When first encountering the fiction of Thomas Bernhard, the voice and form provoke the reader to make a decision: these are either the words of an unbalanced rambler, or we have before us the work of one of literature's major stylists. It only takes a few more pages of reading to realize it isn’t rambling.
Bernhard's career as a novelist spans the 1960s to 1980s (he died in 1989), but most of his novels weren't translated into English until the 1990s. Back-cover copy on the Vintage paperback edition of The Loser states that “his formal innovation ranks with Beckett and Kafka, his outrageously cantankerous voice recalls Dostoevsky, but his gift for lacerating, lyrical provocative prose is incomparably his own.” We enjoy the arch close-reading of a copywriter as much as anyone, and neither is mocking someone’s hyperbolic marketing beyond us, but after considering Bernhard’s work...and then looking at that sentence...and then turning back to Bernhard…well, okay. Maybe so.
The Loser is ostensibly a recounting of what happened to two talented pianists after they were unfortunate enough to study next to Glenn Gould—unfortunate, because time spent next to a genius incontrovertibly damages the confidence and vitality of the lesser artists. The narrator of the novel is one of the two, and the occasion of the writing is the death, by suicide, of Wertheimer, who was the other. The novel consists of four paragraphs: the first three are dispatched with on the first page, and the fourth runs 170 pages. Early in that fourth paragraph—it makes no sense to call it a paragraph, but you know what we mean—the narrator says:
We begin as piano virtuosos, and then start rummaging about and foraging in the human sciences and philosophy and finally go to seed. Because we didn’t reach the absolute limit and go beyond this limit, I thought, because we gave up in the face of a genius in our field. But if I’m honest I could never have become a piano virtuoso, because at bottom I never wanted to be a piano virtuoso, because I always had the greatest misgivings about it and misused my virtuosity at the piano in my deterioration process, indeed I always felt from the beginning that piano players were ridiculous; seduced by my thoroughly remarkable talent at the piano, I drilled it into my piano playing and then, after one and a half decades of torture, chased it back out again, abruptly, unscrupulously.Bernhard’s writing reads, at a certain level, like the uncompromising work of a writer who takes, as his subject matter, the lives of characters who refuse compromise. It’s a fictionalized Glenn Gould who appears in The Loser, but the choice of name and position makes sense: if one isn’t interested in holding any chair other than the first, then the result of seeing or hearing someone of Gould's caliber moves that goal forever out of reach. The Loser concerns characters who gave their lives over to the piano, and who discovered there a transcendent beauty. What is unfortunate—the nasty turn they have had to deal with—is simply that the transcendent beauty they discovered wasn’t theirs, it was Gould’s.
A related passage from the novel—and this, too, appears early, is just Bernhard setting the table—appears when the narrator recounts a conversation he had with Gould:
The majority of even the most famous piano players haven’t a clue about their art, he said. But it’s like that in all the arts, I said, just like that in painting, in literature, I said, even philosophers are ignorant of philosophy. Most artists are ignorant of their art. They have a dilettante’s notion of art, remain stuck all their lives in dilettantism, even the most famous artists in the world. We understood each other immediately, we were, I have to say it, attracted from the first moment by our differences, which actually were completely opposite in our of course identical conception of art.The overlapping, indefinite shifts of dialogue and narration, the eccentric use of italics, the ability to carry a tone that can shift, at any moment, from grotesque and disturbing to deeply, deeply funny: that is Bernhard.
Example: in Frost, Bernhard’s first novel, a medical student is sent by his supervisor to a rural German town to report on the supervisor’s brother, “the painter Strauch.” The medical student pursues this project under the cover of claiming to be a law student spending some time reading Henry James, a fraud so odd that of course no one ever questions it. The novel, ostensibly the contents of the medical student’s notebook, consists primarily of loose, circular, wide-ranging attacks the aging painter makes on the residents of the country town specifically ("Time sends them on their way to unchastity with a slap,” he complains darkly, "Some are more accomplished at concealing it than others. With the canny ones you only realize when they're all done. But it's for nothing. All of them live a sex life, and not a life.") and on humanity in general as he and the medical student take daily walks in the cold and snow. Alternately spinning out gnomic insights and shreds of seeming-nonsense, he seems a person without any connection to day-to-day life at all, outside of his thoughts on a former profession:
The substitute teacher's union had kept trying to force him to join. "Even though I was only an occasional substitute...Just imagine, they sometimes waited for me in the street. They made threats against me." But they didn't know how stubborn he could be when it came to sticking up for one of his principles. "In addition to the substitute teachers' union, there was also a 'substitute teachers' association,' which was an informal initiative on the part of the substitutes. They meet every Saturday afternoon. Apparently they pass resolutions. What resolutions? I have no idea what resolutions. How they mean to oppose their union. How to support their union against other unions. How to oppose the school authorities. The state. Their enemies. Anyone they feel is doing them wrong." Apparently, there was also a "substitute teachers' fund," for the support of the widows and orphans of substitutes. "I've got nothing against such support...But basically I don't care how worthy a cause can be, I'm not joining..."It would be inaccurate to suggest that Strauch is as focused and funny as that throughout the novel. He is vicious, confused, hypchondriacal, wily, depressed, disgusted and disgusting, contemptuous and admiring, quiet, thoughtful, raving, and enraged, and the constant walk-taking in Frost lends the novel the quality of a picaresque whose characters never actually manage to travel anywhere other than back to the inn where they live. Bernhard overlaps the dialogue of the painter and narrator enough that we suspect, long before he admits it, that the narrator is beginning to internalize Strauch’s speech patterns, and is in danger of having his own identity drowned beneath the sheer oceanic volume of Strauch’s linguistic inventions. The student doesn’t have the slightest idea how to compose any kind of meaningful report to send back to his mentor. How does one summarize the unsummarizable? And if you can’t summarize it, if you can’t get a handle on it, can you ever hope to diagnose it? In a letter to his supervisor, the student writes, “He is one of those people who refuse to say anything at all, and yet who are continually driven to say everything. Who tie tourniquets round the arteries of their thought, but to no effect."
Is the narrator of The Loser a broken person? Is the project of the student in Frost a failure? These narrators brush up against forces they can neither control nor fully comprehend, and yet they understand that they don’t understand. They try to comprehend, or at least to put into words, not what they cannot comprehend—that, they give up on—but rather what, exactly, the terms of their own incomprehension are, and how, exactly, it feels to be lost in their particular bafflement. And failing that, they are left stressing just how inexact those attempts at exactness are. “It will make you suspicious: on occasion, I move in the same mysticisms as your brother,” Frost's narrator admits.
Bernhard was born on February 9, 1931, and died on February 12, 1989. There is more to say about him than can fit here, but in an interview toward the end of his life, he said, “That’s all art is--getting better and better at playing your chosen instrument. No one can take that pleasure away from you or talk you out of it. If someone is a great pianist, you can clear out the room, fill it with dust, and then start throwing buckets of water at him, but he’ll keep on playing. Even if the house falls down around him, he’ll carry on playing.”