Thursday, 31 July 2014

THOMAS BERGER: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY


My obituary of Thomas Berger is up at the Guardian online; you can link to it here. It should appear in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, except that my final line was omitted, which I thought was a shame, since it was a quote from Berger: 'real life is unbearable for me unless I can escape into fiction.'

I may have been a little harsh in calling him a 'recluse'. He appears to have been, like JD Salinger, not trying to avoid the world, not a hermit, but merely fed up with the business of the literary world, and trying to avoid its distraction. Like Salinger, he appears to have been very much a part of his small-town community. And unlike Salinger, he produced his fiction steadily.

That fiction was something he, and the reader, could escape into. You often got the sense in his novels that he was following not the plot, or the character, but the way the prose sounded, what he might call 'the tone', and that if you were not in tune with that you might be missing a great deal. He was a playful novelist (though that term would probably make him bristle, as he was deadly serious about it) in the post-modern sense.

A number of writers have claimed that Little Big Man is not his best book, which is fair game. But a few years ago in the Guardian someone named Tom Cox outsmarted us all by saying it was 'far from Berger's best novel', but what the picaresque epic style does is allow Berger to mix his tones, and the changes fit so well with each of Crabb's tales it keeps the reader involved.

Sometimes I got the sense, as in Teddy Villanova that Berger was trying to say something about the hard-boiled genre itself that I wasn't getting, or that wasn't particularly new. But it is that need to comment on, if not deconstruct, with his fiction, that reminded me of the Coens, and made me think they would be well-matched with a novel like The Feud.

I read somewhere that Berger was one of the last major novelists who served in World War II. James Salter springs to mind as one who is still with us, but I am hard-pressed to think of another. I tend to link Berger the with slightly younger writers who dove into what the critics began calling meta-fictions, Barth, Pynchon.But it's not a strong parallel because truly he was one of a kind.

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