In Mozarteum in Salzburg in 1953 the main characters met a young Canadian prodigy who played the Goldberg Variations miraculously and who, they quickly came to realize, was a greater pianist than even their teacher—indeed, "the most important piano virtuoso of the century," as the narrator puts it in the novel's opening sentence.
The encounter with Gould affects both characters decisively for almost three decades, as they experience an endless series of personal and intellectual travails. Gould’s talent triggers the suicidal tendencies of his two colleagues: so great is the impact of Gould's genius on the other two that, even as it nourishes them, it destroys them: they realize that Gould represents an artistic ideal to which they cannot hope to aspire. So the narrator eventually decides to give up the piano in favour of philosophy, and spends much of his subsequent time composing a rambling, never-completed essay entitled "About Glenn Gould".
Wertheimer, who had been a very promising virtuoso himself, follows suit, abandoning music and moving into the "human sciences", the meaning of which is left vague. Eventually, Wertheimer's behaviour becomes more and more erratic and self-destructive; he alienates all his friends, and tyrannises his devoted sister. It was Gould who, with his "ruthless and open, yet healthy American-Canadian manner" first called Wertheimer, to his face, "The Loser" ("Der Untergeher"—a much more evocative word, lit. "the one who goes under"). As Wertheimer comes to see the accuracy of this epithet, he gradually loses his grip on life.