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Thomas Bernhard for life

In an interview from 1986, the late Austrian author Thomas Bernhard discusses the musicality of language, the eroticism of old men and the incurability of stupidity. By Werner Wögerbauer

Thomas Bernhard (1931 - 1989) is internationally acknowledged as one of the greatest 20th century writers. Bernhard spent much of his childhood with his maternal grandparents in Austria, where he later settled (he never met his father). His iconoclastic, repetitive prose won him both unconditional admirers and uncompromising critics. This major interview, conducted in 1986, has only recently been published in German.

Vienna, Cafe Bräunerhof, early on the morning of July 15, 1986. Thomas Bernhard had set a rather vague rendezvous for an interview. He was having his apartment redecorated, he said, "naturally" in white. He could not stand the presence of the workers in his home, causing him to flee to the coffeehouse in the early morning. When I arrive, he has already settled down, near the entrance, "where the air is better." He is walled in by mounds of newspapers whose pages he skims hastily, almost tearing them as he flips through. An interview? Yes, he says, he's in the mood today. But short and to the point.

Thomas Bernhard in Cafe Bräunerhof in Vienna, 1988. Photo © Sepp Dreissinger)

Thomas Bernhard: So, I'll just keep reading the paper, you don't mind, do you?

Werner Wögerbauer: Well, no, by all means.

You'll have to ask something and then you'll get an answer.

Does the fate of your books interest you?

No, not really.

What about translations for example?

I'm hardly interested in my own fate, and certainly not in that of my books. Translations? What do you mean?

What happens to your books in other countries.

Doesn't interest me at all, because a translation is a different book. It has nothing to do with the original at all. It's a book by the person who translated it. I write in the German language. You get sent a copy of these books and either you like them or you don't. If they have awful covers then they're just annoying. And you flip through and that's it. It has nothing in common with your own work, apart from the weirdly different title. Right? Because translation is impossible. A piece of music is played the same the world over, using the written notes, but a book would always have to be played in German, in my case. With my orchestra!

But when you ban future productions of your play 'Der Weltverbesserer,' (The World-Fixer) then that's something similar, you are concerned about the fate of your texts.

No, because 'Der Weltverbesserer' was written for a specific actor because I knew he was the only one who could perform it, at that time, because there was no older actor like him, so it came about quite naturally. There's no point having it performed by some asshole in Hanover, nothing would come of it. If there's going to be nothing but trouble, you shouldn't do it.

How do you explain the fact that you're taken far more seriously abroad than you are in Austria, that you are actually "read" abroad whereas in Austria you're considered primarily as someone who causes scandals?

That's because outside Austria, in the so-called Romance and Slavonic worlds, there's a greater interest in literature in general. It has an entirely different status which it lacks here. Here, literature has no value at all. Music is valued here, theatre is valued, everything else essentially has no value whatsoever. It's always been that way.

As soon as you even act friendly to someone on the street, people don't take you seriously, that's enough to make them take you for a clown. What someone like that does can't be of any value. It's like in family life. If you grow up in a family, perfectly normal, with all the usual childish fun and what have you, then for the rest of your life people tell you you're a charlatan, that it's no good, that the boy who does nothing but make jokes should complain about his grandmother's awful cooking, and that can't be any good. And that follows you to the grave. And it's the same with the state and the country as a whole. If you go about as a friendly person, you're through. People treat you like a cabaret artist and that's that. And in Austria, anything serious gets turned into cabaret, which takes the sting out of it. Any trace of earnest always ends up on the funny side – Austrians can only tolerate seriousness as a joke. In other countries, there's still a sense of seriousness. I'm serious person, too, but not all the time, that would drive anyone mad, and it would be stupid. That's the way it is.

The author on his favourite bench in Vienna, 1988. Photo © Sepp Dreissinger)

Your characters and you yourself often say they don't care about anything, which sounds like total entropy, universal indifference of everyone towards everything.

Not at all, you want to do something good, you take pleasure in what you do, like a pianist, he has to start somewhere too, he tries three notes, then he masters twenty, and eventually he knows them all, and then he spends the rest of his life perfecting them. And that's his great pleasure, that's what he lives for. And what some do with notes, I do with words. Simple as that. I'm not really interested in anything else. Because getting to know the world happens anyway, by living in it, as soon as you walk out the door you're confronted with the world directly. With the whole world. With up and down, back and front, ugliness and beauty, perfectly normal. There's no need to want this. It happens of its own accord. And if you never leave the house, the process is the same.

There is nothing but striving for perfection. You want to get better and better.

There is no need to strive for anything in the world, because you get pushed towards it in any case. Striving has always been nonsense. The German word "Streber" (striver – meaning swot or brown-noser) means something awful. And striving is just as awful. The world has a pull that drags you whether you like it or not, there's no need to strive. When you strive, you become a "Streber". You know what that means. It's hard to translate into another region.

Well, I know what it is.

You know what it means, but I don't think people in France know what a "Streber" is. I don't think they have them.

But this quest for perfection does play a role in your books.

That's the attraction of any art. That's all art is, getting better and better at playing your chosen instrument. That's the pleasure of it, and no one can take that pleasure away from you or talk you out of it. If someone is a great pianist then you can clear out the room where he's sitting with the piano, fill it with dust, and then start throwing buckets of water at him, but he'll stay put and keep on playing. Even if the house falls down around him, he'll carry on playing. And with writing it's the same thing.

So it has something to do with failure then.

What has to do with failure?

The quest for perfection.

Everything fails in the end, everything ends in the graveyard. There's nothing you can do about it. Death claims them all and that's the end of it. Most people give in to death at 17 or 18. The young people of today are running into the arms of death at age 12, and they're dead at 14. Then there are solitary fighters who struggle on until 80 or 90, then they die too, but at least they had a longer life. And because life is pleasant and fun, their fun lasts longer. Those who die early have less fun, and you can feel sorry for them. Because they haven't really got to know life, because life also means a long life, with all of its awfulness.

In your view, does this awfulness include eroticism and love?

Everyone knows what eroticism is. There's no need to talk about it. Everyone has their own sense of the erotic.

Reading your books, one gets the impression that you see no hope whatsoever in this domain.

That's a stupid question because nothing can live without eroticism, not even insects, they need it too. Only if you have a totally primitive notion of the erotic, of course, that's no good, because I'm always at pains to go beyond the primitive.

Could one say that you try to go beyond it in the direction of sisterly love?

I don't try anything at all. All nonsense. I need neither a sister nor a mistress. You have all these things within yourself, and sometimes you use it if you feel like it. People always believe that if something is not mentioned directly, it's not there, but that's nonsense. An eighty-year-old man who's in bed somewhere and who hasn't had this love you're talking about for fifty years, he too has a sexual life. On the contrary, his is a much more amazing kind of sexual existence than the primitive. I prefer to see a dog doing it, where I can watch and stay strong.

What kind of intellectual aims do you...

These are all questions that can't be answered because no one asks themselves that sort of thing. People don't have aims. Young people, up to 23, they still fall for that. A person who has lived five decades has no aims, because there's no goal.

You're always presented as a kind of loner in the mountains, the man from the farm...

What can you do. You get a name, you're called "Thomas Bernhard", and it stays that way for the rest of your life. And if at some point you go for a walk in the woods, and someone takes a photo of you, then for the next eighty years you're always walking in the woods. There's nothing you can do about it.

...and suddenly here you are in an urban context like this Viennese coffeehouse.

Urbanity is a quality you have to possess from within. It has nothing to do with the exterior. No. Nothing but stupid notions. But humanity has only ever existed in stupid notions, there's no helping it. There's no cure for stupidity. That's a fact.

Many of your readers, including so-called highbrow critics, have repeatedly subjected your books to negative readings.

I really couldn't give a damn how people read my work...

When people ring you up and say they'd like to commit suicide with you?

People hardly ever ring up anymore, thank God.

But would you go the other way and call yourself a humorous writer?

What's all this supposed to mean? People are everything. Each individual is more or less everything. Sometimes he laughs and sometimes he doesn't. People say it's all tragic, which is stupid too, because I...

Alongside your writing, does your work also involve reflecting on writing itself, as in the case of Doderer or Thomas Mann?

No, that's not necessary. If you're a master of your trade then you have no need for reflection. When you go out onto the street, everything works for you, you don't need to do anything, you just have to keep your eyes and ears open and walk. You don't need to think anymore, not if you're independent or if you make yourself independent. If you're uptight and stupid or if you're striving for something, then nothing will ever come of it. If you live in life, then you've no need to make any special effort, it all comes to you of its own accord, and it will leave its mark on what you do. It's not something you can learn. You can learn to sing, if you have a good voice. That's the one condition. Someone who's naturally hoarse will hardly become an opera singer. It's the same everywhere. You can't play piano without a piano. Or if all you have is a violin and you want to play piano on it, that won't work either. And if you don't want to play violin, then you'll just have to play nothing at all.

But when you describe yourself as a destroyer of stories, then in a certain way that is a theoretical statement.

I said that once did I, well, people say a lot of things in fifty years of life. The amount of stupid things people say over the decades, myself included. If people were always held to the things they say. Of course, if a reporter is sitting in a restaurant somewhere and he hears you say the beef's no good, then he'll always claim you're someone who doesn't like beef, for the rest of your life. Meanwhile, maybe you ate nothing but beef from then on.

A publisher once...

What is that, a publisher? I could put the question to you: What is a publisher (Verleger)? A bedside rug (Bettvorleger), there's no doubt what that is. But a publisher, without the bed, that's harder to answer. Someone who misplaces (verlegen) things, a muddled person, who misplaces things and can't find them anymore. That's the definition of a publisher, someone who misplaces things. A publisher, he misplaces things and manuscripts which he accepts and then he can't find them anymore. Either because he no longer likes them or because he's muddled, either way they're gone. Misplaced. For all eternity. All the publishers I know are like that. None of them is so great as not to be the kind who misplaces things. Who publishes something and then it's either ruined or impossible to find.

Does breathing play a role in your texts, in the sense of breathing rhythm?

I happen to be a musical person, and writing prose always has to do with musicality.

Breathing like with a singer...

Well, breathing isn't easy. Some people breathe from the stomach, some from the lungs. Singers breathe only with their stomachs because otherwise they wouldn't be able to sing. You just have to transfer breathing from the stomach to the brain. It's the same process. You have many little lungs in there, probably a few million. For the time being. Until they collapse. Because bubbles burst, and lungs collapse. There are those who still have lungs at 90. And there are those who have none left by the time they're 12, who just stand around like idiots. Most people are like that, 98 percent, maybe even one percent more. Every time you speak to someone, you're talking to an idiot, but charming. And because you're not a spoilsport, you carry on talking to people, going out for meals with them, being kind and nice. And basically they're stupid, because they don't make an effort. What you don't use wastes away and dies off. Since people use just their mouths but not their brains, they get very well-developed palates and jaws, but there's nothing left in their brains. That's the way it usually is.

You started out writing poetry.

Oh please!

What does that mean to you today?

Nothing whatsoever, I don't think about it at all. You don't think back over every step you've ever taken, do you? You'd have to set billions, hundreds of billions of thoughts in motion. Like with walking and running. You can't be constantly retracing where you've been in your mind, or you'll never get anywhere interesting.

The appearance of your volume of poetry entitled "Ave Virgil" in 1981, was that also the work of the publisher? Did he "misplace" that too?

Well, I found it and I thought to myself, this is actually a good poem, from that period, and that was it. He publishes everything I give him.

We've had an excerpt translated.

It's probably quite easy to translate. It's always just three words. It probably translates well into English, English and Italian, I'm not so sure if French would work. It's from 1960. 26 years ago.

In the passage chosen by the translators, one theme is Verona.

Oh right, "Schauplätze in Verona" (Scenes in Verona) is in there too, is it? That was actually a separate poem. It came from a book called "Einladung nach Verona" (Invitation to Verona) edited by Wieland Schmied, and at the time I was a big fan of Ezra Pound, so I wrote a kind of Pound poem about Verona. And that was probably, somewhere around then, yes, it was around the same time. It must have been before 1960. Thirty years ago.

Is the love spoken of in this poem not linked with the figure of the sister, not in a biographical sense but something like in "Korrektur" (Correction)?

What am I supposed to say to that? Love always has to do with everything. And I'm not my characters. I'd have to have killed myself hundreds of times and be perversity incarnate from five in the morning until ten at night. What a person is cannot be described. You can only describe what you have in your hand.

Far be it from me to confuse you with your characters.

No, no, wonderful. Like I said, I'm in the mood. Short and to the point.

(A friend of Thomas Bernhard's enters the coffeehouse and sits down at the table next to ours. Thomas Bernhard tells her he has spent a "terrible night", but that he did manage to get a few hours sleep in spite of the decoration work going on in his flat.)

But the decorators are only there during the day.

Of course. Writers work at night. It would never occur to a craftsman to pick up the tools of his trade in the middle of the night.

(A man enters the coffeehouse and greets Thomas Bernhard. They evoke their participation in a solidarity gala organized by Viennese artists in 1964 in support of "Tschauner's Stegreiftheater". Thomas Bernhard recalls playing the part of a gendarme.)

You deliberately keep your distance from other living writers.

No, not deliberately at all. It comes naturally. Where there's no interest, there can be no inclination.

Sometimes you hurl abuse at them too, like Canetti or Handke for example.

I don't hurl abuse at anyone at all. That's nonsense. Almost all writers are opportunists. Either they affiliate themselves with the right or with the left, joining ranks here or there, and so on, and that's how they make a living. And that's unpleasant, why shouldn't that be said. One works with his illness and his death and wins prizes, and the other runs round in the name of peace and is basically a nasty stupid fellow, so what's the big deal?

From a non-Austrian perspective, this comes as a surprise – in France, you are often named in the same breath as Handke.

Well, that breath will change. A new breath with come. But habits like that last for decades. They're impossible to eradicate. If you open a newspaper today, almost all you read about is Thomas Mann. He's been dead thirty years now, and again and again, endlessly, it's unbearable. Even though he was a petty-bourgeois writer, ghastly, uninspired, who only wrote for a petty-bourgeois readership. That could only interest the petty-bourgeois, the kind of milieu he describes, it's uninspired and stupid, some fiddle-playing professor who travels somewhere, or a family in Lübeck, how lovely, but it's nothing more than someone like Wilhelm Raabe. What rubbish Thomas Mann churned out about political matters, really. He was totally uptight and a typical German petty-bourgeois. With a greedy wife.

For me, that's the typical German writer combination. Always a woman in the background, be it Mann or Zuckmayer, always making sure these characters get to sit next to the head of state, at every idiotic opening of a sculpture exhibition or a bridge. Is that where writers belong? These are the people who always make deals with the state and those in power, who end up sitting at their elbows. The typical German-language writer. If long hair is in fashion, then he has long hair, if it's short hair, then his is short too. If the left is in government, he runs to the left, if it's the right, he runs that way, always the same. They've never had any character. Only those who died young, mostly. If they died at 18 or 24, well, at that age it's not so hard to maintain some character, that only gets hard later. You get weak. Under 25, when no one needs more than an old pair of trousers, when you go barefoot and content yourself with a gulp of wine and some water, it's not so difficult to have character. But afterwards. Then they all had none. At 40 they were all absorbed into political parties, totally paralysed. The coffee they drink in the morning is paid for by the state. And the bed they sleep in, and the holidays they go on, all paid for by the state. Nothing of their own any more.

Do you believe there is anything specifically Austrian about your texts?

I don't need to believe it. I'm Austrian, so it goes without saying. Not a matter of believing.

Could a German author write the same way?

Certainly not. Thank God. The Germans are unmusical, it's something quite different. And it's noticeable. Before you even open the book you notice it, even in the title, a quite different... it has a totally different stink to it.

Your style is so distinctive that it has prompted numerous pastiches and parodies...

If they can earn money that way and pay for a summer holiday, three days at a decent inn, unfortunately they mostly only go to places with Michelin stars, where they have to pay 2,000 Schillings for a meal, I wouldn't begrudge anyone that if they enjoy themselves.

But how does something new like this come into being in the old material of language? Are there traditions that one refers to, even if that means going against them?

There are always traditions, conscious and unconscious. From reading and being alive since childhood, all that comes of its own accord. And because you're constantly throwing out what you don't like or what's bad from the beginning, you're left with what you want. Whether it's stupid or not is another question. Whether or not it's the right path, no one knows, every individual has their own path, and for that person every path is the right one. And now there are four and a half billion people, I think, and four and a half billion right paths. The misfortune of human beings is that they don't want to take the path, their own, they always want to take a different one. Striving and struggling towards something other than what they themselves are. Everyone is a great personality, whether they paint or sweep streets or write or... people always want something different. That's the misfortune of the world.

You sometimes give the impression of biting the hand that feeds, for example when you describe Heidegger as a "weak-minded pre-Alpine thinker" and...

He didn't feed me. Why should he have fed me? But he's an impossible character, he has neither rhythm nor anything else. He lived off a few writers, he cannibalised them, to the last, what would he have been without them?

I was thinking of the word "Lichtung" (clearing).

That word existed before Heidegger, 300 and 500 years before. He was nothing, a philistine, gross, nothing new. He's a perfect example of someone who unscrupulously eats all the fruit other people have jarred and who gorges himself, thank God, which makes him sick and he bursts. Gets stomach ache.

You have spoken of a love/hate relationship with Austria. What do you still love here?

Love/hate relationship, the word is self-explanatory.

It contains the element of "love".

Probably. Love/hate? One is torn both ways. That's the best impetus you can possibly have in life. If you only love, you're lost, if you only hate, you're lost too. If you like living, as I do, then you have to live in a perpetual love/hate relationship with all things. It's a kind of balancing act. Being directly at their mercy would be deadly. If you like living, you don't want to be dead. Everyone likes living, even those who kill themselves, except they no longer have the opportunity. Because they can no longer back out. (looking at the tape recorder:) It's still running anyway, the drama is running, dramma giocosa!

Political reality in Austria is so provocative in itself that there's no more scope for provocation.

It all finds it way into the work somehow. There's no real need to worry about this either. It just flows in, as the saying goes. It makes no sense, like him over there, the stupid sculptor, to run out and shout and put up a stupid horse and talk a load of nonsense, primitive stuff, that's short-term impact, until the day after tomorrow.

You mean Hrdlicka?

Yes, yes, who was just here, he comes in here five times a day, he left as I was arriving, and now he's back... each to his own. Poor fellow, shaves his head, after two years he shaves everything off, and then he lets it grow again for three years. He's poor. It makes no sense. If that becomes visible in your work, then it lasts longer. Well, I suppose it's not easy for sculptors. They have to kiss the city councillors' asses otherwise they get no commissions, he can't make things and cast them at home in his living room. That's the difficult thing. Writing is easier because you don't need anything or anyone. You can observe, and then you do what you want with the results, only a typewriter, and if times get really hard, just a pencil. Or a ballpoint, you can get one for a couple of schillings.

Among other things, your new book "Auslöschung" (Extinction) is about...

An extinction.

...the problem of the old Nazis in Austria.

There is a genuine problem here. If you were to go somewhere and sit down and listen a bit, you could get quite outraged if you wanted to. Except there's no point. It's the same everywhere. In France too. The Nazis aren't only here. There are also Nazis in England and France and Croatia and who knows where else. There are attractive and unattractive people. But the unattractive ones just happen to be in the majority.

For you, is National Socialism a historic term or a personal concept?

That's clear from history. Nazi, everyone knows what that is. Jesus, everyone knows what that is, too. Christian. Whether you say Christian or Nazi, they sound roughly the same and they're both abominable.

Critics have sometimes described you as an anti-Enlightenment writer who despises humankind.

Look at the people who write that. They're just vulgar, primitive fools with no taste, who haven't the first idea about what they describe and read. No idea what they're actually dealing with. When it gets hot, they take off their jackets, sit around sweating with their fat bellies and braces, totally vulgar, drinking bottle after bottle, fraternizing with all and sundry. They're a vile mob. Who cares what they're called. Whether it's in Germany or... well, they don't have people like that there anyway.

When critics accuse you of proto-fascist tendencies...

Fascist, I don't like that, the word, but I've been called everything. The things I've been called. Communist or fascist, anarchist, everything.

What, in your view, is a conversation?

I don't usually have them. To me people who want to have a conversation are suspect, because that raises particular expectations they're unable to satisfy. Simple people are very good to talk with. When talking is supposed to become conversation, that's when things get gruesome! That fine expression "everything under the sun." It all gets thrown in together and then one person stirs this way, the other stirs that, and an unbearable stinking turd comes out the bottom. No matter who it is. There are collected conversations, hundreds of them, books full. Entire publishing houses live off them. Like something coming out of an anus, and then it gets squashed in between book covers. This wasn't a conversation either.

Yes, of course not.

It's always: "you've been listening to a conversation" and so on, and at that moment, everyone who heard it has already forgotten it. Because it was nothing. There's the famous "Nocturnes" series. They sit there for an hour and a half, there's a philosopher and a pseudo-philosopher, or mostly both pseudo-philosophers, one wearing a polo neck sweater and the other a tie, doesn't really matter because everything is contrived and stupid, and they just talk constantly and talk and talk. If you look in the Süddeutsche Zeitung at the amount of interviews they've published over the past three decades, no one gives a damn about a single word of all these conversations and books.

It's all just for the workers at the paper factory, so they have something to do, which might make some sense. Because they have a terrible life anyway and lose all their limbs, at 50 most of them have lost a leg or five fingers. Paper machines are cruel. At least it has some meaning, the family can get something extra. I live next to two paper factories, so I know how it is. In ten years you'll see how stupid it all was. But it all helps you get ahead, gives you something to live from, and life involves doing a load of nonsense. Life consists of one long succession of nonsense, a little bit of sense, but mostly nonsense. No matter who. Be it great, supposedly great people, all the usual names, me included, Cioran, aphorists. All pathetic and leads to nothing but the end. You can sit at home, put your books on the shelf, and when you look at them, you think: "Sad". But you still keep churning it out, like you get into the habit of drinking a cup of coffee in the morning, or tea. Tea is smarter, because you work less. The same applies to writing. You become addicted. Writing is a drug, too.

Has illness been a driving force behind your writing?

Yes, perhaps, possibly. Since it's been there with me throughout my life. And as you can see, some people are always critically ill but they go on living for ever. For all these people it's always been beneficial. An illness is always a form of capital. Every illness you survive is a great story, because there's no way anyone can steal your thunder with something similar. Only you shouldn't count on it, because one time it'll go wrong. Although it doesn't matter, because you're no longer around to notice. It's money in the bank.

In your latest books, the sense of menace has receded, and the prevailing atmosphere is one of quasi mathematical, geometric cheerfulness.

You get older, things change. Which is why there's no need to worry about a change of theme, because that comes naturally, with the experiences you have. A stupid writer, a stupid painter is always looking for motifs, although all he actually needs is himself, to follow his own life. He always wants to remain the same, but never to write the same. And that's the key, if there's a key at all. But if you approach it like someone selling trousers, and as something to make a living off, then that's what you'll end up doing.

You say you like talking to simple people.

It's always a pleasure.

And do you find such simple people in Vienna?

I've got simple people at home at the moment. That's most agreeable, even if they do make a mess. Their minds haven't been ruined by education.

But you have to pay them to come to your house.

I don't need to pay my simple people. I have hundreds of them where I live in the country and wherever I travel. They're not always easy to stomach either. You need both. It's important to master as much as possible. You have to be here and be there. If you only frequent one section of society it's stupid. You end up stunted. You need to take in and cast off as much as possible all the time. Most people make the mistake of remaining within a single caste and class, only mixing with butchers because they're butchers, or only with bricklayers because they're bricklayers, or with labourers because they're labourers, or counts because they're counts, or kings...

Or writers because they're writers?

Well, I'm my own, so I've no need anyway. No one can teach me or tell me anything, so I've no need to go to anyone. Because people in general are false and twisted, I go elsewhere. I don't need any writer. Sitting down with someone where there's nothing but envy and resentment from the outset, I've no interest in that, so I don't deal with writers.

Thank you...

What? Everyone lives until they die. And a great deal happens in between. But for most people it's of no interest. Mostly only for the person living it. The truth is that each person, even if he is interested in others, is interested only in himself. It's all about indirect benefits. It's the same everywhere, whatever it is, children's villages, the Sahel, hunger in Nicaragua. Mister Ortega puts on just as much of a self-serving theatre act as Mister Reagan, whichever way you look at it. People only do things they think will help them get ahead and keep going. Even if you become a nun or a monk, that's all you have in mind, you have no choice. In fact, if you want to be a monk and serve, that will make you especially ghastly and misanthropic. That's the way it is, I believe. With faith. As it were.


Thomas Bernhard's works have been extensively translated into English. Here a bibliography. His major novels include "Old Masters. A Comedy," "Yes," "Extinction," and "Gargoyles."

The interview, conducted in 1986, originally appeared in German in the Autumn 2006 issue of Kultur & Gespenster. A shorter version was published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung on October 22, 2006.

Werner Wögerbauer teaches in the German department at the University of Nantes in France.

Translation: Nicholas Grindell.

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Language without a childhood

Monday 23 January 2012

TeaserPicTurkish-born author, actor and director Emine Sevgi Özdamar was recently awarded the Alice Salomon Prize for Poetics. Coming to West Berlin in 1965, Özdamar first learned German at the age of 19. After stage school she went on to become the directorial assistant to Benno Besson and Matthias Langhoff at the Volksbühne in East Berlin while still living in West Berlin. Harald Jähner warmly lauds the author's uniquely visual sense of her acquired language and her ability to overcome the seemingly insurmountable dividing line through the city.
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Friendship in the time of terror

Monday 9 January 2012

Nadezhda Mandelstam's personal memories of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, her intimate friend, offer a unique and moving testimony to friendship and resistance over decades of persecution. Published only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the text is still unavailable in English but has recently been translated into German. A unique historical document, celebrating an intellectual icon in an age of horror. Portrait of Akhmatova by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin.
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Just one drop of forgetfulness

Thursday 8 December, 2011

TeaserPicThis year is the 200th anniversary of the death of German writer Heinrich von Kleist. The author Gertrud Leutenegger has a very Kleistian afternoon on Elba, when she encounters the Marquise von O in the waiting room of a very strange eye doctor.
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German Book Prize 2011 - the short list

Tuesday 4 October, 2011

TeaserPicEugen Ruge has won the German Book Prize with his novel "In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts" (In times of fading light), an autobiographical story of an East German family. The award is presented to the best German-language novel just before the start of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Here we present this year's six shortlisted authors and exclusive English translations of excerpts from their novels.

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Torment and blessing

Wednesday 28 September, 2011

Chinese dissident Liao Yiwu escaped into exile in Germany in July this year. His new book about his life in Chongqing prison has just been published in German as "Für Ein Lied und Hundert Lieder". Both book and author have a life-threatening odyssey behind them. I am overjoyed that Liao Yiwu is here with us and not at home in prison. By Herta Müller
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In the vortex of congealed time

Monday 12 September, 2011

No other European city suffered more in World War II than Leningrad under siege, when over a million people lost their lives. Russian literature delivers a rich testimony of the events which have been all but forgotten by the West. Only a few works, though, also do the disaster aesthetic justice. By Oleg Yuriev
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My unrelenting vice

Tuesday 6 September 2011

In this apology for the vice of reading, Bora Cosic describes the magnificent and fantastic discoveries of one of its practitioners – revealing how texts contain what we bring to them, how we sometimes read without reading and how books are not only found in books but many other places. 
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Potential market, no buyers

Monday 4 July, 2011

The most successful Croatian book of 2008 sold exactly 1,904 copies. Not what one could really call a market, although together the successor republics represent a single language community. A look at the situation of publishers and authors in the former Yugoslavia. By Norbert Mappes-Niediek.
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Head versus hand

Monday 27 June, 2011

TeaserPicThis year's German International Literature Award goes to "Venushaar", a Russian novel that starts out as a dialogue between an asylum seeker and an immigration officer, and opens into a vast choir of voices. A conversation with its author Mikhail Shishkin, a literary giant in his own country, and his German translator Andreas Tretner. By Ekkehard Knörer. (Image: Mikhail Shishkin © Yvonne Böhler)
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Cry for life

Monday 20 May, 2011

Algeria's youth: Frustrated, isolated and in the stranglehold of clandestine political structures. Young Algerians are rebelling against being locked in traditional political and social structures, but have no chance of a national uprising like that in Tunisia, says Algerian author Boualem Sansal. An interview with Reiner Wandler.
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Witness to intellectual suicide

Tuesday 3 May, 2011

TeaserPicOn what would have been Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran's 100th birthday, Suhrkamp has published a volume of his essays from the 1930s, "Über Deutschland". Effervescing with enthusiasm for Hitler and fascist ideas, they cast a dark shadow over his later writing. Fritz Raddatz wishes he'd never had to read such abominations and bids a former companion a bitter farewell. Photo: E.M. Cioran © Surhrkamp Verlag
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RIP Andre Müller

Wednesday 13 April, 2011

TeaserPicAndre Müller Germany's most insightful and most feared interviewer is dead. Elfriede Jelinek said of him in her obituary: "Andre Müller goes all the way into people and then he makes them into language, and only then do they become themselves." Read his interviews with Ingmar Bergman and Hitler's sculptor Arno Breker in English. Photo courtesy Bibliothek der Provinz
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A country on the edge of time

Monday 4 April, 2011

TeaserPicSerbia was the country in focus at this year's Leipzig Book Fair – its extensive literature seems to be bound up in the straitjacket of politics. Serbia is having a hard time with Europe, and Europe is having a hard time with Serbia. Although there are signs of a softening stance, the country is still locked up in the self-imposed nationalist isolation into which it manoeuvred itself as the aggressor in the Yugoslavian war of secession. A visit there inspires mixed feelings. By Jörg Plath
Photo: Sreten Ugricic
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