Paul Wittgenstein and Thomas Bernhard’s Troubled Friendship. Book review by Jorge Pinto

Paul Wittgenstein and Thomas Bernhard’s Troubled Friendship.

Thomas Bernhard’s autobiographical novel, “The Nephew of Wittgenstein” describes with some detail the complicated and at the same time troubled relationship with Paul Wittgenstein, the nephew of the author of the famous Tractatus Logico-philosophicus, and one of the greatest philosophers of our time.

The first part of book relates the experience of both friends hospitalized in Austria at the same time but in separate pavilions part of a large hospital compound. Bernhard was treated for a severe pulmonary disease and Paul Wittgenstein suffering what the author described as a so-called mental disease.

In the book, Bernhard presents several examples of thedark picture of his friend Paul’s health, who since his childhood had a predisposition to a disease, which even if was never been precisely classified, afflict him all his life, until the day he died, adding, “At every end and turn they would use the term manic or depressive, and they were always wrong.

The author describes his relationship with Paul, using relevant moments, conversations and traits, including, Paul’s problems with his enormously rich family.

On a positive note, the book describes Paul’s passion for music, especially opera and the orchestral works of Mozart and Schumann. Bernhard list the most important opera houses that Paul visited during his trips to Milano, London, New York, Berlin, which according to his friend; None of them was any good compared with Vienna.

The author recalls how at one time Paul was considered by music lovers to be one of Vienna‘s most passionate operagoer, noting that Paul was feared on opening nights since If he was enthusiastic he carried the whole house with him by beginning to applaud a few seconds before the rest. If, on the other hand, he led them in whistling, the biggest and most expensive productions would be flops.

Bernhard was also a music lover. His grandfather took him regularly to concerts including those conducted by Herbert Von Karajan whom him admired as child, adding that he observed and studied the famous Conductor for decades, regarding him as the most important conductor of the century, along with Schuricht. On the other hand, his friend Paul had a fervent hatred of Karajan, whom he habitually described as a mere charlatan.

If music was an area that brought the two friends together, Bernhard highlights the fact that besides music, Paul’s other passions was Formula One motor racing. Coming from a very wealthy family, been himself a racing car driver, counting among his friends a number of world champions in this field. In his second half of his life he had to give up racing since he did no longer had money and his relatives kept him on a tight budget.

The book is full of anecdotes of the peculiar life of his friend, including the most bizarre and eccentric actions like splurging money in luxury restaurants and bars. In this context, Bernhard tells the story of Paul’s whims including a sudden wish to go to Paris taking a taxi in the center of Vienna, whereupon the driver, who knew him, actually drove him to Paris, where an aunt of Paul’s who lived there had to pay the fare.

To avoid depriving the reader the enjoyment of Bernhard’s rich prose telling the fascinating stories of his unconventional friend and his interactions with Paul’s brilliant mind, I avoid getting into other descriptions regarding Paul’s relationship with money, women, his brothers and the Wittgenstein family, which he had always made him felt threatened and shunned, except his sister, who was the only one he spoke with affection.

Since the book is written using the first person point of view narrative, it give the reader a unique perspective of Thomas Bernard’s enormous talent and antagonistic personality that produced so many enemies and detractors, which for some analysts was one of the impediments to get a well deserved Literature Nobel Prize.

Among the many controversies Bernhard was connecting his reiterated negative opinions of Austrian society and the explicit disdain for award ceremonies. With some humor he describes, what he considers those events to be nothing more intolerable in the world. In his own words; they do nothing to enhance one’s standing, as I had believed before I received my first prize, but actually lower it, in the most embarrassing fashion. Only the thought of the money enabled me to endure these ceremonies.

Among the vivid anecdotes of his unpleasant experiences receiving public prizes, was the ceremony at the Academy of Science to get the prestigious Grillparzer Literary Award commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the death of the famous Austrian writer. He describes the feeling when arriving at the prestigious institution that morning to be surprised to find that there was no one there to receive me. I waited in the entrance hall for a good quarter of an hour with my friends, but no one recognized me, let alone received me, even though my friends and I spent the whole time looking around. It isworthquoting part of the description of what follows once inside the auditorium which Bernhard tells with full of amusing details: The minister had taken her place in the first row in front of the dais. The Vienna Philharmonic was nervously tuning up, and the president of the Academy of Sciences, a man by the name of Hunger, was running excitedly to and fro on the dais, while only I and my friends knew what was holding up the ceremony.

Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) was born in the Netherlands but lived most of his life in Austria where most of his works take place. He is the author of dozens plays, novels and poetry books. Most of his work is dark, full with situations and characters experiencing pain probably as a sequel of being abandoned as child by his parents. He grew up with his grandparents which provided him with an artistic education, particularly his grandfather who was a writer. In an interview, Bernhardt recall his grandmother used to take me to the morgue when I was young. She’d pick me up and say, ‘Look, there’s another one.’ Once she told me that the corpses had a cord to a bell tied to them, so the undertaker would be alerted if they came to./2 This playful example, with a difficult childhood growing up in Nazi Germany and his only sister, spending years moving from one mental hospital to the next and constantly threatening to kill herself, explain the darkness in his writing, which often revolves around themes of death, despair, and hopelessness, including characters ready to commit suicide or actually taking their lives.

No doubt Bernhardt is one of the most important Austrian writers of the second half of the Twenty Century. Reading The Nephew of Wittgenstein open the door to know a remarkable writer and the nephew of one of the greatest philosophers of our time.

1.Excerpts From Thomas Bernhard Wittgenstein’s Nephew

Print version published by Vintage (October 13, 2009)

2. A Conversation. Thomas Bernhard, André Müller and Adam Siegel. Conjunctions, No. 55, Urban Arias (2010), pp. 329-362 (34 pages)

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