The Voice Imitator

The Voice Imitator


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The Austrian playwright, novelist, and poet Thomas Bernhard (1931-89) is acknowledged as among the major writers of our times. At once pessimistic and exhilarating, Bernhard's work depicts the corruption of the modern world, the dynamics of totalitarianism, and the interplay of reality and appearance.

In this stunning translation of The Voice Imitator, Bernhard gives us one of his most darkly comic works. A series of parable-like anecdotes—some drawn from newspaper reports, some from conversation, some from hearsay—this satire is both subtle and acerbic. What initially appear to be quaint little stories inevitably indict the sterility and callousness of modern life, not just in urban centers but everywhere. Bernhard presents an ordinary world careening into absurdity and disaster. Politicians, professionals, tourists, civil servants—the usual victims of Bernhard's inspired misanthropy—succumb one after another to madness, mishap, or suicide. The shortest piece, titled "Mail," illustrates the anonymity and alienation that have become standard in contemporary society: "For years after our mother's death, the Post Office still delivered letters that were addressed to her. The Post Office had taken no notice of her death."

In his disarming, sometimes hilarious style, Bernhard delivers a lethal punch with every anecdote. George Steiner has connected Bernhard to "the great constellation of Kafka, Musil, and Broch," and John Updike has compared him to Grass, Handke, and Weiss. The Voice Imitator reminds us that Thomas Bernhard remains the most caustic satirist of our age.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226044026
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/28/1998
Edition description: 1
Pages: 114
Sales rank: 577,620
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Thomas Bernhard (1931-89) grew up in Salzburg and Vienna, where he studied music. In 1957 he began a second career as a playwright, poet, and novelist. He went on to win many of the most prestigious literary prizes of Europe (including the Austrian State Prize, the Bremen and Brüchner prizes, and Le Prix Séguier), became one of the most widely admired writers of his generation, and insisted at his death that none of his works be published in Austria for seventy years, a provision later repealed by his half-brother.

Translator, scholar, and stage actor Kenneth J. Northcott (1922–2019) was professor emeritus of Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago and the translator of numerous German-language books for the University of Chicago Press. He is especially known for his inspired translations of works by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, all of which remain in print: The Voice Imitator, Walking, Three Novellas, and Histrionics: Three Plays. 

Read an Excerpt



Near Oslo we met a man of about sixty who told us more about the old people's home than we already knew from reading Hamsun's accounts of the last year of his life, because he had been working in the home at precisely the time during which the greatest of Norwegian writers was living there. The man's taciturnity had attracted our attention in the inn near Oslo — usually so noisy on a Friday evening — where we were staying for several nights. After we had sat down at his table and introduced ourselves, we learned that the man had originally been a philosophy student and had, among other things, spent four years studying at Göttingen. We had taken him for a Norwegian ship's captain and had come to his table to hear some more about seafaring, not about philosophy, from which, indeed, we had fled north from Central Europe. But the man didn't bother us with philosophy and said he had actually given up philosophy overnight and put himself at the disposal of geriatrics at the age of twenty-seven. He said he did not regret his decision. He told us his first task had been to help an old man get out of bed, make the bed for him, and then put him back into it. The old man was Hamsun. He had looked after Hamsun every day for several months, had taken him out into the garden that lay behind the old people's home, and had gone to the village for him to buy the pencils that Hamsun used to write his last book. He was, he said, the first person to see Hamsun dead. In the nature of things, he said, he was not yet certain who Hamsun was when he pulled the sheet up over his face.


The voice imitator, who had been invited as the guest of the surgical society last evening, had declared himself — after being introduced in the Palais Pallavinci — willing to come with us to the Kahlenberg, where our house was always open to any artist whatsoever who wished to demonstrate his art there — not of course without a fee. We had asked the voice imitator, who hailed from Oxford in England but who had attended school in Landshut and had originally been a gunsmith in Berchtesgaden, not to repeat himself on the Kahlenberg but to present us something entirely different from what he had done for the surgical society; that is, to imitate quite different people from those he had imitated in the Palais Pallavinci, and he had promised to do this for us, for we had been enchanted with the program that he had presented in the Palais Pallavinci. In fact, the voice imitator did imitate voices of quite different people — all more or less well known — from those he had imitated before the surgical society. We were allowed to express our own wishes, which the voice imitator fulfilled most readily. When, however, at the very end, we suggested that he imitate his own voice, he said he could not do that.


Two philosophers, about whom more has been written than they themselves have published, who met again — after not seeing one another for decades — in, of all places, Goethe's house in Weimar, to which they had gone, in the nature of things, separately and from opposite directions — something that, since it was winter and consequently very cold, had presented the greatest difficulties to both of them — simply for the purpose of getting to know Goethe's habits better, assured each other, at this unexpected and for both of them painful meeting, of their mutual respect and admiration and at the same time told each other that, once back home, they would immerse themselves in each other's writings with the intensity appropriate to, and worthy of, those writings. When, however, one of them said he would give an account of his meeting in the Goethe House in the newspaper that was, in his opinion, the best and would do so, in the nature of things, in the form of a philosophical essay, the other immediately resisted the idea and characterized his colleague's intention as character assassination.


In Montreux, on Lake Geneva, we noticed a lady sitting on a park bench on the shore of the lake, who would, from time to time, on this same park bench, receive and then dismiss again the most diverse visitors, without moving a muscle. Twice a car stopped in front of her on the lake shore, and a young man in uniform got out, brought her the newspapers, and then drove off again; we thought it must be her private chauffeur. The lady was wrapped in several blankets, and we guessed her age to be well over seventy. Sometimes she would wave at a passerby. Probably, we thought, she is one of those rich and respectable Swiss ladies who live on Lake Geneva in the winter while their business is carried on in the rest of the world. The woman was, as we were soon informed, actually one of the richest and most respectable of the Swiss ladies who spend the winter on Lake Geneva; for twenty years she had been a paraplegic and had had her chauffeur drive her almost every day for those twenty years to the shore of Lake Geneva, had always had herself installed on the same bench, and had had the newspapers brought to her. For decades Montreux has owed fifty percent of its tax revenues to her. The famous hypnotist Fourati had hypnotized her twenty years ago and had been unable to bring her out of the hypnosis. In this way Fourati, as is well known, had ruined not only the lady's life but his own as well.


At the end of the winter a Salzburg couple, who had always worked separately and were now enjoying a joint double pension, hit upon the idea of taking a trip to Zell-on-the-Lake in the Pinzgau, and for this purpose they obtained a brochure on this highly acclaimed town so that they could glance through it to find a small hotel that might suit their purpose for two or three weeks. The couple, who were fond of traveling, did find a hotel in the brochure that seemed to be what they had in mind and seemed to meet their requirements, and they set out on their journey to Zell-on- the-Lake. When, however, they entered the hotel they had chosen, they were forced to the realization that everything they had expected in the hotel was exactly the contrary of their expectations. For example, the rooms described in the brochure as very pleasant were dark, and it seemed to the horrified couple as if a closed coffin had been set down on the floor of every one of those rooms, always with their own name inscribed upon it.


The mayors of Pisa and Venice had agreed to scandalize visitors to their cities, who had for centuries been equally charmed by Venice and Pisa, by secretly and overnight having the tower of Pisa moved to Venice and the campanile of Venice moved to Pisa and set up there. They could not, however, keep their plan a secret, and on the very night on which they were going to have the tower of Pisa moved to Venice and the campanile of Venice moved to Pisa they were committed to the lunatic asylum, the mayor of Pisa in the nature of things to the lunatic asylum in Venice and the mayor of Venice to the lunatic asylum in Pisa. The Italian authorities were able to handle the affair in complete confidentiality.


In June of last year, a Tyrolean was arraigned on a charge of murdering a schoolchild from Imst and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The Tyrolean, a typesetter by profession and employed for thirty years, to the complete satisfaction of the proprietor, in a printing plant in Innsbruck, had attempted to justify his action by testifying that he had been frightened of the schoolchild from Imst, but the jury did not believe him, for the typesetter, who was actually born in Schwaz and whose father had earned great respect as the master of the Tyrolean guild of butchers, was six foot two tall and, as the jury determined in the courtroom, was capable of lifting a three-hundred-pound ball six feet off the ground without faltering. The Tyrolean had murdered the schoolchild from Imst with a so-called mason's mallet.


Our uncle, who owned a tobacco factory in Innsbruck and a so-called summer house in Stams and whom, for this reason, we called our Innsbruck uncle, had, on New Year's Day 1967, asked at the main station in Innsbruck for a round- trip ticket to Merano and, as we were told by witnesses, had actually boarded a train bound for Merano with an unusually large amount of luggage. He never arrived in Merano, however, and no one has ever heard anything more of him, although the investigation was abandoned only after two years' intensive search. Meanwhile, the tobacco factory has been closed and the summer house sold because the investigation has consumed all the so- called fortune that our Innsbruck uncle had left behind. No buyer has yet been found for the tobacco factory, in which three hundred workers had been employed, who, in the meantime, have all had to be dismissed because the demand for tobacco has fallen in recent years and our uncle's factory is, in fact, out-of-date. We are told, however, that it must be sold if the lawyers who involved themselves in the search for my uncle demand their customary high fees. Each spring we think of how we used to go to Innsbruck and spend the night with our uncle and then go with him next day, at the crack of dawn, to Stams to spend several days in his summer house, reading and going for walks in the surrounding forests. We are convinced that the good health we have enjoyed for so many years is to be attributed first and foremost to the fact that we went to see our uncle, in Innsbruck and in Stams, twice a year, in spring and in autumn. To the accident that our uncle met with on the journey to Merano we attribute the fact that when we now go on a trip, we never buy a round-trip ticket, but always ask for a one-way.


Firemen from Krems were arraigned because they pulled away the safety blanket they had been holding out and ran away at the very moment at which the suicide, who had for several hours been standing on a ledge on the fifth floor of a Krems apartment building and had threatened to jump to his death, actually jumped. The youngest of the firemen stated in court that he had acted out of a sudden inner compulsion and that he had run away, without letting go of the safety blanket, when he saw that the suicide had carried out his threat. As he was the strongest of all the six firemen, he had dragged the other five, together with the safety blanket, along with him, and, at the very moment when the suicide, an unhappy student according to the newspaper, had smashed onto the square in front of the house to which he had been clinging for so long, they had all, he went on to say, flung themselves to the ground and sustained more or less painful injuries. The court before which the fireman who had been the first to run away and who, as we said, being the youngest and the strongest of them, was arraigned as the chief defendant could not deny the responsibility of the chief defendant and acquitted him together with the other five Krems firemen although, in the nature of things, not convinced of his innocence. The Krems fire department has for decades been reputed to be the very best fire department in the world.


So-called speleologists who have made it their life's work to study caves and always attract the greatest interest, especially among those who read the big-city magazines, recently explored the cave between Taxenbach and Schwarzach, which, as we learned from the newspaper, had until then been totally unexplored. At the end of August and in ideal weather conditions, as the Salzburger Volksblatt reports, speleologists entered the cave with the firm intention of coming out of the cave again in mid-September. When, however, the speleologists had not come out of the cave even by the end of September, a rescue team had formed, calling itself The Speleological Rescue Team, and had set off for the cave to come to the aid of the speleologists who had originally entered the cave at the end of August. But this Speleological Rescue Team itself had not come out of the cave by mid-October, which induced the Salzburg Provincial Government to send a second Speleological Rescue Team into the cave. This second Speleological Rescue Team was composed of the strongest and bravest men in the province and was equipped with the most up-to-date so- called Cave Rescue Apparatus. This second Speleological Rescue Team, however, just like the first, entered the cave according to plan but even by the beginning of December had not returned from the cave. At this point the department of the Salzburg Provincial Government responsible for speleology commissioned a firm of building contractors in the Pongau to wall up the cave between Taxenbach and Schwarzach, and this was done before the New Year.


In Lima, a man was arrested who stubbornly maintained that he wished to go into the Andes to look for his wife, who had gone into the Tauern mountains the year before and who, as the man is said to have deposed before the Lima police, had apparently lost her way in the neighborhood of the Tappenkar and fallen into a crevasse. But since the Tauern and, in the nature of things, the Tappenkar too lie in the Salzburg Alps, as even the police officers in Lima knew, it is not surprising that the Peruvian police officers asked the man, whom, in a state of total neglect, wearing only a pair of ragged trousers and a so-called Carinthian peasant shirt, they had arrested in downtown Lima because he had appeared suspicious to them, what he was really after in Peru. The man who was arrested was actually born in Ferlach in Carinthia and was a wealthy Austrian who ran a flourishing gunsmith's business in that town. Our newspaper gave no further details.


On our last trip to the Mölltal, where, no matter what time of year it is, we have always enjoyed ourselves, we were in a tavern in Obervellach that had been recommended to us by a doctor from Linz and had not disappointed us and were chatting with a group of journeyman masons who had gathered at the tavern after work and were playing the zither and singing, thus reminding us once again of the inexhaustible treasures of Carinthian folk music. Late in the evening, the group of journeyman masons came and sat down at our table, and each one of them related something memorable or remarkable from his own life. We were particularly struck by the journeyman mason who reported that at the age of seventeen, in order to win a bet he had made with a fellow worker, he had climbed the church steeple in Tamsbach, which, as is well known, is very tall. I almost fell to my death, said the journeyman mason, and he expressly emphasized that because of this he had almost appeared in the newspaper.


The courtroom correspondent is the closest of all to human misery and its absurdity and, in the nature of things, can endure the experience only for a short time, and certainly not for his whole life, without going crazy. The probable, the improbable, even the unbelievable, the most unbelievable are paraded before him every day in the courtroom, and because he has to earn his daily bread by reporting on actual or alleged but in any case, in the nature of things, shameful crimes, he is soon no longer surprised by anything at all. I will, however, tell you about a single incident that still seems to me the most remarkable event of my whole career as a courtroom correspondent. Ferrari, a judge on the Provincial Court of Appeals in Salzburg, for years the dominant figure in the Salzburg Provincial Court — from which, as I said, I reported on everything conceivable — after pronouncing a sentence of twelve years' imprisonment and a fine of eight million schillings on, as he put it in his summation, a vile blackmailer, who was — I remember exactly — a beef exporter from Murau, stood up again and said that he would now set an example. After this unusual announcement, he put his hand under his gown and into his coat pocket as quick as lightning, pulled out a pistol on which the safety catch had already been released, and shot himself — to the horror of all those present in the courtroom — in the left temple. He died instantly.


An old lady who lived near us had gone too far in her charity. She had, as she thought, taken in a poor Turk, who at the outset was grateful that he no longer had to live in a hovel scheduled to be torn down but was now — through the charity of the old lady — allowed to live in her town house surrounded by a large garden. He had made himself useful to the old lady as a gardener and, as time went by, was not only completely re-outfitted with clothes by her but was actually pampered by her. One day the Turk appeared at the police station and reported that he had murdered the old lady who had, out of charity, taken him into her house. Strangled, as the officers of the court determined on the visit they immediately made to the scene of the crime. When the Turk was asked by the officers of the court why he had murdered the old lady by strangling her, he replied, out of charity.


Excerpted from "The Voice Imitator"
by .
Copyright © 1997 The University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Voice Imitator
Character Assassination
Pisa and Venice
One-Way Journey
Inner Compulsion
In Lima
Good Advice
Early Train
Beautiful View
The Tables Turned
Hotel Waldhaus
Haumer the Logger
In Earnest
Too Much
Disappointed Englishmen
The Most Successful Concert
Scientific Purposes
Profound and Shallow
Moosprugger's Mistake
At Their Mercy
De Orio
A Famous Dancer
Guilty Conscience
Piccadilly Circus
In the Frauengraben
The Panthers
Wrong Note
The Auszugler
The Milkmaid
The Needlewoman
The Loden Coat
Boundary Stone
Two Brothers
Natural History
Question in the Provincial Parliament
Two Notes
Unrequited Love
Party of Tourists
True Love
A Self-Willed Author
Unfulfilled Wish
Presence of Mind
Supplemental Income
No Soul
The Prince
Prince Potocki
The Royal Vault
Coming to Terms
Civil Service
After You
Political Science
Near Sulden
In Rome
Like Robert Schumann
998 Times

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