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Fiercely Unlovely 'Loser' Doesn't Need to Please

by Claire Messud
Aug 21, 2007 (All Things Considered)

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So much, in literature as in life, proves to be a matter of pleasing people. In some sense, all creative writing courses are precisely about imparting the tricks of pleasure: show, don't tell; choose the telling detail; you must create, aspiring writer, a vivid and continuous dream. The reader must, above all, be satisfied — or else, heaven forfend, he will abandon you. And then where would you be?

After years of such notions, as someone who expended a great deal of energy, on the page and off, in attempting to meet other people's standards, I fell upon the crabby, darkly witty, furiously bleak and utterly uncompromising Thomas Bernhard with something akin to elation.

I picked up Wittgenstein's Nephew by chance in the American Library in Paris, early in '99, and read it in an afternoon, a mesmerized afternoon in which I ought to have been writing fiction, but could not stop myself from reading.

Then I picked up The Loser, and was not only mesmerized, and horrified, but felt, also, profoundly spoken to: here was a book — a ranting monologue, more naturally than a novel — obsessing unflinchingly about the things that have always obsessed me. About art, and ambition, and failure, and delusion, and death.

It is a book about anger. A book without paragraphs, which in its very form enacts anger. A book prone to wildly long sentences, preposterously violent judgments and enraging constructions. A deeply musical novel, about music — about Glenn Gould, or a fictional Glenn Gould, with all the structural complexity of The Goldberg Variations, to which allusions are repeatedly made. The Loser is willfully oppressive and agonizing to read, hilarious and awful by turns. And, above all, it couldn't care less about the reader.

The greatness of a great book is untranslatable. I cannot tell you what is extraordinary about The Loser. You must read it for yourself. You will not find it pleasant. You may not find that it speaks to you with the immediacy and the insistence that it speaks to me. But you will certainly find that it speaks searingly, fearlessly and comically. It puts us inside the head of a coldly embittered man, who aspired to be a great pianist — until he heard Glenn Gould play, and realized he could never be as good. It is, you see, about being talented, and still being a loser.

There is much to admire in the sheer black, hilarious slog of it. Bernhard's raging narrators liberated me, as a writer, to inhabit the most dislikeable characters. What I strive for, and what makes him crucial for me — literarily, as in life — is his passionate, principled decision to please no one but the truth, his truth. And let the conventional pleasures of fiction be damned. There is, for this reader, a great deal of pleasure, as well as truth, in that.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

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