Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

Sore Winner

Literary prizes gave Thomas Bernhard yet another reason to rant

Geoff Dyer


I can't remember whether it's the author (played by Charlotte Rampling) or her publisher (Charles Dance), but in François Ozon's film The Swimming Pool one of them remarks that literary prizes are like hemorrhoids: Sooner or later, every asshole gets one. This sentiment might have been used as an epigraph to the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard's My Prizes, an "accounting" of the many literary awards that began coming his way in the mid- 1960s. Being Thomas Bernhard, of course, it's not just the recipients of these prizes who are "All Assholes"—"a whole row of assholes," to be precise—it's also the people who decide which "scribbling asshole" gets the prize, namely Austria's Cultural Senate, which is "full of assholes . . . Catholic and National Socialist assholes plus the occasional Jew for window-dressing." Since it is a grievous insult, "a huge dirty trick," to be awarded a prize by this bunch of "washouts and bastards," one might have expected Bernhard to have done the Nobel thing—à la Sartre—and turned all his prizes down. Fat chance. He did not contemplate that for a moment because, being "a bastard" like the rest, he was "greedy for money," eager to pocket the dough, however tainted, attached to this and any other prizes offered to him—at least up until the age of forty, at which point he declined "all further honors."

In truth, this is one of Bernhard's weaker rants, and My Prizes is a weakish book—if it can properly be called a book. The jacket copy says it was written in 1980, nine years before his death at the age of fifty-eight. An introduction might have explained whether it was perceived by Bernhard as a completed book—albeit one he did not see fit to publish in his lifetime—or merely a series of related pieces that have been slapped together during the expected posthumous harvesting of his papers.

Either way, the reader responds at first with a quiver of excitement: Yippee, more Bernhard! (Like a concert audience recognizing the opening chords of a favorite song, the reader cackles expectantly, applauds inwardly, at the first glimpses of the classic Bernhardian "so-called" lick: "the so-called guests of honor," "the so-called ceremony.") And what a great idea, to offer slivers of autobiography in the guise of self-deprecating moan-boasts about all the honor-insults heaped on one's head! So much so that one wonders, while reading these outbursts, if it's not the well-established forms of literary expression—big novels with vast roll calls of characters, enacting the big themes of life and fate, war and peace—but the minor ones, forms that are not even recognized as such, that offer the most challenging test of literary genius.

This excited hope, though never entirely extinguished, is considerably dimmed by the end of each piece in My Prizes. Take the first one. Suddenly conscious, two hours before the ceremony for the Grillparzer Prize in 1971, that he needs a new suit, Bernhard buys one from Sir Anthony's, a men's store in Vienna. It fits perfectly. Accompanied by his aunt, the author makes his way to the venue where he is to be honored. The honor soon turns to perceived slight: No one is there to meet them, and so the odd pair take their places in the middle of the audience, not on the stage, where the assembled dignitaries become increasingly anxious as to the whereabouts of the distinguished author. He is eventually spotted and hauled up onstage for a ceremony "whose peculiarity and tastelessness and mindlessness" do not quite register in his consciousness because, at that point, he has not taken in "the fact that the prize had no money attached to it at all." Once this dreadful realization sinks in, the "humiliation" he has endured strikes him as "common impudence." That's not the only thing he realizes: The suit that fit him perfectly only a few hours previously is obviously too tight, so he goes back to the shop and exchanges it for a larger one. And that's that.

When he receives the Austrian State Prize in 1967 the perceived insult is even greater because it's "the so-called Small State Prize" for up-and-coming writers, "not the so-called Large State Prize, which is given for a so-called life's work." The scandal created by Bernhard on this occasion is huge: He returns the favor with interest in the form of an acceptance speech that, as Christopher Ricks notes of an entirely different occasion, "doubles as a rejection speech."

If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, that's because it is. These two episodes—two of the nine prizes accounted for in the book—are also related in Wittgenstein's Nephew (1982), the autobiographical novella that serves for many (because of its brevity) as an introduction to the peculiar pleasures of Bernhard's oeuvre. The details and phrases vary—in Wittgenstein's Nephew the minister of culture is so outraged by Bernhard's speech that he shakes his fist in the writer's face and calls him a "curr," whereas in My Prizes there's a threat and "some incomprehensible curse word"—but the stories are pretty much identical. The acceptance speech is described in Wittgenstein's Nephew as "a few sentences, amounting to a small philosophical digression, the upshot of which was that man was a wretched creature and death a certainty."

The boon of My Prizes is that this offending speech itself is reprinted at the end of the book, together with three other such offerings that throw new light on the preceding narratives. Getting into a tizz about the need to write an acceptance speech for the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen, Bernhard comes up with the idea that "in the cold, clarity increases." Later, we are duly rewarded by seeing what became of this insight. "The cold increases with the clarity," he intones. "This clarity and this cold will now rule us. The science of nature will give us a greater clarity and will be far colder than we can imagine. Everything will be clear, a clarity that increases and deepens unendingly, and everything will be cold, a coldness that intensifies ever more horribly." This is classic—albeit abbreviated—Bernhard: hypnotically working up and through the scales of a phrase, wringing it into a philosophical argument and, simultaneously, draining it of sense.

There are other overlaps and continuities—hardly surprising in a writer for whom each book was pretty much a straight continuation of the drone and rave that ended, somewhat arbitrarily, with the previous one—between the works that garnered the prizes and this new book about the prizes themselves. For instance: In his autobiography, Gathering Evidence, Bernhard recalls how, as a child, he took his guardian's bicycle and rode on and on until the chain broke, became entangled with the spokes, and catapulted him into a ditch. He is miles from home, covered in blood and oil, and the bike is a wreck. In the new book we learn how, in 1964, he blew the money from the Julius Campe Prize (for Frost, his first published novel) on a white Triumph Herald, which initiated a phase of intense "automobile happiness." A devastating crash—not his fault, nothing in Bernhard is ever his fault—totaled the car and left him in the hospital (this sickly writer's second home, in many respects his first). This compulsion to drive-cycle-write himself into the ground—to persevere "to the very limit," as he puts it Gathering Evidence—is as fundamental to Bernhard as the sudden, irrational decision to do something he immediately regrets. Such as? Well, how about sinking the money for the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen into a stinking wreck of a farmhouse in Upper Austria, in spite of the fact that it is the first of about a dozen the estate agent is planning to show him and the fog is so thick he can see nothing of the landscape that surrounds the ruined walls of the place? All that matters to Bernhard, we read in My Prizes, is that "the real estate agent kept saying exceptional proportions and the more often he asserted this, the clearer it became to me that he was right, in the end it wasn't him saying the property had exceptional proportions, it was me saying it, and saying it at every moment. I kept working myself up to say exceptional proportions at briefer and briefer intervals until finally I was convinced that the entire property really did have exceptional proportions."

This is the Bernhard we love, the Bernhard for whom we still have an insatiable appetite, long after that appetite has been sated. The best of his novels—Correction (1975), Concrete (1982), The Loser (1983), Woodcutters (1984), Extinction (1986)—offer two or three hundred pages of this kind of thing at a stretch. The pieces in My Prizes are nice anecdotes, with some wonderful riffs (on how, for example, one should never buy shoes "before four in the afternoon because it's only around four in the afternoon that the foot takes on the correct and proper consistency for shoe-buying"), but they don't have the aesthetic shape or inner propulsion to amount to more than that. Again, the question of the somewhat arbitrary nature of Bernhard's endings crops up. It doesn't matter over the longer distance when the reader collapses, exhausted, at the finish line, but here the stories run out of steam before we do. Their brevity is inherently at odds with a writer whose defining trait is that he is absolutely interminable—not for nothing does that word unendingly appear in the acceptance speech quoted earlier.

Even while you are in the middle of them, these accounts do not have the breathless mania of the novels, and as a result, they are not as maniacally funny. To the uninitiated. that diatribe about the members of the Cultural Senate being assholes might seem pretty splenetic. Similarly, stuff about Bernhard's "bottomless existential despair" might sound pretty desperate, but the desperate and directionless abominating of everyone and everything here feels rote. It has been said of another compulsive, Garry Winogrand, that in his final phase he photographed in order to see whether there was anything to photograph. Similarly, Bernhard ranted and raved and heaped opprobrium on anything and everything in the hope that there might be something to abominate. At his best, he raised this to a level of magisterial and blissful invective that is unfurled only intermittently in these pages.

Geoff Dyer's latest novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (2009), was published in paperback by Vintage this year.

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