Sunday, September 8, 2013

Schiele perhaps

"... I have only twice been to the Regers' flat on the Singerstrasse, a ten- or twelve-room flat in a building of the turn of the century, which now, after the death of Reger's wife, belongs to Reger. Filled with the furniture of his wife's family, the Regers' flat on the Singerstrasse is a fine example of a so-called art nouveau flat, with actually masses of Klimts and Schieles and Gerstls and Kokoschkas hanging on the walls, all of them pictures my wife valued greatly, as Reger said on one occasion, but which always profoundly repelled me. Every single room in the Regers' Singerstrasse flat had been transformed into a real work of art about the turn of the century by a famous Slovak artist in wood, I do not really believe that there is another flat in Vienna, where Slovak woodwork art has been applied with such skill or with such very high demands of craftsmanship or so totally successfully, dear Atzbacher. Reger himself, as he keeps saying, does not in the least appreciate the so-called art nouveau style, he detests it, because the whole of the art nouveau style is nothing but kitsch but, as he kept saying, he enjoyed the cosiness of the Singerstrasse flat of his wife, the réussis proportions of all the rooms in it, above all the dimensions of his study, but since, as mentioned before, he had no taste whatever for the so-called art nouveau style, he always appreciated only the comfort of the Singerstrasse flat, which had always been ideal for the two of us, but not its furnishings. On my first visit to the Regers' Singerstrasse flat, when Reger received me because his wife had gone to Prague, he conducted me briefly through the whole flat, this then is where I exist, he said then, you see, here in these rooms, which suit me eminently, even though this hideous uncomfortable furniture is not to my taste at all. All this is my wife's taste, not mine, Reger said then, and when I looked at the paintings on the walls he would say time and again, ah yes, this I believe is a Schiele, ah yes, this I believe is a Klimt, ah yes, this I believe is a Kokoschka. Turn-of-the-century painting is nothing but kitsch and has no appeal for me, he said several times, whereas my wife has always been attracted by it, even if not actually fascinated, but attracted, that is the right expression, Reger said. Schiele perhaps, but not Klimt; Kokoschka yes, Gerstl no, these were his observations. Reputedly Loos, reputedly Hoffmann, he said, when I said surely this table was by Adolf Loos, surely this chair was by Josef Hoffmann. You know, Reger said, I have always been repelled by things which are fashionable at the moment, and Loos and Hoffmann are so fashionable now that quite naturally I am repelled by them. And Schiele and Klimt, those kitsch-mongers, are the height of fashion today, which is why Klimt and Schiele basically so repel me. People nowadays listen predominantly to Webern and Schoenberg and Berg and those who ape them, and also to Mahler, that repels me. Anything in fashion has always repelled me. Most probably I also suffer from what I call art selfishness: where art is concerned I wish to have everything for myself alone, I want to posses my Schopenhauer for myself, my Pascal, my Novalis and my fervently loved Gogol, I alone want to possess these art products, these inspired artistic eccentricities, I alone want to possess Michelangelo, Renoir, Goya, he said, I can scarcely bear the thought that someone else, apart from me, possesses and enjoys the products of these geniuses, the very idea is unbearable to me that, apart from me, another person even appreciates Janáček, or Martinů or Schopenhauer or Descartes, I find this almost unbearable, I want to be the only one, that of course is a dreadful attitude, Reger said then. I am a possessive thinker, Reger said in his flat then. I should like to think that Goya painted only for me, that Gogol and Goethe wrote only for me, that Bach composed only for me. As this is a fallacy and moreover a piece of abysmal meanness I am basically always unhappy, I am sure you understand, Reger said then, when I read a book I still have the feeling and the belief that the book was written for me alone, when I view a picture I have the feeling and the belief that it was painted only for me, or that the composition I hear was composed only for me. Naturally I read myself and listen and view myself into a great error, but I do so with very great enjoyment, Reger said then."

– from The Old Masters : a Comedy by the 20th century's most ostentatiously misanthropic writer, Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989). The novel originally appeared in German as Alte Meister in 1985, with the following epigraph 

The punishment matches the guilt: to be deprived
of all appetite for life, to be brought to the
highest degree of weariness of life


*          *          * 

Thomas Bernhard made a career out of despising the culture of Austria, his native country. His scorn was rewarded with many literary prizes and heaps of money, but he refused to be appeased.

Ewald Oser's English translation, The Old Masters appeared in 1989, the same  year Bernhard died (at the woefully early age of 58). Perhaps his only true peer in the post-War, postmodern generation of German-language writers was W.G.Sebald, who died suddenly at 57 in 2001. Unlike the massively popular Sebald, Thomas Bernhard's fiction-in-translation has attracted few fans. Yet Oser's English version has been kept in print now for 25 years, thanks to the stubbornly high standards (and long-accumulated commercial power) of the University of Chicago Press.