I approached Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters with trepidation. His reputation precedes him: long sentences; long paragraphs (no paragraphs!); a relentless assault of misery on the reader. Penguin, in repackaging the novel for their Central European Classics series, have sought to lighten the reader’s expectations with a jaunty cover by gray318. It’s an appropriate decision, highlighting the qualities of a book which is subtitled A Comedy, but might otherwise be named A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (and No Paragraphs).
If Old Masters (1985; tr. 1989 by Ewald Osers) can indeed be likened to a play, it is one with three interlocking sets. It takes place simultaneously in the Bordone Room of Vienna’s Kunsthistorische Museum, in the pages written by its narrator Atzbacher, and in the mind of his friend Reger, who has visited the room every other day for thirty years, to contemplate Tintoretto’s Portrait of a White-Bearded Man. Bernhard’s narrative slips and swoops so that we move between the three smoothly, each nestled inside another, so the first half of the book in essence is Atzbacher’s account of Reger’s thoughts and memories as he watches him unobserved in the Bordone Room. The time lines are loose but never confusing. (What is at times confusing is the use of italics in the book, which do not always follow obvious emphasis. Apparently this is an editorial decision taken by Bernhard’s publishers, based on words and phrases which were heavily underlined in his manuscripts.)
As a reader I have always had a weakness for a first person narrative which draws the reader through its story seamlessly – chapterlessly – from the first page to the last, books which flow from the first word, and I have found much to delight me in examples such as Dr Haggard’s Disease and The Waters of Thirst. But Old Masters takes this to new heights: it flows, yes; it floods, in one unbroken block of text for 250 pages (albeit of large print in this new edition). Fears of this format are unfounded: rather than acting as a block to the reader, the unbroken text dragged me on, resistant to stopping, and I emerged from it like a man resurfacing, gasping and disoriented but invigorated.
Bernhard’s prose, like Reger’s thoughts, circles the reader, spiralling around, returning unexpectedly and reinforcing its effect. And what of Reger’s thoughts? These are, seemingly, typical Bernhard “rants” against Austrian society, against nature, against much (though not all) art.
Just as I have always been far happier in art than in nature, nature has, all my life, been uncanny to me, while in art I have always felt secure.
For Reger, who “slipped into art to get away from life,” the tragedy of art is that “at first all young people are receptive to everything, hence also to art, but the teachers thoroughly drive the art out of them.” It is a self-replicating process, just as Bernhard seems at times to have discovered the secret of perpetual motion with his spiralling sentences that divide and recur, whittling away at Reger’s obsessions. And we should not be surprised by contradiction; despite his preference for art over nature, Reger observes that “even the most extraordinary work of art is only a pitiful, totally senseless and pointless effort to imitate nature, indeed to ape it.” Respect for the ‘old masters’ for having more integrity than today’s “kitschy and sentimental” artists is misplaced, because
these people, after all, only painted in order to survive and for money and in order to end up in heaven and not in hell…
The use of three adjectives in the excerpt above (“pitiful, totally senseless and pointless”) is key to the delight I took in Reger’s – in Bernhard’s – rage in Old Masters. The venom is applied with equal force – turned up to eleven – to everything, from the condition of Vienna’s public toilets (“Vienna is quite superficially famous for its opera, but in fact it is feared and detested for its scandalous lavatories”) to Heidegger, Bruckner and Adalbert Stifter. Reger’s catalogue of criticism for the last is one of the high points of the book: an hilarious broadside which builds with perfect rhythm and timing for page after page, detonating once or twice in moments that made me laugh aloud (“The fact that the man, towards the end of his life, killed himself changes nothing about his absolute mediocrity.” That towards the end of his life is perfect and brilliant). And the subtitle A Comedy is not misleading, with wonderful scenes such as the one where an Englishman visiting the museum explains how he has the real White-Bearded Man at home (an heirloom “from the Glasgow aunt”).
There are other traditional novelistic concerns at work here too, and Bernhard sparsely and then fully reveals one aspect of Reger’s life which may explain his disappointment with the world. He is drawn back again and again to those things which are insufficient to console him. It also reveals his own limitations even as he roars about the limitations of everything else: just as he abhors his relatives while accepting that “within myself I am all those relatives combined,” so he is a character in a book while acknowledging that “we only love those books which are not a whole, which are chaotic, which are helpless.” The whole and the perfect, he says, are intolerable. Similarly, “art is the most sublime and the most revolting thing simultaneously,” and Reger himself is a part of the line of humanity which he rails against so energetically. But, contradictory again, he points out that “I am, you might say, a fanatic for human beings, naturally not a fanatic for humanity but a fanatic for human beings.” While we digest that, the punchline comes: “I have always only been interested in human beings, he said, because in the nature of things they repelled me.”
Many of Reger’s agonies sit well with the reader: his views on cultural philistinism in Austria might apply to any country, and who can deny twinges of “what I call art selfishness: where art is concerned I wish to have everything for myself alone … I can scarcely bear the thought that someone else, apart from me, possesses and enjoys the products of these geniuses.” But it is an unalloyed pleasure that Old Masters will be possessed and enjoyed by others – including me – because of this reissue. Bernhard, it turns out, is not so hard – and the horrified passion which he and his characters bring to the page in fact is a perfect partner for such high and low comedy. “The terrible, after all, is always ridiculous.”