Sunday, June 22, 2008

A note on James Wood's She's Not Herself

I was intrigued to see James Wood's review of Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances begin with a reference to Georg Büchner's Lenz. By coincidence, I read this astounding story only this morning and am still reeling from the experience. Wood says it is "a harbinger of European modernism" and lists its indirect descendants. From this close, I'd add Nabokov's Signs & Symbols, though Wood's focus is unreliable narrators while mine is ... well, unfocussed. There is one obvious direct descendant: Celan's Conversation in the Mountains but Wood adds another:
[In] the book most obviously indebted to "Lenz," Thomas Bernhard’s devastating novel "The Loser," the narrator labors to convince us that his friend, Wertheimer, is the real "loser," while the reader can see that the poor narrator himself hardly escapes that terrible designation.
While not wishing to be pedantic (well, not all of the time), this interpretation relies on the unfortunate translation of the German original Der Untergeher, which might be translated literally as The Undergoer or The One Who Goes Under. The Loser just doesn't cover it.

Wertheimer's suicide which occurs before the book begins is a form of going-under that he and the narrator saw in the virtuosity of Glenn Gould's playing of the piano. For both, witnessing Gould's sublime talent signalled the end of their own musical careers. In that sense, both are losers. Yet Wertheimer has gone under. The narrator might then be said to be the real loser, thus meeting Wood's interpretation. But he has just written this book, the one we are reading - this sublime, virtuosic novel borne on the failure to go under.

An anorak's aside: James Wood reviewed the translation of The Loser when it was published in Britain back in 1992. As you can see from my annotated image of the clipping, he upset me at the time by calling Bernhard "a drastically limited artist, despite the bloated claims made on his behalf" (Italo Calvino, for instance, called him "the greatest writer in the world"). Oh for more limited artists! We'll have to make do instead with this week's half-dozen-or-so 750-page ambitious novels taking on or tackling the history of the 20th Century.


  1. I've high hopes this year finally for the Great American Novel, and perhaps even the great European Union novel also.

    Any tip for a debut Bernhard read, Stephen?

  2. Anonymous10:42 am

    Hey Steve,

    I'm sure it won't make you very happy (!) but I have an interview with Rivka Galchen over on The Book Depository here:

    The adjectives "ambitious" and "accomplished" so often indicate books that one should studiously avoid...

  3. Anonymous5:32 pm

    "The narrator might then be said to be the real loser, thus meeting Wood's interpretation. But he has just written this book, the one we are reading - this sublime, virtuosic novel borne on the failure to go under."

    I think you're right, but one quibble: the narrator has not written a novel; we take him to be writing a memoir, and it is a memoir that feels like a clawing at the rim of life, an attempt, yes, not to go under. So the rant seems to be a way of staying alive, but it is also a form of self-destruction, a delineation of all that's wrong with the narrator. The narrative does then suggest that he has gone under (or will go under when he puts the pen down), if in a different way than Wertheimer went under. The sublime document, the provisional victory over disintegration, belongs to Bernhard, not the narrator. Not sure this distinction is worth making...A nearly perfect book, regardless.

  4. Anonymous8:44 pm

    Slightly tangential - but I just bought the recent Nabakov collection and look forward to reading the story you have referenced. Good wishes.


  5. Anonymous10:45 pm

    Hm, I received an (unsolicited) advance of Atmospheric Disturbances a couple of months ago and read the first dozen pages or so, before putting it aside on the (to me) very good grounds that the illustrations which pepper the pages were, in this advance edition, just empty squares with the word ART in them. Odd that while, a year or so ago, I considered an advance copy of a novel to be a treat and a privilege, I now more often regard them as a chore and an obligation: and something for which I must find any old excuse to give up on, as soon as possible...

  6. Andrew, I forget to reply to the question: I'd start with "Concrete" as it's the one I started with.

    And LML, you're right I suppose. It's a long while since i read the novel and had to rely on what little I could remember.

  7. Thanks for that. It'll be the next one I order after J Roth's Radetzky's March comes in.



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