Last Testament


by John Berryman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 254 pp., $6.95
John Berryman
John Berryman; drawing by David Levine

Touchende mi confession
I axe an absolucion
Of Genius, er that I go.
—John Gower, Confessio Amantis

The confessions of John Berryman’s last two books of poems, Love & Fame (1970) and the posthumous Delusions, Etc. (1972), are continued in the novel Recovery which he left unfinished when he killed himself in January, 1972. It is about as much a novel as those other last books are poems. They had lines and rhymes, and flashes of Berryman’s verbal genius. Recovery has a sort of story in the progress of its confessions: confession is the chief method of treatment in the clinic for alcoholics that is its setting, confession repeated and repeated until, supposedly, some kind of purgation takes place. There is a hero, a figure called Dr. Alan Severance; there are other figures with other names, and there are flashes of the author’s sharp intelligence and wit. But its plot, setting, characters, thought, or diction are scarcely even pieces of novelistic machinery in this book. They do not beguile us into revelation, we are spilled into it at once. The novel’s reason for being, like that of the last two books of poems, is the author’s confession. A prefatory note tells us,

I don’t write as a member of the American and international society, Alcoholics Anonymous (founded 1935), but as an author merely who has experienced certain things, witnessed things, heard things, imagined some. The materials of the book, however, especially where hallucinatory, are historical; all facts are real; ladies and gentlemen, it’s true. J. B.

Who would presume to judge this? The pain must have been such as he neared the end that just getting it anyhow off his chest was some relief; and, moreover, he hoped that confession might let him face his life, and be better, and go on living. Anyone would be sorry a man was driven to this exposure. But hold them cheap, the mind’s cliffs of fall, may who ne’er hung there. Even so, he kept trying to get it into literature, and in some ways he did.

We always try to dig out the private lives of public persons and put together private and public. Much of our literature consists of just this. It wasn’t always so, of course. Perhaps the ancients couldn’t imagine the split we assume between private and public, between a man’s feelings and thoughts and deeds alone or in his family, and what he wrote or said and did that made him important. And then, in the small communities of one language that used to be, the few who cared knew naturally, couldn’t help knowing. If they wrote it down it was almost accidentally, as John Aubrey did (one of Berryman’s talismans). Berryman became a public man as a writer, and if for all his prizes and Life photographs and his concern for his…

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