American Writers Reading Bernhard
Francis M. Sharp (University of the Pacific)
American readers, especially academics, have long recognized that Thomas Bernhard deserves a place in the literary pantheon of world literature. Don Daviau’s 1988 review of his reception in the United States lists superlative after superlative which critics and book reviewers had lavished on this Austrian master of hyperbole and dark humor. In the past few years it has become increasingly evident that American writers have been discovering their own particular affinities with the linguistic wonders and icy perspectives of Bernhard’s fictional world. According to a short overview of this world in The Nation (September 2003), his “macabre humor and disregard for novelistic conventions have prevented a broader reception” in the U.S., although “he is appreciated as a writer's writer, a kindred spirit of Paul Auster, Harold Brodkey, William Gass and Jonathan Franzen.”
In my paper I will attempt to examine both the extent of Bernhard’s influence on contemporary American letters and develop a sense of the locus of his appeal. Besides the four writers mentioned above—Franzen’s novel The Corrections (2001) won the National Book Award—others often mentioned as admirers of Bernhard include Don DeLillo, Donald Barthelme, William Gaddis, Gary Indiana, Richard Burgin, Stephen Dixon, William T. Vollmann, David Foster Wallace, Brian Evenson, Daniel Borzutzky, and Gordon Lish. While the differences in style and subject matter of their fictional works are vast, each of these American individualists has paid homage in his own way to the Bernhard. The central task of my essay will be to find the common factor in their attraction to the Austrian writer and perhaps begin to understand why George Steiner was wrong when in 1983 he foresaw little chance for Bernhard’s literary success in the U. S. or Great Britain “because the Anglo-Saxon mentality differed fundamentally from the Central European."