Prize-ification in Austria and PEI


By Jeff Bursey

When Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) won the Austrian State Prize for Literature in 1967 he felt tornMy Prizes between the fact that he would only receive the “Small State Prize” given to younger writers, and his desire for the money:

The Small State Prize, I said, is a dirty trick if you’re over thirty and as I’m almost forty it’s a huge dirty trick. But I said I’d sworn to come to terms with this huge dirty trick and I had no thoughts of declining this huge dirty trick. I’m not willing to give up twenty-five thousand schillings, I said, I’m greedy for money, I have no character, I’m a bastard too.

In “The Austrian State Prize for Literature,” from the first section, “Prizes,” of his latest book, many of Bernhard’s principles are tested, as they are in the other chapters in My Prizes named after awards he won. Here he must deal with the fact that his artistry is not regarded at a sufficiently high enough level. “All the twenty-year-old and twenty-two-year old and twenty-five-year-old fashionably dressed writers of radio plays I met on the street were winners of the State Prize. They behaved as if I had just been consecrated by them. It rankled.” His first novel, Frost (1963), though the subject of negative reviews in Austria, would go on, as did two other fiction works, to win important prizes. Yet he feels denigrated to be placed on the same level as those just starting on their careers.

Bernhard already detests the ministry of culture and its minister, Herr Piffl-Perčevič. The ceremony, when it eventually occurs after a delightful build-up, goes wrong once the minister starts speaking about Bernhard:

Naturally I couldn’t know if what the Minister had read about about my co-winners was correct, what he said about me was almost all wrong and crude and manufactured out of thin air. He mentioned, for example, that I had written a novel that takes place on an island in the South Seas, which in that moment when the Minister shared this information was absolute news to me.

Born in the Netherlands, Bernhard moved to Austria when very young. In his speech the minister firmly points out that Bernhard isn’t Austrian. “One shouldn’t hold their province against provincials, but when they appear in public with Herr Piffl-Perčevič’s unrivaled arrogance, one should try not to let it slide. Now I had the opportunity and I didn’t let it slide.” Listening to mistruths, aspersions and so forth he feels powerless. The minister’s words are met with applause. Bernhard’s acceptance speech is not. Indeed, it drives the minister to his feet cursing and threatening Bernhard before storming out noisily, followed by his shocked retinue and most of the audience.

Bernhard says he doesn’t understand why the audience became “restive”, which is coy at the least. His speech is included with some others in the second section of the book, “Speeches.” Here are some of the remarks the minister found objectionable:

There is nothing to praise, nothing to damn, nothing to accuse, but much that is absurd, indeed it is all absurd, when one thinks about death

…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.

We’re Austrian, we’re apathetic, our lives evince the basest disinterest in life, in the workings of nature we represent the future as megalomania.

A week before this occasion, as Bernhard relates in “The Anton Wildgans Prize,” he received the news that he would be the latest recipient of that award. (This is in 1967, not 1976 as the text states twice.) The same minister would be the guest of honor, but after the scandalous speech he cancels his appearance. The event is called off, but the prize money does reach Bernhard, and that’s what’s important. Even this isn’t enough, however. The amount of the Wildgans is 25,000 schillings, a seemingly munificent sum that comes from an association that has “millions or rather billions” but which seeks “to elevate itself to the lofty status of a truly exceptional Maecenas of Art and Culture and is even praised for this in every newspaper, instead of being denounced for their meanness with no regard for the consequences.”

Award ceremonies, whether funded by government or private organizations, often show disrespect to the people the award was created for. One needn’t look far for a local example. The PEI Book Award event occurs every two years. Last November, the winners for 2010 were Brent MacLaine (poetry), Steven Mayoff (fiction) and John Sylvester (non-fiction), two talented writers and a respected photographer. With barely any publicity, and no shortlist released ahead of time to create awareness and excitement, the awards went off in abysmal fashion: the envelopes given to the winners didn’t contain the cheques; the minister for culture, his culture commissar, and two of the three judges spoke, but the winners weren’t permitted to; and the cheap Christmas cookies looked like they came from a supermarket. One judge, who won the award in 2006, said that the fiction prize had never been awarded to a collection of short stories before Mayoff. Actually, in 2008 it had been awarded to a collection of short stories by a writer well known in the community who was sitting in the audience. After the politician and his commissar left, the audience (mostly writers or other artists), its bewilderment wearing off, had several whispered chats about the disservice done to practically everyone, including the “little publisher” patronized from the podium. Those writers whose works were considered deserved much better than the condescension shown them. But the evening didn’t belong to them, it belonged to the belittling judges and the inept organizers.

With that dim experience in mind, I read “The Grillparzer Prize” vicariously. Here, Bernhard and his “aunt,” a constant companion who features prominently in this book, are ignored by everyone when they enter the hall of the Academy of Sciences, and remain so until the last moment, when they’re spotted in the audience. He tells a factotum that he won’t go up on stage with his aunt until the president of the academy comes to his aisle and personally invites him. “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.”  While he’s on the stage the minister for sciences falls asleep and the president reads out names of works not written by Bernhard. He receives “a so-called award certificate of a tastelessness, like every other award certificate I have ever received, that was beyond comparison.” (That descriptor ‘so-called’ recurs throughout My Prizes.) At the end he is ignored once more, and when he hears the now awake minister wonder, “in a voice in which inimitable arrogance competed with stupidity,” where the “little poet” is, he and his aunt leave. It’s only later that he finds there’s no money in the prize, just the honour of receiving it. “My own humiliation then struck me as common impudence.”

The disrespect Bernhard has for prizes, and that Austria has for Bernhard, runs throughout the book. One might wonder what made Austria dislike Bernhard so, and vice versa. As Eric Ormsby succinctly put it:

Bernhard was not simply a gadfly…, but someone who unearthed, and relished unearthing, the most unsavory aspects of the national past: principally the Austrian enthusiasm for Hitler, its native son, and for the Nazis, as well as Austrian collaboration in the persecution of the Jews and other “outsiders.” Even worse, in Bernhard’s implacable view, the attitudes that made Nazism popular in Austria continued unabated in his native land. But the ultimate moral ugliness for Bernhard is that post-war Austria had become nothing more than a swindler’s paradise, a kind of corrupt and mendacious emporium (Geschäftshaus) where the lie reigns supreme and the only values are crassly mercantile. (see here)

With Kurt Waldheim as Austria’s president from 1986 to 1992, and Jörg Haider a popular right-wing figure there for many years, Bernhard’s criticism of his homeland’s tendencies retains its importance over time.

In My Prizes he’s never less than frank about valuing prizes so he can buy windows or a car or a house with the money. The three speeches and one resignation letter we’re given at the end show a talented and important writer snapping sharply at the bejewelled hand of authority, in whatever guise, as it gives money to one of its harshest critics. Of course, his literary and aesthetic abilities, as well as the controversial nature of his work in fiction and plays, provided the reasons juries awarded Bernhard prizes. He is regarded by many, in the words of novelist Gabriel Josipovici, as “Austria’s finest postwar writer” (see here). Reading him is a vertiginous, exciting experience on the intellectual and visceral level. The sentences go along unpredictably, skewing wherever the mind behind them goes; their kinetic energy is evident to the eye and present to the ear; their mixture of malice, shrewdness, tenderness and fine sense of discrimination illuminate what’s being spoken of while leaving dark pools of ambiguity and irony.

In “The Prize of the Cultural Circle of the Federal Association of German Industry,” set in 1967 (not 1976, as again misstated in the text), the following passage, smoothly translated by Carol Brown Janeway, does not discuss prizes; instead, Thomas Bernhard describes his time in a tuberculosis ward, where he is resigned to death.

I see the patients and their relatives, both with their hopelessness steadily tightening around their throats, the perfidious doctors, the bigoted nurses, all these stunted characters in the stinking, sticky hospital corridors, meanness and hysteria and self-sacrifice in equal measure, deployed only for the purposes of human destruction and I hear in the fall the thousands upon thousands of Russian cranes flying high above the hospital, darkening and blackening the afternoon sky and shattering the eardrums of all the patients with their shrieking cries. I see the squirrels picking up the hundreds of paper handkerchiefs filled with sputum and discarded by the lung patients and racing like mad with them for the trees. I see the famous Professor Salzer coming up from the city to the Baumgartner Heights, and going through the the corridors to excise the lobes of the patients’ lungs in the operating theater, with his famous little-Professor-Salzer’s elegance, the professor was a specialist in larynxes and halves of thoraxes, the professor came increasingly frequently to the Baumgartner Heights and increasing numbers of patients had ever-decreasing numbers of larynxes and thoraxes. I see them all prostrating themselves before Professor Salzer, although the professor couldn’t work any miracles and could only cut into the patients and mutilate them with the best of intentions and I see him with his meticulous planning and highly developed skills bringing the victims of his work to an earlier grave than they would have found of their own accord, although he, the best of the best in his field, could do nothing about it, quite the opposite, he and his art and his elegance were totally guided by his high, even the highest, ethics.

My Prizes: An  Accounting, by Thomas Bernhard, Trans. Carol Brown Janeway, 144 pages, Knopf, cloth, $25, ISBN #978-0307272874

Post a Comment

Your email address is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Offshore Drilling: Reviews In Translation

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is the author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His latest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that has appeared in various publications.