AN ANTHOLOGY OF THOUGHT & EMOTION... Un'antologia di pensieri & emozioni

Tuesday, 14 November 2017


Bernhard writes like a sacred monster... He is a remarkable literary performer: a man who goes to extremes in ways that vivify our sense of human possibilities, however destructive.
Here follows an article by American literary critic Gilbert Sorrentino on Bernhard's 1983 novel Der Untergeher, published in English as The Loser in 1991...
Thomas Bernhard
By Gilbert Sorrentino
(The Washington Post, September 15, 1991)

THE FAMOUS last line of the "Addenda (1)" to Samuel Beckett's Watt states "no symbols where none intended." It is a remark that could well stand as the epigraph to The Loser, the eighth of the late Thomas Bernhard's novels to appear in English, for there are neither symbols nor any other analogizing figures in this writer's work. The failures, miseries and deaths that are detailed in the narrator's story are deployed as elements of the pure, horizontally linear mechanics of prose, with nary a metaphor or an example of "fine writing" to be found. One word combined with the next and that with the next, and so on, with no concern for the glamour of comparison: The book is an exemplar of linguistics scholar Roman Jakobson's "axis of combination," the stuff, the very bones of prose. This faith in what might be called the "candor" of prose gives the book an enormous verve and power.
Glenn Gould at the piano in New York City, 1963
Glenn Gould at the piano
in New York City, 1963

As in Beckett's novels, combinations are often unexpected, and occasionally repetitive, new data are introduced abruptly, and the "point" of the tale is never achieved. Such texts can, theoretically, extend virtually into infinity, and are as relentless, as constructed, and as untidy as life itself -- one damn thing after another, so to speak. They end precisely when they stop, which is, it seems to me, eminently reasonable. For instance, The Loser's last sentence reads, "I asked Franz to leave me alone in Wertheimer's room for a while and put on Glenn's Goldberg Variations, which I had seen lying on Wertheimer's record player, which was still open." This concludes the book only because it happens to be the final sentence. It could have appeared earlier, at almost any place, or it could well have been followed by another, or 500 more sentences (or pages).

Three young piano virtuosi, Wertheimer, Glenn Gould and the narrator, meet in Salzburg under the tutelage of Horowitz. Wertheimer and the narrator hear Glenn Gould play, realize that he is the greatest piano player of the century, and give up music. Wertheimer goes into what the narrator bemusedly calls "the human sciences, which until the end he could never define," and the narrator becomes involved in "philosophical matters," which are, likewise, not definable by him. Glenn Gould becomes famous. As the years pass, Gould dies of a stroke, Wertheimer commits suicide, and, soon after, the narrator tells the story of this trio – or the fragments of it that he wishes or is able to tell and that The Loser comprises.
Nothing is finally resolved or made sense of, nothing is clarified. The story is related in a language that exists in a no-man's land of unlocatable rhetoric. Understood literally, the narrator is arrogant, yet apologetic; self-deluding, yet painfully candid; pugnacious, yet wretchedly abashed; filled with hatred, yet compassionate and accepting. The problem and the pleasure of reading this novel stem from the instability of meaning in the narrator's language. The latter creates a series of aporias, recurrent limbos of unresolvable meanings, wherein, to use Christopher Norris's excellently concise language in his Derrida, we are caught "between what {the text} manifestly means to say and what it is nonetheless constrained to mean."

A simple example of this may be found in Bernhard's curious and intrusive use of italics where one would not expect to find them. He writes, early on in the narrative, "we were constantly plagued by the thought that Glenn would destroy himself after returning to Canada from Salzburg, destroy himself with his music obsession, with his piano radicalism." The meaning of these terms is unstable: On the one hand, these expressions are deliciously and accurately like those found in the writings of music columnists who are regularly appalled by Glenn Gould's putative coldness, perfectionism, precise virtuosity, control – in short, his lack of "feeling." (Life is here cannily corralled by art to permit the real Glenn Gould to permeate the invented one.) On the other hand, Glenn Gould, in life as well as in the text, is indeed obsessed with music, is indeed a piano radical – in, if you will, roman type. The two phrases are each contradictory in coded intention; grammar, as it were, defeats and is defeated by rhetoric, and the narrator slides out from under his supposed responsibility, even though he has been absolutely candid. In effect, Bernhard criticizes critical cliches by means of a metalanguage, in this case one simply created by italicizing the cliches themselves.

I should make a point concerning Bernhard's humor. In his "Afterword," Mark M. Anderson remarks that "not to hear the laughter behind these last texts of Bernhard's would be a mistake." Well, all right, but the laughter is very dark indeed. Compared to the explosively bitter and anarchic laughter of, for example, Beckett's "Paris trilogy," Bernhard's is very thin. One might say that these qualitatively different comic sensibilities issue from different agendas. In Beckett's world, that which is fruitlessly yearned for by Molloy and Moran and Malone and the Unnamable and all their surrogates is the silence, the voicelessness of death. But for Bernhard, not even the promise of death can remedy the disgust that everywhere permeates life.

Anderson notes that in Bernhard's acceptance speech when he was awarded the Austrian State Prize for Literature, he remarked that "everything is ridiculous if one thinks of death." That, of course, despite its many pleasures, includes The Loser. Which is precisely as Bernhard would want it.

Gilbert Sorrentino (April 27, 1929 – May 18, 2006) was an American novelist, short story writer, poet, literary critic, professor, and editor. In over twenty-five works of fiction and poetry, Sorrentino explored the comic and formal possibilities of language and literature. His insistence on the primacy of language and his forays into metafiction mark him as a postmodernist, but he is also known for his ear for American speech and his attention to the particularities of place, especially of his native Brooklyn.

Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations (1981)