THOMAS BERNHARD ON VIENNESE COFFEEHOUSES

On his Viennese coffeehouse disease

Below I share Thomas Bernhard's self-deprecating look at his own contradictory relationship to the coffee house culture of his own time. This "rant" is from pages 82-87 of:

WITTGENSTEIN'S UNCLE
By Thomas Bernhard. Translated from the German by David McLintock.
100 pages. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988 (From the 1982 German edition.
ISBN: 0-226-04392-4

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Sitting on the park bench, I recalled that at the Sacher he always preferred to sit in the right-hand lounge, because he found the chairs there more comfortable but above all because he judged the paintings on the walls to be better executed, while I naturally preferred to sit in the left-hand lounge, because of the foreign newspapers, especially the English and French newspapers, that were always available there and because of the more wholesome air. When we went to the Sacher, therefore, we would sit sometimes in the right-hand and sometimes in the left-hand lounge. When I was in Vienna (and in those years I spent more of my time in Vienna) the Sacher was our favorite resort, since it was ideally suited to our speculations; it therefore went without saying that we would meet there or, if for some reason the Sacher was out of the question, at the Ambassador. I have known the Sacher for nearly thirty years, since the time when I used to sit there nearly every day with friends belonging to the circle of the brilliant composer Lampersberg, who was also as mad as he was brilliant. At this time, around 1957, I had just completed my studies, and it was the most difficult period of my life. These friends introduced me to the refined world of the Sacher, Vienna's premier coffee-house -- not, I am thankful to say, to one that was frequented by the literary folk, whom I have basically always found repugnant, but to one frequented by their victims. At the Sacher I could get all the newspapers, which I have always had to have since the age of twenty-two or twenty-three, and could spend hours study them in one of the comfortable corners of the left-hand lounge without being disturbed. I can still see myself sitting there for whole mornings, scanning the pages of Le Monde or The Times and never having my enjoyment interrupted for a moment; as far as I recall I was never disturbed at the Sacher. At the literary coffeehouse I could never have devoted myself to the newspapers for a whole morning without interruption; before so much as half an hour had passed I would have been disturbed by some writer making his entrance, accompanied by his retinue. I always found such company distasteful because it deflected me from my real intentions, rudely impeding what I considered essential and never facilitating it, as I would have wished. The literary coffeehouses have a foul atmosphere, irritating to the nerves and deadening to the mind. I have never learned anything new there but only been annoyed and irritated and pointlessly depressed. At the Sacher I was never irritate or depressed, or even annoyed, and very often I was actually able to work -- in my own fashion, of course, not in the fashion of those who work in the literary coffeehouses. At the Brauenerhof, above which my friend had lived for years before we met, I am still put off by the foul aim and the poor lighting, which is kept down to a minimum -- doubtless from perverse considerations of economy -- and in which I have never been able to read a single line without effort. I also disliked the seating, which is inevitably damaging to the spinal column, however briefly one sits there -- to say nothing of the pungent smell that emanates from the kitchen and very soon get into one's clothes. Yet at the same time the Braunerhof has great merits, though these do not suffice for my peculiar purposes. These consist of the extreme attentiveness of the waiters and the unfailing courtesy of the proprietor, which is neither exaggerated nor perfunctory. But at the Braunerhof a dreadful twilight reigns all day long -- a boon to young couples or old invalids but not to someone like myself, who wishes to concentrate on studying books and newspapers. I attach the utmost importance to reading books and newspapers every morning, and in the course of my intellectual life I have specialized in reading English and French newspapers, having found the German press unbearable every since I first began to read. What is the Frankfurter Allegemeine, for instance, compared with The Times, I have often asked myself, what is the Suddeutsche Zeitung beside Le Monde? The answer is that the Germans are just not English and certainly not French. From my early youth I have regarded the ability to read English and French books and newspapers as the greatest advantage I possess. What would my world be like, I often wonder, if I had to rely on the German papers, which are for the most part little more than garbage sheets -- to say nothing of the Austrian newspapers, which are not newspapers at all but mass-circulation issues of unusable toilet paper? At the Braunerhof one's thoughts are immediately stifled by cigarette smoke and kitchen fumes, and by the twaddle that is talked by the semi-educated and the demisemi-educated of Vienna as they let off their social steam at midday. At the Braunerhof people talk either too loudly or too softly for my liking, and the service is either too slow or too fast. The Braunerhof is inimical to all my daily requirements, yet this is precisely what makes it the archetypal Viennese coffeehouse -- like the Café Hawelka, completely downmarket. I have always detested the typical Viennese coffeehouse, famous the world over, because I find everything about it inimical to me. Yet for many years it was at the Braunerhof that I felt at home, despite the fact that, like the Hawelka, it was always totally inimical to me, just as I felt at home at the Café Museum and at the various other establishments I frequented during my years in Vienna. I have always hated the Viennese coffeehouse, but I go on visiting them. I have visited them everyday, for although I have always hated them -- and because I have always hated them --I have always suffered for the Viennese coffeehouse disease. I have suffered more from this disease than from any other. I frankly have to admit that I still suffer from this disease, which has proved the most intractable of all. The truth is that I have always hated the Viennese coffeehouse because in them I am always confronted with people like myself, and naturally I do not wish to be everlastingly confronted with people like myself, and certainly not in a coffeehouse where I go to escape from myself. Yet it is here that I find myself confronted with myself and my kind. I find myself insupportable, and even more insupportable is a whole horde of writers and brooders like myself. I avoid literature whenever possible, because whenever possible I avoid myself, and so when I am in Vienna I have to forbid myself to visit the coffeehouses, or at least I have to be careful not to visit a so-called literary coffeehouse under any circumstances whatever. However, suffering as I do from the coffeehouse disease, I feel an unremitting compulsion to visit some literary coffeehouse or other, even thought everything within me rebels against the idea. The truth is that the more deeply I detest the literary coffeehouse of Vienna, the most strongly I feel compelled to frequent them. Who knows how my life would have developed if I had not met Paul Wittgenstein at the height of the crisis that, but for him, would probably have pitched me headlong into the literary world, the most repellent of all worlds, the world of Viennese writers and their intellectual morass, for at the height of this crisis the obvious course would have been to take the easy way out, to make myself cheap and compliant, to surrender and throw in my lot with the literary fraternity. Paul preserved me from this, since he had always detested the literary coffeehouses. It was thus not without reason, but more or less to save myself, that from one day to the next I stopped frequenting the so-called literary coffeehouses and started going to the Sacher with him -- no longer to the Hawelka but to the Ambassador, etc., until eventually the moment came when I could once more permit myself to go to the literary coffeehouse, when they no longer had such a deadly effect on me. For the truth is that the literary coffeehouses do have a deadly effect on a writer. Yet it is equally true that I am still more at home in my Viennese coffeehouses that I am in my own home at Nathal.


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