Authors: Thomas Bernhard

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Austrian novelist, playwright, and poet

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Frost, 1963

Verstörung, 1967 (Gargoyles, 1970)

Das Kalkwerk, 1970 (The Lime Works,1973)

Korrektur, 1975 (Correction, 1979)

Ja, 1978 (Yes, 1991)

Die Billigesser, 1980 (The Cheap-eaters, 1990)

Beton, 1982 (Concrete, 1984)

Der Untergeher, 1983 (The Loser, 1991)

Holzfällen: Eine Erregung, 1984 (Woodcutters, 1987; also known as Cutting Timber: An Imitation, 1988)

Alte Meister, 1985 (Old Masters, 1989)

Auslöschung: Ein Zerfall, 1986 (Extinction, 1995)

In der Höhe: Rettungsversuch, Unsinn, 1989 (On the Mountain: Rescue Attempt, Nonsense, 1991)

Short Fiction:

Amras, 1964

Prosa, 1967

Ungenach, 1968

An der Baumgrenze: Erzählungen, 1969

Ereignisse, 1969

Watten: Ein Nachlass, 1969

Gehen, 1971

Midland in Stilfs: Drei Erzählungen, 1971

Der Stimmenimitator, 1978 (The Voice Imitator, 1997)


Die Rosen der Einöde, pb. 1959 (libretto)

Ein Fest für Boris, pr., pb. 1970 (A Party for Boris, 1990)

Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige, pr., pb. 1972

Die Jagdgesellschaft, pr., pb. 1974

Die Macht der Gewohnheit, pr., pb. 1974 (The Force of Habit, 1976)

Der Präsident, pr., pb. 1975 (The President, 1982)

Minetti: Ein Porträt des Künstlers als alter Mann, pr. 1976

Die Berühmten, pr., pb. 1976

Immanuel Kant, pr., pb. 1978

Der Weltverbesserer, pb. 1979

Vor dem Ruhestand, pb. 1979 (Eve of Retirement, 1982)

Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh: Ein deutscher Dichtertag um 1980, pb. 1981

Am Ziel, pr., pb. 1981

Der Schein trügt, pb. 1983

Ritter, Dene, Voss, pb. 1984 (English translation, 1990)

Der Theatermacher, pb. 1984 (Histrionics, 1990)

Elisabeth II, pb. 1987

Heldenplatz, pr., pb. 1988

Histrionics: Three Plays, pb. 1990


Der Italiener, 1971


Auf der Erde und in der Hölle, 1957

In hora mortis, 1957

Unter dem Eisen des Mondes, 1958

Die Irren-die Häftlinge, 1962

Contemporary German Poetry, 1964 (includes selections of his poetry in English translation)


Die Ursache: Eine Andeutung, 1975 (An Indication of the Cause, 1985)

Der Keller: Eine Entziehung, 1976 (The Cellar: An Escape, 1985)

Der Atem: Eine Entscheidung, 1978 (Breath: A Decision, 1985)

Die Kalte: Eine Isolation, 1981 (In the Cold, 1985)

Ein Kind, 1982 (A Child, 1985)

Wittgensteins Neffe: Eine Freundschaft, 1982 (Wittgenstein’s Nephew: A Friendship, 1986)

Gathering Evidence, 1985 (English translation of the first five autobiographical works listed above; includes An Indication of the Cause, The Cellar: An Escape, Breath: A Decision, In the Cold, and A Child)


Thomas Bernhard (BEHRN-hahrt) was undoubtedly one of the most prominent Austrian writers of the latter half of the twentieth century. He was born out of wedlock in the Netherlands in 1931. His mother was the daughter of the Austrian writer Johannes Freumbichler, and his father was an Austrian peasant. He spent his first years with his grandparents in Bavaria and then attended a private school in Salzburg, Austria, in 1942. Bernhard was alienated from his abusive mother but felt a close attachment to his grandfather. He eventually contracted a severe lung ailment and spent several years in a sanatorium. Bernhard had begun studying music as a child and continued this first love in 1952 after his recovery. He completed his studies in 1957 and worked for a time in Vienna and Salzburg. In 1965, he bought a farm in Ohlsdorf, Austria, and lived there until his death from heart failure in 1989. Bernhard never married.{$I[AN]9810001286}{$I[A]Bernhard, Thomas}{$I[geo]AUSTRIA;Bernhard, Thomas}{$I[tim]1931;Bernhard, Thomas}

Thomas Bernhard

Bernhard’s literary reputation was established with his first novel, Frost, and his first play, A Party for Boris. His tightly controlled use of language and his complex narrative style of paraphrase and quotation astounded many readers, as did his pessimistic and sardonic themes. The characters in his first novel, the young medical student and the insane painter Strauch, are caught within a bleak cycle of obsessive self-reflection that alienates them from their own feelings and from those of others. The play is narrated in a series of self-conscious monologues, a style that characterizes much of his narrative work. A Party for Boris also establishes the existential themes and ironic dialogue of Bernhard’s considerable dramatic writing. It deals with a party held for the crippled Boris and his legless friends, all trapped in wheelchairs and condemned to endless thoughts of suicide.

Gargoyles, with its monologues by the prince whose compulsion to think has driven him to insanity, is similar to Frost. All of Bernhard’s characters suffer from varying degrees of physical and mental disease. The novel The Lime Works continues these primarily existential themes. In this text, Konrad and his crippled wife live alone in an abandoned lime works. Konrad is obsessed with writing the ultimate intellectual treatise on the subject of hearing; he eventually goes insane and murders his wife. Correction deals with the genius scholar Roithammer, who constructs a house for his beloved sister; she dies shortly thereafter. He, like Konrad, is obsessed with writing a work about his childhood and commits suicide after destroying the last of the innumerable revisions he vainly attempts. Bernhard has also written a series of five autobiographical works that attempt to capture his childhood and to portray the origins of his worldview. The novel Concrete again deals with an alienated intellectual who seeks to write a book–this time about the composer Felix Mendelssohn–but is never quite able to get started. Woodcutters is a bitterly satirical and thinly veiled portrait of Viennese society; it provoked a heated controversy upon publication. The Loser and Extinction both offer obsessive, contemptuous narrators confronted by sudden deaths of loved ones.

Bernhard’s numerous plays echo the themes of despair, insanity, and death that inform his narrative works. In Die Jagdgesellschaft (the hunting party), a one-armed general is going blind and remains unaware that his beloved forest is being destroyed by an insect infestation. The play Minetti depicts an aging and insane actor who is asked to perform William Shakespeare’s King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606) and, in an ongoing struggle between himself and the audience, eventually commits suicide. This theme of the integrity and obsessive character of the artist occurs in many of Bernhard’s works. The stupidity of the general public is an aspect of Bernhard’s often-biting criticism of Austrian, especially Viennese, society. Other Bernhard plays, such as Die Berühmten (the famous) and Der Ignorant und der Wahnsinnige (the ignorant man and the insane man), are critical of the artist’s obsessive demands for technical perfection.

The comedy Immanuel Kant is a satirical play that attacks the thought of the well-known eighteenth century German philosopher. Bernhard’s last play, Heldenplatz (heroes’ place), also provoked bitter controversy upon its production at the 1988 Salzburg Festival. It attacks what Bernhard saw as the lingering vestiges of racism and hatred in Austrian society. It deals with a Jewish professor who emigrated in 1938 when Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were welcomed into Vienna and who, upon his return fifty years later, commits suicide when he sees that anti-Semitic attitudes still exist within Austrian society.

The predominantly existential themes of Bernhard’s writings–death, alienation, and the crippling weight of obsessive self-consciousness–made him an heir to Franz Kafka and other modernist authors of the early twentieth century. Such melancholic and morbid preoccupation with death, suicide, and disease has been, for centuries, characteristic of many writers in the Austrian tradition. Life was defined by death for Bernhard, and his writings suggest a deeply rebellious and hostile attitude toward the very fact of existence. At times, especially in his vitriolic criticism of his Austrian homeland, he appeared misanthropic. The intensity and insistence of his themes and the singular and complex narrative technique of paraphrase, quotation, and repetition give Bernhard’s writings a unique profile in the history of modern European literature.

BibliographyBarthofer, Alfred. “The Plays of Thomas Bernhard: A Report.” Modern Austrian Literature 11, no. 1 (1978). Analyzes the general themes and approaches of Bernhard’s works.Bernhard, Thomas. “Meet the Author.” Harper’s Magazine 315, no. 1997 (August, 2007): 18-20. Interview with Bernhard in which he comments on the purpose of art, expresses his disgust for literary critics, and maintains that he is not interested in his own fate or in the fate of his books.Cousineau, Thomas. Three-Part Inventions: The Novels of Thomas Bernhard. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2008. This book makes an excellent argument for the importance of Bernhard as a major twentieth century writer. Cousineau offers readers help in understanding Bernhard’s prose style by devoting a chapter to each of his six novels and examining their plot and characterization.Dierick, A. P. “Thomas Bernhard’s Austria: Neurosis, Symbol, or Expedient?” Modern Austrian Literature 12, no. 1 (1979). Explores the relationship of Bernhard’s plays to the sociopolitical climate of Austria.Dowden, Stephen D., and James N. Hardin, eds. Understanding Thomas Bernhard. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. Collection of essays explores the themes and approaches of Bernhard’s works, among them the novels Frost, Gargoyles, The Lime Works, Correction, Old Masters, and Extinction. Includes bibliography and index.Finlay, Frank, ed. Centre Stage: Contemporary Drama in Austria. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999. Examines the contributions to Austrian theater by many playwrights not previously studied, including Bernhard, Fritz Hochwälder, Wolfgang Bauer, Elias Canetti, and Peter Handke. Focus is on the themes, forms, and concerns of Austria’s contemporary playwrights.Honegger, Gitta. Thomas Bernhard: The Making of an Austrian. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. The first comprehensive biography of Bernhard in English examines the complex connections of Bernhard’s work with the geographic, political, and cultural landscape of twentieth century Austria.Indiana, Gary. “Thomas Bernhard.” Artforum 8, no. 3 (Fall, 2001): 17-24. Provides a profile of Bernhard, a time line of the important events in his life, a reader’s guide to his work, and excerpts from several pieces.Konzett, Matthias. The Rhetoric of National Dissent in Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, and Elfriede Jelinek. New York: Camden House, 2000. Analyzes how the three Austrian writers created new literary strategies in order to expose and dismantle conventional ideas that impede the development of multicultural awareness and identity.Konzett, Matthias, ed. A Companion to the Works of Thomas Bernhard. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2002. Collection of essays examines numerous aspects of Bernhard’s work, including its aesthetic sensibility, its impact on Austrian literature, its relation to the legacy of Austrian Jewish culture, and its cosmopolitanism.Long, Jonathan James. The Novels of Thomas Bernhard: Form and Its Function. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2001. Intended as an accessible introduction to Bernhard’s novels for English-speaking audiences. Focuses on Bernhard’s later novels but also analyzes the novels written in the 1960’s and 1970’s.Martin, Charles W. The Nihilism of Thomas Bernhard: The Portrayal of Existential and Social Problems in His Prose Works. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1995. Traces how Bernhard uses nihilism in his work, examining the works chronologically from 1963 until 1986. Notes that although at one point Bernhard sought to transcend his own nihilism, he ultimately concluded that nihilism was a necessary response to the reality of Austrian society and to his personal problems.Sorg, Bernhard. Thomas Bernhard. Munich: Beck, 1992. Provides criticism and interpretation of Bernhard’s works. In German. Bibliography.
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