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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography / literary criticism


Thomas Bernhard

Gitta Honegger

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To purchase Thomas Bernhard

Title: Thomas Bernhard
Author: Gitta Honegger
Genre: Biographical
Written: 2001
Length: 308 pages
Availability: Thomas Bernhard - US
Thomas Bernhard - UK
Thomas Bernhard - Canada
Thomas Bernhard - India
Thomas Bernhard - Deutschland
  • The Making of an Austrian
  • Includes a Chronology and over forty photographs

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good overview of Bernhard's life and introduction to his work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 12/2/2002 Murray Bail
Boston Review . Summer/2002 Jason M. Baskin
The Independent C 25/2/2002 Martin Chalmers
The New Criterion A 2/2003 Eric Ormsby
TLS . 13/9/2002 Leo Lensing
Die Welt . 6/12/2003 Ulrich Weinzierl

  From the Reviews:
  • "Readers interested in Bernhard's life will probably skip her discussion of the novels and plays, or else stare in disbelief at the Freudisms leaping off the pages. (...) Among the punitive judgements there is interesting information." - Murray Bail, The Age

  • "Although Honegger offers little in the way of new or previously unavailable material (due in large part to restrictions in his will) she does provide a much needed synthesis of available information on the author (.....) The result is a biography written wholly in the spirit of its subject." - Jason M. Baskin, Boston Review

  • "Sadly, although the author, an Austrian-born American academic, has been industrious in researching Bernhard's life and works, her book cannot be recommended to anyone looking to understand Bernhard's importance. (...) There is a more modest and useful biography struggling to get out from under the pretention and sloppiness." - Martin Chalmers, The Independent

  • "(S)he has an especially fine feel for Bernhard’s theater. She is equally astute and clear-sighted in pursuit of her exceedingly slippery subject, delighting in his contradictions but rarely blinded by them (.....) Honegger writes well and often quite wittily." - Eric Ormsby, The New Criterion

  • "Inevitably, the tendency to interpret everything, from the literary works to the last will and testament, as performative acts comes to seem inflationary rather than illuminating. (...) Not surprisingly, Honegger, who is also a professor of drama, is at her best when she focuses on explicating the contexts of Bernhard's dramatic production" - Leo A. Lensing, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Gitta Honegger beweist einen scharfen Blick für wesentliche Details und Bezüge und nimmt in der Regel kein Blatt vor den Mund. Bernhards homoerotische Neigungen erwähnt sie mit schöner Selbstverständlichkeit, ohne jedoch Genaueres zu wissen oder preiszugeben. Sie schildert schlüssig, wie jemand wird, wer und was er sein will." - Ulrich Weinzierl, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Austrian author Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) was widely-acclaimed as both a novelist and playwright. Popular and -- especially in his native Austria -- controversial, he also led a curious and interesting life. Readers of his work might be familiar with some of it: his autobiographical quintet of books (published in English in one volume, as Gathering Evidence), cover his childhood, youth, and first steps towards becoming an author. Other novels are also (though far less obviously) autobiographically tinged, covering later periods in his life. Still, the man behind the books remains largely unknown in the English-speaking world.
       Gitta Honegger's book offers a solid biographical introduction to the man (and some of the controversies around him), while still focussing primarily on his work. Honegger strikes a good balance here, and given the dearth of other information about the author available in English Thomas Bernhard is a welcome study.
       Bernhard is not unknown in the United States. His work has been received with considerable critical acclaim, and much of it is available in translation (much of it from the University of Chicago Press). Still, he remains less read and has had less of an impact than in Europe. In the German-speaking countries, especially, he is also well-known as a dramatist; in the United States, where few of his plays have been performed, he is often recognized only as a novelist. (Bernhard has also not been ideally served in translation -- a half dozen or more translators (including Honegger herself) have rendered various works, making for anything but a distinctive voice in the English version of his texts.)

       Thomas Bernhard basically proceeds chronologically, while still avoiding simply being an account of Bernhard's life. Each chapter focusses fairly specifically on certain events and works, highlighting various aspects of the complex character. In sum it adds up to a convincing portrait of man and artist (though one perhaps wishes for more detail about certain events).
       Also included are a number of "excursions" -- longer asides interrupting the text, elaborating on concepts central to understanding Bernhard. All have to do with the idea of "Heimat" (indeed, they are in part an explanation of the meaning of the term -- especially for Bernhard).
       Central to the book is Bernhard's complex relationship with his homeland -- culminating in the last-minute change in his will, wherein he (as Honegger writes) "prohibited all further publications and productions of his works in Austria until the expiration of the copyright." (His final wish was, ultimately, not honoured, the ban on any new productions of his plays in Austria lifted by his heirs a mere ten years after his death; there were apparently no challenges to this act. One wonders whether as a final tribute Bernhard might have hoped that the public prosecutor would have saved him from his heirs and challenged this tampering with his will, but even here the state offered no satisfaction.) Honegger chronicles this ambiguous and difficult relationship with his homeland well. She demonstrates, in particular, how effectively Bernhard challenged Austrian complacency in dealing with its Nazi past (and the lingering aftereffects of it), ruthlessly confronting Austrians with it in his work (especially his plays).
       Bernhard's odd personal relationships are also covered. He had some very close friendships, and was apparently adored by many -- and he had several very generous patrons. Still, he was fickle with his friendships and was capable of what seems like astonishing cruelty (leading also to many very unkind portrayals in his works -- most famously in his novel, Holzfällen (Woodcutters), which led to a highly publicized legal fight). Honegger describes numerous of these relationships, including with Bernhard's longtime patron, Hedwig Stavianicek ("Auntie"), but most of his personal life still remains rather murky. Bernhard appears to have been charming but not a very nice person.
       Gitta Honegger's background is in theatre and Thomas Bernhard is particularly strong in considering the plays. Director Claus Peymann and his work with Bernhard is described in considerable depth, and the theatre scene in Germany and at Austria's two big venues -- the Salzburg Festival and the Burgtheater (headed, for many years, by Peymann) -- are well presented. The behind the scenes machinations, intrigues, and often spectacular public scandals are also fairly well covered. (American readers, in particular, may be astonished by all the to-do there around this artist and his work.)
       Honegger also provides the necessary background material placing Bernhard in his context. Major issues include Austria's shifting (and shifty) response to its Nazi past, the changes brought about in the student-revolutionary 1960s, and Germany's dealings with its terrorists in the 1970s. Figures such as Austrian Chancellor Kreisky and the Wittgenstein-clan (specifically, for Bernhard, influential Ludwig and acquaintance Paul) are also fully presented. So are several significant theatre-figures: Bernhard Minetti, for example, and Oskar Werner.
       It is hard to get a sense of popular reaction to Bernhard's work from the book: mainly it is critical reaction that is considered, and the public usually only mentioned with regard to the most sensational cases. Honegger actually writes of Bernhard's plays that: "None of them was a popular success." Given that he wrote seventeen full-length plays, and never seemed to have much trouble getting them produced this seems ... odd. (Earlier she writes of "the success of A Party for Boris", noting specifically that it opened at "the 1,300-seat Deutsches Theater" -- though admittedly also only speaking of critics being "impressed" and never mentioning whether any of the 1300 seats were actually ever filled.) Was each of his works nothing more than a succès d'estime ?
       Honegger understandably focusses on Bernhard in his Austrian context. Still -- or perhaps especially, since she defines him so specifically as "Austrian" -- it would also have been interesting to learn more about his standing abroad, and how foreign audiences approach this distinctively Austrian work. (This is barely touched upon in the book.)
       It should also be noted that some of Bernhard's work is essentially completely ignored in Honegger's study -- most notably his quite extensive output of poetry. (Cf. Fragments Shoring Ruin, at the crQuarterly.)

       Honegger compresses a great deal into this book, offering a solid survey of this very complex character, his challenging art, and the many games he played with the public (and with his friends). It is also a good introduction -- and a useful companion volume -- to his writing, especially for an audience that does not come to it steeped in Austria. Thomas Bernhard is certainly the best introduction to the author currently available in English.

       NOTE: The book has a useful chronology -- but, astonishingly, there is no bibliography, not even just of Bernhard's works. The chronology provides the titles of Bernhard's works (in German and, often, in English). It appears that those titles provided with an English translation in the chronology have, in fact, been translated into English -- but one can't be sure that they all have. There is no bibliographic information in the chronology itself. The endnotes do provide bibliographic information -- generally both for the German texts and the English translations of Bernhard's works -- but it is difficult to hunt through them in search of, for example, a specific translation -- and not all of Bernhard's works appear to be mentioned here. Given the muddle of English and German titles in the text itself, the many translators that have had a hand at Bernhard's work, and the fact that some of the pieces are only available in translation in journals, a bibliographical overview would have been welcome. (Honegger's work is surely now the standard English-language reference work on Bernhard's life and work; it is ridiculous that it not offer a comprehensive bibliography -- at the very least, of the English-language works by and about Bernhard.)
       The book could have done with some sharper editing. It reads well, for the most part, but some stylistic flaws should have been fixed, notably when books are summarily introduced twice over in rapid succession, as occurs several times. There are also some typographical slips -- Hermann Nitsch's name is misspelt, one of Bernhard's favourite cafés is spelt differently in different places ("Bräuner Hof" (p.192) and -- correctly -- "Bräunerhof" (p.245)), etc.
       And most disappointing is the index, which omits a very large number of the names (and references) in the book, lessening its usefulness as a reference work.

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Thomas Bernhard: Reviews: Thomas Bernhard: Gitta Honegger: Books by Thomas Bernhard under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Gitta Honegger has translated several of Thomas Bernhard's works. She has taught at Yale University, Catholic University, and Arizona State University.

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© 2002-2016 the complete review

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