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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.

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.


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.

From the script of the novel «Frost» (1963). From the Thomas Bernhard archive.

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.

August and Edevart. Excerpt from the Norwegian film “Landstrykere” (1989) («Wayfarers») – based on Knut Hamsun’s novel of the year 1927.

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.

«Alte Meister» (1985, Norwegian publication: „Gamle mestere“, 1991)

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”).

Dag Solstad – one of the greatest, still living authors of Norway. Did he become more famous after he began to copy Thomas Bernhard?

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».

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