Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bernhard's Prizes. . .

Most of the year's top literary prizes have now been given out but if you're feeling overwhelmed, cynical or a bit weary of the whole circus, then Thomas Bernhard's My Prizes: An Accounting, translated by Carol Brown Janeway, makes for a lovely antidote.

This is not a sour grapes type of book; during his lifetime, Bernhard won all of the top German literary prizes. However his experiences both at the awards ceremonies, the reactions to his speeches, and his musings on the nature and politics of prizes are very amusing. For example, when he won the Georg Büchner Prize (one of Germany's most prestigious literary prizes), he was expected to talk about the famed German writer in his acceptance speech. But while he had the highest respect for him, he felt that there was nothing left to say that hadn't been said before:
We are not allowed to keep talking endlessly about those we consider great and to hitch our own pitiful existence and inadequacies to these great ones with all our efforts and our clamour. It is customary that people when they get a Kant plaque or a Dürer Prize give long speeches about Kant or Dürer, spinning dull threads that extend from the great ones to themselves and squeezing their brains over the audience. This way of proceeding doesn't appeal to me.  . . In short I spoke few sentences. The listeners thought that what I said was an introduction to my speech, but it was the whole thing. I gave a short bow and saw that my audience wasn't pleased with me. But I hadn't come to Darmstadt to make people happy, but only to collect the prize, which came with ten thousand marks and with which Büchner had nothing to do, since he knew nothing about it himself, having died so many decades before there was any idea of funding a Büchner Prize.
Money plays a large, unapologetic part in Bernhard's acceptance of prizes and there are also some entertaining anecdotes about how he chooses to spend the cheques. The most interesting chapter is on the Austrian State Prize for Literature. First he has to constantly correct people and remind them that he won the Small State Prize (for a particular work, in this case, Frost) instead of the more lauded Large State Prize (for a body of work). He's also peeved because the winners of the Small State Prize are usually much younger than he is, and since he despises the Ministry of Culture and Art which is awarding the prize, he feels he's a hypocrite for accepting. However, there is the money:
I'm taking the money, because people should take every penny from the state which throws not just millions but billions out the window on a yearly basis for absolutely nothing at all, every citizen has a right to it and I'm not a fool. . .I don't believe, I said, that I'm lacking character if I take the prize amount from people I bottomlessly loathe and despise, quite the opposite. To compensate for the humiliation of being given the Small State Prize I should be able to take a trip . . . the twenty-five thousand schillings would give me the opportunity to go to Spain, for example, where I'd never been. If I don't take the money for myself and use it to pay for a trip, I said, it will be thrown to some useless person in revenge, who causes nothing but damage with his creations and poisons the air.
Yes, he's grumpy and ungracious at times. But he has a point about the tediousness of being feted by government officials who have no interest in his work, and in one case, don't even bother to greet him at his own prize ceremony.  One official actually walks out during his speech in protest (you can later read the speech at the back of the book).  I wonder what he would have made of the whole Gaspereau Press/Giller Prize controversy.

No comments: