One of the many writers I’ve discovered during my German Literature Month adventures is the original grumpy old man, Thomas Bernhard. Over the past two years, I’ve tried books from his art-themed trilogy, and this year it only seemed fitting to finish off the third one. So, it’s back to Austria we go for a holiday in the country, but if you’re expecting sunshine and relaxation, you’ll be sorely disappointed. In Bernhard’s world, the weather, and the mood, rarely fail to disappoint…
Where Holzfällen (Woodcutters) looked at the theatre and Alte Meister (The Old Masters) gave us an insight into the world of art, Der Untergeher (The Loser) is focused on music, more specifically on the lives of concert pianists. The novel is narrated by a middle-aged Austrian expatriate who has returned to his home country after several years in Madrid in order to attend the funeral of his old friend, Wertheimer.
Much of the novel, though, takes place in the narrator’s head, as he looks back three decades to an important time in the two men’s lives, a summer they spent improving their skills in the company of a certain Glenn Gould – who was to go on to become one of the most famous pianists in the world. As our irascible friend dredges up his recollections of the period, the reader learns how what was one of the most significant experiences of their lives was actually merely the start of a long, slow decline. You see, when you encounter genius, the only way from there is down…
Der Untergeher is another of Bernhard’s slow-moving books, with the ‘real’ action of the narrator’s visit to Wertheimer’s country retreat taking up the whole book (much of which occurs in the time it takes the owner of the guesthouse he wants to stay at to realise that he’s waiting at the counter…). Of course, this is because most of the story happens in the narrator’s head in the form of memories, circular reminiscences of a style which will delight Bernhard fans but infuriate those with a passion for more linear texts.
The Glenn Gould of the book is a star in the making, and Bernhard describes his (invented) summer of music in Salzburg with the two Austrian pianists. The two men immediately know just whom they have encountered, a man whose musical ambitions extend far beyond mere concert recitals and possible recording contracts:
“Der ideale Klavierspieler (er sagte niemals Pianist!) ist der, der Klavier sein will und ich sage mir ja auch jeden Tag, wenn ich aufwache, ich will der Steinway sein, nicht der Mensch, der auf dem Steinway spielt, der Steinway selbst will ich sein.”
p.118 (Suhrkamp, 2014)
“The ideal piano player (he never said pianist!) is one who wants to be the piano, and I tell myself every day when I wake up, I want to be the Steinway, not the one playing the Steinway, I want to be the Steinway itself.”
*** (my translation)
The drive of genius forces Gould ever onwards, and Bernhard’s narrator describes a man whose quest for perfection eventually destroys him. When Gould dies of a stroke at his piano, the narrator suggests that this is death through mental exhaustion, with the maestro consumed by his music.
While Gould’s name makes the book stand out, in truth, he’s a minor character here, important mainly for the role he plays in the two friends’ lives. Gould is the one who bestows the nickname of Der Untergeher on the hapless Wertheimer, and the Austrian, from the first moment he hears Gould play, is tormented by the knowledge he’ll never be as good as the Canadian. From that chance encounter in Salzburg, he knows he is fated to fail in his quest to become a world-renowned artist.
What follows, then, is a portrait of a desperate man who, despite his wealth and talent, is doomed to misery, and an early grave. Wertheimer is morose, self-destructive and incredibly selfish; one of the more important events in the second half of the book describes his efforts to keep his sister with him for ever, and her eventual flight to marry a Swiss businessman. Bernhard paints the portrait of an egotist, with this image gradually transforming into that of a wealthy man with nothing to live for.
Interestingly (and I’m not sure how intentional this was), the narrator himself doesn’t come off entirely unscathed here. The third member of the trio, another wealthy man with no need to work for a living, affects nonchalance regarding his own musical failure, able to abandon his career without regrets. The more you read, however, the more you sense that he doth protest a little too much; despite his feeling of superiority over Werthheimer, he may be just as desperate as his departed friend was before his death…
Der Untergeher is typical Bernhard from the very start, with our angry friend unable to find a good word for anyone apart from Gould. He delights in insulting artists, useless dilettantes the lot of them, and his country – Vienna gets the usual slating, of course, but Salzburg is in the firing line too:
“Drei Tage sei Glenn in den Zauber dieser Stadt vernarrt gewesen, dann habe er plötzlich gesehen, daß dieser Zauber, wie gesagt wird, ein fauler sei, daß diese Schönheit im Grunde abstoßend ist und die Menschen in dieser abstoßenden Schönheit gemein seien.” (p.19)
“For three days, Glenn was dazzled by the magic of the city, until he suddenly saw that this magic, as it is called, is rotten, that in truth this beauty is repellant, and the people in this repellant beauty are vulgar.” ***
When you add this bile to the usual mesmeric, circular motion of the story, what eventuates is a strangely comforting read, the enjoyment of the familiar (which is an idea Bernhard would not have approved of!).
In truth, though, while Der Untergeher is an enjoyable novel, I never found it as impressive as the other two books in this loose trilogy. It doesn’t hang together quite as well as I would have liked, with an abrupt (for Bernhard) change in pace and direction half-way through, making it all appear a little awkward. Alte Meister and Holzfällen took Bernhard’s circular motion and ran with it for the entirety of the novel; this one runs out of energy somewhere along the line and needs to be pushed back on track…
Still, average Thomas Bernhard, if this is what it is, is still very good indeed, so it’s certainly not one to ignore (especially if you’ve read the other two in this ‘series’). Having now heard all he has to say about the lives of artists, I’m looking forward to seeing who else he wants to insult. Bernhard has an extensive back catalogue of work, meaning there’s plenty for me to look forward to in future – I’ll certainly be back for more from Austria’s Mr. Grumpy😉
The Loser is available from Vintage Books, translated by Jack Dawson🙂