Thomas Bernhard was an Austrian novelist, playwright and poet. Bernhard, whose body of work has been called "the most significant literary achievement since World War II," is widely considered to be one of the most important German-speaking authors of the postwar era.
Thomas Bernhard was born in 1931 in Heerlen, Netherlands as an illegitimate child to Herta Fabjan (née Herta Bernhard, 1904–1950) and the carpenter Alois Zuckerstätter (1905–1940). The next year his mother returned to Austria, where Bernhard spent much of his early childhood with his maternal grandparents in Vienna and Seekirchen am Wallersee north of Salzburg. His mother's subsequent marriage in 1936 occasioned a move to Traunstein in Bavaria. Bernhard's natural father died in Berlin from gas poisoning; Thomas had never met him.
Bernhard's grandfather, the author Johannes Freumbichler, pushed for an artistic education for the boy, including musical instruction. Bernhard went to elementary school in Seekirchen and later attended various schools in Salzburg including the Johanneum which he left in 1947 to start an apprenticeship with a grocer.
Bernhard's Lebensmensch (companion for life), whom he cared for alone in her dying days, was Hedwig Stavianicek (1894–1984), a woman more than thirty-seven years his senior, whom he met in 1950, the year of his mother's death and one year after the death of his beloved grandfather. She was the major support in his life and greatly furthered his literary career. The extent or nature of his relationships with women is obscure. Thomas Bernhard's public persona was asexual.
Suffering throughout his youth from an intractable lung disease (tuberculosis), Bernhard spent the years 1949 to 1951 at the sanatorium Grafenhof, in Sankt Veit im Pongau. He trained as an actor at the Mozarteum in Salzburg (1955–1957) and was always profoundly interested in music: his lung condition, however, made a career as a singer impossible. After that he began work briefly as a journalist, then as a full-time writer.
Bernhard died in 1989 in Gmunden, Upper Austria. His attractive house in Ohlsdorf-Obernathal 2 where he had moved in 1965 is now a museum and centre for the study and performance of Bernhard's work. In his will, which aroused great controversy on publication, Bernhard prohibited any new stagings of his plays and publication of his unpublished work in Austria. His death was announced only after his funeral.
Often criticized in Austria as a Nestbeschmutzer (one who dirties his own nest) for his critical views, Bernhard was highly acclaimed abroad.
His work is most influenced by the feeling of being abandoned (in his childhood and youth) and by his incurable illness, which caused him to see death as the ultimate essence of existence. His work typically features loners' monologues explaining, to a rather silent listener, his views on the state of the world, often with reference to a concrete situation. This is true for his plays as well as for his prose, where the monologues are then reported second hand by the listener.
His main protagonists, often scholars or, as he calls them, Geistesmenschen, denounce everything that matters to the Austrian in tirades against the "stupid populace" that are full of contumely. He also attacks the state (often called "Catholic-National-Socialist"), generally respected institutions such as Vienna's Burgtheater, and much-loved artists. His work also continually deals with the isolation and self-destruction of people striving for an unreachable perfection, since this same perfection would mean stagnancy and therefore death. Anti-Catholic rhetoric is not uncommon.
"Es ist alles lächerlich, wenn man an den Tod denkt" (Everything is ridiculous, when one thinks of Death) was his comment when he received a minor Austrian national award in 1968, which resulted in one of the many public scandals he caused over the years and which became part of his fame. His novel Holzfällen (1984), for instance, could not be published for years due to a defamation claim by a former friend. Many of his plays—above all Heldenplatz (1988)—were met with criticism from many Austrians, who claimed they sullied Austria's reputation. One of the more controversial lines called Austria "a brutal and stupid nation ... a mindless, cultureless sewer which spreads its penetrating stench all over Europe." Heldenplatz, as well as the other plays Bernhard wrote in these years, were staged at Vienna's famous Burgtheater by the controversial director Claus Peymann.
Even in death Bernhard caused disturbance by his, as he supposedly called it, posthumous literary emigration, by disallowing all publication and stagings of his work within Austria's borders. The International Thomas Bernhard Foundation, established by his executor and half-brother Dr. Peter Fabjan, has subsequently made exceptions, although the German firm of Suhrkamp remains his principal publisher.
The correspondence between Bernhard and his publisher Siegfried Unseld from 1961 to 1989 – about 500 letters – was published in December 2009 at Suhrkamp Verlag, Germany.