Perhaps should have been entitled 'Grumpy Old Bastard'.
The first 40 odd pages are powered by the joy of reading Thomas Bernhard, a European master writer. After that it did become a bit of a grind with the relentless 'hate' of this figure.You begin to wonder why Bernhard wrote this. It is a late (or rather later) work than The Loser which was my first Bernhard, and it appears on the surface, and through the grind of the middle section to be less of a book than 'The Losers.
It is not till 2/3rds in that you begin to see the humanity within Reger and why he feels like this. Let down by life, the nation, the Church and ultimately Art he has become a survivor. And the sense of hope is revealed when at the very end the real reason for inviting Atzbacher to the museum is revealed.
From that 2/3rds point - and I could not really tell you where the character of the book begins to change - maybe it is from where he starts to relate about his wife, her death and how it left him and the unscrupulous behaviour of his housekeeper - it really does become a revelation. When reading this it made me think of Scotland's very own James Kelman and their similarities and their writing. There are of course very major differences but there is a superficial similarity which could be explored. This book made me think of How Late It Was, How Late.
To not read this book is to not understand more of Bernhard. A worthwhile undertaking.
'A Common Reader's' review (below) is perfectly adequate and acceptable - and most readers would probably agree with the gist of what he says. 'A Common Reader' doesn't, however, mention other characters in the book such as, say, Reger's (deceased) wife; and while the vulgar scribe might insist that Reger's wife is only referred to by Reger himself, it is no less true that Reger's remarks are themselves only related by Atzbacher who (with the possible exception of the penultimate few lines in the book) narrates the whole text. It is this distancing technique that makes Reger's tirade against Austrian culture at least capable of being enjoyed as an entertainment, but also of being entertained as a serious assault. Reger DOES pointedly admire Webern, for instance, or Kokoschka. He even laments his own tendency (possibly induced by the culture he disdains) to over-analyse and destroy the things that give him pleasure... although the implication of the drole last line (as devastatingly weak as any punch-line to a shaggy-dog story) pointedly indicates Bernhard's sympathy with the musicologist's contempt. Bernhard is an acquired taste. I have my own (probably inane) theory that his repetitive style, with its constant reassuring refrains, is based on techniques used by hypnotists. It is at least an individual, identifiably modern treatment. Even if the reader choses to believe Bernhard is NOT serious when he dismisses 'icons' such as Haydn or Goya we are at least called on to kick the settling lid off their coffins (20 years after the book's publication we remain more given to celebrate Beyonce than Beethoven). Bernhard is gently but remorselessly serious. He's not a barrel of laughs but he's not po-faced either. He's gently but remorselessly serious. And yes, I meant to repeat that.
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I tried to read this for my Reading Group meeting. Have struggled with it on & off for a number of weeks & have now given up.The sentences seem interminable, which I think is probably because the initial text is German. That in itself might be OK , but the content is so rambling & circuitous that it is tedious and I have not felt at all engaged by this book.
An 82 year old man, the musicologist Reger, sits on a settee in the Bordone Room of the Viennese Kunsthistoirisches Museum, contemplating Tintoretto's painting, The White Bearded Man - as he has done for four or five hours every second day for the last 30 years. While doing this he rails against society, art, his fellow men, the state of Vienna, even the condition of the cities public lavatories. His thoughts are communicated to the reader by his friend Atzbacher, who seems in awe of the great musicologist and shares his dismal world view. The only other character in the book is the gallery steward Irrsigler, who has assisted Reger over the last 30 years by making sure that no-one else sits on the settee when Reger is due one of his visits.
Reger has so many chips on his shoulders it is almost impossible to count them. No artist escapes Reger's diatribes, nor philosopher, nor musician. It is the sheer quantity and intensity of Reger's fulminations which makes them sometimes amusing. It takes a rare soul to feel that the world and its occupants are this bad. To have reached a stage where you hold everything and everyone in contempt, exceeds descriptive terms like jaded and world weary - Reger is so limited in his outlook and so embittered that death seems to be the only solution, and yet he seems unable to do anything other than wait for that final event rather than doing anything to precipitate it.
My problem with the book is that it might have made a good short story, among a collection of others, but on its own, it is just too long. The book is not broken into chapters, perhaps demonstrating the unstoppable flow of Reger's bitter ramblings, but Bernhard has not even given us paragraph breaks. The means that when you put the book down, you just have to jump right into roughly where you left it, but this really makes little difference because the sentences are all much the same anyway.
Indeed, the only point of such a book would be humour, but the occasional flashes of irony or sarcasm are sunk beneath the seemingly endless pages of bitter criticism. Hell must be like this - a place where no light penetrates, and old men lament the pointlessness of existence for all eternity. It would take a resilient spirit to be able to read it and not be pleased when it finishes.
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