Thomas Bernhard: Old Masters

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.”


  1. Great review john ,have to get this one read another bernhard years ago and want read another ,all the best stu

  2. Thanks Stu. I have The Loser so I will be reading it next. It’s a US edition though, and I would love to see more Bernhard in print in the UK.

  3. Not for the first time, your review and choice of excerpts has prompted me to buy this immediately. So thanks!

    Reading your comments in the third paragraph prompts me to ask if you’ve ever tried Juan Goytisolo?

  4. Tried him? I can’t even pronounce him. (Ay thang yew.) I presume he also specialises in the seamless first person narrative?

    I hope you like Old Masters, Lee. I rate it very highly not only because I thoroughly enjoyed it, and found it addictively readable, but also because it was quite unlike anything else I’ve read.

  5. Well, have a look if you get the chance, as it’s unbroken text-tastic. And also mind-boggingly erudite.

    I’m sure I will. If I had only read the one excerpt you’ve put up (‘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.’) I would’ve bought it.

  6. John, how great to see a Bernhard review. I’ve read all his books but this. I have it there in my shelf!! It was supposed to be his last, but they found a massive posthumous novel… His pentalogy is fantastic, as well as “Wittgenstein’s Nephew”. But he is the kind of author that provokes extreme reactions. I identity with Agota Kristof, who says that she was laughing aloud while reading him, while other people find him depressing (similar to Beckett’s novels), but considering how he has influenced so many writers (Bachmann, Müller, Handke, etc.) its crucial to have him re-published.
    Lee mentions Goytisolo, interesting comparison! He is one of the finest Spanish narrators, but, in my opinion, not as innovative as Bernhard.

  7. Superb review John. I hope it inspires more publishers to follow Penguin’s move.

    Just a note on Nico’s comment above: Bernhard published his final novel (his best, Extinction) in 1986, three years before he died, so nobody found it posthumously.

    Also, I don’t think Handke was very much influenced by Bernhard. The biggest name he influenced is WG Sebald. Austerlitz is in part modelled on Bernhard’s style. Sebald was open about it, though his translator Anthea Bell seemed to be innocent of the connection when she wrote about the experience of working on the book with Sebald. She said he was particularly anxious about the repeated phrase ‘sagte Austerlitz’ (‘said Austerlitz’) which runs through the novel, a characteristic phrase used by Bernhard. After Sebald’s death she said to try to write like him is:

    “(a) impossible and (b) misguided. When you see a publisher’s blurb naming some well-known writer and claiming that a book is, ‘In the tradition of X’ you know that the publisher really means, ‘Feeble imitation designed to cash in on the success of X’, and even to try writing ‘in the tradition’ of WG Sebald would surely be ludicrous.”

    Yet he was writing in a clear German tradition (Bernhard out of Stifter perhaps), so such a statement is itself ludicrous.

    He also influenced Jelinek but they’re similar only in a superficial manner.

  8. I hope you like Old Masters, Lee. I rate it very highly not only because I thoroughly enjoyed it, and found it addictively readable, but also because it was quite unlike anything else I’ve read.

    Through sheer coincidence I reread _Alte Meister_ last week. As a kind of last resort; because I really admired Bernhard’s writing fifteen years ago, especially in this novel, but he has gone sour on me.

    His writing has a hypnotic quality, in German at least, I refuse to succumb to nowadays.

    Maybe he’s better in English. It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s better in a translation. I am hardly ever impressed by translations to English, because often a lot seems to get lost. But then, some writers do suffer from excess in their own language.

  9. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Nice to see you back here, nico!

    ijsbrand, I know what you mean by ‘hypnotic’, and the work in translation has that quality too. I am quite happy to succumb to its spell.

    Steve, interesting details re Sebald and Bell. I have read Austerlitz but too long ago to see any connection with Bernhard; but yes, ‘said Reger’ is certainly everywhere present in Old Masters. As to Stifter, naturally the assault on him in the pages of Old Masters has made me interested to revisit him (I’ve read only Rock Crystal). As it happens, I recently bought the Pushkin Press edition of The Bachelors so will read it soon. And speaking of Extinction, it was Nicholas Lezard’s review of the Penguin 20th Century Classics edition of that book – what? 15 years ago? – that first made me aware of Bernhard. And it’s taken me only until now to get around to reading him! I can only hope that someone reading this review will eventually open a Bernhard in the year 2025.

  10. What Nico meant maybe was that Extinction wasn’t the last novel written by Bernhard, that was Old Masters, which I found a light and funny read. Extincton had been written before but Bernhard planned his publications and intended Extinction to be published after Old Masters. Extinction and his first novel Frost (his two best novels IMO) provide an odd kind of closure and coherence to his work, I think.

    The posthumously published book is “My Prizes”/”Meine Preise” (my review here ) sections of which are actually found in Old Masters, I believe.

    John, in case yr interested, my review of THE major Stifter novel:

  11. “Also, I don’t think Handke was very much influenced by Bernhard. ”

    Yeah, neither was Bachmann particularly. Both were contemporaries of Bernhard and their style developed, like Bernhards, from similar reactions to Austrian tradition and Austrian society & culture.

  12. Glad to see you review Bernhard, John. He’s certainly a very interesting guy and “Old Masters” is undoubtedly one of his lighter efforts, by which I mean containing humor. For my money, his best book is “The Lime Works”. That is the book in which his style first coalesced. “Concrete” is also excellent. There’s no one quite like Bernhard.

  13. “Old Masters” sounds like a great novel. Like Nico, I found the little novella ‘Wittgenstein’s Nephew” an excellent read and have enjoyed most of Bernhard’s books. I find if I’m not in the right spirit they can be hard to get into.

  14. Both Bachmann and Handke have expressed in interviews the relevance of Bernhard’s work in theirs. ‘Influence’ is not necessarily shown in topical/grammatical similarities, as we know. But I’m happy to see such minor details light fire in such a vehement way!!!!

  15. Whatever they SAID, their early books, written at the same time or even earlier than Bernhard’s novels already contain their literary character.Bbachmann especially has published most of her poetry and two thirds of her short prose by the time Bernhard had written his first novel. a good case can even be made for an influence of the Todesarten prose on Bernhard’s work.

  16. Very nice review, John. I’m happy you liked Old Masters so much; it’s one of my favorites.

    Here is my far lesser review, for what it’s worth:

    I still have a few to read, many sitting on my shelves, including Steve’s favorite, Extinction (for all that I love Bernhard, one does have to be in the mood, and preferably awake). Of the ones I’ve read, this one and The Loser, along with the memoir collection, Gathering Evidence, are the ones I like best.

  17. Old Masters” sounds like a great novel. Like Nico, I found the little novella ‘Wittgenstein’s Nephew” an excellent read and have enjoyed most of Bernhard’s books. I find if I’m not in the right spirit they can be hard to get into.

  18. Thanks again for the comments everyone. Richard, I am not, as they say, blowing smoke up your ass when I tell you that, after writing this review, I looked up yours (it’s one of the top results when you google for ‘thomas bernhard old masters’) and regretted that I had not been able to be as clear and effective in describing the book as you were. I recommend everyone reading this to click on Richard’s link.

  19. Thanks Kevin. I had heard about My Prizes from other bloggers, though I think I had better try more of his novels first (I have The Loser on my shelves). Like you, I have never read Hamsun, whose Hunger is forever on my must-read list, indeed, is one of those books so famous that I almost feel I don’t need to read it – which usually means that when I finally do, it will entirely unlike my expectations of it.

  20. Late on this, but great review John. Agree with all those who find him hilarious. He’s like Kafka in that respect and also I’d say in the convoluted doubling-back sentence structure. I just finished my second Bernhard Correction, which was much more gruelling than the first, The Loser. The sentences seemed longer, the knots more tightly wound, exhilarating, but exhausting. Some truly absurd set-pieces which had me bent double with laughter. My (brief) thoughts on it here:

  21. Pingback: A week in Linklog
  22. This is a great review of a wonderful book, nice one. Funnily enough I wrote a review of the first Bernhard novel I had read, The Loser a while back with an almost identical opening paragraph, which I swear was a coincidence rather than me ripping you off! I couldn’t believe how addictive I found Bernhard once I got started – I’d anticipated a bit of a battle. Old Masters is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time, and that interminable riff on Stifter was one of the real stand-out moments.

    Going back to Steve’s comment above on Sebald’s repetitive use of ‘said Austerlitz’ etc, I found the way Bernhard handles the question of who is speaking in Old Masters to be one of the most interesting things about it. On the one hand the narrator, Atzbacher is seemingly completely colonised by Reger’s language and attitudes, serving as a conduit for his perspective (as Sebald’s narrator does for Austerlitz). Yet on the other hand the only access we have to Reger is through Atzbacher’s words, meaning it may alternatively be a case of him projecting his own perspective onto Reger. And to further muddy the water, as we are slyly reminded at the beginning and the end, this is a piece of writing by Atzbacher rather than Bernhard imagining his internal consciousness. It could be a written recollection of his mental state on the day in question (thus drawing attention to the gap between its composition and continuity, and the flux and disorder of actual mental experience) or alternatively it could just be Atzbacher’s fiction, a staging of his views, using Reger as a fictional ventriloquist’s dummy. And this is never resolved, which lends the whole narrative a mysterious kind of equipoise that I’ve not really experienced other than in Bernhard – not even in Sebald.

  23. Hi Danny, and thanks for your comment and sharing your link (yes! great minds think alike, right??). By way of further coincidence, The Loser is the other Bernhard title I have on my shelves waiting to be read.

    Your analysis of the reported speech and narrative in Old Masters is fascinating, and it brings to mind a similar quality in a novel I’ve just read (but haven’t written about here yet): Spurious by Lars Iyer. Similarly, almost everything in that book is something that another character says to the narrator, so we have a similar fogginess about whose view of the world we are reading. Bernhard is not explicitly mentioned in Spurious, though I’d be very surprised if Iyer is not an admirer. (Just as the interplay of the two characters strongly evokes Beckett, but there is no explicit mention of him either.)

  24. Great minds indeed – I was on Amazon just this morning purchasing a copy of Spurious and, reading the opening few pages online, it’s got Bernhard written all over it. I’m really looking forward to reading it.

    And since making my comment above sparked a chain of thought about Old Masters I decided to write a piece about it here which develops the line of thought a bit further. I’ll be interested to see if/how Spurious relates to any of this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s