18 February 2017

Bernhard's escape

"The Cellar: An Escape" (Der Keller, 1976) by Thomas Bernhard, in Gathering Evidence: A Memoir, translated by David McLintock, collected in Gathering Evidence and My Prizes (Vintage, 2011)

[The work of a commercial apprentice] does not consist solely of the orderly routine of a grocery store like the cellar-shop in the Scherzhauserfeld Project: first of all unlocking and pushing back the concertina grille, then unlocking the shop door and letting the boss, the employees, and the customers into the shop, in which everything had been made spotless and all the containers topped up the previous evening, often by dint of hours of work put in after closing time—all of it involving the meticulous performance of numerous small tasks requiring conscientious devotion and a methodical, mathematically inclined memory. These jobs and hundreds of others equally important have to be carried out daily. In my day there was in addition the enormous task of dealing with the ration coupons, which required great precision and attention to detail; these had to be cut out whenever a purchase was made and stuck onto a sheet of wrapping paper every evening after the shop closed. Quite apart from continually lugging bags around and filling bottles and grading potatoes and sorting fruit and vegetables and making up bags of coffee and tea and slicing butter and cheese; quite apart from the feats of skill required to pour vinegar and oil and every other possible liquid such as rum and wine and fruit juice into every possible kind of bottle, all with impossibly narrow necks; quite apart from having to be constantly on the look-out for mould and decay, for vermin, for excessive cold and excessive warmth; quite apart from perpetually unloading all kinds of deliveries, sometimes making hundreds of journeys a day from the shop to the storeroom and back, cutting bread and making breadcrumbs, keeping the ham fresh and the eggs cool; quite apart from dusting the shelves daily and rushing to and fro between the refrigerator and the counter, between the potato boxes and the counter and between each of the shelves and the counter; apart from continually washing and drying one's hands and using knives that have to be sharpened every day and forks and spoons that have to be cleaned every day and jars that have to be washed out every day; and apart from cleaning the windows and mopping the floor and waging a continual war against flies and gnats and horseflies and wasps and cobwebs on the walls—quite apart from all this, the most vital requirement was never to slacken in one's attentiveness to the customers, always to be polite and friendly and obliging and to engage them in conversation, constantly keeping oneself in practice, in a word to satisfy them all the time and never, not even for a moment, to let up in one's eagerness to help: on the one hand to meet the wishes of the customers and at the same time never for a moment to neglect the interests of the business. Tidiness and cleanliness were imperative.

When he was 16 years old, Thomas Bernhard applied for a shopkeeper apprenticeship in Scherzhauserfeld Project, a notorious neighborhood of the poor and criminals, to cater to the needs of the "dregs of humanity". It was an about-face from his being a grammar school student. Fed up with the abuse of his schoolteachers and the "deadly institution" that was the educational system of Austria during the Nazi period—a system to blame for the suicide of many sensitive young students in boarding houses, fed up with the "educational trauma" he suffered from his schoolteachers, the teenage Bernhard just up and decided to become a grocer's assistant in one of the bleakest neighborhoods imaginable. But for Bernhard, this was all for the best. He felt he had graduated from "the school of philosophy" introduced to him at a very young age by his grandfather and had now entered "the school of absolute reality" wherein Herr Podlaha, the grocer, was his master and mentor on the practical aspects of life and "the art of human relations". In the cellar store, dealing every day with the demands of the common people, he had become adept at his work as an apprentice, and he had discovered that he had the capacity to become a people person. To his own surprise, he never realized he could adjust well to his job and even go through work with such infectious cheerfulness (cheerful Bernhard?!) and friendliness to customers (in a "most refreshingly extrovert fashion"!). Freedom, independence, and the exercise of free will—these were the things he most valued and the things he had acquired from his experiences in the cellar. His escape from the grammar school, his daily escape from his own impoverished and cramped household, his escape from the larger Salzburg society, from the immediate post-war malaise, an age he characterized as "inimical to the mind and the imagination." He made a dash for it, in a completely "opposite direction" from his school, and he felt exhilarated by this sudden decision. His stay in the cellar was such a formative phase in his life he had devoted a volume (the third of five chronological volumes in translation, the second in terms of publication in original German) of his collected memoirs recounting his work and trials in the cellar-shop. For his apprentice work he still had to attend a technical college once a week. This time he appreciated the instruction given by teachers who were actually local businessmen. As opposed to teachers in grammar school, the new teachers had "total concern with the present" and familiar "with what went on around them in the real world." These people of trade, having fought on the economic front, taught only what was practical, stuff of "immediate utility", in a straightforward, if rough, tone. As evident from the excerpt above, his recollection of the details of his apprenticeship showed how he loved and took pride in his work. This was a great period of learning for him. It was an apprenticeship on life. He had found something to do—a purpose—during the post-war years, "the bitterest time [his family] ever knew". Daily he looked forward to work in the store (limbo). Daily he left the depravity of his poor home (hell). The gaps in his school and home education were being filled by the practical education in the store dealing with the chaotic mass of poor and difficult customers exchanging their ration coupons for merchandise and goods. From his home to the cellar, his salvation was renewed each day he serve the lowly people of Scherzhauserfeld Project, the blot and the stigma of the Salzburg landscape. He did not find it degrading. He belonged to these people of low standing. In their daily transactions, he kept his dignity intact and his customers kept theirs intact. From limbo to hell and back, it was a privilege to find oneself with a purpose, productive, and gaining in self-confidence. To be able to read people and interact with them daily, I do not think there were more valuable lessons from an on-the-job training. He confessed that he owed a life lesson from his exacting boss, Herr Podlaha: "an insight into human possibilities I had never dreamt of, the alternative human possibilities." These alternative possibilities would play in many combinations in his fictional set pieces, would contextualize and foreground his works. Behind the despair, suicide, moroseness, self-destruction, and moping that characterize his literary work, the other possibilities—the will to live, to endure—exists. This singular motive drove him, Bernhard's "will to survive" against the social, economic, and cultural forces of the time. Against fascism and "the rules of the bourgeois social apparatus ... designed to destroy human beings." Bernhard, like his protagonists, was a survivor of war or some grave catastrophe. They found themselves in a story yet to unfold, ripe for more calamities—a story where the epidemic was not yet over, festering in cities overran by zombies. In their apocalyptic flavor, Bernhard's novels are zombie flicks (I can't help myself. I like zombie movies). His characters were plagued by artistic, philosophical, psychological, and medical difficulties, rooted from or symptoms of a defect in human nature: individual cruelty or a collective disregard for feelings and reason. They had to depend on their survival instinct. To ensure his own survival, Bernhard had become a fine observer of people and a lifelong learner of art, commerce, sales, musicology, and singing. Unlike his grandfather, Bernhard was able to expose the whole farce, "smashing all the props and ... annihilating the prop men and all the actors." To ensure his own sanity he created his brand of literature of doom and survival.

Had I not actually been through everything which makes up my present existence, I should probably have invented it all for myself and ended up with the same result.

The Cellar won for Bernhard the Literary Prize of the Federal Chamber of Commerce, apparently for "a totally new form of autobiography" but obviously for the prize-giving body's connection to the subject matter. He wrote a short essay on the prize ceremony which was translated in My Prizes: An Accounting. This slim book of essays and speeches was appended to his five-part memoir in the latest Vintage edition. The last two volumes of Gathering Evidence—"Breath: A Decision" and "In the Cold"—were further demonstrations of the novelist's survival skills. They were among his darkest and life-affirming prose works.


  1. "In their apocalyptic flavor, Bernhard's novels are zombie flicks"

    Nice! I've been wanting to return to Bernhard - another novel - but this is the first piece I've read about the memoir that really makes me want to read it.

  2. Well, he rants against the zombies (or flesh-eating populace) all the time. :)

  3. Fascinating in its mundanity! The Bernhard touch I most appreciate here is his equation of his job apprenticeship, limbo, with his home, hell. Exquisite! Anyway, I'd like to read some more of Bernhard's memoirs after I move on from Extinction, the last novel of his I bought. Thanks for sharing this teaser.

  4. Extinction, such a good title for a final novel by Bernhard. What could be worse than reading Bernhard or going through circles of hell (or limbo)?