thomas bernhard’s picture at the café bräunerhof in vienna, austria by val & vio
“in dread there is the egoistic infinity of possibility, which does not tempt like definite choice, but alarms & fascinates with its sweet anxiety.” —søren kierkegaard
…convalescing in the baumgartnerhöhe between the ludwig & hermann pavilions. compared to an imagined nephew named paul wittgenstein, bernhard wasn’t any better in his deadly lung condition. a madness beset with genius weighted down with a family name that’s still legendary for the analytic philosopher ludwig wittgenstein, paul’s uncle. a name like paul wittegenstein’s carried with it a sign of the viennese elite & his was discreetly flawed life. a name as sign of prestige offers credibility only so far, the person has a choice to live up to it or not. paul’s life was sick—mad, musical, semi-distinguished, & eventually broke. “it is characteristic of people like paul, who are at first merely crazy & are finally pronounced insane, that their intellectual fortune increases as fast as they throw it out the window (of the mind).” yet, there is a real paul wittgenstein (a talented one-armed pianist) with no resemblance to bernhard’s.
thomas bernhard’s life is near to his fictions. being sick of the lungs readied him for a life of writing. combing out the real from his story is anyone’s guess & we’re the better for the perplexity in these pages. the book is a single paragraph for one-hundred pages of comparisons & other remembrances that are close to plot-less. given that we’re told of the sanatorium, we are additionally given disparaging details about the doctors & psychiatrists “…latin is set up as an invisible but uniquely impenetrable wall between themselves & their victims. of all medical practitioners, psychiatrists are the most incompetent, having a closer affinity to the sex killer than to their science.” on bernhard’s terms few are spared the corrosive observations. paul is a classical music connoisseur & this is shared with bernhard in long untalking hours of intense listening to mozart, schumann, schoenberg, satie, opera &c., nevermind his fits of frothing insanity where paul could hug a person, as if to suffocate the love out. “grotesque, grotesque,” paul once said of the shared hospital circumstances, where we find him & bernhard. thomas bernhard is the writer as a character in is own book.
…although paul wittgenstein was a fan of fine music, he shared that passion with a taste for car-racing, that pastime should never let you forget that at times he was “…wearing a straightjacket & sharing some horrible ward with others like him.” a reader taken to the depths of unapologetic ennui might be entranced with bernhard’s insistences. the incantatory & repetitive sizing up of the aristocratic paul, to bernhard’s affiliations (& differences) easily fill pages “…like paul, i had once more overstated & overrated my existence, that i had exploited it to excess. like paul, i had once more made demands on myself in excess of my resources. i had made demands on everything in excess of all resources.” a life, a long series of complaints. a writer’s life compared to an insane, charitable, viennese eccentric. yes, a charitable streak that stripped paul of whatever fortune was left. paul was scantly taken care of by the family in the end, on the edges, in the margins, in the sanotorium & a pathetic apartment above the café bräunerhof.
bernhard tells of the back-n-forth of he & his friend all over austria & other parts of europe, apparently in search of well-being anywhere & nowhere, another place & home (or many homes as was the case for the crestfallen-with-a-stipend paul). from vienna to salzkammergut, altmünster, traunkirchen, nathal, bad hall spa & back again. in the country to the city, city-life & country-life, all as a matter of course. the bitter bernhard is quick to say of the outdoors “i hate nature because it’s killing me.” once paul is said to have jumped in a taxi from peterplatz, vienna with a single word to the driver: ‘paris.’
when bernhard receives the dreaded grillparzer-prize we are left with a taste for the garrulous disdain he harbors for the austrian intelligentsia. thomas bernhard is known as a ‘nestbeschmutzer’ (one who dirties his own nest) to the austrians. his excoriations of the austrian people won him few friends there. this reality shows through to the fiction. his castigations fuelled a pessimistic estrangement from bourgeois niceties & toward his unflinching look into the psychological & bodily pains of man. his art was a deterioration of men & of the mind. he was a man who saw the bleak way paul was living in that apartment over the café & with the rotting food by a dreary black & green velvet couch “quite deliberately, out of a base instinct for self-preservation, i shunned my friend in the last months of his life, & for this i cannot forgive myself.” a sufferable life thrust to a sudden, unexpected death of paul who was wittgenstein’s nephew, buried in bernhard’s book.