Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard's novel Der Untergeher supplied an offbeat appendix to the body of "official" Gouldiana when it appeared in 1983. Now available in an English translation, as The Loser, it should reach a much wider audience -- most notably among Gould's many admirers in the United States and his native Canada. This is good news, since the novel is fascinating both as a work of literature and as a document in Gould history.
Like all of Bernhard's novels since Frost (1963), The Loser is written in the form of a continuous first person interior monologue, unbroken by paragraph indentations and full of run-on sentences, obsessive repetitions, odd and unexplained uses of italics, and alienating leaps (without transition) from verb tense to verb tense. In short, there is a real stream-of-consciousness atmosphere, and translator Jack Dawson, to his credit, has conspicuously preserved the quirks that give Bernhard's prose its characteristic tone. Music is the subject matter of much of the book, but one senses that it informs the style too: Bernhard is sensitive to the musical effects of rhythm, repetition, and proportion in his prose. It did not surprise me to learn from Mark M. Anderson's instructive Afterword , that Bernhard had extensive formal training in music -- indeed, that he was a musician before he became a writer.
The Loser consists almost entirely of its (unnamed) narrator's recollections of and ruminations on his relationships with two pianist friends: one named Wertheimer, the other named Glenn Gould. As we learn, Wertheimer and the narrator were students in a piano class taught by Vladimir Horowitz at the Mozarteum in Salzburg in 1953. There they met a young Canadian Wunderkind who played the Goldberg Variations miraculously and who, they quickly came to realize, was a greater pianist than even their teacher -- indeed, "the most important piano virtuoso of the century," as the narrator puts it in the novel's opening sentence.
In fact, so great is the impact of Gould's genius on his two colleagues that, even as it nourishes them, it destroys them: they realize that Gould represents an artistic ideal to which they cannot hope to aspire. So the narrator eventually decides to give up the piano in favour of philosophy, and spends much of his subsequent time composing a rambling, never-completed essay entitled About Glenn Gould. Wertheimer, who had been a very promising virtuoso himself, follows suit, abandoning music and moving into the "human sciences", the meaning of which is left vague (as is the narrator's "philosophy," for that matter).
Eventually, his behavior becomes more and more erratic and self-destructive; he alienates his friends, and tyrannizes his devoted sister. It was Gould who, with his "ruthless and open, yet healthy American-Canadian manner" first called Wertheimer, to his face, "The Loser" ("Der Untergeher" -- a much more evocative word). As Wertheimer comes to see the accuracy of this epithet, he gradually loses his grip on life. Thus, the encounter with Gould affects both characters decisively for almost three decades, as they experience an endless series of personal and intellectual travails.
As the novel begins, Gould has just died at the age of 51, prompting circumstances leading to Wertheimer's suicide a year later at the same age. The plot of the novel -- its "present", so to speak -- consists of the narrator arriving at Wertheimer's lodge in the country shortly after his funeral, drawn there subconsciously by thoughts dredged up by his friend's suicide. But the bulk of the novel really takes place in the narrator's mind, as he stands at the threshold of the lodge, thinking about life, art, Wertheimer, and the decisive role Glenn Gould played in his life.
The "plot" of the novel is thus disproportionately small, and confined largely to the end, when the narrator engages with the people, places, and things around Wertheimer's lodge; the novel is really an almost continuous digression from its outward events. But Bernhard never loses sight of the plot: he constantly reminds the reader that the narrator's digressions are digressions, by interjecting brief phrases or sentences that pull the reader back to the threshold of that lodge. Often "I thought" ("dachte ich") is enough to clarify the two levels of past tense -- to make the point that the novel does not take place at the time of the events recounted, but at the time its narrator recalls them. This constant dissonance between tenses creates an air of ambiguity, uncertainty, and gives the prose a peculiar yet engaging character.
There is much more to the novel than my sketch of its main contents suggests. More than just an interesting story, The Loser, much like Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus, is concerned with ideas, musical and otherwise. Wertheimer, suggests Anderson in his Afterword , "is an ironic caricature of Wittgenstein: an envious, weak artist who is destroyed by Gould's superior talent; a sadist who keeps his sister locked up in a quasi-incestuous relationship; and finally a philosophical failure who burns all his notes before committing a spiteful, embarrassing suicide." The parallels between Wertheimer and the obsessive, Faustian composer in Faustus, and between the larger ideas about life and art that both Bernhard and Mann pursue, are readily apparent.
But for Gould fans, the interest of the book lies, of course, in the character and function of that creature referred to as "Glenn Gould" but composed of equal parts real Gould and fantastical variation on that theme. Here is Gould the great virtuoso pianist, who specialized in Bach and Brahms and Schoenberg and Webern, who had negative feelings about Mozart and Beethoven and "never played Chopin," who played the Goldberg Variations at the Salzburg Festival and made more than one recording of the work, whose father's trade was in hides and furs, who fled from the "abhorred public" to live a hermit's life, who had no regard for stylish clothing, who "loved things with sharp contours, detested approximation," who "was the most ruthless person toward himself," a "fanatic about order" and the "concept of self-discipline."
So far, this is the Glenn Gould we know. But to each truth, Bernhard seems to insist stubbornly -- even perversely -- on adding an element of fantasy. Gould dies at 51, not 50, and moreover does so poetically: "Glenn had the good fortune of collapsing at his Steinway in the middle of the Goldberg Variations". His second favorite composer is Handel. He plays the Goldberg Variations at the Salzburg Festival in 1955, rather than the real-life 1959, and furthermore goes to Salzburg first in 1953, to study with Horowitz (whose playing he, in fact, hated), and on a Rockefeller scholarship, no less! In the novel, Gould's Goldberg recordings repeat exactly the interpretation of his early performances. His parents here are wealthy, "not merely well-to-do." He breaks with his family and lives in the United States (he is often referred to as "Canadian-American" or "American-Canadian" -- sometimes both in the same breath. He loves New York City and sets up a studio-home in the woods nearby -- in part hoping that the country air would appease his "sick lungs." He speaks German fluently, having learned it from his maternal grandmother. He practices constantly, rather than spending time writing: "Glenn actually left nothing behind, Glenn didn't keep any kind of written record".
And so on and on. This, needless to say, is not the Glenn Gould we know. (For that matter, the idea of Vladimir Horowitz teaching that piano class at the Mozarteum is equally fanciful, since Horowitz almost never taught, certainly would never have taught en masse, and anyway was in retirement in 1953.) But Bernhard's embellishments to the real Gould are perfectly consistent with the narrator's tone of muddled, torrential recollection. Nothing is certain in this novel; indeed, the absurdity of life seems to be one of its underlying themes.
Whatever we may think of this quasi-Gould, it is clear that the real Gould was an important figure in Bernhard's life. (This is not the only respect in which the narrator's life and character resemble the author's.) As Bernhard wrote in another work, "Those are terrible people who don't like Glenn Gould.... I will have nothing to do with such people, they are dangerous people." Bernhard admired Gould not only as an artist, but as a thinker, too, and especially as an embodiment of an ideal in terms of the artist's role in society. Throughout the novel there flows a venomous polemic against a number of targets in the musical establishment: pretentious conservatories in general, and Salzburg and Vienna (where Bernhard studied) in particular, music teachers and professors, concerts, and every sort of mainstream musical mediocrity. Salzburg, we learn, "at bottom is the sworn enemy of all art and culture, a cretinous provincial dump [ein stumpfsinniges Provinznest] with stupid people and cold walls where everything without exception is eventually made cretinous." ("Provincial hole" is a better translation, I think, but "cretinous" is splendid.)
For Bernhard, Gould obviously represented the highest realm of artistic achievement -- a realm which is no longer even quite human: "In the end people like Glenn had turned themselves into art machines [Kunstmaschine], had nothing in common with human beings anymore, only seldom reminded you of human beings."
Precisely this dooms the narrator and his friend: they simply cannot bear to play the piano after hearing Gould; "just the thought of having to walk on stage makes me ill", says Werthemier at one point. And indeed, Wertheimer commits suicide out of shame, not long after Gould's death: "Wertheimer couldn't take Glenn's death. After Glenn's death he was ashamed to still be alive, to have outlived the genius, so to speak, that fact martyred him his entire last year, as I know". This, surely, is the outer limit of Gould worship -- at least, one hopes so.
Given Bernhard's life and character, it is easy to understand his attraction to Gould. Bernhard, too, was a perennial outsider who did not fit into the establishment, who continually outraged and scandalized his peers and public even as they praised and honored him, who hated mediocrities both individual and institutional, and who had a love-hate relationship with his native Austria, which he accused of "philistinism" and "art hatred". And let us not forget, Bernhard was in an especially good position to understand Gould, being a musician himself. Born in 1931, he studied music in Salzburg as a child. In 1951, he entered the Musik-Akademie in Vienna, and from 1952 to 1956 he studied music and theatre at the Mozarteum. After he graduated in 1956 (with a thesis on Artaud and Brecht), Bernhard began a second career as a writer. His subsequent output -- plays, poetry, novels -- was enormous, and he earned many major awards as well as national and international renown. He died alone in his farmhouse near Salzburg in 1989, two days after his fifty-eighth birthday.
That Der Untergeher appeared in 1983, a year after Gould's death, suggests perhaps that Bernhard, like his characters, was prompted to reflection by that event. And as Anderson tells us, this novel followed a seven-year period in which Bernhard wrote five volumes of autobiography -- a "sustained examination of the self [that] proved crucial". Gould's death may have provoked Bernhard to explore his ideas on life and art even further.
Bernhard and Gould never met in real life, though Gould did play twice in Salzburg: on 10 August 1958 (the Bach D Minor Concerto with Mitropoulos) and 25 August 1959 (a Sweelinck-Schoenberg-Mozart-Bach recital). Given his interest in music, Bernhard may well have attended and been overwhelmed by one or both of these concerts. And it is tempting to believe so, for surely some momentous encounter introduced Bernhard to Gould's art. What else explains the passionate, even reverent attitude he displays toward Gould in this novel?
As to the tinkering with Gould's life and character, Anderson suggests that Bernhard adapted Gould's biography "to make it fit his own. Bernhard, not the Canadian virtuoso, turned 51 the year Gould died; he had the lung disease; he broke with his family and moved to an isolated house in the country". In fact, the narrator, Wertheimer, and Gould all reflect different parts of Bernhard's character. In this sense, the unending stream of first-person rumination is the perfect stylistic complement to the content of the prose, in which Bernhard seems to work through his own ideas obsessively, taking on different personae in order to engage in dialogue with himself. The Loser is really a kind of bizarre fugue on various subjects (the mission of art, the banality of Austria, the absurdity of life, etc.) -- a conversation that can ultimately be placed in the author's own very fertile mind.
But if The Loser, in the end, has little to do with the real Glenn Gould, it still has, I think, an important place in the Gould reception history. For rather than a contribution to the critical literature on Gould -- which is already plentiful -- it is a new work of art inspired by Gould. It is not alone in this regard: more than one visual artist has already paid tribute to Gould in a portrait; original compositions, and several transcriptions of the Goldberg Variations, have been inspired by and dedicated to him; and some other performers have learned from his example. But The Loser is certainly the most ambitious appropriation of Gould into a new artistic product to date. And this being so, it actually pays all the greater tribute to Gould precisely by tinkering with his biography. For if Bernhard is willing to adapt Gould as circumstances require, he must truly need him: in this novel of ideas -- of Bernhard's ideas -- Gould's presence is obviously decisive. Moreover, the tinkering tends to make Gould conform more closely to Bernhard's own life, character, and intellectual agenda; thus, to some extent, Bernhard seems to be merging himself with Gould. Clearly, Gould, as artist, thinker, and figure, impressed and influenced Bernhard deeply. In The Loser , Bernhard returns the favour by paying him the ultimate compliment: absorbing him completely. A more "accurate" or "respectful" portrayal of Glenn Gould could not do him greater honour.
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