Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser

The LoserA fanatic, it is commonly observed, is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser is narrated by a nameless fanatic, a piano virtuoso who comes to understand the limits of his own abilities when he studies under the famed pianist Vladimir Horowitz at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Among his peers in instruction are Wertheimer, a wealthy Austrian who has taken up the piano to spite his merchant parents, and the Canadian Glenn Gould, slightly fictionalized from his real-life persona. The Loser begins exactly 28 years after these three are brought together, and the nameless narrator wastes no time in simultaneously immersing the reader in the plot and confusing him utterly:

Even Glenn Gould, our friend and the most important piano virtuoso of the century, only made it to the age of fifty-one, I thought to myself as I entered the inn.

Now of course he didn’t kill himself like Wertheimer, but died, as they say, a natural death.

These are the novel’s first lines, and already we know too much (two characters are dead) and too little (what inn? why did Wertheimer kill himself?). They also happen to constitute two of the novel’s four paragraphs; after a brief three-paragraph introduction, the fourth and final paragraph will take up nearly two-hundred pages, and these replete with run-on sentences, fragments, confused tenses and disorienting jumps in time.

Gradually, Bernhard sets his scene: the meeting in Salzburg of the three aspiring pianists proved fatal for two of them, the narrator and Wertheimer, as both recognize the genius of Glenn Gould and the futility of their own continued practice in the shadow of his talent:

Taking Horowitz’s course was as deadly for me as it was for Wertheimer, for Glenn however it was a stroke of genius. Wertheimer and I, as far as our piano virtuosity and in fact music generally were concerned, weren’t killed by Horowitz but by Glenn, I thought. Glenn destroyed our piano virtuosity at a time when we still firmly believed in our piano virtuosity. For years after our Horowitz course we believed in our virtuosity, whereas it was dead from the moment we met Glenn.

There is something unhinged about a mind capable of producing this paragraph, with its needless repetitions (the names of the pianists, the word “virtuosity”) and redundancies (the entire book is the product of the narrator’s mind, but the phrase “I thought” is nonetheless everywhere employed), as there is something off about a person who quits his craft merely because he has found a superior practitioner. But fanatics are, by their very nature, single-minded, and so when Wertheimer and our narrator discover Glenn’s talent, both relinquish their pursuit. “I would have had to play better than Glenn, but that wasn’t possible, was out of the question, and therefore I gave up playing the piano.” The narrator gives his Steinway away, to the daughter of a local instructor, and takes secret pleasure in learning that her neglect of it has damaged it beyond repair; Wertheimer sells his piano at auction.

As Glenn Gould rises ever higher in fame and fortune, his former peers struggle to fill the void created when they renounced the one thing that gave their lives meaning. The narrator devotes himself to writing – and rewriting – a book on Glenn Gould, believing himself to possess unique insights into his character. Wertheimer, on the other hand, quickly unravels, becoming ever more reclusive. When Gould collapses, dead, at his piano, the victim of a lung disease (an invention of Bernhard’s; the real-life Gould died, in hospital, of complications from a stroke), Wertheimer experiences what can only be termed a psychotic breakdown, and the novel’s final pages piece together the final days of his life, culminating in the suicide that Bernhard describes on the opening page.

Because the story is told from only one perspective, and because the narration is so disjointed, the three men collapse into each other, their characters compressing in such a way that their similarities and dissimilarities are brought into sharp relief. What stands out most about Glenn Gould is what, apart from his talent, the narrator and Wertheimer both admire about him: his extreme devotion to his craft, and the fact that he has not so much chosen to play music – to, for example, spite his parents – as he has been chosen as music’s representative, tasked with making the genius of Bach intelligible to the world.

My ideal would be, I would be the Steinway, I wouldn’t need Glenn Gould, he said, I could, by being the Steinway, make Glenn Gould totally superfluous… To wake up one day and be Steinway and Glenn in one, he said, I thought, Glenn Steinway, Steinway Glenn, all for Bach.

If this self-effacement is the great prerequisite for artistic genius, neither the narrator nor Wertheimer prove capable of it. The title, however, refers ultimately to Wertheimer, who can find no substitute for the piano to give his life meaning. This book, what we are reading, is ultimately the narrator’s attempt to come to terms not only with his artistic failure but the loss of his two best friends (“I only had two people in my life who gave it any meaning: Glenn and Wertheimer. Now Glenn and Wertheimer are dead and I have to come to terms with this fact”). Whether he succeeds in this, or whether he will ultimately destroy the manuscript, as he at various times threatens to do, is left ambiguous.