Old masters

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My devotion to my cultural icons has always bordered on the extreme – once I even visited a museum devoted to the socialist politician Jean Jaurès, just because Jacques Brel wrote a song about him. So when my (then) long-term boyfriend suggested a trip to Austria, all I could think of was getting to Ohlsdorf, former home of one of my favourite authors, Thomas Bernhard. I had read his work practically non-stop since discovering the brilliant Alte Meister (Old Masters) some years before. I loved the musical structure of his sentences which makes him surprisingly easy to read in German with frequent repetition of phrases, his black humour and contempt for humanity.

My boyfriend’s idea of a great trip were days devoted to hiking for 8 hours, kayaking and rock climbing, camping in the wild at night as it was free, whereas all I wanted to do was visit museums, take pictures and sit in cafes which didn’t go down well as these things normally involve spending money. However, he did agree to take me to Ohlsdorf. I remember we set off on our trip at Easter and that I was astonished to find all shops open on Good Friday, unlike in Germany. That though was my mistake as the house was only open at Bank Holidays and weekends so as everything else was open, it was completely closed. My boyfriend was absolutely furious with me and refused to stay until the following day and waste another day’s kayaking. Sad and frustrated, I tried to make the best of things by peeking in through all the windows and exploring the countryside around to get an impression of Thomas Bernhard’s world.

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I did get to speak to his former neighbour though, a man who unsurprisingly wasn’t much liked by the author. The feeling was mutual as he explained what a misanthrope Thomas Bernhard really was and how he exaggerated everything.  I forget the exact details in Karl Ignaz Hennetmair’s ‘My Year with Thomas Bernhard’, but distinctly remember that this same neighbour figured in the infamous episode where TB almost cut off his own leg with a chainsaw. The man was deeply suspicious of all these literary tourists, especially of me as I had read so much of his work, yet was not an academic, although he did pay me the greatest compliment of my life by asking if I was German so obviously, I spoke quite well that day. I made a serious gaffe, however, when I asked where he was from. His eyes narrowed as my boyfriend whispered that he was a farmer and his family must have lived there for generations.

I won’t deny that I didn’t feel a pang of regret on leaving the village as it seemed unlikely I would get there again anytime soon. Strangely, I haven’t read any Thomas Bernhard novels for several years since finishing the autobiography. The man I found so funny turned out to have had the saddest life. Reading about his illegitimacy, his hatred for his stepfather, the death of his beloved grandfather, his own stay in a hospital for a serious lung condition from which he never fully recovered and then the death and destruction in Salzburg during the Second World War was truly harrowing. Opening one of his other books later, the laughter simply stuck in my throat. But he remains my favourite German language author and I hope to return to his books anew very soon. In the meantime, I’ll always have Ohlsdorf.

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