A Scrupulous Fidelity,
On Thomas Bernhards The Loser
This essay is from Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing
published by Biblioasis. Out in March.
The Man and his Books
Thomas Bernhard is dead. He had a terrible life, at least the early part. He was born in Holland where his Austrian mother had fled to escape the shame of her unwanted pregnancy. He never knew his father who died far away and in obscurity (and obscure circumstances). His mother mistreated him because of the shame he represented. Back in Austria he wanted to be an opera singer and studied music but caught a cold working at a menial job to make ends meet; the cold turned into tuberculosis. He was hospitalized repeatedly, his treatment was bungled, he was given up for dead, and survived just to prove how stupid his doctors were. Since opera-singing was out, he became a writer. He became a famous writer of deadpan, mordant, hilarious, difficult (modernist) novels and plays that often portray depressed characters with lung diseases.
Another common theme is Bernhard's disgust with his native Austria which he continually berated for its Nazi past, its stupidity, sentimentality, and philistinism. In his will he stipulated that none of his works could ever be published in Austria. Paradoxically he rarely left Austria and lived quietly in a country retreat outside of Vienna (many of his characters live in country retreats outside of Vienna).
Despite the fact that he seemed to put himself in every one of his novels, little is known about his intimate life. He wrote a five-volume memoir, Gathering Evidence, which is quite beautiful but, as all memoirs are, unrevealing. His first biographer somehow managed to discover that he liked to masturbate while watching himself in the mirror. This is both comic and significant; over and over Bernhard presents his narrators as characters watching themselves think about themselves. In fact, his narrators seem more interested in watching themselves think about themselves than in telling the story which often seems, upon analysis, more of an occasion for baroque invention than an end in itself. Reading Bernhard one is often reminded of the American experimentalist John Hawkes who once famously said:
My novels are not highly plotted, but certainly they're elaborately structured. I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting, and theme...structure—verbal and psychological coherence—is still my largest concern as a writer. Related or corresponding event, recurring image and recurring action, these constitute the essential substance or meaningful density of my writing. (Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 1965)
Bernhard's narrators contradict themselves, digress, fall into hyperbolic rants that go on for pages, repeat themselves, and obsess, trapped, as it were, in a logorrheic paralysis. He writes whole books in one paragraph, eschews quotation marks, doesn't mind run-on sentences, changes tense without reason, and italicizes words apparently at random. Above all he is ironic, and the reader can never be sure whether Bernhard means what he says or is joking around. And, paradoxically, when he is just joking around, he is also being deadly serious. This is very puzzling to the reader accustomed to contemporary market-based sentimental realism (make no mistake: we are in a Tea Party Lit trough these days, driven by politics, recession and the cultural terror inspired by the digital revolution), the kind of fiction that tells a story about real characters we can identify with and scenes we can recognize, the kind of novel North Americans have come to expect, and, when they write, to write. In contrast Bernhard's characters are almost all clownishly self-obsessed, suicidal artists with lung diseases who cannot seem to tell a story straight.
The Recession of Narrators
Thomas Bernhard's novel The Loser is the story of three aspiring concert pianists--Glenn Gould (drawn from real life), an Austrian pianist named Wertheimer (the notional protagonist) and the unnamed narrator--who become friends in 1953 in Salzburg while studying piano with the great Horowitz. Wertheimer and the narrator have dedicated their lives to becoming piano virtuosos, but one day they chance to overhear Gould playing Bach's Goldberg Variations and his genius destroys them. Gould gracelessly adds insult to injury by calling Wertheimer a loser; Wertheimer is the loser of the novel's title.
The narrator abandons the piano almost immediately; eventually he ends up living in Madrid writing a book called About Glenn (which he periodically destroys and starts again). But Wertheimer has a much more torturous unravelling. For years he keeps playing, unable to abandon his dream. Finally he sells his beloved Steinway and begins writing a book he also keeps destroying and re-starting; this book is called, yes, The Loser. At the same time he works off his disappointment in an abusive, quasi-incestuous relationship with his sister (the whole novel has Poe-ish overtones). Somehow the sister manages to escape Wertheimer's clutches, marrying a wealthy Swiss industrialist. Shortly after hearing that Glenn Gould has died suddenly of a stroke at the young age of 51, Wertheimer takes a train to Switzerland and hangs himself in front of his sister's house.
This is the skeletal story, the novel’s bones, all told as thoughts and memories (not present-time forward-moving plot) through the point of view of the overwrought narrator who is, yes, writing about himself thinking about himself, the other characters, and the story of the novel in a farrago of anecdote, rant, digression, repetition, aphorism, and paradox while also planning to destroy the book he is writing—in a sense the book you are reading doesn't even exist.
...today I write down this nonsense which I dare tell myself is essayistic, to use this hated word once again on my way to self-destruction, I write down these essayistic remarks, which in the end I will have to curse and tear up and thus destroy, and not a single person knows anymore that I myself once played the Goldberg Variations, though not as well as Glenn Gould...
All the while, nothing happens: for the first 115 pages of the 170-page novel, the narrator describes himself standing alone in the front room of an inn thinking. Bernhard emphasizes the narrator's act of thinking-and-not-acting (logorrheic paralysis as a metonym for existential paralysis; the word “paralyzed” recurs relentlessly throughout the novel) to the point of self-parody:
The Steinway, I thought while standing in the inn and looking about, was aimed against my family.
Glenn's death had hit him very hard, he said, I thought while standing in the inn.
That certainly wasn't correct, I thought now in the inn.
[This is the end of the 115-page scene and the beginning of the next scene. The comma splice is the author's and is typical of his run-on dramatic transitions.] The so-called bottom line is he killed himself, not I, I thought, I was just picking up my suitcase from the floor to put it on the bench, when the innkeeper walked in.
The narrator has actually come to the inn on a whim, out of curiosity, at least that's how he describes it at first. The notional present-time plot of the novel presents the narrator thinking about the main plot, the past, in the hours following Wertheimer's hasty funeral in Switzerland. Traveling back to Vienna from the funeral, the narrator has made an impulsive decision to get off the train at a rural station near Traich, Wertheimer's hunting lodge. He wants to search through Wertheimer's papers before the sister or anyone else conceals or destroys them, believing that those papers hold some secret about Glenn Gould that he can use in his own book. But later in the novel the narrator reveals a more sinister and damning reason for his quest.
If a friend dies we nail him to his own sayings, his comments, kill him with his own weapons... We exploit his unpublished papers in order to destroy even more the one who left them to us... We plunder everything that can be used against him in order to improve our situation.
The first 115 pages of the text, as I say, present the narrator alone in the inn. The next 30 pages present various conversations with the innkeeper (she was Wertheimer's lover), including some details of an undignified and uncharacteristic flood of parasitic guests at Traich just prior to his suicide. Then it takes 14 pages for the narrator to walk from the inn to Traich. And finally the last 13 pages of the novel take place at Traich, the narrator in conversation with Franz, the woodsman, who tells the story of Wertheimer's final weeks: Wertheimer, the loner, had a piano delivered from Vienna and invited a crowd of "artists" to come and stay; then he proceeded to drive them out of the house with his incessant, incompetent piano-playing; they destroyed his furniture, drank his booze, and then he finally paid for taxis to take them back to Vienna.
In the last lines of the book the narrator asks Franz for some time alone in Wertheimer's room. The papers and notes have all been burned (Wertheimer and Franz did this together); what remains is Gould's famous recording of the Goldberg Variations, still on the turntable where Wertheimer had left it when he went off to kill himself.
Thus before we even get to the details of Bernhard's rhetorical pyrotechnics we discover an immense amount of action on the structural level. There are, to begin with, three representational tempos: 1) the narrator writing the book which he ultimately expects to destroy; 2) the notional present which comprises most of the text, the narrator thinking as he waits in the inn, talks to the innkeeper and visits Traich; and 3) the recollected narrative of Wertheimer's manie de perfection and its comic-tragic aftermath. This technique of the receding point of view is not uncommon; Joseph Conrad uses a variant in “Heart of Darkness” as does Cervantes in Don Quixote; it parodies the naïve point of view structure commonly deployed in so-called realistic novels and ironizes the concept of point of view in general—it is the literary version of the philosophical paradox of the subject that cannot be an object to itself.
Stressed Form and the Duplication of Plot
Superimposed on this temporal grid are at least three plots: 1) the surface plot of the narrator's ultimately failed quest for Wertheimer's papers at Traich—this plot being the occasion or the pretext for the narrator's re-thinking of the past; 2) the main plot, beginning 28 years earlier, in which Glenn Gould's genius crushes Wertheimer's desire to be a "piano artist" and drives him to his eventual suicide; and 3) what I call the shadow plot, the vindictive story of the narrator's own disintegration and his passive-aggressive role in Wertheimer's death revealed as a Lacanian excess in his transparent snobbery, denial, self-justification, and outrageous tirades.
As always I was exaggerating now too, and to my own mind it was disturbing to suddenly hear myself call Wertheimer the tormentor and destroyer of his sister, I thought, I always behave this way with others, unjustly, even criminally.
You can imagine main plot and the shadow plot as two congruent triangles: Gould thwarts Wertheimer, and Wertheimer deflects his animus onto his innocent sister (scapegoating is a common theme in Bernhard's novels) just as the narrator (also suffering a mania for perfection, also thwarted) torments Wertheimer--
I only visited Wertheimer in Traich to destroy him, to disturb and destroy him...
--forever bringing the conversation around to Glenn, reminding Wertheimer of Glenn, forcing the reluctant Wertheimer to visit Glenn in New York (where Glenn calls him a loser again). At the end, when Wertheimer needs him the most, the narrator refuses to answer his letters.
...my bad conscience, which was still troubled by the fact that I hadn't answered Wertheimer's letters, had more or less ignominiously abandoned him...
Ultimately the narrator destroys Wertheimer by writing about him. The narrator's version of Wertheimer is a loser; a weak, indecisive, unoriginal cypher who tries to model himself on, of all people, the narrator. “Weak characters never turn into anything but weak artists,” says the narrator, and “Wertheimer confirms that theory absolutely.”
The Loser, so well known for its irregularities, is a surprisingly good example of the traditional novel devices of character grouping and gradation and plot and subplot, albeit so forced and exaggerated as to make them instances of what I call stressed form; that is, the form is stressed to the point of implausibility. The three principles--Gould, Wertheimer, and the narrator--are all graded variations of the same character. All three want to be piano virtuosos: Gould represents the limit, the absolute artist whose ambition, skill and focus have carried him beyond the merely human piano artist; Wertheimer and the narrator are similar versions of remarkable but merely human accomplishment. They all have that lung disease, they're all wealthy men, they all have country homes (Gould's is just outside New York), they all stop playing the piano (Gould, of course, famously stopped playing public concerts and retreated to the recording studio). Wertheimer and the narrator are both would-be suicides, they both end up writing books they cannot finish and will ultimately destroy; Gould and Wertheimer die at almost the same moment, though for different reasons.
In other words their plot trajectories are parallel, almost identical in parts but with significant variation. In fact a good deal of Bernhard's comedy derives from his deadpan, obsessive forcing of the conventions of the well-made novel to the point of absurdity. He concentrates less on plot and psychological plausibility than on the extraordinary duplication and reduplication of situation, character and action (stressed form). His constant trope is hyperbole—and you know he is playing with technique as absurdity when he gives that lung disease, which is really his own lung disease, to the innkeeper as well (in this example, the narrator and the author momentarily are identical—another little game Bernhard plays with his reader).
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.
Wherein the Author Plays with Himself
This grid of receding narrators and repeating character traits and plot motifs supplies a matrix over which the author drapes his phantasmagoric riot of rhetorical substructures—repetition, antithesis, rant, digression, word play--all of which add drama, interest, and comedy to his text. It can't be emphasized enough how exuberant, ludic and, yes, obsessive Bernhard's style is.
One very common device, virtually a marker for Bernhardian prose, I call grammatical yoking. Grammatical yoking refers to grammatical structures meant to yoke two entities in a relationship of contrast or identity–e.g. just as, whereas, like/unlike, on the contrary, and some forms of subordination and psychological parallelism. In The Loser, there are multiple examples of each type mainly because much of the novel's text is concerned with establishing similarities and differences between the main characters. Bernhard never leaves a character alone in a sentence, is always contrasting, differentiating, refining. These yoking devices are a tool for elaboration (form creating content)--they seem to come automatically, even compulsively, to the author's pen--as well as a source of drama and conflict at the level of sentences.
[whereas] When it got cold, as Franz said, he would have his sister heat his room, whereas she wasn't allowed to heat her room.
[unlike] Wertheimer always set about his life with false assumptions, I said to myself, unlike Glenn who always set about his existence with the right assumptions.
[in contrast] She herself had never had enough money and never enough time and hadn't even been unhappy once, in contrast to those she called refined gentlemen, who always had enough money and enough time and constantly talked about their unhappiness.
[subordination by phrase] Wertheimer was the most passionate cemetery lover I have ever known, even more passionate than me, I thought.
[subordination by clause] Wertheimer hated Catholicism, which his sister, as I also know, had completely fallen prey to in the last years.
[parallelism] I never reproached myself for having money, I thought, Wertheimer constantly reproached himself for it,...
It's important to recognize that Bernhard's texts are dense with this kind of rhetorical elaboration, that it is possible to analyze much of the text as a string or assemblage of such devices, such that a limited amount of plot material is made to vibrate and echo from sentence to sentence and page to page. Here is a short list of some of the other more spectacular devices Bernhard deploys. I give a minimal set of examples for each—you have to imagine the riot.
So I go from one cage to the next, Wertheimer once said, from the Kohlmarkt apartment to Traich and then back again, he said, I thought. From the catastrophic big-city cage into the catastrophic forest cage. Now I hide myself here, now there, now in the Kohlmarkt perversity, now in the country-forest perversity.
[Here is an example of parallelism with variation by substitution.] Even the tiniest inn in Switzerland is clean and appetizing, even our finest Austrian hotels are filthy and unappetizing.
...I hated Glenn every moment, loved him at the same time with utmost consistency
Fundamentally we are capable of everything, equally fundamentally we fail at everything...
Fugue Stop: This is my coinage for a special sort of retardation by repetition. The narrator suddenly seems trapped in a verbal loop, obsessively repeating the same thoughts and phrases, apparently unable to stop—and then of course finally he stops and continues with the narration.
Wertheimer studied primarily in Vienna, not like me at the Mozarteum, but at the Vienna Academy, which the Mozarteum has always considered the better music conservatory, just as the Vienna Academy has always considered the Mozarteum the more useful school [first instance]. Students always judge their own school to be something less than it is and cast an envious glance at their rival school [second instance], above all music students are known for always giving much higher marks to their rival schools than their own, [third instance] and the Viennese music students always thought and believed the Mozarteum to be better, just as the Mozarteum students thought the Vienna Academy better [fourth instance].
Aphorism: “We get inside music completely or not at all...”; “Man is unhappiness...”; “...desires are realized only when we are totally concentrated”; “...we don't exist, we get existed,...”; [And parodies of aphorisms] “If we stop drinking we die of thirst, if we stop eating we starve to death...”
Word spirals (repetition of a single word but something like a fugue stop):
But everything we say is nonsense, he said, I thought, no matter what we say it is nonsense and our entire life is a single piece of nonsense. I understood that early on, I'd barely started to think for myself and I already understood that, we speak only nonsense, every thing we say is nonsense, but everything that is said to us is nonsense, like everything that is said at all, in this world only nonsense has been said until now and, he said, only nonsense has actually and naturally been written, the writings we possess are only nonsense because they can only be nonsense, as history proves, he said, I thought.
Diatribe: At any moment, the narrator is apt to lapse into intemperate and hyperbolic invective against a pet target—partial list: Switzerland and the town of Chur, the Mozarteum, piano teachers, the countryside, Salzburg, Catholics, the Austrian judicial system, etc.
[on Switzerland and the mountain town of Chur, about a page long] ...the Tyrolian mountains make me anxious. I've always hated the Vorarlberg, as I have Switzerland, where cretinism reigns supreme...the Churians struck me as despicable in their Alpine cretinism...A person can be ruined for life in Chur, even if he spends only one night there.
The longest diatribe in the book belongs to Wertheimer (reported by the narrator), an attack on modern philosophy as nothing but bad aphorisms reduced from the books of the great philosophers of the past. It runs for six pages and, naturally, begins and ends with an aphorism.
Man is unhappiness, he said over and over, I thought,...[six pages later] death is the greatest misunderstanding of all, so Wertheimer, I thought.
Digression: These are distinct from diatribes which are a special instance of digression. Digression is a form of delay dramatized through suspension. In the following example, the innkeeper asks the narrator for a report on Wertheimer's funeral upon which the narrator launches into a two-page discussion of real estate in Vienna and the Austrian economy—note that the narrator identifies the passage as a digression for the reader. Through the digression, the answer to the innkeeper's request for details of Wertheimer's funeral is held in suspense, and, naturally, as soon as the narrator returns to the subject of the funeral he lapses into another digression. The ghost of Laurence Sterne haunts these pages; indeed, the narrator describes his thoughts, that is, the entire text of the novel, as “these Glenn- and Wertheimer-digressions.”
...and so I sat down on the bed and gave a report. Naturally I could only give her a fragmentary report, I started by saying I'd been to Vienna, occupied with the sale of my apartment, a large apartment I said... But I didn't sell the apartment... with the economic crisis we have today... [and so on for two pages, ending with] today's socialists are the new capitalists, all a sham, I said to the innkeeper, who however didn't want to listen to my senseless digression, as I suddenly noticed, for she was still thirsting for my funeral report. (120-121)
Hyperbole: As I say, hyperbole underlies all Bernhard's structural dispositions; it is the super-trope governing stressed form. But sometimes Bernhard is just exuberantly hyperbolic for the fun of it (or these could be described as mini-diatribes, miniature lapses into intemperate invective).
When it rains here for six or seven weeks without stopping and the local inhabitants go crazy in this unstoppable rain, I thought, one has to have tremendous discipline not to kill oneself. But half the people here kill themselves sooner or later...
What lousy teachers we had to put up with, teachers who screwed up our heads. Art destroyers all of them, art liquidators, culture assassins, murderers of students.
Allegorical Set-piece: The authorial lung disease shared by four characters in the novel is a good example of the way Bernhard is always interacting playfully with the real world through the text. It is his personal and factual lung disease growing microbial on the page. But Bernhard also uses allegorical set-pieces to connect The Loser with (to create a dramatic implied conversation with—this is its aesthetic function, to create textual interest by multiplying dramatic exchanges) a larger historical context, especially Austria's history with Nazis and the Holocaust. Naturally Wertheimer is Jewish and likes to visit his family crypt where a clearly allegorical beech tree “growing out of the crypt had progressively dislodged the immense granite block inscribed with the names of all the Wertheimers.” An extended (three pages) example of allegorical set-piece occurs when the three young piano students rent a house together outside of Salzburg, “the house of a recently deceased Nazi sculptor...who had worked for years in the service of Hitler.” The rooms are crowded with monstrous marble “eyesores,” too large to be removed but which, ironically, improve the acoustics.
Ironic Mis-appropriation of Fact: Bernhard's fictional dramatic confrontation with reality goes beyond the comic use of his own lung disease and allegorical reference to the use of an actual person Glenn Gould in his text, which is actually a misuse for he gets Glenn Gould glaringly and hilariously wrong on purpose.
Glenn Gould was a real life Canadian piano virtuoso who earned instant fame for his early recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. And he did stop performing publicly at the height of his celebrity after a brief career. Beyond that he bears no resemblance to Glenn Gould in Bernhard's novel. Gould never studied with Horowitz (Horowitz never taught), never studied in Salzburg, didn't speak German fluently, never had a country place outside of New York (he lived most of his life in Toronto), his parents weren't wealthy, and he died of a stroke at 50, not 51, in his sleep, not at the piano playing the Goldberg Variations. The real Glenn Gould was a prolific author of essays and scripts unlike the fictional Glenn Gould who, the narrator claims, didn't write at all. These are deliberate distortions of fact in order to create a Glenn Gould who conforms to the needs of the novel's structure and also to juice the novel's dramatic encounter with reality, the real world beyond the text. Bernhard's bold-faced, flat-out lies about Glenn Gould are immensely comic in part because it is so obvious that he is playing that game: What is true here? What is false? And what is a half-truth based upon a truth?
In the novel Gould is portrayed as the ideal of the romantic artist, a genius, eccentric, self-conscious, obsessive, concentrated, and immune to the doubt that plagues his friends. But he is also arrogant, cruel and inhuman.
Glenn Gould said the word loser out loud in a crucial moment, I thought. We say a word and destroy a person.
His is the gnomic wisdom of high art.
We get inside music completely or not at all, Glenn often said...
But he is also an exuberant dimwit who runs outside his rented house and impetuously chops down a tree, a half-metre thick, that “obstructed his playing” before it occurs to him that he could just pull the blinds. (He also gets drunk and pops champagne corks at the Nazi statues.)
Glenn Gould thus is another paradox in a novel built on contradictions: he's a joke rendered from real life with precisely erroneous detail, a buffoonish version of the Nietzschean overman as a piano-playing Paul Bunyan; but he is also the image of the transcendent artist, the pure artist, who spends his life perfecting himself as an instrument. None of this is real or meant to be real.
Irony, or the Double Sign of Difficulty
Except for the first page, as I say, the entire novel consists of one paragraph of character thought, a single, unstoppable column of prose weaving in and out of content topics, plot and figure and trope, without a discrete stop along the way (Bernhard will even shift from one content stream to another on a comma in the middle of a sentence, with no logical or grammatical transition), so that it is all a trope, an image, oddly fragmented but with the fragments glued back together such that it resembles the thought-ravings of a madman who cannot control the logorrheic flow, not even minimally by breaking it into conventional logical segments called paragraphs.
Over and over, the reader senses that the narrator is thinking fast to prevent himself from thinking, his thoughts always implying an excess they dare not express (although the narrator does let slip many very clear pointers). The entire text is framed within an implied conflict—the narrator's resistance to a truth he cannot face—and this conflict propels the text forward with a mysterious urgency. The desperate, compulsive, and transparently self-serving if not delusional nature of the narrator's thoughts in turn motivates the stressed form characteristic of the prose. Hysteria motivates hyperbole. The mechanical elaborations of grammatical yoking are desperate attempts on the part of the narrator to appear logical and analytical even as he is constantly dropping into spiraling word repetitions, fugue stops, digressions, and self-revealing tirades.
But the disorder is only a semblance of disorder. It looks like a verbal torrent, the delirium of a madman, which of course it is meant to resemble in some superficial and theatrical sense, a deranged dramatic monologue (of thought), when in fact it is also artfully controlled, patterned and symmetrical (right down to the substandard Ehrbar piano the narrator plays as a child which returns at the end of the novel as the rented, “horribly untuned” Ehrbar Wertheimer plays for his travesty concert), art as symptom or symptom as art (repetition is a pattern of art and also of dream and neurosis), super-controlled (such an Austrian trait) and at the same time in tension with its own apparent haphazardness and compulsivity.
Hyperbole and absurdity subvert every aspect of Bernhard's novel; hyperbole is the constant marker for irony, the double sign that destroys the fictional facade of plausibility and univocal meaning and points to a second meaning that is absent in the text. This is the ultimate moment of ambiguity and difficulty, the text announcing that it doesn't mean what it says it means.
There are reasons for this difficulty, this incomprehensibility. One reason (perhaps the least interesting) is political, the collapse of trust in the German language shared by almost all thinking writers of German after the Second World War. This is perhaps true in spades for Austrian writers, coming from a country whose unforced complicity in that Nazi horror show is still denied. How do you write the truth in a language of lies (when the Nazi statues are so huge they can't be moved out of the cultural house)? The answer is that you draw attention to the corruption of the German language by writing in corrupt, unbeautiful, incorrect, unclear German. You use language to attack itself. If language cannot express the truth, the secret horror at the back of history, then you write in a way that draws attention to the paradox of writing in a language that cannot write the truth—in so doing, you somehow draw attention to, implicate, limn, the truth.
A second reason for incomprehensibility is philosophical. Kant drew a line between the real world and the world of existence (where we live): absolutes, God, the Good, Beauty and Truth on one side of the line; science, but also fallible humans, uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt on the other. All so-called knowledge is limited to the phenomenal or existential world, all knowledge is human; that is, as Kant wrote, “It must be possible for the 'I think' to accompany all my representations”--The Loser reads as if Bernhard assimilated this sentence and made it his stylistic talisman. But paradoxically even the conscious subject, the person who thinks, cannot appear to itself as an object; the heart cannot know its reasons.
The great Viennese (wealthy, Jewish, neurasthenic, suicidal) philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein drew the noose even tighter by defining language as a limiting concept; ultimately language cannot speak the truth but can only talk about itself, play with itself (pun intended). Modern philosophy after Kant is famously difficult stylistically, mainly because philosophers have had to work around the central problem that, by definition, they cannot talk about what they are talking about.
Difficulty and incomprehensibility become aesthetic virtues after Kant (perhaps not what he intended); clarity and formal neatness are marks of fantasy or prevarication. Hence the tradition of German Romanticism, a paradoxical aesthetic based on the impossibility of creating beauty. What goes for beauty (in novels, paintings, symphonies) are only failed attempts to create beauty, which is otherworldly, unconditioned, absolute, sublime (in the Kantian sense) and beyond language. German Romanticism is a hyper-realist aesthetic in the sense that it values works of art that represent their own inevitable failure. In contrast to the ideal of classical unity, it values fragments, digressions, interruptions, mixed forms, incompleteness, difficulty, and, above all, irony.
Friedrich Schlegel famously defended difficulty in his essay "On Incomprehensibility," which is really an essay about the role of irony in a post-Kantian literature. Irony in its original form comes in two basic varieties: 1) Socratic irony which is the cunning use of dissimulation to make a point; and 2) the ancient Greek dramatic device of parabasis, the moment when the chorus turns away from the other actors and addresses the audience directly. Irony is that moment in a text when the author glances up at the reader and says, You realize, of course, that this isn't real, that what I put on the page is not what I mean. (Always the literalist, Plato condemned Ironists at the same time as Sophists and Poets.) To German Romantics, the novel is the great modern example of ironic form, and the novel tradition out of which they write begins with Cervantes' Don Quixote (a book about an insane person, about 50, in a quest for the absolute) and descends through Laurence Sterne and Denis Diderot, the masters of digression, delay and self-parody.
“A Scrupulous Fidelity”
About his own ironic style Jacques Derrida once wrote, “I have this attitude that some people must have perceived as double, of emancipation, revolt, irony, and at the same time a scrupulous fidelity.” It is to this aspect of “scrupulous fidelity” we must now attend.
The Loser is very much a novel-as-performance, both image and allegory, more image than discursive thought yet very much a novel of ideas with the ideas implicit in the structure, action, and style. Besides the aesthetics of German Romanticism The Loser reflects a conception of art inherited from Schopenhauer—especially Schopenhauer's notion that art itself is the intermediary between the supra-sensory and the merely human, that in creating or correctly appreciating great art we enter an eternal realm of Platonic Ideas (Beauty, God, or even Being in Heidegger's sense) and leave the tawdry realm of existence behind (what the narrator calls “the existence machine”).
The Loser fictionalizes the European version of nostalgia for Being (the American version is a retreat to fundamentalist Christianity) and a sense of living in a fallen existential world. It presents three men whose goal is to become transcendent artists; one succeeds, the other two fail, and their psychomachia is rather a soul-unmaking or disintegration leading to paralysis and the one authentic act left, suicide. Glenn Gould is the virtuoso, the genius, the perfect instrument. Albeit, he is also unconsciously cruel and a buffoon. But there are passages in The Loser where the irony seems to lift and some deeper reality is revealed.
The second he [Gould] sat down at the piano he sank into himself, I thought, he looked like an animal then, on closer inspection like a cripple, on even closer inspection like the sharp-witted, beautiful man that he was.
Gould is only perfect, only beautiful (and nothing else in the novel is described as “beautiful”) when he is playing. This is the hierophantic moment, the ur-moment to which Bernhard returns throughout the novel, starting with the scene in Salzburg, when the narrator and Wertheimer overhear Gould playing the Goldberg Variations and are destroyed, and repeating (insisting) through to the novel's close, the Goldberg Variations on the record player, the narrator alone in Wertheimer's empty bedroom at Traich.
The way Bernhard distorts the facts of Gould's death make thematic sense. Instead of dying during his sleep as was in fact the case, Gould in the novel succumbs to a stroke at “the perfect moment,” that is, while playing the Goldberg Variations. Gould achieves transcendence through his art, he goes “beyond the limit” and attains “the inhuman state”; the narrator and Wertheimer meanwhile fail, dazzled, paralyzed, crippled by fear, and caught in what the narrator calls the existential trap. The Loser is all aftermath, a narrative of disintegration, laced with transparent self-hatred, denial, and resentment, obsessively circling back on itself, always returning to the ur-moment, the fatal confrontation with genius. Having attempted to reach the heights, they fall back into the crippled world of the merely human, Kant's phenomenal world, imperfect, ambiguous, clouded.
We look at people and see only cripples, Glenn once said to us, physical or mental or mental and physical, there are no others, I thought. The longer we look at someone the more crippled he appears to us... The word is full of cripples.
Every great novel possesses a mysterious flickering quality, the on/off light of irony, that conceals and reveals its moment of fidelity. The Loser presents the image of the fallen world (Kierkegaard’s “present age”) haunted by the idea of goodness, tormented by beauty, a losers' world, a metaphoric Land of the Dead where only conditional motives and mediated relationships are possible, ruled by language and the Imaginary, where people are trapped in a relation of reflexive creation. Like Hegel's master and slave the narrator and Wertheimer (Wertheimer and his sister) need each other in order to exist, and that relation can easily be reduced to the negative: I need to crush him in order to exist just as he needs to crush me in order to exist.
But the image of a fallen world implies its opposite; this is the mimetic paradox. Bernhard riddles out the unseen world of the Absolute, of Beauty and the Good, in the narrator's contorted prose. The style is a vehicle for meaning, the prose contorted because it is reaching beyond the limit of language. In the end, we can only imagine through art what it might be like to have perfect clarity of action and thought, to be Glenn Gould.
The Loser by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Jack Dawson, Vintage International, New York, 1991.
DOUGLAS GLOVER has published four novels, five story collections, and three works of nonfiction, including The Enamoured Knight (2004), a study of Don Quixote and novel form. In 2005 he was a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. In 2003 he won the Governor-General’s Award for Fiction. His most recent book is Savage Love (short stories, 2013). He edited the annual Best Canadian Stories from 1996 to 2006. He currently teaches writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts and edits the online literary magazine Numéro Cinq.