Thomas Bernhard was one of the most original writers of the twentieth century. His formal innovation ranks with Beckett and Kafka, his outrageously cantankerous voice recalls Dostoevsky, but his gift for lacerating, lyrical, provocative prose is incomparably his own. One of Bernhard's most acclaimed novels,The Losercenters on a fictional relationship between piano virtuoso Glenn Gould and two of his fellow students who feel compelled to renounce their musical ambitions in the face of Gould's incomparable genius. One commits suicide, while the other-- the obsessive, witty, and self-mocking narrator-- has retreated into obscurity. Written as a monologue in one remarkable unbroken paragraph,The Loseris a brilliant meditation on success, failure, genius, and fame. From the Trade Paperback edition.
I was not disappointed. I came away fromt his novel simply saying "Wow!" I was very much taken by Bernhard's story of three friends who studied piano together at the Mozarteum in Austria. The tale is told from teh point of view of one friend, the narrator, who leanrs of the deaths of both of his classmates at approximately the same age. Glenn Gould was a piano virtuoso who died of a stroke while playing a particuarly difficult piece on the piano. Wertheimer died of suicide aftre no longer playing thepiano. The story examine what happened as pieced together by the narrator.
The story was easy to read, but very puzzling. Both the author and the narrator were Austrians. In this novel, there is nothing but disdain for Austria. Often in the narrative, the narrator would express two opposing thoughts and make both of those seem credible. Im not sure how he did this! The narrator was also able to keep repeating the smae things over and over again in such a way that whatever her expressed was fascinating.
I can see why Thomas Bernhard as an author is held in such high regard. I look forward to reading more of his works.
My copy of the book by the University of Chicago Press had an exception Afterword which discussed both the author and this work. I found that very informative and satisfying.
After reading "Woodcutters" recently I decided to tackle "The Loser" (Der Untergeher) in English (translated by Jack Dawson, with a wonderful afterword by Mark M. Anderson).
Technically it's stunning book. The one huge monologue, typical of Bernhard, is a relentless, unending exercise in self mockery and a fascinating depiction of the constantly changing positions that we take in life.
Since nothing is permanent and life is not permanent, Bernhard's narrator states the answer in a very literary way.
When reading Bernhard the phrase that pops to mind is "word massacre", that is, one starts feeling sorry for the words and the language after a while, the way he mercilessly hammers them from every perspective... it's also liberating in a way reading something like this once in a while.
His prose much like his poetry can also be a torrent of words and phrases, jumbled together to make a coherent whole. In a way his prose is also like poetry in the sense that he is experimenting with language, putting together words, and seeing if any meaning emerges from them or at least make us skeptical about language itself.
It's the first time I've read this book in a language other than German. One of the things that I didn't agree with was the english title: "The Loser". I'm not sure why the translation went this way. in German "Der Untergeher" derives from the verb "untergehen", which means "going down going to ground", which of course can mean a sort of losing, but not necessarily the connotation of failure (which is I think important to bear in mind when one thinks of the end of the book). With the word "loser" one loses this richness, the wonderful ambiguity of "going down" has been lost.
Bernhard's prose style = Bach fugue...?"
but thats behind the lines.
On the obvious surface,it deals with the alienation of the the art,the artist,and humans in general.
with clear autobiographic touch, thats Bernhard at it's best.
Those unfamiliar with Bernhard's peculiar style should be warned that the book doesn't follow a number of conventions that many people would take for granted and at times it can feel as if Bernhard is deliberately writing badly. However, it all makes perfect sense actually and gives the story a very distinctive, almost feverish immediacy.
It really isn't an optimistic or uplifting tale, but it IS deeply compassionate and sensitive view of a human condition, the kind that will linger with you for a long time after you've finished the book.
About the substance I'm not so sure. It would be tempting to dismiss it as 240 pages of pure pique — as someone else sums it up below: "If I can't be best I won't play". I don't think that's quite fair. There's a bit more than envy going on: although Wertheimer, the Untergeher, is ostensibly at the centre of the narrative, what the narrator appears to be trying to do is to sort out the meaning of his own relationships with both Wertheimer and "Glenn Gould". Now that Glenn is dead, he has lost his excuse for not pursuing music; without Wertheimer, he no longer has a baseline value to show that he himself is not a failure. The implication seems to be that we only define ourselves as human beings by measuring ourselves against other people.
Bernhard reminds me of Rilke: I disagree with him/his characters entirely about more or less everything. This kind of mid-century existentialism* never struck me as particularly interesting or true (i.e., we're going to die, so why bother? Well, we might as well bother, since we're alive). I understand that some people kill themselves, but I think Spinoza (I'm possibly making this up/misremembering) was right to say that suicide is a logical impossibility: 'suicide' is caused by factors outside one's self. In the case of existentialist suicide, it's caused by silly ideas.
The other reason Bernhard reminds me of Rilke is that he says all these silly things with utter brilliance. I can't quite believe anyone so artistically talented could be so foolish or so glum. I expected this to be heavy going, what with the pointless 'I refuse to use paragraphs' business (there are obvious paragraph and even chapter breaks in the book; refusing to show them in the text is just pretension) and his general reputation. But no. This thing was wildly entertaining.
Bernhard ironizes all the existentialism, recognizing that its silliness is the only thing sillier than the silliness of life itself. The characters (a term used loosely, maybe 'ideas' is a better one) here are the victims of ridiculous expectations, and when they can't meet those expectations, they retreat into their own intellects. Maybe Wertheimer and the narrator will never be the world's greatest pianist (excuse me, 'piano artist') and in that sense will always be losers. But they *know* that they're losers, so it's okay.
No. They're losers inasmuch as they retreat to their intellects, with the narrator claiming to be better than Wertheimer and Wertheimer, presumably, also claiming to be better than the narrator. They're losers, not because they failed to be better piano artists than 'Glenn Gould'**, but because they think, Highlander style, that there can only be one. Leave the house occasionally, meet some other people. It'll be okay.
*: not actual existentialism, but novelistic existentialism, the kind of thing that Artists do/say because they can't be bothered actually thinking about the world. "Why spend time reading about, say, the decay of post-war governmental structures, like, man is sick and evil and we'll just die anyway?"
**: I actually don't get the Glenn Gould thing. I think he was right to focus on Bach and before, and the twentieth century, but I never get the urge to listen to his Goldbergs. Oh well.
A single paragraph. One breathless monologue. Genius. Failure. Perfection. Obsession. Friendship. Death.
The Genius, the Philosopher, the Loser.
The musical genius of Glenn Gould, the pinnacle of art, is what serves as the reference defining all three of their lives. Werthemier - the titular Loser - finds himself woefully dwarfed by the perfection of Gould as a piano artist. The frustration of recognizing his worthlessness and knowing that he will never be able to reach the top leads him to give up his piano career. And this failure haunts him for the rest of his life. In his bitter obsession, he gradually advances on a path of self-destruction. The manner in which he commits suicide comes as a last-ditch effort to do something on his own terms, a desperate act of rebel against his life of failure.
The narrator - the philosopher - is similarly humiliated in his musical aspirations. Unlike Werthemier, he does manage to push the frustration to the back of his mind. But he never does come out of Gould's shadow. He never finds a new direction to his life and spends years writing an rewriting and essay on Gould.
Through this internal monologue, in a distraught and obsessive manner, the narrator attempts to come to terms with the deaths of both Gould and Werthemier. His whole life can only be defined in terms of the relationship of this trio and he realizes that their deaths automatically render his life void of any meaning. In the process, he also appears to decisively arrive at the conclusion that Werthemier's fate was sealed the moment Gould tagged him as the Loser. Clocks having been set in motion then, Werthemier's suicide was inevitable. And thus the narrator unburdens himself in knowing that there is nothing he could have done to avoid the suicide. We often find the narrator pointing out similar characteristics between himself and Gould (self-delusion?), which clearly set Werthemier apart from the two. While he admits to portraying Werthemier unfavorably, this portrayal also provides him with a way to assure himself that he was not headed down the same path as Werthemier. It really was Werthemier's own personality that he fell victim to.
The relationship that the three share begs the question - what if their paths hadn't crossed with Gould? Perhaps they would have still led a life of being nothing, Gould simply being the excuse they found. However, their lives are so heavily clouded by that of Gould, that it seems impossible to even begin to imagine Gould's absence. This relationship was rooted in their common idea and understanding of music, and it forged a lifelong bond between the three. The intellect of the two, the loser and the philosopher, was also responsible for their failure. Because it takes some acumen to even recognize a genius and be aware of one's own abilities and deficiencies. On the other hand, I cannot factor their wealth out of the equation either. These are two people who do not have to worry about earning a living and thus have the privilege to spend their lives fixated on just one idea. Had that not been the case, sooner or later, the basic necessities of life would have pulled their attention away and forced them to do something with their lives and perhaps lead a life of being good enough, but not the best.
The novel ends with an interesting afterword that throws some light on Bernhard's life and his writing. His later novels, including The Loser, contain characters which carry an image of the author in themselves. In the present case, Gould is meant to be doppelganger for Bernhard. Bernhard having studied music, his writing has been informed by music as well. The afterword compares his writing to Gould's music:
"Here it is Bach's Goldberg variations, played by Glenn Gould, that provides as it were the basso continuo for Bernhard's own deliberately droning repetitions and variations. With the monologistic, uninterrupted flow of its sentences, the novel conjures up the image of a singer fighting to sustain his breath to the end of an impossibly long, embellished aria."
Another well-known aspect of Bernhard's personality was his hatred for his country Austria. Not only did he face multiple controversies while alive, he delivered a parting blow in death as well:
"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." 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.
The narrator was a neurotic twat, quite frankly, which is quite obviously the point of the novel---to sermonize the lives of his two closest (and deceased) friends while never escaping the shadow of his own selfishness. Their success, their suffering, is always related to himself, and about halfway thru the novel, once he vacantly describes the funeral of his closest living friend, we realize that the narrator, more than anyone else, is the novel's true Loser.
For the bad parts: Nothing happens. At all. Nothing, whatsoever. A lot of waxing philosophical, and about 2/3rds of the novel is presented as a neurotic retelling of the same few events---mainly the effect of Gould's mastery of the Goldberg Deviations on the two young virtuosos. Of course, Gould is impeccable---Piano Radicalism and all that jazz---which causes the other two self-absorbed characters
I'm giving it 3/5 because the prose was unique, the story weighty, and because Bernhard tackles some very complex philosophical questions concerning art, genius, self-worth, self-absorption and, above all, the place of one's vision of self against the crushing realities of life.
The negatives are many: basically no story, an a TON of repetition for such a short novel. I feel like any editor would have further condensed the novel due to this constant harping on the same scenes (sure, it's a stylistic aspect of the narrator's neuroses, but come on...)if not for Bernhard's reputation and obvious philosophical genius.
Overall a good book but lacking in gravitas and, above all, emotion. The characters seem more like symbols than bleeding, shitting humans, which always makes a novel fall a little flat in my eyes.
"But already I doubted whether this work was truly worth something and was thinking of destroying it upon my return, everything we write down, if we leave it for a while and start reading it from the beginning, naturally becomes unbearable and we won't rest until we've destroyed it again, I thought. Next week I'll be in Madrid again and the first thing I'll do is destroy my GLENN ESSAY in order to start a new one, I thought, an even more intense, even more authentic one, I thought. For we always think we are authentic and in truth are not, we think we're intense and in truth are not. But of course this insight has always resulted in none of my works ever being published, I thought, not a single one in the twenty-eight years I've been writing, just the work about Glenn has kept me busy for nine years, I thought. How good it is that none of these imperfect, incomplete works has ever appeared, I thought, had I published them, which would have posed no difficulty whatsoever, today I would be the unhappiest person imaginable, confronted daily with disastrous works crying out with errors, imprecision, carelessness, amateurishness. I AVOIDED this punishment BY DESTROYING THEM, I thought, and suddenly I took great pleasure in the word DESTROYING. Several times I said it to myself out loud. ARRIVAL IN MADRID, IMMEDIATELY DESTROY MY GLENN ESSAY, I thought, I must get rid of it as quickly as possible to make room for a new one. Now I know HOW to set about this work, I never knew how, I always began too soon, I thought, like an amateur. All our lives we run away from amateurishness and it always catches up with us, I thought, we want nothing with greater passion than to escape our lifelong amateurishness and it always catches up with us." loc 836
I don’t have much sympathy with the narrator, of course. I am an amateur musician and writer. Should I give up playing the piano because I am not Glenn Gould? Should I give up writing because I can’t get published? I know one thing – I gave up on reading this book.
For devotees of Bernhard’s late style of uninterrupted misanthropic monologue, The Loser satisfies every hope. It is bleak, full of envy and spite, wreathed in self-loathing, and sporadically darkly humorous. And yet, with the almost miraculous figure of Gould, it’s clear that Bernhard commits himself to the possibility of a kind of human perfection, though that might necessitate an unremitting devotion to a specific artistic project. Still, the very possibility of Gould’s recordings makes life, for some, bearable. Alas, not for Wertheimer as he was, from the outset and always, the loser.
Heartily recommended for those who love Bernhard’s style, and gently so for everyone else.
I'd like to pose this review as a question. Why is there so little talk about music in "The Loser"?
This is a book about Glenn Gould (named, and with mainly true things said about him), Horowitz (same), a character named Wertheimer (who has echoes of Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist and friend of Bernhard's), and the narrator, also a pianist. The entire novel is consumed with music, and yet there is very little here that's specific about music: a couple of individual pieces are named, and there are stray mentions of Schoenberg, Webern, Handel, and some others. There is exactly one passage on an individual piece of music, when Wertheimer overhears Gould playing the second half of the Aria in the Goldberg Variations.
It's known that Bernhard knew a great deal about music (one of his favrites was Josef Matthias Hauer: you can judge your own knowledge of modernist music by whether or not you know him), and so it's clear that he made a decision to omit any detailed talk about music from the book.
In the book, music and pianism are entirely matters of "genius." The narrator talks incessantly about who was the "best" "piano artist," and who was second best. Gould was of course "better" than Horowitz, and so forth.
What strikes me here is that this is not how any professional I know, in any field of the arts, thinks. Once you learn about an art (classical piano, abstract painting, whatever) you come to care about individual artists and artworks, and even about parts of artworks. I admire Gould for his performance of some of the variations in Beethoven's Op. 109, but not others; some preludes and fugues in the WTC, but not others. I am convinced by his performance of individual passages and even single notes in Bach, and not others -- for example in the Aria, where some notes sound overdone and intrusively ornamental, and others crisp and "modern." I don't think this is unusual, and it's attested by the intense scrutiny listeners give to performances by their favorite pianists. (Those comparative videos on Youtube are a contemporary manifestation.) Once you get to know an art, a medium, or an instrument, it no longer makes sense to say things like "Gould was the best pianist in the world."
(This is related to the reason why I put off reading "The Loser" until I'd read almost all Bernhard's work: I have my own ideas about Gould and Horowitz, and I imagined Bernhard's thoughts would get in the way of a sympathetic reading of his novel. As it turns out, there are no specific ideas about Gould or Horowitz at all -- you could never tell, from "The Loser," how they played.)
So this is my question: why did Bernhard deliberately avoid writing anything specific about Gould's technique, or Horowitz's, or about their interpretaions of any pieces of music?
Here are a couple of possibilities.
1. "The Loser" has a satiric purpose, and it's about obsession, self-destruction, and people driven by claims of precedence, fame, and genius. This question could perhaps be asked without reference to music. There is little of Wright's architecture in "The Corrections," little of the Wittgensteins in "Wittgenstein's Nephew," little of Goethe in "Goethe Dies," and so forth. But "The Loser" seems different to me, because it names enough actual music to signal the reader it is not only about personalities, that the music matters.
2. Bernhard thought that literature itself -- fiction -- could not accommodate detailed discussions of music, because references to individual works would not be known to readers. I don't like this as an answer, because Bernhard was absolutely the last person to care about his readers' level of education.
3. He was averse to music criticism, description, or analysis of any sort. This is possible; I don't know his position here.
4. He thought discussion of music is incompatible with the narrative forms and voices of literature. This is the explanation that intrigues me. Bernhard was aware of precedents for including descriptions of individual passages and performances, especially Proust.
This question is a live one for me, because I am working on a novel that includes not only precise descriptions of music, but actual sheet music. If there's something to the fourth answer, I'd like to understand it better.
This is my second Thomas Bernhard novel, and whilst reading it my liking for his unique prose style increased. An unnamed narrator walks into an inn and talks to himself about his two best friends (one being Glenn Gould the famous piano virtuoso, the other being Wertheimer "the loser" who has committed suicide by hanging himself near his sister's house). The obsessional, repetitive and funny thoughts of the unnamed narrator continue for half the novel whilst he stands in the inn: it must be the longest wait for a drink in history! Eventually the landlady sees him and it isn't long before he has moved on, both physically and mentally, to the subject of Wertheimer's decline and suicide. It all sounds grim and pointless, but it's surprisingly engaging, especially for the reader who has a liking for cynicism and unhinged rambling: the word "cretinism" pops up quite a lot. Overall, I didn't find The Loser as satisfying as Correction (my first TB novel), it isn't as deep or disturbing, but still I was impressed by the peculiar intensity of it all.