Thomas Bernhard, Holzfällen (‘Woodcutting’)

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Only if you’re really independent can you write really well…. I always lived from my own initiative, never was subsidised, no one gave a damn about me, to this day. I am against all subsidies, all patronage…”

– Thomas Bernhard

This is less hypocrisy than an outright lie. For the East German playwright Heiner Müller, Bernhard wrote as if he had been hired by the Austrian government to write against Austria. As Tim Parks has pointed out, Austria’s best known post-war writer not only accepted many awards and generous patronage but also had a sugar mammy.

Twice widowed, the wealthy heiress of a famous brand of chocolates, thirty-six years older than Bernhard, Frau Stavianicek became the writer’s protectress, mentor, substitute mother… She believed in his genius, was prepared to finance him when necessary, and was able and willing to introduce him to influential figures in Viennese society.

In 1984 Hede Stavianicek died. At least he was there at the end to care for her, to his great credit, but, in Bernhard, Austria really had a version of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, in which the first word in the play’s title starts as a verb but ends as a sinister adjective describing the central character’s fate.

Though no one would envy him his chronic illness or the cruelty of his family background, it so happened that Bernhard also had a gift for complaining, like another post-war English writer, John Osborne. Past the half-way mark in his Eighties novel Holzfällen, which means woodcutting and which is set on a day that involves both a funeral and a dinner party, I knew I’d have to return to the house in which I’d met the Mitterers (see Austria, a notebook #1). It meant reliving a dinner party they did not attend, in order to make a point about the universality of awful social gatherings, beyond events such as the ‘artistic dinner’ that is the main setting of Bernhard’s book.

Nightmare in Ballinterry: at five I drove up to Maggie’s. I hadn’t believed there would be quite so many Steiner types, musicians, homeopaths and general hippies there. I hadn’t guessed they’d all be coming to dinner. When I arrived at six, two Germans were busy in the kitchen. N’s off to NZ – the real reason for the party. M. (the maker of the lasagne) insisted she’s in Ireland for the climate (!?). Then Maggie asked me upstairs to look at some paperwork. Back downstairs, what felt like a horde arrived in stages. I was looking at some strange ham on the table and confessing ignorance as to its identity when some homeopathic twat called E. said, “It’s Parma. It’s a delicacy.” That was before the woman who’d brought the ham revealed that actually it was French and from a bull. In fact, several of the women were individually friendly but I couldn’t drink, with the car outside, and I suppose my tension rose in the long wait for the food. Both Maggie and I tucked into the nachos as an English guy called R. began strumming and picking across the table. He didn’t play anything. I was glad when some late arrival kicked his guitar over by accident as we all stood with pinkies entwined for the saying of hippie grace. In the finish I interrupted another homeopathic lecture in the corner to tell Maggie I just had to go. As for the fount of all this – the caretaker – he’s got shifty little eyes, that’s for sure.

André Malraux defined an intellectual as anyone who tries to live by the use of reason but experience relentlessly demonstrates the surrealism of life and most of the writers I admire have an underlying, unwritten thread in common. I cannot believe this is really happening. It is a mix of horror and amusement that enables some detachment in the face of the fact that everything is, as Mario Puzo pointed out, personal.

Another time, long ago, an uncle of mine was in an amateur play, after which a celebration dinner was held in a farmer’s house, where, before they all sat down, the seating arrangement began to look a bit tight. It was then that he noticed that a subtle attempt was being made to usher one cast member, a woman who was from a mere cottage, down to the kitchen to eat, on her own, with the excuse that there wasn’t enough room to sit at the table in the parlour. He protested, indicating that he’d leave if that happened. It didn’t happen, that night, but the pathetic provincial snobberies and the insolent slights they inspire will never stop providing inspiration for writing and folklore.

Past two hundred pages in Holzfällen, there was a third of it left to read. Mostly reported dialogue by then, it had turned into a rather good play since the Actor appeared, more than thirty pages earlier, to ramble on and on about Ekdal in The Wild Duck, even while slogging through his soup. Suicide was a theme – the funeral earlier in the day was for a woman who’d hung herself, in some detail – but it had turned blackly humorous, as in when the host Auersberger asked the Actor if working at Vienna’s Burgtheater wouldn’t give someone every reason to do that. Still, the reference to Austria having the highest suicide rate at the time (1980s) asked to be checked, not least after one character (Billroth) claimed that it was most common in the the loveliest places, such as Salzburg. Nowadays, as it happens, it’s practically no different from that of Ireland or Sweden.

With ninety pages to go, Bernhard had returned to the funeral and elaborated on its grotesque theatre by giving us more of the writer character Jeannie Billroth’s antics, such as collecting money from the other mourners, unbidden, in a cigar box, which she up-ended on the table before the horrified chief mourner in the Gasthof to which they had all retreated. Nevertheless twenty pages later Bernhard had lost his way again, mired in shit about Billroth and her female sidekick whom he suddenly decided to name and introduce. Who cares if they were on the state’s payroll? These cultural apparatchiks are everywhere.

Bernhard briefly returns to the grotesquerie when the drunken dinner party host waves his false teeth in the Actor’s face but, having introduced some more of the peripheral characters, the narrator is then guilty of the patronising twaddle of a grumpy old twat when writing of younger attendees who evidently fail to take it all so seriously. Their chief offence seems to be be not to have published anything.

Having rubbished the opinions of the young, the narrator then writes off the wisdom of age as elderly narrow-mindedness that just gets on his nerves. He thinks the way the Actor enunciates the words Wald, Hochwald, Holzfällen is hellsichtig (far-seeing) but this just reflects Bernhard’s mundane ambition to be a country gentleman. His lengthy explanation of why the Actor’s outburst – at best a how-f*cking-dare-you, human protest at Billroth’s cheek – has impressed him is just tiresome. Holzfällen simply peters out. The dinner table row isn’t a patch on the one about Parnell in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where a country’s soul is at stake.

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