Author(s): Thomas Bernhard
'When indefatigable obsession looms large as it does in Thomas Bernhard (and his revered precursor Kafka) the result for the reader is a strange exhilaration and the thrall at being admitted into the mind of a maddened, magical genius.' - Edna O'Brien
Mid-century Austria. Three aspiring concert pianists - Wertheimer, Glenn Gould, and the narrator - have dedicated their lives to achieving the status of a virtuoso. But one day, two of them overhear Gould playing Bach's Goldberg Variations, and his incomparable genius instantly destroys them both.
They are forced to abandon their musical ambitions: Wertheimer, over a tortured process of disintegration that sees him becoming obsessed with both writing and his own sister, with whom he has a quasi-incestuous relationship culminating in death; and the narrator, instantly, retreating into obscurity to write a book that he periodically destroys and restarts.
Written as a monologue in one remarkable unbroken paragraph, Bernhard's dazzling meditation on failure, genius, and fame is a radical new reading experience: musical, paralysing, raging, and inimitable.
Of the three friends who had studied piano together under Horowitz at the Salzburg Mozarteum, the narrator, Wertheimer and a fictionalised Glenn Gould, only Gould continued playing, for the others, though piano prodigies, were unable to continue their careers after having overheard Gould’s interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and been ‘destroyed’ by his genius. Twenty-eight years later, Gould, having withdrawn from the world into his ‘isolation cage’ in the Canadian wilds, dies of a stroke while playing the Variations, and, soon after, the highly neurotic Wertheimer, who had been labelled ‘The Loser’ by Gould on their first meeting and who had been most deeply devastated by the unapproachability of Gould’s genius, for he, unlike the narrator, had set his heart on being a virtuoso, and who had withdrawn to his ‘isolation cage’ in the Austrian wilds after his sister, who he had obsessively dominated and controlled, had ‘escaped’ and married a Swiss industrialist, commits suicide by hanging himself near his sister’s new home. The book, in one relentless paragraph with the same sublime unpegged looping structures as Bach’s music and the wicked barbs, subversions and reflexive humour of an interpretation of Bach by Glenn Gould, represents the thoughts of the narrator as they loop over and over the relationship between the three characters, who can be seen as three aspects of Bernhard himself, his characters being blanks upon which he projects his own neuroses, invective, frustrated abilities, lung disease, impulses for self-destruction and, above all, stultifying ambivalence. A revulsion by everything, a precise analysis of the inescapable destructive cacophony of human relationships, a delineation of the self-annihilating effects of the ‘isolation cages’ that are the refuge from humanity, no thought is sooner expressed than it begins to appear ludicrous, the further developed it becomes, the more ludicrous, until it is left exploded, empty, food for its opposite, no less ludicrous. It takes well over half the book for the narrator to walk into the inn at which he will stay after visiting Wertheimer’s ‘isolation cage’ in Traich to search for the work Wertheimer had been writing, almost the entire content of the book taking place at at least the second if not the third or fourth remove, in a subjective hole so deep that the characters leach characteristics into each other as the narrator hysterically overdoes every analysis and statement to the extent that we come to believe that any statement is an overstatement and a false statement, or at least a statement within which truth and falsity cannot be disentangled. In this rereading I noticed that Wertheimer is briefly mentioned as having been writing something called The Loser (otherwise the narrator dismisses his writing as aphorisms “destined for the walls of dentists’ waiting rooms”), and I couldn’t get out of my mind that Bernhard identified strongly with his Wertheimer character, who has written this book as if narrated by his unnamed friend who would have found this work after Wertheimer’s suicide (Bernhard’s proxy suicide) had not he arrived at Traich to be told by the gamekeeper that Wertheimer had been seen to burn all his papers before his fatal trip.