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Post Road Magazine #35

Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard

Jeff Jackson


Sometimes literature is useless.


I was perusing the shelves, pulling down books, trying to choose the one I would write about for this essay. The small stack of favorite novels included: Dennis Cooper’s My Loose Thread, which seamlessly alternates between cool analysis and emotional intensity, where every sentence is an acrobat or conceals a secret, where the narrator’s observations are so pressurized that ordinary phrases are transformed into a lyrical anti-poetry; Frank Lentricchia’s Lucchesi and The Whale with its hypnotic prose, masterfully clipped and often hilarious dialogues, and an innovative fictional essay on Moby-Dick that blurs the lines between criticism and fiction; Ellen Raskin’s puzzle narrative The Westing Game whose unstable tone and continually shifting personas mesmerized me as a kid and have continued to do so through many readings as an adult. But I didn’t pick any of those books.


When a loved one becomes seriously ill, it all falls away. Your carefully cultivated tastes, your keen artistic insights, your nuanced aesthetic discernments, your precious favorites. What do they mean in the face of the sick body of the beloved, feverish and wheezing, flitting in-and-out of consciousness in the next room? At best, even your favorite books become little more than a distraction.


Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard is known for his acid wit and epic vitriolic rants that won’t brook even a paragraph break. He’s garnered a reputation as a world-class misanthrope and bleak nihilist, but I’ve always found his novels life-affirming. His narrators’ rants are ultimately about purging the poisons that we swallow every day, refusing to let the malicious lies and toxic half-truths of society build up in your system, rooting out your own teeming hypocrisies, and trying to keep yourself from becoming so contaminated that you can no longer recognize your condition. All this so that you might be able to move through life with some semblance of humanity intact. Among other things, Berhard’s books feel like attempts to scour away the persistent illusions and self-delusions that keep us from being truly present for those we love.

His slim novel Old Masters is a book I treasure. It begins as a witty meditation on painting and obsession, but the narrative stealthily builds to a shattering climax. It contains the most heartbreaking passage I know and the most brutally honest about the true worth of literature in the face of mortal loss. It concerns Reger, a man who has dedicated his life to art. His wife has died and he now faces their apartment alone.


"I pulled out several drawers and several chests and looked into them and kept taking out pictures and writings and correspondence of my wife and put everything on the table, one item after another, and progressively inspected everything, and because I am an honest person my dear Atzenbach, I have to admit that I wept while doing so. Suddenly I gave my tears free reign, I had not wept for decades and suddenly I gave my tears free reign, Reger said. I sat there, giving my tears free reign, and I wept and wept and wept and wept, Reger said. I had not wept in decades, Reger said to me at the Ambassador. I have no need to conceal anything or to hide anything, he said, with my eighty-two years I have no need to conceal or to hide anything at all , Reger said, and therefore I do not conceal the fact that suddenly I wept and wept again, that I wept again for days, Reger said. I sat there, looking at the letters which my wife had written to me over the years and read the notes she had made over the years and just wept. Of course we get used to a person over the decades and love them for decades and eventually love them more than anything else and cling to them and when we lose them it is truly as if we had lost everything. I have always thought that it was music that meant everything to me, and at times that it was philosophy, or great or greatest or the very greatest writing, or altogether that it was simply art, but none of it, the whole of art or whatever, is nothing compared to that one beloved person. The things we inflict on that one beloved person, Reger said, the thousands and hundreds of thousands of pains we inflicted on this one person whom we loved more than anyone else, the torments we inflicted on that person and yet we loved them more than anyone else, Reger said. When that person whom we loved more than anyone else is dead they leave us with a terribly guilty conscience with which we have to live after that person’s death and which will choke us one day, Reger said. None of those books or writings which I had collected in the course of my life and which I had brought to the Singerstrasse flat to cram full all these shelves were ultimately any use, I had been left alone by my wife and all those books and writings were ridiculous.”


Old Masters is subtitled “A Comedy” and in the largest sense it is. Bernhard serves up various human follies, chief among them the belief that our most treasured books might have the capacity to save us. It’s no coincidence this unblinking novel was one of his last efforts, written after the death of his longtime partner.


The bed is empty. The body of the loved one has been moved—to the hospital, to the morgue, to the funeral home. Now you’re alone. You go to your shelves and pull down books, amassing a small stack, hoping to find one that might salve the pain, the ache, the consuming emptiness. But when you open them, the words slide right off the page.


Against the evidence, I still want to believe that literature serves some necessary purpose, perhaps building up stores of empathy or saturating our souls with far-flung examples of beauty, fortifying us so we can survive those times when it can offer no help at all.

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