Old Masters: A Comedy 
by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Ewald Osers.
Penguin, 247 pp., £9.99, May 2010, 978 0 14 119271 0
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The Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard (1931-89) once said: ‘You have to understand that in my writing the musical component comes first, and the subject matter is secondary.’ It’s a strange thing for this professional controversialist and Austropathic ranter to have said – that we should attend to the form, balance and measure in his work, when everything in it would seem to lead to the giggle and gasp of hurt given or received, or the hush and squeal of scandal – but it is sound advice. Before we talk about the quality of the opinions, or the kilotonnage of the diatribes, or the relentlessness of the assault (is anything exempt?), we ought to talk about the patterns of repetition and variation in the unspooling sentences of the unparagraphed prose. If Bernhard is anything, he is a stuck harpsichord record, knocking out its trapped and staggered shards of shrilly hammered phrases.

Old Masters, first published in Germany in 1985 and recently reissued, is Bernhard’s penultimate novel. It comes before Extinction and after Cutting Timber (also translated as Woodcutting), which was seized on publication because a couple who thought they recognised themselves in it, the Lampersbergs, old friends of Bernhard, had an injunction taken out against it. (Publicity not being an advantage to them in their circumstances, they eventually relented.) Old Masters is typical of Bernhard in that it is both a parodically eccentric version – one isn’t sure, or it’s not sure, as often in Bernhard, if it’s a skit or a rarefied, laboratory version – of life, but at the same time it is almost reassuringly normal. A Bernhard novel is a bizarrely skewed but immediately familiar planet, whose rules and concerns we grasp as readily as those of Le Petit Prince. Old Masters takes place in a single location, more or less in real time, and yet is able to include in its purview most things under the sun. Come to think of it, even the sun: ‘He avoids the sun, there is nothing he shuns more than the sun,’ it says in Ewald Osers’s terrific and calm and thoughtful translation. Nothing happens and little is revealed; it is mostly talk and remembered talk, and thought and remembered thought.

Reger, a music philosopher and for the past 34 years the Vienna music critic for the Times, for which he knocks out (as he complacently puts it) ‘those brief works of art which are never longer than two pages’, recently widowed, has summoned his friend Atzbacher to meet him at 11.30 in the Bordone Room in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where, for many years, he has been in the habit of holding court every other day – a court of one, or one and a half – and where, mostly coincidentally, Tintoretto’s Portrait of a White-Bearded Man hangs. Atzbacher, the younger man, working on some chronic and unpublished work of philosophy, and very much in thrall to the domineering Reger (‘my imaginary father’), comes to the museum an hour early, so that he can stand next door in the Sebastiano Room and, as it were, warm up by observing Reger without himself being seen; watch his interactions with Irrsigler, the museum attendant whom Reger has, over the years, converted into an auxiliary personal retainer, as he has made the settee in the Bordone Room into a sort of exclusive public headquarters and personal thinking-place; and replay their old conversations to himself, and Reger’s trenchant views on this and that. At the set time, Atzbacher appears (he knows the value Reger places on punctuality), and the conversation – no longer remembered or reconstructed, but ‘live’ or ‘actual’ – is intensified, until the book ends with a cautious stab at a little more of the world: Reger has, ill-advisedly in view of much that has gone before, purchased a couple of theatre tickets, and invites Atzbacher to take in a show with him. It is Kleist’s comedy The Broken Pitcher at the Burgtheater. ‘The performance was terrible,’ Atzbacher notes in the book’s last put-down. It is a real ending, slight but real, no mean feat.

It’s a personal thing, but also an Austrian thing. In The Man without Qualities, Musil says: ‘The man of genius is duty-bound to attack.’ Perhaps it’s the sweetness and pleasingness of the rest of the culture that means that anything honest or anything good will always be critical. Anyway, Bernhard’s superior ranters always spit pessimism and disaffection, leaving, in the German phrase, ‘not a good hair’ on anything or anyone. They are said to be based, in life, on Bernhard’s grandfather, the totally obscure Austrian writer Johannes Freumbichler, to whose memory and example he remained devoted. The role of the baobab in Saint-Exupéry is played by the grandfather in Bernhard. Gathering Evidence, Bernhard’s five-part autobiographical memoir, begins with the eight-year-old Bernhard borrowing a bicycle belonging to his ‘guardian’ (a nervous word for the man who later became his stepfather), which is several sizes too big for him, and making a doomed attempt to ride it all the way to his grandfather’s house in another town. It seems probable that the ‘re-evaluation of all values’ (Nietzsche) required to make one a writer took place very early in Bernhard’s life, when he decided that Freumbichler was not a talentless wastrel who made life miserable for everyone around him (which seems to me a view with much to commend it), but a misunderstood genius whose every word was worth recording; and by the same token that the world was not mostly a dim and well-meaning sort of place – higgledy-piggledy and inefficient but broadly correct and, in any case, hopelessly set in its ways – but a sinister and perverted global conspiracy that produced only deformed individuals and institutions and that should be opposed and exposed every step of the way, ideally by a grand, insouciant, terrifying old soliloquist. (‘Old’ is crucial; ‘master’ is good, but ‘old’ is better, in age only is our salvation, and Bernhard, alas for himself, did not live to be old.) The unwritten motto of Bernhard, in life and work, is ‘contra mundum’. In other books, the Freumbichler figure takes on the world or its Austrian microcosm single-handedly in arias of virtuosic hatred; here the job is done through the braiding of Reger’s dominant voice with the alert, reportorial voice of Atzbacher, and the copying voice of Irrsigler, who has ‘over the years … appropriated verbatim many, if not all, of Reger’s sentences’ – in a sort of lopsided barbershop trio. One that sings only the black notes.

A normal novel is at pains to differentiate between its characters by making them talk, about themselves and about each other, in distinct, individuated ways. He do the police in different voices and so on. In Bernhard, though, there is a convergence of voices: everyone speaks the same way and says the same sort of thing. It’s one reason we take all the opinions so seriously, and attribute them so readily to the author: they are not relativised, there is no argument and no opposition. In a sense, the opinions are all we have. These are novels of impassioned generalisation. Not only are Reger and his opinions everyone’s special subject, including, of course, Reger’s; not only does Reger sound just like Atzbacher’s recollection of him and Irrsigler’s appropriations of him; but such minor characters as the novel contains resemble him too. A well-accessorised ‘Englishman from Wales’ who one day sits down on Reger’s settee in the Bordone Room, wearing ‘high-quality Scottish clothes’ and – as we are given to understand – Reger’s make of aftershave, soliloquises and exaggerates just like Reger, who further is put to the trouble of relating his words: ‘Thousands of old masters are stolen in England every day, the Englishman said, Reger said, there are hundreds of organised gangs in England who specialise in the theft of old masters.’ Smells like Reger, talks like Reger, impresses and dresses like Reger (‘everything I wear comesfrom the Hebrides’) – it must be a duck. Reger, incidentally, ‘had repeatedly made Irrsigler presents of clothes he no longer wears, truly top-quality treasures from the most superb tweed material’; but then you could say he kits out everyone in the book with his style and opinions anyway. Everyone wears, so to speak, the Reger tartan. Even the woman Reger rather bizarrely came to marry – Irrsigler steered her to the Bordone Room settee – is valued by him principally on the basis of the time and indoctrination he has put into her: a sort of advanced Eliza Doolittle.

All this goes to show just how different Bernhard’s novels are from the run of novels. They are sculptures of opinion, rather than contraptions assembled from character interactions. Each book is a curved, seamless rant. (I like to think they could be made more negotiable for the reader by the inclusion, not of paragraphs, which is a barbarous idea, but, as in a non-fiction book, of running heads for the subjects discussed, which would include things like: ‘children’s education’, ‘the Catholic Church’, ‘the Austrian state’, ‘Heidegger’, ‘Mahler’, ‘sentimental regard for the working classes’ and so on and so forth.) There are no moving parts. The characters pool their wisdom – or their fury – rather than take issue with one another. And by the same token, speech or thought is heavily mannered or stylised, by imputation authorial, almost abstract in its rhythms. Take this diatribe from Reger:

The art historians are the real wreckers of art, Reger said. The art historians twaddle so long about art until they have killed it with their twaddle. Art is killed by the twaddle of the art historians. My God, I often think, sitting here on the settee while the art historians are driving their helpless flocks past me, what a pity about all these people who have all art driven out of them, driven out of them for good, by these very art historians. The art historians’ trade is the vilest trade there is, and a twaddling art historian, but then there are only twaddling art historians, deserves to be chased out with a whip, chased out of the world of art, Reger said, all art historians deserve to be chased out of the world of art, because art historians are the real wreckers of art and we should not allow art to be wrecked by the art historians who are really art wreckers.

The passage loops like a villanelle, from ‘the art historians are the real wreckers of art’ to ‘the art historians who are really art wreckers’. In between, there are various other technical-seeming shifts: ‘twaddle’ as verb then noun, ‘art’ as object then subject, ‘art historians’ in a general proposition and then as individually experienced, ‘driven out’ to ‘chased out’. Absolute terms abound: ‘the real’, ‘killed’, ‘all art’, ‘for good’, ‘only’, ‘the vilest’. Figures are strictly obvious: driving ‘flocks’, the art historians’ ‘trade’, ‘with a whip’. And the one hated term comes up 11 times: art historians. The passage displays energy, persistence, modest variety: it’s like someone blowing up a rubber balloon with a pump, and, when he does it properly, bursting it.

Bernhard continues:

Listening to an art historian we feel sick, he said, by listening to an art historian we see the art he is twaddling about being ruined, with the twaddle of the art historian art shrivels and is ruined. Thousands, indeed tens of thousands of art historians wreck art by their twaddle and ruin it, he said. The art historians are the real killers of art, if we listen to an art historian we participate in the wrecking of art, wherever an art historian appears art is wrecked, that is the truth.

The first ending was a trick ending: the passage doesn’t really end – the balloon doesn’t really burst – until ‘that is the truth’ (a recurring phrase). Bernhard has added another loop: this attack happens to be a figure of eight. The dread phrase ‘art historian’ comes up another seven times, and a different set of shifts are played out; here it’s from ‘listen’ to ‘see’. The passage organises a contamination of the singular by the plural (those ‘thousands, indeed tens of thousands’), so that the argument goes from ‘one’ to ‘many’ to ‘each’. It’s as though – and this seems quite a tenable point of view – Bernhard’s real loathing and real fear is of anything in the plural. ‘People are not interested in art, at any rate 99 per cent of humanity has no interest whatever in art, as Irrsigler says, quoting Reger word for word’: numbers and statistics are never good news in Bernhard.

Bernhard’s style and approach, here and everywhere, seem to be somewhere at the comic end of things, but I’m not sure it’s comedy. Certainly, one thing it isn’t is British character comedy, as in comic turns or Perrier Awards. Bernhard hasn’t dished up these people so that we can laugh at them and find them foolish; they’re not silly-billies, and he isn’t Rowan Atkinson. It may happen to work – in England – as comedy, or to suggest comedy to us because it’s broad or pitiless or unsubtle, but what if it is just broad and pitiless and unsubtle? Something is being clobbered so hard that we laugh – quite possibly mistakenly, and out of the goodness of our hearts. We’re nervous, we don’t think anyone could say all this and mean it. He means it, all right. Still, there is something relished and performed in this writing. Listen to the many different ways I can come up with to say this, it seems to be saying. See how many times I perpetrate the discourtesy – the maniacal drivenness – of refusing to find alternative forms (as for ‘art historian’, or ‘twaddle’) until the words are left jingling and droning in your head; see, conversely, how many fierce words I can string together – ‘wreck’, ‘ruin’, ‘kill’, ‘shrivel’ – and always mean the same vague thing.

The art historian passage happened to be a figure of eight, but there are all sorts of other shapes. Here is a statement closely backed up by three sub-statements in verbal and rhetorical parallel:

The Austrians are positively congenital coverers-up of crimes, Reger said, the Austrians will cover up any crime, even the vilest, because they are, as I have said, congenital opportunist cringers. For decades our ministers have committed ghastly crimes, yet these opportunist cringers cover up for them. For decades these ministers have committed murderous frauds, yet these cringers cover up for them. For decades these unscrupulous Austrian ministers have lied to the Austrians and cheated them and yet these cringers cover up for them.

This swelling repetition, Wodehouse’s Hollywood mogul backed up by his three yessers and three nodders – ‘our ministers’, ‘these ministers’, ‘these unscrupulous Austrian ministers’; ‘yet’, ‘yet’, ‘and yet’ – still manages to accommodate the thrillingly excessive ‘murderous frauds’. Then there is the connecting together of disparate ideas or phenomena, which enables both to be sent to their deaths together:

Nature is now enjoying a boom, Reger said yesterday, that is why Stifter is now enjoying a boom. Anything to do with nature is now very much in vogue, Reger said yesterday, that is why Stifter is now greatly, or more than greatly, in vogue. The forest is now greatly in vogue, mountain streams are now greatly in vogue. Stifter bores everybody to death yet in some fatal manner is now greatly in vogue, Reger said.

A lot of Bernhard must be logistical, how to pace, how to rank, how to hide. When to deepen the attack, when and how to move on. When to use a concrete detail – often malign in its pathos (a green coat, a Glasgow aunt) – and when like Marvell to roll all his sourness into one ball, and come up with something like: ‘All these writers write totally brainless and sham-philosophical and sham-homeland epigone rubbish’ or ‘The whole Prater reeks of beer and crime and we encounter in it nothing but the brutality and the brazen feeble-mindedness of vulgar snotty Viennesedom’ (instances of Bernhard’s more rubbery sentences, full of spluttering and vocabulary and rather unstructured aggression).

Bernhard may not be funny, but he is – what I’ve quoted hasn’t been misleading – clean. That’s another way in which he pulls away from comedy. There are no four-letter words. Even when the subject is lavatories, he’s not lavatorial: ‘The Viennese, and the Austrians generally, have no lavatory culture, nowhere in the world would you find such filthy and smelly lavatories, Reger said.’ Bernhard accepts the difficulty and the diligence of continuing to come up with terms: generalising terms like ‘lavatory culture’, or particular terms like ‘Mozart’s music is also full of petticoat and frilly undies kitsch.’ He makes moral-aesthetic judgments: ‘abysmally hideous’, ‘charlatanist nonsense’, ‘utterly rotten and demoniacal state’, ‘Heidegger had a common face,’ ‘anything else by Mahler I reject.’ He goes on judging. If he were to relent and say, ‘bunch of fucking crap’, that would be an abdication. That would be letting us off the hook. That, for the lifelong invalid, would be dying.

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Vol. 32 No. 23 · 2 December 2010

Michael Hofmann’s opening salvo in his review of Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters is vivid, but curious: ‘He is a stuck harpsichord record, knocking out … shards of shrilly hammered phrases’ (LRB, 4 November). You can hammer on a piano; a harpsichord only plucks, and no amount of hammering will make it any shriller.

Gerard McBurney

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