Thomas Bernhard, Literary Prize Fighter

The beloved author of Heldenplatz’s new politcally incorrect testimony

TVR Books | Carlin Romano | March 2011

As we watch Mario Vargas Llosa step up to accept his Nobel gold from King Carl Gustaf in this season of literary awards, and a handful of fortunate National Book Award winners pocket their $10,000 checks after a fancy ceremony in Manhattan, we should reflect anew on the most honest way to assess such rituals.

Back in 2005, University of Pennsylvania literary scholar James F. English published a deliciously sly, eye-opening analysis of cultural prizes. The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Cultural Value (Harvard University Press) itself won a prize: New York magazine’s nod as the Best Academic Book of that year. The honor doubtless triggered hall-of-mirrors introspection on English’s part, but the book deserves its continuing academic prestige.

Noting the "feverish proliferation" of literary and artistic awards over the past 100 years, English rightly reported that they’ve become "perhaps the most ubiquitous feature of cultural life, touching every corner of the cultural universe, from classical music to tattoo art, hair styling, and food photography." We remain, he observed, "discomfited by what seems an equation of the artist with the boxer or discus-thrower, by a conception of art as a contest or competition from which there must emerge a definite winner."

English wisely did not adopt the frequent view that out-of-control prizes reflect "a consumer society run rampant, a society that can conceive of artistic achievement only in terms of stardom and success," a "McCulture" in which they constitute "not a celebration but a contamination of the most precious aspects of art." He rejected both a "strictly cynical or mocking attitude" toward prizes, as well as a "mystified, essentially religious attitude." Rather, operating under the guiding star of Pierre Bourdieu, the late French sociologist of culture, English launched an incisive book-length study of the rules and logic of "cultural capital" and prestige, how they interweave with the rules and logic of financial capital and illuminate more-scrutinized issues of quality and achievement.

English’s study succeeded in part because he journalistically entertained while preparing a theoretical feast with big philosophical fish to fry. He mentioned the strange way in which Pritzker money, acquired through cookie-cutter production of bland Hyatt hotels, became a mark of architectural excellence. He argued for why cultural middlemen, such as managers of arts endowments, matter. He sprinkled quips by leading artists about prizes that form part of our meme-ish background data in thinking about them. (From Woody Allen’s Annie Hall: "What’s with all these awards? They’re always giving out awards. Best Fascist Dictator: Adolf Hitler.")

Only once, in his canny chapter "Strategies of Condescension, Styles of Play," did English directly cite celebrated Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard (1931-89), whose bio on many of his books states that he won "the three most distinguished and coveted literary prizes awarded in Germany." English reported that Bernhard, a serial iconoclast in Austrian literature, once declared that he wouldn’t accept any more literary prizes because, for a serious artist, "receiving a prize is nothing other than having one’s head pissed upon." In English’s view, Bernhard’s "Flaubertian posture" already seemed "self-consciously dated" because such rebellion had become passé. Bernhard, English observed, "had, in fact, resumed accepting awards by then."

Well, stop right there. The downside of the grand overview of a scholar such as English is the scant opportunity available for old-fashioned interviewing. In a different academic world (with no rules about research on human subjects) English might have kidnapped Bernhard, locked him in a spare office at Penn’s Fisher-Bennett Hall, and conducted repeated interrogations. No matter. Bernhard now, posthumously, comes to English – and us. My Prizes (Alfred A. Knopf), a just-released collection of Bernhard’s musings on his literary awards (it includes his often-indignant acceptance speeches), may be the most politically incorrect testimony on literary prizes ever published.

They raise a question. Are literary prizes as complex as English suggests, or as simple as they seemed to Bernhard?

Bernhard may not be the ideal informant here. Rude, dyspeptic, cantankerous, and often downright weird – if not as bizarre as his monstrous Austrian countryman Josef Fritzl – Bernhard is best known in America for novels such as Frost, The Loser, and Correction, and his flinty rejection of paragraph breaks (which saves money for publishers but tests the patience of readers). The son of an unwed mother, Bernhard grew up poor, with his maternal grandparents, and quit boarding school in his teens to apprentice himself to a grocer – a job whose duties in a damp cellar probably caused the lung disease that plagued him for years.

Later Bernhard studied music and began to write his more than 20 books of fiction, as well as plays and a multivolume autobiography. Almost all of his work runs on caustic existential despair. He characterized his greatest literary aim as "shaking people up." Long engaged in a hate/hate relationship with his homeland, Bernhard infuriated Austrians with his 1988 play, Heldenplatz, ("Heroes’ Square" – the Vienna spot where cheering crowds greeted Hitler in 1938). In it, a Jewish character who returns to Vienna judges the country a "gigantic dunghill."

Plenty of Austrians hated Bernhard back. After the opening of Heldenplatz, anti-Bernhard graffiti popped up around Vienna and one elderly woman attacked him with her umbrella as he boarded a bus. In Bernhard’s last work – his will – he sternly stated that "Whatever I have written, whether published by me during my lifetime or as part of my literary papers still existing after my death, shall not be performed, printed, or even recited for the duration of legal copyright within the borders of Austria, however this state identifies itself." (Meine Preise, the original version of My Prizes, came out in Germany last year.)

His image on departure from this mortal coil, in short, remained that of a principled literary iconoclast. My Prizes, however, displays a mentality about literary swag so crass, utilitarian, and cynical — if also richly droll and intermittently hilarious — that one wonders whether Bernhard’s maverick profile will survive.

The author’s leitmotif throughout these "prize" reflections can be summed up simply – money, money, money. The Grillparzer Prize ceremony, full of "tastelessness and mindlessness," annoys him because there’s "no money attached." With the "Prize of the Cultural Circle of the Federal Association of German Industry" – for which he must visit "repulsive" Regensburg – he "thought of nothing but the eight thousand marks, the gigantic sum of money I was to receive." The "Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen" required his presence in Bremen, which "I loathed from the very first moment, it’s a petit bourgeois, unbelievably sterile city." But he did it because of "the prize money of ten thousand marks."

You might think this line of reminiscence would get repetitive. It does. Berhard’s despair after being interviewed about the Julius Campe Prize (divided among three authors) abates when he thinks of "my share of the prize, the five thousand marks." His decision after being notified that he’d won the 25,000-Schilling Anton Wildgans Prize, named for an Austrian poet whom Bernhard despises, might generously be labeled pragmatic: "If, I thought, I want new storm windows to replace the old ones on my house that are almost totally rotted, I have to accept the prize." He’s disgusted by the industrial association that offers it, but gamely points out, "No one reproaches a beggar on the street for taking money from people without asking where they got the money they’re giving him."

Much of this is quite funny in Bernhard’s telling. He’s infuriated when he wins the Austrian State Prize for Literature, because there are actually two prizes. He’s receiving the so-called "little State Prize," for writers in their 20s (he’s already almost 40), rather than the "big State Prize," for lifetime achievement. As usual, Bernhard finds a way out: "Because of the prize amount of twenty-five thousand schillings, I came to terms with the prize." Not, however, before outraging the Austrian minister of culture and others at the award ceremony, provoking them to get up and leave, when he described Austrians as "apathetic" and "pitiful," and his country as "a state where everything is props," a "perpetual national prison in which the elements of stupidity and thoughtlessness have become a daily need."

Bernhard maintains a matter-of-fact comfort with his bad manners at ceremonies. He brags about giving "the shortest speech a Bremen prize winner has ever given," and about offering the audience in Darmstadt, when he accepted the Georg Büchner Prize, "only a few sentences." After all, he admits, "I hadn’t come to Darmstadt to make people happy, but only to collect the prize, which came with ten thousand marks." Grant him this much, however: He’s tough on himself. "I’m greedy for money, I have no character, I’m a bastard too," he says. He concedes that his acceptance of prizes, aside from a brief hiatus, is "a major hole in my character." Still, he offers an occasional rationale for his prize policy, best summed up as "Take the money and add a middle finger." In general, he thinks, "people should take every penny from the state that throws not just millions but billions out the window on a yearly basis for absolutely nothing at all."

English argues that we can’t understand artistic prizes if we simply follow the money, like Woodwards and Bernsteins assigned to the payoffs of literary life. We’re lucky English didn’t enjoy Bernhard’s cooperation before taking on his project – he might have lost heart and abandoned his triumphant prize analysis. Of course, one can hope that Bernhard, among literary greats – and he is one – does not represent the whole tribe. Saul Bellow’s famous remark on learning of his Nobel Prize –  "The child in me is delighted, the adult in me is skeptical" – suggests a more open-minded, if still shrewd, approach.

The whole matter of literary and cultural awards, however, ought to have more than James English on the case. Perspectives, after all, are so varied and amusing.

"I don’t deserve this," the comedian Jack Benny once quipped in accepting an award for his TV show, "but I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that, either." Emerson – more nobly? – thought "the reward of a thing well done is to have done it." The English reformer William Morris, siding with Emerson, worried that if people were to expect rewards for creation, the next thing would be parents wanting to bill someone "for the begetting of children."

Methinks the spirit of Jack Benny – or Thomas Bernhard – trumps that of Emerson and Morris in the whirligig of world culture today. As English observes late in The Economy of Prestige, the "symbolic capital of prizes" is both a "powerful counter currency" and "a shadow form of money itself." English’s own intriguing notions of symbolic capital aside, one can’t blame Bernhard for wanting to get his hands on the real thing.


Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle, is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College. He was a fellow at the Institute for the Human Sciences in Vienna in 2009.

The article was originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, it appears here with the permission of the author.

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