Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 509
Written almost twenty years after Correction, The Loser strikingly resembles the earlier novel in both form and content. Whereas Correction deals with a character representing the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and his pessimistic language philosophy, The Loser focuses on a highly mythologized Glenn Gould—some of his biographical data are intentionally wrong—and his quest for the perfect piano performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
Like most of Bernhard’s novels, The Loser is a one-paragraph interior monologue. In this novel’s monologue, the narrator is moved to reflect back thirty years, when he, Wertheimer, and Gould were studying to become concert pianists in Salzburg. As in Bernhard’s previous novels, all three main characters are afflicted by a lung disease and prone to self-absorption and self-doubt. Wertheimer has recently killed himself, and the narrator, who has been making little progress on his presumed magnum opus, a study entitled About Glenn Gould, has come to take charge of Wertheimer’s papers, which would presumably shed light on the reasons for his suicide. Almost the entire stream-of-consciousness monologue is delivered during the brief time the narrator waits in a country inn near Wertheimer’s house for the innkeeper to show him to his room.
The narrator conjectures that Wertheimer’s suicide is tied in some way to the recent death of Gould. Both the narrator and Wertheimer had given up piano playing when they were confronted with the fact that they would always be second-rate compared to Gould. However, Wertheimer sought to become and to be Gould, thus “losing” his own identity. The German title of the novel cleverly hints at this misguided ideal; an Untergeher is a person who sinks or submerges himself, and the word also connotes “decline.” Wertheimer’s “loss” is that he cannot stand being himself but tries in vain to lose or submerge himself in Gould, who very perceptively gave him his nickname, The Loser, thirty years ago.
Wertheimer has not been able to overcome his disappointment for thirty years, in contrast to the narrator, who has turned his energies away from trying to become Gould and now merely tries to describe Gould’s genius, an almost equally impossible task which nevertheless keeps him from despairing like Wertheimer.
In The Loser, Bernhard’s diseased intellectual protagonist has been split into three variations of the same type. There is Gould, who realizes the impossibility of the perfect concert piano performance and turns to the recording studio and its technological possibilities to achieve the impossible; the narrator, who realizes his limitations early and turns his energies to the equally impossible quest of describing Gould’s genius; and Wertheimer, who destroys himself by stubbornly refusing to live within his limitations, and in his attempt to achieve his ideal of becoming someone else, loses, or annihilates, himself. It is inevitable, therefore, that the narrator discovers that Wertheimer has burned all his papers after one last grotesque attempt at becoming Gould before killing himself. The narrator is left speechless, listening to Gould’s famous recording of the Goldberg Variations.
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