Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters

Michael Hofmann reviews the reissue of Bernhard's distinctive novel
Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters
The London Review of Books weighs the significance of Thomas Bernhard's Old Masters, now reissued by Penguin:
The Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard (1931-89) once said: ‘You have to understand that in my writing the musical component comes first, and the subject matter is secondary.’ It’s a strange thing for this professional controversialist and Austropathic ranter to have said – that we should attend to the form, balance and measure in his work, when everything in it would seem to lead to the giggle and gasp of hurt given or received, or the hush and squeal of scandal – but it is sound advice. Before we talk about the quality of the opinions, or the kilotonnage of the diatribes, or the relentlessness of the assault (is anything exempt?), we ought to talk about the patterns of repetition and variation in the unspooling sentences of the unparagraphed prose. If Bernhard is anything, he is a stuck harpsichord record, knocking out its trapped and staggered shards of shrilly hammered phrases.

Old Masters, first published in Germany in 1985 and recently reissued, is Bernhard’s penultimate novel. It comes before Extinction and after Cutting Timber (also translated as Woodcutting), which was seized on publication because a couple who thought they recognised themselves in it, the Lampersbergs, old friends of Bernhard, had an injunction taken out against it. (Publicity not being an advantage to them in their circumstances, they eventually relented.) Old Masters is typical of Bernhard in that it is both a parodically eccentric version – one isn’t sure, or it’s not sure, as often in Bernhard, if it’s a skit or a rarefied, laboratory version – of life, but at the same time it is almost reassuringly normal. A Bernhard novel is a bizarrely skewed but immediately familiar planet, whose rules and concerns we grasp as readily as those of Le Petit Prince. Old Masters takes place in a single location, more or less in real time, and yet is able to include in its purview most things under the sun. Come to think of it, even the sun: ‘He avoids the sun, there is nothing he shuns more than the sun,’ it says in Ewald Osers’s terrific and calm and thoughtful translation. Nothing happens and little is revealed; it is mostly talk and remembered talk, and thought and remembered thought. [Read more]

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