My Prizes: An Accounting by Thomas Bernhard
Review by S. D. Stewart
Thomas Bernhard was a writer who fashioned his own truth, while at the same time also claiming that there is no such thing as truth. He elaborates on this seeming paradox in his memoir Gathering Evidence:
Whatever is communicated can only be falsehood and falsification; hence it is only falsehoods and falsifications that are communicated. The aspiration for truth, like every other aspiration, is the quickest way to arrive at falsehoods and falsifications with regard to any state of affairs. And to write about a period of one’s life, no matter how remote or how recent, no matter how long or how short, means accumulating hundreds and thousands and millions of falsehoods and falsifications, all of which are familiar to the writer describing the period as truths and nothing but truths.
In a way this book is also a memoir, although how much of it is really true, if one believes in truth, can never be known. As when reading anything else written or said by Thomas Bernhard, it’s best to suspend all traditional notions of truth, of what is real or exaggerated, and simply enjoy what he has to say in his unique tone of affable acerbity.
Bernhard is sitting squarely in his element here, recounting the absurd circumstances in which he was awarded various literary awards throughout his writing career (mostly in the early stages, for he eventually swears off of award acceptance altogether). In these essays, glowing with his trademark aplomb, he gleefully eviscerates various public officials and cultural institutions as his initial affronts at being misquoted, misattributed, and misgendered eventually fade into a steady, yet still often prickly, resignation. He realizes that to get the money, he must endure the associated shameful and/or potentially enraging proceedings. For it’s all about the money. He needs the money and he wants the money. He initially uses some prize money to put a down payment on a decrepit farmhouse in Upper Austria, the first house he looks at (and not even that closely), not knowing how he’ll come up with the balance of the sale price. Later on, the monetary award from another prize represents the welcome possibility of new storm windows, which will, after all, provide a good return on investment in the form of savings on heating costs in winter. Yet another prize funds the purchase of a new English sports car, which leads to a regrettable tragedy that is, however, ultimately vindicated after much personal grief. It is hard to say, in fact, which was more interesting to read: how a prize was awarded or how Bernhard describes spending the associated monetary award.
By reducing all of these awards to their base economic value, Bernhard neatly skewers the pompous purveyors of so-called “art” and “culture” who in their ceremonial introductions routinely (and unknowingly) malign the nature and titles of his works, reassign his gender, and generally behave in an odious manner of haughty disrespect. It is abundantly clear that Bernhard is enjoying himself immensely as he relates the blundering errors of these officials, exposing the farcical nature of the award ceremonies, ultimately stripping away the intended prestige and reshaping the value of the prizes themselves into one of a much more practical nature, namely, that of fixing up his falling-down farmhouse.
Bernhard’s personality comes through strongly in this book, possibly even more so than in Gathering Evidence. Part of this could be due to the difference in subject matter, for the nature of this book allows for his humor to shine brighter. It could also perhaps be a result of the difference in chronological distance between the events and their recounting. In Gathering Evidence, Bernhard writes of his childhood from the vantage point of an adult, which can both alter perspective and create a tonal distance as the recollecting observer looks back from a point far in the future. In contrast, he is writing in this book of events in more recent memory, ones that occurred after he became an adult and a published writer (though, according to him, these recollections would be no less riddled with falsehoods). His authorial voice here is confident and self-assured, almost in a relaxed way not found in Gathering Evidence, while his tone also seems warmer here than in the memoir.
Following the essays on each individual prize, the book concludes with the transcripts of Bernhard’s acceptance speeches, of which he only alludes to within the essays themselves. This is a perfect way to end the book, for the reader is finally able to grasp the full context of what at least one official had so viscerally reacted to in Bernhard’s speeches. The bold, uncompromising nature of these speeches is striking, underlining the strong will of this man who refused to accept the status quo, to prostrate himself before the would-be commodifiers of culture; a writer who discerned and accepted the limitations of language while still wielding it to cut new and twisted paths; a person who, in his own words, “listened to everything and conformed with nothing.”