Bernhard’s Safety Net

A fine essay by Holly Case in The Nation on Thomas Bernhard, particularly in relationship to his legendary publisher, Siegfried Unseld.

“Where do I get this absolute sense of security on the one hand, and this horrific helplessness on the other?” Bernhard wondered in his autobiography. The answer he gives is personal, yet his perfectionism, his preference for “going it alone” and his unusually intense identification with his work resonated with a strain of the postwar zeitgeist. It was a time of “all or nothing,” one that worshiped the extraordinary, obsessed loner—who was almost always a man—striving toward perfection. In a letter from March 1971, Bernhard compared his situation to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, the 1959 novel by Alan Sillitoe, made into a film in 1962. It’s the story of a boy, Colin Smith, from the wrong side of the tracks in industrial England, who lands in prison and takes up long-distance running as a form of mental escape from the cruelties of prison life. The prison leadership recognizes Smith’s talent and tries to co-opt it, offering him early release if he wins a critical cross-country race. Smith speeds ahead of the others and is favored to win, but then stops short of the finish line in a gesture of defiance. “My situation,” Bernhard wrote to Unseld, “is The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, I have given my present existence this title.”

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