The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 472 words.)