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The Loser (1983)

by Thomas Bernhard

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Trilogie der Künste (1)

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1,2773411,031 (3.95)30
Thomas Bernhard was one of the most original writers of the twentieth century. His formal innovation ranks with Beckett and Kafka, his outrageously cantankerous voice recalls Dostoevsky, but his gift for lacerating, lyrical, provocative prose is incomparably his own. One of Bernhard's most acclaimed novels,The Losercenters on a fictional relationship between piano virtuoso Glenn Gould and two of his fellow students who feel compelled to renounce their musical ambitions in the face of Gould's incomparable genius. One commits suicide, while the other-- the obsessive, witty, and self-mocking narrator-- has retreated into obscurity. Written as a monologue in one remarkable unbroken paragraph,The Loseris a brilliant meditation on success, failure, genius, and fame. From the Trade Paperback edition.… (more)
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English (26)  German (3)  Spanish (2)  Portuguese (1)  Italian (1)  Norwegian (1)  All languages (34)
Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
The unnamed narrator of this novel enrolls in a class in Salzburg offered by the piano virtuoso, Horowitz. There he encounters and befriends Wertheimer, the eponymous “loser”, and Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist and genius. Gould’s playing of The Goldberg Variations so astonishes Wertheimer that he finds he must give up the piano entirely. The narrator also abandons his hopes for a career as a virtuoso. Both acknowledge Gould’s supremacy, even greater than that of their teacher, Horowitz. That Gould himself gives up his career of public performance in order to become a recluse in the woods outside New York continuously perfecting his Bach (note — this is Bernhard’s fictional Gould) only underscores Wertheimer’s and the narrator’s need to also have abandoned their careers. But it is Gould’s early demise (in this novel, by stroke) that triggers Wertheimer’s eventual suicide at much the same age. The narrator considers both events and what led up to and surrounds them, what lends them significance, and in the process reevaluates his own life choices.

For devotees of Bernhard’s late style of uninterrupted misanthropic monologue, The Loser satisfies every hope. It is bleak, full of envy and spite, wreathed in self-loathing, and sporadically darkly humorous. And yet, with the almost miraculous figure of Gould, it’s clear that Bernhard commits himself to the possibility of a kind of human perfection, though that might necessitate an unremitting devotion to a specific artistic project. Still, the very possibility of Gould’s recordings makes life, for some, bearable. Alas, not for Wertheimer as he was, from the outset and always, the loser.

Heartily recommended for those who love Bernhard’s style, and gently so for everyone else. ( )
  RandyMetcalfe | Apr 6, 2021 |
I was going to comment on the similarity of the incessant prose to that of Bach's compositions, but the afterword already covered that, I thought. ( )
  stravinsky | Dec 28, 2020 |
Why Fiction and Music May Not Mix

I'd like to pose this review as a question. Why is there so little talk about music in "The Loser"?

This is a book about Glenn Gould (named, and with mainly true things said about him), Horowitz (same), a character named Wertheimer (who has echoes of Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist and friend of Bernhard's), and the narrator, also a pianist. The entire novel is consumed with music, and yet there is very little here that's specific about music: a couple of individual pieces are named, and there are stray mentions of Schoenberg, Webern, Handel, and some others. There is exactly one passage on an individual piece of music, when Wertheimer overhears Gould playing the second half of the Aria in the Goldberg Variations.

It's known that Bernhard knew a great deal about music (one of his favrites was Josef Matthias Hauer: you can judge your own knowledge of modernist music by whether or not you know him), and so it's clear that he made a decision to omit any detailed talk about music from the book.

In the book, music and pianism are entirely matters of "genius." The narrator talks incessantly about who was the "best" "piano artist," and who was second best. Gould was of course "better" than Horowitz, and so forth.

What strikes me here is that this is not how any professional I know, in any field of the arts, thinks. Once you learn about an art (classical piano, abstract painting, whatever) you come to care about individual artists and artworks, and even about parts of artworks. I admire Gould for his performance of some of the variations in Beethoven's Op. 109, but not others; some preludes and fugues in the WTC, but not others. I am convinced by his performance of individual passages and even single notes in Bach, and not others -- for example in the Aria, where some notes sound overdone and intrusively ornamental, and others crisp and "modern." I don't think this is unusual, and it's attested by the intense scrutiny listeners give to performances by their favorite pianists. (Those comparative videos on Youtube are a contemporary manifestation.) Once you get to know an art, a medium, or an instrument, it no longer makes sense to say things like "Gould was the best pianist in the world."

(This is related to the reason why I put off reading "The Loser" until I'd read almost all Bernhard's work: I have my own ideas about Gould and Horowitz, and I imagined Bernhard's thoughts would get in the way of a sympathetic reading of his novel. As it turns out, there are no specific ideas about Gould or Horowitz at all -- you could never tell, from "The Loser," how they played.)

So this is my question: why did Bernhard deliberately avoid writing anything specific about Gould's technique, or Horowitz's, or about their interpretaions of any pieces of music?

Here are a couple of possibilities.

1. "The Loser" has a satiric purpose, and it's about obsession, self-destruction, and people driven by claims of precedence, fame, and genius. This question could perhaps be asked without reference to music. There is little of Wright's architecture in "The Corrections," little of the Wittgensteins in "Wittgenstein's Nephew," little of Goethe in "Goethe Dies," and so forth. But "The Loser" seems different to me, because it names enough actual music to signal the reader it is not only about personalities, that the music matters.

2. Bernhard thought that literature itself -- fiction -- could not accommodate detailed discussions of music, because references to individual works would not be known to readers. I don't like this as an answer, because Bernhard was absolutely the last person to care about his readers' level of education.

3. He was averse to music criticism, description, or analysis of any sort. This is possible; I don't know his position here.

4. He thought discussion of music is incompatible with the narrative forms and voices of literature. This is the explanation that intrigues me. Bernhard was aware of precedents for including descriptions of individual passages and performances, especially Proust.

This question is a live one for me, because I am working on a novel that includes not only precise descriptions of music, but actual sheet music. If there's something to the fourth answer, I'd like to understand it better.
  JimElkins | Feb 6, 2020 |
It was good. The ending was AWESOME :D! One of the kind I love that stirs your emotions!Etc..:)! I read it for school. ( )
  Catherine_GV | Jun 20, 2019 |
BWV 988 ( )
  pkr36 | Oct 10, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (8 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bernhard, Thomasprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Anderson, Mark M.Afterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dawson, JackTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Roinila, TarjaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Lange vorausberechneter Selbstmord, dachte ich, kein spontaner Akt von Verzweiflung.
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Thomas Bernhard was one of the most original writers of the twentieth century. His formal innovation ranks with Beckett and Kafka, his outrageously cantankerous voice recalls Dostoevsky, but his gift for lacerating, lyrical, provocative prose is incomparably his own. One of Bernhard's most acclaimed novels,The Losercenters on a fictional relationship between piano virtuoso Glenn Gould and two of his fellow students who feel compelled to renounce their musical ambitions in the face of Gould's incomparable genius. One commits suicide, while the other-- the obsessive, witty, and self-mocking narrator-- has retreated into obscurity. Written as a monologue in one remarkable unbroken paragraph,The Loseris a brilliant meditation on success, failure, genius, and fame. From the Trade Paperback edition.

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