Thomas Bernhard ranks alongside Elfriede Jelinek as the most internationally significant Austrian author of the late 20th century. While Manfred Mittermayer’s definitive biography serves as a fascinating introduction to Bernhard’s life and works, painting a memorable picture of a man whose life was inextricably intertwined with the course of European post-war history, its insightful interpretation of new archival material and extensive testimonies from Bernhard’s contemporaries also ensure its place at the forefront of literary scholarship.
Thomas Bernhard’s literary work is known for its acrimonious style and such gloomy themes as illness, incest, suicide and the loneliness of the individual. Mittermayer skillfully intersperses the narrative of a mostly unhappy life with quotations taken from Bernhard’s fictional and autobiographical texts, statements from friends and enemies, family members, and the views of critics, journalists and publishers in Austria and Germany. The biography incorporates brief accounts of the lives of his great-grandparents, grandparents and mother, as well as references to the contemporary reception of Bernhard’s work. The biography has been completed to a high academic standard but it is also decidedly readable and accessible.
Mittermayer succeeds in positioning events in Bernhard’s personal life in a wider cultural and political context, thus providing the reader with a vivid picture of the dynamics between various publishers and cultural institutions. The reader also gains a sense of the complex relationships between autobiographical texts, interviews and fictional re-workings of events in Bernhard’s life and works. Mittermayer illuminates issues that have divided critical opinion, such as Bernhard’s alleged misogyny, the problem of interpreting his apparent antipathy to contemporary Austria, and the question of whether his writing shows a progression or repeatedly reworks the same themes.
This is the most comprehensive biography of Thomas Bernhard to date in either German or English. Given that Bernhard is of interest to readers of German-language literature as well as of world literature and theatre, Mittermayer’s enlightening and well-researched account of a literary giant is sure to find an extensive international readership.