Thomas Bernhard

Nicolaas Thomas Bernhard (German: [ˈtoːmas ˈbɛʁnhaʁt]; 9 February 1931 – 12 February 1989) was an Austrian novelist, playwright and poet. Bernhard's body of work has been called "the most significant literary achievement since World War II."[1] He is widely considered to be one of the most important German-speaking authors of the postwar, postmodernist era.

Thomas Bernhard
Bernhard in 1987
BornThomas August Bert Bernhard
(1931-02-09)9 February 1931
Heerlen, Netherlands
Died12 February 1989(1989-02-12) (aged 58)
Gmunden, Upper Austria, Austria
OccupationNovelist and playwright
Literary movementPostmodernism
Notable worksCorrection
The Loser



Thomas Bernhard was born in 1931 in Heerlen in the Netherlands, where his unmarried mother Herta Bernhard worked as a maid. From the autumn of 1931 he lived with his grandparents in Vienna until 1937 when his mother, who had married in the meantime, moved him to Traunstein, Bavaria, in Nazi Germany. There he was required to join the Deutsches Jungvolk, a branch of the Hitler Youth, which he hated.[2] Bernhard's natural father Alois Zuckerstätter was a carpenter and petty criminal who refused to acknowledge his son.[2] Zuckerstätter died in Berlin from gas poisoning in an assumed suicide in 1940;[3] Bernhard never met him.

Bernhard's grandfather, the author Johannes Freumbichler, pushed for an artistic education for him, including musical instruction. Bernhard went to elementary school in Seekirchen and later attended various schools in Salzburg including the Johanneum which he left in 1947 to start an apprenticeship with a grocer. George Steiner describes Bernhard's schooling as "hideous... under a sadistically repressive system, run first by Catholic priests, then by Nazis".[4]

Bernhard's Lebensmensch (a predominantly Austrian term, which was coined by Bernhard himself[5] and which refers to the most important person in one's life) was Hedwig Stavianicek (1894–1984), a woman more than thirty-seven years his senior, whom he cared for alone in her dying days. He had met Stavianicek in 1950, the year of his mother's death and one year after the death of his beloved grandfather. Stavianicek was the major support in Bernhard's life and greatly furthered his literary career. The extent or nature of his relationships with women is obscure. Thomas Bernhard's public persona was asexual.[6] Suffering throughout his teens from lung ailments, including tuberculosis, Bernhard spent the years 1949 to 1951 at the Grafenhof sanatorium in Sankt Veit im Pongau. He trained as an actor at the Mozarteum in Salzburg (1955–1957) and was always profoundly interested in music. In 1970, he won the Georg Büchner Prize. His lung condition, however, made a career as a singer impossible. After that he worked briefly as a journalist, mainly as a crime reporter, and then became a full-time writer.

After a decade of needing constant medical care for his lungs, Bernhard died in 1989 in Gmunden, Upper Austria, by assisted suicide.[2] His death was announced only after his funeral. In his will, which aroused great controversy on publication, Bernhard prohibited any new stagings of his plays and publication of his unpublished work in Austria; however, in 1999 this was annulled by his heir, his half-brother Dr. Peter Fabjan.[3] Bernhard's attractive house in Ohlsdorf-Obernathal 2 where he had moved in 1965 is now a museum and centre for the study and performance of his work.


Often criticized in Austria as a Nestbeschmutzer (one who dirties his own nest) for his critical views, Bernhard was highly acclaimed abroad. Nevertheless, while reviled by some Austrians for his outspoken and harsh views of his homeland, including its Nazi past,[3] he was, during his lifetime, also highly acclaimed in Austria, winning a number of major awards, and was seen by many as the pre-eminent writer of the time.

His work is most influenced by the feeling of being abandoned (in his childhood and youth) and by his incurable illness, which caused him to see death as the ultimate essence of existence. His work typically features loners' monologues explaining, to a rather silent listener, his views on the state of the world, often with reference to a concrete situation. This is true for his plays as well as for his prose, where the monologues are then reported second hand by the listener. Alongside his serious and pessimistic views, his works also contain some very funny observations on life.[2] Bernhard is often considered a verbose writer, but Andreas Dorschel has broadened this view by showing that Bernhard's characters (specifically in Das Kalkwerk) oscillate between excessive speech and highly economical expressions. As Dorschel argues, the two modes produce a series of oppositions with mutually informing sides.[7]

Bernhard's main protagonists, often scholars or, as he calls them, Geistesmenschen (intellectuals), denounce everything that matters to the Austrian in contumacy-filled tirades against a "stupid populace". He also attacks the state (often called "Catholic-National-Socialist"), generally respected institutions such as Vienna's Burgtheater, and much-loved artists. His work also continually deals with the isolation and self-destruction of people striving for an unreachable perfection, since this same perfection would mean stagnancy and therefore death. Anti-Catholic rhetoric is not uncommon.

"Es ist alles lächerlich, wenn man an den Tod denkt" (Everything is ridiculous, when one thinks of Death) was his comment when he received a minor Austrian national award in 1968, which resulted in one of the many public scandals he caused over the years and which became part of his fame. His novel Holzfällen (1984), for instance, could not be published for years due to a defamation claim by a former friend. Many of his plays—above all Heldenplatz (1988)—were met with criticism from many Austrians, who claimed they sullied Austria's reputation. One of the more controversial lines called Austria "a brutal and stupid nation ... a mindless, cultureless sewer which spreads its penetrating stench all over Europe." Heldenplatz, as well as the other plays Bernhard wrote in these years, were staged at Vienna's famous Burgtheater by the controversial director Claus Peymann.

Even in death Bernhard caused disturbance by his, as he supposedly called it, posthumous literary emigration, by disallowing all publication and stagings of his work within Austria's borders. The International Thomas Bernhard Foundation, established by his executor and half-brother Dr. Peter Fabjan, has since made exceptions, although the German firm of Suhrkamp remains his principal publisher.

The correspondence between Bernhard and his publisher Siegfried Unseld from 1961 to 1989 – about 500 letters – was published in December 2009 at Suhrkamp Verlag, Germany.[8]

Works (in translation)



  • Amras (1964)
  • Playing Watten (Watten, 1964)
  • Walking (Gehen, 1971)
    • Collected as Three Novellas (2003), translated by Peter Jansen and Kenneth J. Northcott


  • The Force of Habit (1974)
  • Immanuel Kant (1978); a comedy, no known translation to English, first performed on 15 April 1978, directed by Claus Peymann at the Staatstheater Stuttgart.
  • The President and Eve of Retirement (1982): Originally published as Der Präsident (1975) and Vor dem Ruhestand. Eine Komödie von deutscher Seele (1979), translated by Gitta Honegger.
  • Destination (1981), originally titled Am Ziel.
  • Histrionics: Three Plays (1990): Collects A Party for Boris (Ein Fest für Boris, 1968), Ritter, Dene, Voss (1984) and Histrionics (Der Theatermacher, 1984), translated by Peter Jansen and Kenneth Northcott.[9]
  • Heldenplatz (1988)
  • Claus Peymann Buys Himself a Pair of Pants and Joins Me for Lunch (1990)
  • Over All the Mountain Tops (2004): Originally published as Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh (1981), translated by Michael Mitchell.
  • The World-fixer (2005)
  • Minetti (2014)


  • Gathering Evidence (1985, memoir): Collects Die Ursache (1975), Der Keller (1976), Der Atem (1978), Die Kälte (1981) and Ein Kind (1982), translated by David McLintock.
  • The Voice Imitator (1997, stories): Originally published as Der Stimmenimitator (1978), translated by Kenneth J. Northcott.[10]
  • In Hora Mortis / Under the Iron of the Moon (2006, poetry): Collects In Hora Mortis (1958) and Unter dem Eisen des Mondes (1958), translated by James Reidel.
  • My Prizes (2010, stories): Originally published as Meine Preise (2009), translated by Carol Brown Janeway.
  • Prose (Seagull Books London Ltd, United Kingdom, 2010, short stories); originally published in Germany, 1967.
  • Victor Halfwit: A Winter's Tale (2011, illustrated story)
  • On Earth and in Hell: Early Poems (2015) translated by Peter Waugh[11]
  • Goethe Dies (2016, short stories) Published by Seagull Books, Ltd. Translated by James Reidel.[12]


  1. Peck, Dale (December 24, 2010). "Book Review – My Prizes and Prose by Thomas Bernhard". The New York Times.
  2. Franklin, Ruth (2006-12-18). "The Art of Extinction". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2017-10-08.
  3. "Feature: Thomas Bernhard". Sydney Theatre Company. 2012-06-24. Retrieved 2017-10-08.
  4. George Steiner on Thomas Bernhard
  5. Honegger, Gitta. Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian. Yale University 2001, p. 59.
  6. Honegger, Thomas Bernhard, pp. 61–63.
  7. Andreas Dorschel, ‘Lakonik und Suada in der Prosa Thomas Bernhards’, Thomas Bernhard Jahrbuch 2007/08, pp. 215–233; cf. Simon Walsh in Modern Austrian Literature 43 (2010), issue 4, p. 100
  8. Der Briefwechsel Thomas Bernhard/Siegfried Unseld Archived 2009-12-06 at the Wayback Machine, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2009-12-07
  9. "Histrionics: Three Plays, Thomas Bernhard (University of Chicago Press, 1990)". Retrieved Mar 6, 2019.
  10. "The Voice Imitator by Thomas Bernhard – five stories excerpted". Retrieved 2011-08-24.
  11. "On Earth and in Hell: Early Poems: Thomas Bernhard, Peter Waugh: 9781941110232: Books". Retrieved 2019-03-06.
  12. "Goethe Dies". Retrieved Mar 6, 2019 via


Further reading

  • Theo Breuer, Die Arbeit als Leidenschaft, die fortgesetzte Partitur als Leben. Hommage zum 80. Geburtstag.
  • Frederick, Samuel. Narratives Unsettled: Digression in Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard, and Adalbert Stifter. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 2012.
  • Gitta Honegger, Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian, Yale University Press, 2002, ISBN 0-300-08999-6.
  • Kay Link: Die Welt als Theater - Künstlichkeit und Künstlertum bei Thomas Bernhard. Akademischer Verlag Stuttgart, Stuttgart 2000, ISBN 3-88099-387-4.
  • JJ Long, The Novels of Thomas Bernhard: Form and its Function, Camden House Inc.,U.S., 2001, ISBN 1-57113-224-4.
  • Thomas Bernhard: 3 Days, From the film by Ferry Radax, Blast Books, 2016, ISBN 0-92223-346-2.



  • Ferry Radax: Thomas Bernhard – Drei Tage (Thomas Bernhard – three days, 1970). Directed by Ferry Radax and based on a written self-portrait by Thomas Bernhard.
  • Ferry Radax: Der Italiener (The Italian, 1972), a feature film directed by Ferry Radax and based on a script by Thomas Bernhard.
This article is issued from Wikipedia. The text is licensed under Creative Commons - Attribution - Sharealike. Additional terms may apply for the media files.