The murky and most of the time unnecessary business of turning a novel into a graphic novel works best if the relationship between the original and the adaptation is neither distant nor faithful, but both, as is the case in Nicolas Mahler's Old Masters, a masterful little stab at illustrating Thomas Bernhard—one of the least visual writers of the previous century—carried out with all the humor and aplomb you do and don't expect from this unlikely premise.
Thomas Bernhard is a dead and grumpy Austrian author whose books feel longer than they are, in no small part due the the rambling nature of his style, somewhere between Walser and Krasznahorkai, with all those inimitable kicks and disses that make him so addictive to some and so infuriating to others. Bernhard's novels are demanding in the way that great novels often are, and in a number of other ways—they can be samey and exhausting, and all of that is part of the design, and that design can feel like quite an imposition on readers used to clarity, character development and all such book club fodder. To me Bernhard shines best in his shortest pieces, particularly if read one at a time, and in no hurry. The stories in The Voice Imitator are brief, brutal and fun, like a Lydia Davis trapped within the realm of endless misery.
Nicolas Mahler is (so far, and to the best of my knowledge) a living Austrian author with more than fifty books in his body of work, including adaptations of Robert Musil and spam emails, as well as numerous collection of comics and visual poetry, plus a handful of short films and theatrical productions. Very little of this has been translated into English, all with minimal fanfare. And I must confess that I haven't read much of Mahler myself—nothing, in fact, apart from his short and perceptive introduction to Nadine Redlich's Ambient Comics (another brilliant German-language cartoonist not yet dead). Mahler's visual vocabulary is lively and timeless, relying on gestures and staging rather than aesthetics and craft, which makes it ripe for this (initially, at least) surprising adaptation.
The story of Old Masters can be summed up in a couple of sentences: the archetypal Bernhardian disgruntled intellectual (Reger), spends most of his time sitting on a bench in front of a painting he doesn't particularly like (Tintoretto's White-Bearded Man), then asks the narrator to accompany him to a play he doesn't particularly want to see. Together they go, and the play turns out to be predictably terrible. The last development takes up a single sentence, while various rants on the state of art and nonart expand for dozens of pages, all with the usual asides you would expect from Bernhard: plot scraped away and words reduced to punctuation.
That's not all of course—there is the matter of the critic's departed wife—the two of them had met on the bench before the White-Bearded Man, and that is chiefly why Reger has been coming back here day after day. This brief bit of backstory leads to a relatively sweet and simple argument: art is nothing, love is all, yet we can't quite have one without the other. "Without people we have not the slightest hope of survival, Reger said, no matter how many great minds and old masters we have taken on as companions, they do not replace a human being [...]" This is my own (admittedly quite wobbly) reading, and if it sounds absurdly trite to hardcore Bernhardheads, do not expect apologies.
"The human mind is a human mind only when it searches for the mistakes of humanity," Reger says around the beginning of the original text. And his (and Bernhard's) mind finds plenty. The focus, however, is not on the criticism itself, but on the search—the process of scrutiny and questioning. Bernhard isn't out to make the world a better place, his reason for writing has always been writing itself, all bears and cracked kettles. Bernhard uses half of the words in any given sentence primarily for rhythm. Sound precedes subject—hence everywhere the signature "so-called," deployed before most nouns worth scoffing at: art, Austria, philosophy, music, criticism, literature, theater, lavatories, the titular old masters, even the sun. In Mahler's significantly shortened version, the drawings likewise serve the rhythmic function—the museum room is lovingly rendered again and again and again, and the breaks and repetition follow a variation on Bernhard's musical structure that works in shortened form just as well as it does in the original.
Mahler reworks the wordy rhythm into a drawn equivalent: most pages are broken into two or three text blocks, re-creating Bernhard's funereal tempo through pacing and repetition. The White-Bearded Man himself is usually obscured by blocks of text, potentially to cut down Tintoretto's royalties. It's apposite that Bernhard chose a somewhat minor work of art as the centerpiece of the novel, and as a source of comfort to Reger, and it is doubly pleasing that no one in the book seems all too interested in the painting itself. If anything, its presence chiefly justifies the bench to which Reger confines himself, with art as a mere ornament.
"We can only stand a great, important picture if we have turned it into a caricature," Reger say. In the adaptation, newly translated by James Reidel, the unfortunate word is rendered as “cartoon,” which makes more sense, and works to justify Mahler’s entire project. Reger despairs of the people who fail or refuse to reduce the old masters to cartoons, and succumb to earnest adulation of what he calls “state art,” and elsewhere “that nauseating twaddle of democracy.”
But it's not all grief and art theory. The novel is subtitled "a comedy," which may be something of a stretch—there is plenty of humor here (the museum's guard took up the job to streamline his wardrobe), but one can hardly be expected to chuckle along with this expertly crafted, but often quite tedious flood of bile. In common estimation, Bernhard is more enjoyable to have read, rather than to read. Mahler's version of Old Masters sifts out the humor and puts it on a pedestal, making the whole thing far more amusing and readable. I'd even go as far as to say that Mahler's book is a better starting point into Bernhard than Berhard himself. Reading it is like listening to a kindly professor explain why this difficult dead man is worth your close inspection, with charming little drawings to illustrate the point. It's beautiful and strange, and totally without a precedent.