A comparison: Thomas Bernhard (1931 – 1989) and Knut Hamsun (1859 – 1952)
Why should you set up a comparison of the work of the writers Knut Hamsun from Norway and Thomas Bernhard from Austria? This question created an interesting reflection to me. In the next year (2019), the death’s anniversary of Thomas Bernhard will take place for the 30th time. He died in the age of 58 years. This year also marks the 70 years anniversary since the publication of the autobiographical work by Knut Hamsun: “On Overgrown Paths». He was 90 years old at the time of his publication. In the following, I will compare the two authors in the form of a short listing of 32 items. The importance of the town Vienna shall be mentioned here for both.
I liked to read all the books by Hamsun – with some exceptions. Although with his strong obvious sympathizing with the Nazism. Thomas Bernhard at the other hand – could get my sympathies and for sure of the most of his readers – by his sufficiently objective political opinion with his criticism of the Nazism, to see this system as inhuman and despicable ideology.
Despite of this – honestly, I did not really like any of this books and thus arguably the majority of its readers (simply said, most of his books displeased me). Nevertheless, I must note that some font technical subtleties in his works should be marked as extraordinary good, something that the majority of authors are looking for. Just these subtleties make probably up for an exciting interest into the largest part of his autobiographical five works from the 70s.
The ideological criticism of literature is not my area of expertise – or carefully said – has its weaknesses. I – and I guess the vast majority of readers of novels – look apparently after other features. While Thomas Bernhard lets his stories mostly play in a claustrophobic and phobia-filled universe with his «Monomaniacal», more or less familiar and private contempt – Yes, almost hate against everything and everyone (with a few exceptions) – the acts in Hamsun’s romans are based on a wide range of historical events, feelings, contradictions, moods – and not at least of contradictory persons, personalities and narrative positions.
Through his unique sense of humour and the fullness of his polyphonic narrative, Hamsun’s stories also seem to get alive just like they are. While Hamsun’s best works are filled with people of flesh and blood – based on the balance of «good and evil»- the easier infantilized and genderless art in the worst moments of Bernard’s writing and the artistic prose of the stereotype could be set in contrast. He divides the world into two different sides: on the one hand, he describes the failure of writers to complete their art successfully as a failure without a right to live and on the other hand the brilliant success of others (the writer Bernhard includes himself here, of course).
The last kind of artistic rulers with all rights of the killing of their own characters (also by friends and acquaintances) is impossible to resist or escape – if you should be so stupid to try.
It is not adequate that Thomas Bernhard Nazism and Austrian Catholicism, he equates them in his world, increasingly hates and condemns them; still he does not become a greater or more important writer. Maybe he might just lose more recognition.
In my opinion, the Bernhard’s last novel «The old masters» of 1985 (published in Norwegian in 1991) reflects almost identical the kind of art that the ideology of the Nazism represented. You could recognize it with the following aspect of Bernard’s impression to art: in the fields of painting, music or literature. He describes them as “waste”. They might be created by amateurs, also called in the time of the Nazism «degenerate» artists which created “entartete Kunst” (this could be carefully translated, referring to the ideology at this time, to “outside-of-the-race-art”, degenerate art). Bernhard’s attitude comes close to this description of the concept used by the Nazis.
Note however, that Bernhard warns in his novel to see Austria as «the political mouthpiece» but Austrians likely as «the most dangerous people, which exist in the world,», also be aware that they are «much more dangerous than the Germans”. This would have already proved the history. It is possible, that the author can see the paradox as him as an indirect messenger.
In this context, it is not adequate that Knut Hamsun’s presents to the public his official statement that he has «Hitler in his heart» and he despises everything what is English and Jewish, as well as all «those Yankees» (brief summary of his statements of his literary works from the 60-70s). Of course, this is most evident when one imagines as a reader, to have lived at this time, reflected by this prevailing regime (feeling the “spirit of time”).
Hamsun himself remains at the elite-division of the genre of the international literature. Bernhard is, I believe, in terms of literature in a far lower division to settle. The publishers should have been better advised with a new requirement of a revision/editing/cutting, or even with a withdrawal of some of his publications. Due to his great attitude to set the perfect language in act, was Hamsun loved by his readers and often called «everyone’s author” – also among his author colleagues. In comparison to Hamsun, Bernhard awarded the designation of the “author of the authors” and anything less. Nevertheless, he was especially appreciated by his male colleagues.
In my opinion, the Norwegian authors Dag Solstad, Knausgård, Thure Erik Lund, Trude Marstein and Jon Fosse were influenced by Bernhard. This should be taken as a carefully subjective assumption, because I was not very intensively occupied of their works. It is sheer possible that the later works of Dag Solstad could come close a «Norwegian Thomas Bernhard clone».
Following 31 other important items to summarize this comparison:
1. Two significant authors with publications in many genres (with approximately 30-40 publications). The path to their «global success» was very stony for both coming up from the «pariah» or the lowest level of society. Both authors were rejected or banned as children. In addition, they had to experience an exposal of physical abuse/penalties of their families. This shaped their personality and influenced their literary works.
2. Bernhard started his literary career about at the same time, when Hamsun has completed his own. They worked both as journalists for a short time, even though they haven’t received any further education in this field. Acting attracted both magically. They also experimented in this field, but with little success, unfortunately. If you consider that they left school at an early stage or has not even visited it, then they could have only reached these successes by hard self-discipline and a strong self-confidence.
3. Through a lifetime of hard work and probably far more love to the art than to the people around them, shaped or refined their best work. Additional, it was mainly influenced by their somewhat unhealthy narcissism to the sublime art. Both authors seem to be a bit more than willing «to go over corpses» to be able to realize themselves as artists.
4. Both authors are obviously influenced by the “injustice-collector-syndrome” that is presented by the «lamenting» victim. This theme constantly re-occurs through their work, represented by the accumulation of «injustice» as a significant role. They rarely makeup as «Mimophants» and lack social skills. Although, they experience the break with all social policies up-to their complete rejection. Of course, that causes their growing of own-created social isolation. Just, let’s call them: «the-victim-of-the-rhetoric-mastering», also in a positive sense. Maybe, it is significantly present in Hamsun’s first and last publications, incl. his correspondences. But for sure, it is much stronger expressed by Bernhard as “victim-role” issues through his entire works.
5. Their more or less problematic relationships with women seem to be based on an open (for Bernhard) or «sub-liminal» mother hatred (ref. Hamsun: ‘Amy van Markens’ theories relate to it). Both authors also express themselves in a blatant outburst against what they perceive as mistreatment or abuse of children. Otherwise, Hamsun writes amazingly little about children. Both authors describe their attraction to cemeteries in the age of their childhood.
6. Both authors are moved by the romantic poetry in a part of their lives. A sentimental trait of their personality reflects it. In their earlier works, they show an increasing strong attitude towards «the lamentation to God’.
7. Both are able to do everything, only to received money from lenders. Although, they don’t bother to live from expenses of others and to exploit these people for their own purposes. The communications between them and their publishers are full of conflicts – up to a kind of blackmailing only to get more money and sponsoring from them.
8. Both are masters at staging themselves: their past, their childhood, and so on. In doing so, they set themselves in a scene as brilliant artists, before their genius works first appeared. They invent «scandals» to accelerate the success of their books. They do not lack self-invented myths about their own lives.
9. Both master the exaggerated writing skills (hyperbolic language), and that with an arsenal of pejorative remarks about other people, especially artists and «competitors». Hamsun mentioned three of the «big four». Bernhard, for example, wrote about Thomas Mann and Robert Musil that they embody a «bourgeois functionary literature». Stylistically, Hamsun – as well as Bernhard – tried, above all, with the indirect speech or in the form of a first-person narrator as a feature of their prose. At this point, Hamsun’s strange «that» statements should be mentioned, which he uses to promote the verbalism in the presentation. Bernhard’s long and rhythmic phrases particularly emphasize the musicality of the language.
10. While in Hamsun’s works dozens of unique literary figures and personalities get to life, the «characters selection» by Bernhard is more likely to compare with a chamber of requisites. One might even think that his own private history of suffering in various variations reflected the characters in his works repeatedly. Although this recurring performance of Bernhard’s characters, taken from the «requisites chamber of the state of Austria», seem to act probably rather involuntarily funny, than seriously.
11. Both writers are longing for the «aristocratic upper class». Bernhard can perceive these longings only hidden, whereas they appear more openly with Hamsun. The megalomaniac notion of one’s own genius, but also one’s own failure, goes hand in hand with both. The latter, however, decreases over the years more and more. They stay in their own fantasy world and their ideas in many ways. Therefore, it seems paradoxical that their contempt for literature, reading and books in general, appears to grow with the author’s own glory.
12. Both spent a lot of time in their lives to build or restore their house and yard. It should be noted that both come from families, which experienced the biggest nightmare by losing their home and estate. Thus they fell into the lowest social class, and therefore in total poverty.
13. They wrote quickly and published a lot. Bernhard did it maybe a little bit too fast. Additional, both seem to be maniacally obsessed with their own careers from the point of view of the lonely, suffering and ingenious writer.
14. Both travel a lot – travelling is important to them, even their escape. It seems that this issue has just increased her productivity as a writer.
15. Both write long and extravagant allegations against the school system, against scientists, educators, etc. Thus against those which have taught them to read and write. And despite her linguistic brilliance (in her mother tongue), at least Hamsun had problems with English, although he stayed in America for a longer period of time. He mentioned as a reason that he, probably, had never really learned the grammar. He also had to give up the French language when he lived in Paris. Bernhard claims that he can read both English and French newspapers at the Café Sacher in Vienna. Doubts arise as to whether he has not distorted the reality in order to increase his popularity as a writer.
16. Both are obsessed by the Nazism – one is strongly influenced by this ideology, the other extreme against it. But both show in their «worst moments», the same profound human contempt and the same lack of fundamental empathy that characterizes the Nazism.
17. Both are literary style inventors. Especially for this, they are praised by their audience and their readers. Many have tried to copy them, but according to reports, few or almost no one has succeeded so well.
18. Both are obsessed with the philosophy of Schopenhauer’s work: «On the vainness and suffering of life» („Von der Nichtigkeit und dem Leiden des Lebens“ ). His portrayal of pessimism, misogyny, and thus the exaltation of art, appeals to them particularly interesting.
19. Both authors were suffering from a lung disease that brought them closer to the idea of death as a necessary opportunity and this already «before the elapsed time». Hamsun was also a chronic hypochondriac. Bernhard was chronically ill for most of his adult life. He suffered from Sarcoidosis (Boeck’s disease), a kind of inflammatory and immune disease. It even seems as if both of them wisely used this circumstance to get the compassion of others as an advantage. Bernhard mentions this directly, whereas Hamsun refers to it just indirectly – also in many of his letters.
20. Both writers are characterized by their hypersensitivity and unstable personalities that increasingly isolates them from the outside world, friends and family. They use often the metaphor «hypersensitivity» to explain their frequent inappropriate and explosive outbursts – explicit in front of their closed ones. At the end of their lives, they come to a kind of reconciliation with themselves and their environment – finally they realise, that these are the people they needed and loved most.
21. The «Hofburg» in Vienna with his «Heldenplatz» seems to play an important role in the lives of both writers – both as a political and as a literary impulse. Hamsun was politically influenced by this location in the summer of 1943, and Bernhard literarily in the autumn of 1988. For both, it was in any way their last great public appearance as a «political» writer. (We shouldn’t consider the Hamsun’s trial before the Sand Court in 1947 because hardly any journalists showed up.)
22. Vienna and Kristiania: capitals that are mentioned again and again in their texts – representing as scenes of their hate-love, as well as their successes and lows.
23. Both authors write some (Hamsun 6 and Bernhard 20) partially successful plays.
Bernhard’s scandal drama «Heldenplatz» can be mentioned here as a good example. It premiered at the 4th of November 1988 at the Vienna Burgtheater in honour of the 50th anniversary of the «Anschluss Österreichs » (annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany). This play was then performed nearly 120 times in the following 10 years. The actors, as such, are often portrayed by both writers as largely ridiculous in their plays, especially the female characters were expressed as foolish and silly.
24. Both authors almost always have a fixed or repetitive repertoire of idiosyncrasy as a synonym for things they dislike or detest. Noteworthy and exemplary for Hamsun: England, Switzerland, the Americans and the Jews. For Bernhard, it is the state of Austria as a prop state (he mentioned that it is «just as full with Nazis in 1988 as in 1938»), and of course including all his officials, the actors at the Burgtheater in Vienna, etc. ethnic groups and countries are generally described in their pamphlets and thus fall into this repertoire.
25. Moreover, their worldview that they sympathise with is very rigid and simplified – to express it mildly. Nevertheless, they develop a kind of trademark of their authorship with increasing market value.
26. The opinions about the two authors were divided after their deaths. Some believed, for example, that Bernhard was overrated as a poet and writer. This argument stays less valid for Hamsun. Their controversial legacy, once again, demonstrates their well-developed ability to shock their environment. Noteworthy, in this context appears as a «non-trivial element» which could be called the «Judas-being» in their personality. Bernhard’s tombstone has been destroyed or smeared several times. The building of a memorial in honour of Hamsun has triggered a huge debate in Norway. The name of the square in front of the Oslo central station was renamed to «Knut Hamsun’s square». This act was followed by a strong criticism among the population of Oslo. Quickly this was declared as «traitor Hamsun square» by the folk and can be equally seen as a «shot in his back».
27. Both of them show a non-trivial element of harshness and uncompromising personality, let’s just call it “lack of empathy”. Apparently, this is also linked to their lack of self-confidence and self-reflection. Of course, they have never done anything wrong or done anything that could be wrong. It seems they regret little or nothing. They persist in their opinions and actions. The almost impregnable victim role is, therefore, the safest haven for them. For some, «the path of change from the victim to the hangman» is surprisingly short. For Bernhard and Hamsun it appears extremely short. It may be why both of them sparked such a persistent dispute and ultimately discord among many of their admirers.
28. Both authors show an explicit strong link to «the lie» that should not be ignored, but else seen as a special phenomenon. For example, Bernhard: «In the last instance, it is all about the truthfulness of the lie itself». Hamsun: «… that the lie was not guilty, but the talent».
29. Both have made myths about themselves, which create associations to biblical narratives about the expulsion of children. Hamsun: «If a man was born at sea». Bernhard writes that he should have actually spent his first year at sea as a sea creature or as a “marine man». For Hamsun and Bernhard this «expulsion from the paradise», which could be equated with the home of their childhood, is especially the mother’s love and its safety. This could be psychologically interesting, if you look at the creation of an artist as a sort of «healing project of something broken» – it could be associated with Freud’s theory.
30. Especially at the end of their lives, both Bernhard and Hamsun were full of rejection towards their own countries. Hamsun’s fate is known. Bernhard writes in his testament in February of 1989, just before he dies: » Ausdrücklich betone ich, dass ich mit dem österreichischen Staat nicht zu tun haben will “ (I emphasize explicitly that I do not want to have anything to do with the Austrian state) and further: «and for all future, I forbid any interference or any approach from the Austrian state regarding my person or my work. After my death, no word should be published that may have been written after me, including letters and notes. »
31. There are some references to Hamsun in Bernhard’s works. There is a little story called «Hamsun» written by him. Bernhard tells about an encounter with a Norwegian and himself (or «us») at a location near Oslo. According to stories of this man, he cared for Hamsun at the retirement home at the end of his life. He was also the last one at the bed of Hamsun when he died. The man said that he even pulled the shroud over his face – but without really knowing who the writer Knut Hamsun was! But in reality, Hamsun died at home with his family. Still, the story of this man was captivating enough to write about it. Bernhard notes in his autobiographical novel «Atem» (1978), that when he was young, he also read «Hunger» (1890) from Hamsun. In addition, Hamsun is hardly mentioned in his many writers and artist recommendations.
Translation: Susanne Marioara
- Gehen (1971, norsk overs. Gå, 2003)
- Die Ursache (1975, norsk overs. Årsaken, 1996)
- Der Keller (1976, norsk overs. Kjelleren, 1996)
- Der Atem (1978, norsk overs. Pusten, 1997)
- Ja (1978, norsk overs. Ja, 2003)
- Die Kälte (1981, norsk overs. Kulden, 1997)
- Beton (1982, norsk overs. Betong, 1985)
- Ein Kind (1982, norsk overs. Et barn, 1995)
- Wittgensteins Neffe (1982, norsk overs. Wittgensteins nevø, 1989)
- Der Untergeher (1983, norsk overs. Havaristen, 1994)
- Der Theatermacher (1984, norsk overs. Teatermakeren, skuespill, 2001)
- Holzfällen (1984, norsk overs. Trær som faller, 1990)
- Alte Meister (1985, norsk overs. Gamle mestere, 1991)
- Auslöschung (1986, norsk overs. Utslettelse, 1992)
- Einfach kompliziert (1986, norsk overs. Ganske enkelt komplisert, skuespill, 2001)
- Erzählungen (1988)
- Meine Preise (post mortem 2009, norsk overs. Mine priser, 2010)
- Höller, Hans: Thomas Bernhard dargestellt von Hans Höller (1993, norsk overs. Thomas Bernhard. Et liv, 1996)
- Mittermayer, Manfred: Thomas Bernhard. Eine Biographie (2015)
- Mittermayer, Manfred: Das Salzburg des Thomas Bernhard (2017)
Rem, Tore: Knut Hamsun. Reisen til Hitler (2014)
Furthermore Wikpedia and YouTube and private pictures/videos from Vienna. The pictures otherwise I have mostly downloaded from the web.