Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard


Old Masters is an equation without a solution. Thomas Bernhard is an author who habitually treads the invisible line between plausibility and caricature, the insightful and the ridiculous. Everything in the two of his novels that I have so far read (The Loser and Old Masters, though I am currently mid-way through Correction and have by this point pretty much resolved to read them all in reasonably quick succession) refuses to be pinned down, or to fit into a stable category. In Old Masters this polysemy is encoded at every level, and results in a narrative whose every word refuses to be attributed to an established character or perspective, to be reliably ingenuous or disingenuous, or to confirm or deny its own seriousness.

The novel is based around form rather than plot, and its elaborate narrative framing generates its effects. Atzbacher, the narrator, goes to an art gallery and has a conversation with a friend of his called Reger. That, in a manner of speaking, is pretty much all that ‘happens’ – so far so straightforward.  But here’s where it gets complicated. As in The Loser, the story is recounted pretty much in real time, taking the form of the narrator’s recollection of the thoughts that he had on the day in question.  However, while The Loser is narrated in the first person, Old Masters, through the use of two words in its opening sentence, disrupts the relationship between story and storyteller:

Although I had arranged to meet Reger at the Kunsthistoriches Museum at half-past eleven, I arrived at the agreed spot at half-past ten in order, as I had for some time decided to do, to observe him, for once, from the most ideal angle possible and undisturbed, Atzbacher writes.

We are immediately confronted with a category problem. Until its final two words, the sentence presents the reader with relatively few issues. We’re used to this set-up: a narrator figure is telling us a story about something that happened to him in the past. Along the way there will probably be characters and events. He will probably give us his opinions about people and things, express his emotions and feelings, and, if we’re really lucky, he will unwittingly reveal, through the author’s clever use of words, things about himself that he isn’t even aware he is revealing. Perhaps this chain of events, and the way in which he relates it to us, will hold the key to why the narrator is who he really is. We may learn something from this.

But hang on a minute, what does this “Atzbacher writes” mean? Whom can we pin it to, and can we even trust it? We can fairly easily adjust our critical sense to deal with a scenario wherein what we read is being written by a character called Atzbacher (we’ve all read epistolary novels, after all), but does Atzbacher write “Atzbacher writes”? This is a question without an answer. Is Thomas Bernhard reading out to us, as it were, the document that Atzbacher has written? The present tense “Atzbacher writes” carries its own ambiguity. It could be Thomas Bernhard the novelist parenthetically interjecting (though an actual parenthesis, or perhaps even an asterixed note at the bottom of the page, would have helped make this more clear) to inform us that what we are reading is, fictively, a document written by a character called Atzbacher. But then it could equally be part of the plot. We use the present tense to describe what a character ‘does’ in the book – so is Thomas Bernhard the novelist writing a novel in which a character called Atzbacher is currently, in the fictional ‘now’ of the novel, writing what we are reading? Do these words – all of the words in the book – belong to a character called Atzbacher or a writer called Thomas Bernhard?

The polysemy of the narrative is thus ensured from the outset, but becomes increasingly complicated due to the relationship between the two central characters, Atzbacher and Reger. Bernhard is fond of using narrative removal strategies that prevent us from straightforwardly pinning the voice and opinions of the narrative to a given character at a given moment. In this we can see his major influence on W.G Sebald, who in this country remains a more widely read and revered figure. Sebald’s Bernhardian novel Austerlitz consists mostly of a narrator figure recounting the thoughts and opinions of a character called Austerlitz, as they were related to him in a series of conversations. Similarly, in Old Masters, nearly the entire novel consists of the thoughts and opinions of Reger – mostly wild tirades against every aspect of Austrian culture and society – reported to us by Atzbacher.

But in Bernhard this relationship is even more perverse, intertwined and multi-layered. The voices of Atzbacher and Reger are completely indistinguishable. When Atzbacher is narrating his own thoughts, his prose style, his emphatic use of italics, his cadence, his obsessive repetition of key words and phrases, his subject matter, and the sorts of opinions he expresses, are all completely indistinguishable from those that constitute the speech of Reger (as he reports it to us). We can seemingly draw one of two conclusions from this. A). Atzbacher is completely colonised by Reger’s language and attitudes, and merely serves as a mouthpiece for his perspective. Or, B). The only access we have to Reger is through Atzbacher’s words, so he is in fact merely projecting his own perspective onto Reger. Reger, to all intents and purposes, does not really exist. What we are reading is essentially a monologue, with Atzbacher using Reger as a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Again, which of these positions is the true one is a question without an answer. Both theses are equally true and untrue. The fact that this is a piece of writing by Atzbacher rather than Bernhard imagining his internal consciousness (as he does with the narrator character in The Loser), muddies the water even further. It could be Atzbacher’s written recollection of his mental state on the day in question, thus introducing its own narrative unreliability: there is an obvious gap between the composition and continuity of Old Masters, and the flux and disorder of actual mental experience. Or alternatively, the discourse that constitutes Old Masters could just be Atzbacher’s fiction, a rhetorical staging of his views. What we know of Atzbacher at all we get second hand from Reger:

The way you can bear working for decades on a single book without publishing the least part of it, I could not do that… Have you never considered publishing at least a minor section of your work? he asked; some fragment, it all sounds so excellent, your hints about your work

Is this in fact Atzbacher’s unpublished work? We are seemingly invited to infer so, but how can he have been working on it for years previously if all of its events take place on the day in question? Is he just making it all up? Does Reger not, in fact, exist? Can we then even take his evidence as valid? Does it make logical sense to infer evidence of Reger’s non-existence from Reger himself?

As readers of fiction, we want answers to these kinds of question. Are the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw ‘real’? (Answer: no more nor less so than any of the other characters). Who really killed Karamazov? (Answer: both someone and no one). Is the ape in Kafka’s Notes on an Address to the Academy really an ape?  (Answer: no more nor less so than it is really a man). In J.M Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous character gives a lecture on Kafka’s story, in words that neatly summarize the quandary in which the truth-seeking reader is left by Old Masters:

We don’t know and will never know, with certainty, what is going on in this story: whether it is about a man speaking to men or an ape speaking to apes or an ape speaking to men or a man speaking to apes (though the last is, I think, unlikely) or even just a parrot speaking to parrots. There used to be a time when we knew. We used to believe that when the text said “On the table stood a glass of water”, there was indeed a table, and a glass of water on it, and we had only to look in the word-mirror of the text to see them. But all that has ended. The word-mirror is broken, irreparably, it seems. About what is going on in the lecture hall your guess is as good as mine: men and men, men and apes, apes and men, apes and apes. The lecture hall itself may be nothing but a zoo. The words on the page will no longer stand up and be counted, each proclaiming “I mean what I mean!” The dictionary that used to stand beside the Bible and Shakespeare above the fireplace, where in pious Roman homes the household gods were kept, has become just one code book among many.

The equipoise Bernhard achieves through these multiple unresolved tensions and ambiguities, is comparable to that achieved in Kafka’s story, and both bounce off our habitual critical search for answers. It is an art of not knowing rather than knowing, a riddle without an answer, an equation without a solution. It is nonsense masquerading as sense. And this, as Reger/Atzbacher/Berhard tells us, is the ultimate fate of all art:

We are fascinated by a work of art and ultimately it is ridiculous. If you take the trouble, for once, to read Goethe more intently than usual, you will ultimately find that what you read is ridiculous, no matter what it is, you only have to read it more often than usual, it will inevitably become ridiculous and even the cleverest thing is ultimately a nonsense.

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