Old Masters is Thomas Bernhard’s penultimate novel (and my first foray into the Austrian novelist’s dark, misanthropic world). In it we meet 82 year old Austrian music critic, Reger, who, recently widowed, has arranged to meet with a younger critic, Atzbacher, in Vienna’s Kuntsthistorisches museum. Atzbacher has met with the old critic the previous day, at the Ambassador hotel in Vienna, and is curious to know why Reger wants to meet with him again.
As the novel opens we meet Atzbacher, who has arrived at the museum an hour before the appointed time of the meeting with Reger, and has taken a position in the “so called Sebastiano room” of the museum, so that he can observe, unobtrusively, the old critic—who, Atzbacher knows, will be sitting on a settee in the “so called Bordone room” of the museum, in front of the Tintoretto-painting of a White-Bearded Man, as he apparently has done for the past thirty tears—in profile. The day before, Reger had waxed eloquent about the “so called Tempest Sonnata”, and lectured young Atzbacher on the “Art of the Fugue”.
So the novel begins.
It is hinted that Atzbacher is a philosopher who is working on philosophical work over many years which is yet to be published; indeed Atzbacher, as the reader learns later in the novel, has never published anything. Atzbacher watches Reger, as the old man takes his position on the settee which he has appropriated, over the years, as some sort of personal property, sitting on which he has held many a public court, giving others—Atzbacher included—the benefit of his views on matters ranging from Austrian public lavatories to the Old Masters. Atzbacher watches Reger interacting with Irrsigler, the museum attendant, who is happy to serve as Reger’s personal attendant.
As Atzbacher watches Reger, he remembers his conversation with Reger the previous day in the hotel Ambassador. The reader soon learns that Reger is a man who holds the state of Austria in contempt. It is not, however, just Austria of which the old critic disapproves. Reger’s view of the contemporary culture is dismal. Come to think of it, it is not just contemporary culture that Reger rails against; he does not think highly of the old painters: El Greco is overrated; he can’t even draw a hand properly. That the Kunthistorisches museum does not even have an El Greco is proof enough for Reger of the inferior quality of the museum. (The museum does not have a Goya—a “tougher nut” although he, too, can’t paint a hand, either—who holds a slightly higher place in Reger’s esteem.) The old painters are imperfect. They “tire quickly” if you subject them to close scrutiny (as Reger obviously has done with ‘The White-Bearded Man’, over more than thirty years). They always disappoint if we “make them the ruthless objects of our critical intellect.” The closer we look at them, the more flawed they appear. And they mean nothing to us “in the crucial point of our existence.” They are nothing more than survival artists; their art has the despicable Catholic halo around it, patronised by the brainless Hapsburgs who were essentially anti-culture, and did not understand literature or painting. The Hapsburg promoted music only because they found it harmless. Austrian writers have nothing to say and cannot even write down that they have nothing to say. Their books are rubbish, the products of two or even three generations that never learnt to think. Reger has a visceral hatred for Catholicism (you will not be surprised to learn), as he has for Austria. Austria is a pigmy country, full of coverer-ups of crime, a country full of “congenital opportunist cringers”, and a country in which politicians have committed “murderous frauds”. Austria and Vienna have no culture. The Viennese are as monotonous and lacking in taste as the Germans. You walk through Vienna and all you see is “depressing faces and tasteless clothes.” The newspapers report scandals daily, but their calibre has sunk so low that that in itself is a scandal. Austria is apparently one of the dirtiest country in Europe. Vienna’s pissoirs are the dirtiest in Europe. The Austrians have the vilest characters in Europe; they are masters of deceitfulness. Irrsigler, the museum attendant who has served Reger untiringly over decade is a good man—particularly stupid but also particularly honest and undemanding. Not so his wife, though, with her “hysterical voice and hen like walk.” And he can’t stand Irrsigler’s children, either, who hang on to Reger’s coat-tails like burs.
And so it goes on.
The Old Masters, at almost 250 pages, is a spectacular and never-ending rant, which is presented in one continuous paragraph. (If I remember correctly Updike tried this—writing a novel as one continuous paragraph, in Seek My Face, with insipid results). The passages and sentences progress in loops: certain phrases are repeated—not for emphasis, you get the impression, but to convey the contempt—despair, even—of the narrator. Reger is the main protagonist of the novel, and he has his unique way of expression; however, other, even minor and peripheral characters in the novel sound exactly the same. It is as if there is an invisible omniscient puppeteer is controlling all the characters in the novel. I wasn’t sure even after I reached the end of the novel whether Old Masters was just a dyspeptic rant that represented, well, just that; or whether it was a of very sly commentary on art; or whether it was a (deliberately) skewed animadversion of life. It is, however, not random: you get the feeling that the whole novel is a cleverly and intricately plotted performance. The English translation (translated from German by Ewald Osers) I read was described on its jacket as ‘devilishly funny’. I was, again, not sure that Bernhard meant it as a comedy, even though his prose, style, and the nature of the narrator’s rant makes you wonder whether the narrator really means any of what his rant; and, if he doesn’t, is it all tongue-in-cheek? I wasn’t sure. The only thing I was sure about was that Old Masters was not like any of the novels I had read. I loved it.