Book Of A Lifetime: Old Masters, By Thomas Bernhard


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The Independent Culture

The first time I encountered a book by Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian novelist and playwright, was in 1994. I was in Vienna. I was 20, staying in the apartment of a family friend named Susie. I was in love with her, but I felt she was tragically older than me, perhaps because she was so smart and cultured, and I was so naïve and impressionable. She was 24.

Susie bought me, for Christmas, 'Thomas Bernhard, Ein Lesebuch'. It contains letters, selections from his novels and plays, and other things. Her warm inscription concluded, "If you want to be a writer, you must read 'Old Masters'."

Fifteen years passed. Susie's gift spent most of the time in a box. My German wasn't good enough to understand it very well, and anyway it seemed that if I wanted to become a writer in America (I'm from Texas), I had better read Americans. Then a strange, lost, regrettable decade passed.

Then things got better. I left the States for Europe. I wrote a book, which was autobiographical, and cost me a job I loathed. I met a nice girl. We had a son. Everything was all right. And I felt quite certain I would never write a novel. The novel was antiquated anyway. Then, in autumn 2010, I came across Bernhard again. I was given a copy of 'Old Masters', this time in translation.

'Old Masters' contains a single, 250-page paragraph. Reger, the music critic, recently widowed, summons his friend, the unpublished philosopher Atzbacher, to the art history museum in Vienna. Reger comes there every other day, staring at Tintoretto's 'Portrait of a White-Bearded Man', thinking, and enjoying the pleasant temperature. Reger and Atzbacher meet, have a conversation – a torrent of vitriol and pain and sorrow and hilarity – and Reger asks Atzbacher to accompany him to the theatre. Atzbacher agrees.

Bernhard's novels are swift, exciting, tense. Yet hardly anybody ever moves, it's impossible to tell one voice from another, there are no chapter breaks; the sentences are massive, and the vitriol seems, if you were to simply read one sentence on every page, hopelessly haphazard.

But it is not haphazard. It is beautifully and effortlessly controlled. By subtle variations, the book makes dramatic and emotional turns. No matter how angry the book becomes, the tone is always strangely and cruelly calm. Every sentence ends on a droll note, as though society does not even deserve a sense of irritation.

The poet, translator and critic Michael Hofmann brilliantly captured the compelling genius of 'Old Masters' – and really all Bernhard's books – by saying, "It has no moving parts". A Bernhard book is not a bunch of chapters and parts moving forwards but like a man having a nice dinner on a huge ship that is sinking into the delightful and cheerless hell of the state of everything.

Greg Baxter's 'The Apartment' is published by Penguin