Soon after I arrive in Chicago, on an August afternoon with a heat I remember from childhood, I head to a bar on the North Side and shoot pool. I haven’t been to this city in more than a year, because going home isn’t easy. But I’ve been called back for the wedding of a close friend, which will take place later in the weekend. My friend, the groom—let’s call him X.— is a journalist, and many of the other attendees are people like me, journalists or writers.
My pool opponent, Z., is another Chicagoan. We met in the first grade, so I can describe him with the boyish metrics our elementary school selves used to categorize and evaluate one another: he’s a better athlete than I am by far, perhaps my equal in musical ability. We are both writers, yet we never compete on the basis of our writing. At 27, drinking and shooting pool is the closest I come to an athletic field or court (until recently Z. coached soccer), and I love billiards for the same reason that I once loved team sports: the game is a largely meaningless combination of luck and skill on which I can peg my competitive drive without suffering any consequences in the rest of my life.
The six careens out of the corner and sends the cue ball into the opposite side pocket, then Z. sets up after my scratch and nails two stripes in a row. He asks me about my writing. I tell him about an essay I’ve been assigned—this essay—which is supposed to focus on writers who aspired to be musicians before they developed literary careers. It strikes me as bizarre, I say, that I always felt generous toward other writers, and competitive with musicians, who practice an art form that has nothing to do with my own.
“All Chicagoans in our generation are competitive,” Z. tells me. “We grew up under the shadow of Michael Jordan. After Jordan retired, we grew up under the shadow of Kanye West. We want to be the greatest.”
He leans in, pockets the eight ball, and wins the game.
Maybe I had to go back home to understand my own urge to compete. When I mentioned to people in New York that I was going to write a piece about being jealous of musicians, they did not understand why I ever felt the way I did. It might have been my use of the word “jealous” —the term is not a popular one in the gay community.
“If you really wanted to become a musician,” a friend of my boyfriend told me, “you would have become one. Instead, you became a writer, because you wanted to become a writer.”
I replied with a quote by the novelist John Barth, who also dreamed of being a musician. He said that prose writers arrive at their vocation through a “back door,” some kind of “passionate default.” His implication is that writers develop their ambition over a long period of time, whereas musicians, like basketball stars and lyric poets, belong to the ranks of the virtuosos. They pick up the tools of their trade and know what to do with them immediately.
Of course, the writer who would make this distinction in the first place is one who has been seduced by virtuosity. I was seduced by virtuosity for the first time when I was five, and saw the Michael Jordan-Looney Tunes marketing extravaganza Space Jam (1996), in which a child Jordan approaches a basketball hoop and suddenly, as though divinely possessed, jumps up and dunks the ball. I knew, beginning in this moment of Hollywood fantasy, that I wanted to be a professional basketball player. So I dreamed about playing basketball, I watched basketball, I played basketball video games, I did everything but train hard and play basketball well. My lack of skill was only accentuated when the critical mass of my peers hit puberty. They shot up, grew hair under their armpits, I saw when we changed clothes for gym class. Z. made the varsity soccer team as a freshman, while I remained small, with braces and bug eyes.
I recalibrated my dreams to fit my new self-image: rock ’n’ roll had a place for the strange and the half-formed, and so I embraced rock ’n’ roll.
To my Jewish parents, playing music seemed more realistic than playing sports, and less depraved than playing video games or watching television. When I turned fourteen, they bought me a drum set, which I set up in the basement, and jazz brushes I used not to play jazz, but instead to rock out quietly after my mom and dad went to sleep. Within a year, although musicians more expert than myself told me that I should master one instrument before learning another, I picked up the bass guitar as well. Meanwhile, I dreamed of playing in the semi-annual school talent show. Of course, I could have—anyone could. The K-12 private school I attended prided itself on being inclusive, so many of the performers had as many natural limitations as I did. A girl crooned Alicia Keys off-key over a piano. A boy flubbed the F-barre chord on every verse of “The House of the Rising Sun,” leaning into the microphone and commenting on his mistakes to whoops and applause. Other musicians were really talented and creative, and I watched with awe from my seat in the audience while they played: it seemed like they had brought the gift of music down from heaven.
Our school had an über-liberal face and a student body that was far less open-minded and diverse than the curriculum. My graduating class was extremely white and predominantly upper-middle class. The word “faggot” was thrown around casually in the hallways and at parties, and none of my classmates were openly non-straight. One of my best friends came out to me at the beginning of our junior year. A couple of months later, she tried to kill herself and was disappeared to a mental institution. In elementary and middle school, I was bullied constantly by kids more popular than me, but as high school progressed, my social fate seemed increasingly like fuel to the fire of my rock ’n’ roll dreams.
Occasionally, I jammed with the skilled musicians, who were all popular. Yet perhaps because they were gratified by art at an early age, they had learned how to transcend garden-variety adolescent shittiness and treat their peers with generosity. They encouraged me, figured out how to accompany my drum and bass parts easily, while I sneakily looked up the tab for the songs they suggested that we use as a basis for our improvisations. These musicians lived and breathed music, skipped class to play music, incurred the wrath of their parents and the school, while I waited for some celestial shard to fall from the sky and make me a rock star. I was still under the thumb of my mom and dad, who had high academic standards for their children and pressured them to do well. I lacked the self-confidence, or perhaps a directed-enough love of music, to defy their expectations and focus on my instruments.
I spent high school writing papers I never risked neglecting in order to play the drums, reading books I never lied about reading so I could go to a concert instead. I could dream of being a musician all I wanted. Through no conscious intention of my own, I was always training to be a writer.
My parents still live in the same house where I was raised. The house is one half of a brick, modern-looking structure with a lot of stairs and a skylight that constantly breaks, leaking water down the walls. My mom and dad are planning to downsize soon, but for now the house is full of the detritus of the childhoods of me and my two sisters. My boyfriend is supposed to arrive here in a couple of days, I think, while I unpack my bags on the same NBA-themed bedspread I’ve had since I was little. I set a book I’ve been rereading, The Loser by Thomas Bernhard, down on my desk. Then I descend the stairs for the basement, where among the textbooks my sisters and I used in high school stands the drum set. The ride cymbal has a large crack running from its edge to the bell in the center. The snare drum is covered in pockmarks with a big rip by the rim. I sit down and drum on the broken kit, tapping as softly as I can in order not to wake my parents, who are asleep one floor above me.
I should write my toast for X. and his fiancée, Y. But I feel excited after talking about my new essay with Z., so after messing around on the drums I open my laptop and research writers who aspired to be musicians. I jot down a quote from Samuel Beckett: “Music always wins.” Beckett loved music and exalted composers even as he established himself as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. A famous scene in his masterful Watt (1953) involves a father-son pair of piano tuners who come to Watt’s house and send the character on a reverie about his dead father. Beckett’s radio plays even more directly exemplify the anxious influence music holds on his writing: Words and Music (1961) and Cascando (1963) both consist of characters whose words are alternately accompanied and drowned out by an orchestra.
His countryman James Joyce was similarly enamored of music. A scene in “The Dead” (1914) centers around musical competition among the hosts of a dinner party. John Barth aspired to be a jazz drummer and arranger. He took his ambitions as far as Juilliard, although he dropped out when he realized that the cleft in ability between himself and other drummers was “as unequivocal as a high jump bar others clear with ease or difficulty but you can’t even approach.”
The novelist Nicholson Baker was good enough at the bassoon that he played with the philharmonic orchestra in his native Rochester as a teenager and went to the Eastman School of Music to become a composer. Like Barth, he left the conservatory to study literature. He recalled to the Guardian how he made the decision after he heard his mother laugh out loud while reading a piece by John Updike about golf. “I was a hard-working, dedicated bassoonist,” Baker self-effaced to the New York Times Magazine in 2011, “but I have to say I’m not a natural musician.”
Of course, there are examples of polymaths who expanded their artistic practices into both mediums. Paul Bowles is best known for his novels and short stories, but his work as a composer, field recorder and preserver of Moroccan tribal music make him a musical touchstone as well. Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers (1966) is among Canada’s most essential contributions to mid-century postmodernism, and Cohen continued to write poetry throughout his career as a singer-songwriter. John Darnielle, longtime leader of the Mountain Goats, published several novels in the last decade to wide acclaim. The German Romantic E. T. A. Hoffmann, famous for his psychologically acute short stories, was also a composer, as well as an early music critic. Writing about his contemporary, Beethoven, Hoffmann calls music “the most romantic of all arts,” adding that, “its only subject is the infinite.”
Few writers have as fraught a relationship with their musical past as Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian author born in Holland in 1931 and educated at the Mozarteum in the famed musical city of Salzburg. I’m revisiting his 1983 novel The Loser, originally published in German as Der Untergeher (literally, “the one who goes under”), because I intend it to be the backbone of my essay. Like its author, the book’s unnamed narrator studied at the Mozarteum, and later in the Leopoldskron palace with a teacher named Horowitz. His two classmates were the Canadian virtuoso Glenn Gould and another prodigy, Wertheimer, who committed suicide, the narrator tells us, because he knew that he would never play Bach’s Goldberg Variations as well as Glenn Gould. In the novel’s present tense, the narrator, who himself once tried to write a long essay about Gould before giving up in a fit of self-loathing, is going to pick up Wertheimer’s papers. The novel has only a few plot points: the narrator arrives at an inn near Wertheimer’s house, speaks to the innkeeper, walks to Wertheimer’s house, and speaks to the woodsman, Franz, about their friend’s final days. All the while, the narrator obsessively and ragefully cycles through his past.
Several of Bernhard’s books circle around a protagonist who is writing a study of an artist, only to become distracted by his own thoughts about the process of writing and the heavy weight of personal history. The hilarious Concrete (1982) centers on a musicologist who is trying to write about Mendelssohn and ends up writing mostly about disdaining his own sister, while Correction (1975) focuses on a narrator who has been tasked with organizing the papers of a Wittgenstein-like thinker: ultimately, he dissolves into his subject’s obsession and suffering. Yet nowhere else does Bernhard imbue his subject-narrator relationship with the kind of blind rivalry one sees in The Loser. Maybe this is because of the author’s personal connection to the subject matter. Bernhard was a talented opera singer, until he gave up on his musical ambitions after a series of lung infections made it impossible for him to sing. Bernhard and Gould were nearly exact contemporaries, and in The Loser the character Gould also suffers from pulmonary disease.
Bernhard was not a pianist, and The Loser’s translator, Mark M. Anderson, notes that the only occasion on which musician and writer may have possibly crossed paths was when Gould played a concert at the Mozarteum while Bernhard was a 27-year-old acting student. Yet from the novel’s start, the reader is thrust into a world of superlatives, as though the scrabble to the top of the musical heap is a high school popularity contest. Gould, the narrator tells us, is “the most important piano virtuoso of the century.” Many people would agree with this statement, but the mood it sets becomes an increasingly pernicious force as The Loser moves along.
Bernhard is responding to a popular conception of Gould, the child prodigy who became a paragon of self-assured talent. The Canadian pianist was somewhat controversial early in his career for his unusual interpretations of canonical composers, his presentation onstage and his acerbic interactions with the press. But even before his death at the age of fifty, he was widely embraced as a genius made only more perfect by his eccentricities. Bernhard sometimes treats Gould, who in reality was a scion of upper-middle-class Toronto, like a Canadian stereotype. The fictional character’s parents, we learn, made their fortune in “hides, furs.” The narrator and Wertheimer, like most of Bernhard’s characters, are culturally elite, rich Austrians, whom Bernhard satirizes:
Wertheimer, like Glenn, was the son of wealthy parents, not merely well-to-do. I myself was also free of all material worries. It’s always an advantage to have friends from the same social sphere and the same economic background, I thought as I entered the inn. Since basically we had no financial worries we could devote ourselves exclusively to our studies, carry them out in the most radical way possible, we also had nothing else on our minds, we simply had to keep removing the roadblocks in our way, our professors in all their mediocrity and hideousness.
Bernhard himself grew up without privilege, the son of a single mother who purportedly fled Austria for Holland while pregnant with Bernhard in order to avoid the ignominy of having been raped and impregnated by Bernhard’s father. Yet instead of taking the circumstances of his childhood as material for his books, Bernhard set his work—his later literature particularly—among the cultured upper crust. His reasons for doing this are complex. In part, writing mavens of Austrian culture into his novels allowed Bernhard to explore narcissism and ego, constructs he mockingly probed in himself as well as in his characters. His multiple memoirs include My Prizes: An Accounting (written in 1980), an award-by-award log of how it felt to win nine literary prizes. The book humorously details Bernhard’s elation—he spends the winnings of one prize on a dilapidated farmhouse and another on a car he abruptly totals—alongside his deep suspicions of the institutions that honor him. He treats everything with ambivalence, from the selection processes to the way the pomp of the ceremonies reveals a retrograde Austrian nationalism. In fact, the only thing that Bernhard treats without ambivalence is money. In one scene, he gets into an argument with a woman he refers to as his “aunt”—in actuality his partner, Hedwig Stavianicek, a woman 37 years his senior—because he goes on a rant about the Austrian State Prize and she suggests that he reject the winnings:
My aunt was disappointed in me, until then she had had too high expectations of me. I shouldn’t accept the prize, she said, if what I thought was what I said. Yes, I said, I think what I’m saying and I’m going to accept the prize all the same. I’m taking the money, because people should take every penny from the state which throws not just millions but billions out the window on a yearly basis for absolutely nothing at all, every citizen has a right to it and I’m not a fool.
Bernhard took the money, only to deliver an acceptance speech so acerbic that it made the cultural minister swear at the prizewinner and subsequently flee the stage. The speech begins, “There is nothing to praise, nothing to damn, nothing to accuse, but much that is absurd, indeed it is all absurd, when one thinks about death.”
Both Bernhard’s literary work and his run-ins with Austrian elites often served as a means by which he could lob artillery at his nation’s history and character. The last play he wrote before he died at 58, by assisted suicide, was about a Jewish man who returns to Austria half a decade after the Holocaust displaced him, only to find the nation as anti-Semitic as it had been during the German annexation. Heldenplatz (1988) caused such an uproar before its premiere at the Burgtheater in Vienna that attendees had to be escorted by riot police. In his will, and to much international press, Bernhard stipulated that none of his books be published in Austria or any of his plays be produced in the country for the length of their legal copyright. Austria wanted to support and profit from the legacy of its most difficult literary son, and the author’s final gesture was to reject Austria’s embrace.
In novels like The Loser, Bernhard inserts clues in his hermetic, manic first-person narrations in order to prod at his nation’s hypocrisies, its moral place in the world order. His protagonists frequently have sisters whom they try to control, and parents from whom they are trying to break free. But their large inheritances and their inability to do any work other than complex and difficult artistic projects keeps them tied to their progenitors. These characters are not Bernhard: they are portraits that, at their most satirical, become symbols of postwar Austria, a country simultaneously disdainful and reverent toward its fascist past.
In The Loser, classical music is the subject through which Bernhard can convey his peer group’s relationship with the nationalistic, Nazi-embracing generation that preceded them. The history of classical music is tightly entwined with the history of Austria, and the classical tradition continues to play a huge role in Austria’s identity. Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss and Schoenberg all called Vienna home, and the tourist industry of Salzburg is still based largely on Mozart and the music festival the city holds each summer. The narrator of The Loser approaches his musical past with a mixture of passion and resentment. In some passages, Bernhard’s narrator expresses his love for classical music, and his belief in the genius of Glenn Gould. In others, he insists he hates classical music and has only embraced it to torment his parents, whom he also hates.
The guilt that pokes through the narrative comes in the form of Wertheimer, the recent suicide whose papers the narrator is on a mission to collect. “The Loser,” an appellation the character Glenn Gould affixes to him some thirty years before the novel begins, is a bullying gesture barbed with historical implications. The term apparently refers to Wertheimer’s “loss” in a musical competition he had with his peers at the age of 23. But like so many epithets, its primary effect is to erase the complexities of the life it characterizes, as though Wertheimer’s whole worth can be boiled down to one disappointment he endured as a very young man.
“The Loser” has a double meaning that ties Bernhard’s novel to the movements of world history. What the narrator can barely acknowledge is the fact that Wertheimer lost in an arena much larger than that of the piano, in a past much weightier than any he shares with his classmates: Wertheimer is a Jew who grew up during the Holocaust. The grand palace in Leopolds-kron where the three pianists studied with Horowitz is the former home of a Nazi sculptor, filled with his artworks. As a child, Wertheimer fled Austria with his parents and sister, and soon after returning to their patrimony, the parents died in a car accident. We receive this history in brief, breathless flashes near the novel’s end, biographical information the narrator refuses to connect explicitly to Wertheimer’s suicide. The narrator’s fixation creates a world far more claustrophobic than its reality, one that denies the true horror of history, only because it does not fit within the psychological walls of his music education in Salzburg. His belief in artistic competition, in an art that resembles sports in its rankings and its clear-cut determination of winners and losers, is so all-encompassing that it becomes a scheme by which he can explain a life and deny the world.
If writing was my “passionate default,” according to John Barth, it was even more of a default for me than it is for many writers. My mother and both of my older sisters write for a living. My sisters used to joke that they were going to write a memoir based on growing up with a mother who was academically ambitious on their behalf: they wanted to title it “Pushed and Shoved.” My mother always tried to imbue me with a love for literature, often to an extent that made me hate literature. When I was twelve, she told me to read Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. I hated that book, like I hated few books I had ever read. Alex Portnoy was too familiar, too real, like every other Jewish boy I knew in my middle school. But perhaps because of my mother’s recommendation, I felt uninhibited when I wrote about my peers, my family, my experience.
Most of my early writing was a way to flaunt and understand my relationship with my father, and in a backwards, teenaged sense, to get my father’s attention, which was complicated by the fact that I never showed him anything I wrote. My father is a generous and intelligent tax lawyer with an encyclopedic understanding of transportation history and a love for the Western classical music tradition, which he considers the gold standard of genius. My father also has an abrupt and extraordinary temper, a ruthless sense of humor that, a decade ago, extended often to racism and homophobia, and an absentmindedness toward his children that resulted in the same accident I sometimes liked to pretend ended my basketball career at the age of ten: my father wandered into the street without taking my hand and I was literally run over by a motorcycle.
When I graduated from an MFA program at the age of 23, I realized that I had no money and could not, in good faith, rage against the patriarch if my dad continued to be my financial support. And so I stopped accepting my parents’ economic help entirely, spun the educational opportunities they afforded me into a job as a standardized-test tutor, and set off on my own. I still needed health insurance, my dad, who is prudent about money, told me.
“I don’t need any health insurance now that I’m not crossing any streets with you,” is the kind of thing I could imagine myself saying to him.
“You’re poor,” he said at Thanksgiving one year, still trying to get me to accept his help buying health insurance.
I screamed. He hollered. And then I went back to an apartment I shared with many roommates, to a room that was all my own.
When I’m in New York and life is hard, I sometimes fantasize about going home to Chicago. And now that I’m in Chicago, all I want is to go back to New York. But I’m here, I remind myself, to go to my friend’s wedding, and then to return to New York and write an essay. X. and Y. are married in the Chicago History Museum, and their wedding is a lot of fun. I think, when I wake up hungover beside my boyfriend the following morning, that perhaps I can forget the past, how strange it is to return home.
We eat dinner with my parents that night and the four of us go on a walk. We wander around Lincoln Park, beneath the red brick buildings of my childhood, and my dad asks me if I’m working on anything new. Surprised, I tell him about my essay, and then I mention the publication that commissioned it from me. My tax attorney father, my generous, liberal forebear, tells me that he gave them a donation. “They’re 501(c)(3) deductible,” he says, “I’ve known the parents of the editor forever.” I walk beside him in silence as I contemplate his admission, feeling my discomfort clamp like a vise as he proceeds to tell me the amount he donated, which while not considerable, he opines, is more than I was paid for my last published essay. I wonder: Is my writing good enough to merit its publication? Does my dad’s donation politically and ethically compromise my piece, and if my piece is compromised, do I need to withdraw it, and isn’t what my dad did a good thing, patronizing a worthwhile arts organization, rather than spending his money in some way that has no social benefit?
I have tried to leave my parents, yet none of the departures I believed were successful were in fact successful, I think, walking beside my father. I wanted to make writing look easy, I wanted to be a virtuoso who steps up to the stage and performs effortlessly to whoops and applause. But instead I must dash my old plans and acknowledge the past, the way a writer does, even if the artist I end up writing about is one who I would never envy.