I’m Not Going to Badmouth Anybody At All
Nobody is objective enough to be able to size another person up in any way. Whenever somebody does that, he’s doing it out of interested motives: either he praises the other person out of a need for self-preservation or he disparages him. It’s always a matter of diplomacy. If you were to ask Pollini, “Signore Pollini, what do you think of Mr. Benedetti-Michelangeli?” he’d either give you a box on the ears or simply find it shocking. You can’t answer a question like that.
Only when you’re really old, like Rubenstein, for example, can you say, “Everything but what I do is a pile of shit.” And I’m also totally convinced that he is absolutely the best. And so he can say that without breaking a sweat. And once he’s said it three times, it’s completely indisputable that he still leaves all the young people trailing in the dust and is better than them. But then he dies and somebody else is just as good as he was.
Of course as a young person you want to be published everywhere. So you write and write and force open publishers’ doors and want to get printed in every newspaper. When I started I was of course obsessed with things like that. I entered every prize competition; I certainly tried to win the Trakl prize five or six times, but it always ended up going to [Gerhard] Amanshauser or whoever. Of course I also went to the Youth Culture Week, and ten of Amanshauser’s poems were read there along with a ten-line one of mine; it was always nothing but degradation and rivalry, and then you want to get into print, and then, good Lord, I can still remember, I was so proud when a poem made it into the Münchner Merkur; at the time I thought, “This is really a pinnacle. I really think it is.” I sat down in the Mirabellgarten, I opened up the paper; I was really fascinated first of all by the poem, because I thought, “This is the best poem, not that’s ever been written—that would be an exaggeration—but of my time”; that’s what I thought. “And in fact everybody who’s walking by me now knows that I’m the one who wrote this great poem. This is happiness for example.”
I did that, sure, I certainly did it for ten years intensively, greedily in fact; I was game for anything back then, at the beginning, in my age of poetry, and then when I hit forty, it was over. I traveled pretty much everywhere, and did radio, and Lord knows what all else I did. And of course it was also my livelihood.
Suddenly it all horrified me, because I said to myself, “I can’t take this anymore.” If you take a good look at them, you’ll see that of course they’re always the same thing. I read aloud something that I’m already horrified by myself and that already hasn’t got anything whatsoever to do with me anymore, because of course it’s all behind me now. And because even by then I didn’t need the money very badly any longer, and what’s more I live—of course I don’t spend very much money; of course I don’t lead the kind of life people like that normally live, I don’t do that, of course I hardly really need anything—so there wasn’t any reason for it anymore then and it was over. And as for the prestige, that turns sour really early on; it went off right away. It went off really quickly, and that whole phony business with those prizes and the brouhaha, it’s all truly ghastly.
It was even that way with the Büchner Prize; it really was nothing but atrocious, and even though it was twenty years ago, it’s still atrocious. People don’t understand this, and so despite it they invite you through your publishers, or directly, to go here or there, to do this or that, and then I say no, and for years I’ve been saying no to my publishing firm; they don’t understand it, because they’re naturally all the same in that they crave all of that and are happy to get it and go running after every merit badge. Horrible.
It’s really not only shameless and vicious but also idiotic on the part of these people to go flocking to all that when they know beforehand what it amounts to. Namely something totally atrocious. In any case, you obviously can’t form an opinion of any piece of literature just by listening to somebody read a passage from it. It’s a total waste of time, because that’s not something you can take in acoustically at all. You can take it in, but you can’t form an opinion of it. And just think of the creatures who sit through it. The whole thing is pure idiocy. But of course such things have always existed, and they rise to the surface and then vanish again. And what are a hundred thousand schillings? That’s really an insult as well. I’d say that—why not?—that they should give out a million schillings; that’s how much a young writer should get from them. Then he’d either be finished or he’d actually get something out of it. That’s small change for a national government. Our government, which throws billions out the window, could easily shell out some money for such things twice a year. Of course that’s nothing, a hundred thousand schillings, right?—after all, [Marcel Reich-]Ranicki makes that much in a month. He gets more, actually, namely a hundred and ten thousand schillings. That’s just ridiculous. And what sort of people are they, anyway? He goes to the festival with his wife and she wears a long evening gown and he talks about literature there and then listens to Cosi fan tutte. He waxes enthusiastic over a glass of wine at the Moser Wine Bar and thinks it’s simply grand. Of course it’s all idiotic.
For fifteen years I’ve been throwing away everything that has a veneer of officialdom or anything like that. I read through it because I find it interesting, and then I throw it away and naturally I don’t reply to any of that stuff either. It really astonishes me that even though I’ve been throwing everything away for ten years, stuff still keeps coming. It’s thinning out overall, but I still keep getting naïve direct invitations. They’re clueless: “we’d like such and such, and we’ll pay you this much, and please get in touch with us”…I think to myself, “How wretched can these things get?”
I don’t pay any mind whatsoever to any of it anymore. I chuck it all into the trash can. I’m constantly getting invitations to go to conferences in Santander, in Salamanca or Madrid or wherever; it’s all just atrocious. It’s a meeting of mediocrities whenever these kinds of people meet. They stuff their faces for eight days straight; they have a chauffeur-driven car at their disposal; they’ve booked a suite at the Palace Hotel. So they can afford to wait a good long time for a reply from me.
They really don’t believe—it’s really quite bizarre—they can’t imagine that anybody wouldn’t be dying to go someplace for free for eight days. The very idea of somebody picking me up at the airport—somebody I find repulsive to begin with, and who I have to walk around with afterwards (of course I’ve plotted this all out in advance), and whose wife is patiently waiting for us and has cooked a dinner for me in advance—it’s simply ghastly, and you really can’t pay a person enough to put up with it. Because once you’re there you’re trapped, and you’re being led around everywhere, and you’re knackered for weeks afterwards.
Take for instance the P.E.N. Club. Of course I have nothing to do with it; of course I’ve never been to anything having to do with it without leaving straight-away. So the P.E.N. Club, what’s the deal with it? I was supposed to have dinner there with [Hilde] Spiel; she was staying with some acquaintances of mine, and I was staying with them too; then they told me that Spiel was on her deathbed. On Sunday I was at the Kobenzl; I was getting up to leave after dinner, and she walked in as fresh as a daisy with her children and grandchildren. So I think it’s a pretty strange world. In America for a couple of weeks, then she was in Bled, where there was another stupid P.E.N. convention. Of course it’s a moronic organization in any case. They’re just a bunch of busybodies who spend a week in some nice place twice a year; it’s completely pointless. And subsidized by the State; they get their five-star beggar’s cot. It’s all atrocious.
But I’m not interested in other people anyway. I really couldn’t care less about any of them. I’m basically just not a clubbable person. I just can’t participate in such things and such schmoozing-sessions.
You won’t ever find me at any of these gatherings, like the P.E.N. Club conventions, where there are hundreds of attendees. Because of course it’s all nonsense and because it makes no difference whether these people drink and eat themselves under the table in Moscow or in New York. Or in the Philippines or in Nicaragua. They’re all horrible people who can’t deal with being on their own.
So they get themselves invited somewhere! At the moment it’s fashionable. Because then the first thing on their mind is always: “And Umberto Eco has already said yes.” Who else have they got anyway? Norman Mailer. It’s insufferable, because you can’t just travel to someplace; what the hell are you going to do there? It’s so ghastly, gruesome, that this is their world.
I haven’t accepted a single prize in fifteen years. But most of them are quite shrewd, because they ask you in advance. But then again it’s stupid, because then they try to find somebody else. Of course honor is a stupid concept anyhow. It only means anything if you’ve got no money or you’re young, or if you’re old and you’ve got no money. When you’ve got an income you can live on, as I have, you really don’t need to accept any prizes. Of course honor isn’t worth a damn; of course it’s just nonsense. I don’t know of anybody who doles it out who isn’t horrible. When I picture Canetti standing at the top of that flight of steps in his tie and tails, and the king sitting there with his licked-clean dinner plate in front of him—nobody paid any attention to the poor weenie’s speech.
I’ve already been nominated twice for the Nobel Prize for literature but by the Germans, not by anybody here. Again it’s especially interesting, of course, that the president of the German P.E.N. Club has nominated me twice, because they apparently haven’t been able to find anybody else out there, and then afterwards, well, he’s had no luck. But of course I’d be happy to win it so that I could then not accept it, but you can’t turn down something you haven’t been offered.
They’re just a bunch of pathetic clowns. What the hell can you say about them? Absolutely nothing, because you know them of course. Of course that stuff plays a role everywhere. I can’t show up there and find fault with stuff, and I push my way through, and then [Gert] Voss is sitting there in tie and tails—reportedly, I’ve only heard about it, not seen it—at the opera ball, in one of the boxes; stuff like that is just off-limits. You really can’t have anything to do with it.
Or picture to yourself a prize award ceremony in Bolzano. So the author accepts the prize and is just standing there on stage, then I made a speech, and then, this is the most shameless thing that’s ever been done anywhere, they hosted a banquet for five hundred people, so I didn’t show up—this is all documented, you’ll get an even better picture of it there—and I thought to myself, “How ghastly.” Everybody there was bowing and collecting their measly checks; horrible.
I’m not going to badmouth anybody at all. But of course almost all writers are pure opportunists. They either hang to the right or to the left; they march this way or that and so on, and that’s how they make a living. But it’s simply unappetizing. Why shouldn’t one say that? One of them works with his illness and with death and wins his prizes, and the next one runs around campaigning for peace and is basically a vulgar, stupid lummox. What’s the big deal?
Whenever you open a newspaper nowadays, you almost always read something about Thomas Mann somewhere in it. He’s been dead for thirty long years, and it keeps coming back, non-stop; it’s really insupportable. What’s more he was a petit-bourgeois writer, an abominable, unintellectual writer who wrote exclusively for petit-bourgeois types. Of course only petit-bourgeois types are interested in a milieu like the one he describes. Of course it’s unintellectual and moronic. Some fiddling professor who travels to some place, or a family in Lübeck, great! But it’s really nothing more than Wilhelm Raabe. You’ll always find something about Thomas Mann, be it in Le Monde or somewhere else. To think of the things the guy actually wrote about politics! He was completely uptight and a typical German petit-bourgeois type. With a golddigger of a wife. That for me is the usual mix you get with German writers. Whether it’s Mann or Zuckmayer, they always have wives in the background. They’ve always made sure that they’re sitting next to the president of the republic at every stupid sculpture exhibition or bridge opening. What business do writers have being there? They’re people who always make deals with the government and the powerful and sit on either their right or on their left. The typical German-speaking writer. When long hair is fashionable, they have long hair, when short hair is, theirs is short. When the government in power is leftwing, they run to the left, when it’s right-wing, they run to the right. It’s always the same. Of course not one of them has ever had any character. Except for the ones who’ve died young, for the most part. If you’ve died at the age of 18 or 24, it’s obviously not all that difficult to maintain a good character. Of course it’s only later on that it gets difficult. That’s when you get weak. Until you’re 25, when nobody needs anything but an old pair of trousers and when you run around barefoot and are content with a sip of wine and water, it’s not so difficult to have a good character. But later on! Then not one of them has got one. By forty they’ve already become completely paralyzed and have been absorbed into political parties. And the coffee that they drink with breakfast is paid for by the government, and so is the bed they sleep in, and even the vacation they take. The government of whatever country they’re from pays for all that stuff. So of course they haven’t got anything of their own anymore.1
Heidegger as well; the guy was just impossible; he had no sense of rhythm or anything else. He learned some tricks from a couple of writers, and he milked them to the very end. What would he have been without them? He was a philistine, a fatso. It’s nothing new, it’s a classic example of somebody who unscrupulously eats all the fruits of other people’s labors, and who overstuffs himself, thank God. As a result he feels sick and he drops dead.
Or take the fact Ria Endres and types like her are totally unfeminine; of course I can’t do anything for them. A woman who is genuinely natural, meaning like everybody’s idea of a woman, would never write and talk such bilge. She wouldn’t get so worked up about something like that either. Of course she’s got to get completely weird and wrongheaded and wrongly educated and screwed up so she’s capable of becoming a German professor. Of course you only become one of those when you’re already stark raving mad and spastic and are looking for a way out. Of course people don’t become German professors because they love literature or art but because all the other possibilities like being a chauffeur or a baker or a locksmith are completely out of their reach. Or because they’re bone idle or too proud to work at jobs like those. It’s nothing but a last resort, isn’t it? One that’s of no use to anybody and is completely vacuous. But it also leads to a pension, quite an early one at that.
I was very fond of Bachmann; she was just a clever woman. A rare combination, no? Most women are stupid, but tolerable and in certain circumstances charming, even clever, but rarely.
Sure, she experienced quite a lot of things and was acquainted with quite a number of milieus, from the top to the bottom of the social scale, from the bottom to the top, and you pick up a certain idea of things from that. You’re only ever the final product of what you’ve been through, what you’ve experienced and seen. And the more intensively you’ve looked at something, the farther you’ve withdrawn from it, logically speaking. Seeing more means running farther away. Because it keeps getting more dangerous. The clearer a thing becomes, the more abhorrent it becomes. And then you just take to your heels; it makes no difference whether you’re running away from literature or people or even nature—that’s the way it is. When the lens is a bit unfocused, you prefer to stay put. The moment you make anything clear to yourself, you just instinctively withdraw. So it’s just not true that when you get closer to something it all gets clear and bearable and cozy; actually, the exact opposite happens. It’s probably some self-preservative instinct on nature’s part. Otherwise it would just pack up and shut down. Of course we don’t know what it is. The collective wisdom of all the Nobel Prize winners put together: if you put everything they’ve all thought together in a blender and press the button, you end up with a heap of drivel. Nothing worthwhile comes out of it. Apart from some old people with a sash around their neck and a ribbon on their lapel and some tasteless villa somewhere and tons of invitations to chancellors’ and presidents’ offices; that’s the only thing that comes out of it. And fancy dinners.
Or take Freud. I was a witness when the works of Freud were sold in London to Fischer Publications for 100,000 deutschmarks. That’s my connection to Freud. Right, so a hundred thousand deutschmarks; then they made a couple of million off of them. And they immediately fired the guy who wangled them the contract, so he doesn’t have a position at that publishing house anymore. Nobody would pay such a sum for them now. There are other fashion plates around now; now they’re called Popper and whatnot. They last for eight, nine years, and then others come along.
Freud himself was a real weirdo. My aunt went to school with Freud’s daughter. She could tell you lots of stories about how she was always pulling the wool over her old papa’s eyes. He was a relatively good writer, meaning not an especially good one, with a forceful imagination, and he set in motion something that humankind got hot and bothered about in its usual way for a couple of decades. But it’s not any more significant than what everybody else has [come up with]…
- The text of this entire paragraph is substantially identical to a passage in Werner Wögerbauer's 1986 interview with Bernhard.
Translation unauthorized but Copyright ©2017 by Douglas Robertson
Source: Kurt Hofmann, Aus Gesprächen mit Thomas Bernhard (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991), pp. 93-105.