Certificate of Tastelessness


Department of Tomfoolery


Thomas Bernhard in Portugal, 1986.

At this point, we tired of it! Because what happens is, when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in the face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration … Then they do this whole promotional event, and they’ll run the music over somebody’s speech, an artist, because they want commercial advertising. No, we not playing with them no more. —Kanye West on the Grammys, February 8, 2015

Every year, the stately procession of awards shows delivers us another imbroglio, and every year I wish that Thomas Bernhard, who would be eighty-four today, was still around to take the piss out of them. In a just world, our country’s glossiest magazines would pay Bernhard to attend awards shows around the world, allotting him thousands of words with which to vent his signature blend of misanthropy, contumely, vitriol, and spleen, with no paragraph breaks. “Everything is fundamentally sick and sad,” Bernhard once wrote. And: “There is nothing but failure.” If the Kanye Wests of our time were stealing the stage to say stuff like that, the state of our union would be stronger.

Bernhard was full of vinegar for just about everyone and everything, but so severe was his allergy to pomp and circumstance that he wrote a book about it. My Prizes: An Accounting describes a variety of banal ceremonies Bernhard was swindled into attending because, you know, he was being feted at them. “The Grillparzer Prize,” which opens the collection, provides a useful blueprint for anyone who hopes to disrupt the prizewinning paradigm. Some general instructions follow.

Step One: Fly by the seat of your pants, and make sure those pants are only a few hours old. The start of “The Grillparzer Prize” finds Bernhard buying a suit on a whim off the rack at St. Anthony’s, one of the “so-called finer emporiums” where “even if the customer immediately says what he’s looking for in the most concise terms, at first he’ll be started at incredulously until he repeats what he wants … I myself knew better than the salesman where to find the suit I was looking for.”

He wears it out of the store—carrying his street clothes in a “deeply repellent” bag with the St. Anthony’s insignia on it—and soon discovers that it doesn’t fit.

Step Two: Attend the ceremony with your aunt. Why not? Bonus points if she’s a phlegmatic, affectless, eighty-one-year-old aunt whose catchphrase is “Well, all right.” “She was very happy about the fact that the Academy of Sciences was awarding me that Grillparzer Prize today, she said, and proud, but more happy than proud.”

Step Three: “Eat a sandwich to forestall any malaise or even fainting episode during the proceedings.”

Step Four: No matter what, act as if you’ve been snubbed the moment you arrive. Sit in the back of the room and refuse to take your assigned seat until the most important person in the house greets you, thus preventing the ceremony from starting on time.

Up in front on the podium at ever-decreasing intervals excited gentlemen were running this way and that as if they were looking for something, namely me. The running this way and that by the gentlemen on the podium went on for a while, during which unrest was already breaking out in the hall. In the meantime the Minister of Sciences had arrived and taken her seat in the front row … Suddenly I saw a gentleman on the podium whisper something into the ear of another gentleman while simultaneously pointing into the tenth or eleventh row with an outstretched hand, I was the only one who knew he was pointing at me. What happened next is as follows: The gentleman who had whispered something into the ear of the other gentleman and pointed at me went down into the hall and right to my row and made his way along to me. Yes, he said, why are you sitting here when you’re the most important person in this celebration and not up front in the first row where we, he actually said we, where we have reserved two places for you and your companion? Yes, why? … The President, said the gentleman, is asking you please to come to the front, so please come to the front, your seat is right next to the Minister, Herr Bernhard. Yes I said if it’s that simple, but naturally I will only go into the first row if President Hunger has requested me personally to do so, it goes without saying only if President Hunger is inviting me personally to do so … I saw that President Hunger was laboriously making his way toward me. Now is the time to stand firm, I thought, demonstrate my intransigence, courage, single-mindedness. I’m not going to go and meet them, I thought, just as (in the deepest sense of the word) they didn’t meet me.

Step Five: Judge everyone. “The minister was snoring, even if quietly, she was snoring the world-famous ministerial snore. My aunt was following the so-called ceremony with the greatest attention, when some turn of phrase in one of the speeches sounded too stupid or even too comical, she gave me a complicit glance.”

Step Six: When receiving your prize, regard it as an icon of hollowness, the apex of nihilism. “I stood up and went to Hunger. He shook my hand and gave me a so-called award certificate of tastelessness, like every other award certificate I have ever received, that was beyond comparison … I thought over the entire ceremony now ending, whose peculiarity and tastelessness and mindlessness naturally had not yet had the chance to register in my consciousness.”

Step Seven: Leave early when no one is looking. “After a time the minister looked around and asked in a voice in which inimitable arrogance competed with stupidity: So, where is the little poet? I had been standing right next to her but I didn’t dare to make myself known. I took my aunt and we left the hall.”

Step Eight: Return the suit. It doesn’t fit anyway. Nothing fits. “Whoever buys the suit I have just returned, I thought, has no idea that it’s been with me at the awarding of the Grillparzer Prize of the Academy of Sciences in Vienna. It was an absurd thought, and at this absurd thought I took heart.”

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.