Two Poems by Émile Nelligan, translated by Marc di Saverio

Christ on the Cross

I'd always gaze into this plaster Jesus
pitched like a pardon at the old abbey-door
a black-gestured solemn scaffold
with saintly idolatry I'd bow before.

Now as I sat around at the hour of cricket's play,
in funereal fields, blue-viewedly musing
one near-past night with wind-blown hair, reciting
Eloa, in that swelled esthetic ephebic way,

I noticed near the debris of a wall
the heavy old cross heaped up tall
and crumbled plaster among primroses

and I froze, doleful, with pensive eyes,
and heard spasmodic hammers strike, in me,
the black spikes of my own Calvary. 

The Golden Ship

She was a massive ship, hewn in heavy gold,
with masts that fingered heaven on seas unknown.
Under redundant sun, with scattered hair,
was prowed outspread Venus, bare;

but then one night she hit the huge reef
in waters where the Sirens sing,
and this ghastly shipwreck tilted its keel
to the depths of the chasm, that immutable

tomb. She was a ship of gold, but her diaphanous
flanks showed treasures over which the blasphemous
sailors Psychosis, Spite and Nausea clashed.

So, what has survived this flash of storm?
What about my heart, abandoned ship?
... O, still it sinks, deep in Dream's abyss. 


Marc di Saverio hails from Hamilton, Ontario. His poetry and translations have appeared in such outfits as The Dalhousie Review, Modern Haiku, Haiku Scotland, and Maisonneuve Magazine. Simply Haiku named him one of “the top ten world’s finest living English language haiku poets for the year 2011.” In September 2013, his debut collection, Sanatorium Songs, was published with Palimpsest Press, to critical acclaim. His long poem, The Love Song of Crito Di Volta, will be appearing in October of 2014 with Frog Hollow Press. He is currently translating The Collected Poems of Emile Nelligan, another of which recently appeared in Hazlitt.  "Christ on the Cross" and "The Golden Ship" originally appear in Sanatorium Songs

Émile Nelligan (1879-1941) was a francophone poet from Quebec. Highly influenced by the symbolist poetry of Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire and others, he was a precocious talent and published his first poems in Montreal at the age of 16. He suffered a major psychotic breakdown in 1899 and never finished his first book of poetry, which according to his notes, was to be named The Recital of Angels. His Collected Poems were published in 1903, and his reputation has only grown in the years since. He is now considered a Quebecois literary icon. 

Child Narrators and the Wonder-laced Universe of Ondjaki

How does one write about a period of political strife without falling prey to the ideological trappings of the time? What are the moral implications of writing an effervescent, light-hearted, colourful novel against the backdrop of civil war? And how would one go about 'dexploding' a giant rocket-shaped mausoleum built in honour of former Angolan president Agostinho Neto? For Luandan novelist Ondjaki, the solution to these questions lies in inhabiting the consciousness of the unnamed childhood narrator of Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret, a larger-than-life, inquisitive, and sensitive youth on the brink of self-knowledge with an imagination that is nigh-synaesthesiac. 

M.A. Othofer discusses the many virtues of Ondjaki's child narrator and his wonder-laced universe in The Complete Review, highlighting how he unveils the extraordinary in the quotidian, and how the obliviousness of a child can lead to unique insights about political unrest. "This is, ultimately, a profound novel," writes Othofer, "perhaps a definitive one of collapsing Soviet power and influence in 1980s Africa."

We like to think of Ondjaki as mixing the picaresque tradition of Twain with the eccentric linguistic inventiveness of a Mia Couto or a Clarice Lispector. His novels are peculiar, resting in the very foreign gap between Young Adult and avant-garde fiction, and although he is occasionally characterized as having a kinship with magical realism, Ondjaki had some very interesting things to say on the matter of surrealism and conscious invention with CBC's Paul Kennedy:
Fiction doesn't happen to me, fiction happens in Angola and I happen to be there, and I happen to be born there. Among us, if you find another writer from Angola, you will not hear this comment, "oh that book of yours, what a powerful imagination," no; the question is, where did you see that?!
So one might say that Ondjaki considers himself a reporter from a forgotten realm, a reporter with the eye and soul of a child. And for those of you wondering at the difficulty of his task, the name Ondjaki means "he who faces challenges." In Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret, Ondjaki rises to the occasion, shining a light on a utopic space within a world of disrepair.

"Is that what tales from before were like a long time ago?"
"Yes, son."
"So before is a time, Granma?"
"Before is a place."
"A place really far away?"
"A place really deep inside." 

Wigrum by Daniel Canty: An Excerpt

There is only one way to survive time's war: Depart, leave yourself far behind, rub yourself out of the picture. At dawn, Wigrum will no longer be there. Yet as long as objects will continue to speak in his place, he will be certain of remaining alive. 


This collection presents, in alphabetical order, [a selection of] all the objects connected to the “ordinary collector’s” work. They belong, in fact, to three distinct sets.

The Collection of the Mirror, mentioned in Joseph Stepniac’s preface, contains fourteen objects. Discovered in 1986 at 41 b Regent’s Lane, London, it is unequivocally attributed to Sebastian Wigrum.

The artefacts whose nomenclature is accompanied by a date are part of the Prague Collection. Their descriptions were perhaps written by the metaphorical or human hand of Joseph Stepniac, the first scholar of Wigrumian literature, who vainly applied himself to pastiche his style.

The other objects make up the Excerpts from Patience. This graceful title is possibly the invention of Klára (or Clara). Her name haunts this book and she is also the author of the “Blank Page” entry, found on a postcard of wintery Mount Rainier, in Washington State.

Readers who wish to consult the collection in more depth are invited to read Daniel Canty’s afterword and postcript. Those who wish to untangle the threads of fact from fiction can also rely on the Inventory of the Succession, the index arranged by Leroy Stein at the end of this volume.

- The Publishers


Wigrum: A Partial Selection from the Collection

Claus Dentures
Collection of the Mirror

The dental impression conserved by this cookie is of particular interest. The bite mark was identified in 1899 by Sam Marwinkle of the NYPD as characteristic of the wooden dentures worn in the late eighteenth century.

Three cookies were placed on a plate on the mantelpiece of the Baum domicile in Chittenango, New York, by Lyman Frank, age eight, on Christmas Eve, 1863. There are no fingerprints to substantiate the case, since the traditional glass of milk was left untouched, but one of the cookies was not of the type left by young Lyman Frank.

Twenty years later, Baum evokes the incident in a letter to Dorothea Cramberg of Wichita, Kansas:

These cookies are impossible to find in the Confederation. If Egon, the Norwegian friend I wrote you about, had not sent me a tin for the holidays, I would never have known why I wrote The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. You will agree, I am sure, that this sign—for I consider it as such—is not devoid of character…

Fate's Armament
Collection of the Mirror

This stone was in the possession of a Baptist preacher from the town of  Peterborough, Ontario. It was lodged in the mouth of a possible  suicide, one Mr. Staunton, who was found drowned in his auto- mobile at the bottom of Minnewebake Lake.

The preacher has chosen to remain anonymous. In the winter of 1907, his wife, let us call her Mary, was hit between the shoulder blades with a snow- ball containing this stone. She and her husband had apparently stumbled into a kids’ battlefield.

Shortly thereafter, Mary abandoned the manners that had made her an icon of virtue. Some of the town’s citizens—particularly the men—called her a saint or a witch.

Whether or not he is responsible for Mary’s shocking personality shift, the person guilty of launching this stone has yet to be identified.

October Tape
Collection of the Mirror

This measuring tape was given to Miss Zeno, child prodigy, on her fifth birthday.

Clara Zeno astounded England and Europe in the 1930s with her uncanny measuring ability; with a simple glance she could determine the exact dimensions of any object according to the metric or imperial systems.

When putting her gift to work, Clara would in- tently examine the objects, clutching the rolled-up measuring tape in her right fist.

Mrs. Herménégilde Zeno, a French woman who had crossed the Channel to marry the sea exporter Joseph Zeno, tells how her young daughter would routinely go to the seashore in her native Brighton carrying her measuring tape and come back with a gibberish of measurements chalked up on her slate. Upon her return, she would proudly show her mother her “results,” always maintaining that she was “getting close to a solution.”

Clara disappeared on October 29, 194 4, during a family trip to Land’s End. The tour across Europe had exhausted her and this generally taciturn child had been diagnosed by Dr. Aloysius Tattertale as severely “splenetic.” He had prescribed a trip of rest and relaxation.

The measuring tape was found by Clara’s mother on the beach near their hotel. Until high tide, this message could be read scrawled into the sand, measuring the exact length of the tape, outstretched beneath it as though to underline its significance: “I vanish from the coast of Britain and light out for the October Country.”

Poisoned Spinning Top, 1959
Prague Collection

This top is dangerous. Its gyratory movements augment the effects of a powerful hallucinogen concocted from the muglorian blossom, used by some dying junkies in Tangier in the 1950s.

The effect of the muglorian drug is particular because, to borrow the lingo of this illicit milieu, it starts on a down to end on a high. In this, it is similar to a vaccine or an antivirus. According to some former users, its injection enables them to traverse “The Expanse of the Great Sickness.”

The addict lies on the floor, gives the top a spin at eye level, then injects a hit. Wilhelm Broch, an expatriate who advocated its use with the slogan “Young Boys Need It Special,” said that “its spiral leads out of this world, hooked into the pupil’s depths.” A general muscular relaxation follows, combined with an extreme nervous tension, where the addict expels all bodily fluids through diarrhea, vomiting and ejaculation. During the process, the addict has the sensation their body is being constellated by gelatinous tumours and gradually becomes transparent.

The subject’s identity seems to eventually separate and transfer to the pool of secretions around them, as though constituting a discrete entity. Something then comes loose in their consciousness and the subject begins a strange dialogue with all their internal organs, babbling disjointed phrases, entangling verb tenses and inverting sense. The particular rhythm of these phrases lends them a certain lyrical cohesion. This rhythmic dyslexia is accompanied by a feeling of temporal dislocation, in which the language seems a kind of “machine for folding time.”

The addict sees, in the pool of their fluids, the contours of another world, and the trip ends in a parallel reality, where the invariant properties of time and space have been turned from their course. Feet planted on the edge of the world, swollen with language, the subject, inhabited by an indescribable feeling of plenitude, witnesses certain primordial scenes. The addicts describe transparent beings, huge apes and gnome-like workers in overalls bustling beneath the spiralling sparkle of stars. These accounts are similar to the results of sensory deprivation experiments. At this crossroads of worlds, subjects say they “touch the exact idea of the soul at last.” Then a serpent springs from the void, jaws agape, tongue spiralling, and they let themselves be snatched out of “this spaceless space.”

Wilhelm Broch, guru of the spinning top, had inscribed on the toy’s packaging: “There are subtler bites than those that pierce the flesh. Their invisible poison sinks into us and already we travel out of ourselves and out of the world. It is never too late to know that we are not from here. One day, thanks to you, humanity will wake from the Great Sickness.”

Suicide Pens
Collection of the Mirror

In his New Arabian Nights, Robert Louis Stevenson describes the activities of a London-based suicide club, whose jaded members seal suicide pacts ac- cording to the whims of a game of chance.

Recent evidence proves the existence of this “suicide club.” A sheaf of exhaustive minutes from their meetings, describing dozens of sordid suicide plans, was unearthed by Scotland Yard’s agents in an  abandoned building overlooking the Thames in front of their offices. These documents were instrumental in solving several unexplained deaths amongst London’s elite.

Used pen nibs were found with the documents; the razor blade a reminder that the last page was signed in blood.

The club’s members seem to have terminated their activities in the early 1920s.

Unpoppable Bubble
Excerpts from Patience

A bubble is a surface curved around a void, distended with the least resistance. This bubble is particular as, until proven otherwise, it is unpoppable. While it hasn't yet been tested by a direct pinprick, its perfectly balanced elasticity resists a pin’s touch.

Its origin goes back to Archimedes’s “Eureka!” which brought him out of his bath with his finger enthusiastically raised. Archimedes, carried away by his discovery of the principle of buoyancy, didn't notice the bubble’s durability. It is thanks to the Pythagoreans that it has come down to us. Informed by a servant, who was a member of their cult, of the unpoppable bubble’s existence in the master’s bathroom, they stole it. They regarded it as a violation of the natural law, the perfect geometry that made up ideal thought, whose image they strove to preserve on earth.

The bubble likely passed down from generation to generation, like a Grail, in the hands of various closed orders. In the seventeenth century, it reappeared in one of the bathrooms of King Leopold of Prague, who amused himself by bouncing it between his fingers, reflecting out loud: “Nature is indolent, yet it is constantly renewing its efforts. Science stands on the tip of a pin. The house of knowledge is challenged by a bubble’s integrity.”1 It was pilfered from the pedestal where he used to set it after his baths, and returned, like waste water, to the subterranean sewers.

The signal of this bubble, approximately two centimetres in diameter with a bronze complexion of ancient marrow soap, circulated amongst the most passionate followers of bubble baths. Many are those who go for a quick dip with amplified alertness, in fear of inadvertently breaking this perfect bubble, their hope for a new revelation.

1 Příroda je líná, ale znovu a znovu obnovuje své úsilí. Věda visí na hlavičce hřebíku. Konstrukce vědění stojí na bezúhonnosti bubliny.


Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei 
Originally published in French by Le Peuplade, published in English by Talonbooks

Daniel Canty is a Montreal-based writer and film director who works in literature, film, theatre and design, and new media. Canty collaborated with the pioneering multimedia studio DNAMedia, in Vancouver, and directed the inaugural issues of Horizon Zero, the Banff New Media Institute’s web space on the digital arts in Canada.
Canty’s first book, Êtres Artificiels (Liber, 1997), is a history of automata in American literature. From 2002 to 2005, Canty co-directed the poetry magazine C’est Selon. He has devised three award-winning collaborative books: Cité selon (2006), on the city; La Table des Matières (2007), on eating; and Le Livre de Chevet (2009), on sleeping. He has also translated books of poetry by Stephanie Bolster, Erin Moure, Charles Simic, and Michael Ondaatje.
Canty has directed several short films. His latest, Longuay (2012), melds the gaze of an ancient French abbey with that of a tablet computer, while Cinema for the Blind (2010) lets the audience slip into oneiric depths behind the cinema screen. Canty also conceives poetic interfaces for the Web and live interaction; he built Bruire (2013), an architectural poetry-reciting machine, and wrote the libretto for Operator (2012), an alphanumeric automata by Mikko Hynninen presented at Lux Helsinki.

Copyright 2011 by Daniel Canty and Le Peuplade
Translation copyright 2013 by Oana Avasilichioaei
Drawings copyright 2011 by Estela López Solis

A Scrupulous Fidelity: Douglas Glover on Thomas Bernhard's The Loser

The Man and His Books 

Thomas Bernhard is dead. He had a terrible life, at least the early part. He was born in Holland where his Austrian mother had fled to escape the shame of her unwanted pregnancy. He never knew his father who died far away and in obscurity (and obscure circumstances). His mother mistreated him because of the shame he represented. Back in Austria he wanted to be an opera singer and studied music but caught a cold working at a menial job to make ends meet; the cold turned into tuberculosis. He was hospitalized repeatedly, his treatment was bungled, he was given up for dead, and survived just to prove how stupid his doctors were. Since opera-singing was out, he became a writer. He became a famous writer of deadpan, mordant, hilarious, difficult (modernist) novels and plays that often portray depressed characters with lung diseases. 

The full version of this essay appears in
Douglas Glover's Attack of the Copula Spiders
and was featured in The Brooklyn Rail
Another common theme is Bernhard’s disgust with his native Austria which he continually berated for its Nazi past, its stupidity, sentimentality, and philistinism. In his will he stipulated that none of his works could ever be published in Austria. Paradoxically he rarely left Austria and lived quietly in a country retreat outside of Vienna (many of his characters live in country retreats outside of Vienna). 

Despite the fact that he seemed to put himself in every one of his novels, little is known about his intimate life. He wrote a five-volume memoir, Gathering Evidence, which is quite beautiful but, as all memoirs are, unrevealing. His first biographer somehow managed to discover that he liked to masturbate while watching himself in the mirror. This is both comic and significant; over and over Bernhard presents his narrators as characters watching themselves think about themselves. In fact, his narrators seem more interested in watching themselves think about themselves than in telling the story which often seems, upon analysis, more of an occasion for baroque invention than an end in itself. Reading Bernhard one is often reminded of the American experimentalist John Hawkes who once famously said: 
My novels are not highly plotted, but certainly they’re elaborately structured. I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting, and theme . . . structure—verbal and psychological coherence—is still my largest concern as a writer. Related or corresponding event, recurring image and recurring action, these constitute the essential substance or meaningful density of my writing. (Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, 1965) 
Bernhard’s narrators contradict themselves, digress, fall into hyperbolic rants that go on for pages, repeat themselves, and obsess, trapped, as it were, in a logorrheic paralysis. He writes whole books in one paragraph, eschews quotation marks, doesn’t mind run-on sentences, changes tense without reason, and italicizes words apparently at random. Above all he is ironic, and the reader can never be sure whether Bernhard means what he says or is joking around. And, paradoxically, when he is just joking around, he is also being deadly serious. This is very puzzling to the reader accustomed to contemporary market-based sentimental realism (make no mistake: we are in a Tea Party Lit trough these days, driven by politics, recession and the cultural terror inspired by the digital revolution), the kind of fiction that tells a story about real characters we can identify with and scenes we can recognize, the kind of novel North Americans have come to expect, and, when they write, to write. In contrast Bernhard’s characters are almost all clownishly self-obsessed, suicidal artists with lung diseases who cannot seem to tell a story straight. 

The Recession of Narrators 

Thomas Bernhard’s novel The Loser is the story of three aspiring concert pianists—Glenn Gould (drawn from real life), an Austrian pianist named Wertheimer (the notional protagonist) and the unnamed narrator—who become friends in 1953 in Salzburg while studying piano with the great Horowitz. Wertheimer and the narrator have dedicated their lives to becoming piano virtuosos, but one day they chance to overhear Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations and his genius destroys them. Gould gracelessly adds insult to injury by calling Wertheimer a loser; Wertheimer is the loser of the novel’s title. 

The narrator abandons the piano almost immediately; eventually he ends up living in Madrid writing a book called About Glenn (which he periodically destroys and starts again). But Wertheimer has a much more torturous unravelling. For years he keeps playing, unable to abandon his dream. Finally he sells his beloved Steinway and begins writing a book he also keeps destroying and re-starting; this book is called, yes, The Loser. At the same time he works off his disappointment in an abusive, quasi-incestuous relationship with his sister (the whole novel has Poe-ish overtones). Somehow the sister manages to escape Wertheimer’s clutches, marrying a wealthy Swiss industrialist. Shortly after hearing that Glenn Gould has died suddenly of a stroke at the young age of 51, Wertheimer takes a train to Switzerland and hangs himself in front of his sister’s house. 

This is the skeletal story, the novel’s bones, all told as thoughts and memories (not present-time forward-moving plot) through the point of view of the overwrought narrator who is, yes, writing about himself thinking about himself, the other characters, and the story of the novel in a farrago of anecdote, rant, digression, repetition, aphorism, and paradox while also planning to destroy the book he is writing—in a sense the book you are reading doesn’t even exist. 
. . . today I write down this nonsense which I dare tell myself is essayistic, to use this hated word once again on my way to self-destruction, I write down these essayistic remarks, which in the end I will have to curse and tear up and thus destroy, and not a single person knows anymore that I myself once played the Goldberg Variations, though not as well as Glenn Gould. . . . 
All the while, nothing happens: for the first 115 pages of the 170-page novel, the narrator describes himself standing alone in the front room of an inn thinking. Bernhard emphasizes the narrator’s act of thinking-and-not-acting (logorrheic paralysis as a metonym for existential paralysis; the word “paralyzed” recurs relentlessly throughout the novel) to the point of self-parody: 
The Steinway, I thought while standing in the inn and looking about, was aimed against my family.

Glenn’s death had hit him very hard, he said, I thought while standing in the inn.

That certainly wasn’t correct, I thought now in the inn.

[This is the end of the 115-page scene and the beginning of the next scene. The comma splice is the author’s and is typical of his run-on dramatic transitions.] The so-called bottom line is he killed himself, not I, I thought, I was just picking up my suitcase from the floor to put it on the bench, when the innkeeper walked in. (115) 
The narrator has actually come to the inn on a whim, out of curiosity, at least that’s how he describes it at first. The notional present-time plot of the novel presents the narrator thinking about the main plot, the past, in the hours following Wertheimer’s hasty funeral in Switzerland. Traveling back to Vienna from the funeral, the narrator has made an impulsive decision to get off the train at a rural station near Traich, Wertheimer’s hunting lodge. He wants to search through Wertheimer’s papers before the sister or anyone else conceals or destroys them, believing that those papers hold some secret about Glenn Gould that he can use in his own book. But later in the novel the narrator reveals a more sinister and damning reason for his quest. 
If a friend dies we nail him to his own sayings, his comments, kill him with his own weapons . . . We exploit his unpublished papers in order to destroy even more the one who left them to us . . . We plunder everything that can be used against him in order to improve our situation. 
The first 115 pages of the text, as I say, present the narrator alone in the inn. The next 30 pages present various conversations with the innkeeper (she was Wertheimer’s lover), including some details of an undignified and uncharacteristic flood of parasitic guests at Traich just prior to the suicide. Then it takes 14 pages for the narrator to walk from the inn to Traich. And finally the last 13 pages of the novel take place at Traich, the narrator in conversation with Franz, the woodsman, who tells the story of Wertheimer’s final weeks: Wertheimer, the loner, had a piano delivered from Vienna and invited a crowd of “artists” to come and stay; then he proceeded to drive them out of the house with his incessant, incompetent piano-playing; they destroyed his furniture, drank his booze, and then he finally paid for taxis to take them back to Vienna. 

In the last lines of the book the narrator asks Franz for some time alone in Wertheimer’s room. The papers and notes have all been burned (Wertheimer and Franz did this together); what remains is Gould’s famous recording of the Goldberg Variations, still on the turntable where Wertheimer had left it when he went off to kill himself. 

Thus before we even get to the details of Bernhard’s rhetorical pyrotechnics we discover an immense amount of action on the structural level. There are, to begin with, three representational tempos: 1) the narrator writing the book which he ultimately expects to destroy; 2) the notional present which comprises most of the text, the narrator thinking as he waits in the inn, talks to the innkeeper and visits Traich; and 3) the recollected narrative of Wertheimer’s manie de perfection and its comic-tragic aftermath. This technique of the receding point of view is not uncommon; Joseph Conrad uses a variant in “Heart of Darkness” as does Cervantes in Don Quixote; it parodies the naïve point of view structure commonly deployed in so-called realistic novels and ironizes the concept of point of view in general— it is the literary version of the philosophical paradox of the subject that cannot be an object to itself. 

Stressed Form and the Duplication of Plot 

Superimposed on this temporal grid are at least three plots: 1) the surface plot of the narrator’s ultimately failed quest for Wertheimer’s papers at Traich—this plot being the occasion or the pretext for the narrator’s re-thinking of the past; 2) the main plot, beginning 28 years earlier, in which Glenn Gould’s genius crushes Wertheimer’s desire to be a “piano artist” and drives him to his eventual suicide; and 3) what I call the shadow plot, the vindictive story of the narrator’s own disintegration and his passive-aggressive role in Wertheimer’s death revealed as a Lacanian excess in his transparent snobbery, denial, self-justification, and outrageous tirades. 
As always I was exaggerating now too, and to my own mind it was disturbing to suddenly hear myself call Wertheimer the tormentor and destroyer of his sister, I thought, I always behave this way with others, unjustly, even criminally. 
You can imagine main plot and the shadow plot as two congruent triangles: Gould thwarts Wertheimer, and Wertheimer deflects his animus onto his innocent sister (scapegoating is a common theme in Bernhard’s novels) just as the narrator (also suffering a mania for perfection, also thwarted) torments Wertheimer— 
I only visited Wertheimer in Traich to destroy him, to disturb and destroy him . . . 
—forever bringing the conversation around to Glenn, reminding Wertheimer of Glenn, forcing the reluctant Wertheimer to visit Glenn in New York (where Glenn calls him a loser again). At the end, when Wertheimer needs him the most, the narrator refuses to answer his letters. 
. . . my bad conscience, which was still troubled by the fact that I hadn’t answered Wertheimer’s letters, had more or less ignominiously abandoned him. . . . 
Ultimately the narrator destroys Wertheimer by writing about him. The narrator’s version of Wertheimer is a loser; a weak, indecisive, unoriginal cypher who tries to model himself on, of all people, the narrator. “Weak characters never turn into anything but weak artists,” says the narrator, and “Wertheimer confirms that theory absolutely.” 

The Loser, so well known for its irregularities, is a surprisingly good example of the traditional novel devices of character grouping and gradation and plot and subplot, albeit so forced and exaggerated as to make them instances of what I call stressed form; that is, the form is stressed to the point of implausibility. The three principles—Gould, Wertheimer, and the narrator—are all graded variations of the same character. All three want to be piano virtuosos: Gould represents the limit, the absolute artist whose ambition, skill and focus have carried him beyond the merely human piano artist; Wertheimer and the narrator are similar versions of remarkable but merely human accomplishment. They all have that lung disease, they’re all wealthy men, they all have country homes (Gould’s is just outside New York), they all stop playing the piano (Gould, of course, famously stopped playing public concerts and retreated to the recording studio). Wertheimer and the narrator are both would-be suicides, they both end up writing books they cannot finish and will ultimately destroy; Gould and Wertheimer die at almost the same moment, though for different reasons. 
In other words their plot trajectories are parallel, almost identical in parts but with significant variation. In fact a good deal of Bernhard’s comedy derives from his deadpan, obsessive forcing of the conventions of the well-made novel to the point of absurdity. He concentrates less on plot and psychological plausibility than on the extraordinary duplication and reduplication of situation, character and action (stressed form). His constant trope is hyperbole—and you know he is playing with technique as absurdity when he gives that lung disease, which is really his own lung disease, to the innkeeper as well (in this example, the narrator and the author momentarily are identical— another little game Bernhard plays with his reader). 
The innkeeper once had a lung disease like mine, I thought, like me she was able to squeeze this lung illness out of her, liquidate it with her will to live. 

Irony, or the Double Sign of Difficulty 

Except for the first page, as I say, the entire novel consists of one paragraph of character thought, a single, unstoppable column of prose weaving in and out of content topics, plot and figure and trope, without a discrete stop along the way (Bernhard will even shift from one content stream to another on a comma in the middle of a sentence, with no logical or grammatical transition), so that it is all a trope, an image, oddly fragmented but with the fragments glued back together such that it resembles the thought-ravings of a madman who cannot control the logorrheic flow, not even minimally by breaking it into conventional logical segments called paragraphs. 

Over and over, the reader senses that the narrator is thinking fast to prevent himself from thinking, his thoughts always implying an excess they dare not express (although the narrator does let slip many very clear pointers). The entire text is framed within an implied conflict—the narrator’s resistance to a truth he cannot face—and this conflict propels the text forward with a mysterious urgency. The desperate, compulsive, and transparently self-serving if not delusional nature of the narrator’s thoughts in turn motivates the stressed form characteristic of the prose. Hysteria motivates hyperbole. The mechanical elaborations of grammatical yoking are desperate attempts on the part of the narrator to appear logical and analytical even as he is constantly dropping into spiraling word repetitions, fugue stops, digressions, and self-revealing tirades. 

But the disorder is only a semblance of disorder. It looks like a verbal torrent, the delirium of a madman, which of course it is meant to resemble in some superficial and theatrical sense, a deranged dramatic monologue (of thought), when in fact it is also artfully controlled, patterned and symmetrical (right down to the substandard Ehrbar piano the narrator plays as a child which returns at the end of the novel as the rented, “horribly untuned” Ehrbar Wertheimer plays for his travesty concert), art as symptom or symptom as art (repetition is a pattern of art and also of dream and neurosis), super-controlled (such an Austrian trait) and at the same time in tension with its own apparent haphazardness and compulsivity. 

Hyperbole and absurdity subvert every aspect of Bernhard’s novel; hyperbole is the constant marker for irony, the double sign that destroys the fictional facade of plausibility and univocal meaning and points to a second meaning that is absent in the text. This is the ultimate moment of ambiguity and difficulty, the text announcing that it doesn’t mean what it says it means. 

There are reasons for this difficulty, this incomprehensibility. One reason (perhaps the least interesting) is political, the collapse of trust in the German language shared by almost all thinking writers of German after the Second World War. This is perhaps true in spades for Austrian writers, coming from a country whose unforced complicity in that Nazi horror show is still denied. How do you write the truth in a language of lies (when the Nazi statues are so huge they can’t be moved out of the cultural house)? The answer is that you draw attention to the corruption of the German language by writing in corrupt, unbeautiful, incorrect, unclear German. You use language to attack itself. If language cannot express the truth, the secret horror at the back of history, then you write in a way that draws attention to the paradox of writing in a language that cannot write the truth—in so doing, you somehow draw attention to, implicate, limn, the truth. 

A second reason for incomprehensibility is philosophical. Kant drew a line between the real world and the world of existence (where we live): absolutes, God, the Good, Beauty and Truth on one side of the line; science, but also fallible humans, uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt on the other. All so-called knowledge is limited to the phenomenal or existential world, all knowledge is human; that is, as Kant wrote, “It must be possible for the ‘I think’ to accompany all my representations”—The Loser reads as if Bernhard assimilated this sentence and made it his stylistic talisman. But paradoxically even the conscious subject, the person who thinks, cannot appear to itself as an object; the heart cannot know its reasons. 

The great Viennese (wealthy, Jewish, neurasthenic, suicidal) philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein drew the noose even tighter by defining language as a limiting concept; ultimately language cannot speak the truth but can only talk about itself, play with itself (pun intended). Modern philosophy after Kant is famously difficult stylistically, mainly because philosophers have had to work around the central problem that, by definition, they cannot talk about what they are talking about. 

Difficulty and incomprehensibility become aesthetic virtues after Kant (perhaps not what he intended); clarity and formal neatness are marks of fantasy or prevarication. Hence the tradition of German Romanticism, a paradoxical aesthetic based on the impossibility of creating beauty. What goes for beauty (in novels, paintings, symphonies) are only failed attempts to create beauty, which is otherworldly, unconditioned, absolute, sublime (in the Kantian sense) and beyond language. German Romanticism is a hyper-realist aesthetic in the sense that it values works of art that represent their own inevitable failure. In contrast to the ideal of classical unity, it values fragments, digressions, interruptions, mixed forms, incompleteness, difficulty, and, above all, irony. 

Friedrich Schlegel famously defended difficulty in his essay “On Incomprehensibility,” which is really an essay about the role of irony in a post-Kantian literature. Irony in its original form comes in two basic varieties: 1) Socratic irony which is the cunning use of dissimulation to make a point; and 2) the ancient Greek dramatic device of parabasis, the moment when the chorus turns away from the other actors and addresses the audience directly. Irony is that moment in a text when the author glances up at the reader and says, You realize, of course, that this isn’t real, that what I put on the page is not what I mean. (Always the literalist, Plato condemned Ironists at the same time as Sophists and Poets.) To German Romantics, the novel is the great modern example of ironic form, and the novel tradition out of which they write begins with Cervantes’ Don Quixote (a book about an insane person, about 50, in a quest for the absolute) and descends through Laurence Sterne and Denis Diderot, the masters of digression, delay and self-parody. 

“A Scrupulous Fidelity” 

About his own ironic style Jacques Derrida once wrote, “I have this attitude that some people must have perceived as double, of emancipation, revolt, irony, and at the same time a scrupulous fidelity.” It is to this aspect of “scrupulous fidelity” we must now attend. 

The Loser is very much a novel-as-performance, both image and allegory, more image than discursive thought yet very much a novel of ideas with the ideas implicit in the structure, action, and style. Besides the aesthetics of German Romanticism The Loser reflects a conception of art inherited from Schopenhauer—especially Schopenhauer’s notion that art itself is the intermediary between the supra-sensory and the merely human, that in creating or correctly appreciating great art we enter an eternal realm of Platonic Ideas (Beauty, God, or even Being in Heidegger’s sense) and leave the tawdry realm of existence behind (what Bernhard’s narrator calls “the existence machine”). 

The Loser fictionalizes the European version of nostalgia for Being (the American version is a retreat to fundamentalist Christianity) and a sense of living in a fallen existential world. It presents three men whose goal is to become transcendent artists; one succeeds, the other two fail, and their psychomachia is rather a soul-unmaking or disintegration leading to paralysis and the one authentic act left, suicide. Glenn Gould is the virtuoso, the genius, the perfect instrument. Albeit, he is also unconsciously cruel and a buffoon. But there are passages in The Loser where the irony seems to lift and some deeper reality is revealed. 
The second he [Gould] sat down at the piano he sank into himself, I thought, he looked like an animal then, on closer inspection like a cripple, on even closer inspection like the sharp-witted, beautiful man that he was. 
Gould is only perfect, only beautiful (and nothing else in the novel is described as “beautiful”) when he is playing. This is the hierophantic moment, the ur-moment to which Bernhard returns throughout the novel, starting with the scene in Salzburg, when the narrator and Wertheimer overhear Gould playing the Goldberg Variations and are destroyed, and repeating (insisting) through to the novel’s close, the Goldberg Variations on the record player, the narrator alone in Wertheimer’s empty bedroom at Traich. 

The way Bernhard distorts the facts of Gould’s death makes thematic sense, having him die of a stroke at “the perfect moment”, that is, while playing the Goldberg Variations instead of, as was in fact the case, during his sleep. Gould achieves transcendence through his art, he goes “beyond the limit” and attains “the inhuman state”; the narrator and Wertheimer meanwhile fail, dazzled, paralyzed, crippled by fear, and caught in what the narrator calls the existential trap. The Loser is all aftermath, a narrative of disintegration, laced with transparent self-hatred, denial, and resentment, obsessively circling back on itself, always returning to the ur-moment, the fatal confrontation with genius. Having attempted to reach the heights, they fall back into the crippled world of the merely human, Kant’s phenomenal world, imperfect, ambiguous, clouded. 
We look at people and see only cripples, Glenn once said to us, physical or mental or mental and physical, there are no others, I thought. The longer we look at someone the more crippled he appears to us. . . . The word is full of cripples. 
Every great novel possesses a mysterious flickering quality, the on/off light of irony, that conceals and reveals its moment of fidelity. The Loser presents the image of the fallen world (Kierkegaard’s “present age”) haunted by the idea of goodness, tormented by beauty, a losers’ world, a metaphoric Land of the Dead where only conditional motives and mediated relationships are possible, ruled by language and the Imaginary, where people are trapped in a relation of reflexive creation. Like Hegel’s master and slave the narrator and Wertheimer (Wertheimer and his sister) need each other in order to exist, and that relation can easily be reduced to the negative: I need to crush him in order to exist just as he needs to crush me in order to exist. 

But the image of a fallen world implies its opposite; this is the mimetic paradox. Bernhard riddles out the unseen world of the Absolute, of Beauty and the Good, in the narrator’s contorted prose. The style is a vehicle for meaning, the prose contorted because it is reaching beyond the limit of language. In the end, we can only imagine through art what it might be like to have perfect clarity of action and thought, to be Glenn Gould.


Douglas Glover's bestselling novel Elle won the Governor General's Award for fiction and was a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His stories have been frequently anthologized, notably in The Best American Short Stories, Best Canadian Stories, and The New Oxford Book of Canadian Stories. In 2006 Glover was awarded the Writers' Trust of Canada Timothy Findley Award for his body of work. He lives in upstate New York and is on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program.