Sunday, July 20, 2014

`To Enchant or at Least Entertain Myself'

Among living novelists are only three whose entire body of work I have read, in part because their writing lives have closely overlapped my reading life, and because I admired and enjoyed all of them from the start – Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick and Thomas Berger. The first two will surprise no one. The third, if remembered at all, is associated with a single title, Little Big Man (1964), and the lousy movie adapted from it. Unlike Roth, Berger has never published a bad or mediocre book. His career has been steady, single-minded and utterly independent. His twenty-three novels are among the funniest ever written, though Berger has steadfastly defied pigeonholing as a humorist. He has identified his favorite novelists as Anthony Powell, Barbara Pym, Proust and Frank Norris, making him as uncategorizeable a reader as writer. His humor is in his prose, a supple, American instrument. Though paid critical lip service, often laced with condescension, he remains insufficiently appreciated and understood, as do such comparably gifted and taken-for-granted writers as Janet Lewis and Evan S. Connell. 

For the uninitiated, I recommend starting with Little Big Man, followed by the Carlo Reinhart tetralogy -- Crazy in Berlin (1958), Reinhart in Love (1962), Vital Parts (1970) and Reinhart’s Women (1981). Move on to Sneaky People (1975), The Feud (1983) and Meeting Evil (1992), and then graze contentedly at will among the other fifteen titles. Berger speaks for many of us when he tells David Madden in an interview collected in Critical Essays on Thomas Berger (1995): 

“As a child I always loved to read and exercise my imagination. I have a vague memory of wanting to grow up to be a foreign correspondent, but that had to do almost entirely with wearing a trench coat, and I think that before I got too old I understood the difference between journalism and fiction and came to prefer the latter as being more likely to serve the truth: I mean, of course, using Pascal’s distinction, the truth of the heart and not of the reason, which is to say the serious truth as opposed to that of expedience and vulgarity. I regard myself as a teller of tales that are intended primarily to enchant or at least entertain myself. Only by living in the imagination can I successfully pretend I am a human being.” 

Berger was born in one America’s great cities, Cincinnati, on this date, July 20, in 1924. Happy ninetieth birthday, Thomas Berger.


zmkc said...

Thank you for the advice. I've just been packing up our books ready for a move to another part of the world where I will actually have time to read them. I will add Berger to the huge pile - and try to find out who Frank Norris is, while I'm at it.

Dave Lull said...

"Thomas Berger, ‘Little Big Man’ Author, Is Dead at 89"