Author on Author Montenegrin author, Andrej Nikolaidis, talks of his love for the Austrian writer, Thomas Bernhard.
The first book by Thomas Bernhard that I ever read was “Der Untergeher” – ‘The Loser’. That was in the early nineties, when war was raging across what was once Yugoslavia, and very soon after the forced migration of my family from Sarajevo to the relative safety of Montenegro, where I still live to this day.
At that time, Montenegro was a troubled place of unprecedented hyperinflation. The central bank would regularly print new batches of notes worth 100 billion dinars, with which you could only pay for a coffee in one of the many bars that were crammed with men dressed in the uniforms of irregular soldiers; those who had just come back from the war in Bosnia and those who were on their way there. And this was despite the fact that the Hague Tribunal for War Crimes repeatedly insisted that Montenegro and Serbia did not participate in the war in Bosnia and Herzgovina!
The average wage in Montenegro at that time was 3 German Marks, which today would probably be the equivalent of about £1.50. I just want to illustrate that in those days I didn’t even have enough money to join a library, let alone buy a book. I cannot even remember how I came by a copy of ‘The Loser’, but whoever lent it to me didn’t get it back. ‘The Loser’ still sits on my bookshelf today, together with the other translations of Berhnard that have been published in Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro or Serbia.
Bernhard writes about society in collapse: society rotten with dishonesty, corruption and deep-rooted lies. Montenegro at that time was just such a society. The narrator of the story is caught up in a fundamental battle with that society, just like I have been in conflict with Montenegrin society since the day I arrived here. In the end, Bernhard’s narrator understands that his conflict with society is an externalization of an inner conflict: that his true enemy with whom he must fight to the death, is in fact his own existence. And that is what I understood, too.
‘The Loser‘ remains to this day, my favourite of Bernhard’s books, more so even than ‘The Cellar’ (Der Keller), in which I believe the final part (from the line ‘One day three of four years ago…’ to ‘That is all,’) to be the finest piece of prose ever written. Those final five pages of ‘The Cellar’ seem to me to be definitive evidence that it is possible to write dark, existential prose with poetic beauty.
In Bernhard’s opus, I have never found a reference to Paul Celan (although it is possible that I overlooked it), and yet I believe that in one fundamental way, Bernhard’s work is a prose response to Celan’s famous poem ‘Fugue of Death’ (‘Todesfuge’). We are reminded by the rhythm of Celan’s poem, just as the title itself states, of the ‘Art of Fugue’ by J. S. Bach, to which Bernhard’s prose also owes it rhythm. I believe it would not be unfair to say that without Bach there would not be Bernhard.
Celan’s poem searches for the roots of the Holocaust, what was it in the German culture that allowed the possibility of that indescribable horror?
“There’s a man in this house who cultivates snakes and who writes who writes
when it’s nightfall nach Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and walks from the house and the stars all start flashing he whistles his dogs to draw near
whistles his Jews to appear starts us scooping a grave out of sand
he commands us to play for the dance…”
(translated by Jerome Rothenberg)
What does a man write from his home? Philosophical essays? Prose pieces? Notes? To which tune do the Jews dance in their sandy graves?
Line by line, page by page, Bernhard digs down to the very last notes of the great composer, to the most subtle combinations of colour of the great artist, to the last punctuation point of the great writer, while posing the same question to his countrymen: Austria – how was this possible? Only to arrive at the most terrible of conclusions: it is still possible.
The last years of Celan’s life read very much like something from Bernhard’s prose. Celan’s illness, his frequent stays in hospitals (which reminds us of ‘Wittegnstein’s Nephew – “Wittgensteins Neffe, Eine Freundschaft”). His visit to Heidegger, from whom he expected so much and received so little (in line with Bernhard’s principle that ‘’one should write comedy as tragedy and tragedy strictly as comedy’’).
Paul Celan ended his life with suicide, like many of Bernhard’s characters (in ‘The Loser’, ‘Yes’, ‘Concrete’, etc.). He threw himself into the Seine on April 20th, 1970, and his body was retrieved from the river ten days later.
Andrej Nikoladis ,is published by Istros books in the uk I have reviewed The coming by Him here ,He has a new book due out from Istros later this year The son a sort of follow up to his last book his profile is here on Istros books and you can order his books here as well .Many thanks to Andrej for this He wote it over a weekend for me and Susan from istros translated it too english for me and Andrej approved this translation .