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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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Chapter Three - Alienated Labor and the Abolition of Class Society: Thomas Bernhard and the Proletarian 87


Chapter Three Alienated Labor and the Abolition of Class Society: Thomas Bernhard and the Proletarian The vast and impressive secondary literature on Thomas Bernhard’s oeuvre has produced little about its relationship to the working class, a remark- able oversight (though understandable as an attempt to de-politicize his writings).1 Nevertheless, the proletarian is an important and, I argue, determining (if not always direct and continuous) presence in a number of his most successful texts.2 Reading Bernhard’s texts from the perspec- tive of the working class has high explanatory value; indeed, I think it goes some way in elucidating the problem Schmidt-Dengler noted that when reading Bernhard criticism one senses “nicht selten ein Unbehagen” rooted “in dem undeutlich faßbaren Gefühl, daß die Literaturwissenschaft, eben diesem Gegenstand, also dem Werk Thomas Bernhard, nicht genügend würden” (“Absolute” 10). 1 Social class, generally, is rarely a topic in Bernhard scholarship. See, though, Long’s excellent essay in Companion. 2 I should make clear that I do not claim that Bernhard self-identifies as a proletarian writer in the ways that members of and sympathizers with the Bund Proletarisch- Revolutionärer Schriftsteller once did, for example. Nor did he ally himself with the Dortmunder Gruppe 61, active at the time he began his career as a writer. Objectively, however, the latter group might easily have seen a number of Bernhard’s texts – the best among them – as sympathetic to, and expressive of, their own concerns – above all, Der Keller, one of the great proletarian...

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