Fiercely Unlovely 'Loser' Doesn't Need to Please Thomas Bernhard's novel is willfully oppressive and agonizing to read, hilarious and awful by turns, says author Claire Messud. An unflinching, ranting monologue, it couldn't care less about the reader — but it contains bitter truths.

Fiercely Unlovely 'Loser' Doesn't Need to Please

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Today's installment of our summer series You Must Read This comes from Claire Messud. She's author of "The Emperor's Children." Her pick is a book she says liberated her as a writer from the anxiety of pleasing an audience.

CLAIRE MESSUD: So much in literature, as in life, proves to be a matter of pleasing people. In some sense, all creative writing courses are precisely about imparting the tricks of pleasure: show, don't tell; choose a significant detail; you must create, aspiring writer, a vivid and continuous dream.

The reader must, above all, be satisfied - or else, heaven forbid, he will abandon you. And then where would you be?

After years of such notions - as someone who expended a great deal of energy, on the page and off, in attempting to meet other people's standards - I fell upon the crabby, darkly witty, furiously bleak, and utterly uncompromising Thomas Bernhard with something akin to elation.

I picked up "Wittgenstein's Nephew" by chance in the American library in Paris early in '99 and read it in an afternoon, a mesmerized afternoon in which I ought to have been writing fiction but could not stop myself from reading.

Then I picked up "The Loser" and was not only mesmerized, and horrified, but felt also profoundly spoken to: here was a book - a ranting monologue more naturally than a novel - obsessing unflinchingly about the things that have always obsessed me. About art and ambition and failure and delusion and death.

It's a book about anger. A book without paragraphs, which in its very form enacts anger. A book prone to wildly long sentences, preposterously violent judgments and enraging constructions. A deeply musical novel about music -about Glenn Gould or a fictional Glenn Gould with all the structural complexity of "The Goldberg Variations," to which allusions are repeatedly made.

"The Loser" is willfully oppressive and agonizing to read, hilarious and awful by turns. And above all, it couldn't care less about the reader.

The greatness of a great book is untranslatable. I cannot tell you what's extraordinary about "The Loser." You must read it for yourself. You will not find it pleasant. You may not find that it speaks to you with the immediacy and the insistence that it speaks to me. But you will certainly find that it speaks searingly, fearlessly and comically. It puts us inside the head of a coldly embittered man, who aspired to be a great pianist - until he heard Glenn Gould play, and realized he could never be as good. It is, you see, about being talented and still being a loser.

There's much to admire in the sheer black, hilarious slog of it. Bernhard's raging narrators liberated me, as a writer, to inhabit the most dislikeable characters. What I strive for and what makes him crucial for me - literarily, as in life - is his passionate, principled decision to please no one but the truth - his truth - and let the conventional pleasures of fiction be damned. There is, for this reader, a great deal of pleasure as well as truth in that.

BLOCK: Claire Messud is the author of "The Emperor's Children." You'll find an excerpt from "The Loser" along with more You Must Read This recommendations at our Web site. It's

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.