The Loser by Thomas Bernhard
I used to like listening to Glenn Gould and that was until I had read The Loser by Thomas Bernhard and now all I can think of is Bernhard laughing in an insane manner at Glenn’s precision, it was nothing to do with Bernhard, but Bernhard made it his, just by laughing at it.
Manic, reiterative and an attack not only on the novel as form, but an attack on music, the possibility of art, an attack on Glenn Gould and an attack on taste, an attack on life, and naturally an attack on the Austrian state, The Loser by Thomas Bernhard is a commotion of images and thoughts, dressed as the story of three persons, the narrator, the sour Canadian tunester Glenn Gould, and a fictional character called Wertheimer, who is even more sour than Glenn Gould, and who gives up a promising career as a concert pianist, and then kills himself because he realises that he will never be as good a piano artist as Glenn Gould.
Spoilers alert. I believe I have told the entire story of The Loser — Der Untergeher — literally 'the one who goes under' — but suffice it to say that Thomas Bernhard’s nihilistic narration of 1983 is not about the great friends and their pianist envy. It is as much about an inn in Austria, and the doorway to this very inn.
If this sounds unusual, you can be assured that it is. Many find Thomas Bernhard’s prose too relentless a pillory to bear, but that is not to say his books are not without humour, and any reader prepared to have the idea of the novel shredded before their disbelieving eyes will appreciate this comedy of futility for what it is, a masterpiece of overstatement.
Most common and garden Bernhardiana is located in The Loser, including lung disease, Bernhard’s own lung disease, which he usually gave his characters in his novels, and in this case Bernhard even gives the innkeeper lung disease, doubtless in an effort to force the point of his own absurd novelisation of life:
The innkeeper once had a lung disease like mine, I thought, like me she was able to squeeze this lung illness out of her, liquidate it with her will to live.
Needless to say, Austria comes in for an outright pasting, with particular and careful reference to its Nazi past. Webern and Schonberg are held up as virtually the only two artists in the entire history of mankind to have produced anything approximating worthwhile art.
The Loser is one of (has anyone counted how many?) Thomas Bernhard novels concerned with suicide, but the self-murder in The Loser is slanted not towards its being the optimum solution to cure one of life’s ills, but is presented as the coward’s option, the loser’s option.
The suicide of Wertheimer in The Loser is described as the final craven act of a man for whom it is difficult to feel any sympathy, a man who despite musical potential, caves in to the thought of mediocrity, opting instead to punish those closest to him in order to satisfy perceived inner failings.
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Some other thoughts on The Loser
The failings of Wertheimer in The Loser climax in the way he punishes his sister, whom he treats with sometimes idiotic cruelty, for example waking her and demanding that she play a harmonium at two o'clock in the morning, only to tell her she plays like a pig. Wertheimer frames his suicide as a punishment of his sister, travelling to his sister’s and his sister’s husband’s house in order to hang himself outside their window.
Sometimes I have recommended The Loser to people as a means if introduction to Thomas Bernhard, but I am less sure now if this has been a good idea. The Loser does benefit from a frame of reference that all can enjoy being the life and work of the famous pianist Glenn Gould, but it does contain a more final critique of everything than many of the other works, as it does not entirely deal with artistic mediocrity (which is a subject easy to cope with) but with human mediocrity, which is much harder to stomach.
The Loser contains two stylistic facets which are quite unique in Bernhard’s work, and the first of these appear to be sudden changes of train of thought, which are extremely successful and satisfying here, but don’t seem to feature in other works by Bernhard.
The second oddity of The Loser is the fact that out and out mania is permitted in the prose, which begins to pick up speed in a most erratic fashion, as if in wrestling with the idea of social, artistic mediocrity, the voice must ran faster, harder and with more fury to try and keep up with its own criticism of the state of affairs.
This manic and faster than usual train of thought comprises the narrator’s attempts to think about himself as narrator, and finds that narrator in the process of writing a book that will be destroyed, as surely as his other attempts to write it have been destroyed, and as surely as the protagonist Wertheimer’s own works have been destroyed.
From this there arises as in Correction and as in Yes and as in Old Masters the notion of the impossibility of art. This impossibility of art is expressed in The Loser in Glenn Gould’s desire to eradicate himself in the performance process, dreaming that he is an unnecessary bridge between Bach’s Goldberg Variations and the Steinway, reiterated by the narrator, who has encountered his own impossibility in the figure of Glenn himself.
To wake up one day and be Steinway and Glenn in one, he said, I thought, Glenn Steinway, Steinway Glenn, all for Bach.
The Loser is a novel of thought as opposed to action, for it’s the thoughts of the narrator that we share, the intense and apparent reminiscences that he experiences as he enters an inn and awaits the provincial innkeeper — an act that covers over 100 pages of prose.
The recollections bounce off everything as the narrator enters this inn, and it seems the central act of the novel is this arrival at the inn, this entrance to the inn, which is spurring everything.
The inn, the novel. The inn, Glenn. Glenn, The Steinway, the inn, the novel. Wertheimer, the inn, the innkeeper, the inn, and perhaps, I now think, Bernhard used a plan not unlike that, to write this masterpiece.
A sample revelation from The Loser by Thomas Bernhard:
I woke up one day in April, I no longer know which one, and said to myself, no more piano. And I never touched the instrument again. I went immediately to the schoolteacher and announced the delivery of my piano. I will now devote myself to philosophical matters, I thought as I walked to the teacher's house, even though of course I didn't have the faintest idea what these philosophical matters might be. I am absolutely not a piano virtuoso, I said to myself, I am not an interpreter, I am not a reproducing artist. No artist at all. The depravity of my idea had appealed to me immediately. The whole time on my way to the teacher's I kept on saying these three words: Absolutely no artist! Absolutely no artist! Absolutely no artist! If I hadn't met Glenn Gould, I probably wouldn't have given up the piano and I would have become a piano virtuoso and perhaps even one of the best piano virtuosos in the world, I thought in the inn. When we meet the very best, we have to give up, I thought.