Three Days with Thomas Bernhard

A new fully-illustrated volume offers a fascinating portrait of Austria’s most significant post-war writer
Thomas Bernhard, 3 Days: From the Film By Ferry Radax (Blast Books, 2016)
Thomas Bernhard, 3 Days: From the Film By Ferry Radax (Blast Books, 2016)

In the summer of 1970, experimental filmmaker Ferry Radax arranged to meet with the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. Over the course of three days, Radax recorded the writer amid the pleasant surroundings of a park in Hamburg. For readers familiar with Bernhard’s work, the setting was incongruous: his novels Frost (1963), Gargoyles (1967) and The Lime Works (1970) portray dark, grotesque landscapes of murder, ignorance, and obsession. As Bernhard himself admits, ‘I am hardly a cheery author’. And yet, in such bright and affable settings, Radax manages to capture a revealing portrait of the writer George Steiner called ‘the foremost craftsmen of German prose after Kafka and Musil.’

Blast Books, an independent publisher in New York, has taken a great deal of care to adapt Radax’s film, entitled 3 Days, into a book. The beautifully presented hardback volume includes Thomas Bernhard’s own reflections on Radax’s film, and a fully-illustrated record of the documentary translated from the German by Laura Lindgren. Also included is a critical afterword by film scholar Georg Vogt, and a fully-illustrated appendix of Radax’s notes for the filmmaking. The book makes considered use of space, word, and image to capture the spirit of Radax’s documentary, and the rhythms and emphasis of Bernhard’s monologues.

Those expecting insights into Thomas Bernhard’s life will not be disappointed: the writer shares memories and reflections about his childhood in Austria, his artistic influences, and his approach to writing. He makes grim observations about growing up during the Second World War and his experience of its aftermath. Many of his early memories include scenes that anticipate the violent or grotesque features of his work:

‘…First impressions-on the way to start elementary school, the first grade, passing by a butcher, doors open: rows of hatchets; hammers; knives, very neatly arranged, some of them bloody, some spick and span; stunbolt guns for slaughter.’

Bernhard’s youth is rich in morbid observation. He recounts a woman leaping from bushes to condemn his grandfather to Dachau, the Bavarian extermination camp. At another point, he recalls a boy accidentally killed by a bazooka. The horrors and atrocities of the war live on in Bernhard’s early life and adolescence, recasting the rural backdrop of his youth as a bewildering and often frightening moral landscape.

Of his influences, Bernhard reveals that ‘the very authors who are the most important for me are my toughest opponents, or enemies’. He goes on: ‘It is an incessant fight against the very same to whom you are totally addicted.’ This staunch resistance is telling. We see in Bernhard’s novels, plays, and short stories a great admiration for the canonical figures that have come to define Western civilisation, but his respect is tinted with suspicion. Throughout his texts, Bernhard explores and resists the enigmatic authority of such figures via several literary strategies: from irony and black humour to denying us a reliable first-hand account. In this way, Bernhard contributes to a broader questioning of Western values and traditions in the shadow of the Holocaust.

Thomas Bernhard in Ferry Radax's 3 Days
Thomas Bernhard in Ferry Radax’s 3 Days

At times, I was reminded of Bernhard’s later novel Old Masters (1985), which depicts a narrator’s meeting with the ‘musical philosopher’ Reger. We listen to Reger as he sits on a favourite bench day-after-day, looking up at Tintorello’s Portrait of a White Bearded Man (1545) while pontificating on a range of subjects. Painted four-hundred years before the end of the Second World War, Tintorello’s late Renaissance work bespeaks the silent, enigmatic authority of Western art. Reger’s monologues offer rambling appreciations of culture and tradition that give way to scathing and acerbic rants. In 3 Days, we see a playful reworking of the tensions and obsessions that define Bernhard’s work.

What is crucial to remember about Thomas Bernhard’s monologues is that they are performative. And this is the case whether they are performed on stage, recounted by a narrator, or springing from the lips of the writer himself. We can never be certain when Bernhard is being serious, when he is exaggerating, and when he is toying with us. The documentary reinforces this performative aspect, reminding us that the encounter is a construction composed for our benefit. We are granted images of the filmmaker, the crew, and the equipment cluttering the serene Hamburg park. The enigmatic authority of the Old Master is purposefully disrupted by glimpses of the easel and brush. Bernhard’s awareness of literature as a process of construction is revealed at one crucial moment in front of the camera:

‘you stack [words] one atop the other; it is a musical process

If a certain level should be reached, some four, five stories-you keep building it up-you see through the entire thing…’

Bernhard’s playful monologues have broader implications for the way we think about writing and language in the post-war era. In his biographical accounts, the expression of meaning and truth becomes a kind of theatrical performance, by turns tragic and comic. Blast Books manages to capture how Radax’s film is complicit in this notion, pointing to the figures that hide behind the curtains. By allowing us to ‘see through the entire thing’, 3 Days is both enigmatic and playful in its presentation of Austria’s most significant post-war writer.

3 Days is available from Blast Books.

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