lunes, 30 de noviembre de 2015

Old Masters

Old Masters [Alte Meister] (The University of Chicago Press, 1992)
by Thomas Bernhard [translated from the German by Ewald Osers]
Austria, 1985

For whatever reason--poor timing, a bad attitude, a fatal case of been there, done that ism mayhaps, who knows?--the insult machine known as Old Masters really wasn't doing it for me until about a third of the way into the indignities.  After that, I kind of wondered WTF I possibly could have been disappointed about early on.  The concluding salvo in Bernhard's bilious, ranting arts trilogy, Old Masters slyly links an art criticism-laced conversation about Tintoretto's The White-Bearded Man held by two old friends at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum with a series of Karl Kraus-like mudballs lobbed at Vienna's true Kultur: e.g. "Viennese lavatories are altogether a scandal, even in the lower Balkans you will not find a lavatory which is quite so neglected" (80).  While the final pages of the work take an unexpectedly-warm-for-Bernhard detour to touch on the importance of love and friendship in this, "our age of chaos and kitsch" (154), insult meister need not be deterred from reading this uplifting Austrian Jonathan Livingston Seagull because the abuse heaped on targets as diverse as the vagaries of the Austrian justice system ("not just arbitrariness but a perfidious machine for grinding human beings" [109]), sculptors ("those brutal common proletarian men of violence with their chisels" [110]), and the common Austrian himself  ("a common Nazi or a stupid Catholic" [122]) proves that Bernhard's defamation ammo is of the same high caliber as usual.  Consumed, with the child-like delight one usually associates with the consumption of the humble ice cream cone, in honor of the German Literature Month V festivities perpetrated by Caroline of Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy's Literary Life.

Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989)

21 comentarios:

  1. Respuestas
    1. Bernhard's characters always have plenty of different reasons for griping, but almost all have an element of Austrian self-loathing involved (i.e what Tom says below). This one was angry in part because his wife had died suddenly and he didn't have the "courage" to follow her into the grave via a suicide. The English translation's subtitle, A Comedy, while not to be found in the original German, emphasizes the satiric nature of the work.

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  2. I had heard good things about this book previously.

    Sometimes I find such rants very amusing. Of course things like this really have to gel in order to work.

    Superb commentary as always Richard.

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    Respuestas
    1. It's a good book, Brian, but easily way less of a good thing (in my opinion) than either The Loser or Woodcutters to name the other two titles in Bernhard arts trilogy. Glad you enjoyed the post, but Bernhard, a supreme ranter, is almost impossible to screw up review-wise. I can't take any credit for that!

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  3. He was angry because he was Viennese. Vienna is a hellhole. Aside from the Venetian room at the art museum. That is clear enough.

    Bernhard turns into a big gooball at the end, doesn't he? What a sap! Please, Mr. Bernhard, don't let Little Nell die!

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    Respuestas
    1. That Dickensian goo surprised me all right, but I actually found it a nice surprise given Little Nell's death wasn't telegraphed in advance or anything (your comment was a hoot, though!). By the way,the Kraus-Kokoschka-Bernhard connections are getting harder to ignore as time goes on. Guess there's an apocalyptic satirist bug/strain in Austrian drinking water or something.

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    2. Apocalyptic - yes. It's in Handke, too, for example. But it's not endemic like in Argentina.

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    3. Handke is a dehumiliation-in-waiting author for me. 2016 maybe? Bah, too much to catch up on, it never stops...

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  4. There is the old joke that Austria's greatest achievement was to convince the world that Beethoven was Austrian and Hitler was German.

    In the 19th century, the Viennese created a culture built around the fine arts. They raised a generation that became either 1) great artists, and great neurotics or 2) Nazi supporters. Later, because the Austrians did not start WWII themselves - no, they were invaded, they were victims! - they could pretend that #2 did not exist while putting #1 in their museums, theaters, and libraries.

    That's why Bernhard - I mean the narrator - is so angry.

    How I love Vienna. How I wish I could live there.

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    Respuestas
    1. While I was kind of kidding about the extent of the "Austrian self-loathing" in my "what Tom says" comment to Miguel above, this latest comment of yours clears the air and then some. Thanks for wording things so nicely. Thanks, too, for sharing that "old joke" about Austria's greatest achievement--I'd never heard that one! Thanks, finally, for reminding me that I really need to make time for Schorske's Fin-de-siècle Vienna one of these days.

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  5. I was reading some Bernhard too this month, but I rather got stuck in your initial opinion. I mean, the vitriol is amusing for a bit.

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    Respuestas
    1. I can relate, of course, but that was the first time that had happened to me with Bernhard. Maybe the insults & vitriol got better in the last 2/3 of the book or something, I'm not reallly sure.

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  6. His memoirs provide ample background to his anger. Harrowing first hand experience of bombings during the war. A school system that tolerates child abuse. Exposure to a lot of suicides in his community. Work apprenticeship in a poverty stricken neighborhood. Near death experience from a sickness. Almost too depressing in its confessions but oddly brilliant for being told in his inimitable style.

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    Respuestas
    1. Thanks for the background info, Rise. I dipped into My Prizes a while back, but I don't remember anything about Bernhard's bio other than what I remember from that (which isn't much).

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  7. My Prizes is the adult confessions of St Bernhard. But the summa of his rant is in his childhood memories in Gathering Evidence.

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    Respuestas
    1. Ah, that explains it then. I had both titles in a twofer version but only got around to reading part of one of 'em.

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  8. I'm glad you found your way into it after a while. It does sound like exquisite rant. Very interesting what Ruse added about the bio. Guess some get depressed, others get angry. Or both.

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    Respuestas
    1. It's a very good rant, Caroline, just maybe not Bernhard's best/most consistent. The info Rise and Tom in particular added through their comments sure makes me glad I posted on the book rather than taking the easy way out and not posting on it. Cheers!

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  9. Rise not Ruse. Where does one turn off the auto- correct?

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  10. I finally broke my Bernhard duck this year with Woodcutters and hope to manage another couple next year. Maybe even finish off the trilogy, knowing that a nice sentimental ending lies in store for me after all the bile. I found it took me a while to get fully into the Bernhard frame of mind. Perhaps because much of the humour depends upon repetition..

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