When I heard of the death of Thomas Bernhard by chance in the German daily paper Die Süddeutsche Zeitung the reaction was more then a shock. My life seemed suddenly meaningless to me. Immediately I stopped working (ironically I was just translating the news for a German language program at Radio 2EA) and stared out of the window. What am I doing here, I thought. Opposite I saw some construction workers putting up another skyscraper at Bondi Junction. It was obvious what they were doing, but where would it lead to? Another shopping centre, another price list. It happens every day and I, like so many others, got used to it.
When I turned away from the window and looked into the room I saw, amongst many other silly wall decorations, one from Austria. It showed the ‚Stephanskirche‘, Vienna’s most popular cathedral in the background, and in the foreground a ‚Fiaker‘, a horse-drawn coach and its driver sitting on top with a few American tourists in the back seats. They were all smiling, of course, like an operetta by Lehàr (Immer nur lächeln …). This poster was distributed by the Austrian government.
At this moment I was not even thinking of Thomas Bernhard’s works, his novels, plays or even early poems, some of which I had read in the course of the last twenty years. As it happened I had had my own private encounters with Bernhard over a longer period. For one year I was sitting with him in the same classroom, it was at the ‚Humanistische Gymnasium‘ in Salzburg, later I met him in the streets of Vienna when he was totally unknown and writing his first novel Frost. If he did not use the tram (or the Straßenbahn) at the time, it was not only that he had hardly any money, but because he did not want to sit in the same compartment with the Viennese. He preferred to walk back to the apartment of his aunt, from the centre of Vienna to its outskirts.
With the literary success of his novel Frost, and the reception of the ‚Bremer Literaturpreis‘, amounting also to some prize money, he bought himself a small farm near Gmunden in Upper Austria, where he also died.
When I met him occasionally in the cafés of Salzburg, like the ‚Tomaselli‘ or ‚Bazar‘, bourgeois establishments which nobody from a middle class background could escape, he was always full of hate and full of irony. His hate was directed against the Austrians or the state of affairs in Austria, and his irony against the human condition in general, not sparing himself. And, if you like, he put his hate into his novels and his irony into his plays.
After I had emigrated to Australia I had of course lost personal contact with Thomas Bernhard. Once I sent him a copy of Aspect (No. 21, June 1981) because I had published a translated interview with him which had first appeared in Die Zeit, a German cultural weekly. I had not asked his permission. Bernhard was already ‚famous‘ at this time for his rudeness, he hardly replied to anybody and was not even willing (a friend of his told me in Salzburg during a later visit) to receive his translators. As he had not installed a telephone in his farm, even his friends and relatives found it hard to communicate. There was a rumour that he threw the daily mail in the rubbish bin before he had looked at it. Whatever the case, Thomas Bernhard’s style of writing and style of living were the same.
When Thomas Bernhard had died, suddenly, many Austrians must have been relieved. Nobody in Austrian literature, past or present, had made such direct attacks on his fellow-citizens. Neither the classic Grillparzer nor the modern Robert Musil. And never, to my knowledge, had the Head of State, ‚der Bundespräsident‘ made a comment.
‚Thomas Bernhard’s writings are an insult to the Austrians‘, Dr Waldheim had publicly declared. No wonder that Thomas Bernhard, who was buried secretly and had managed it that only three people could come to his funeral, thus depriving the Austrians of a lovely corpse (eine schöne Leich) made more headlines post-mortem than when he was still alive. And Gunter Nenning, provocative journalist from Vienna entitled his article in Die Zeit ‚Der wahre Präsident‘ (the true President). I quote (my translation): ‚Waldheim lives, Bernhard is dead. Death for an Austrian who, in his preference for the wrong ones, is as unjust like its Philistine people. At first they did not want to know about him. The West-German culturati, nourished by its publishers, had known Thomas Bernhard much better than his own countrymen … The true President of Austria, who was, like its people, justified in hatred about everything and everyone in this country, was not loved by his own people … But the dead Bernhard is a good Bernhard, the next postmodern public building will be named after him …‘
I could go on quoting ad infinitum, or if you like, ad absurdum. Unfortunately in this postmodern polemic the essential Bernhard could have been lost, or even forgotten. Perhaps foreign writers like John Updike, expressed a more balanced view. In his comment, also published in Die Zeit, he wrote: ‚Although in Bernhard’s writing the theme disease is prominent, I was deeply moved when I heard of his early death. My knowledge of his work is limited, but the few books of his which I have read impressed me immensely. In my opinion he was one of the authentic voices in post-war Europe … His unique form of irony and his particular honesty had the sign of greatness‘ (my translation).
I like to remember Thomas Bernhard as I saw him the last time in Salzburg. He was leaning against the wall of the ‚Trakl Haus‘, now a museum of this ill-fated Austrian poet who had died of an overdose of drugs during the First World War, at the age of 26. Although at this time he was at the height of his fame and productivity, his smile was very sad, with only a flicker of irony. I had intended to ask him to go to the ‚Tomaselli‘, but realised he was not in the mood to go anywhere. Thomas could have said what he wrote ten years later in a letter to the director of his plays, Claus Peymann:
‚All by-passes lead to death‘.