Bernhard, Thomas

(1931–1989)
   Along with Peter Handke, Bernhard was the most widely known Austrian writer in both in the German-speaking world and elsewhere after World War II. Born out of wedlock in the Netherlands to an Austrian mother and father, who killed himself in Berlin in 1940, Bernhard’s life was troubled from childhood to death, both psychologically and physically. He spent most of his youth with his maternal grandparents, briefly in Vienna and then in Salzburg and its immediate environs during World War II. Bernhard had many artistic gifts. He received a degree in music from the Salzburg Mozarteum in 1957, the same year he published his first volume of poetry.
   An attack of pleurisy, then the onset of tuberculosis in his late teens, marked the beginning of his mordant worldview. His first stabs at creative writing took place in a sanatorium where he lived from 1949 to 1951; his entire corpus of drama, fiction, and poetry is full of medical and pathological referents, for example Ja (Yes, 1978). His lifelong contempt for state-run institutions also began early in his career. Bernhard lived his final 10 years well aware that he would never recover from the variety of respiratory and cardiovascular afflictions that beset him.
   Bernhard was seemingly careful to place his stories in specific locations, often in mountainous regions that could readily be taken for areas around the Salzburg of his youth. His first novel, Frost (1963), a picture of psychological decomposition set in provincial Austria, established his reputation as a serious and original writer. Nevertheless, the situations he explores could take place anywhere. The impact of his texts on a reader comes from the incongruity between the icy detachment of his descriptive prose and the desperate inner lives of his characters. In his fiction, personal identity is fleeting at best, and conventional situations suddenly turn into major psychological events. Although his characters are not always wholly mad, they are often on the brink of it. With no way to deal with their trouble, they withdraw from human society altogether. Often compared with the late 19th-century cultural critic Karl Kraus, Bernhard also laced his texts with caustic commentary on the social and aesthetic conventions of contemporary Austria, including its self-styled avant-garde. His later work took a wittier and more humanitarian turn, but it was hardly generous.
   Bernhard claimed that his work had little to do with the society and politics of his time. Nevertheless, his popularity in the 1960s and 1970s clearly stemmed from the widespread disdain for established authority and traditional behavior patterns among the youth of those decades. Bruno Kreisky, the dominant political force of Austria from 1973 to 1983, was in Bernhard’s unsparing words, “an aging, self-satisfied state clown.” The more criticism his work drew from the Austrian cultural and political establishment, the more widely it sold. Bernhard’s fiercely provocative play Heldenplatz (Heros’ Square) in 1988, the 50th anniversary year of the Anschluss with Germany, had a much more explicit agenda than did his earlier work. A critical study of Austrian anti-Semitism in which a Jewish academic family, headed by a father who sounds a great deal like Karl Kraus, leaves the Austria of Bernhard’s day, it reinforced the writer’s reputation as his country’s most biting contemporary critic. The emigration of the early 20th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein also lurks in corners of the script. Bernhard’s will forbade any future performances, publication, or public readings of his work in Austria after his death.
   See also Literature

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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