It was not without a certain amount of trepidation that I approached my first novel by Thomas Bernhard. His reputation precedes him, not only as an unrelentingly bleak, misanthropic monger of doom, but as one who considers such niceties as grammar, punctuation and paragraph breaks – not to mention middlebrow fluff like plot and characters – to be an affront to art. A semi-formed picture was already present in my mind of a perfect storm uniting high modernist impenetrability and bone-dry Germanic austerity – Beckett meets Sebald on a particularly depressing day. Flashbacks of desolate hours spent trying to frube a semblance of import out of The Unnameable long prevented Bernhard, guilty by vague association, from ever making it to the top of my reading list.
I was right on one front – Bernhard gives new meaning to the excellent and seldom-used phrase ‘cantankerous misanthrope’. Never have I experienced such energetically all-encompassing negativity. Salzburg is “the sworn enemy of all art, a cretinous provincial dump with stupid people and cold walls where everything without exception is eventually made cretinous”. Vienna is “that profoundly despised city”. “The ride from Vienna to Lintz is a trip through nothing but utter tastelessness” and “From Lintz to Salzburg things aren’t much better”. The inconspicuous town of Chur has the distinction of being “particularly distasteful”, whose taverns “served the worst wine and most tasteless sausages”, whose inhabitants are “despicable in their Alpine cretinism” and in which “a person can be ruined for life… even if he spends only one night there”. It isn’t hard to see why Bernhard, perhaps the most internationally acclaimed Austrian writer since Robert Musil, isn’t quite afforded the status of National Treasure in the country he slagged off with such virtuosic fervour.
However, despite, and in part because of this rampant pessimism, Bernhard is frequently guffaw-on-public-transport funny, a raconteur of negativity. The Loser is a new shade of black comedy, a romp through the bitter recollections of a failed concert pianist in the hours following the funeral (suicide, naturally) of his only remaining friend. The tale of three musical prodigies who trained together under the tutelage of the legendary Vladimir Horowitz in Salzburg – the caustic narrator, the real-life piano genius Glenn Gould and the eponymous loser, the recently deceased Wertheimer – the novel takes place pretty much in real time, taking the form of narrator’s recollection of the thoughts he had while sitting in an inn on the afternoon of Wertheimer’s funeral.
This set-up leads to the distinctive double and triple removal techniques used by WG Sebald, whom Gabriel Josipovici has called Bernhard’s “more humourless disciple” (much as I love Sebald, I’m always bemused when people try to claim that he’s funny – he isn’t). The obsessive repetition of “I thought”, “he said, I thought” and even “he said, Glenn said, I thought” at the end of Bernhard’s meandering sentences reminds us of the premises of the novel at every turn, insistently preventing the narrative from attaining any illusion of objectivity.
It also seems to be one of Bernhard’s signature techniques to pattern and repeat key words, phrases and syntactic figures in a way that is almost musical. This has the surface effect of mapping out the interior workings of the narrator’s mind, but at the same time – by reminding us that this is the narrator’s recollection of his thoughts rather than the original thoughts themselves – it uncovers the techniques he uses to turn them into a literary narrative. This sort of repetition, it is implicitly acknowledged, is literature’s way of creating the effect of interior thoughts. If you actually stop to think about it, the continuous and artistically modulated narrative of The Loser bears very little resemblance to the thoughts one might conceivably have while sitting in an inn after a funeral.
Through an elegantly paced series of flashbacks and internal anecdotes, we trace the relationship between the three friends, defined by their reaction to Glenn Gould’s genius. While Glenn Gould retreats from the world in slavish devotion to his art – becoming, as Bernhard’s tells us in the first sentence, “the most important piano virtuoso of the century” – Wertheimer and the narrator resign themselves in different ways to a life of inevitable failure in the face of his genius. Both give up the piano and battle suicidal depression. The narrator devotes himself to a rambling, unfinished philosophical essay ‘About Glenn Gould’, while Wertheimer attempts to reinvent himself as a human scientist. Yet while the narrator retreats in misanthropic resignation, Wertheimer self-destructs, eventually hanging himself.
As in Beckett, within this bleak and unmitigated landscape it is gallows humour that pulls us through, and both the narrator and Wetheimer are perversely engaging raconteurs. Wertheimer bears more than a passing resemblance to Saul Bellow’s Von Humbert Fleischer – the self-destructing poet, based on Bellow’s friend Delmore Schwartz, who is the eponymous subject of Humboldt’s Gift. Both are case studies of the crippling burden of predetermined artistic failure. Whereas Wertheimer begins his demise when his talent is eclipsed by that of Glenn Gould (who first christens him ‘the loser’), Humboldt is plagued by the impossibility of realising his over-reaching poetic aspirations, “to be cosmically and magically articulate, able to say anything”.
Whereas Wertheimer self-destructs by feeling too intently, the narrator hides behind the iron curtain of his own misanthropy. Indeed, as we only access Wertheimer and Gould second hand, pre-digested by the re-imagined thoughts of the narrator, The Loser is really a self-portrait. It is also, behind the acid façade, a confession and a study in despairing loneliness. The narrator’s affection for the only two friends he ever had is channelled all the more powerfully by his aggressively anti-sentimental refusal to acknowledge it. The deadpan final words of the novel therefore achieve a greater elegiac resonance than could be achieved by any more overt display of sentiment: “I asked Franz to leave me alone in Wertheimer’s room for a while to put on Glenn’s Goldberg Variations, which I had seen lying on Wertheimer’s record player, which was still open.”
In the light of retrospect, the epigrammatic first sentence – Suicide calculated well in advance, I thought, no spontaneous act of desperation – are the bitter words of the last man standing, a prisoner with no escape route. Gould and Wertheimer may be dead, but it is the narrator who is left alone, burdened with their memories. In the end, there is only one real loser.