Friday, April 16, 2010

book review - Old Masters - Thomas Bernhard

"...basically nothing is more abhorrent to me than these so-called old masters here at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and old masters generally, all old masters, no matter what their names are, no matter what they have painted, Reger said, and yet it is they who keep me alive."

On one level the idea of two men in a gallery, one sitting and the other one watching, sounds about as engaging as watching paint dry. But as the two friends arrange to meet and Atzbacher watches his friend Reger through the door the story of Reger's life and view of the world unfolds.

It is an opinionated view covering music, art and a little bit about human nature. But as the story unfolds it becomes clear that the holder of these views is a far from normal character.

having visited the same Viennese museum for thirty years and having made his way to the same room, sat on the same sofa in front of the same picture he is perhaps someone, who he admits himself, should be considered for a lunatic asylum.

As he prepares to meet Reger at a specified appointment for which he cannot be early for but neither will unpunctuality be accommodated Atzbacher recalls the conversation the friends had the day before.

Reger pontificates about a huge range of subjects but one general theme he has is that most art is not as good as it thinks it is and neither is music. Having sat there looking at the same painting for all those years he has gained what he believes is the calm ability to demolish most art and artists.

But of course the humour here comes from the pretentious way that Reger seems to think that having a column in the Times where he writes about music and having opinions makes him able to comment about things in the way he does.

Using Reger as the example the narrative is able to weave a tale that pops the bubble of pretentious critics, shows them to be inconsistent and vain and leaves you in no doubt that most galleries and music halls are just as full of hot air as they are great paintings and orchestras.

From a reading experience point of view it would have been helpful to have had some chapters to break up the stream of recollections and opinions. But in some senses perhaps that would have broken up the rhythm. Personally I like the breaks that chapters bring.

What you are left with at the end of the experience is perhaps more confidence that given the situation you stumbled across a critic sofa-bound in a gallery you could see through them just a bit more than before.

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