The Characters

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 472

In the narrator’s remembrances of his friends, it is remarkable how similar their backgrounds were. All three of them came from wealthy families that had no sympathy or understanding for their musical talents. They all studied the piano as a way to get revenge on their parents, intentionally isolated themselves from a world they saw as barbarous, and suffered from lung disease, which forced them to live in the country, which they hated. Both Wertheimer and Gould died when they were fifty-one, the same age as the narrator and even Thomas Bernhard when he wrote Der Untergeher. Despite these similarities, the narrator repeatedly contrasts Glenn Gould’s artistic success with Wertheimer’s failure—at one point he describes Wertheimer as “the exact opposite of Glenn Gould”—while his own achievement in life seems to consist chiefly in surviving, in not foundering on his renunciation of a musical career.

The narrator’s adulation for Gould is tempered by his awareness of Gould’s total sacrifice of himself to his art. During the summer of the Horowitz course, the narrator coined the phrase “piano radicalism” to describe Gould’s obsession with perfection, his intolerance of imprecision, and his total self-discipline. At the time, he expected that Gould would quickly be destroyed by the monstrosity of his task, the reckless simplicity of his life’s goal: to become an art machine. The ideal for him was to become superfluous as Glenn Gould, to be the piano, the Steinway, so that nothing, most of all himself, stood between Bach and the Steinway: “Glenn Steinway, Steinway Glenn only for Bach.”

As the narrator approaches Wertheimer’s hunting lodge, he realizes that when he returns to Madrid he will have to begin his Glenn Gould essay over again, for now he is able to understand Gould’s art only in contrast to Wertheimer’s non-art. Wertheimer had far too little courage and too much anxiety to become a virtuoso pianist, which requires, according to the narrator, “a radical fearlessness toward everything and everyone.” He was too timid, for example, to tackle the Goldberg Variations. Plagued by self-doubt and self-pity, Wertheimer never discovered his own uniqueness but remained condemned to perpetual imitation, which the narrator sees as a cause of Wertheimer’s restlessness and his addiction to walking to the point of exhaustion. He blamed his misfortunes on his sister, who was for him nothing more than his page-turner in the years when he still played the piano. In theory and in his aphorisms, he had “mastered all the unpleasant things in life, every despairing situation, the whole wearing evil in the world, but practically, he was not capable of mastering anything at all.” The bizarre performance on the out-of-tune piano at the hunting lodge and his suicide were the only decisive and original acts of his life.

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