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.
I think your point about Bernhard laughing at his own cynicism is important and sometimes overlooked by those who view him (especially in later works like The Loser) as just a ranter. Everything is both deadly serious and completely ridiculous and absurd at the same time. I’d argue that one of the keys to his novels is the way that they defer authority, refusing to straightforwardly endorse a particular viewpoint or even attribute it to a particular character. There’s a big hole in the centre, which is whose views we are actually listening to. Is it Wertheimer/Gould, whose views form the bulk of what we are told by the transparent narrator, or is it the narrator projecting his throughts and words onto them and using them as ventriloquist’s dummies? After all, the language and style of the first-person narrative and the reported speech of the other characters is completely indistinguishable, and since it is narrated in the first person we have no direct access to any of the other characters. I wrote a couple of posts about this on The Loser http://dannysbyrne.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/the-loser-by-thomas-bernhard/ and Old Masters http://dannysbyrne.wordpress.com/2011/04/30/old-masters-by-thomas-bernhard/ (part of the same loose trilogy, along with The Woodcutters). Check them out if you’re interersted. And nice Glenn Gould video!
WOODCUTTERS is also truly hilarious. A masterpiece by almost any standard. . .