From the late Austrian Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser, in which a fictional version of Glenn Gould has studied piano with two would-be virtuosos, Wertheimer and the narrator, who have both quit playing because they were psychologically damaged by the reality of Gould’s superior talent:
[The Goldberg Variations] were originally composed to delight the soul and almost two hundred and fifty years later they had killed a hopeless person, i.e., Wertheimer… If Wertheimer hadn’t walked past room thirty-three on the second floor of the Mozarteum twenty-eight years ago at precisely four in the afternoon, he wouldn’t have hanged himself twenty-eight years later in Zizers bei Chur, I thought. Wertheimer’s fate was to have walked past room thirty-three in the Mozarteum at the precise time Glenn Gould was playing the so-called aria in that room. Regarding this event Wertheimer reported to me that he stopped at the door of room thirty-three, listening to Gould play until the end of the aria. Then I understood what shock is, I thought now.
Bernhard, a first-rate piano player before he quit to write, presents a narrator who’s clearly in conflict with himself, although it would be a mistake to call him confused. Guilt-ridden and appalled by Wertheimer’s suicide, the narrator rants against his late friend, himself, and even his hero Gould.
The relationship of the three main characters is rehashed and rewoven in a 170-page high-wire act that mimics the way a Baroque composer reconciles various themes, over and over in the same piece. The narrator seems to identify as closely with “the loser” W. as with Gould, and this feels right. Who among us hasn’t felt like W. at some point? Should we stop playing baseball, and even watching it, because we can’t pitch like the Phillies’ Roy Halladay? Smash our guitars because we aren’t Jimi Hendrix?
There are amusingly nasty put-downs of just about everything, but also the sense that Bernhard, through his narrator, is making fun of his own cynicism. He’s like the narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, a volatile mix of grandiosity and self-loathing, disgusted by human folly, trying hard to run from the fact that he’s human, too. The only thing he feels comfortable praising is the (arguably) cold perfection of Bach’s music as played by Gould.
Read The Loser if you’ve ever groaned at the ugly landscape of mainstream culture — I never want to hear the name Snooki again, I’m out of here — then laughed at the absurdity of trying to separate yourself from it.
Or maybe you’d better go to a ballgame instead. The Phils are back, and they’re playing at home this weekend.