The narrator, an Austrian writer and former pianist from a well-to-do family, suffering from pulmonary disease. As the novel begins, the narrator has just attended the funeral of Wertheimer, one of his two best friends. He stops on the spur of the moment at an inn in the vicinity of his deceased friend’s hunting lodge in Upper Austria. Feeling lonely, vulnerable, and somewhat guilty because of his recent neglect of Wertheimer, the narrator attempts to come to terms with his friend’s suicide. This attempt leads him to explore the lifelong friendship and competition between him, Wertheimer, and a third pianist, Glenn Gould, and to review the consequences of that relationship for each of the men’s individual biographies. The three men met at the Mozarteum in Salzburg twenty-eight years before, studying under Horowitz. The narrator instantly recognizes Gould’s musical genius and, not content to be second best, gives up music and, eventually, his beloved Steinway. the narrator turns to philosophy, although he never really understands what it is, and writing, although he never publishes his work. Eventually, he flees to Madrid to escape the narrow-minded dilettantism and social corruption he perceives in Austria. The narrator is convinced that this change in locale protects him from inborn (Austrian) tendencies toward suicide and insanity, tendencies to which Wertheimer has succumbed. While in Madrid, the narrator starts a manuscript about Glenn Gould. Although he had thought it complete, he realizes now that it must be totally revised once again. The narrator’s reminiscences eventually are interrupted by the landlady of the inn. From her and, later, from Franz Kohlroser, the narrator learns about Wertheimer’s last few weeks of life. He proceeds to the hunting lodge, hoping—in vain—to be the recipient of Wertheimer’s notes.
Wertheimer, an Austrian amateur philosopher and former pianist from a well-to-do family, the second of the three lifelong friends. Prone to failure, self-pity, madness, and despair, and suffering from pulmonary disease, Wertheimer is named the loser, or founderer (der Untergeher), by Gould. Wertheimer lacks a sense of his own unique identity, striving always to imitate other, more successful people. It is for this reason that his contact with Gould proves to be fatal. Like the narrator, Wertheimer recognizes the greatness of Gould immediately upon hearing him play at the Mozarteum. He follows the narrator’s lead and exchanges his Borsendorf piano for a desk and his music for philosophy, jotting down aphorisms on thousands of paper scraps only to burn them all just prior to his death. He writes a book called Der Untergeher but revises and corrects it so frequently that only the title remains. Ultimately, and in contrast to the narrator, all such survival tactics prove ineffectual. Whereas the narrator puts both physical (Madrid) and psychological (denial of desire to be a virtuoso) distance between himself and his former life as a concert...
(The entire section is 1247 words.)