Saturday, 21 April 2018


Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard  ({Reviewed by THOMAS}
One voice entirely dominates this novel, not the voice of the narrator Atzbacher, but that of Reger, an aging music critic who has been coming every second day for thirty years to sit in front of Tintoretto’s Portrait of a White-Bearded Man in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. In the first half of the single paragraph that floods this book with intricately structured reports of Reger’s unrestrainedly misanthropic invective, Atzbacher arrives early to meet Reger and observes him from another gallery, recalling things Reger has said to him on previous occasions. In the second half, what Reger says to Atzbacher that day is interwoven with what Reger has said during a previous meeting at a hotel, eventually revealing details of the death of Reger’s wife, which underlies much of the near-hysterical nihilism that Reger pours out of himself and through everyone else. During the passages dealing with the death of Reger’s wife the temporal structure of the narrative is more fragmented, reflecting Reger’s distress. Atzbacher, the museum attendant Irrsigler, and, we learn, Reger’s unnamed wife all function as nothing more than mouthpieces for Reger’s rather Bernhardian opinions, Reger who claims that the relationship in which the parties know as little as possible of each other is the ideal relationship, the relationship which does not contradict his projection. Reger’s opinions, though often sharply barbed and frequently desperately funny, are not supported by argument and are repetitively over-inflated and generalised, undermining, and indeed contradicting, their authenticity as opinions but strengthening the dominating voice of the incurably isolated Reger. As with all Bernhard’s novels, the primary content of Old Masters is its form. Reger’s inability to find worth in his world is desperately ambivalent: “I am resisting this total despair about everything, Reger said. I am now eighty-two and I am resisting this total despair about everything tooth and nail”. The art of doing this is the art of existing against the facts: “Art is the most sublime and the most revolting thing simultaneously, he said. But we must make ourselves believe that there is high art and the highest art, he said, otherwise we would despair. Even though we know that all art ends in gaucherie and ludicrousness and in the refuse of history, like everything else, we must, with downright self-assurance, believe in high and in the highest art, he said. We realise what it is, a bungled, failed art, but we need not always hold this realisation before us, because in that case we should inevitably perish, he said.” The novel ends with Reger taking Atzbacher to a performance of Kleist’s Broken Pitcher at the Burgtheater (“the most hideous theatre in the world”), and in the very last line Atzbacher gets to express an opinion of his own: “The performance was terrible”.

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