‘Old Masters’ by Thomas Bernhard – A Long, Long Rant


‘Old Masters’ by Thomas Bernhard   (1985) – 156 pages            Translated from the German by Ewald Osers


The Austrian fiction author Thomas Bernhard wrote several fictions that have captivated me. ‘Old Masters’ is NOT one of them.

‘Old Masters’ is a sustained rant. We get the outrageous opinions of a bitter eighty-two year old man named Reger who sits in the Bordone Room of the Austrian Kunsthistorisches Museum next to the Tintoretto painting of the White-Bearded Man. Reger’s rants are reported by his friend Atzbacher. Here are a few examples of Reger rant statements:

Velasquez, Rembrandt, Giorgione, Bach, Handel, Mozart, Goethe, he said, just as Pascal, Voltaire, all of them such inflated monstrosities.”

Why do painters paint at all, when there is such a thing as nature? Even the most extraordinary work of art is only a pitiful, totally senseless, and pointless effort to imitate nature, indeed to ape it.”

There are only falsehoods and lies in the books which the so-called great writers have left us, only falsehoods and lies in the paintings which hang on the walls.”

A chaotic rubbish heap, that is what today’s Austria is, this ridiculous pygmy state which drips with self-overestimation and which forty years after the so-called Second World War, has reached its absolute low only as a totally amputated state; this ridiculous pygmy state, where thought has died out and where for half a century now only base state-political dull-wittedness and state-adoring stupidity have reigned, Reger said.”

There have also been long rants by Bernhard characters in some of his other novels which I have admired. Why did I not appreciate the rants in “Old Masters”? I believe it is because I could recognize the thought and wisdom that went into those other rants, and the rants made me question my own views of history and art. However the rants in “Old Masters” are so over-the-top, there is no way that a reader can make any justifications for them. The rants go on for over a hundred pages, It doesn’t help that the novel consists of only one paragraph of densely-packed prose.

As it turns out, there are no intellectual justifications for any of these rants; these are just the ravings of an opinionated bitter old Reger whose wife died, falling on the slippery sidewalk outside the museum. The ambulance arrived way late to pick her up, and the hospital botched his wife’s care, so she died. Reger is left alone, and no art or music or prose, not even the finest, can relieve his loneliness. So he rants.

As for me, I resented being subjected to over a hundred pages of senseless ranting before finding out the reasons for it. By reducing the ranting by a hundred pages or so, “Old Masters” could have made a nice short story.

Thomas Bernhard bills “Old Masters” a comedy, I suppose, because the ranting is so-over-the top.

I would recommend that readers, especially readers new to Bernhard’s work, avoid “Old Masters” and instead read ‘Wittgenstein’s Nephew’, ‘The Loser’, ‘Woodcutters’, or ‘Extinction’.


Grade:    C+




2 responses to this post.

  1. I really liked CONCRETE

    Liked by 1 person


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