Old Masters is flawless.
I’ll attempt to distil my impressions of Thomas Bernhard’s book without using the word rant. It is almost impossible to write about Thomas Bernhard’s prose without using that word. (Around 1645 there was an English antinomian sect called the Ranters, though the etymology of the word is German.) In its place I will use a word I relish: tirade, from the French tirer “draw out, endure, suffer.”
Every other day, musicologist, Reger, sits on a sofa in the Kunthistorisches Museum facing Tintoretto’s White-Bearded Man. Sometimes he reads, other times he contemplates the painting. Uncharacteristically he visits the museum on two successive days, inviting his friend, Atzbacher, to join him for a second day. The reason is, until the final pages, a mystery.
Thereafter, either directly or through his mouthpiece Atzbacher, Reger’s tirade makes up the rest of the book, interrupted occasionally. Reger’s tirade unfolds, repeats, loops relentlessly, sometimes it risks folding in upon itself. It wearies and requires a degree of endurance, but it is also occasionally very funny. The targets of Reger’s Nietzschean tirade are multifarious and include art historians, Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, Austrian composer Anton Bruckner, Viennese public lavatories and philosopher Martin Heidegger. The latter, in particular, creased me up. Of the Heideggerian criticism I have come across, Reger’s calling him out for a kitschy brain and as a mediocre rustic was hilarious:
Heidegger is the petit bourgeois of German philosophy, the man who placed on German philosophy his kitschy nightcap, that kitschy nightcap which Heidegger always wore, on all occasions. Heidegger is the carpet-slipper and night-cap philosopher of the Germans, nothing else.
The interruptions to Reger’s tirade are rare but necessary, and often droll and moving. On one occasion, Reger’s sofa, facing White-Bearded Man, is invaded by an Englishman, world-weary to the same degree as Reger, who has come to Vienna to verify that there is another White-Bearded Man, a duplicate or forgery of the one given to him by a Glaswegian aunt. On another occasion, Reger movingly expounds his despair since his wife’s death.
In the final pages we learn why Reger has broken a routine of thirty years to invite Atzbacher to the museum on two successive days. The deliverance, and the last line of the book, had me grinning from ear to ear. For once, in Old Masters, the ending does not disappoint.