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The Loser by Thomas Bernhard
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's review
Nov 26, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: misery-loves-company, thomas-bernhard
Read on November 26, 2010

Recommended soundtrack for this review.

Of course Thomas Bernhard's The Loser covers some of the usual Bernhardian terrain -- misanthropy, madness, death, all the fun stuff really -- but failure is the real star of this show. The 'Loser' of the title, named Wertheimer, was unfortunate enough both to have been a gifted piano player and to have studied contemporaneously with piano legend Glenn Gould, whose life and genius -- albeit in a somewhat fictionalized form -- haunt Wertheimer until he is at long last able to 'assert himself' [as the narrator puts it] for the first time -- by committing suicide just outside his sister's Swiss home. It's this final act of defiance against a world he cannot master that is his one success. He accomplishes renunciation.

The unnamed narrator of the novel, another failure who has languished in Gould's long shadow, also turns his back on piano playing resolutely, and yet with some measure of (seeming) equanimity. Even though music is all he's really cut out to do, the piano has been irrevocably ruined for him by Gould's brilliance, his native ability, his setting of a standard neither to be met or outstripped. It was ruined the first time he heard Gould play The Goldberg Variations while still studying in Salzburg under Horowitz. Gould was still a student then, an apprentice -- but even his performance of Bach as a relative novice destroyed the promising careers of the narrator and Wertheimer. It was impossible to carry on after hearing Gould. Everything else was -- must be superfluous.

But while the narrator attempts to shut out the past, to avoid it altogether, drifting vaguely through life, Wertheimer becomes a willing, ecstatic victim of the past. He becomes the Loser, as Gould anoints him, not without blunt humor or insight. As Gould intuits, Wertheimer is doomed to perish, body and soul, in his adjacency to the genius and accomplishment of others. There is no contentment, no grace or dignity, for the also-ran, who acknowledges his insignificance, his insufficiency in the field of his 'calling' or his ordained vocation. When the foundation has been proven rotten, decayed, inadequate, the entire structure in its turn gives way. And so Wertheimer one day travels to his sister's house in Switzerland -- the sister he dominated until she escaped -- and kills himself. He even failed at dominating his weak sister, at terrorizing her into abjection, so he elects to fail comprehensively. To yield to failure, to succeed at failing.

The themes of The Loser will immediately be recognizable to anyone who has made any tentative venture into a field (particularly an artistic field) only to be stymied by the mastery of others. If Shakespeare and Dostoevsky have done their part, for instance, what can my writings add to the collective pool to make it worth the effort? In the shadow of the Canon, the ridiculous things I jot down, more like notes and scribbles than literature, can only be signposts of my vulgarity and inferiority rather than assertions of something original and meaningful. I can assert my failure, like Wertheimer, or I can flee from it as best as I can, like the narrator. Neither is an attractive option, of course, but the neurosis of the artist evokes this dilemma, even if logically he realizes that the question is entirely disingenuous.

Postscript: There is an interesting and informative afterword to the Vintage International edition of The Loser, written by Mark M. Anderson, which discusses how the events of the book relate to Bernhard's life and how Bernhard selectively altered the details of Glenn Gould's life to suit his narrative purposes. Also, the essay begins with an example of Bernhard's bitter humor with respect to his country of residence Austria, for which he harbored an intense ambivalence throughout his life:

During his lifetime Thomas Bernhard's texts provoked more than an ordinary share of scandals. But perhaps the most enduring scandal will turn out to be his very last text, his will: 'Whatever I have written, whether published by me during my lifetime or as part of my literary papers still existing after my death, shall not be performed, printed or even recited for the duration of legal copyright within the borders of Austria, however the state defines itself.' Bernhard had taken care not to reveal the contents of his will before he died; in fact, he even stipulated that news of his death not be announced until he was buried. This parting slap in the face of his native country thus came not only as a surprise; it came from the hand of a dead man, whose laughter rang out from the grave.

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Comments <span class="smallText"> (showing 1-10 of 10) </span> <span class="smallText">(10 new)</span>

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message 1: by RandomAnthony (new)

RandomAnthony I'm about halfway through Woodcutters and digging it a lot, but I've paused to finish a quick read on a short checkout window from the library. You going to write a review on this one, sir? How does it compare to Woodcutters?

David RA, I liked Woodcutters a little more than this one, but it's still great.

Elizabeth, I think it's kind of awesome too. But unfortunately the Bernhard estate has apparently found a way around this stipulation in his will...

message 3: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Great review, David. It made me want to read Bernhard.

Also, the essay begins with an example of Bernhard's bitter humor with respect to his country of residence Austria, for which he harbored an intense ambivalence throughout his life...

I love that.

Maybe he was right to hate people then, if his own family can't be bothered to respect his wishes.


message 4: by Kim (new)

Kim How sad... I like the music choice, David. :)

message 5: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! I don't have the artistic volatility, or ability, or full understanding of this state where artists will spend energies comparing themselves to others instead of creating...can't the focus be on using one's talents, not this rivalry?

message 6: by Drew (new)

Drew A very enjoyable review. The Loser is one of Bernhard's shorter, dare I say it, more "fun" books. A similar piece is Concrete, which relates the story of an academic incapable of completing a study of Mendelssohn. In both of these works the figure of genius, whether Gould or Mendelssohn, acts as a catalyst for failure and despair in the protagonists. For Bernhard on the other hand the failure fuels his prose to ever-higher flights of rhetorical absurdity and comical bathos. As much as Wertheimer needs Gould in order to fail, Bernhard needs him to succeed. Two other Berhard books that I'd recommend are his first novel, Snow and his last, Extinction. Both are breathtaking.

message 7: by David (last edited Nov 29, 2010 05:59AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

David Eh!, I don't think it's so much a rivalry as a feeling of superfluity or obsolescence. Don't you ever have that feeling that everything's already be said and done, so why bother? Admittedly it's not a 'reasonable' feeling, but many feelings aren't and they screw us up anyway.

Drew, thanks. I am currently in the process of reading all of Bernhard's novels. I've finished The Loser, Wittgenstein's Nephew, Concrete, and Woodcutters, and I look forward to remaining ones. Unfortunately Extinction (in its English translation) doesn't come back in print until next year, so I'll have to wait for that one.

message 8: by Eh?Eh! (new)

Eh?Eh! I do have that feeling! All the time. My profession is tabulated, standardized, and formatted out of nearly all original thought. We have to jump around to keep up with the "updates." When it comes to the arts, where anything goes, it's not a bad thing to repeat something but personalize it. There's a piece of writing around here, somewhere, about how there's no original idea but always original execution.

The Crimson Fucker I voted for this review cuz david asked me to vote for all of his reviews!

message 10: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason I voted for this review because it's awesome.

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