George Steiner on Thomas Bernhard

An extract from one of Steiner’s literary reviews
I’ve been poring over a collection of George Steiner’s articles from The New Yorker magazine. It’s a fascinating selection that includes shrewd reflections on an impressive range of writers and thinkers. Among them are essays on Graham Greene, George Orwell, Jorge Luis Borges and Samuel Beckett. But for now, Steiner’s remarks on the work of Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard are catching my eye. Steiner was one of the first critics writing in America to recognize the significance of Bernhard’s work, and his 1986 essay for The New Yorker offers an insightful and enthusiastic appraisal…

Thomas Bernhard

[Thomas] Bernhard is principally a writer of fiction – of novels, short stories, and radio plays. Prolific and uneven, he is at his best the foremost craftsman of German prose after Kafka and Musil. Amras (not yet translated into English); The Lime Works, translated by Sophie Wilkins (and recently reissued by the University of Chicago Press, which has also brought out two other Bernhard novels); the still untranslated Frost created a landscape of anguish as circumstantial, as closely imagined, as any in modern literature. The black woods, the rushing but often polluted torrents, the sodden, malignant hamlets of Carinthia – the secretive region of Austria in which Bernhard leads his wholly private life – were transmuted into the locale of a small-time inferno. Here human ignorance, archaic detestations, sexual brutality, and social pretense flourish like adders. Uncannily, Bernhard went on to extend this nocturnal, coldly hysterical vision into the high reaches of modern culture. His novel on Wittgenstein, Correction (available in a Vintage paperback), is one of the towering achievements of postwar literature. His Der Untergeher (untranslated), a fiction centered on the mystique and genius of Glenn Gould, searches out the manic powers of music and the enigma of a talent for supreme execution. Musicology, erotic obsession, and the keynote of self-contempt distinctive of Bernhard give compelling strength to the novel Concrete (another of the University of Chicago volumes). Between these peaks lie too many fictions and scripts imitative of themselves, automatically black. Yet even where Thomas Bernhard is less than himself the style is unmistakable. Heir to the marmoreal purity of Kleist’s narrative prose and to the vibrancy of terror and surrealism in Kafka, Bernhard has made of the short sentence, of an impersonal, seemingly officious syntax, and of the stripping of individual words to their radical bones an instrument wholly fitted to its excoriating purpose. The early novels of Beckett will give the English reader some approximation of Bernhard’s technique. But even in the most desolate of Beckett there is laughter.

Thomas Bernhard

Born in 1931, Bernhard spent his childhood and adolescence in pre-Nazi and Nazi Austria. The ugliness, the strident mendacity of that experience have marked his entire vision. From 1975 to 1982, Bernhard published five studies in autobiography. They span the period from his birth to his twentieth year. Now assembled into a continuous sequence, these memoirs make up Gathering Evidence (Knopf). They recount the early years of an illegitimate child taken in, brought up by eccentric grandparents. They chronicle Bernhard’s hideous school years under a sadistically repressive system, run first by Catholic priests, then by Nazis, then again by priests, the evident point being that there is little to choose between the two. The section called “The Cellar” narrates in paralyzing detail the young Bernhard’s experiences in Salzburg when the city was being bombarded by the Allied Air Forces. The immediate postwar years were an oasis for Bernhard, who became an apprentice and a shop assistant to a Viennese grocer and witness to the temporary discomfiture of the Nazi, now so suddenly and surprisingly converted to democracy. Running errands for his dying grandfather, the old anticlerical and anarchic tiger whom Bernhard loved as he had loved no one else near him, the eighteen-year-old falls ill. He is consigned to a hospital ward for the senile and the moribund. (Such wards will become perennial in his later novels and in the inspired book-part fact, part invention – Wittgenstein’s Nephew) In the ward, Bernhard contracts tuberculosis. On the threshold of adult life, he finds himself under sentence of death. It is both in constant expectation of the fulfillment of that sentence and in defiance of it that he will escape into the armed citadel of his art. […]

Excerpted from George Steiner, “‘Black Danube’ (on Karl Kraus & Thomas Bernhard)”, excerpted from George Steiner at The New Yorker.


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