Thomas Bernhard: The Gnarly Work

Stephen Osborne

When faced with the gnarly writing of Thomas Bernhard (Frost, for instance, or The Woodcutters, Concrete, The Loser or Wittgenstein’s Nephew), readers experience again and again the difficulty of summarizing what they are reading, of thematizing what they have read. The work resists. In the summer of 197, over a three-day period, Thomas Bernhard delivered an informal monologue on his life and work for the filmmaker Ferry Radax. The result is the film Thomas Bernhard: Three Days, recently released (with subtitles) in DVD. A transcription of Bernhard’s meditations, with the same title, translated by Laura Lindgren and arranged with photographs in a generous and “non-flowing” layout by Blast Books, is designed to resist the reader while inviting the reader to resist not reading it. One response to Bernhard’s work is simply to quote from it. Here is a glimpse into the soul of the writer, or the soul of writing—where resistance resists itself:

“To make oneself understood is impossible; it cannot be done. From loneliness and solitude comes an even more intense isolation, disconnection... and you are always alone with your increasingly dreadful work. At the same time, the only joy—and the same time ever greater pleasure—is the work.

“The sentences, words, you construct like a toy, essentially, you stack them atop one another; it is a musical process.

“If a certain level should be reached, some four, five stories—you keep building it up—you see through the entire thing...

[considering his ancestors, many of whom committed suicide:] “ think of these people is as gruesome as it is pleasant. Just as when you’re sitting in the theatre and the curtain rises, instantly you divide the people you see onstage into the good and the bad—and not only into good and bad characters or people and individuals, but into good and bad actors.

“From the start there is nothing but resistance. The brain needs resistance. Resistance when you look out a window, resistance when you have to write a letter—you want none of it, you receive a letter. Again a resistance. You throw it right out; nevertheless at some point you answer. You go out on the street, you do some shopping, you drink a beer, everything is irritating; it’s all resistance... you read books— resistance... you must get up despite all resistance. You must leave the room, the paper materializes, sentences emerge, in fact always the same sentences.

“I am no writer, I am somebody who writes... I am a story destroyer, I am a typical story destroyer. At the first sign of a story taking form, rising somewhere in the distance behind mound of prose, I shoot it down.

“On the other hand... [silence]... What? Absolutely nothing comes to mind...

“The very authors who are the most important to me are my toughest opponents, or enemies. It is an incessant fight against the very same to whom you are addicted.

“It is the conversation with my brother that does not exist, the conversation with my father, the conversation with my mother. It is the conversation with the past that does not exist, and which no longer exists, which will never exist.

“This is daily life, from which you must distance yourself. You have got to leave it all, not close the door behind you but slam it shut and walk away.

“And everything must of its own accord recede and, without a sound, disappear.

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Stephen Osborne

Stephen Osborne is a co-founder and contributing publisher of Geist. He is the award-winning writer of Ice & Fire: Dispatches from the New World and dozens of shorter works, many of which can be read at


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