My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard

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All My Prizes in One Nasty Pile

Thomas Bernhard’s disingenuity is revealed with the utmost clarity in the 2009 volume My Prizes (German: Meine Preise) which comes translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway with a preface by Frances Wilson.

At one point, incidental to his demolition of the Franz Theodor Csokor Prize Thomas Bernhard writes:

‘I was in the process of being exposed to a particularly savage wave of personal attacks in the Austrian newspapers. I do not know why.’

These sentences may surprise the observant readers of the Thomas Bernhard oeuvre as Bernhard is usually to be found verbally assaulting Austria, attacking the press with no provocation, and pouring scorn on any and all Austrian cultural, medical and governmental institutions.

Looking at any of Thomas Bernhard’s books — even a mere dip into Alte Mesiter or Ja — would indicate why the press attack him — but if any final or summary item of evidence were needed to answer the conundrum as to why Bernhard might be savaged in the Austrian press, My Prizes is it.

Now Thomas Bernhard was right to demolish the literary prize as a phenomenon, and most especially the state prize, and it’s true that this demolition is only possible as a literary endeavour after having accepted the prizes; after all, how could he justify the insults, the comedy, the anger and the flowing descriptions of hypocrisy had he not been witness to them, even in part generated them? It is however problematic that as participant, Bernhard must also justify himself, and he does this unequivocally by arguing that he accepted these prizes solely for the money.

Does that make Bernhard worse that the hypocrites who offer the prize money? It does, at least that is what he says, and I agree with him. He is a worm. But as a long time reader of Bernhard, My Prizes does answer at least one question: I have often wondered why Thomas Bernhard won so many literary prizes from a state that he so roundly abused, criticised and lampooned? Here in My Prizes, the facts are clear. Thomas Bernhard won virtually all of these prizes for his first novel, Frost, and this was in the wake of his having received state grants for quite some time as it was. As often, the hand that feeds an artist, is obliged also to recognise the artist with awards, and so it goes that the gamut of prizes Bernhard is still cited as having won over his career, were in fact won in a short space of time, and some were for one work alone, his novel Frost.

A further irony is that Frost is the least accomplished of Bernhard’s many novels, the most tiresome and the most unformed. After Frost, Bernhard wrote sparingly, and it wasn’t until a decade later, he produced works that perhaps should have won prizes, but which could never be recognised in Austria, so replete were they with hatred of the establishment, most particularly the artistic aspect of it. In the 1980s, Thomas Bernhard produced a welter of high quality novels, but by this stage, he had probably freed himself of the questions that had arisen about the literary life, so early in his career.

Two instances of the transfiguration from happy-go-lucky young author to bitter iconoclast are captured in My Prizes. The first is in his description of the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen, in which he contrasts how happy he was when out and about in Warsaw, with the galleys of his first novel in his pocket, to the destructive unhappiness of being accepted into the literary establishment, a fact which brought upon him complete misery — this the result of reading the reviews of his novel in the press. After rejecting the establishment, and becoming a lorry driver instead of a writer, Bernhard appears to be rejuvenated by the award, although only in the sense of the prize money.

An artist’s involvement in the literary establishment is expressed metaphorically in his story of the of the Grillparzer Prize, in the form of the suit that Thomas Bernhard purchases for the occasion. The suit as metaphor becomes telling after Bernhard tries it on in the shop, it fits, but however as the day progresses, and as he nears and participates in the prize ceremony, he notices it becoming tighter and tighter, until he cannot even sit down comfortably. It is almost as if he is swelling up (with hubris, one has to imagine) so that a suit he purchased at 11AM is by 2 in the afternoon, far too uncomfortably small. Arch humourist that he is, Bernhard returns the suit, and laughs with his companion that the suit will be resold and that the person who buys it will have no idea that the suit they are wearing has in fact collected the Grillparzer Prize.

The second moment of transformation comes in the story of the Julius Campe Prize when Bernhard sees his first ever newspaper interview printed. He writes:

The next day I saw my picture in the paper and instead of being on top of the world, as I’d expected, I was ashamed of the nonsense I’d talked to the people from the newspaper when I was giving it my best shot and I loathed my photograph, if I really look like I do in this photograph, I thought, it would be better for me to retreat into some dark valley deep in the mountians and never set foot in the world again. I sat there spreading a thick layer of marmalade on my breakfast bread and felt deeply wounded. I didn’t dare even open the curtains and spent several hours sitting in my armchair as if stricken by some indefinable paralysis in my whole body. I felt worse than I’d ever felt before.

In reading this passage, in which Bernhard discovers the obvious properties of the press, the validation of the Bernhard we know becomes apparent, and he changes from a youth optimistic about the possibilities of literature, into an arch realist, his vanity exposed, his arrival on the circus-wagon of letters assured.

For this and other reasons, My Prizes isn’t a book I can see achieving much popularity. Virtually every writer I know, like virtually every writer I do not know, are keen as mustard to get their hands on literary prizes, and also to be in the newspapers, although how they can stand this indicates to Bernhard either imbecility on their part, or very thick skins indeed.

It still seems to be book prizes that award the most public kudos, however, tied as they essentially are to the process of arbitration. Thomas Bernhard knew this towards the end of his career, although he doesn’t appear to know it at the beginning of My Prizes — at the outset he is a happy young writer, fond of state patronage if anything. I’d say that these days, actually everyone knows that the system is a falsity, some even before they start out writing, so it is all the more odd that Bernhard should have been baffled when he was attacked in the Austrian press.

And given Bernhard’s outbursts and his temperament, it was little wonder that the press, as ever attached to the machinery of state, and reporting on the back of a long-standing tacit agreement with the state, that Bernhard, even when offended, managed to be more offensive in return, making statements such as:

Yes, I said, the Cultural Senate is full of arseholes, what’s more they’re Catholic and National Socialist arseholes plus the occasional Jew for window dressing.

The Phenomenon of the Literary Prize

The literary prize doesn’t exist nowadays in the same form as it did when Thomas Bernhard was collecting and writing. There is still a state element in such prizes, but in respects, literary prizes have become easier targets and are nowadays fully 100% ridiculous, sponsored as they are by corporations.

The principle literary prize in Scotland is still arbitrated by the state, or a state appointed and funded committee, but the award itself is made by the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust, whom along with the winners, also collect the publicity. The officials of these corporations — in this case the officials of the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust which is managed by Bailie Gifford, which is an investment management firm, are easy targets for artistic criticism, clearly philistine, and without any shame or fear of contradiction, are there to win publicity for their firm, and offer perks for their higher grade employees who’d wish in that eternal way, to rub shoulders with artists and artistic types — as the saying goes.

For The Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust, the sums involved in promoting these writers, artists and administrators, and others who benefit from the prize, are trifling, and tax-recoupable. The Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust is also of course global rather than Scottish, and in typically mendacious fashion, has nothing whatsoever to do with mortgages. The Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust invests in global stocks where it can, and as at the close of January 2014 had total net assets of £2.5 billion, making it one of the UK's largest investment trusts. These figures truly cow the literary worth of the prize in question into almost non-existence.

Now, all the world’s principal literary prizes are offered by corporations, a fact which might have exasperated Bernhard, for it is so cynical an arrangement, so manifestly false from the outset, that nobody in these environments pretends it is any other way.

Today, in fact, the person who is awarded the literary prize thinks nothing of their photograph appearing as they stand like a race winner against a six foot coloured board with the word COSTA on it, as they graduate from being an award winning artist, to a seller of over-priced coffee; they think nothing of standing beneath a banner promoting ORANGE communications, while ORANGE, the communications company, not only recoups tax against the prize money, but gain more publicity than they could ever do by spending the equivalent amount on a television advert.

Indeed: to create a location based TV commercial including actors, lighting, sound, motion graphics, post production, editing, clearance and delivery costs would cost a company like ORANGE communications or the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust upwards of a quarter of a million pounds; so you can see what good value literary prizes are.

That Bernhard’s world of prizes is gone, to be replaced with a world far worse, a world of greater lies and cynicism, is not exactly a fact to be bemoaned. The characters are still the same, for one.

Having discussed some of the costs involved in television advertising, what remains is the actual paucity of the literary prize itself. Not content with slamming the prizes, Bernhard feels upset that in all cases the prizes awarded are ‘shamelessly low amounts for such purposes.’ He says: ‘they award literary prizes in amounts that would be a poor monthly salary for a middle-ranking municipal employee.’

There is a much to consider in that accusation. Of course Thomas Bernhard is correct; Peter Burnett was awarded a state prize in Scotland for his first novel The Machine Doctor, a prize which amounted to £2000, about a third again more than a middle-ranking municipal employee might receive in a month, but perhaps these so-called low amounts are acceptable because of the general indigence of writers. Unlike Thomas Bernhard, Burnett did not accept the money and returned it, and he claims not to have regretted this I didn’t regret this, despite the fact that his income for that year was under £6,000.

Yet, here now is Thomas Bernhard damning the prizes but at the same time complaining about their shoddy pay-packet, when in fact the entire point of the prizes, the point of all these prizes, outside of the advertising potential awarded the businesses and state bodies involved, is arbitration. There is no publisher that does not list the prizes an author has won when it comes to printing that author’s book jackets, because it is the prizes that demonstrate to a reader (buyer) that the author is of pedigree. In being awarded a prize, the author becomes ‘made’, much in the same way that in American crime syndicates, a person becomes a “made man” in becoming a fully initiated member of the Mafia. Once a writer wins a prize, they are written about in newspapers, and once they are written about in newspapers, their books become acceptable as products.

It’s this that Bernhard overlooks. He either does not realise or fails to point out that in being awarded these prizes, largely at the start of his career, that the prize award is not so much about the money but about the grace that is afforded him as a writer. We think now of our fellows who have not been awarded literary prizes, and there are many of them. Those whom we know who have not been awarded literary prizes, coincidentally work in obscurity, and continue to write, and some consider themselves to be underground writers; but this is usually because they have not been accorded this early honour, and achieved this early elevation, first to the podium and then to the press. This is not usually because these people are poor writers, and often in fact it is simply because they are proletarian, or experimental, two classes of writing that are not understood or acknowledged by prize culture, generally speaking.

Ultimately, one must be surprised by the fact that Bernhard has a grab-as-you-may attitude to the state funding of writers in general; it appears that in the decade before he began winning these state prizes, Bernhard had on many occasions accepted state grants so that he could travel Europe, presumably gleaning experience as a young and unpublished (or let us say pre-published) writer. This is particularly galling, first because you will note today, as it was in the 1960s, the first people to be awarded state prizes are those that have patronised by the state; this stands to reason because any body which promotes an artist must surely be the first to stand by that promotion by eventually rewarding them; and secondly, because Bernhard reveals himself as glib and careless regarding state funding in the first place. Awarding grants to writers to travel has always struck us as wrong. In the final prize description of Meine Preise, Bernhard hypocritically aligns himself with the merchants of the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce, all of whom I am sure would have argued to him that travel is something that should probably be earned, as opposed to granted.

Most stunning of all, and the cause for the most jaw-dropping in My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard, are the prize speeches which are included at the close of the book. Bernhard’s prize speeches are the closest you will read to tongue-tied philosophising, attempts by Bernhard to express the absurdity of humanity and the gross failures of the late twentieth century.

The final item in My Prizes, which has nothing at all to do with the rest of the book, but is perhaps included for fans of Bernhard — only fans of Bernhard will enjoy this book — is his letter of resignation. Reading the letter of resignation is like reading one of those bad book reviews in the press — a demolition job which can be secretly entertaining so long as it is not about you or your friends. The letter of resignation, while a caustic and well put together piece of writing, is at heart an idiotic insult, which possibly reveals Bernhard to be an idiot, resentful and seeking only to hurt, rather than to enlighten. It is personal, savage, and of little note historically, other than it probably explains once more the answer to the mystery of why Bernhard was savaged in the press. There is a minor tradition of authors criticising state bodies and literary panels, and in this light the letter of resignation is fair enough. Otherwise, it reduces in my eyes the standing of an author whose style I have always enjoyed, presenting an angry, childish rant, that I am sure served little purpose — despite as I have said, its being enjoyable to his few loyal fans.

It all reminds me of the fact that if as a novelist, your first book doesn’t win a literary prize then you are toast. The public, prey as they are of the state and corporate organs which arbitrate such awful proceedings as described in My Prizes, demand that a writer hit the ground running. Your first book has to be a classic, so they can laud you from the off, and at the same time be seen to be lauding you, as this increases their own repute, and of course self-satisfaction. Literature is not a circus, however much they try to make it one; there has to be room for writers to develop, but most of all there has to be an end to hyperbole and the know-nothingism that elevates a few — most of whom fail to live up to their promise and slip over decades into painful obscurity and mediocrity, having believed the hype in the first place — and which damns the rest to be classed as ‘no good’ — simply because they have never been written about in a newspaper.