well, nobody always gets any feeling.
BERNHARD: But everybody must always be getting some sort of feeling.
FLEISCHMANN: When I put myself in your place I get a feeling sometimes…
BERNHARD: But I…
FLEISCHMAN: But not always. But sometimes I get the feeling that wherever you look you see nothing but failure.
BERNHARD: An ideal point of view is one that takes in everything in its entirety. And naturally, like a chicken, a human being pecks at and picks out the tastiest bits of this entirety, which naturally are the failed bits. Otherwise it’s completely uninteresting. Otherwise his beak would have nothing to peck at. The only stupid part of this whole operation is that you can’t really see much of yourself while you’re engaged in it, because to do that you’ve got to confront yourself, to view yourself in the same unsparing light. Everybody is of course always averting his eyes from his own person; that’s why human beings are so mendacious.
FLEISCHMANN: And do you in contrast look directly at yourself, or what?
BERNHARD: It’s very difficult to look directly at yourself, because to do that you’ve got to stand in front of a mirror, an invisible mirror, which then reflects, and in reflecting, sends you flying backwards.
FLEISHMANN: Which, I take it, is not something you particularly enjoy?
BERNHARD: As if anybody particularly enjoys it! A person knows well enough the kind of person he is. Which is to say no better than he knows anything else. But this person you are becomes quite interesting for other people. Who of course have the same right as I have; they of course can also look at me. But most of them avert their eyes from me when they see me, so rarely do they happen upon failures.
FLEISCHMANN: In what sense do they avert their eyes?
BERNHARD: Whenever I see colleagues of mine when I’m walking in
, they always avert their eyes. I’m always just walking around with a completely friendly demeanor, and then—because I have good eyesight—I see somebody 150 meters up the street for no reason whatsoever running into a tobacconist’s, even though he doesn’t smoke, for the sole purpose of avoiding me. It’s a pity, really. After all, you live around other people, and you always just want to give them all a great big hug because they’re so wonderful. They constantly side-step you. Whenever I find myself in front of a bookshop, and looking at the display in the front window, the owner invariably withdraws; one minute he’s arranging everything to look nice and pretty, and the next minute he sees me and takes off; he turns around and he’s gone. Vienna
FLEISCHMANN: To what do you attribute this behavior?
BERNHARD: Why to myself, of course. One is of course the cause of all one’s own misfortunes; but by the same token one always has a clear path ahead of one, which is of course quite an agreeable state of affairs. If one were popular, one would have to push through the crowd, like the pope, who can’t walk an inch in public without having his clothes torn to pieces. That sort of thing doesn’t happen to me; for the most part I never see anything but backs and backsides. Literally, and also spiritually speaking. People are always running away [from me]. So gradually, I have acquired the habit of studying people’s physiognomies literally from behind; I am much better acquainted with people’s backsides than with their front-sides.
FLEISCHMANN: Is this something that’s been happening more often lately?
BERNHARD: No, it’s been going on for decades; in fact, it’s always been the norm. At home, I’ve always been treated in this way. Whenever they’ve seen me, they’ve always run away, because for some reason, they expect something unpleasant to happen; it was like that even when I was a child, when I was literally the most adorable kind of person you could imagine. I was charming, with long, luscious locks of hair that were wonderful to behold; I had a tuneful voice, but such a person was not fated to live a happy life. Whenever you act as though you were and spread your hands [and say] “come and get me,” nobody comes, and then when for a change you actually want a guaranteed absence of people you find a pair of them blocking your way out of the room. It’s all quite horrible, quite shocking!
FLEISCHMANN: What you’ve just said just doesn’t ring true; you’re not as easily shocked as that.
BERNHARD: But the truth is that I’m constantly being shocked. Just read my books: they’re nothing but an assemblage of shocks. They consist of nothing but a stringing together, not only of sentences, but also of shocking impressions. Of course a shock is exactly what a book should be: a shock that’s invisible from the outside.
FLEISCHMANN: But surely there’s a big difference between Bernhard the writer and Bernhard the private individual.
BERNHARD: The two of them converge, as they so beautifully say, into one; they have to form a unity; as long as there have been writers and critics, it has always been written that “life and art must form a unity,” because otherwise they’d pretty much be nothing. I’ve always abided by that rule. With every sentence I write, before I begin it—I always need about four or five weeks before committing a sentence to paper; then I brood over it incessantly—I start writing the sentence when I realize that life and art form a unity. That floats, as they so beautifully say, perpetually in space. And then I begin. I actually still have an old slate-pencil that I inherited from my grandfather; I sit down and write. Naturally the paper has to be of sterling quality.
BERNHARD: Porcelain-paper, I write only on porcelain-paper. It costs four schillings eighty groschen a page. Pretty much the most expensive paper there is. And then on each page only a single sentence. Now just picture to yourself my latest book—it’s 640 pages long, I believe—which of course equals ten thousand sheets of paper at four schillings eighty a sheet.
FLEISCHMANN: But of course you write with a typewriter.
BERNHARD: Occasionally I type something out for myself. Laboriously, laboriously, because of course I type with just two fingers. It’s downright luxurious. Other people use all ten, so they get a much better deal out of it.
FLEISCHMANN: So do you or do you not ever write in longhand?
BERNHARD: Of course I do, whenever I sign my passport.
FLEISCHMANN: Naturally, but the passport’s not printed on porcelain-paper. This new book…
BERNHARD: Extinction. A worthy title, a top-notch title: Extinction. A Disintegration. This man is extinguishing everything, and everything around him is already disintegrating, and so his extinguishing act is actually pointless, because everything is disintegrating anyhow.
FLEISCHMANN: So that’s your vision of the future—that everything is disintegrating?
BERNHARD: My opinion of the future. My knowledge; I don’t need any sort of vision. In a world like the world of today, where everything is so insane and so magnificent, pretty much nobody any longer has any need of visions. It was necessary to have a vision in the Middle Ages, when there was nothing to do but rule and work, when the world amounted to some sort of sedan chair and some guy who baked the breakfast rolls. But now that the world contains everything—when reality itself is chock full of visions—nobody needs his own vision. Only writers, artists, keep sitting there in their studios or wherever waiting for visions. They have their country-cottages somewhere or other—right?—it’s all very nice-looking, and they sit there in the cottage, with its climate-customized curtains, exquisitely tidy, sometimes quite aesthetically pleasing, sometimes horrifying—just like in real life—and wait on their visions. And these visions fail to fly past the house, let alone into it, because these people always keep their windows shut. And they picture the vision as this winged creature that of course has never existed, that knocks on the door and says “Please let me in, Herr Huber; I am your vision.”—through the intercom, naturally: nobody knocks anymore. And when the artist hears him, he asks, “Who’s there?” And downstairs the vision replies, “Your vision,” and then the artist replies in turn, “Since I’ve been waiting for you for so long anyway, would you mind coming back first thing tomorrow morning?” And since this keeps happening over and over again for years on end, these people never get anything done, because the visions never enter their houses. Give me back my vision. The world as a Teuto-bourgeois forest. Is that doable?
FLEISCHMANN: You certainly don’t have a very high opinion of your fellow-writers.
BERNHARD: I’ve never had one. I’ve had so many relatives who were writers, who all wrote, who all died in abject poverty, who were in some way or other disappointed in their life’s work. There’s no missing the writing on the wall when you’re fifty years old and living in abject poverty despite the fact that your wife is working to support you, as all of these writers were, with the woman always bringing home the bacon and the man always waiting for his visions. How high an opinion can you form of a situation like that? It’s a horrible fate. In any case, high opinions are the sorts of things you somehow or other manage to lose in transit anyhow. Somehow or other in transit you end up losing all your high opinions of everything. Unless you still have one stowed away somewhere and ready to hand? A high opinion secreted in the back closet, in your personal wardrobe of armor? I defy you to be so presumptuous. You will see how the hoard dwindles with the passage of years. In this world it’s pretty much impossible to have a high opinion of anything, but equally impossible to have a low opinion of anything—it all cancels itself out. The world is more interesting now than it’s ever been, because it’s always at its terminal stage.
FLEISCHMANN: How do you know that the world is in its terminal stage right now?
BERNHARD: Of course it’s always been in its terminal stage; the world has been around now for millions of years, but “around” never means anything but “thrown together,” and in its tertiary period, which basically means everything. Right up until the present moment. When you try to picture that to yourself, nothingness, creation, you just hear a thunderclap or something of the kind, the primeval thunderclap, followed by these millennia-wide, thousands of millennia-wide, fissures, [extending] right on up to the moment when we’re sitting here; a colossal picture. Naturally and quite materialistically speaking, it is, alas, no longer possible to strike any of this from the historical record. Nor is it at all possible to have a high opinion of it; it’s no longer possible to sell a high opinion to anybody with half a brain. What do you think is worth having a high opinion of nowadays? You can have some regard for your mother or, I don’t know, whoever makes your bed for you or does your laundry. But that’s pretty much it.
FLEISCHMANN: So then you think the world has come to an end?
BERNHARD: The world will never come to an end, even if splits into tiny particles—and of course the incredibly beautiful thing is that that splitting up has already long since begun—it will once again exist in some form or other. As cat-piss or whatever. Of course I have no idea what it’ll end up as. Perhaps the world will end up as cat-piss on Mars. In the end that’s an actual possibility.
FLEISCHMANN: But “extinction” is of course also a very figuratively rich concept. Do you believe that these days everything is being extinguished?
BERNHARD: Of course I’m not talking about the entire universe or even about the entire world. I’m talking about my rather restricted surroundings, and about the things from whose vantage-point one judges the world. When you have a cough and are constantly violently coughing, you’ll find your cough much more significant if you think it’s wracking the entire world and not merely your own thorax. This is how coughs earn their stripes, and of course it’s the same way with a book. If you think you’re [just] writing a book, then you think you’re just writing on your own behalf, and nobody but grandpa and grandma and the odd addle-brained Germanist will read your book, and that’s just not enough. [You’ve got] to broadcast, and of course not just to the entire world but to the entire universe. Every word [has got to be] an ace of clubs; every chapter an arraignment of the world and the whole thing in its entirety [must amount to] a worldwide revolution ending in the total extinction of everything. But what does extinction signify? The recommencement of the new. You are certainly well aware of this. Where there is an end, as they’re always saying, there’s also a beginning. Even Johann Sebastian—of course the announcers on the radio never say Johann Sebastian; they always say Johann Sebastian Bach—even he said this, and he was a virtuous man. He had lots of children, who did absolutely everything for him; he would soak his feet in the tub, compose for a bit; his wife would comb his hair; his daughter, his eldest daughter, would give him a massage, and his older sons would compose for him. Meanwhile he did nothing but eat and cobble together a mere smattering of works. These are the luminaries of art, whom it is absolutely impermissible to forget, from whom all this stuff originates, with such frightening intensity and self-renunciation, naturally. They’re monsters, really. You've got the Second Brandenburg Concerto [blaring] in your ear; and do you know what it’s about?
FLEISCHMANN: What is it about?
BERNHARD: Literally everything that was happening where and when it was written. Why do people have such a hard time coming to grips with this? That’s of course what all high art is about, because everything is contained in everything that people do at a particular moment, but for the most part this isn’t seen and therefore isn’t paid much attention to. The basic gist of it is: “I bid you not to scorn the masters,” [which should sum the whole thing up on its own], only of course people don’t take it seriously. They think that because they’re sitting at the opera that it’s superficial. Whereas opera is actually the profoundest of the arts.
FLEISCHMANN: In what sense?
BERNHARD: Haven’t you noticed this here in
? Placido Domingo—Domingo literally means Sunday, so he’s Mr. Sunday—so Mr. Sunday walks around here in Madrid , and exudes pretty much every conceivable terrestrial quality. Not only with his voice, which isn’t nearly as good as people think it is. But this voluminousness, this seismic intensity that he contains, this aura of the Mexican tarantella that he is constantly radiating, is positively volcanic. It is emphatically not the poets but the singers who have the monopoly on true art; to suppose otherwise is a grave error. Moreover, the first artistic utterance was a sound, a sound produced directly by a human being; there were as yet no instruments of any kind. A cry. In former times they spoke of children crying. Now we speak of singers singing. At bottom of course they’re one and the same thing. Of course nothing’s changed. And whereas in former times the child was, you know, naked and destitute, nowadays the singers have, you know, these magnificent costumes. Sometimes they cost two and a half million schillings, for the sake of making the sound properly project, for the benefit of humanity, obviously. A sound in the absence of a two million-schilling costume no longer counts as a sound; it’s literally never heard. The purple, gold, sliver—you’ve got to brandish all that with your tongue as it springs from your palate, then you’ll make a resounding boom and then you’ll move the world. You’ve only to take a look at the newspapers: Domingo is moving the entire world. He’s the ruler of the world. Compared with him, Caesar was a complete nobody. He was a piddling coffee-drinker! Madrid
FLEISCHMANN: But you, too, wanted to be a singer.
BERNHARD: No: I wanted to be Caesar; unfortunately it wasn’t possible. Early on, my parents said, “To be sure we’ll leave you alone, but not without giving you a good piece of advice: don’t even try to be Caesar.” So then I tried to make it as a singer, but my name was Bernhard and not Sunday, and so there was absolutely no way I was going to make a career of it, even though I sang just about every single one of the great [roles]. Bass-baritone: that is a massive range. By the age of seventeen, I had sung all the great Wagner roles; by eighteen I had devolved upon Mozart; by twenty I had humbly resigned myself to Bach. In church I sang some songs from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, quite beautifully, in fact. I myself was terribly moved; tears were streaming down my face as I sang. And the pinnacle for me was Bruckner’s Ave Maria at the church at Sankt Veit im Pongau. Because I have literally never heard anything more beautiful in my life. But perhaps egoism is clouding my judgment here. A statement like that always sounds a bit exaggerated when you say it yourself; I would do better to say, to suggest, that the people [who were listening] said it. People [in such a position] also say such things, but always [under the auspices of] “I would say”; but whatever you would say you’ve actually got to say anyhow. I would say it myself, if the seed of corruption were not somehow contained within it. There’s a certain arrogance inherent in the act of addressing Christ and the Lord God in song like that; it’s actually unthinkable when you’re eighteen. At bottom of course they were actually appalled.
FLEISCHMANN: Who was appalled?
BERNHARD: The people in the church; because there was a nunnery next-door, they had [already got their fill of it] downstairs.
FLEISCHMANN: And do you still sing from time to time?
BERNHARD: In the bathroom; that’s where I sound best. The whole gamut of the classical or high-classical oratorical and operatic repertoire. It’s quite extensive, of course. In the final analysis, it makes absolutely no difference what you sing, because regardless of the song, nobody ever pays any attention to what’s being sung. People just read about it in the program. They hear notes, but they have no inkling of the subject-matter, apart from what grandpa told them when they were little. Grandfathers are of course wonderful summarizers of opera librettos. Grandmothers have always told fairy tales, but grandfathers, in towns and cities, have always elucidated the great operas from start to finish.
FLEISCHMANN: Was your grandfather one of these elucidators?
BERNHARD: My grandfather couldn’t stand opera. I took him only once to the opera, to La Traviata, because as a youngster, as a teenager, I was an absolutely huge opera fan, and for my sake he went, and he even said, “this is marvelous,” and by the end of the first act, when I took a look over my shoulder, he was already gone, and afterwards he said, “Opera is the greatest and most unnatural abomination in the entire world.” He gave me food for thought, I must admit. A breach had been made in my enthusiasm; it was like a hairline fracture, as they say, in the wall of my operatic sentiment. There’s nothing more bizarre, after all, than a grandfather cocking a skeptical eye at a form of high art. All right, then: so much for high art and its aftermath. All right, then:
is a rather marvelous place; nothing could be more obvious. Spain
FLEISCHMANN: What is wonderful about it?
BERNHARD: It’s always been a rather austere country, in contrast to
FLEISCHMANN: And you’re comfortable in such a place?
BERNHARD: The cars are a bit smellier, which is really nice, and the architecture is lovely and the countryside is scraggly; I quite like that. You can drive a hundred kilometers through it and see practically nothing but wasteland. Tracts of land that are literally bone-dry; at bottom it’s one gigantic slag-heap from here to
FLEISCHMANN: And you like it better the way it is than if it were verdant and succulent?
BERNHARD: The whole idea of succulent verdure, if you give a moment’s thought to it, is chemically nonsensical. A papier-mâché landscape makes much more sense, because it’s healthier. This fecund verdure we live amidst isn’t what it used to be in any case.
FLEISCHMANN: And as for
’s acerbity, austerity… Spain
BERNHARD: I’ve always liked things to be acerbic and austere. I’ve always preferred to surround myself with austere and acerbic people. They served as a contrast to me, because I was always anything but acerbic and austere. One should always gravitate towards wherever there is a contrast. I have of course always tended towards being footloose and fancy-free, superficial most of the time, because you can never—or practically never—put up with being anything but superficial; only occasionally are you compelled to visit the depths; on the whole you never give a thought to them. And so, by way of pursuing a preferred alternative, you visit this country that contrasts with your own: the land of austerity. It’s like an oratorio.
is like one of Rossini’s comic operas, and Italy is like one of Handel’s oratorios. I’ve always preferred oratorios to the fizzier operas, which I’ve always found too vacuous. Spain
FLEISCHMANN: And this is where the Spanish attitude to death comes into play.
BERNHARD: Their attitude to life. Life and death in this country are always interchangeable and interpenetrating. When somebody’s died you wail a lot, to be sure, but you don’t feel especially sad. With us it’s obviously completely different.
FLEISCHMANN: But you never write about any of this;
never appears in any of your books. Spain
BERNHARD: Because more often than not wherever I happen to be doesn’t appear in them. Because reality is of course always much bigger than that, because one of course straight-away degrades. And you really shouldn’t do that anyhow, by committing your immediate experiences to paper. Unless you’re a journalist. Then it’s a splendid maneuver. And I did that for many years; that of course was how I got my start. The editor-in-chief says, “Somebody’s been run over; get down there pronto.” So then you see a chopped-off head there; you exaggerate; whenever there were three bodies, I said there were seven; then two days later they’d print a correction: “We are obliged to inform our readers that the number of dead was not six but only two.” But it increased their circulation; it was quite beneficial. By way of my steady stream of canards and exaggerations, I procured the paper a modest [but] consistent measure of success. Of course I exaggerate[d] in each and every [article]. When a house had burned down, instead of “a house” I said “six houses containing a hundred pigs.” Then they would say, “We haven’t a single pigsty,” and I would write that “the bodies had been burnt to cinders, and the stench [of death] permeated a twenty-kilometer radius of the site.” Then they would say, “The house was empty; not a soul was in it when it burned.” But those are the kinds of chances you have to take. Journalism is pretty much the most fascinating thing in the world; in journalism you can literally step on people’s corpses; in no other profession can you do that over such a protracted period. As a journalist, if you start when you’re seventeen or eighteen, you can keep stepping on corpses until you’re old and senile and basically illiterate and stumbling around obliviously, especially and incessantly over other people’s dead bodies. No other profession affords that opportunity. That’s why you see these people who are dyed-in-the-wool journalists, who have tasted blood, and remain journalists with all their heart and soul to the end of their lives. To be sure, they draw a smaller pension, they have less wherewithal to build up their financial assets, but in exchange they get a license for boundless exaggeration and round-the-clock corpsewalk-promenading. There’s no such thing as an article, be it ever so vacuous, that’s not a promenade over somebody’s corpse. The subject of such an article is invariably a corpse over whom the journalist—however well-intentioned he may be—cluelessly stumbles. It makes absolutely no difference whether the subject is a pianist or a bricklayer. And the more corpses there are, the better.
FLEISCHMANN: And how do you yourself feel when you read something about yourself in the newspaper?
BERNHARD: I have always been a corpse; I have always felt like one. That’s always been a big advantage for me: the fact that I know that I am corpsiness incarnate.
FLEISCHMANN: Do you occasionally fight back at [the papers] nowadays?
BERNHARD: This corpse has naturally fought back a million times, but it’s a salubrious fight; it keeps the corpse clinging to life. From my point of view looking outwards, and the point of other people looking back at me. In this sense I am the corpse that lives for ever.
FLEISCHMANN: And have local geographies and landscapes never played a role in your books?
BERNHARD: They’ve always played a hugely important role. Because every book is couched—as they so beautifully say—in some sort of landscape. Of course I don’t write for imbeciles, for whom you have to spell everything out: “On the lawn some grass was growing; and there was an orange tree with oranges, and the oranges to begin with were green; then they turned yellow, and finally they turned orange.” When I’m writing I always feel as though I’m at the place in question; everybody knows where that is in any case, and so I spare myself [the trouble of telling them everything about it]. In this way I give people plenty of elbow-room. But as for people who describe everything; in this way, for example: “They approached the door, where they encountered Dr. Übermichel; and he was carrying a briefcase; and the briefcase had been designed by Pierre Cardin, and in the briefcase were seven shares of stock in the Whatever Corporation; and he was also wearing a hat with a black band, which was tied in a bow at the back.”—that’s all completely uninteresting. But that’s what most writers’ writings consist of. Because people can’t think on a grand scale and in great leaps; rather, they take only tiny, logical, petit-bourgeois baby steps. It’s really awful. In any case, it makes absolutely no sense to describe nature, because everybody’s perfectly well acquainted with it already. It’s positively asinine. Anybody who’s ever been in the country or in a garden knows the kinds of things you see there, and so there’s certainly no need to describe them. What’s really interesting is rather what happens in nature or in the garden. And if you write, “I’m in a big city,” everyone will also know what that is. You don’t have to begin with Adam and Eve: “There are cars, and there are more people than in the country; and into these cars these people pump gasoline, so that it can be expelled from the rear ends of these cars, so that these people can move around.” That’s all superfluous. It’s perfect enough if you say, “He got into the car; he attended the conference; the government collapsed, and the world ended.” Period. Everything in between is completely uninteresting. Omission of course [should be] the word. But nowadays it’s trendy again to mention every [Bleamal]. By the time a person’s gotten from his front door to the gate of his front yard sixty pages have been filled. Uneconomically at that. And people are constantly turning around, because the author doesn’t know how to keep things moving: “And he turned back around and looked up at the third floor, but Johanna had still not opened the window. Then he caught sight of the pebble-stone[s of the pavement], which reminded him of Stifter’s Indian Summer”—there go another ten pages—“then he clenched his fist in his left trouser-pocket”—it’s of the utmost importance that it should be the left trouser-pocket—“and said to himself, ‘If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to get even with this woman who has made a complete hash of my life, this Anna,’” or whatever her name is. That’s the contemporary book or novel in a nutshell.
FLEISCHMANN: And what would you oppose to this? Can you give some idea of it?
BERNHARD: The complete omission of every sort of thing that everybody already knows. Things that just stall the reader and that are uninteresting to boot. Interior events, which are imperceptible to anybody, are the only interesting things from a literary point of view. Everything that happens outside everybody’s obviously already familiar with. But there’s some point in describing what is imperceptible to anybody.
FLEISCHMANN: So what’s an example of that?
BERNHARD: Well, what’s inside. Naturally I don’t know what’s going on inside you right now; if it’s something unusual, it would be interesting; if it’s something silly, then there’s obviously no point to it. If you’re thinking, “Where can I get a good glass of milk right now?” obviously nobody’s going to be interested in that, but if you’re thinking, “Where can I get a good glass of milk and pick up some explosives to blow the Prado sky-high?,” and you mull over that thought, and you walk into a milk bar, and with your first sip you’re thinking about how you’ll have to tamp down the powder in order to ensure that there’ll actually be an explosion, and then with your second sip you’re wondering, “How am I going to make sure that the Goya blows up first, and that in the ensuing two-and-a-half seconds the Velasquez blows up, and that three-and-a-half seconds later still pretty much the entire building is destroyed, but that the director of the museum survives to take the blame for it in the end?” That’s insane; people will take an interest in that.
FLEISCHMANN: Your fantasy…
BERNHARD: It’s no fantasy: it’s an actual explosion. That’s what we’ve already called it. You don’t need to fantasize anything because it’s everywhere anyway. Or [say] you start meditating and you take a walk and all the while you’re thinking: [“]A gigantic avenue, like this one in front of the Prado, lined with gigantic plane trees. How can I single-handedly cut down all these trees without anybody’s noticing, in the course of a single afternoon?” That’s interesting.
FLEISCHMANN: Do you think such things?
BERNHARD: Why, of course I do. I’m a thinking human being. These are interesting things to think about. If you’re walking along with your little plastic [shopping] bag, and you’re on your way to pick up a pair of slippers that you left at the shoe-repairman’s to be resoled, nobody’s going to be interested in that; it’s the kind of thing that’s been going on for years. But ideas like “How can I cut these trees down, in a half a day, in spite of the children playing, in spite of all the moving cars, in spite of all the pedestrians, whole trees with nothing but my tiny hands, without the use of a single saw, while holding nothing but a tissue[?]” And the whole thing costs you nothing more than a single tablet of aspirin; that’s what’s insane about it. And at the end you have to decipher how and why this tablet of aspirin figured in the cutting down of those 450 plane trees on the avenue. That’s interesting. Because at the end of the book, everybody will be asking themselves, “Exactly how did she manage to make that happen?” Then comes the solution of the puzzle. And a book should be like a crossword puzzle.
Epilogue by Krista Fleischmann
Thomas Bernhard watched the film I Am the Cause on television, in my company, in his
apartment. His face betrayed keen perplexity [throughout the viewing]. When it was over, [he said,] after a long pause, “You’ve achieved something special; the film is quite splendid; it gives [a person like me] fresh food for thought. I’d really like to do something with you again straight-away; my obituary, perhaps. But we’ll have to do that in front of a white wall; just me by myself, with no camera movement. Vienna
In his last years, Bernhard was less and less inclined to expose himself to [the rigors of] a serious, controversial television interview. He reserved his least inhibited comments on current events for the pages of [Die Presse([DR])]’s cultural section “Notizen zum Tag.”
On the Kulturkampf surrounding the premier of his play Heldenplatz at the Burgtheater Bernhard refused to be interviewed. Even the pleadings of the editors of the domestic and foreign political pages came to naught. His response: I’m not going to say anything whatsoever; it’s other people’s turn now; let them hold shock press conferences….MY WEAPON IS THE WRITTEN WORD, NOT THE SPOKEN ONE!
Accompanied by a television crew, after the premiere of Heldenplatz, I met Bernhard in the office of the Burgtheater’s General Director Claus Peymann, where, on account of a severe coughing fit, Bernhard [had] watched the performance on a television monitor. He was delighted at seeing my cameraman Wolfgang Koch once again and said to me, “I know I ought to say something, but as you can see, that just isn’t going to be possible today!”Weeks later came the call from Torremolinos: “Please come! Bring your team along if you like; we’ll film my obituary.” Nothing further came of this. On
Source: Thomas Bernhard--Eine Begegnung. Gespräche mit Krista Fleischmann (Vienna: Edition S, 1991).
Translation unauthorized but ©2011 by Douglas Robertson