Tuesday, June 25, 2013

`He Spares Nothing; He Damns Nothing'

Mentally, I’ve started packing my bags for a visit next week to New York City, where my oldest son is getting married July 6. Suit, sport coat, two pairs of shoes, three ties, checkbook, Little Big Man. Thomas Berger’s 1964 novel recounts the picaresque adventures of 121-year-old Jack Crabb, a white man raised by the Cheyenne who survives the Battle of the Little Big Horn. It’s the third and finest of the twenty-three novels written by Berger, who turns eighty-nine on July 20. It meets my criteria for books to read while traveling: I already know it well and won’t be wasting my time, it will absorb me in a cramped jetliner and an ugly motel room, and (optional, but only barely) it’s funny but not merely funny (Beckett and Flann O’Brien pass this test, too). 

In preparation for what is probably my fourth or fifth reading of Little Big Man (waste no time on Arthur Penn’s politically sententious film version from 1970), I sought out Guy Davenport’s review in the Jan. 26, 1965, issue of National Review, in which he also considers Jean Stafford’s Bad Characters and Henry de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night. His opening paragraph is a preview of the ideas Davenport developed more than a decade later in the title essay of The Geography of the Imagination: 

“The imagination, as our century has come to relearn, is an enterprise unto itself—not a subservient quality of mind, or an ingredient to spice thought, or mere sprightliness to give a gay touch to action otherwise dull. It is even convenient to think of it as an organism with an embryology, genetic density, and ripe maturity. The imagination of the storyteller has a biological identity as rigorously clear as a shark or a coconut tree. Scholars tend to its ancestry, critics to its ecology and health; devoted readers follow its growth.” 

In his best-known essay, Davenport writes: “The imagination; that is, the way we shape and use the world, indeed the way we see the world, has geographical boundaries, like islands, continents, and countries. These boundaries can be crossed.” 

Davenport’s tastes are wide and his critical impulses unexpectedly generous. I wouldn’t guess he’d find much in Stafford’s stories to praise, but he observes that she “writes with a master’s hand,” that each of the collection’s ten stories is “excellent” and “very wise.” He’s less enthusiastic about Montherlant but describes Chaos and Night as “a hard, acid novel, but it is a clear statement of moral courage.” He’s just warming up for Little Big Man, which he loves: 

“It is high time that Thomas Berger be seen for what he is: a superb satirist, with the gift of understanding to boot. He was outdone in moral indignation before he began (by Swift and Mark Twain, for instance), and his innate pity for man’s weakness can’t hold a candle to Tolstoy or Melville. But for the two to be combined in one broad sensibility is rare indeed. He spares nothing; he damns nothing. Every tenderness in his story is erased by an unflinching gaze at meanness; every meanness is countered with benevolence from unexpected sources, or by luck.” 

I’ve never seen Berger’s peculiar genius delineated so well and concisely. Few writers mingle savagery and tenderness without blunting one or the other, forcing things or descending into sentimentality or nihilism. And Berger does it with prose, as Davenport says, “that comes off the page like a buffalo stampede.” Davenport concludes: 

“One gathers that Thomas Berger has never had a thought in his life, only wildly disorganized enthusiasms and fits of disgust. His mind is as robust as a tornado, his eyes as sharp as a squirrel hunter’s, his heart as capacious as a whale’s, and his novels as generously unplotted as life itself.”

[Davenport dedicated his translation of The Mimes of Herondas (1981) to Berger, who dedicated Nowhere (1985) to Davenport.]

1 comment:

Ian Wolcott said...

Thank you for sharing. I hadn't read Davenport on Berger before. Little Big Man is one of my favorite American novels - one that ought to be read a hundred years from now.