Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The narrator longs to achieve in his writing Glenn Gould’s level of perfection and virtuosity on the piano, while at the same time he fears that he, too, is no more than a founderer, a dilettante, and a candidate for suicide. He takes great pains to differentiate himself from Wertheimer and identify with Gould, yet in twenty-eight years of writing he has published nothing and is determined to destroy his “Glenn-manuscript” as soon as he returns to Madrid. Nevertheless, despite his own and Wertheimer’s failure, there remains for him the enormously positive example of Glenn Gould, who prevailed over an ignominious world, whose recordings of Bach are timeless, and whose art is a monument of resistance against the decay and barbarity of modern civilization.

Der Untergeher is in part a poignant tribute to the historical Glenn Gould, who died in October, 1982. Yet it is also a work strongly rooted in Bernhard’s own biography. A reclusive, misanthropic perfectionist, Bernhard, too, is a man obsessed with his art and as fanatic in his social and artistic habits as Gould was. In Der Untergeher, he displays his own formal virtuosity. The hypnotic rhythmic intensity of the novel’s sentences propel the narrator’s lengthy monologue. This monologue, which is delivered as he stands motionless in the inn and waits for the innkeeper, occupies two-thirds of the book and is broken suddenly by her unexpected appearance. The only other character whom the narrator encounters is Franz, Wertheimer’s woodsman, whose story of Wertheimer’s last days at the hunting lodge serves as a coda to the novel. Deftly repeating and varying a limited number of motifs and phrases, Bernhard establishes a fugal structure for the novel and thereby mimics in his own idiosyncratic way Bach’s keyboard variations.