Out of Babel

Michael Hofmann

The posthumous progress in English of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard (1931-89) is marked by deaths: those of his majoritarian and minoritarian translators David McLintock and Ewald Osers, in 2003 and 2011 respectively; and in 2015 that of Carol Brown Janeway, his publisher at Knopf, his unlikely champion over decades (because, for all his influence and cultishness, Bernhard in English never exactly sold), and the translator herself of the posthumous My Prizes, in an exquisitely bound volume from Notting Hill Editions, with a justly amused introduction by Frances Wilson: ‘Few writers have received more applause than Thomas Bernhard, Austrian novelist, playwright and enfant terrible, and few have bitten more sharply the hand that clapped.’ But, still staggering on, the effort continues.

James Reidel, who in 2006 published parallel text translations of Bernhard’s second and third books of poems, In Hora Mortis and Under the Iron of the Moon, has come back ten years later with an English-only Collected Poems. Most readers, even quite possibly Bernhard readers, won’t know that their man wrote poems. Few would argue with Wilson’s description of him as ‘Austrian novelist, playwright and enfant terrible’. Well, perhaps the poetry is in the enfance. Or the terribilità. (That, certainly, is what I thought, who did know about it, but had never read any of it.) I exaggerated the story to myself, in a possibly Bernhardian way, part of my proof that poetry indeed ‘makes nothing happen’: a man writes six books of poems (in fact, there are only four), and is well on his way through a seventh (in fact fifth), when he says to himself, ‘Ach, what’s the use,’ in a few weeks writes a novel instead, and never looks back.

It may all sound a little apocryphal or parabolic, but the novel was Frost, written in 1963, and in 2006 I translated it for Janeway. She described it (the commission, not the translation) as being from the ‘Achduschreck!’ – which I might translate as the ‘lawksamussy’ – ‘division of translation’.) It’s been a while since I read it, but I remember a work that seemed touched by socialist realism. It could have been a 1950s novel from Bulgaria or Romania: the industrial workers coming off night shift in an inhospitable place in a sunless Alpine valley; eating sandwiches and drinking beer out of bottles on the pre-dawn commuter train. A young medical student is ordered to make notes on a local painter and madman, a fellow by the name of Strauch. Strauch has the honour of being the first precipitation in fiction of the typical Bernhard bravado and nihilism and savagery. With his intellect and temperament, he predictably takes over the book. Apart from him, though, I thought it was a tender and unexpectedly populated piece of work. In the sylleptic version it goes: glacial temperatures, a ferocious (and voracious) landlady, baked goods, beer, smoked meats and the work of the hands.

Bernhard was a product of the most appalling personal circumstances. He was born in Holland, the son of an Austrian single mother, a housemaid, herself illegitimate, who had gone there to carry him to term, and the product, quite possibly, of a rape. His father, one Alois Zuckerstätter, a carpenter, whom he never saw, killed himself in Berlin in 1940. The young Bernhard grew up partly with grandparents, partly in his mother’s new family; when he proved unmanageable, he was put in a Nazi-run institution. The ruins and the Allied bombing of Salzburg were formative. In 1947, at the age of 16, he left school and went to work for a grocer. He wanted to be a singer, and took voice lessons. Most of this, and much besides, is told in his five-part autobiography, published in one volume in English under the title Gathering Evidence. In 1949, he contracted pleurisy, was gravely ill for a long time (I remember, thirty years ago, reading about the pus being drained out of him into gherkin jars), and the upshot of everything was that he developed tuberculosis (this is all narrated in one scarifying section called ‘Breath’). Unable to think of singing any more, under strict instruction to keep still, and obviously possessing or possessed of incredible resources of spirit and tenacity, he began to write: articles, stories and (until 1963) ‘thousands of poems’. His first publication, in 1952, was a poem; his first book publication, On Earth and in Hell, in 1957, a collection of poems. His existence, again ‘on earth and in hell’, was a continual negotiation with pain and risk; his time in cities, and in Austria, had to be rationed. Like Frida Kahlo, he lived the intense and prolific life of the semi-invalid.

Nothing seemed to diminish his divine fury. And once he had found his style of explosively rhetorical prose, and monological drama, he had the true vehicles for it. Not the poetry, which is callow, evidently (‘26 years,/which no one has experienced,/no child, no grave, and no/gravediggers with whom I can talk at the beer table’), and repetitious, and largely epigonal. Reidel has enough devil about him to use a quote from Bernhard’s editor (and until recently president of the International Thomas Bernhard Society) Raimund Fellinger, with which he presumably disagrees, as an epigraph for his afterword: ‘three thousand pages of poetry still lie in his archive. There Bernhard reveals himself in every one of them as a pathos-drunken dilettante.’ That has the authentic bite of literary criticism à la viennoise. Yes, one might read Bernhard:

You are a stranger here upon every path.
It is not far to roses and to God –
And the deep night brings with it a boon of stars.

But one would probably do better to read the infant Rilke. One might read Bernhard:

Spring of black flowers, you are driven
by an endless wind from the north,
I will sleep, tomorrow
the snow and solitude will already cover me after your shoes …

But one might as well read Celan, or perhaps merely something histrionic translated from the Spanish. One might read Bernhard:

Birds blackened the winter passages of my loneliness
and brought news of deserted brothels, of wine
and of child corpses, those of grief – through my nights
        went their footsteps.
The snow followed me with its obliterating poetry.

But one might as well go to the source and read Trakl. Reidel mentions a critic who calls Bernhard the poet ‘the voice-imitator’ (the title of one of his novels). That seems about right to me.

That the Collected Poems appeared at all seemed to be largely because Bernhard wanted them to – perhaps not the best reason. It was the typical Bernhard démarche: all or nothing. Though happy to make selections himself from Trakl or Lavant, he declined to be selected or excerpted. And, as usually happened with Bernhard, the world caved. The Gesammelte Gedichte came out in German a year or two after the Dichter’s death, a charitable or sentimental afterthought. They do about as much or as little to enhance his overall standing, to my mind, as the poems of Joyce, or, more meanly, Hemingway. In one of his weaker arguments, Reidel suggests their gappy appearance on the page anticipates that of the plays; but the poems aren’t needed for any lineage or lineation purposes; anyone who has read the early fiction knows where the plays come from. Both the German editor, Volker Bohn, and Reidel make use of a jotting of Bernhard’s in the flyleaf of Under the Iron of the Moon: ‘My personal copy, which on this day – 7 December 1980 – I enjoyed reading very much. Thomas B.’ It is strange that the attitude taken to the bard of impiety, irreverence and – my old coinage – Austropathy should have been so obliging and meek. What price translation as a form of helping a choleric old man across the road?

Well, if it is, he doesn’t get very far. I have never read translations by anyone with less idea of what’s going on in the original. Because it is a parallel text, I first went back to Reidel’s 2006 edition. There were enough mistakes there to last several translators their lifetimes: perhaps one a page, and nothing trivial or debatable either – really solid, load-bearing, disfiguring, nonsensical, career-ending mistakes. Reading that book – university press, imperishable paper, typeface devised God knows when by fuck knows who, blurbs by the well-respected likes of Richard Howard, Carolyn Forché and Franz Wright – is enough to cure one of the idiocy of reading poetry in translation. Because: why shouldn’t they all be like that? It seems harder to gain admission to a children’s playground than to publish a book of poetry translations. ‘Gräsern fremd’ – ‘someone else’s grass’. No, ‘remote from the grass’. ‘Das Haus des Maurers’ – ‘that house of walls’. No, ‘the mason’s house’. ‘Vertraut dem Tier’ – ‘trusting the beast’. No, ‘familiar to the animal’. ‘Einer Verrückten’ – ‘of a madman’. No, ‘of a madwoman’. ‘Mit dem Wind zu sprechen aber/war ich auserwählt’ – ‘But I chose to speak/to the wind.’ No, ‘but I was chosen/to speak to the wind.’ Amusingly and perfectly silently, a number of these have been corrected in their new incarnation, and so we read ‘children in the branches/sleep in green wreaths’ where one would once have seen ‘in green rosaries’, and in the same poem ‘the time of summer goes on singing sticks’ (bad enough, you might think, but a smug little note plausibly suggests ‘walking or mountain climber sticks and their rhythmic sound’) where there was once ‘creeps up singing vines’.

But it would be a mistake to think all the translations had been ‘cleaned up’, whether by Reidel or others (who?!). ‘Auf finstern Treppen schlag dich offenen Augs’ is neither ‘cover your open eyes on dark stairs’ nor ‘cast an open eye up gloomy stairs’, but ‘fight with eyes open on unlit staircases.’ ‘Den Tümpel zeig mir’ (note the accusative) is not ‘the pond shows me.’ ‘Grabt ihm nur ein Grab’ is not ‘digs only for him a grave’, it’s in that same mood again, called the imperative: ‘dig him a grave.’ ‘Ertrunkene Nachtigallen’ are not ‘drunken nightingales’ but ‘drowned nightingales’. These are only a few of the simplest, most easily quotable instances. ‘My father believed this earth heard him,’ though ‘gehörte’ means simply ‘belonged to’. ‘My eyelids [“Lider”] are as dried up’: but what it says in the German is ‘Lieder’, ‘songs’. ‘I drank with the devastated fishermen and partook/of their strength’; ‘nahm teil an ihren Festen’ is ‘joined in their celebrations’ or ‘went to their parties’. We are talking about someone who sees ‘daß’ and always puts ‘such that’; who seems unaware that there is a German present tense that asks to be rendered in English as a future; who encounters a preposition (über, vorbei, vor, just as examples) and is utterly at sea; who runs for the hills each time he sees a reflexive verb. Once Bernhard gets involved with syntax of any complexity, which, being Bernhard, he does, then everything and nothing is possible. Agreements don’t exist, probabilities have been suspended, there is no more thought, it’s like a random words machine. Les Murray’s phrase comes to mind: ‘the sad surrealism of the deaf’.

We are in the realm, therefore, as some would have it, of pure poetry, understood by blind poetic instinct, among the wonderfully like-minded. Who needs languages, or language even? Where, as Rilke says, the antennae feel – or should that be fondle? – the antennae. But in the poem of an imagined homecoming, ‘bevor das Gras nicht meine Zunge säuert’ is not ‘until the grass stops making my tongue sour’ but ‘until I have tasted the tang of the grass’. ‘In einer Welt, die/deiner eignen nur in den Gedärmen glich’ is not ‘a world which/resembles your own save in the entrails’, but something pretty close to the opposite. And on and on and on and on. As I say, I have never doubted that such foolish and knavish translations existed in the defenceless world of poetry, not true and a million miles from beauty (or do you like this kind of thing: ‘the night is warm and my limbs/emit their green origins’?), but I haven’t seen one like this. Garbage would be too kind. And it has the nerve to appear without even the dubious originals en face, so there’s really nothing there at all. Reidel wrote a good Life of Weldon Kees, and he writes lively and opinionated prose here (though until he can translate a simple sentence, that doesn’t greatly matter); as a translator, he should be run out of Babel.