Reviewed 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
nestbesch-
mutzer
—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
virtuosity.  

"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.  

Yet
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.  
The Loser

by Thomas Bernhard
Great Books Guide
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