I am not usually given to artist-groupie activities. I spent a year in Paris and felt no need to seek out Baudelaire’s grave; I took the tour of Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst and found it nearly as boring as church. But when I went to Vienna some years ago, I did seek out the Bräunerhof cafe frequented by Thomas Bernhard, and I did sit for an hour there over a coffee and Linzer torte, thinking about him, and about the European culture that made him possible and disgusted him for having done so. There was a time when I would have called him my favorite writer.
I read The Loser once before, a long time ago, but all the recent news from Europe made me curious to look back into him, or through him. I can’t quite say why. He functioned for me, in my yooth, as an emblem of of a type of European-ness, unfathomably cultured and decadently cynical, or the other way around, which I both envied and deplored. (Like all young people, I was ignorant of history; only years later would I discover Robert Musil, and realize that Bernhard hadn’t come from nowhere, as I’d imagined.) Since I last read The Loser, the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Eurozone came into being, and a Moroccan-born Muslim was appointed mayor of Rotterdam. My imaginary Europe has changed. The experiment was to re-read The Loser while thinking about Syria.
It was either a useless experiment or one whose value has yet to reveal itself. Bernhard’s masochistic attack on mediocrity (his own, and everyone else’s) is even more relentless and tuneless than I remembered. I once found the relentlessness exciting and the tunelessness edifying; this month the book’s seemed to me absurd and dull. I can feel that it’s too soon to be writing this note, that my thoughts haven’t gelled, but I’m doing it anyway, because I want to be done with it.