‘The Austrian State Prize for Literature’ by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Carol Brown Janeway

First published posthumously, in accordance with the author’s arrangement, My Prizescompiles various rants, speeches, financial lamentations, and indictments of various literary prizes Bernhard received. I did it for the money, he says again and again, glaring at the reader (who may be a writer) — and you, too, will do anything for the money, the platform, the stage, the power.

Fury, indignation, and humiliation are the chords Bernhard strikes repeatedly in ‘The Austrian State Prize for Literature,’ a story formatted in his characteristic breathlessness— the endless paragraph lacking quotation marks. Playing on Austria’s small-nation complex, he rages against newspapers for talking up his win “as if it were the Big Prize while it was the to-me-humiliating Small Prize.” Embodying the incoherence of post-Nazi Austria, Bernhard speaks for the nation against the nation with the wrecking-ball of his mouth: 

“Yes, I said, every year new assholes are selected for the Senate that calls itself a Cultural Senate and is an indestructible evil and a perverse absurdity in our country. It’s a collection of the biggest washouts and bastards, I always said. … the Small State Prize is a so-called Nurturing of Talent and so many people have already won it … and now I’m one of them, I said, for I’ve been given the Small State Prize as a punishment.”

Nothing is left standing as Bernhard razes the cultural landscape. He mocks the official ceremony, the stupidity of the cultural elite gathered to award one another social status, the conventions of politeness wherein “the sheep were applauding the God that fed them,” the notion of honor, a “dirty trick” played by the state that hides its crimes behind the nouveau-illusion of meritocracy. “No prizes are an honor,” Bernhard insists in his self-masticating sentences, in the pitiless self-cannibalism and the nausea of the vomited clauses  which are then used to grow the next sentence.

In the partner-piece, ‘Speech on the Occasion of the Awarding of the Austrian State Prize,’ Bernhard tells the audience: “What we think is secondhand, what we experience is chaotic, what we are is unclear.” This torment where the 21st century writer must begin.

I am fond of Bernhard; I am lulled by his scalpel-tongue. Taped to the back of a bedroom shelf, a line from ”Austrian State Prize…’: “Now you’ve made yourself one of them.” — A reminder that we write about the world we live in, and the present conveniences will be the future’s indictments against us.

First published in Meine Preise, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2009. First published in English translation in My Prizes: An Accounting, Knopf, 2010/Notting Hill Editions, 2011; also collected in A Memoir: Gathering Evidence, Random House Second International Vintage Edition, 2011

‘Scientific Purposes’ By Thomas Bernhard, translated by Kenneth J Northcott

Bernhard’s book, The Voice Imitator contains 104 very short stories, none longer than a page, most only a paragraph. I genuinely can’t remember how or when I bought this book, but it is something I regularly return to. It changed the way I thought short stories could work, and partly led the way to publishing Clare Fisher’s collection How the Light Gets In, which has a similar concentration of very short stories in it. It’s the perfect toilet book. Which I’m sure Bernhard wouldn’t mind me saying. Each story is its own little world, vignetted to the point of absurdity, and some pack whole lives in to ten sentences. ‘Scientific Purposes’ is so short there’s really no reason to write about it and in fact I think I’ve written more words in this paragraph so far than in the whole story. Thus, I will faithfully rewrite it below so you can judge its brilliance for yourself:

A hairdresser who suddenly went mad and decapitated a duke, allegedly a member of the royal family, with a razor and who is now in the lunatic asylum in Reading – formerly the famous Reading Jail – is said to have declared himself ready to make his head available for those scientific purposes which, in his opinion, would be rewarded with the Nobel Prize within at least eight or ten years.

From The Voice Imitator, UCP 1997

‘Hotel Waldhaus’ by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Kenneth J Northcott

Taking a cue from this author, I will be brief. This three-sentence short story is all things Bernhardian – concise, cruel and funny. The reader may also enjoy Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon.

From The Voice Imitator, University of Chicago Press, 1997. Originally published as Der Stimmenimitator, 1978. Online here