Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Loser / Thomas Bernhard's Stream-of Consciousness Novel About Glenn Gould

Thomas Bernhard

The Loser: Thomas Bernhard's Stream-of 
Consciousness Novel About Glenn Gould

by Ted Gioia

In any contest to pick the most vitriolic novelist of the 
20th Century, Thomas Bernhard makes the short list of 
leading candidates.   His pugnacious and acerbic manner 
is now known worldwide, but the closer one gets to 
Vienna and Salzburg, where he lived
for so many years, the greater the
antipathy—indeed, no award-winning
author of the modern era is less be-
loved in his homeland than Bernhard.
There he is known as a 
—a German word, with no
English equivalent, signifying some-
one who befouls his own nest. 

Bernhard deliberately provoked the
ire of Austrians, not just in his work
but also posthumously, when he included in his will the 
following love note to his countrymen: "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 this state identifies itself."  I especially like the 
last clause—even if the nation changes its name, borders, 
and dominion, the curse from the grave stays with it.  No, 
Herr Bernhard did not do things by halves.  

Here is a mini-tour guide to Austria, drawn from passages 
in Bernhard’s novel 
The Loser.  First, a tip on your hotel 
accommodations:  "Austrian hotels are filthy and 
unappetizing.  And talk about the
rooms!...Often they just iron over
sheets that have been slept in, and
it’s not uncommon to find clumps of
hair in the sink from the previous
guest.  Austrian inns have always
turned my stomach."  How about the
weather? "The climate in the lower
Alps makes for emotionally disturbed
people who fall victim to cretinism
at a very early age and who in time
become malevolent." And what else
can we say about the inhabitants?
"The town of Salzburg itself…was and is antagonistic to 
everything of value in a human being, and in time 
destroys it….The people in Salzburg have always been 
dreadful, like their climate."

Bernhard is no kinder to his own characters, who typically 
fall into two categories: those he despises, or those (like 
the author himself) who do the despising.  True, this 
novel is ostensibly about pianist Glenn Gould, who is 
praised lavishly in its pages—first because he had the 
good sense to be Canadian rather than Austrian, but 
perhaps even more because of his willingness, at least in 
these pages, to hold scornful opinions similar to 
Bernhard's own.  Yet our author focuses even more 
intensely on another pianist, named Wertheimer, whose 
psyche and career aspirations are both destroyed by his 
encounter with Gould.  Wertheimer is "the loser"—a 
nickname given him by Gould—commemorated in the title 
to the book.  Thus a novel that could well have been 
about one man’s transcendent success turns into an 
account of another’s dismal failure.

The bulk of this novel is presented in a single rambling 
paragraph, recounting the intermingled life stories of 
three pianists who have come to Salzburg to study with 
Vladimir Horowitz.  But the narrator and his friend 
Wertheimer soon discover that their fellow student and 
roommate, the young Glenn Gould, far outstrips them in 
talent.  In time, both abandon their careers as concert 
pianists, not because they are not good enough—in truth, 
each of the two Austrian musicians is skilled enough to 
make a living as performers—but because they realize 
how poorly their efforts compare with the foreigner’s 

"How can I perform in public now that I've heard Glenn," 
Wertheimer laments to his friend.  "I tried to make him 
understand that he played better than all the others," the 
narrator explains, "although not as well as Glenn, which I 
didn’t say to him but which he could intuit in everything I 
said….The fact is, you've let yourself be so dazzled by 
Glenn that you’re paralyzed, you, the most extraordinary 
talent that ever went to the Mozarteum, I said, and I 
spoke the truth in saying so, for Wertheimer actually was 
such an extraordinary talent."

Hearing Gould play the 
Goldberg Variations for Horowitz 
shakes Wertheimer's confidence, but most of the impact 
of the encounter with the Canadian virtuoso plays out 
gradually.  Much of the fascination of the story Bernhard 
presents comes from its delineation of these long-term 
effects.  Eventually the narrator gives away his piano, and 
Wertheimer puts his up for auction.  Both also turn into 
recluses, like Gould himself, relying on the security of 
family money to isolate themselves from the surrounding 
society.   Although both consider other careers, they never 
are able to create a new life to replace the broken shards 
of the old one.  The final stage in this process of 
disintegration arrives three decades later, when 
Wertheimer commits suicide, shortly after Gould’s own 
death, leaving the narrator alone to grapple with the 
implications of this cursed and happenstance intersection 
in the lives of three young musicians.

Those seeking insights into the historical figure of Glenn 
Gould are advised to pass on this book.  Gould never 
studied with Horowitz in Salzburg—indeed, the idea of 
these two opposed keyboard titans co-existing as mentor 
and disciple will amuse those familiar with their sharply 
contrasting personalities both on and off the piano 
bench.  Many of the other biographical details that add 
color and vivacity to
 The Loser seem more the product of 
Bernhard's imagination than the Canadian virtuoso’s life.  
For the most part, Gould comes across as a convenient 
stand-in for Bernhard himself, and may give some insight 
into how this author viewed his own role:  namely, as the 
superior talent who casts judgments on others, while 
remaining indifferent to their reactions or any criticisms 
that might come back his way.

The Loser can also be read as a guide to the psychic 
calamities of the virtuoso profession, and the 
repercussions when a once-in-a-generation master collides 
with colleagues who are unable to cope with the invidious 
comparisons that such brilliance invariably inspires.   For 
once, Bernhard’s trademark paranoid and obsessive-
compulsive style of writing—replete with fixations, 
repetitions, contradictions, and non-stop blame-gaming—
fits the subject matter perfectly.   Others may recount the 
triumphs of genius with more sheer majesty, but few 
works surpass 
The Loser in recounting the more tragic 
plight of those who measure themselves up against 
genius and are find themselves wanting.  


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