ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Is
now more of a nuisance than usual to you, given
that not only is the festival starting on Sunday, but also… Salzburg
has never been a nuisance to me. What are you getting at? Salzburg
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: …because the festival coincides with the Olympic games in
—and sports famously “entertain and befuddle and
stultify the masses,” [as we all know] from reading Bernhard. Montreal
THOMAS BERNHARD: Everything involving masses of people is hard to put up with. I have always detested sports. When a hundred people are marching along [in one direction], the hundredth person simply has to march in the opposite one. Without even asking himself why.
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: So, tomorrow
! Of course
in your play The Force of Habit the phrase is always “tomorrow Salzburg ”—but as the president of the Salzburg Festival,
Dr. Josef Kaut, suspects, by the “musty, abhorrent nest” you obviously mean Augsburg . Salzburg
THOMAS BERNHARD: Dr. Kaut is always suspecting the wrong thing. But I of course couldn’t care less what Dr. Kaut suspects. I used to be very fond of him. But fondness sometimes ends for some reason or other. When you’re friends with someone, you shouldn’t tell lies about him, I think. In any case the world is made up of nothing but lies and non-facts and perversions…
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: So is
really Augsburg or not? Salzburg
THOMAS BERNHARD: Oh, that was such a long time ago.
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Did you know, by the way, that in the sixteenth century, after the peace of
, “going to Augsburg ” sometimes meant “I’ve got to pee”? Golo Mann quotes a letter sent from Augsburg in 1599 by the German consort of King Philip III to
her brother Archduke Ferdinand of Styria; she complains about her strict duenna
and writes…“she cleaves to my side throughout the day, and I can’t go to Madrid unless she’s standing behind me…” In other words: she couldn’t even go to the
loo [Lokus] without a chaperone. Augsburg
THOMAS BERNHARD: I really like the anecdote. But “loo” is a Bavarianism. People don’t say “loo” here.
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: At most here in Ohlsdorf, in connection with the genius loci… [Eichholz is apparently making a pun on “Lokus,” a pun that Bernhard will take up three replies on (DR).]
THOMAS BERNHARD: …but naturally I understand it; I grew up in Traustein. So I enjoy a certain kinship with “loo.”
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Mr. Bernhard, is it possible [for me] to utter in your presence that old Salzburg Festival catchphrase coined by Max Reinhardt without making you immediately…
THOMAS BERNHARD: As far as I’m concerned you can utter any phrase you care to.
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Then I’ve got to tell you how very much, in spite of all the cars and in spite of the author Thomas Bernhard, I still savor Max Reinhardt’s first sally about the Salzburg Festival: the [idea of] viewing “the city as a scene.”
THOMAS BERNHARD: Are we talking about
the loo? Hence the loo [Locus] [that is]
Salzburg . Salzburg
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: And basically you work as a playwright and your most recent book is no exception: you view the city as a scene. Only you approach [it], like some ur-Reinhardt, as a tableau of horror. You view
as a “lethal town,” as a “museum of death,” as a
“perfidious façade,” and you think that its inhabitants “slowly and wretchedly go
to ruin on this thoroughly inhospitable architectural-archiepiscopal-addlebrained-National
Socialist-Catholic terrain of death.” Would
you dare to say such a thing on the doorstep of the house Mozart was born in? Salzburg
THOMAS BERNHARD: Oh, come on: I am after all a Salzburger! Right? My relationship to this town is a pre-deliction.
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: So then in your opinion it’s Johnny-come-latelys who have cultivated
’s spotless reputation? Salzburg
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yes, and it’s the Salzburgers themselves who are responsible for the other one. Trakl for example. He certainly was no Johnny-come-lately. Or just look at Mozart, [and] the things he said about
. And a
thousand others—only they didn’t put it in writing, that’s all. Salzburg
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: So then you see a certain tradition in the terrain of death…?
THOMAS BERNHARD: …which you can’t escape from if you’re here. Here [if] you put on an act [you can] do as you please. The [common] people with their hustle and bustle, who obviously can’t just suddenly jump off their scenesaw…wherever gold falls through, there will always be people all too glad to stick their hands [into the machine to catch it]—and so of course nothing’s left in the bag, right?
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Even supposing you don’t give a hoot about the hustle and bustle, “the city as a scene” isn’t something you can put out of commission by just talking. Naturally people here don’t want to read Mozart; they want to hear him. There are a few people who even want to see Thomas Bernhard, they say…
THOMAS BERNHARD: Sure, if I hadn’t lived in
from childhood onwards, and if I didn’t [have to] come
across my stinking relatives bristling with nastiness wherever I went, I’d be
perfectly happy there. I’m perfectly
happy to visit Salzburg for three-quarters of an hour, but after that, I’m
done. I know too much about the intellectual
innards of the Salzburgian body politic.
Even a good-looking person—if you take him apart—is of course not
attractive on the inside…Who, when he wants to spend time with a good-looking
person, ever goes out of his way to rummage through that person’s intestines eh…? Salzburg
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: All the same, you have gotten your best results in the theater by rummaging around in people’s intestines…
THOMAS BERNHARD: I have of course also emerged from the intestines, recently…
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: …And have developed a highly competent medical language for [describing] them… Consider the Doctor in The Ignoramus and the Madman, when he’s describing the dissection, “One surveys the Omentum maius
draws the latter away from the Taemia omentalis
apron-esque mark my words
down into the pelvis
in inflammatory processes
in the abdominal cavity my dear sir
there may even be adhesions of the reticulum
the reticulum is warped in this direction
a completely warped reticulum
whence one may ascertain the nature of the outcome
One simply flings the reticulum upwards
and contemplates the situation of the abdominal organs
observes whether the lower liver is grossly distended
down to here
to this spot…” Now Hofmannsthal also got close to the Salzburgian body politic, but in a different way: he saw [
] as the “heart of the
heart of Salzburg Europe” and he expressly wished to exclude from the festival [everything that
was] “gloomy, inwardly vulgar, completely unsacred…” But that of course is exactly what you are
now trying to introduce [to the festival] with your Anti-Festival The
Celebrities, which has failed to be performed in . Salzburg
has actually profited from The Ignoramus
and the Force of Habit—make of that what you will. Salzburg
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: What I want to make of it is…
THOMAS BERNHARD: You want to make something of it?
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: …a sort of Salzburgian dramaturgy of the Bernhard plays. For example right now Maria Becker is playing your “Madam President” in a completely psychologically motivated way—as a counterexample [take] Bruno Ganz who once played your doctor (in the Ignoramus) completely unnaturalistically and made him into a linguistic marionette. The one [actor] makes your text into something that’s the opposite of what’s made of it by the other [actor]. How does Bernhard himself view his Bernhard characters?
THOMAS BERNHARD: There are of course a hundred thousand possibilities in every case. You can paint a landscape in twenty-thousand different ways, until you think it looks too stupid, and it always turns out differently. A play by me is just a template. Mediocre actors aren’t interested in it, because they’re too stupid. And among the really great ones, there are really only five or six who are attracted to it. But everybody does, you know, something different with it. That’s the whole point. My [plays] aren’t like the plays normal people write, where every gesture is scripted—you’ve got to go here, and inhale and exhale…
In [my plays] all of that is the actor’s business. And I just supply the skeleton. I basically couldn’t care less what he does with it, provided it’s brilliant and a good match for his abilities. I’m certainly not wedded to anything. [I] have no desire to win anybody over. [Or] to march under any sort of banner…I try to come up with a stimulant. Chiefly for myself. That’s what interests me most of all. If somebody manages that, and there’s a huge crowd—well, splendid. Most of the time it goes awry in one way or another, even with the best actors. Because they can only put up with my lines for three out of the four hours and in the end they don’t really have any faith in them. The resistance to such things is always very strong in all the theaters and among every sort of people. At first they champion them, but two days in people start saying, “What rubbish this is,” and then they get skittish. Something like this only works when there’s a hundred-percent [commitment]. Then even the spectators get interested in it. But when behind the scenes you have nothing but intriguers standing around and chatting, it’s a pile of shit—then it goes awry. You also can’t just cast one part brilliantly and [let all the] others clam up. With body and soul—of course there’s no such thing anymore. When I write, I [give it] a hundred percent. But everybody else also [has] to give theirs. Shakespeare worked in a similar way: he wrote texts that have to be realized [in the delivery]; and it’s only then that you can tell whether an actor really is an actor.
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Am I right in assuming that you generally write plays that are much lighter in tone than their subsequent productions?
THOMAS BERNHARD: The lot of them are comic. Just like in my prose you’re never allowed to know whether you’re supposed to howl with laughter or not. This tightrope walk is where all the enjoyment lies. But nuances—who really gets them nowadays? You have only to read the reviews—according to them, I’m completely humorless and silly. Who knows what they all expect of me…that I’ll be wearing a black cross, that I’ll drop dead…
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: If you still read theater reviews, you’ve only yourself to blame.
THOMAS BERNHARD: I read them. I’d of course be an idiot if I said I wasn’t interested in them. I read everything I can get hold of by any means, form myself a picture. I’m obviously not made out of granite, or stone-deaf. I’m very vital, thank God, but also a sensitive human being…
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: You were especially sensitive in the matter of the cancellation of the
performance of your Celebrities. You certainly don’t exactly treat your
festival mentors with kid gloves: your soprano knocks the head off a Lotte
Lehmann dummy with a champagne bottle.
Your actress beats Helen Thimig to death with a candlestick. Max Reinhardt perishes with a knife in his
back. A tenor strangles Richard
Tauber. And a publisher shoots Samuel
Fischer in the back of the neck…--“a gagfest,” as you yourself call it. But because the Salzburg Festival wasn’t
crazy about it, you wrote, “I don’t need the festival.” Salzburg
THOMAS BERNHARD: I chose to have it performed at the Theater an der Wien by genuine old pros. In the teeth of every objection and of all my boosters. I wanted to get it over with. The [whole] story [had] to be brought to an end; it [was] just holding me up.
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Mr. Bernhard, you smell human flesh in
front of the Bürgerspital you still always see a severed child’s hand from the
first bombing attack. Near the train
station you see the stacks of shrouded bodies…in your memoir of your time as a
boarding school student in Salzburg, The Cause, which you have subtitled
“a hint,” is this not all hinted at on a rather gargantuan scale? Salzburg
THOMAS BERNHARD: The people [of
] pretty much don’t see it at all anymore. They just get angry when they’re reminded of
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Coming from you, though, it [all] sounds so accusatory; as though it’s also everybody else’s obligation to smell the flesh of [dead] Salzburgers. As a reader, I can’t deal with that.
THOMAS BERNHARD: Anybody who merely brings it up is troublesome. [And] in general: a person who thinks is troublesome [person]. Ours is a truly rotten age—Trakl neither said nor inculcated anything different in his poems.
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: [But] you [have] a [certain] trick: [namely] of depicting your emotions as a boarding-school student by means of your present-day intellect. You bequeath to your young[er self] a rather formidable aide-formuler.
THOMAS BERNHARD: What a load of stuff I have to deal with…
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: I think after reading so much Bernhard criticism you’re tough enough. You did after all fully survive your early violin lessons in the shoe closet in
, [despite] trying to hang yourself with your
suspenders. What did you actually play
in those days anyway? Salzburg
THOMAS BERNHARD: I effectively couldn’t produce the simplest series of notes. I took up my station behind the door and fiddled [away]. It sounded like Paganini or whatever. [It] was naturally [all] improvised stuff. It often [didn’t sound too bad].
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: [Quite] against your will, you are related to hundreds of citizens of
. People who
are now doctors, mill-owners, judges, went to high school with you—what’s your
view? Why do they find it easier to live
in Salzburg than you do?
[Is it] perhaps [because] they have put more effort [into it] than you
THOMAS BERNHARD: Judges? What [could I possibly] have to say to them? With them all you can do is stand there. At most control yourself. At most not say anything. Pretty much not anything at all, unless they ask you. People like judges can’t be convinced [to accept] any sort of truth [or] the simplest fact in the world….
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: And since we’re not supposed to ferret out the fact that you were once a court reporter for the socialist newspaper the Demokratische Volksblatt…but it all sounds as though you are blaming your fellow Salzburgers for not living as critically as you, for not suffering [like you, and be]ing conform[ists] instead.
THOMAS BERNHARD: But being a judge, along with writing about other [people], is a really wacky business, basically…
ARMIN EICHOLZ: But basically you get everything you write [about] from this region: in and around Ohlsdorf one runs into Bernhard people, Bernhard landscapes, Bernhard factories—but you seem to exclude yourself completely from [all] that. You write so to speak as a Bernhard persona, not as yourself. I think people are wrong to identify you with your persona.
THOMAS BERNHARD: Of course it’s absolutely preposterous! I’ve got an alpine farm that I have to keep going, and I’ve got a lot to do here, I have to get up on a tractor…what interest do I have in this persona? Am I supposed to put an ad in all the papers [announcing], “I am not me”? [Just] because people believe [I’m] sitting here emaciated, gnawing away at my last idea, like some intellectual dog, with a revolver by my side…it beggars description. People cause me no end of grief.
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: But after all in your latest book everybody still sees you sitting with a pair of suspenders around your neck in the shoe closet in
THOMAS BERNHARD: Every young person has done basically the same thing. There are other [ways of] hanging, some more sensible, some less.
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Do you really still come to
Do you sometimes try to park there? Salzburg
THOMAS BERNHARD: I have a permanent space there.
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Oh, so that’s how it is. But [what about] a Mozartkugel: you haven’t bought [one of those] yet, or [have you]?
THOMAS BERNHARD: I think I did buy one of those once, and [I] gave it away—and one time I ate one. Marzipan is of course very unhealthy, right? Really bad [for you]! That’s what my brother told me; he’s an internist. He says “Marzipan is the worst [thing for you].” But you [must] know that [already]…
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: In any case the Mozartkugel was not one of your formative influences—if I read correctly, your grandfather fed you not with marzipan but with Montaigne…
THOMAS BERNHARD: My grandfather introduced me to him. Probably with a great deal of effort. But I was ready for the introduction. By then I had only ever listened and [had] read almost nothing, because I basically found books loathsome.
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Has it by any chance ever struck you that Montaigne wrote sentences that read like aphorisms in Bernhard? Or that might have [served] as styl[istic] models for you[?]
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yeah, which ones?
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: For example: “By nature I have a whimsical and threadbare style.” Or “It displeases me to say more than I mean.” Or “Reflecting on death means reflecting on freedom.” Or “I look at everything from the worst angle.” And naturally “I reveal thoughts that are genuinely unpublishable.”
THOMAS BERNHARD: My world entirely. It could be [taken] from my [own] experience.
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Where in the world does your uneasy relationship with sports come from[?—given] after all that you used to run the hundred-meter [dash] and the kilometer so quickly. What was your hundred-meter time?
THOMAS BERNHARD: All I ever knew was that when I [ran] nobody [could] keep up with me!
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: A lot of people can’t keep up with you today either, in
your scandalous Celebrities someday be allowed [to be performed] here? Salzburg
THOMAS BERNHARD: I have nothing to do with that. But the people will go away or die—but until they’re dead,
is dead, probably…unless I die first… Salzburg
ARMIN EICHOLZ: One day of course you’ll be canonized as part of the baroque [city of]
. There will
be Bernhard days at the festival… Salzburg
THOMAS BERNHARD: There’s no way of getting out of that. They chuck you into the pot, stir, and cook you to a crisp with [the rest of it], whether you like it or not. You’ve just got to be a tough bone.
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Suppose despite everything you were asked or indeed begged to deliver the obligatory speech at the opening ceremonies of the Salzburg Festival—would you do it?
THOMAS BERNHARD: No! Not even Canetti has done that.
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: Too bad. You have always caused quite a furore with your ceremonial speeches. For example [your acceptance speech for] the Austrian State Prize, when the culture minister stood up and walked out while saying, “We remain proud Austrians.”
THOMAS BERNHARD: Nothing but unqualified people in almost all governments…it’s always been that way.
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: [What about] yourself as someone who is qualified[?] You would never do it[?] Why spoil other people’s fun? You sit here making fun of practically everything; you have this privileged position…
THOMAS BERNHARD: It’s never been all that privileged. When I built this house eleven years ago, I got a loan of 30,000 schillings from the ministry. Then for eleven years I heard nothing, until a month ago. At the time I was in
, and the ambassador made a fool of me there, let
the word get round in the Austrian colony that they shouldn’t go anywhere where
this destructive, abominable guy was [supposed to be present]…naturally [the]
Goethe Institute [there]—once again the Germans—found this [very] funny,
right[?]…And when I got back, they asked me to pay back the loan. And what was more, to pay it off in full
immediately. [Aggressive dunning] after
eleven years. Without anything, with no
personal [return] address, no signature.
Can you imagine that someone like that is a privileged person? I immediately ransomed myself from this
ARMIN EICHHOLZ: But suppose you were living completely anonymously in a large city. You would no longer have any problems—it’s possible you would pretty much be unable to write anymore. You need
; you need Ohlsdorf. Salzburg
THOMAS BERNHARD: Yeah, yeah, problems. In the best case, you live in an area that isn’t particularly attractive. Because otherwise nothing seems right to you. Perhaps I’d find
You need an occupation that engrosses every single day as a
counterweight. I couldn’t sit and wait
for something to happen to me. I can
only harvest horror using my domestic chores and then use this horror to write
and then harvest horror through writing and then [go] back [to the domestic
work]. A reciprocal routine that is
constantly being reenacted. And in
winter…then the snow comes, of course.
And then everything turns white, and the white snow drives me to the
paper and back from it… London
AAMIN EICHHOLZ: …not even a writer can bear whiteness. And what are you writing now?
THOMAS BERNHARD: I guess it’s going to be a play. About a poet and about a critic. These are of course similar offices, right?
AAMIN EICHHOLZ: I foresee trouble. Now is the time to thank you for the conversation…
THOMAS BERNHARD: You call that a conversation?
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2013 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Der Wahrheit auf der Spur. Reden, Leserbriefe, Interviews, Feuilletons. Herausgegeben von Wolfram Bayer, Raimund Fellingerund und Martin Huber [Stalking the Truth. Speeches, Open Letters, Interviews, Newspaper Articles. Edited by Wolfram Bayer et al.](
Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2011).