On the Bordone Room gallery bench of the Kunsthistorisches museum in Vienna, Reger, a pensive and negative music critic, stares at Tintoretto's White Bearded Man. Thomas Bernard writes of Herr Reger's thoughts and stories from the perspective of a friend and admirer, Atzbacher. 

At first, what seems to be the writings of a madman, from its incomprehensive sentence structure and lack of pauses, slowly takes form into one long rant, written in reported speech without quotation marks. Ostensibly, this is a tale of friendship between two old men, about whom we know little other than their opinions on art and culture. This rant, with an undercoat of comedy and irony, stretches across many topics, from philosophy to music, art, and even in one comical episode: Viennese toilet culture. 

This novel has a new take on a fictional narrative discussing fine art. Unlike Proust, Donna Tart, etc., who write of art as something to worship, Bernard argues that art is not a divinity; it is flawed and sometimes ugly. Reger takes this cynical view to the extreme, explaining why he sits in front of the same painting every day, not because it is genius, mesmerizing, or awe-inspiring, but because it is the only one he can stomach. Instead of dissecting and presenting the intricacies of beauty and love, he conveys disgust, arguing the falseness of artistic worship. Of course, that is why art historians are the people Reger hates the most. As he sees it, they memorize incorrect data but never truly see art, or else they would be as disgusted as he: “the art historians are the real wreckers of art. The art historians twaddle so long about art until they have killed it with their twaddle…..listening to an art historian we feel sick..with the twaddle of the art historian art shrivels and is ruined" (Bernard, 15). 

This book explores the hypocrisy of people (ourselves above all), love, grief, and the inability of art to save us. It is about hanging on to survival and finding liberation in the face of deep personal loss. As Reager states in the final pages, “the things we think and the things we say, believing that we are competent and yet we are not, that is the comedy, and we ask how is it all to continue? That is the tragedy, my dear Atzbacher.” 

I read this book partly in the Kunsthistorisches museum itself, surrounded by tourists (which I am in a way as well), wondering if I truly see art. Growing up in the museum during my summers spent in Vienna due to my parent’s endless study of its paintings, I think of this museum with the same level of familiar comfort that Reger has. Although bitter and sarcastic, the monolog is also deeply melancholy, vulnerable, and simple.