Thomas Bernhard, the gadfly of the Austrian cultural establishment for years, died in February, 1989. By his own definition a troublemaker, Bernhard repeatedly attacked the leading figures, institutions, and cherished illusions of a country which, however, he never chose to leave. He quarreled publicly, in print and in court, with prominent critics, stage and musical directors, and national politicians. During the ceremony at which he was awarded the Austrian national prize for literature in 1968, Bernhard drove the minister of culture from the auditorium with a response marked by inflammatory criticism rather than the expected gratitude.
Both in his fiction and in the five volumes of his autobiography, published from 1975 to 1982, Bernhard repeatedly targets facets of Austrian society and culture with his invective. He recalls with spiteful pleasure, for example, the ease with which the Austrian educational system shed the symbol of political tyranny after World War II while maintaining its authoritarian spirit. When Bernhard was a schoolboy, the swastika hanging on the front wall of his classroom had been replaced overnight by a cross, but the outline of the Nazi symbol long remained visible in the background. Many years later, the remnants of fascism and anti- Semitism in Austrian society became the thematic center of a play that Kurt Waldheim called “an insult to the nation.” Heldenplatz (1988, Heroes’ Square), performed in Vienna’s prestigious Burgtheater a few months before Bernhard’s death, brought the final round of the longstanding feud surrounding his writing to a controversial climax.
The Loser, one of Bernhard’s first novels to appear after the series of autobiographical studies, is also full of anti-Austrian sentiment. The narrator takes particular aim at Salzburg and its claim to be a haven for the creative spirit. It is permeated instead, he writes, by provincialism and antipathy toward artists. Austria’s educational system, its family structure, even its trains and inns come under heavy fire in the thoughts of Bernhard’s narrator. Both the academy of music in Vienna and the celebrated Mozarteum in Salzburg suffer severe criticism in The Loser, a novel set against the larger backdrop of the Austro-Germanic classical musical tradition with a narrative focus on the intertwined fates of three piano students.
As he did in several other works of fiction written at the time, Bernhard drew heavily from his own experience for The Loser and began to borrow selectively from the biographies of other public figures as well. In the early 1950’s, he had himself been a music student both in Vienna and at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. The death of the Canadian musical genius Glenn Gould in October, 1982, however, was doubtless the immediate impetus for the novel in which a fictionalized Gould plays a major role. Unlike Bernhard, the narrator of the work has abandoned his homeland for Madrid, where he hopes to complete his essay on Gould, a task that consumes him but one that seems destined to remain incomplete. Although he probably never met the pianist in person, Bernhard must have been fascinated by his single-minded devotion paradoxically expressed by his sudden retirement from the concert stage at the age of thirty-two. Both the real Gould and Bernhard’s fictional reflection discarded the public life of the virtuoso and the human vanities connected with it, not in order to abandon their art, but to perfect it. At this point, however, literary imagination and biographical fact part ways. Following his early retirement from the public eye, the real Gould increasingly turned to recording technology to minimize the chance of human fallibility entering into musical reproduction. Bernhard’s figure, on the other hand, continued to depend on an inhuman conception of his own genius. He fantasizes about becoming one with his Steinway, merging with the piano to eliminate the human element in the process of transforming the music on the page into the sensory realm.
Bernhard had no illusions about the faithful re-creation of even his own life’s story in written form, an attitude that allowed him to appropriate and alter Gould’s biography without artistic compunction. Early in the novel, the narrator recalls the circumstances of his death at a point prior to the onset of the narration. In this novelistic version, he had succumbed at the age of fifty-one to a fatal stroke while playing the Goldberg Variations, a fabricated, even though fitting, end for this century’s foremost interpreter of Johann Sebastian Bach. Although not at the keyboard, the real Gould did die from a stroke just days before a new recording of the Goldberg Variations was released. Bernhard further embellished Gould’s biography with a large dose of his own Austrophobia. In the memory of the narrator, the fictional figure supports and substantiates his cynical disdain for the cultural pretensions of Salzburg, the city where the novel’s characters first met and studied twenty-eight years previously.
Most of the events to which the...