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Hiding the letter: Visiting Thomas Bernhard’s square courtyard

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It’s Thomas Bernhard weather this Saturday in Salzburg. Gloomy clouds in the sky, from which it rains from time to time, too cold for a day in mid-September. Only the greenery on the left and right along the western autobahn between Salzburg and Linz indicates that summer is only just over.

In Obernathal near Ohlsdorf, a smaller settlement in southern Upper Austria, located very close to Gmunden and Lake Traunsee, everything looks a little different than it can be seen on old, mostly black and white photos of Thomas Bernhard in front of his farm.

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Or also differently, as the Austrian writer described it in an article in 1965 for the “Presse”, an article that was headed “My own loneliness”: “My farm hides what I do. I walled him up, I walled myself in. Rightly. My yard protects me, if I can’t bear it, I run, I drive away, because the world is open to me.”

A farmhouse to a writer? That caused problems in 1965

Opposite the courtyard there is now an apartment building, in front of it there are children’s toys, and if you walk around on the meadows behind the courtyard, you can clearly hear the noise of the motorway. Nevertheless: The building, which is surrounded on four sides and gently embedded in a hill, has retained its fortress character despite its two floors. Inside, the former cowshed and the barn, which is now an event venue, still have something rustically forbidding, slightly menacing.

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Peter Fabjan, who was born in 1938 and is seven years younger than Thomas Bernhard’s brother and estate executor, came with his wife to show the guests around the farm and through its rooms. Fabjan was a doctor and internist by profession, he ran a practice in Gmunden for decades. In his memoirs of “the brother”, as he will often call Thomas Bernhard as a result, without a possessive pronoun, which appeared in 2021, he put it this way: “Of course, the physical proximity to the brother requires greater togetherness. We live in parallel worlds with different languages ​​and different manners, each of us an outsider, less integrated in the other’s world than just tolerated.”

In 1965, Thomas Bernhard had acquired the square courtyard, which was first mentioned in a document in 1325, partly with the money he had received from the Bremen Literature Prize for his novel “Frost”; even more, of course, through the financial support of his Suhrkamp publisher Siegfried Unseld and his girlfriend Hedwig Stavianicek.

The Bernhard-Hof from behind
© Bartels

The seller and former Vierkanthof owner Rudolf Asdamer, a farmer and innkeeper from Ohlsdorf, remembered how the deal was concluded within twenty minutes and with a handshake in the presence of Bernhard’s then friend and real estate agent Karlheinz Hennetmair, the famous “real estate dealer”. went.

The problems follow immediately after the sale, “the envy complex and the prejudice of the neighbors”, as Asamer said in a conversation with the Bernhard photographer Sepp Dreissinger: “The unanimous reason was that such a farmhouse could not be sold to a writer can, that must remain in agriculture. You have to imagine that if an academic comes along in a farming community and buys a farmhouse, that can only lead to difficulties.”

A room that Bernhard never used
A room that Bernhard never used
© Bartels

Bernhard overcomes these difficulties, later also manages to prevent a neighboring farmer from setting up a pig fattening farm opposite and, with the help of local craftsmen, sets about restoring the building, which is actually about to be demolished. Room after room, there should be almost thirty.

Houellebecq acquired a traditional jacket from Bernhard

Fabjan first leads into the cowshed, which Bernhard really didn’t know what to do with, which he emptied into a cold vault and fitted with a new floor. Today you can see, among other things, the brilliantly restored bicycle of Bernhard’s stepfather Emil Fabjan; it’s the bike that little, eight-year-old Thomas von Traunstein rode to Salzburg and broke down in the heavy rain. The experience was traumatizing. Bernhard told about it in his autobiographical story “Ein Kind”: “I pushed a junk.”

All around are programs, photos and posters of theatrical performances of his plays, including in Tirana and Beijing, long after the writer’s death on February 12, 1989. And the Bernhard view outside, through small, six-part windows: a rainy sky, fir trees on the horizon, a wet green meadow.

The shoe cabinet by Thomas Bernhard
The shoe cabinet by Thomas Bernhard
© Bartels

It finally goes over to the living quarters. Many of them look just like Bernhard lived in them at the time: with only a little rustic furniture, on the one hand cool and functional, on the other hand with furniture from the Biedermeier and the Josephine era; a portrait of the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II can also be seen.

Peter Fabjan shows the fully equipped kitchen, which was never used for cooking: Bernhard always ate in inns. He points to other rooms on the ground floor which, like the kitchen, we do not enter. They are excellently furnished, but only for representative purposes: living rooms where no one used to live, dining rooms where one never ate. In his sympathetically reserved manner, Fabjan quotes André Heller, who said that Bernhard had lived an “as if” life and that he was a master of self-portrayal. The life of Thomas Bernhard: a play of its own kind.

It’s fascinating, just like Thomas Bernhard’s literature. This is also the case for fellow writers, as an anecdote by Fabjan about Michel Houellebecq proves. The French writer also insisted on driving out to Bernhard’schen Vierkanthof during a visit to Salzburg. As Fabian says, he behaved like a small child. “He wanted to touch everything, turn on the record player, the gun upstairs in the bedroom, sit anywhere.”

He also tried on Bernhard’s clothes, a traditional jacket fit almost perfectly. Houellebecq had his photograph taken in this jacket in the courtyard, and the photograph now stands in a frame upstairs in a room that has been converted into a library containing the many foreign editions of Bernhard books. And the jacket? Michel Houellebecq kept it on and still owns it. A Literary Props History.

Guns, Dunhill cigarettes, gloves

On the upper floor are the rooms that Bernhard actually used. The bedroom with that gun hanging on the wall, the view of the yard out the window; the closets with the hunting clothes, although the writer never hunted; the pack of Dunhill cigarettes, although Bernhard never smoked (“I bought them later,” says Fabjan when asked why the pack looks so new and full); a crumpled-read-yellowed copy of “Le Monde” from September 23, 1988 on a table.

The most impressive thing in one of the many small rooms is the corner with the open shoe rack, on which there are at least twenty pairs of shoes, all cleaned, neatly lined up next to each other, with a shoelace. In his story “Watten”, Bernhard wrote, after one of the many typical excitements between the first-person narrator and the carter, this time about shoes and their buckles: “You can wear whatever you want, it tears apart in no time if you wash it If you pull on new shoelaces, they tear, if you close the buckles, they crumble, if you bend down in your new coat, it tears, everything tears and breaks and crumbles, that is progress.”

Peter Fabjan on Saturday 17 September 2022
Peter Fabjan on Saturday 17 September 2022
© Bartels

Back down in the courtyard, Peter Fabjan wants to say goodbye, quickly it seems. He is caught up in the present, especially that of this writer’s museum, this Bernhard shrine, this “stone monument”, as he himself called it. Fabjan has his memories under control, not a trace of sentimentality. He called his memoir “A report”, and that’s how it works today.

But when asked whether the immune disease Bernhard suffered from in 1967, Boeck’s disease, which was so bad for his heart and lungs, would inevitably lead to death, Fabjan starts talking again and remembers the last days of his brother’s life .

Thomas Bernhard
Thomas Bernhard
© picture alliance/dpa/Votava

How he could no longer go to the inn because he was too weak, and he could hardly hold a knife and fork. How Bernhard got himself an apartment in Gmunden, close to his brother and sister, so that he could be better looked after than in Obernathal. And how, one day before his death, he wanted to see the sun again and they both climbed a mountain near Gmunden. Only there was no sun on this snowy February day, says Fabjan. Thomas Bernhard tried to uncover the leaves under the snow with the toe of his shoe and finally said that he would soon feel the same as the leaves.

That sounds shocking, touching. But Peter Fabjan remains sober and objective. His famous brother would have liked this diction. On the way back to Salzburg, it’s pouring rain and the sun doesn’t show up on this September day.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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