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Lukas Kummer
Graphic Novel with Pull

Who would have imagined that Thomas Bernhard’s work was so well suited for comics or graphic novels? After Nicolas Mahler, the Austrian cartoonist Lukas Kummer now took on a work by his famous compatriot for the second time.

By Holger Moos

Kummer: Der Keller © Residenz Verlag While Mahler created comic adaptations of Bernhard’s Alte Meister (Old Masters: A Comedy) (2012) and Der Weltverbesserer (i.e., The Do-Gooder) (2014), Lukas Kummer took the autobiographical work of Thomas Bernhard to task. The five volumes were originally published by Residenz Verlag between the years 1975 and 1982 and translated into English by David McLintock in the volume Gathering Evidence & My Prizes: A Memoir.
After Die Ursache. Eine Andeutung (i.e., The Cause. An Indication) (2018) Kummer’s second graphic novel has now been issued by the same publisher. The artist, who was born in Innsbruck in 1988 and lives in Kassel, adapted the second part of the autobiographical writings in Der Keller. Eine Entziehung (i.e., The Cellar.  A Privation), which, according to the publisher, was the “perhaps brightest time” of Thomas Bernhard’s youth.

In the opposite direction

Kummer remains faithful to his style. As in the first part, the pages of Der Keller are populated largely by faceless figures. Thomas Bernhard’s original words are not in speech bubbles, but in text boxes above the pictures.
But how can the pull of Bernhard’s language be represented in pictures? Like the writer, the illustrator also relies on the principle of endless repetition and variation. The protagonist escapes the “limbo” of the hated Salzburg high school by deciding to head off in the “opposite direction.” He leaves the world of the (lower) middle class and begins an apprenticeship the eponymous cellar of a grocer’s shop in the Scherzhauserfeldsiedlung.
Kummer shows us the protagonist running across many pictures and several pages. He runs and runs – always in the “opposite direction” – to this neighbourhood where he finds a little happiness among the resident outcasts and criminals. His employer, the shopkeeper Podlaha, quite unexpectedly becomes a much better teacher than the despots in the “mental annihilation institution” of school.

Happiness in the poorhouse settlement

I must admit that it was first Bernhard’s prose that pulled me into Kummer’s graphic novel. I couldn’t escape this prose, even when it is framed by many almost pictograph-like drawings of different sizes.
But if you leaf through the book a second time and pay attention only to Kummer’s drawings, you grasp that his pictures also tell this story convincingly. In the end, a lung disease drives the protagonist from the poorhouse settlement. Years later, when he happens to meet a worker from the settlement, he realises that the human search for the self and the meaning of life is pointless. On the final pages, Kummer draws only the main character’s slack-looking belly. It is no longer possible for him to raise his head to speak the “truth or apparent truth.”  

Lukas Kummer: Der Keller, p. 6-7 © Lukas Kummer / Residenz Verlag

Thomas Bernhard / Lukas Kummer (Illustrationen): Der Keller. Eine Entziehung. Graphic Novel Logo Rosinenpicker © Goethe-Institut / Illustration: Tobias Schrank
Salzburg, Wien: Residenz Verlag, 2019. 112 S.
ISBN: 978-3-7017-1716-3Text