Thomas Bernhard: Old Masters: A Comedy

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 comes from 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.

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