Bernhard, Thomas (2009), Meine Preise, Suhrkamp
Thomas Bernhard is among the most compelling writers of the 20th century, in prose and drama, and among the most compelling of Bernhard’s books are his five autobiographical volumes, the first of which, Die Ursache: Eine Entziehung, was published in 1975, and the last of which, Ein Kind, followed in 1982. In Bernhard’s work, an oeuvre that is intricate and dense, they stand out, if anything, because they are even more dense. They draw words, ideas and structures from the pavements, walls and the hollow skulls of the landscapes, houses and institutions of Bernhard’s childhood. In his novels he sets many things in motion, puts worlds of ideas into play, but in his five autobiographical books, they are anchored to something else, which is hard to describe, something in the air, one might say. The same ineffable quality is one of the biggest strengths of Meine Preise, Bernhard’s posthumously published book about some of the prizes he won. Although it’s a barrel of laughs, it’s also a serious book about what drove Bernhard to become the writer he eventually turned out to be. Most of these prizes are won early in his career, for his dazzling debut novel Frost, which is one of my favorite Austrian novels in the latter half of the last century and for his first play Ein Fest Für Boris, a stunning attack on clinical hierachies of speech.
And the succor they provide is not just moral. Actually, to hear Bernhard tell the story, it isn’t moral at all: accepting prizes is a humiliation of sorts, something that he needs to justify to himself. The basic justification here is poverty. Early in his career, Bernhard was piss-poor, and writing professionally, living off his creative work, was out of the question. The book shows him driving a beer truck through Vienna, among other things, it tells us of his debts and problems, and how the prizes suggested a way out. Out of the narrow systems of coercion and control that renting an apartment in the city had become to him, by allowing him to purchase a house of his own, in the country. A farmstead, actually, his famous Vierkanthof, long since immortalized in biographical writing of all stripes. And out of the country, by allowing him to purchase a car. With that car, he went on a trip abroad (which is symbolic of the freedom that the purchase afforded him) and wrote his second novel, the gorgeously odd Amras, there. These sections of the book demonstrate to us that growing into his own as a writer was connected, for Bernhard, with the need for a material autonomy, an ability (though not a need!) to walk away from people and things. The fierceness of his early work was driven by urges and needs, that the prizes, suddenly, surprisingly, allowed him to assuage. But these positive effects just enhanced the humiliation, the shame for accepting prizes that he knew to be problematic.
Accepting a prize, for him, means becoming part of an institution, accepting its structures and strictures, and Bernhard was understandably uneasy about that; in the speeches he gave, some of which are appended to the main text, there is a lot of distance to his environment. None of them sound like typical acceptance speeches, but the speech he gave upon accepting the Österreichischer Staatspreis (a national Austrian award, which comes in two sizes) takes the cake. The fact that the one he won was the smaller of the two, which he had to explain to everyone who congratulated him on winning, and that he was about to accept a prize given out by an institution that is part of the Austrian state appears to have galvanized him into writing a brief, harsh, but great little troll of a speech, broadly insulting Austrians and those who govern them. This caused the education secretary, who hadn’t expected anything like this (and clearly he hadn’t read Frost, the novel that the prize had been awarded for), to jump up, red in the face, point a finger at Bernhard and then storm out of the room. That same year, Bernhard was supposed to be awarded yet another prize, but when the same secretary, who was supposed to be the guest of honor at the ceremony, heard who would win the prize (and presumably give a speech), he boycotted the event, which was subsequently canceled.
This scandalous speech is the best of the bunch, it reads like an unpublished page from Frost, and, as such, was oddly fitting. The whole event itself foreshadowed the rest of Bernhard’s public life, the attacks that he had to undergo both by prominent Austrian politicians and a large portion of Austrian broadsheets. And this is not the only award or speech that seems strangely fitting, like an allegory, a complex symbolic arrangement rather than a retelling of actual events. It’s Bernhard’s skills that create this impression, and this book, that seemed simple, and only light and funny at a first glance, turns out to be, in addition, quite cunningly crafted. The first thing that’s apparent is that the sequence of awards in the book, and the actual chronological sequence in which he received them are not the same. In fact, there’s a narrative to the book that the factual nature of the stories, and the often dry and matter-of-fact voice that Bernhard uses here, manage to hide. The editorial afterword gives no indication of how finished Bernhard considered this book, there are hints, such as his announcements of the existence of the manuscript, his oft-stated intentions to have it published etc., but they provide no real evidence given the fact that writers are prone to talk about and announce books that are nowhere near finished. Nabokov’s The Original of Laura is perhaps the most recent example of this.
It makes sense, nevertheless, to treat Meine Preise as if it was meant to be published that way. And in this light, as a coherent whole, it makes far more sense, and it’s a far better book than a loose collection of anecdotes and gossip ever could be. Bernhard’s tone varies, as does his scope. The first episode, the Grillparzer award, is an enjoyable little tale of Bernhard’s last-minute attempts to buy a suit, and his nasty stubbornness at the ceremony itself. Miffed at not having been properly greeted, he decides to just quietly sit in the audience, waiting for people to come looking for him, to seek him out. In a stunning display of obstinacy, he insists that to be asked by the head of proceedings “personally”. It’s hilarious, especially after we watched him pick a suit, arrive, quietly, with his aunt in tow. In the actual sequence of events, the Grillparzer award was one of the last ones he won. He won it after the upheavals and scandals, after having been the subject of scathing ridicule in the Austrian press, after having had to see his books being stupidly praised and even more stupidly panned by the press, both in Austria and in Germany. As a writer of prose and drama, Bernhard seemed to be complete right from the start, but the German language reading public had to adjust to him, a process that took Austria a longer time than he had to live.
Arranging the book so that this award comes first robs it of all this context, highlighting a more personal reading, which has a twofold effect: it’s hilarious, and in the uncanny qualities that his behavior exhibits, also sinister. The arrangement works on more levels than one. There’s, for example, the fact that the prize is only awarded to plays that have not been given a prize before, and the initial placing of the episode in the book implicitly extends that quality to Bernhard’s whole work. Bernhard’s indignation and obstinacy is, in a historical context, an understandable reaction to an establishment that denied him the attention and tributes that he felt he deserved. In fact, throughout the book, there are recurring figures who introduce him, in order to hand him an award, without having the fgacts straight: from switched around names, to completely made-up biographies and sloppy summaries, Bernhard presents those who give him his prizes as not worthy of awarding someone of his stature. Again, this is about humiliation, to an extent. but the central point of the Grillparzer episode, effected by the arrangement of the book, is about dignity, its opposite. Instead of allowing the reader to see his behavior in the light of the decade that passed between the award and the publication of Frost, he implies that the dignity he demands is implicit in his person, that he is due respect not because of what he had written and published, but because of who he is.
And this narrative is continued in other guises and other episodes in the book, in an attempt to wrench power, dignity and strength from parts of his life that he felt a certain amount of shame for. He castigates a friend who’s also a juror for one of those prizes for having been part of “dastardly behavior”, and pities him for being “inconsequential, deplorable, miserable”, only to mention his friend’s suicide in the very next sentence. The narrative is brought to a close in the final episode, which is about the Büchnerpreis, probably the most respected literary prize in German language literature. It’s only partly about the prize he won, and more about his announcement to leave the academy which awards the prize. The letter to the academy in which he announces his departure is appended. This is not an editorial decision by Raimund Fellinger, who compiled the book, it’s part of Bernhard’s own plans for the book, as is apparent from a facsimile that Fellinger provides. There is no melodrama in the episode, cushioning the exit, it is recounted plainly, in measured and simple words. As a reader, I was surprised how well-rounded, closed, finished an affair this book, published posthumously, from an abandoned typoscript, is. The first and the last episode are especially significant, in more ways than one. Among those I haven’t mentioned yet, the cultural, literary, context, looms large.
Prizes and literature are connected (in this book) in three significant ways. One is personal, the effect that winning a prize has on the writer. The other two are more cultural. There are the writers who the prizes are named for, and there are the writers who win with you, won before you, or after you. Grillparzer and Büchner came from roughly the same period, and both were oddballs who didn’t really fit into their time. Grillparzer’s aestheticist conservativism, and Büchner’s firebrand anger are two poles that are highly important in Bernhard’s work, as well, and framing his book with these two writer’s names seems not without significance, it implies a statement about the literary work that was emerging in that decade that is covered by Meine Preise. Especially since he took pains to suppress another writer who lent his name to a prize, the poet Rudolf Alexander Schröder. In the whole chapter about the Literaturpreis der Freien Hansestadt Bremen there is no mention of Schröder at all, although it is the Rudolf Alexander Schröder foundation that awards the prize on the poet’s birthday. This is a complicated and mined field, and very interesting with regard to Bernhard’s relationship to a literary movement called the Conservative Revolution, of which writers as famous as Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Rudolf Borchard (and Rudolf Alexander Schröder) were a part, but this is not the place to elaborate on the topic.
Suffice to say that as any work by the great Austrian writer, this is a complex, accomplished work of art. It is, however, much lighter. It’s like small doses of Bernhard, like Bernhard sampling his own work, writing a pastiche of different aspects of it. Meine Preise is a funny book, a very quick read, with none of Bernhard’s idiosyncratic difficulties in evidence. He makes use of typical aspects of his style to create great comic moments, shining a bright light on his other books, and upon his role as jokester and trickster that he plays even in his very serious books. In dazzling plays like Die Macht der Gewohnheit, he showed how much darkness, brutality and obsessiveness can be part of a truly comical work. In this book, he does the opposite. Revisiting the idea of writing about his life, he calls up serious and important topics, yet offers them to us in an infinitely lighter mood. Also, in many places, the writing lacks the concision and precision that distinguishes his best work. So, no, this isn’t a major new work by Thomas Bernhard. It is a great introduction to his work though, and a thoroughly enjoyable romp, as well. If you like Bernhard, you cannot not read it, and if you’re thinking of starting on Bernhard, this is the book to pick up. In connection with his five older autobiographical books, a fuller picture of Bernhard the writer emerges, of the exigencies and pressures and delights that made him who he was.