13 February 2008

'Thomas Bernhard' Is Such A Loser

I just finished reading Bernhard's novel, The Loser, and I've got to tell you what a loser that guy is. It's a good thing he published his book in German first, he could never get it published in America today—especially if it was his first novel. I started reading it because so many people I respect and admire had told me 'Oh, you've got to read Bernhard. He's brilliant.' And all the reviews of his book I could find said what an amazing writer he was. So, I read it.

What a waste! Here's what happens: Nothing. Or, next to it. The whole story is about this guy who doesn't even have a name (let's call him 'Thomas Bernhard' in single quotes). On the way home from a friend's funeral he stops off at a country inn where he stands around and waits for the innkeeper to notice him. When she finally does, he debates in his mind whether to tell her if he will want to have dinner that night at the inn. He unpacks his bag, has a cup of tea, and watches some men unload a beer truck then goes further off into the country to visit the house of his deceased friend. He chats for a few minutes with the groundskeeper at the house and then listens to a record. That's it. That's all that happens, and most of it in the last twenty pages or so.

No self-respecting literary agent in this country would agree to represent this work and no editor would risk taking a chance on publishing it because it doesn't have anything resembling a plot. Most, if not all, the 'action' (if that's what you want to call it) takes place in 'Thomas Bernhard's' head. And that is all back-story. The dead guy, Wertheimer, never appears except in 'Thomas Bernhard's' remembrance of him. The other main character (who never appears either) is Glenn Gould, the famous 20th Century piano artist. [You will find a video of him playing Bach's Goldberg Variations, an important piece in the book, in an earlier post on my blog.] American publishers run away from this kind of stuff like moderate Republicans from Dick Cheney.

[Disclaimer: The reason I know this is I'm currently trying to find representation for my own novel and I've encountered exactly these sorts of criticisms about one relatively minor character in my book. By contrast, nearly all of Bernhard's book is back-story.]

Never mind the brilliance of the social satire and the complex development of themes. Never mind the remarkable portrait of the power and, indeed, the cruelty of the pure artist and the ressentiment it engenders. Never mind the respective psychologies of the two musicians who gave up their art and sold their pianos because of their deep feelings of inferiority and insecurity. Never mind the Chekhovian ending and the pathos of one friend confronting the way he abandoned another in the face of their mutual loss. No. These are not the stuff of contemporary American fiction. Such things simply will not suffice.

No, I'm pretty sure Bernhard could not get The Loser published in the U.S. market today. No agent would agree to represent him because they couldn't simply "fall in love" with it. It's not upbeat or hopeful or bittersweet or even sentimental. No one would "like" the sad, bitter main character; they wouldn't be able to "identify" with such a loser (whether that's Wertheimer or 'Thomas Bernhard', I think, is an open question.). The book wouldn't sell because it might offend some people when the author makes fun of stupid people. It would probably turn a lot of readers off, too, because all the sensuous detail is pretty oppressive and depressing. What's more, there's no sex in the first hundred pages and there's no violence whatsoever—who's going to buy that? What's more, there's no redemption in the main character from what anybody can tell and he doesn't really seem to change. And, in terms of MFA criteria, the whole thing is 'told' not 'shown' and the author continually repeats himself.

Oh yeah, and nothing happens. The whole thing takes place inside the head of some guy who lost his only two friends. Besides, no one would want to read it because the whole book is one long paragraph. There simply are no places for bathroom breaks.

So, bottom line: Great writing? The translation seems appropriate. Great literature? Who's to say. A salable commodity in the current U.S. market? Doubtful.

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