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Thomas Bernhard’s Comic Materialism

Class, Art, and «Socialism» in Post-War Austria


Russell Harrison

Twenty-two years after his death, Thomas Bernhard’s work continues to fascinate, irritate, and please readers. This book analyzes Bernhard’s writings in the light of post-war Austrian history, challenging the prevailing formalist and psychological reception of his work. It does so by revealing the close connection between individual texts and contemporaneous economic and political events, such as the relationship of the 1969 story Watten. Ein Nachlass to the incipient decline of the social-partnership state, or the connection of the 1970 novel Das Kalkwerk to the shifting balance of power between bourgeoisie and proletariat. Furthermore, the book argues that much of Bernhard’s engagement in public life was an attack on the «pseudo-socialism» of the Austrian socialist party and especially of Bruno Kreisky. Bernhard’s critique is effected through what the author terms a «comic materialism» – an unrelenting focus on the material aspects of life – evident in his protagonists’ ludicrously obsessive fixation on the objects of everyday life and in his comic critique of Viennese society.


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A Brief Introduction 1


A Brief Introduction This introduction presents the categories I use to examine various aspects of Thomas Bernhard’s work. These categories are not aesthetic, but rather historical, economic and political, which are (in)explicably intertwined. Confronting so vast an oeuvre as Bernhard’s, one naturally neglects a lot. My primary argument is that looking at Bernhard’s work historically helps us to better understand it and to see the extent to which it is a political response to its historical moment.1 I focus on certain topics as crucial to this deeper understanding. At the same time, in investigating these vari- ous aspects of Bernhard’s work, I also hope to provide enough historical background for the reader to profit from the essays. In the four chapters that constitute the book, I discuss topics such as social class, cross-class relationships, the post-war Austrian silence concern- ing the Holocaust, the Nazi-Zeit, the relationship of Bernhard’s work to the Ständestaat, and its connection to its descendent, the social-partnership state. The first chapter, on Bernhard’s “Politische Morgenandacht,” func- tions as a baseline against which we can measure how far – and in which direction – Bernhard travelled in his politics. 1 As I remarked in a mildly intemperate response to one anonymous reader’s criticism of my essay on Alte Meister: “Furthermore, the last thing I want to suggest here is the establishment of a tradition into which to peg Bernhard. Bernhard’s work is most interesting when seen in terms of its ref lection of post-war Austria. When your reader...

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