The ultimate outsider


Thomas Bernhard. — Died February 12, 1989, age 58


“After thirty-five years with someone you are suddenly alone. Everything is gone. Each day you wake up in a nightmare. You also want to die. Somehow you get through the day, but each month you are driven closer to madness. Only people who have gone through it understand.”

The Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard was referring to Hedwig Stavianicek, a 56-year-old woman he met when he was nineteen.

Thomas Bernhard and Hedwig Stavianicek
Thomas Bernhard with Hedwig Stavianicek. (See note below.)

Bernhard had been abandoned by his unmarried mother who made no secret of her loathing for him. His father was a petty criminal who refused to acknowledge his son.

Young Thomas was sent to live with his grandparents in Vienna. He adored his grandfather, Johannes Freumbichler, a writer and intellectual.

“During my childhood and youth,” Bernhard recalled, “he would talk to me over and over about the greatest artists — Mozart and Rembrandt, Beethoven and Leonardo, Bruckner and Delacroix.”

But Hedwig Stavianicek was his Lebensmensch, a word coined by Bernhard which means the most important person in one’s life. She became his anchor and furthered his literary career. Bernhard cared for until she died in 1984 at the age of 90.Thomas Bernhard AND HEDWIG

“Thomas Bernhard is a best-selling author in German-speaking countries and much esteemed in France, Spain and Italy,” wrote David McLintock, one of his translators. “Yet in Great Britain and the United States he has few readers.”

Bernhard was plagued with health problems throughout his life, several times coming close to death. In the last ten years of his life he needed constant medical care for his lungs. He made a decision not to go on and chose death by assisted suicide.

Thomas Bernhard was many things to the critics — a “stubborn loner,” a “humorous tragedian,” a “suffering rebel,” a “comedian infatuated with gloom.”

But in the end, the enormously prolific writer summed up life in four words: So long! Nothing matters.


Thomas Bernhard and Hedwig
‘So long! Nothing matters.’

Thomas Bernhard wrote novels, plays, poetry and essays. His novels include:

And his dark, brilliant memoir, Gathering Evidencetranslated by David McLintock.

Note: The photo above of Thomas Bernhard and Hedwig Stavianicek was previously confused with this photo of Bernhard and journalist Hilde Spiel:

Thomas Bernhard and journalist Hilde Spiel.

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4 thoughts on “The ultimate outsider

  1. In my reading of Bernhard this is the picture of Hedwig that came up. Who do you think is in the photo?

  2. You are correct, sir, the woman in the previous picture was Hilde Spiel. Correction has been made with the right photo of Bernard and Hedwig. Thank you. I am most grateful you pointed this out.