My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard (trans. Carol Brown Janeway). Knopf. 144 pp., $22.00.
I’ve never received anything resembling a literary prize, but I have been involved in handing out a few, I’ve watched a few more be given, and I’ve met plenty of people who have received one. It’s no exaggeration to say that every single one of these honorees were quite pleased with their prize. Any why not? Writers are a notably sensitive lot, ever-susceptible to flattery, dying for recognition; it is a significant moment in any writer’s career when they are singled out for high praise.
Any writer except for Thomas Bernhard, that is, at least according to the accounting he gives in My Prizes. In this slim collection of nine essays, each essay detailing one prize he received, Bernhard raises his disdain for all literary prizes to an art. (I do note, with some pleasure, that the author’s note at the end of this book states, “the winner of the three most distinguished and coveted literary prizes awarded in Germany . . .”) Bernhard rarely forgets to remind us that anything to do with prize-giving is beneath him. Again and again, he declares that all those unfortunates who would honor him with a literary prize are blockheads worthy of only the most tightfisted gratitude. In fact, in most cases Bernhard claims that the only reason he bothers to pick up the award is so that he can grab the prize money, which is immediately plugged into some debt or other.
Despite the titanic displays of thanklessness in My Prizes, Bernhard makes no secret of the important roles many of these prizes play in his life; perhaps this is his way of acknowledging that, whether or not he takes them as an honor, they are meaningful to him. One prize, for instance, allows Bernhard to buy his first home. Another gives him the means to own his first car. Yet another he links indelibly to his near-death by his lifelong companion, tuberculosis. Moreover, it is clear that these prizes stir up very personal feelings: if Bernhard merely accepted the prize as a cold, bureaucratic transaction, he would not go out of his way to insult the bestowers of no less than five of the nine prizes. (The worst insult Bernhard lands, in my accounting, is on the giver of the Austrian State Prize for Literature, who nearly punches Bernhard in retribution for his acceptance speech.) By contrast, in at least four cases those who give the prizes manage to strike Bernhard where it hurts. These slights most commonly take the form of gross errors in Bernhard’s biography during the award ceremony; almost certainly the worst of these errors is when the giver of the Prize of the Cultural Circle of the Federal Association of German Industry changes his gender.
Prizes, it seems, can be rather personal things, and one of My Prizes’ chief achievements is that is makes us feel this personal level while still leaving Bernhard’s mind deliciously uncertain. After reading his many autobiographical novels, any longtime fan of Bernhard will delight in the chance to see this author up close without fearing the intentional fallacy, yet that closeness will be appropriately tempered by several astringent layers of ambiguity, irony, coyness, and even outright obfuscation.
For an example, let us look to one of the book’s best essays, the one on the Austrian State Prize for Literature. Bernhard gets things off to a proper start by telling us that the prize is actually an insult, since the “Small” State Prize is usually only given to young writers, and he, who is pushing 40, must continually explain to his friends that he is receiving this lesser prize and not the “Big” prize. Despite the indignity, Bernhard will not refuse the prize, and this is where we begin to suspect that something is amiss. Bernhard first tells us that he will not decline it because “I didn’t want to expose myself by refusing it, for then everyone would have accused me again of being arrogant and megalomaniacal, and incapable of real self-judgment.” Yet just halfway down the page, Bernhard contradicts himself: “So, I admit, because of the prize amount of twenty-five thousand shillings, I came to terms with the prize.” Yet both of these rationales are again contradicted when Bernhard argues with his aunt, who tells him that if he really feels the prize is an indignity and that only “assholes” choose its winner he should give it up. He replies, “I’m taking the money because people should take every penny from the state which throws not just millions but billions out the window on a yearly basis.”
Bernhard’s reasons for taking the prize are not the only suspicious things in this essay. At the end of the award ceremony, Bernhard must make an acceptance speech. All throughout the essay he dreads making the speech, and he claims that he finally decides to sulk away with a few dull sentences on a philosophical theme. Yet when it comes time to give the speech, it is so caustic that it nearly causes a riot. Bernhard plays dumb: “I hadn’t got to the end of my text before the audience became restive, I had no idea why, for my text was being spoken quietly by me and the theme was a philosophical one.”
What is one to make of this profoundly difficult to parse essay? Were it one of Bernhard’s stories, we could simply enjoy the narrator’s inextricable contradictions and unmanageable paranoia—indeed, here Bernhard sounds nothing so much like one of his own protagonists. But this is autobiography and so a different standard is necessary. One wants to believe Bernhard when he ascribes nobler motives to himself, wants to trust his contrition when he tells himself, as he listens to the pontifications of a petty bureaucrat that he nicknames “his Holiness,” “this is the punishment . . . now you have your reckoning. Now you’ve made yourself one of them, the people sitting in this hall listening to his Holiness the Minister.” Yet after Bernhard’s contradictions and equivocations this gentle acceptance of his punishment feels too easy. Were this a story and not an essay, these logic-pretzels would have to be taken in a wholly different way. But knowing that this is the legendarily irascible, clever, and paranoid Bernhard talking about himself, a different accounting is necessary. Even as we feel close to the human beneath all of these rationalizations and evasions, we must remember that this is how Bernhard wanted to paint himself—both to his audience and to himself.
Although not all of the pieces in My Prizes reach the complexity of the Austrian State Prize for Literature essay, most of them do leave the reader with this quandary. At once we feel very close to elements of Bernhard’s personality, yet very far away from what might be termed “the true Thomas Bernhard.”
None of the essays in My Prizes quite reach the achievement of Bernhard’s better fiction, but these pieces nonetheless offer ample evidence, in miniature, of why Bernhard was such a potent stylist. Here we see the obsessive repetition by which he pursued a sort of literary cubism, and as with the fiction this style leaves the feeling that every word of every one of Bernhard’s slightly different recapitulations of the same thought has been chosen with extreme care. Try on this marvel of leitmotif and repetition:
It had always been my wish to have a house to myself, and even if not a proper house, at least walls around me in which I can do what I want, permit what I want, lock myself in if I want. So, I thought, I’ll use the prize money to get these walls. . . . Maybe for seventy thousand I’ll find the right set of walls I can lock myself up in, I wasn’t thinking about a house when I thought about a property for myself, I thought about walls and I thought about walls in which I could lock myself up.
There is something chilling and particularly apt about Bernhard reducing his home to a set of walls. The idea that, for Bernhard, a home is not a refuge, nor a hearth, nor even a structure with a ceiling, but only just a set of walls; the idea beautifully seasons his misanthropia with a hint of delusion. Yet even better than Bernhard’s use of walls is his repeated insistence that with these walls he can “lock myself up.” One shivers while reading that.
Bernhard’s strength was his ability to pick just the right word, and then to play it again and again. This, combined with the high expectations Bernhard had of his readers, leads to some amazing telling details. When he’s on his game, he never embellishes them with unnecessary adjectives, and he lets them do the work of whole paragraphs of exposition. Who else but Bernhard would think of the following image: “it must be giving my enemies on this jury a fiendish pleasure to knock me from my pedestal by throwing the Small Prize at my head.” The bit about the prize being thrown at the head particularly lingers.
Bernhard originally wrote these nine short essays in 1980, and they reach us now in English by way of translator Carol Brown Janeway, who herself is helped by a long overdue surge of interest in one of Europe’s most distinctive postwar writers. Janeway’s translation compares well with the translations made by Sophie Wilkins (Correction), Jack Dawson (The Loser), and Martin Chalmers (Prose), although the prose here appears easier quarry than in those books. Nonetheless, this is an excellent, fun volume for anyone interested in either Bernhard’s writing or the man behind it.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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