Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser

Yesterday’s blog post recording the fact that I’ve just read Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser was silly and pointless. I apologise for wasting anyone’s time. It’s symptomatic of my struggle to find a way to write about my reading life without adding to a profusion of largely valueless book reviews. My reading is helped by the foreknowledge that I may write something about what I am reading, even if that writing is confined to my private journal. That there still seems to be some interest in this blog encourages me to persevere to write in a public place.

In this 1992 Quartet Books edition of The Loser, a rewarding afterword by Mark Anderson is provided at the end, far more valuable than any introduction, which I tend not to read until after I’ve read a book anyway, if at all. Anderson describes how Bernhard’s fiction changed after writing the five volumes of his autobiography, projecting aspects of his self onto public figures like Wittgenstein, Mendelssohn and in the case of The Loser, Glenn Gould: ‘These later texts are all part of what might be termed Bernhard’s imaginary autobiography—his own life story rewritten according to the lives of his artistic and philosophical doubles.’

It is this tension that supplies some of the insistent pulse of this story, the coexistence of the autobiographical and the fictive, a narrator that is and is not the writer, voices that are both human and text simultaneously. The ambiguity of the narrator provides sufficient ironic detachment that the tirade is more comedic than serious. As this documentary reveals, little use is made of Glenn Gould’s actual biography, just sufficient to draw parallels with Bernhard’s own life. Our lives are only interesting when contrasted against another.

In his afterword, Anderson also points out that both Gould and Bernhard ‘shared a dislike for individualist art forms . . . based on progression, climax, and reconciliation.’ It is perhaps one of several reasons I am enchanted by The Loser—aside from a seemingly endless fascination with those drawn to reclusive existences—the apparently fugal structure that underpins Bernhard’s novel and the resistance of plot and conclusion.

Gould’s interpretations of Bach’s Art of the Fugue are a mainstay of my personal musical canon. If you share my fascination please read this lengthy, quite brilliant post, which argues strongly against applying a fugal metaphor to experience of the The Loser.

4 thoughts on “Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser

  1. I appreciate this post on The Loser. I have a love/hate relationship with Bernhard. I read The Woodcutters years ago, and I liked it but wasn’t bowled over by it. I started reading Extinction, but I have sort of stalled out. I can only read him for short periods before his writing becomes too much for me. However, I do find much of what he says to be so profound, and I am underlining so much of what he says. (He has a whole diatribe on the fact that photographs can be meaningless because they portray only the surface of life–or something to that effect–and I find that so prescient of our current shallow instagram culture.) And his take on the post war era is so insightful (along with Peter Handke, whose work I just discovered). I find myself interested not so much in writing from the period of the war (e.g., Primo Levi) but writing that deals with the aftereffects of the war. That’s why Bernhard and Handke are interesting to me. (Jenny Erpenbeck is another writer I would place in this category.) As an American, I studied WW I and WW II in College, but I think writers like Bernhard, Handke, and Erpenbeck offer some interesting commentaries (beyond just being great writers) on how Europe changed as a result of the war. And sometimes, I want to read books like these rather than books that examine relationships if that makes any sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You mention three writers whose writing I admire greatly. Bernhard may not be a writer for immersion, but I do wish to read everything he wrote, given time. It was Old Masters followed by Wittgenstein’s Nephew that was my entry-point..


  2. I highly recommend his autobiography if you haven’t already read it. I read it after reading only a couple of his novels and found the background it provides to be invaluable during my subsequent reading of his remaining novels. Normally I wouldn’t do that with a writer, but with Bernhard it seemed to make sense.

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