The Loser (Vintage International) by Thomas Bernhard
Reviewed by Jill Owens
I was initially interested in reading The Loser, at least in part, because of its fictionalized depiction of Glenn Gould. But even for music lovers, that is one of the most minor pleasures in Thomas Bernhard's brilliant, hypnotic, and mesmerizing novel. The Loser is a long, unbroken monologue (with no chapters, and written as one enormous paragraph) about the recent suicide of the narrator's friend Wertheimer, and about both of their lives in the shadow of the genius Glenn Gould. In their youth, the three men were piano students together for a master summer course in Germany. The relationships formed there both invigorated and, ultimately, according to the narrator, destroyed at least the two inferior students -- the narrator stopped playing the piano shortly afterward, and Wertheimer continued to play for years and then finally committed suicide -- and possibly Gould as well, through the nature of his gift.
This triangle of friendship forms the underlying structure of the book. The narrator sees himself as far superior to Wertheimer, who didn't know enough to quit music altogether after realizing he'd never be as good as Gould, and inferior in every measure to Gould, whose gifts he would never be able to match. The reader learns about the narrator, an intelligent, tortured, twisted creature, almost exclusively through the filters of these two exaggerated figures, one an abject caricature of artistic failure, the other a secluded and supremely confident artist at the top of his game. Along the way, Bernhard exhaustively explores the nature of genius, art, despair, and the age-old existential crisis of trying to live with meaning and meaninglessness.
Although both the grammatical structure and the narrative structure are unusual, The Loser is exquisitely paced, with a beautiful and heartbreaking climax in its final pages. Bernhard's prose (translated from the German) is repetitive and rhythmic, masterfully charting the looping patterns of a disturbed and ruthlessly analytical mind. This is a rich, layered novel, which invokes issues of privilege and isolation as well as those of art; I regret whole-heartedly that Thomas Bernhard, who died in 1989, is not nearly as well-known or regarded as he should be.