On Earth and in Hell by Thomas Bernhard, trans. by Peter Waugh

Their Last Day's Plight

by James Oliver Firkins

Peter Waugh has translated Thomas Bernhard’s earliest collection of poetry Auf der Erde und in Der Hölle, from German into English. Originally released in 1957, Waugh’s interpretation, titled On Earth and in Hell (Three Rooms Press, 2015), and as the title might suggest, it tackles our most serious and difficult themes.

Incredibly bleak and hard-hitting, Bernhard’s poems, written with a strong personal voice, are undoubtedly a response to the hardships of his life, and are filled with self-loathing, damage, and an unbridled feeling of abandonment. Written in his mid-twenties in post-war Europe, the collection contains death, disgust, and a loathsome desire for success.

Even early in the collection Bernhard offers the reader no respite, giving no illusion of comfort or ease of passage. “On the Black Chests of Country Earth” for instance begins with

On the black chests of country earth
it is written that I shall die in winter

revealing instantly Bernhard’s ultimate focus: death. The theme of death and impending entropy is often explored through scenes of the countryside, and contrasted with usually bright, fecund imagery suddenly washed with grey. The following stanza from "Blowing, the Wind Spoke to These Fields," for example, evokes a strong scene of decay and destruction blended at the end with ironic imagery, crafting a dense world under an eclipse:

Blowing, the wind spoke to these fields:
the dead emerged from deserted taverns,
piled up flesh on the edge of deep black forests,
and drank their last day’s plight
in scorched and barren summer valleys

The collection moves through these leitmotifs sometimes with more subtlety, such as the enigmatic “Tired” –

I saw the blooms of melancholy on my father’s field

to the more obvious “Spring of Black Blooms” –

Spring of black blooms, you’re driven
by the fever of the dead

but almost all of his work features these familiar ingredients, ultimately cementing their relationship with each other in a body of thematic work, and establishing the voice Bernhard will use throughout his career.

Bernhard’s work deals with heavy topics, and could be considered too bleak. Often, this collection fights any attempt to be read for any length of time. Kudos, then, to Waugh for translating each poem, and for those that are able to read both languages, the poems are displayed with the English translation on the right page, and the original German on the left. A little research will reveal that Waugh opted against a literal translation, choosing instead to retain the essence of Bernhard’s voice.

Whether or not you consider these poems too bleak, the New York Times hailed Bernhard’s work as “the most significant literary achievement since World War II.” High praise, then, and surely cause enough to explore On Earth and in Hell for yourself. Just make sure you are prepared, and expect to take regular breaks to remind yourself that life can indeed be worth enjoying.