Friday, 7 April 2017

Book Review: Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard
Some experiences and decisions can cast a lifelong shadow on our souls making us overly suspicious and critical of everything and everyone. Such general contempt is likely to make us unhappy and unpopular on the long run… although not necessarily. Some people who like to rant meet admiration from their surroundings, especially the cultured ones. In the Austrian novel Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard a bitter old man contemplates his bitter old friend who sits on a settee in the Viennese Kunsthistorisches Museum to contemplate a Tintoretto portrait of a white-bearded man. For over thirty years the man on the settee has been looking for a flaw in the Renaissance painting because unable to bear with the illusion of perfection he early made it his habit to find fault at everything and everyone. No great creative mind escapes his criticism and he gladly rants about them thus filling his friend with admiration.

Thomas Bernhard was born in Heerlen, The Netherlands, in February 1931, but lived with his maternal grandparents in Austria during the first five years of his life. Between 1941 and 1943 he went through a traumatic period in the Nazi reform school of Saalfeld in Thuringia, Germany, and in a Catholic boarding school in Salzburg run by the Nazi regime until 1945. Sixteen years old he dropped out of school and became a grocer’s apprentice. In 1950, after almost having died from tuberculous pleurisy and having lost his beloved grandfather as well as his mother within less than two years, he made his literary debut with a short story published under pseudonym and briefly worked as a journalist. In the following four decades he brought out a few volumes of poetry along with many internationally acclaimed plays and novels. His most important works are Frost (1963), Gargoyles (Verstörung: 1967), The Lime Works (Das Kalkwerk: 1970), Correction (Korrektur: 1975), Concrete (Beton: 1982), Wittgenstein's Nephew (Wittgensteins Neffe: 1982), Woodcutters (Holzfällen: 1984), Old Masters (Alte Meister: 1985), and Extinction (Auslöschung: 1986). Thomas Bernhard died in Gmunden, Austria, in February 1989. His early novel On the Mountain (In der Höhe) written in 1959 was published posthumously in 1989.

On a Saturday morning in the mid-1980s, private scholar Atzbacher visits the collection of Old Masters in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna although he has been there only the day before and he never goes on consecutive days nor on Saturdays. The only reason why he breaks with this habit is that his friend Reger has asked to meet him in his usual place, i.e. in the Bordone room where for over thirty years he has been contemplating every other day the Portrait of a White-Bearded Man painted by Tintoretto. Atzbacher, who hates being late just as much as Reger, is an hour early and seizes the opportunity to secretly observe his much admired friend from the adjacent room wondering what might be the reason for this exceptional meeting and recapitulating events and conversations from their long friendship. Reger is a musicologist and despite his age – he is 82 years old – he still regularly writes musical criticisms for The Times in London. He is a very cultured man who is well versed in many fields, notably the arts and philosophy, but life taught him and he willingly trained himself to always be critical to the point of finding fault at everything and everybody including the greatest artists and minds of history. It makes him feel better to destroy the illusion of perfection although it also spoils his pleasure. In addition, he’s given to ranting about anything that crosses his mind, be it the works of much acclaimed “state artists” like Anton Bruckner, Goya or Adalbert Stifter, be it the ideas of philosophers like Martin Heidegger, be it society and politics, be it soiled Viennese lavatories. However, the death of his wife made him realise that the old masters whom he admires despite all are poor companions compared to human beings.

The subtitle of Old Masters labels the novel as a comedy and in fact, the portrait that the first-person narrative paints of Reger as a ranting old man tends towards the ridiculous. Being told from the point of view of Atzbacher who contemplates Reger like the latter Tintoretto’s picture (that may well resemble him), moreover primarily through memories and reflections, removes and thus softens the portrait, and yet, for the most part laughter gets stuck in the throat reading the tirades that at the same time reveal the enormous bitterness of the man and caricature the average Austrian who likes to rant (I’m allowed to say this: I’m Austrian!). Even the structure of the novel imitates such an endless outburst because it refuses the reader every break to catch breath: there are neither chapters nor paragraphs and sentences are generally long even taking into account that the original language of the novel is my native German. Italicised words or word groups and parts of sentences that are repeated literally or in slightly altered form put emphasis on what might otherwise easily get lost in the flood of words… and of open contempt. Nonetheless, I found the novel easy to read.

Although Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard is full of cynicism, misanthropy and Weltschmerz it didn’t weigh me down, nor did its biting negativity – for which this Austrian writer is known and that kept me so long from reading anything from his pen – annoy me at all. To my own great surprise, I actually enjoyed this exceedingly intelligent novel and I understand now why the late author is praised so much. Well, I didn’t particularly appreciate his repetitious style, but it didn’t bother me too much, either. And as for the rants… I may be immune to them because I’ve seen ranting Old Masters of life all around ever since I was born. Besides, knowing that in this book Thomas Bernhard digested the death of his own life partner reconciled me with much of the bitterness that it contains. It’s true that Old Masters isn’t a cheerful read, it’s certainly an important and worthwhile one, though. Highly recommended!

* * * * * 

This review is a contribution to
(images linked to my reading lists):


  1. I keep running across this author lately. Is he having a posthumous comeback? I was leery of his novels, worrying that they would be hard to read, but your review has given me courage.

    1. I must admit that I too hesitated to read Thomas Bernhard. On the one hand, he's notorious for his negative views and remarks on Austria as well as Austrians. On the other hand, he was the favourite author of my German teacher in the 1980s (which in my eyes wasn't actually a recommendation).

      I don't know if he's seeing a posthumous comeback abroad. In Austria he is an all-time leading figure of literature like Ingeborg Bachmann. His books have never gone out of print and his plays can be seen regularly on stage (although in his last will he forbade performances in Austria - his heir permitted them later).


Dear anonymous spammers: Don't waste your time here! Your comments will be deleted at once without being read.