11 November 2012

My Prizes (Thomas Bernhard)

"My Prizes", translated by Carol Brown Janeway, in Gathering Evidence and My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard (Vintage International, 2011)

"Now is the time to stand firm, I thought, demonstrate my intransigence, courage, single-mindedness. I'm not going to go and meet them, I thought, just as (in the deepest sense of the word) they didn't meet me." The attitude--pure Thomas Bernhard--was unmistakable. There was pride, hardheadedness, combativeness. The novelist was about to receive the Grillparzer Prize from the podium but he went unrecognized by the prize administrators. No one at the front door received him and his aunt. So they just went in. The guests of honor had arrived. The musicians were in place. Everyone was seated. But he didn't budge from his seat. "Of course the ceremony didn't begin", Bernhard wrote. The ceremony couldn't begin. Bernhard had stood his ground. He had made up his mind. He would only come in front if the President of the Academy of Sciences would personally fetch him from his seat.

That offending and offensive spirit was what characterized the novelist's recounting of the prize ceremonies he attended in My Prizes: An Accounting (2009), a short volume which also appeared alongside his childhood memoirs (Gathering Evidence). If one deigned to give Bernhard a prize, one must give it on Bernhard's own terms. If one would believe him, he was participating in those nonsense ceremonies only for the prize money. But it was obvious that he also felt pride in receiving them, particularly for prizes honoring his early works (like the ones for his early novels Frost and The Lime Works). In these essays he was, as in his works of fiction, honest and frank, if a bit tactless. He was in his usual fighting form.

Herr Bernhard was receiving the prize for his play A Feast for Boris, said Hunger (the play that had been appallingly badly acted a year before by the Burgtheater company in the Academy Theater), and then, as if to embrace me, he opened his arms wide.... He shook my hand and gave me a so-called award certificate of a tastelessness, like every other award certificate I have ever received, that was beyond comparison.

The usual cantankerous Bernhard was also one who deplored the least sight of his country. It would not be the same Bernhard if the reader was not treated to his anti-nationalist rant.

I didn't like the town. It's cold and repulsive and if I hadn't had [Elisabeth] Borchers and my thoughts of the eight thousand marks [the prize money], I would probably have left again after the first hour. How I hate these medium-sized towns with their famous historical buildings by which their inhabitants allow themselves to be perverted their whole lives long. Churches and narrow alleys in which people vegetate, their minds turning more mindless all the time. Salzburg, Augsburg, Regensburg, Würzburg, I hate them all, because mindlessness has been kept warming over in them for hundreds of years.

Interestingly, the handful of short essays and speeches here would make for a good entry point to the novelist. There were incidents told here that would be exploited further in his fiction. The incident of his buying a decrepit house, for example, was also recounted in Yes. The infamous awarding ceremony in Wittgenstein's Nephew was also told in compact form here.

When Bernhard sat in a jury to award the Bremen Literature Prize (having won the previous one), he had made up his mind to vote for Canetti, only to be overruled by the other jurors.

I wanted to give Canetti the prize for Auto-da-Fé, the brilliant work of his youth which had been reissued a year before this jury met. Several times I said the word Canetti and each time the faces around the long table grimaced in a self-pitying sort of way. Many of the people at the table didn't even know who Canetti was, but among the few who did know about Canetti was one who suddenly said, after I had said Canetti again, but he's also a Jew. Then there was some murmuring, and Canetti landed under the table. I can still hear this phrase but he's also a Jew although I can't remember who at the table said it. But even today I often hear the phrase, it came from some really sinister quarter.

This display of anti-Semitism was unacceptable to Bernhard. What further inflamed him was the manner of the selection of the eventual winner (Hildesheimer). It was just as thoughtless and crude. Hildesheimer was chosen as the compromise winner if only because time was running out and "the smell of evening roast was already seeping through the double doors".

Who Hildesheimer really was, not one of them seemed to know.... The gentlemen stood up and went out into the dining room. The Jew Hildesheimer had won the prize. For me that was the point of the prize. I've never been able to keep quiet about it.

Bernhard couldn't take seriously any prize that was showered on him because the same standard that selected Hildesheimer for a winner could have been used to select him as a winner in the past and could at any time be used to select future winners. That was the pointless point of the prize for him.

But no prizes are an honor, I then said, the honor is perverse, there is no honor in the world. People talk about honor and it's all a dirty trick, just like all talk about any honor, I said. The state showers its working citizens with honors and showers them in reality with perversities and dirty tricks, I said.

But the height of Bernhard's adventure with prizes was his conferment of the Austrian State Prize for Literature, where the Minister walked out on him while he was still in the middle of his acceptance speech, not before hurling some curses his way. Reading the text of the winner's speech one would have an idea why the Minister walked out, and all his people after him:

Our era is feebleminded, the demonic in us a perpetual national prison in which the elements of stupidity and thoughtlessness have become a daily need. The state is a construct eternally on the verge of foundering, the people one that is endlessly condemned to infamy and feeblemindedness, life a state of hopelessness in every philosophy and which will end in universal madness.

Thomas Bernhard won the prestigious state prize and while delivering his speech he was shunned. Those statesmen must have lacked for a sense of humor.

A bibliography of Bernhard's writings can be found here.

The German Literature Month II is hosted by Caroline and Lizzy.


  1. Bernhard is someone I must read. Which novel would you recommend as a starting point, Rise, if not this?

  2. Oh, if only someone would do this one year at the Booker Prize ceremony ;)

  3. Séamus, The Loser or Wittgenstein's Nephew are good starters, I think.

    Tony, that would be fun. The Booker was so serious.

  4. I hope to read the memoir and the My Prizes bonus after Woodcutters next year. Thanks for whetting my appetite for it--sounds as hilarious as I had anticipated!

  5. Some great books in store for you, Richard. Now you've mentioned Woodcutters, I'm reminded that Bernhard's trilogy of the arts is in the pipeline for me too.

  6. he did hate prizes but on whole the austrian lit set up that upset him ,I put correction up this week by him ,all the best stu

  7. Stu, true. And also he just hated most of the givers of prizes, specifically those connected to the 'establishment' or 'state'.