Thomas Berger Berger, Thomas (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Berger, Thomas 1924–

An American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and editor, Berger is best known for his satiric caricatures of American life. He deals often with paradox, exploring the human struggle with absurdity, America's myths, and the deceptiveness of modern society. Fantasy, hyperbole, attention to detail, and a love of language are important elements in Berger's style. Little Big Man is generally considered his best work. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 8, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Ihab Hassan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Crazy in Berlin takes its epigraph from an old song: "You are crazy, my child; You must go to Berlin…." Title and epigraph provide a suitable focus to the shifting and multicolor meanings of the book. Private Carlo Reinhart is barely twenty-one years old when he arrives in Berlin, singular, thoughtful, and innocent, a mammoth-sized child of life's ambiguities. He leaves the city on a medical discharge from the "psycho" ward of the Army hospital. As for Berlin itself, it is a clever cynosure of the conflicts which permeate the action of the novel…. Berger, pressing his symbolism still further, makes [Berlin] the scene of a cloak and dagger story, of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence men, and of Double Agents, engaged in a monstrous mummery of illusion and reality, truth and falsehood, right and wrong. Nothing is ever what it seems to be…. There is no resolution to the contradictions it contains. Except, of course, the non-resolution furnished by grim irony, by that strange kind of comedy, black, satirical, gallows humor, which is indigenous to Berlin—recollections of the drawings and cartoons of Simplicissimus come to mind—and which qualifies the final apprehension of life in Crazy in Berlin. Baudelaire, Joyce, and Eliot, we recall, have chosen to define for us, in compelling, ironic forms, the nature of modern paralysis by a metaphor of the Unholy City: Paris, Dublin, and London. Moving in the same literary tradition, Berger now adds Berlin, in some ways a more grotesque symbol of conscience grappling with incongruity, of guilt and illusion running amuck under the leering sign of comedy. The book, in short, rests on the point where madness and humor meet.

The hero—despite all the ambiguities contained in the novel, Reinhart emerges a hero—is a medic affiliated with the Occupation Army…. [Here] is the old theme of the American abroad once again, innocence staring experience in the face again, in the shape of Nazi horrors. The facts overreach his imagination, yet his will to understand persists. When Reinhart destroys gratuitously the lovely contents of an old German mansion, he reflects: "Yes, that was surely Nazism, that passion to destroy simply because it could be got away with…. Who wouldn't be a criminal if it weren't for the police?"… Reinhart, who had hitherto thought of himself as a lover and victim without portfolio, can now whisper to himself, "once, anyway, you were not a victim."… This is a crucial point in the moral development of the novel. For the education of Reinhart can be said to consist of this: a discovery of the real import of victimization, and the further discovery that victimization in itself is not enough. To put it more baldly: the recognition of one's guilt is the beginning rather than the end of responsibility.

The tortuous process of this recognition leads Reinhart through a gallery of odd characters who exhibit in their relations all the obscure tensions and aversions of American, German, and Russian, of Communist, Nazi, and Jew. (pp. 5-7)

In this elusive narrative, of comic and absurd experience, there is a superstructure of ideology, but also an underground of erotic impulses. Between the two, the existential morality of the novel defines itself in concrete and critical actions. This is the structural principle which qualifies the principle of incongruity in the book.

Ideology is a function of the intelligence behind Crazy in Berlin. It is the play of a mind bent both on understanding and denying itself. Hence the brilliant and unreal character—unreal because partial, abstract, and coercive—of political discourse…. Ideology is finally reduced to the unique incongruity of every man.

And so is the erotic motive. There is a good deal of sex in this novel, prurient and refined, but much of it seems totally unrelated to anything else in the book. This may be precisely the point. The public concept of love has all but vanished and sex remains a private path to sanity. Civilization—or what goes nowadays by that name—can take care of itself. Thus does Reinhart address himself: "Organize your sex life and all else followed, the phallus being the key to the general metropolis of manhood, which most of the grand old civilizations knew…."… (pp. 7-8)

Standing back far enough from the novel, we can recognize that below the surface of trickery, illusionism, and incongruity lies a simple morality. Berger seems to assert, after all, that the first truth shall be the last. This ends by putting a double burden on Crazy in Berlin. First, it makes the moral vision of the book actually simpler than the book had led us to believe. And second, it makes...

(The entire section is 1950 words.)

L. L. Lee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Little Big Man] is a most American novel. Not just in its subject, its setting, its story (these are common matters), but in its thematic structures, in its dialectic: savagery and civilization, indeed, but also the virgin land and the city, nature and the machine, individualism and community, democracy and hierarchy, innocence and knowledge, all the divisive and unifying themes of the American experience, or, more precisely, of the American "myth." In other words, Berger's novel is an attempt to explore that mythic experience from the viewpoint of the twentieth century American, intellectual and sensitive, wishing to discover unity, and yet almost desperately aware of division. And so, as with most American novelists, the meanings Berger finds are ambiguous, ironic, inevitably multiple.

It is out of his desire to explore the myth, and yet not to become the sentimental victim of it, that Berger, I suggest, chose his form, i.e., the picaresque; and it is the eminent suitability of form to themes that makes the novel successful, a neat complexity of idea and story. It is the picaresque's tone and shape that allow the novelist to be in the experience and still observe it from the outside; for, although the picaresque is at bottom realistic, it does make room for the extraordinary, for symbolic comment. And too, the picaresque, with its wide range of action and of society, is another way of making a microcosm…. (pp. 35-6)

Little Big Man is a comedy, yes, a fact we must keep in mind in even the most solemn of papers. Still, the novel does (and this is almost a mark of the picaresque) grow more serious as it progresses. Of course, such a change of tone has its dangers, and LBM does not escape completely. The "Foreword" and the first few chapters are sometimes mere farce; and the final sections come very close, with their foggy nostalgia for a simpler America, to the purely sentimental.

Nevertheless, the thematic patterns are introduced and clinched by the beginning and end. Ralph Fielding Snell's frame story is a strained imitation of John Ray, Jr.'s foreword to Lolita, no doubt; yet Snell and his world are functional, not only in that the frame gives Jack Crabb's memoirs a certain aesthetic distance, allowing us to accept them as true, but also in that Snell, his father, and the people he meets are symbols of modern America. (p. 36)

[A] major theme, perhaps the major positive theme, of the novel is that the truly worthy man is the individual—individualism, for Berger, meaning to have the courage and...

(The entire section is 1068 words.)

Jay Gurian

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is satire and incongruity which strike the reader about [Little Big Man] especially because both are so seldom used as important style devices in western writing. Berger has Jack Crabb tell (into a tape recorder when he is over 100) what happened to him from 1852 to 1876. (p. 286)

[The] picaresque pattern of the first half of the novel, is sometimes too involved and too fragmentary…. [Crabb] is a bounder, gold miner, gambler, gun-slinger, speculator, sharper, laborer, teamster, buffalo hunter, and finally an unwanted scout for General Custer in the Little Big Horn campaign. This entirely "Western," lawless, reckless, and shiftless career is climaxed when Crabb is the only true...

(The entire section is 748 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The chain of events in "Neighbors"] makes no sense. Nor will the novel ever provide a key to why Earl's placid suburban life has suddenly gone haywire. On the other hand, it makes all the sense in the world, the way a dialogue by Eugene Ionesco makes sense. "Neighbors" parodies all the rituals of neighborliness—the competitiveness, the bonhommie, the striving for civility in the face of what seems to be barbarism—and compresses into a single day a lifetime of over-the-back-fence strife.

I do wish the surprise ending flowed a little more logically out of the plot's beguiling irrationality, and that Mr. Berger had explained the mysterious reappearance of a missing house key—which pokes a small black hole in the plot into which a little of its energy leaks. Still, I read the novel feeling by turns curious, irritated, enraged, amused, and frightened, but never for an instant did I lose interest. Robert Frost may have argued that good fences make good neighbors. Thomas Berger demonstrates that shotguns and kicks in the the groin do even better. (p. 240)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "'Neighbors'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 1, 1980 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. III, No. 6, 1980, pp. 239-40).

Thomas R. Edwards

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In "Neighbors" Thomas Berger makes dark comic art out of neighborliness. The novel begins quietly, as Earl and Enid Keese, in their exurban house at the end of a lonely road, wonder if they shouldn't have asked the new couple next door over for a drink. (p. 1)

[From] edgy beginnings in rudeness and deceit, Mr. Berger develops a tale of domestic guerrilla warfare next to which the broadest television sit-com seems pallid and genteel….

This immensely funny knock-about farce manages to express serious matters without advertising them as such. At one point Harry casually observes that whereas Earl thinks results matter, he himself values motives, and the distinction could serve as a...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

Isa Kapp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is a mystery of literary criticism that Thomas Berger, one of the most ambitious, versatile, and entertaining of contemporary novelists, is hardly ever mentioned in the company of America's major writers. He is a wit, a fine caricaturist, and his prose crackles with Rabelaisian vitality. His phenomenal ear for oddnesses of speech appropriates as readily the grey malapropisms of the silent majority in Reinhart in Love ("I know you'll be taking advantage of the G.I. Bill," says the hero's dad, "full tuition paid and in addition this generous emollient per the month of expenses. A wonderful opportunity, and one never before vouchfaced to the American veteran.") as the winning tall-tale garrulousness of...

(The entire section is 786 words.)

Michael Malone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Critics have agreed since Crazy in Berlin that Berger is "one of the finest writers alive," one of the "living greats," one of "a small group of important American writers," but they have been uneasy about defining exactly in what this greatness resides…. What is most immediately evident about Berger is that he is a writer who loves to write (not always the case with writers). He has said that he's at work not to expose or change the world but to provide himself with an alternative; he writes for the sake of creation. We can trace his trying out, with obviously exuberant relish, the possibilities of his craft, of that amorphous something called prose narrative: Fantasy parable in Regiment of Women, the...

(The entire section is 833 words.)