Thomas Bernhard, Austria's finest postwar writer, was born in Holland in 1931, the illegitimate son of a housemaid, and died at his home in Upper Austria in 1989. His childhood was spent mainly with his maternal grandparents near Salzburg - his grandfather Johannes Freumbichler was a minor Austrian writer and, Bernhard claimed, one of the two most important figures in his life. The other, whom he sometimes referred to as his "Lebensmensch" or "life companion" and sometimes as his aunt, was a woman 37 years his senior, the widow of a civil servant, whom he met at a sanatorium for tuberculosis in 1949. Bernhard had always had a weak chest and the deprivations of the war years, exacerbated by having to lug sacks of potatoes from the cellar to the grocery where he had been apprenticed after leaving school, led to his hospitalisation in 1948. His "aunt" Hedwig helped him escape what he felt would be certain death in the sanatorium. After that, he briefly trained as a singer (abandoned because of his bad lungs) and then took a job as a crime reporter, before turning to writing full-time.
Bernhard wrote many of his books while taking extended holidays to Spain, Italy or Yugoslavia with Hedwig, but she did more than provide him with the time and space to write in the early years. In a late interview not long after she died, he said:
With the death of that person everything was gone. You are alone then. First you also want to die. Then you search. You had turned all the people you also had in life into something less important during your life. Then you're alone. You have to cope.
Three years later, Bernhard, too, was dead. In his relatively short life he had produced a dozen novels, stories ranging in length from five lines to 50 pages, numerous plays and a remarkable autobiography in five parts, plus essays and poems. Immediately recognised as a remarkable writer, he won nearly every literary prize available; at the same time, he was being excoriated in the press for subverting Austrian values and sued by individuals who felt traduced by him. He responded by playing up to the stereotype even as he subverted it, and by banning posthumous performance of his plays in Austria.
At his death, the whole of Europe apart from Britain (which, by contrast, took his more humourless disciple W G Sebald to its heart) was united in recognising him as one of the greatest writers of the second half of the 20th century. The committee for the Nobel Prize in Literature, making the award in 2005 to Elfriede Jelinek, hinted at its error in not honouring him in his lifetime, asserting that the prize had been given to the whole Austrian tradition of satire and subversion that ran from Nestroy to Jelinek.
Yet that is to put Bernhard in the wrong category. Jelinek, like her master Theodor Adorno, is a fierce and intelligent polemicist, but the one thing that escapes her attention is herself and her values. Bernhard, on the other hand, is much more unsettling because it is impossible to tell where he stands.
He is in fact a master of a kind of surrealist comedy, though this aspect of his writing has been more or less ignored by readers in Britain. Even German-born Michael Hofmann, who translated Bernhard's first novel, Frost, into English, took this approach in his review for the London Review of Books of Old Masters, a hilarious late work recently reissued here. "Bernhard's style and approach," he wrote, "seem to be somewhere at the comic end of things, but I'm not sure it's comedy. Certainly, one thing it isn't is British character comedy, as in comic turns or Perrier Awards." Hofmann chose instead to read Bernhard as the bad-tempered scourge of Austrian bourgeois values - as if his novels were a form of journalism.
But take this passage from Old Masters:
In fact, [Adalbert] Stifter always makes me think of Heidegger, of that ridiculous petit-bourgeois nationalist socialist in golfing trousers. If Stifter has totally kitschified . . . high literature . . . Heidegger, the philosopher of the Black Forest . . . has totally kitschified philosophy . . . I see him always sitting on the bench in front of his house in the Black Forest, next to his wife, who . . . knits for him without pause stockings made of wool, shorn by herself from the backs of their very own Heideggerian sheep . . . his wife who, all her life, has totally dominated him and knitted for him all his stockings and his nightcaps, and who has cooked his bread and woven his sheets and even made him his sandals . . .
This is an onslaught on Heidegger and his cult of place, but above all a bravura comic riff on the theme of Heidegger and the Black Forest, more Rabelais than Swift, more New York cabbie than Voltairian assassin. And it is not even Bernhard saying this, but his character Reger, as reported by the narrator of Old Masters. Do we side with Reger against Heidegger? Do we laugh at Reger for his absurd rant, and at the narrator for reporting it without comment? Do we simply sit back and enjoy the comic rhetoric? Or can we do all these things at once?
A good place to explore such questions is the little volume entitled Meine Preise, which has just been published in English as My Prizes. Probably completed in 1980, it languished first on Bernhard's desk and then, inexplicably, in the offices of his publisher, Suhrkamp, until 2009. It is an account, prize by prize, of the background and circumstances of reception of nine literary prizes that Bernhard was awarded between 1963 and 1980, followed by some of the speeches he delivered on those occasions.
He damns prize-givings, where protocol is far more important than the work being honoured. Ministers snore on the platform; chairmen of the jury praise him fulsomely, yet attribute to him things he never wrote; organisers fail to greet him and his aunt when they arrive and ignore them once the ceremony is over. The only prizes that bring him pleasure are the Julius Campe, awarded by Hamburg - a place he loves as much as he hates smug Regensburg and Bremen, venues for other prizes - and for which there is no ceremony, just a tactful handing over at the offices of Julius Campe, Heine's publishers; and the Prize of the Federal Chambers of Commerce, where, at the awards dinner, he finds himself sitting next to the jury president - none other than the man who interviewed him when he was taking his commercial exams for the post at the grocery.
So, why does he accept these prizes? The answer is: the money. Each award comes with a substantial sum. With the 70,000 schillings from Bremen, he sets off with his aunt to look for a house in the mountains. He decides to buy the first building the agent shows them, a crumbling farmhouse with enormous walls, far from everything. He will put down the whole of his prize money and find the remaining 80,000 schillings within a year. Hedwig begs him not to rush into things, but he has made up his mind. Indeed, he restores the house over the next few years with the help of a local craftsman and it becomes his home and refuge for the rest of his life.
What he does with the Julius Campe Prize is even more wilful. He decides to buy a car - not just any car, but a beautiful old Triumph Herald he has seen in a showroom. When the dealer says he will get it in a week or two, Bernhard puts him right - what he wants is that car, the one in the window, and he wants it that day. He heads straight for the countryside. He has never driven a car before, but passed his test as a lorry driver when working for a brewery. On holiday in Istria with his aunt, he is involved in an accident. The car is a write-off.
But though money is always welcome, Bernhard cannot quite use that as an excuse:
It was all offensive, but I found myself the most offensive of all. I hated ceremonies but I took part in them. I hated the prize-givers but I took their money. Today I can no longer do it. Until you're 40, I think, but after that? That I didn't accept the . . . 18,000 schillings attached to the Franz Theodor Csokor Prize but had it all donated to the care of prisoners in Stein was also no way out. Even actions like this . . . are not free of . . . hypocrisy. The . . . only answer is to decline all further honours.
Did things happen as he describes them? Who knows? Who cares? Bernhard is a master of comic timing, and each of these episodes reads like a separate short story, to be savoured as we savour René Clair's filmic masterpiece Entr'acte, or the films of Buster Keaton.
Yet Bernhard's is a darker vision than Clair's. His speech on being awarded the Bremen Prize begins by alluding to the folk tale about the musicians of Bremen, but only in order to point out that "fairy tales are over, the fairy tales about cities and states and all the scientific fairy tales, and all the philosophical ones . . . Europe, the most beautiful, is dead; this is the truth and the reality. Reality . . . is no fairy tale and truth has never been a fairy tale."
How to live and how to make art in a world without fairy tales - without, that is, the animating myths that have kept us going for so long - that is the question. It is not one the prize jury or the audience wants to hear. Yet the more officialdom dislikes what he has to say, the more he will go on saying it, for that is his way of telling tales in a world from which tales have disappeared. The late interview from which I quoted is quite clear on this score:
Whatever you write it's always a catastrophe. That's the depressing thing about the fate of a writer . . . All you deliver is a bad, ridiculous copy of what you had imagined . . . It's especially hard in the German language, because that language is wooden, clumsy, disgusting. A terrible language that kills anything light and wonderful. The only thing one can do is sublimate that language with a rhythm to give it musicality.
Thank goodness for Thomas Bernhard, the most truthful, the funniest and the most musical of writers since Marcel Proust.
Gabriel Josipovici's most recent book is “What Ever Happened to Modernism?" (Yale University Press, £18.99)
Thomas Bernhard's "My Prizes: an Accounting" is published by Knopf ($22)