At the time of his death, Thomas Bernhard’s worldwide reputation placed him among Austria’s foremost playwrights and novelists, but his relationship with his own country was a stormy and ambivalent one. His writing won him many awards in his native country, which he never thought of leaving, but his will stipulated that his plays not be produced or his novels reissued in Austria for the duration of copyright. In much of his work, he subjects his native land to abuse so relentlessly vituperative that it becomes impossible to know how seriously he meant it, and Old Masters is no exception. In this satire, written four years before his death, Bernhard takes up his cudgel and pummels once more his favorite targets.
His characters vent their contempt for their native land’s anti-intellectual and provincial meanness, its avarice and intolerance, its Catholic legacy and disavowed Nazi past. Nothing can satisfy them, not schools or the schoolchildren destroyed by them, not experts or laymen, not high art or trashy kitsch. They vent their spleen freely on teachers and doctors, democracy and hypocritical politicians, received opinions and metaphysics, innocent childhood and feeble old age, public bathrooms and Austrian hygiene, even Gustav Mahler and Ludwig van Beethoven.
Bernhard wants to rouse his readers from complacency and make them better than they are. His fiction attacks the received ideas that stifle thinking, including his own, and he hopes to shock his readers into a reexamination of their own beliefs. This is moralistic and demanding literature, yet when all is said and done, Old Masters reveals a surprisingly compassionate core.
What little action there is takes place in the Art History Museum in Vienna. For more than half the novel, Atzbacher stands observing his old friend and mentor Reger, seated in front of Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man (which is reproduced on the cover). For thirty years, Reger has occupied the same settee, three mornings a week, but never two days in a row, and the devoted museum guard Irrsigler has always kept the seat available. The ideas that come to Reger there are processed into music criticism for his column, written in the afternoons once he has moved on to his table at the Ambassador cafe.
Atzbacher, who regularly meets his friend in the museum, arrives early this day, wondering why they are meeting when they met just the day before. Looking on from the next room, he recalls Reger’s earlier diatribes (as well as his own miserable childhood) and ponders the mystery of his summons, a break from habit that startles him enough to create a bit of mystery.
Before readers discover the reason for the meeting, a tour group goes through the museum, Reger leaves his seat and returns, Irrsigler buys Reger a newspaper, Atzbacher punctually joins his friend on the settee to hear further abuse of Austria, and finally the two men depart from the museum. This meager action and lack of plot are enough for Bernhard to delve into serious themes and touch on strong emotions.
Atzbacher, from whose point of view the action unfolds, is a witness figure, common in Bernhard’s fiction. A man younger than Reger, he is a loner and a perfectionist who is never satisfied enough with his writing to publish any. Reger likes him because he is punctual, well-mannered, and attentive, and he looks to Reger as a father figure. In general, he serves less as a character than as a necessary audience, registering the older man’s views with little comment. Nor is the loyal Irrsigler more than a comic figure who loves the monotony of his job and his guard uniform that has solved his clothing problem.
Only Reger stands out as a character of any depth. Little physical description is given other than his age, eighty-two, and the mention of a black hat and walking stick, but his voice dominates the novel. After a life devoted to ideas, he has an opinion on everything; it is invariably negative, and he is never hesitant to express it at great length.
At first, he seems to be only a bitter curmudgeon and unbearable egotist, using people for the attention they provide. Over the course of the novel, during which he hardly takes a breath between diatribes, he becomes more sympathetic as the causes for his pain and depression emerge. Interspersed in his love-hate ravings about Austria and art are accounts of a sister lost to an early death and a wife lost to institutional negligence. His monologues are so full of contradiction and unhappiness that finally nothing is certain except that Reger is less a monster than a tortured soul.
Like Atzbacher, the proud Reger realized early in life that Austrian society and the Catholic church kill everything natural in people. Unable either to conform or to rebel outright, Reger could only “sneak off” into the art, but he soon lost all illusions about its purpose and value. He rejected the perfectionism that has paralyzed Atzbacher, who at least has the honesty to admit that although he can never achieve the goal, he will not compromise it with imperfect work. On the other hand, Reger discovered that the old masters, the famous artists whose paintings hang around him in the museum, were not at all honest. In fact, they were “enthusiasts for lies” who sold themselves to state and church.
For Reger, as for Bernhard’s protagonists in general, the central fact of existence is the inevitability of death and the certainty of oblivion awaiting all works of humanity. The truly human is flawed and fragmented, but the old masters, corrupted by the patronage of state and church, obscure this reality behind images of ideal beauty. Their art promises transcendence, escape from humanity’s hopeless situation through either beauty or religion. This is a delusion and a mockery, and in Reger’s eyes, these so-called masterpieces hardly differ from kitsch, trashy art that panders to a taste for cheap sentimentality and easy...
(The entire section is 2447 words.)