BECAUSE IT’S AN ADDICTIVE LITERARY GAME, I’ve combed the works of Thomas Berger, who died on July 13, 2014, at the age of 89, to find clues to the life of the reclusive novelist.
At least in one obvious respect, he isn’t Robert Crews, the eponymous protagonist of his 1994 retelling of Robinson Crusoe: “Nope, I’ve never been in an airplane crash, the gods be praised,” Berger wrote in a letter to me shortly after that book’s publication, “nor have I for that matter eaten boiled minnows. As someone once said, you don’t have to visit the Sahara to know it’s sandy. As a veteran fictioneer, I’m supposed to be able to make the reader think I know what I’m talking about, when the fact is I’m usually cutting from the whole cloth. It wasn’t hard to know more about nature than Crews himself did, though.”
It’s easy to assume he lurks behind Carlo Reinhart, the protagonist of four Berger novels, but I find the most compelling evidence of the author only in a passage from the last of them, 1981's Reinhart’s Women: “‘I don’t think I’m so good at handling people,’ Reinhart said. ‘If I have any gift in life whatever, it’s for making something.’”
Maybe there’s a clue in one of Berger’s rare pieces of non-fiction. In early 1972, just before Clifford Irving’s phony Howard Hughes autobiography was to be published, Hughes gave an interview to a septet of journalists in order to debunk the book. Berger’s satirical squib “Howard Hughes, Much Expanded, Improved and Revised” appeared in April’s Esquire magazine. “It begins at the point at which (NBC News reporter Roy) Neal rejected Mr. Hughes’s request that they go off the record,” writes Berger, and the piece contains this exchange:
NEAL: Mr. Hughes, why are you a recluse?
H.H.: I don’t really know, but I was always that way. My mother could seldom find me when I was a baby. I would arrange the blanket to look as though I were under it and go off somewhere.
H.H.: I don’t really know. There were all sorts of ridiculous reports that some little kid was playing piano in a Phoenix brothel, or working as a doorman at the Paramount Theatre in New York. Of course I did those things later on, but never as a child.In the end, we have to go to Jack Crabb, the protean hero of Little Big Man (1964) and The Return of Little Big Man (1999). Like Crabb, Berger not only is a great storyteller but also a master of impersonation. He has been able to explore in his fiction the many genres that delighted him as a reader – although his reading habits would change, as he explained in an e-mail earlier this year:
“Since I began to publish my own novels in 1958 I have read no contemporary fiction unless it was the work of a friend – though I do at least begin to read novels that have been sent to me unsolicited. ... Recently I have read books about: Nelson Rockefeller’s son, who on a primitive-art expedition in New Guinea was killed and eaten by the artists whose work he collected; the historical Typhoid Mary; the true story of Kitty Genovese, the young woman who was murdered on a street in Queens while scores of nearby apartment dwellers failed even to call the police (which was NY Times bullshit – not the murder but the public indifference); and an account of the Hollywood screenwriting careers of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, James Agee, and Nathaniel West. Oh, and a book about the Paris Ritz (Proust’s favorite hostelry and with the obvious reduction in talent, my own) during World War II when occupied by German officers. As to the literary art, I have been rereading Marlowe and Dr. Johnson.”
My introduction to Berger’s unique prose was through the then-new novel Who Is Teddy Villanova?, which I adapted into serialized radio program that aired over WPKN in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1978. This began a correspondence with the novelist that continued, off and on, until his death; indeed, only a few weeks ago he did me the great favor of inscribing a copy of Little Big Man to my teenaged daughter.
Berger was reclusive enough that even his then-agent, Don Congdon, complained to me in 1978 of the difficulty of contacting his client. “He says he has no phone,” Congdon told me when I met him in New York to finalize Teddy V.’s radio contract.
I asked Berger if this were true. “It is true that I have no telephone,” he wrote in reply. “And thus I am immune to Mr. Congdon’s attacks, which are always timed so that they ruin one’s dinner. I detest the phone so much that I shudder when I hear one ring in a TV program.”
But he was unfailingly gracious and generous throughout our acquaintance. He offered fascinating – and fanciful – bits of biographical detail in those letters, as in answer to my claim to have seen him, stern-looking and bald, on a Manhattan sidewalk in 1978. “Whether all white men look alike is arguable,” he replied, “but it is quite true that to the hirsute we shaved pates cannot be distinguished each from each. Perhaps even amongst ourselves there is some doubt – ? Anyway, when I lived at Gramercy Park in Manhattan my double lived there as well, and I had the eerie feeling when I saw him go around the corner that I had got ahead of myself. This one was, I think, a male model: he was of course younger and more comely than I. And a longhaired cabbie in the late sixties told me I was a dead ringer for the drummer in a rock group whose name I have now forgotten.”
Berger’s 23 novels sit uniquely on the shelves of American Lit. Although they seem to occupy a variety of genres, they’re united by his devotion to the English language – one of several languages in which he was fluent. He reproduced the environment of his native Ohio during his boyhood years of the 1930s in Sneaky People and The Feud; he later lived in the Hudson Valley, which became the setting for Orrie’s Story, transplanting the Oresteia to small-town America during World War II.
He even delved into the Arthurian legends, keeping them in their own time and place but shading his language into a delightfully antique tone. I asked how he developed that tone – and where he found “kicky-wicky,” a synonym for “wife” that nobody would use in conversation these days.
“The only thing I should have to say about the language of Arthur Rex,” he wrote, “is that I compounded it by placing all the old masters in my mortar and beating them into a paste. Not only Malory but Spenser, Chaucer, the Jacobean translators of the Xian testaments, and of course Willy the Shake, in whose text of All’s Well That Ends Well (II, iii) can be found kicky-wicky, (which in fact I might well use in daily conversation: I tend to talk that way, which is why I’ve been a recluse for years). A would-be pundit (actually a punk) in Time taxed me with a supposedly erroneous use of mammet but was decent enough to apologize, in a private letter, when I patiently explained and gave my authority: Eric Partridge’s Shakespeare’s Bawdy.”
A couple of years after my radio adaptation of Teddy Villanova aired, Berger was asked to write a piece for the National Public Radio series Earplay. He sent me a copy of the script and, in response to my praise of it, wrote, “I suggested your Teddy, but they are purists who take only hitherto unproduced scripts. Then I sat down amongst the packing crates (having only just moved in) and wrote At the Dentist’s. What I tried to do is what you unerringly suggest in your statement about not being able to read it ‘without imagining a cast, music, and sound effects’; in short, to write for the ear, using all the devices at my disposal, and not to produce a banal transcription of a work properly to be found in another medium. It struck me that radio is the freest of all media, perhaps of all art! And typically, I think, proof of this can be found in the most modest of places, artistically speaking, viz. (and here my remarkable memory comes into play, though not Earplay), a Bob Hope Show in the late 1930's: Hope used to have a second banana called Jerry Colonna. As I remember, the scene went something like this. Colonna’s a locomotive engineer. He is offended by something Hope says and threatens to run his train right through Hope’s house. ‘That’s ridiculous,’ says Hope. A knock is heard at the door. Hope opens it, and the noise of a train roars through the radio.
“So I send my script to Earplay, from whom nothing is heard from July to November. Finally my agent inquires, and they claim the script has been lost. They are furnished with another. Meanwhile, some little flunkey writes me to the effect that they found the first script and carefully considered it (by committee, needless to say) and were disappointed to find that it was not much like my novels, which is the sort of thing they really wanted, and realized it was some sort of fantasy but unbelievable all the same, and perhaps something could be done to make it truer to life, or maybe I could write another play, etc? No, says I, that would be a waste of time for all of us, but thank you for your courtesy. Almost two months later, this fellow writes me a classic note, which shall be my first contribution to the Nilsson Collection of Radio Lore: ‘Did you mean a waste of time because you’re too busy with other things, or because you think we’re a bunch of idiots, or what? And would you like to try something else for us?’” At the Dentist’s eventually was produced and aired by Vermont Public Radio.
Berger also wrote for the stage, and his play Other People was produced by the Berkshire Theatre Festival in 1970, directed by Arthur Penn and starring Richard Mulligan as a man who has barricaded himself away from other people, and Marian Seldes as his not-too-indulgent wife. Berger described this as the most satisfying experience of his professional career and, when we had our single meeting in 1981, it formed the bulk of the conversation.
True to his claim, he spoke with the same care and formality that characterizes his fiction, so what I recreate here rarely serves the precision of what he actually said. He knew I had recently married, so my wife and I shared with him the bottle of Veuve Cliquot he bore.
“Marian Seldes was such a great actress,” he said, “that I quickly realized how excessive some of the dialogue was. I cut some lines, and I thought the scene was better, and she was so good that even that was excessive, and I cut some more – until Arthur Penn said that if I didn’t stop cutting lines, he’d throw me out of the rehearsal hall!”
Other People was slated for Broadway until the financing fell through, but another aspect of the process proved memorable.
“When I visit a book publisher,” said Berger, “I’m shown into an elegant office with handsome bookshelves all around, and seated in a comfortable armchair. Coffee is brought in on a tray and the publisher and I discuss the project on which I’m working. When I visited a play producer’s office, I was seated on a bench in a hallway. Around me were stacks of play scripts piled at least waist-high. I reached for the nearest one while I waited: it was a play by Paul Zindel. He’s a recognized writer, yet his work was in one of those piles! Someone came by to ask if I wanted coffee; when it was delivered, I was asked to pay for it. I now have great sympathy for playwrights.”
But crafting a novel was for Berger the ultimate exercise of his art, and he took pride in delivering a finished product that was truly finished. How difficult for him was the process of shaping a book for publication? “I accept no editing,” he said simply.
The business end of it required a similar diligence, he wrote early in our correspondence, but often resulted in frustration: “I am now owed an accumulation of fees amounting to many thousands of dollars ... and yet the weeks pass without the surrender of a penny. You have yet to learn the true preoccupation of the poor devil who makes a career of literature: it is almost exclusively mercenary. But then, so it has always been: Dr. Johnson, Balzac, et al.”
In 1982, I left a frustrating job to take the first steps towards a freelancing career. Berger offered some too-realistic encouragement: “Many years ago, prompted by my wife, I quit a decent but deadly job at Popular Science mag to begin writing Crazy in Berlin, which was not finished until four years later. My advance on that book was $1,000, and its earnings on its first publication were nowhere near that, amounting as I remember to little more than $600. However, once in print, a book is capable of extraordinary endurance, and next autumn my first novel will be republished for the sixth time (2 hardbacks, 4 papers).”
Berger made very few public appearances. I encouraged him to give a reading near my home in the Albany, NY, area, by telling him that John Barth had been kissed by a young woman after doing so. “I liked the story about Barth’s being kissed on the dais,” he wrote in reply. “During the period ‘73-75 I went about to a number of colleges, and I can testify to the beauty, charm, and, occasionally, the generosity of the American coed, but I cannot remember (and certainly I should) being the recipient of such exhibitionistic affection. At Southampton College, though, where I was, for two hours a week, Distinguished Visiting Professor in 1975, my best-looking student cornered me after class one day and forced me to accept the manuscript of an account of her term in a massage parlor, where every day she routinely masturbated scores of citizens. And this young woman was wife to a member of the faculty.”
Four of Berger’s novels have been filmed, but he has contributed nothing to that process, explaining, “... my real interest in a book of mine ends when it leaves my desk.” But he did tell me that he enjoyed his time on the set of Neighbors, watching the crew rig a house with gas jets in order to produce a convincing but manageable fire.
He wrote about movies for Esquire early in the 1970s; in 1972 he recalled how Vital Parts, his fifth novel, published two years earlier, almost made it to the screen with Milos Forman as director. Although Berger confesses himself to be “too lazy to learn a new craft, too vain to serve as a director’s subordinate, and too paranoid to work with other people,” he agreed to write a screenplay. It was not to be. Berger describes a work session in Forman’s hotel room with the director “in undershirt, chinos, and stocking feet, (lying) on an unmade bed, staring despondently aloft.
“His voice heavy with Slavic gloom, he says: ‘Tom! I am depressed. I have decided I am not the right director for this picture. It is too weird.’ Actually, he says veerrrd, long e, elaborately trilled r. ‘For this film (the producer) should get Hitchcock or Clouzot, somebody who could deal with this veerrrd subject.’”
Forman recalled the project in his 1993 autobiography Turnaround, describing Berger as “a tall, striking guy with a shaved head and a big, V-8 imagination constantly firing on all cylinders. We never stopped laughing and amusing one another. We’d conscientiously get together to work, then spend our time arguing the relative merits of film and literature.”
“I have not yet read his book,” Berger wrote when I quoted some of it to him, “though I intend to do so, for he’s a great fellow and I enjoyed my association with him. He is quite right in saying that we never stopped laughing and amusing one another, but the rest of what he says is cut from the whole cloth. Not once did we ever argue about the differences between literature and film, and never did I tell him literature was the superior art! Except for his hilarious stories about Prague, the topics of our conversations were confined to pussy and food. We ‘worked,’ if it could be called by that term, in his squalid room in the Hotel Chelsea – for, though now a rich man for two decades, he was then impoverished. But he was well-known to movie people, especially the Europeans, and the likes of Bergman’s Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman regularly were my fellow visitors.”
“I can’t tell you how gratified I am to receive the information you sent,” he replied. “It took me utterly by surprise. I own the miniature-type edition, to use which one of course must have enormous incentive, owing to the difficulty of reading the entries even with the magnifying glass provided, and though I nevertheless do turn to the great work on occasion, I wouldn’t have been likely ever to look up one or more of those five words. ... In any event I immediately turned to each of these words and read the citation. The dates given for Teddy V and R’s Wimmin are those of the respective British publications, in each case a year after the American.”
Last year I discovered that the OED’s fourth edition had increased his citations to nine, prompting him to write that, “as my religion is the worship of the English language, I consider (this) the greatest reward of my career. To learn that my appearances in this noble work have been doubled in the decades since is gratifying indeed.”
It countered the melancholy news that he no longer was working on a novel. In 2009, he’d e-mailed to say “I began a 24th novel late last year and by now have accumulated c. 150pp of it,” but when I asked about it the following spring, “it has been put aside,” he replied, “to be resumed when I get younger.”
An avid Kindle user during his last few years, Berger not only saw his novels make their ebook debuts but also agreed to collect a number of his short stories for the ebook-only collection Abnormal Occurrences, writing three new stories in the process.
“There are still a few pieces of short fiction that have gone uncollected,” Berger told me, “but they didn’t grab me when I reread them, and I decided to write the new stuff.”
In the end, it may be easier to note what Thomas Berger wasn’t: a comic novelist. He kindly assented to an epistolary interview in 1990, upon the publication of Orrie’s Story, and wrote, “I made an intentional effort to avoid anything that could be called comedy. I have never intended to be funny and have always disliked the label of ‘comic novelist,’ which has been applied to me by the humorless half-literates who read only to confirm received ideas. Orrie’s Story goes out of its way to be grim. Nevertheless, the anonymous buffoon who wrote the prepublication review for Publishers Weekly denounced it as an example of unsuccessful black comedy!”
I asked him if, despite the treachery and terror that runs through much of his work, he was essentially an optimist. “It is extraordinarily keen of you to make that recognition!” he answered. “Only recently did I do so myself. I had always assumed I believed the worst, but that was before I had lived sufficiently long to understand that hopelessness is the ultimate sentimentality.”
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