OBSERVATIONS FROM A CORRESPONDENCE:
Our correspondence began in 1963 when Berger wrote to the anonymous reviewer of Reinhart in Love in the Times Literary Supplement to express his delight in the "generous review" and to say, "I should like to hear from you if you care to reveal yourself." Thus, the origin of our friendship was contrived by an ironic fate whose management of the world follows precisely the principle observable in Berger’s fiction: reality confounds expectations, and not only are ends unpredictable but the causes themselves are mysterious: the essential human condition is to be witnessed during one night in the life of Earl Keese.
Naturally, he was astonished that the anonymous reviewer was not, as he had conjectured, an expatriate American with a knowledge of the Midwest, but was not even an Englishman: the revelation of my identity was evidence that the universe was peopled by inventions of a Bergerian imagination. Berger was then writing Little Big Man (his second letter to me, of 22 October 1963, mentions having written over 500 pages of it—but "I have put it aside for a time and am repainting my house and preparing to go grouse hunting.") where Jack Crabb, introduced to his guardian who looks like one of the "old-time strong men, immediately got the idea we’d be traveling around to the opera houses, giving shows, lifting sixteen midgets with one hand, breaking iron chains and all," but the man with the enormous belly turns out to be "another goddam preacher," the Reverend Pendrake. The fantasy that precedes the knowledge of identity is invariably bizarre, but often the revelation of knowledge (as in Reinhart’s world), both in art and in life, is so shockingly contradictory to the world of appearances that it seems to have been contrived by a fantastical imagination. It is not so. Berger has a phrase for it: it is the way reality operates.
There is, of course, more than a biographical interest to a writer’s correspondence, for the letters of any serious writer are also a record of his intellectual history. What follows are quotations from Berger’s letters to me during the last twenty years; I have selected mainly the statements that might prove illuminating to students of his work; I have included a few not so much for what they say but for the exquisite manner in which they are phrased; and I have slipped in two or three for no other reason
than that they give me a particular pleasure. In rereading the several hundred letters, I was struck by the precision of Berger’s prose, and it occurred to me that even in his informal and spontaneous use of language his passion for, and mastery of, the precise phrasing of an idea, finding the style and the idiom appropriate to the idea, is his dominant instinct. Rather than interpolate critical banality in the guise of learned commentary, the quotations are presented on their own, but I have added footnotes where editorial comment seemed necessary; I have also abjured the temptation of grouping them according to themes, leaving them in their original chronological order. The date of the letter from which each quotation is taken is printed after each selection.
* * *
I had an idea for a new novel on a contemporary theme, but realized after three days’ work that I so loathed current reality that I could not write it. Therefore, I began my own version of the Arthurian tales.
Have you ever read Montherlant? I finally am reading The Bachelors,1 which I have owned in a Penguin edition for years, and it’s marvelous.
I have finished my third play, THE SIAMESE TWINS, about a pair of Siamese Twins, appropriately enough. Now, I must revise my first play, OTHER PEOPLE, for the fourth time. I have also begun a new novel, an Orwellian sort of book on a future age in which the ideals of women’s liberation have been realized.
In preparation for Fellini’s film of the Satyricon, I finally read Petronius, in the translation made by Wm. Arrowsmith. . . . Petronius, Yes. Arrowsmith, Yes. Fellini, No! I found the last-named unbearable, though picturesque.
The fourth revision of my first play is apparently acceptable to the director and now we must give it to the producer, who must raise the money for Broadway. A very slow process, no doubt leading to utter oblivion. The percentage of success on Broadway is something like 5. No matter; I enjoy the work.
At the moment my themes are represented by that in RRR,2 and I enjoy writing plays. In fact, it’s all I really care to do now. I have signed up with Simon & Schuster to do two novels, but I am interested only in the money. My passion has been transferred to the theater.
My feeling that not just America but the West is finished is based on a conviction that when a civilization becomes obsessed with its deficiencies, it is degenerating.
I have myself given up writing for the theater, at least temporarily, owing to the difficulty in getting a play produced nowadays.
I have returned to playwriting because it is all I enjoy nowadays. I have written an act and a half of something called The Restaurant, which is about many things including the names of foods.
Americans, you know, despise machinery and all other material things as well. This is sometimes incorrectly seen as worship. They worship the idea of technology but have contempt for the product thereof. The moon is littered with expensive gadgets abandoned by the astronauts. The French will never go there, I predict, unless they can bring back everything they took along. The Pakistanis will go to the moon without having made provision for the return trip. The English will be ready to go, but on the launching day they will instead drive to the country, eat cottage pie in a pub, and collect wild flowers: the rocket will go up unmanned and come down in Scotland, and a satirical play will be performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the nude, deriding the whole thing.
For some reason, a wonderful legal phrase occurs to me at this point. It is the finishing touch to a statement given in writing by a witness, I believe: "Further the deponent sayeth not." I intend to have that carved on my tombstone.
I’m not interested in the cinema, to be frank; nor in literature, painting, or any of the other arts. I care only for individual pictures,
books, films. . . .
I’m never comfortable unless I am working, however much, when working, I yearn to finish what I’m working on.
Beginning a book is always difficult for me, and I squander several hours each day before settling down and squeezing out a page—at the end of which I feel extraordinarily well, not only because I’ve done something but also because I can have a drink as reward.
I’m having a hellish time trying to begin a new novel. Several hours of agony produce one page, and then I read it and think it’s rubbish.
I have loathed doing the Esquire column3 since the second or third number. I’m simply not a critic by nature, at least not that sort, and I resent having to look at a work of art or entertainment and then write about it. If it’s good, it is sufficient in itself. If bad, not worth talking about.
We live in an age of narcissistic exhibitionists, Ghose, cheap little entertainers who bare their arses to great applause and masturbate publicly for an encore.
The Esquire people took me to lunch the other day at La Grenouille . . . and suggested my doing some article or another for $1,500. On the strength of this I went afterwards to Dunhills and purchased a box of the largest Montecruzes available, a jacket at Brooks, and several other items of apparel—and then the next day decided the last thing I wanted to do was to write a fucking article on the Situation of the Sexes 1973 or whatever, and turned them down. Half the cigars are already gone up in smoke. The jacket has not yet been delivered.
The one art to which I was at all exposed as a child was music; my mother played the piano some and did some amateur singing. And my home town, Cincinnati, is known as a provincial music center, with a symphony orchestra, two colleges of music, and a summer opera season. World-renowned soloists visited the city every year. It was therefore predictable that I should be utterly unmusical.
When I was a boy, everyone in the Midwest heated his house with coal, which was delivered by the ton-load, dumped into the street in front of one’s house. This had to be taken by wheelbarrow round the house to a chute into the cellar. In our case there was no proper chute, but simply a cellar window through which one emptied the wheelbarrow. I often performed the chore, which was one of the services for which I was paid a weekly allowance of fifty cents. I also shoveled away snow when it fell, and in summer mowed the lawn. I was more prudent with money then than I am now, Ghose: I invariably saved at least half of that weekly allowance. After many years I had something like $19.00 in the bank. But childish pleasures meant little to me. Even then I wanted to live in a penthouse. I am an extraordinarily simpleminded and stubborn chap, with more or less the same tastes
my life long.
My trouble is that, unlike you, I enjoy very little in reality, except that which I usually cannot afford. I generally go back to writing because only my own fantasies interest me for long. More and more I believe my work is futile, but it bores me less than what I would do in my leisure.
On my last visit to Boston, a city which I have always enjoyed as a stranger to it, I decided that I should rather cut my throat than live there. Now I am considering the countryside near New York.4 Provincial American cities evoke in me a terrible feeling of desolation as evening falls and the citizenry retires to home, hearth, peevish wife and importunate children. Whereas in Manhattan at any hour of the night one can step into the street and encounter a werewolf or at least a derelict who will vomit on one’s shoes. How can I exist in a place in which I am not reminded incessantly that only man is vile?
[William Jay] Smith told me some good stories of Auden, whom he knew well, and I countered with tales of Groucho Marx, but he topped me by quoting a remark of Groucho’s I had never heard: "A man is as old as the woman he feels."
I have also been reading Paul Valéry’s collection of aphorisms, Analects: many of them are sublime. From so much brilliance
however it is difficult to retain much. Malraux’s art criticism is
I hadn’t remembered that Pound disparaged Shaw and I don’t think I ever heard your opinion, but I’m delighted to hear that you both find him trivial. I agree. Shaw has always seemed a journalist and not really a literary man. It’s his tendentiousness, I think, that keeps him trivial. He’s always out to solve social problems—the sure sign of a superficial practitioner.
I have written about 30 pages of my third attempt since finishing SNEAK PEEP three-quarters of a year ago, but as yet I can’t make up my mind about it. Sometimes it seems OK when I’m drunk, and sometimes when I’m sober, but never does it seem the same when I’m in one state and enter another.
Henry James. He is someone to contend with, but an awful lot is missing—how much can be seen by comparing him with Proust. His sexual sensibility is that of a Victorian maiden of the upper class: he seems to ache to be deflowered. And I think it was Chesterton who said something to the effect that James’s work was too well-written and therefore slightly vulgar.
I have been reading in a collection of De Quincey. . . . Quite a marvelous writer, a wild, mad fellow, who apparently was seldom able to gather enough effort to sustain an entire book. . . . Hazlitt, more or less a contemporary of his, and extravagantly admired ever since, I have always felt somewhat overrated: he writes beautifully, but his matter is rather banal to my mind. But DeQ is forever surprising. His famous "On Murder as One of the Fine Arts" is genuinely witty, and its appendix, an account of some multiple murders in London, is a superb work of journalism. His is an unfettered spirit.
I find that I now can read only the true fanatics with any feeling of affinity: those who in courage or desperation abandon any attempt to address an audience of cretins and speak exclusively to themselves
Genuine dialogue doesn’t sound genuine when put in the written
language. One must make it synthetic so that it sounds authentic.
Linguistics belongs to sociology; as such, it exalts "peoples" (who don’t really exist) and tends to neglect the individual artist, who invariably works under a strict discipline, sometimes defying received standards but only because he has earned the right to do so by having mastered them.
[Linguistics] is of some interest, but fundamentally, I think, the people who pursue it hate literature, and seldom miss an opportunity to disparage the written word in favor of the spoken.
I am through the first volume of Montherlant’s LES JEUNES FILLES, which I am reading alongside the translation, and after 248 pp. I find my comprehension of the original has improved to a point at which I can understand about one sentence in four before consulting the English.
Never in the history of the language, I think, has there been such a contemptible audience for the written word. The Victorian reformers looked forward to a golden age in which the mass of men were literate. What has instead happened is that the mass are intellectually what they’ve always been: a nullity; but the elite have degenerated utterly.
I am reading Smollett’s PEREGRINE PICKLE, one I missed twenty-five years ago. Needless to say, no one has ever noticed S’s influence on me, but now some of the young people who are writing on my work have at least got to Dickens—because I told them to look there.
When I met [Koestler]5—after he said something favorable about KILLING TIME—he said he could not help trying to "save the world." He said this wryly, of course, and then asked me whether I felt the same urge. I said no, that I wouldn’t walk across the street to save the world, because I did not see it as a problem to which there was a solution. . . . Existence seems to me to be simply there. It is certainly basically painful, but the true pain, beneath the inconveniences that can be dealt with, is not the kind of thing that can be eradicated by scientists or economists
or politicians or mass religious movements; although to individuals involved in these, life may be more gratifying than it would be without a cause. . . . No one will starve to death if he discovers a means by which to make fertile a field in which nothing has previously grown. The caretaker here sprays the trees on the property and thus the fruit is edible. Just outside [the property] stands an apple tree on which about 99% of the fruit is full of worms. The sprays, though, as we all know, also have a deleterious effect, however small, on other forms of life. It is because of this fundamental reciprocity, which maintains the principle of constant damage in the universe, that I do not see life as responsive to any "cure."
I couldn’t myself survive in any society that eliminated its eccentrics, perverts, monsters, and madmen. This is my only remaining political conviction at the age of 51.
Writing has always been utterly unnatural for me, a product of the will and not the spirit. I must force myself to do it; never has it been the surrender to an irresistible impulse: it is rather the overcoming of my natural and passionately negative wish to be totally at rest, i.e., not to exist—better; never to have existed.
Reading a book about Freud’s association with one of his early followers, a man named Tausk who blew out his own brains eventually, I come upon some interesting statements Freud made in his old age: "In the depths of my heart I can’t help being convinced that my dear fellow men, with few exceptions, are worthless." Also: "I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash." This after a lifetime of peering intensely into human souls.
I lately read James’ GOLDEN BOWL, the only famous one of the Old Pretender period that I had never got round to, and found it pure language, with no social reference whatever, really, or none that anyway "gives a picture of its time"; and does so much more successfully, I think, without playing the tiresome games, than FINEGGANS WAKE. It is of course, like everything in James, especially the late work, and perhaps like everything in American literature (an old theory of mine), a kind of burlesque
at bottom, because America has never really existed except as a product of the will.
I am reading Jane Austen’s letters; most of them were written to her sister Cassandra and concern meals, gowns, and hats, with no echo of the outside world, though Napoleon was extant at the time. They are very fine.
I have no desire to impart knowledge to strangers, I’m afraid. I am an absolute elitist, and believe the good things of the mind belong to the select, who will claim them regardless of my aid— though indeed to furnish aid to the potentially superior, when they can be found, is gratifying.
Few critics (most of whom are anyway illiterate) understand how close I am always, even in the Midwestern novels with their patois and their peculiarly American banality, to the traditions of English literature since Beowulf, and how many echoes could be heard were the listening ear not made of tin.
I have turned now from Baudelaire’s essays, in which his brilliance is often as searing as the unfiltered sun’s—reminding me thereby of Nietzsche’s—to the Fleurs du mal, than which, I think, no poetry is purer or could be. There is virtually no explicit moral content; yet the implicit morality is sublime.
. . . the great [writers] are what I would call scrupulous swindlers: that which they ask you to buy being not what, in your ignorance, you think you are being sold, nor what you think you need, but rather something you will come to see as more precious than either of those—and, at any rate, it’s the best available, which I add with the typical irony of modernity.
. . . I have rarely used real persons as models for fiction. . . . My fictive personages are of the whole cloth, and never more so than in their physical attributes. They are purely constructions of language; . . . Jack Crabb is small because it amused me to have R. F. Snell see him first, in the LBM preface, as a vulture, sitting in, I think, a wheelchair and wearing a swallowtail coat. I will ruthlessly deform any character in the interests of some
phrase that pleases me, dwarfing the Colossus of Rhodes and elevating a pygmy, blinding here, there furnishing three eyes, and planting magenta hair on someone’s scalp if it will serve my caprice.
Almost nobody in the English-speaking world cares about style. My own is noticed only to be condemned. What even the cultured reader wants (especially the cultured reader) is to be confirmed in his own platitudes, moral, political, and most of all linguistic. Of course he can be prepared and manipulated by a great troop of beaters going on before, crying: "Here comes Joyce!" But then they study Joyce and do not read him, and for his part, he goes on, he writes so that he cannot be read but must be studied.
And you and I have the disadvantage of living in a time when a century of mass education has brought about the triumph of illiteracy—the most sinister and subtle kind, infecting the intelligentsia. Hoi polloi are never affected one way or the other intellectually. Peasants have precisely the same quality of mind as those of the Middle Ages; and the sensibility of workingmen has not changed since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution: laboring fewer hours and earning greater wages has had its physical effects, of course, but worked no change on the brain. The middle classes too are frozen in time and only feint towards degeneration. You will have noticed the incoming flow of prudery following the ebb, some years ago, during the fake sexual revolution. But the intelligentsia are thoroughly polluted and faithlessly go through their impotent rituals, the eunuchs of sociology and psychiatry, slaves to spite and envy. Nietzsche saw this a hundred years ago, but of course nobody reads him.
One of these days, Ghose, some cunning demagogue will discover that most of the human race does not menstruate, being either of the wrong sex, or, if of the right one, too young or too old, and a new minority cause will be born, Menstrual Liberation.
Without the support of the masters I should wander without purpose. And often one is aided most, at a certain point, by reading translations. . . . I was greatly helped while writing CRAZY IN BERLIN by reading Scott-Moncrieff’s Proust, Carlyle’s version of Goethe’s WILHELM MEISTER, and Lang, Leaf and Myers’
ILIAD, each of which made its peculiar contribution, which would not have been the same had I read them in the original language.
I have begun my Arthurian narrative, somewhat shakily as always at the outset. In preparation I have read Geoffrey of Monmouth’s HISTORY OF THE KINGS OF BRITAIN. . . .
But even in English Proust is a universe. His seems to me without question the greatest novel ever written, almost the only work in prose fiction which would be admitted to the summit of Olympus, where Homer, Virgil, Dante, Goethe and of course our Will sit in congress.
[On The Faerie Queene:] However, I must confess that unlike other works of great magnitude that I have read it has not yet ever seemed sublime, and after 1200 pages I don’t know that I am in any respect different from what I was when I began the poem last winter.
Nietzsche has suffered badly from mistranslation in the past, and even more severely from misinterpretation. He detests Christian ethics, for example, and thus despises socialism and its liberal dilutions, because it celebrates the victim. But what might be called Right Wing-ism is no more attractive to him; he abhorred nationalism and militarism so much that he became a Swiss citizen in rejection of the Germany of his day. His vision is utterly original, and one cannot understand him unless one puts aside such assumptions as that the poor are necessarily morally superior to the rich or that victims are necessarily heroes. He plunges through such surfaces, rejects such false disjunctions. . . . He is one of the great masters of the German language, incidentally, and delights in puns and other sorts of wordplay that, as we know, are never merely "play," whereas what journalists and politicians and social scientists speak is never serious.
. . . for some time I have been entertaining the theory that, contrary to the received idea, the better a novel, the less it "gives a picture of its time" or of "society." This came to me while reading THE GOLDEN BOWL a year or so ago, and . . . I was convinced that James’s was an altogether imaginative construction, which
said absolutely nothing about the society of its time. Nor did Proust, nor Flaubert, nor Stendhal, nor Balzac. They spoke rather of their own imaginations, society being the pretext for such exercise.
Since expectation is so much a part of the means by which we apprehend language, one finds himself expecting the usual, i.e., the clichéd response, and often the response which comes from a Stendhalian character eludes the routine only by a precise little word or two. This is especially interesting to me because my own work has frequently been misread by persons too illiterate or lazy to read exactly what I say, which is rarely, behind the mask, routine. My pleasure is in making the mesh of the mask so fine that it allows entrance only to the finer sensibilities.
Most criticism is merely superficial tourism.
Mass communications are the killers of eloquent speech—as mass religions are deicides.
Primitive society is very sexual in its government. Civilization proceeds towards the eunuch ideal.
In South America, I expect one must choose between fascism and communism, and if it comes to that, the latter is preferable because the former is always necessarily illiterate. But the irony is that when communism comes to power it soon takes from all writers the right to write as they wish. . . . I continue rhetorically to ask the same question, and never hear an answer: Why, then, do most writers of the non-Communist world show such a sympathy for, or at least a great tolerance of, left-wing totalitarianism? Until, of course, they suddenly find themselves living under it, and then comes the terrible disillusionment.
Envy, my dear fellow, is more operative in the affairs of men than is lust or greed—indeed it might be said that greed and lust are merely among the masks that envy assumes.
. . . the more I read of fin de siècle France, the more I appreciate Proust’s powers of invention. But ad hominem approaches to
literature always seem to me to be deluded—except when applied to inferior writers; good ones cannot write disguised autobiography; try as they will, it turns into art.
My recent books mean little if taken literally: the meaning disappears if the text is unraveled. I suppose that won’t be understood for fifty years, if then.
Reading has always been much more vivid to me than experience. The passages in LBM most praised by Western scholars concern places I had never visited until after the book was published.
Jane Austen whom you found yourself reading in preference to trudging for the first time through Trollope and Meredith. . . . One yawns indeed at the very mention of those names T and M. Meredith may be ideal for a BBC dramatization, now that they’ve done Trollope and Galsworthy—this is the sort of thing that Americans who hate literature adore: ladies with their hair piled up and chaps in waistcoats with gold chains, all talking rubbish before potted ferns.
Yet, with only a change to an older style of costume, what do the birds and blokes talk about in Austen? It should be rubbish as well, but it is not. Instead, it is language of extraordinary energy—ardor, really—and one feels an answering passion. Trollope is a superior journalist, by which I mean that he performs efficiently enough, but his subject is already dead before he sets out: which is generally true of the "social" sort of novelist who sets out to write "about" some milieu. But the great ones, such as Proust and Austen, are always writing about themselves, which of course has nothing to do with autobiography, perhaps is even alien to it.
Needless to say, I was pleased to hear your comments on SNEAKY PEOPLE. I was especially delighted by what you said about the plotting thereof, because the plot is something I have never given ten seconds’ thought to throughout my career. Such plots as I use have developed organically, as it were, from the style. The SP plot resulted from a collaboration by the principal characters, but then that happens in every book I write.
I’ve all but completed my tenth novel. This one’s in an unusual style which resembles that of my plays: a kind of abstraction, without the usual thick loam of sociological detail under foot.
I have accumulated 225 pp. of a work in progress entitled REINHART’S WOMEN and am at long last getting around to reading Corneille’s Le Cid in French, having completed La Rochefoucauld, begun in Maine! But I’ll leave you now with a maxim from Escoffier:
28 Feb 1980
Your previous letter, with its reference to "The Kreutzer Sonata," sent me back to that remarkable story and then, because they were in the same volume, to read "Family Happiness" and "Man and Master" for the first time and to reread the masterpiece, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich." Tolstoy has never been one of my favorites, but one cannot fail to recognize that he is a master of prose narrative. I submit to his authority in spite of my lack of sympathy for his authorial voice, which has a hectoring tone. However, his maniacal obsessions do not usually interfere with the fiction, and in the "Kreutzer" he actually manages to give the leading character his own insane compound of driving lust conjoined with demonic Puritanism—and make art from it! My own NEIGHBORS, by the way, is a kind of surrealist translation of "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," updated, Americanized—I suddenly understood this while reading the Tolstoyan [version], which I absorbed many years ago. This is but another confirmation of my theory that if one stuffs oneself with nothing but masterpieces, one has at least a chance of producing some passable work of his own.
Since the beginning of the year I have been studying, fairly regularly, both classical Greek and Latin. . . . I should like to be able to understand the construction of a line from Aeschylus if the literal meaning is at hand.
I’ve begun another novel, at least the fourth beginning since I finished Reinhart’s Women. But this is the right one: somehow
I always know this, as I always know when it’s not right, though I might well go on writing for years.
UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN
1Titles of books are printed here as they appear in the correspondence.