It might easily have never happened. Whatever impulse it is that seems to either grant us free will or creates the illusion might never have twitched within me. But twitch it did, and so I entered the Anker — the ubiquitous chain bakery of Austria — and bought myself a Punschkrapfen. I don’t think I even knew it was a Punschkrapfen until I read the label set before the bright pink cube of fondant covered cake beneath the perspex counter. I bought one and took it at onto the street and ate it at once, like an apple. I did not anticipate how sweet, dense, and heavy it would be. It would have been impossible to anticipate. I felt like I was doing something indecent in public. Had I not been in Europe, then undoubtedly I would have been.
Barbenheimer is happening. But I’m not in the cinema watching either movie. I’m not on Twitter or any of the socials so I’m not even able to get the takes as they come in. I’m a beachcomber, picking up lumps of discourse as they wash up along the shore of the New York Times and New Yorker. Reading a review by a professional critic, like a shark that is entirely aware that the prehistoric world it belongs to is long gone, yet persists being a shark, nonetheless. Instead of cinema, instead of the film du jour, I’m reading The Radetzsky March by Joseph Roth, and it’s great. One dramatic conceit after another in a world pre-bomb and pre-Barbie.
A Thomas Bernhard novel would feel like a singular reading experience, had I not read two in a row. The Loser overlaps so heavily in style, substance, theme, and even detail with Wittgenstein’s Nephew that I felt somewhat disoriented; Wittgenstein’s Nephew was supposed to be the autobiographical one, and The Loser, I assumed, the work of some old fashioned fiction. But both fact and fiction are drawing from the same well.
The narrator of The Loser once set his sights on becoming a piano virtuoso, but arrives at the brink of such an achievement in the company of none other than Glenn Gould, real life “most important piano virtuoso of the century” and decides there is little point in even trying. He sells his piano and begins a twenty-seven year “deterioration process”. His friend Wertheimer did likewise only to go as far as to ultimately commit suicide. It’s a little intense.
At least there is the afterward so at least I could reorient myself with the fact that Bernhard himself had spent time pursuing his own “piano radicalism”, studying at the Musik-Akademie in Vienna, and in terms of age was a close contemporary of Gould. The afterword explains that the novel is a love story, which I think is the kind of ironic take that is both enlightening and obviously too cute. I also discovered the following paragraph:
In a way, what Bernhard says about art in The Loser is what stopwatches say about sport: there are winners and there are losers. He scratches at Austria’s dark history but does not say: there are stringer and more gifted specimens of humanity. However, he situates his three music students in a house once occupied by a Nazi sculptor. He has Gould laugh and laugh and hurl a bottle of champagne at the head of one of the artist’s remaining marble hulks. There is a contrapuntal Mobius strip of the `idealized’ at work here. Bernhard does not appear to believe in winners — certainly not the triumphal kind.Afterword to The Loser — Leanne Shapton
Contrapuntal means for something to be in counterpoint. In music, this takes the form of two or more independent melodic lines. I Googled it. I did not have to Google what a Mobius strip is because I am a mathematician with a specialization in topology. I have been places with Mobius strips, but I have no idea what the fuck that sentence means. You can remove the sentence from the paragraph and then it becomes clear that there is some bridge missing from the first half of the paragraph to the conclusion being reached in the rest of the paragraph. If that Mobius strip sentence is supposed to be that bridge, you would think I — of all people — might have some intuitive sense of how the bridge offered could be traversed. And I guess everyone else involved in the process that brought the paragraph to the press, to the page, to the bookstore, and into my hands in Vienna simply assumed it made sense. How the fuck can a Mobius strip be contrapuntal?
The streets of Vienna are graced by the works of a particularly distinguished graffiti artist. Their work is immediately identifiable. It isn’t the usual typographical fare, nor the sweeping lines and sharp angles of spray can work, nor even the uniformity of stencils. With nothing more than a thick black permanent marker, the profile has become the stand out feature of the city floor gallery, with all the ligne claire flaire I’d hope for from a European.
I’ve been photographing as I stumble across them. The typical canvas is the metal cover of what I guess is electronic plumbing and possible electric meter in the entrance ways to apartment complexes. Two portraits I have found have had words put in their mouths: nicht unser kreig — not our war. Presumably a statement against European support and involvement in Ukraine. I don’t believe they were the sentiments of the original artist. Nor reflective of the general mood on the street. I saw plenty of Fuck Putin stenciled about.
I am now halfway through Bernhard’s The Loser. I find a lot about the novel confounding. It is another single paragraph inner monologue — to say a diatribe or rant would be accurate — of a would-have-been piano virtuoso who abandoned his aspirations and potential after encountering, and befriending, the Real Life piano genius of Glenn Gould. He muses on the suicide of a mutual friend, who similarly abandoned music. It is full of opinions that, judging by Wittgenstein’s Nephew, are aligned with Bernhard’s own, yet at the same time the narrator betrays himself as a reactionary blowhard in ways that suggest Bernhard is probing darker depths.
Actually, I want to take back my remark about the novel being confounding. The novel is certainly confounding in certain ways, but what really confounds me is that this is the Great Viennese Author whose books are stacked high in Shakespeare and co. It isn’t obvious to me how this happened; I’m not complaining or suspicious or irritated. Maybe I’m pleasantly surprised. But how did this happen?
When I approach the end of a book, I typically turn to Goodreads, for the spectacle of the one or two star reviews. The reviewers often write with the kind of freedom that gives the internet it’s unique flavor — is insulting celebrities on social media is really not so different from leaving The Scarlett Letter a 1-star and dismissing it as “boring and pretentious writing”? But something about the nature of Bernhard’s novel made me suspicious of anyone giving this 5-stars. Surely such a reviewer must be captive to critical consensus and received opinion.
Well, I thought I might reach out and make contact with such a reviewer, to see what they had to say. (I’m now writing long after I first wrote this diary entry. Most of these entries are heavily edited, in any case.) I went through the top 5-star reviewers, only to find them unreachable. The first reviewer who wasn’t was rather different from what I expected. First, his review was good — actually all the 5-star reviews I saw were good. It convinced me that the reviewer had 5-star feelings about the book. Second, contrary to certain assumptions about Goodreads hoi-polloi, this reviewers was a writer with bylines in esteemed publications, novels, and even a translation of Revulsions by Horacio Castellanos Moya, a Bernhard-esque rant. I don’t think we should talk about anyone being qualified. But this reviewer was, if anyone was, well qualified. That reviewer was Lee Klein, and he was kind enough to answer some questions for me:
1. Do you think the five-star Goodreads review of an esteemed classic is in danger of being as callow and gauche as the one- star review?
Stars are meaningless for classics by deceased writers. Such books are mighty oaks. Whether you hug it or take your tiny axe to it doesn’t really make a difference. On Goodreads, regardless, the all-important provision of stars relates to my reading experience more than to discernment of an innate non-existent objective of the book’s qualities. “Five stars” means really memorable, enjoyable, worthwhile, up there shining a bright light upon my sensitive readerly soul. “Five stars” means the book gave me the sort of reading experience that’s compelled me to write little reviews on that site since 2007, back when it was independent, before it was acquired by the Brazilian rainforest. Nearly 250K words I’ve spilled therein thanks mostly to the experiences I would deem “five stars.” I don’t really ever rate a book one star, and very rarely do I ever give a low rating to a living writer who’s not super-famous/wealthy. I may write about the book if it offends my delicate sophisticated sensibilities, but I don’t bother with stars.
“Callow and gauche” mean immature and unsophisticated. To quote the great poet MES: “The evil is not in extremes / It’s in the aftermath / The middle mass / After the fact / Vulturous in the aftermath.” I don’t feel like extreme reactions to art are immature and unsophisticated. The evil is in nuanced ambivalent oh-so-effin’-boring magnanimity. Three-point-five stars rounded up to four for the sake of generosity, or worse: a three-star blah back-on-the-heels reading experience rounded up to four because so many other reviewers really seem to love the book and have rated it five stars. That’s immature and unsophisticated.
Relaying one’s immediate response to art with self-critical self-consciousness, especially in extremis, is what it’s about. My mother is neither immature nor unsophisticated but she raised me to a degree to champion “five-star” greatness as a stand-in for the godhead and lump everything else as mediocre or worse (total trash). And of course this is all with an understanding that experiencing so-called greatness is personal but also, over time, expertise develops and the experienced seeker/reader/consumer may have a more refined sense of the capital-G stuff than a newer (or duller or more distracted) reader. Other than books by writers I have some connection to, books that I always rate five stars and include a “potential conflict of interest” tag, when I rate something five stars, particularly an “esteemed classic,” I mean it. Greatness is next to godliness.
2. How do you feel about The Loser with the benefit of hindsight? Over a decade of hindsight! You read it in anticipation of the Revulsion translation you did?
It’s actually been a little more than two decades since I read The Loser. I really only remember reading it on the 4 train, the Bronx Bomber, from Union Square up to Yankee Stadium in 2001 or 2002. I remember loving it and laughing to myself on the subway. I remember talking to a friend (we both edited weird little online literary journals at the time) about it, sitting in the upper deck of Yankee Stadium. I read some of it to her while we watched the game. She noted that we were probably the only people talking about Thomas Bernhard in the stadium at the time. And at the time Bernhard didn’t have the reputation he does now. He wasn’t nearly as widely read.
I learned about him via Book Forum, back when its format was more square-shaped like Art Forum than a double-long rectangle like The New York Review of Books. They had a whole special issue on Bernhard, Fall 2001. I’d never heard of him at the time. In every bookstore I went to in New York and Brooklyn, only a few of his books were available. Franzen had heard of him, of course. The Corrections, which was pretty big at the time, echoed the title of Bernhard’s Correction. Sebald’s Austerlitz also seemed influenced by Bernhard and in December 2001 Sebald admitted to being no more than another Bernhard imitator on Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm. In Iowa City, circa 2002, I searched every one of the many bookstores in that town, and only found something like one copy of The Loser in paperback and a hardcover of Gathering Evidence I acquired.
The point is, Bernhard was known by writers but didn’t seem to have a wider reputation among readers, at least as far as I knew at the time. I read The Loser and then Woodcutters and loved them both — found them both really funny in a way. (About a decade ago I wrote a little essay about comedy in Bernhard that’s also accessible here on my site.) The mode is infectious and effective. Like reading too much DFW, it tends to affect your emails when you’re deep into reading Bernhard. You tend to introduce and repeat certain key phrases. Reading Bernhard had nothing to do with the translation New Directions ultimately published in 2016. By the time I learned about Moya’s book in Bolano’s Between Parentheses, I had already read most of Bernhard and had written in that mode too, so when I saw that the Moya book hadn’t yet been published in translation, it seemed natural for me to translate it, in part because I’d also traveled in El Salvador in the mid-’90s and had started studying Spanish in the mid-’80s and had lived in Spain for a bit.
3. You have a book out this year! Congratulations. Would you like to say something about your book? From the outside, based on all the blogs, podcasts, courses aimed at aspiring writers publishing can look like a weird logrolling/mid-level marketing scam. How does it look from your side of the fence?
Yes, thank you — Chaotic Good is my sixth published book, I think. Sagging Meniscus (a small press that specializes in unconventional stuff) published it in mid-July 2023. It’s the complement to a similar short novel Sagging Meniscus also published in 2020 called Neutral Evil ))). I’m proud of both of these books and hope they find more readers over time. They’re both autobiographical narrative essays about a particular night out to see a band (Sunn O))) in Philadelphia on March 18, 2017, in Neutral Evil ))); Phish in NYC on December 28, 2019, in Chaotic Good), with the excursion providing structure for essayistic/descriptive improvisation in any direction.
At this point I don’t really pay attention to blogs etc about publishing or writing. I was lucky enough to start writing consistently and over time self-IDing as a writer just before the advent of the internet in the ’90s. Being a writer at the time for me involved spending time in bookstores, figuring out what to read, reading as much as possible, and writing when I could. Over time I figured out how the publishing system works, either by first querying agents who then submit to larger publishers, or submitting directly to small presses if possible. Twenty or so years ago when I first started meeting lots of writers in NYC and then in Iowa when I went there for grad school, I pretty much developed a good idea about how publishing worked, or didn’t work. Youthful enthusiastic delusions/innocence have been nicely burned off since then by rejection from agents and various crushing disappointments, but also initial innocent hopes/dreams have been fulfilled often enough to make it all seem worthwhile. At this point, for me, with a full-time job and a family including a ten-year-old kid with special needs etc, writing and publishing, and reading and writing reviews on Goodreads etc, is integrated into my life. It’s part of who I am and what I do.
Generally, writing shouldn’t be about itself. It shouldn’t be about publishing. It shouldn’t be about self-marketing and associated careerist schemes. Ideally, writing is about life, and that’s pretty much it — about transforming life into lit. And if you sit and do that with enough regularity, once it’s what you do, it’s who you are. You’re a writer. Whether or not you then become an author isn’t really up to you. And once your writing is published, finding readers to bring your published work to life is a whole other kettle of coagulation. For the most part, publishing something means the piece is officially finished. Publishing to a degree kills the work. Ends it. But then readers bring it back to life, ideally, and then rate it three stars on Goodreads even when they’re your friends on there.
The big mistake I make when visiting large galleries of the type stuffed to the gills with Great Works is that I never spend long enough standing and just looking at the paintings. Or rather, standing long enough before a single individual painting that I can absorb what I’m seeing. There is some default setting I have been set to that has me move on like I’m scrolling down a feed on my phone fast enough that I don’t have to look at the ads.
The works I found at the Kunsthistorisches Museum were worth taking a moment to stare at. Just to take one example, consider The Miracles of St Ignatius of Loyola by Rubens:
Unfortunately, I lack any formal education in art history, but it is clear enough that what is depicted here is some real Q-anon shit. There are demons, cherubs, and what I think is an exorcism, but might be shapeshifters about to reveal their true lizard form. I don’t think I’m speculating too radically to say that the women at the bottom right are saying “Won’t somebody think of the children?” It is only a matter of time before the conspiracy theorists stop trying to find satanic symbols in corporate iconography and turn to this embarrassingly rich vein in European art. Dan Brown should have started a gold rush, but maybe, like me, your average conspiracy theorist lacks a liberal arts education and scrolls past this kind of content too quickly.
Egon Shiele was born in 1890 and died of the Spanish flu in 1918. During his brief life he participated in the influential and controversial Vienna secessionist art movement, winning support and patronage for his work. A “controversial art movement” in this case means all to say that a gang of young artists who were expected to paint classical scenes in the style and manner that was expected of them, broke away from the institutions and did their own thing. Their own thing caused all manner of pearl clutching that, at least to me, today, in retrospect, seems non obvious in cause, involving fine distinctions and no small amount of biting-the-hand-that-fed. As I understand it, nudity in and of itself was hardly unprecedented in art, but the way that Gustav Klimt did nudity was deemed obviously very bad, and Schiele, who was something of his protege subsequently discovered his own variations on making nakedness indecent in some fresh way.
Walking through the Leopold museum, which houses the largest Schiele collection in the world, I took a strong draught of all the secessionist stuff, going between rooms dedicated to one painter or the other, thinking to myself thoughts as articulate and insightful as, “OK, this guy had a few ideas of his own”. But the Schiele rooms were a revelation, in that I had no prior exposure and his work immediately struck me as particularly good. They had a prophetic quality, if you are willing to accept prefiguring an art style that might one day appear in 2000AD as prophesy.
I also enjoyed this extract from a letter that Klimt wrote. Obviously at this period of life, Klimt did not practice “the grindset”. I suspect that enjoying this kind routine is the prize won through hard work, luck, and success in your youth.
The Vienna clock museum follow naturally from the globe museum. On some deep level the two museums are the two sides of the same temporal, geographic coin. As with globes, we take for granted how clocks determine our thinking about time. It feels to us like this absolute notion. As part of my work I regularly handle integer values that mark the number of seconds since January 1st 1970, the Unix epoch, which as far as a command line wizard is concerned, marks the true Common Era. I imagine you have to do a lot of astrophysics subject to effects of relativity to shake this absolute thinking.
The key scientific innovation in pendulum clocks is isochronism. First observed by Galileo, this means that the period of a pendulum — that is to say the time it takes to swing back and forth — doesn’t depend on the how big the swing of the pendulum is. So when you set a pendulum swinging, the first period takes the same amount of time as the hundredth, even though the pendulum by this point isn’t swinging as far. (Wikipedia tells me that this property is only approximately true). Thus regular increments of time can be measured out. Fortunately our days and calendar events happen with sufficient periodicity that they can be broken down in measurable fashion.
Also, I learned that people used to put working clocks into paintings to be hung with the dual painting/clock functionality.
The Vienna Literaturmuseum provide digital tablets that, with certain prompting, give English translation of their main displays. So equipped, I was able to wander their rooms and follow the broad strokes of the history of Austrian literature. While I did manage to gain an appreciation of the big events and ideas, and learn which authors I should read (Joseph Roth, for one), I found the power of the museum, at least for me, was less educational and more the sheer spectacle of seeing this world of cursive script and typewritten pages that once existed. A world and a culture that we have definitively left behind.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Vienna was the best evidence that the most accommodating and fruitful ground for the life of the mind can be something more broad than a university campus. More broad, and in many ways more fun. In Vienna there were no exams to pass, learning was a voluntary passion, and wit was a form of currency.Cultural Amnesia, Clive James
I read the opening to Clive James overture over a decade ago now, toward the end of my undergraduate degree. In retrospect it is clear that the aspiration it conveyed, and indeed the whole book conveyed, lodged itself deep in my mind. I did not read the entire book, following the practice of most readers, but jumped around the essays, ultimately moving on before the book’s depths were exhausted. It was the overture to the book that gave me a deep impression of what Vienna and specifically its cafe culture once was. It is probably the reason I first arrived in Vienna with greater expectations than when I visited Paris, even knowing what James informed me of: the abrupt end of it all with the finis Autriae.
Walking around Vienna it is hard not to think of how Twitter is collapsing — in corporate farce rather than facist horror (although, not coincidentally, there are plenty of nazis now on Twitter). For those who were lurking in the right corners and following the right people, the cultural significance of Twitter was easily comparable to Vienna’s cafes. James writes that for “generations of writers, artists, musicians, journalists and mind workers of every type, the Vienna cafe was a way of life”, and it is too good not to suggest that today they those very people have all become terminally online. He writes of Peter Altenberg who “hardly achieved anything at all” by the standards of his more famous cafe contemporaries, “But his very existence was a reminder to more prosperous practitioners that what they did was done from love“, and you think of all the legions of writers who hustled for work, readers, or even just likes on Twitter. Or you might read Stefan Zweig describing the cafe as “actually a sort of democratic club, open to everyone for the price of a cheap cup of coffee, where every guest can sit for hours with this little offering, to talk, write, play cards, receive post, and above all consume an unlimited number of newspapers and journals.” The unlimited number of newspapers and journals is so much on the nose, that the rising paywalls suggest another reason why the great age of Twitter discourse is at an end.
The fact that certain habitues received their mail in the cafes seemed amazing when I read it back in (maybe) 2011/12. But now I can check my email and my Whatsapps while in line at a Dunking Donuts.