Book Review: The Loser by Thomas Bernhard (1983)

theloserThe Loser by Thomas Bernhard
My Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Grey – The color that most of the characters created during large part of twentieth century and whole of twenty-first century till date, are painted in. Cruelly banishing the evergreen Black and all-star White to secondary positions,Grey has risen in ranks to be the heroic hue of all ‘famous’ characters. The modern reader in me haughtily merges this contemporary thought into her conversations and discusses the ‘grey’ shades of the latest literary protagonist she has encountered. But the conventional reader in me? Oh, she curses! Throws slang, moans hoarse. To all those authors who wiped the clear, unambiguous White (read good) and Black (read bad) from her book world, she casts a teary eye and howls a simple question: Why?  

The premise of The Loser is an intriguing one. Three youngsters join a renowned music academy to learn piano. Glenn, a born genius, simply uses the school to sharpen his existing incredible musical teeth. Wertheimer is a truck load of talent too, enough to prevail over most of the piano-playing community around him but nowhere near Glenn’s magnificence. The third student, who is also our unnamed narrator, is in the same lustrous league as Wertheimer and at the same subjacent stand to Glenn. Fast forward twenty-eight years: Glenn and Wertheimer are dead and our unnamed narrator, having attended the latter’s funeral, is on his way to the latter’s last abode in search of some aphorism notes. And some base choreography of his only friends’ life trances.

The story began well, concisely drawing an unshapely circle around its characters as if a hand was either shivering or consciously teasing during the entwining exercise. Then, a solid tangent was drawn from a vantage point in the book, where all the characters had rushed in to create the richest pool of their natural shades – a point where Glenn had donned the recluse’s garb, Wertheimer had submerged in pools of pungent losses and our narrator had mastered the oscillations between insipid and not-so-insipid days. On this tangential thought, I rejoiced and braced myself for a ride of a lifetime.

Well, the ride controller had other plans.

The characters depicted the darker, gloomier sides of human mind with panache and incisive depth. Their dilemmas, their failures, their disdains, all found evocative voices of the finest baritone. But what about those occasional sunny streaks? Agreed, Bernhard felt they held no merit in his work but does not the sheer veracity of a diary, chronicling a lifetime of three men, demand few positive scribblings as footnotes? Fleeting thoughts that infused some fragrance into the ailing minds that managed to live beyond fifty years each? While I had empathy for all the three as they possessed no massive blemishes on their hearts, I could not warm upto them for they bordered on the sunshine but never bothered to usher it in, even through the doors of unhappiness and dry humor. They basked in unhappiness way too much and I felt rashes on my skin, unexpectedly.

The Loser is a tag Glenn gives Wertheimer on the first day of their meeting. But I could not help but wonder why Wertheimer was a loser in his suicide and Glenn was not, in his exile? Or for that matter, our narrator, in his directionless transit?

With The Loser, Bernhard presents his fellowship in Advanced Grey-mmar. The characters appeared all ‘grey’ to me, meaning I could sit in a theatre, watch them act, clap in applause and not leave before the final scene but also not reward them with a standing ovation and take them home after the act is over. It was like a fabulous soprano, which reached its crescendo during the first half and all I did afterwards, was search its mellifluous vibrations in the rest of the piece.

I have never admired anything but have marvelled at many things during my life and I, can say, have marvelled the most in my life.

I did marvel at Bernhard though. Written entirely in one single paragraph, unfolding mostly within the troubled walls of the narrator’s mind, the reading pattern alone was a striking experience. Repetitive yet fresh, discoloured yet brilliant, his style was the strong ribs of his unusual plot. As if a person was sitting across me and narrating his life’s mistakes and while I wanted to chide him for his stupidities, I ended up ordering a few more cups of coffees in the greed of pushing him to a point where he might mend, something.

Bernhard once said on his writing: “To shake people up, that’s my real pleasure.”

He succeeded.

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[Image courtesy http://www.da-files.com ]

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