A Riff on Thomas Bernhard’s Novel The Loser

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1. I finished Thomas Bernhard’s 1983 novel The Loser (English transl. Jack Dawson ’91) a few weeks ago and then picked over some of it again this week.

I’m not going to try to unpack all of The Loser here—it’s too thick, too loaded, too layered—its density is monochromatic, or monoglossic really, a monologue that threatens to drown the reader. One big paragraph.

2. The Loser is the second Bernhard novel I’ve read, after Correction, which is an even denser novel: Correction’s sentences are longer, its tone grimmer, its humor less readily apparent.

Correction is a novel about repetition. The Loser reads like a repetition of Correction: Like CorrectionThe Loser is one long uninterrupted monologue by an unnamed narrator who attempts to puzzle out the motives and meanings of a friend’s recent suicide. As in Correction, the suicide in The Loser (eponymous Wertheimer, whose name recalls Correction’s Roithamer) is a ridiculously wealthy man who obsesses almost incestuously over his sister, repressing her in the process. Like CorrectionThe Loser focuses on three friends. And like CorrectionThe Loser is ultimately about how idealism leads to breakdown, insanity, and suicide.

3. (I riffed on Correction here).

4. You might want a plot summary (always my least favorite business of a book review).

Here, straight from the text:

Wertheimer had wanted to compete with Glenn, I thought, to show his sister, to pay her back for everything by hanging himself only a hundred steps from her house in Zizers.

That’s more or less the plot: Our loser’s sister (whom he sought to control and constrain and confine) elopes to Switzerland to marry a Swiss millionaire. This is the proverbial  last straw for Wertheimer, whose dream of being a great piano player was decimated the moment he heard Glenn Gould play piano years ago when they attended a conservatory together.

5. That’s like, the Glenn Gould of course—which is what our narrator calls him (that is, the).

Glenn Gould’s perfection—or rather the perfection Wertheimer (and the narrator, through whom Wertheimer lives (as a voice)) affords GG—stymies the pair forever:

Glenn is the victor, we are the failures

GG is their ideal, and the ideal shatters them:

. . . always Glenn Gould at the center, not Glenn but Glenn Gould, who destroyed us both, I thought.

And later:

. . . there’s nothing more terrible than to see a person so magnificent that his magnificence destroys us . . .

6. Glenn Gould has the gall to die of a stroke, upsetting Wertheimer to no end. (Wertheimer’s not upset that Glenn Gould has died—no, he can’t stand the perfection of Glenn Gould’s death)

7. Glenn Gould’s own idealism:

. . .to be the Steinway itself . . .

—an idealized self-erasure; a self that doesn’t think, that doesn’t theorize; a self that only acts.

8. Glenn Gould’s perfection shatters Wertheimer, but when his sister leaves him he starts to go insane:

We have an ideal sister for our needs and she leaves us at exactly the wrong moment . . .

9. More on our loser Wertheimer:

Do you think I could have become a great piano player? he asked me, naturally without waiting for an answer and laughing a dreadful Never! from deep inside.

—and—

. . . ultimately he was enamored of failure . . .

—and—

. . . he was addicted to people because he was addicted to unhappiness.

—and—

My constant curiosity got in the way of my suicide, so he said, I thought.

10. In that last example, we see the layering of The Loser’s narrative: “so he said, I thought.” The novel is entirely the narrator’s internal monologue, moving through time and space freely—yet Bernhard constantly anchors the monologue in these layered attributions. The effect is often jarring, as we experience the narrator move from memory to thought to observation on the present continuous world he is currently experiencing.

Here’s an example:

Parents know very well that they perpetuate their own unhappiness in their children, they go about it cruelly by having children and throwing them into the existence machine, he said, I thought, contemplating the restaurant.

We move from Wertheimer’s observation about throwing children into the “existence machine” to attribution of that thought to Wertheimer (“he”) to another layering of attribution (“I thought”) and then, bizarrely, to the narrator suggesting that he is “contemplating the restaurant” (the narrator’s concrete action for the first half of the book is entering an inn). The narrator simultaneously remembers and observes and contemplates—but there’s a deep anxiety here, I think, a refusal to slow down, to reflect.

11. Or perhaps this is just how “the existence machine”—consciousness—works.

12. More on “the existence machine”:

We exist, we don’t have any other choice, Glenn once said.

—and—(thus Wertheimer):

. . . we don’t exist, we get existed . . .

—and—-

Wertheimer had to commit suicide, I told myself, he had no future left. He’d used himself up, had run out existence coupons.

Existence coupons!

13. If you do not find the citation above (re: “existence coupons”) particularly and absurdly and perhaps cruelly funny, it is likely that you will not enjoy The Loser, a book that I found hilarious.

14. Another humorous passage—our narrator, having entered his “deterioration process,” elects to give away his piano:

I knew I was giving up my expensive instrument to an absolutely worthless individual and precisely for that reason I had it delivered to the teacher. The teacher’s daughter took my instrument, one of the very best, one of the rarest and therefore most sought after and therefore also most expensive pianos in the world, and in the shortest period imaginable destroyed it, rendered it worthless.

15. The Loser, like Correction, is very much about destruction, about breaking down both objects and ideas into a pure, idealized zero.

Take Wertheimer’s book, which echoes the narrator’s piano (and Glenn Gould’s own will to remove himself from the process of playing, to be “the Steinway itself”):

He wanted to publish a book, but it never came to that, for he kept changing his manuscript, changing it so often and to such an extent that nothing was left of the manuscript, of which finally nothing remained except the title, The Loser.

The narrator too plans to write a book, his Glenn Essay:

. . . 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 we are not.

This is how idealism plays out in The Loser: a process of correction that leads to fragmentation, deterioration, nullification.

The fight against getting existed.

16. The Loser’s narrator repeatedly brings up the clash between idealism (theory) and existence (practice):

In theory he mastered all the unpleasantness of life, all the degrees of desperation, the evil in the world that grinds us down, but in practice he was never up to it. And so he went to pot, completely at odds with his own theories, went all the way to suicide, I thought, all the way to Zizers, his ridiculous end of the line, I thought. In theory he had always spoken out against suicide, deemed me capable of it however without a second thought, always went to my funeral, in practice he killed himself and I went to his funeral. In theory he became one of the greatest piano virtuosos in the world, one of the most famous artists of all time (even if not as famous as Glenn Gould!), in practice he accomplished nothing at the piano, I thought.

There is something simultaneously absurdly hilarious and tragic in the idea that even in his theoretical ideal state, Wertheimer is still not as accomplished as Glenn Gould!

17. For the narrator of The Loser, the tragic space between theory and practice is a deeply existential problem, the problem of the individual consciousness’s relation to other people:

In theory we understand people, but in practice we can’t put up with them, I thought, deal with them for the most part reluctantly and always treat them from our own point of view. We should observe and treat people not from our own point of view but from all angles, I thought, associate with them in such a way that we can say we associate with them so to speak in a completely unbiased way, which however isn’t possible, since we actually are always biased against everybody.

18. Watching some beer-truck drivers in the inn, the narrator undertakes a thought experiment that highlights a will to belong, to relate to others, coupled with the immediate dismissal—the internalized abject rejection—of this idea:

Again and again we picture ourselves sitting together with the people we feel drawn to all our lives, precisely these so-called simple people, whom naturally we imagine much differently from the way they truly are, for if we actually sit down with them, we see that they aren’t the way we’ve pictured them and that we absolutely don’t belong with them, as we’ve talked ourselves into believing, and we get rejected at their table and in their midst as we logically should get after sitting down at their table and believing we belonged with them or we could sit with them for even the shortest time without being punished, which is the biggest mistake, I thought.

19. Note in the later passages of The Loser ( including the two I cite in points 17 and 18) the dominant use of the pronoun we. The narrator’s we might be a simple rhythmic projection, a generalization of the narrator’s own anxieties displaced onto others. At the same time, the narrator’s we seems to hold the ghosts of Glenn Gould and Wertheimer, who possess, haunt, and ventriloquize the narrator’s voice—which is the novel, of course.

20. The Loser seems like a great starting place for someone interested in reading Bernhard. I think it’s a more manageable introduction to his themes than Correction is: the humor is more accessible, the book’s ironies perhaps more apparent, and its sentences are far, far shorter. (I feel the need to clarify: None of these comments should be interpreted as a knock against Correction, which I thought brilliant; neither should these comments be interpreted as a knock against the intelligence and abilities of readers interested in Bernhard).

21. I still have two Bernhards in the stack—Yes and Concrete—but I’ll hold off for a while. Dude’s writing is rewarding but taxing.

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