Thomas Bernhard’s excellent novel, Old Masters, is a streaming narrative that often goes several levels (narratives) deep. Bernhard, despite ignoring breaks for chapters or paragraphs or dialogue does provide attribution in the midst of the narrative: the pattern is often like “I’m telling you that He said that She said that her Mother told her that her Father said, etc. Maybe not that complex since there are few main characters in the novel: the music critic (musicologist) that visits the art gallery every other day and sits before a famous painting to do his best thinking, a museum guard who watches over the critic more than the museum itself, and a young author (philosopher) who is also the apparent narrator.
The settings are minimal too: the Bordone Room at the Kunsthistorisches Museum where the musicologist sits being the most immediate with others, like the Ambassador Hotel, being important to the critic but generally only tangentially represented in the narrative. Of course, to be fair, all of Vienna might be considered the setting for Old Masters since the critic has a lot to say about the museum, the hotel, the lavatories, Vienna, Austria, Europe, art, literature, music, writing, etc.
But what do you make of a central character who pronounces esteemed writers as being hacks, major painters as being ultimately flawed, art history as being the death of art, major composers as composing kitsch at best, Viennese pissoirs as being the most disgusting in the world, hating the British the French the Russians the Austrians the Italians … an opinion about everything and most of them bad. Is this the author unloading his beliefs and prejudices through a character in his novel or is this an absurd comic character in a novel that makes you stop and consider why we humans esteem certain parts of culture? Do we ever question what we applaud or do we just go along with centuries of group-think and consider ourselves grown-ups with important thoughts and opinions?
Many years ago when my daughter was visiting on my court-appointed visiting day (she was about eight) we went to the supermarket and they had just put new trolleys out for the customers. I made a big deal out of that new shopping basket, telling my daughter that it was one of those little things that make life worth living: a shopping cart with shining new chrome and perfectly round wheels that didn’t shudder and make the whole unit hard to push.
I imagine our hero had the same feeling when his hotel built a new lavatory at his hotel and offered him a clean, shining urinal that didn’t turn his stomach as he pissed: he didn’t even have to pinch his nose and hold his breath anymore.
Are sanitary facilities as rich to contemplate as paintings, symphonies, or books? Go back and reread Maslow before you answer. Also consider that Austrian toilets come with a little stage that allows you to inspect what you have just created. Very philosophical!
Bernhard was weakened by tuberculosis early in his life and, with the resulting lung damage, spent most of his adult life aware that he was going to die, perhaps soon. Does this partially explain Bernhard’s highly negative portrayals of Austria? Even after his death the Austrian government continued to ban his works and therefore, most of Bernhard’s reputation has been recognized outside of his homeland.
Bernhard provides us with so many excellent rants on culture, politics, and Vienna but this passage just might give a wink at Bernhard’s own opinion of writers:
… no one writes a work for himself, if someone says he is writing only for himself then that is a lie, but you know just as well as I do that there are no greater or worse liars than those who write, the world, as long as it exists, has not known any greater liars than those who write, none more vain and none more false[.]
Wikipedia gives a good write-up on Bernhard with the following bibliography:
- Frost (1963), translated by Michael Hofmann (2006)
- Gargoyles (Verstörung, 1967), translated by Richard and Clara Winston (1970)
- The Lime Works (Das Kalkwerk, 1970), translated by Sophie Wilkins (1973)
- Correction (Korrektur, 1975), translated by Sophie Wilkins (1979)
- Yes (Ja, 1978), translated by Ewald Osers (1991)
- The Cheap-Eaters (Der Billigesser, 1980), translated by Ewald Osers (1990)
- Concrete (Beton, 1982), translated by David McLintock (1984)
- The Loser (Der Untergeher, 1983), translated by Jack Dawson (1991)
- Woodcutters (Holzfällen: Eine Erregung, 1984), translated by Ewald Osers (1985) and as Woodcutters, by David McLintock (1988)
- Old Masters: A Comedy (Alte Meister. Komödie, 1985), translated by Ewald Osers (1989)
- Extinction (Auslöschung, 1986), translated by David McLintock (1995)
- On The Mountain (In Der Höhe, written 1959, published 1989), translated by Russell Stockman (1991)
- Amras (1964)
- Playing Watten (Watten, 1964)
- Walking (Gehen, 1971)
- Collected as Three Novellas (2003), translated by Peter Jansen and Kenneth J. Northcott
- The Force of Habit (1974)
- Immanuel Kant (1978); a comedy, no known translation to English, first performed on 15 April 1978, directed by Claus Peymann at the Staatstheater Stuttgart.
- The President and Eve of Retirement (1982): Originally published as Der Präsident (1975) and Vor dem Ruhestand. Eine Komödie von deutscher Seele (1979), translated by Gitta Honegger.
- Destination (1981), originally titled Am Ziel.
- Histrionics: Three Plays (1990): Collects A Party for Boris (Ein Fest für Boris, 1968), Ritter, Dene, Voss (1984) and Histrionics (Der Theatermacher, 1984), translated by Peter Jansen and Kenneth Northcott.
- Heldenplatz (1988)
- Over All the Mountain Tops (2004): Originally published as Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh (1981), translated by Michael Mitchell.
- The World-fixer (2005)
- Wittgenstein’s Nephew (Wittgensteins Neffe, 1982), translated by David McLintock (1988)
- Gathering Evidence (1985, memoir): Collects Die Ursache (1975), Der Keller (1976), Der Atem (1978), Die Kälte (1981) and Ein Kind (1982), translated by David McLintock.
- The Voice Imitator (1997, stories): Originally published as Der Stimmenimitator (1978), translated by Kenneth J. Northcott.
- In Hora Mortis / Under the Iron of the Moon (2006, poetry): Collects In Hora Mortis (1958) and Unter dem Eisen des Mondes (1958), translated by James Reidel.
- My Prizes (2010, stories): Originally published as Meine Preise (2009), translated by Carol Brown Janeway.
- Prose (Seagull Books London Ltd, United Kingdom, 2010, short stories); originally published in Germany, 1967.
- Victor Halfwit: A Winter’s Tale (2011, illustrated story)
Refer also to the earlier post on the views of reading in Old Masters.