David Betteridge offers an appreciation of the late, great John Berger.
There are some authors whose way with words not only reflects a way of living, but also excites it. It has a moral force as well as an aesthetic sense. John Berger, who died on 2 January, was an author of this kind.
Year on year, since he began his writing career with art criticism for the New Statesman in the 1950s, an increasingly wide world of readers has been delighted as his latest essay, article, review, novel, memoir, letter, play, film, tale, poem, or whatever was published. I say “whatever” because it is a feature of Berger’s work that it is varied in its scope, and more than that: it is also varied in its mixing of genres within a single text. A novel may contain drawings; an essay may do the same, and then veer into memoir; philosophy and politics crop up everywhere, as do poems, in glorious profusion.
Looking back over Berger’s career, which included such notable achievements as Permanent Red (1960), a collection of the first decade of his art criticism; A Fortunate Man (1967), a study of a country doctor, including photographs by Jean Mohr; Ways of Seeing (1972), a TV series about art history, and also a book, never out of print; G (1972), a novel, winner of that year’s Booker Prize; A Seventh Man (1975), the most mixed of his mixed-genre books, “composed” jointly with Jean Mohr as an investigation into the lives of migrant workers in a Europe that was hungry, and is still hungry, for cheap labour; To the Wedding (1995), a story of multiple loves, lived under a sentence of death from AIDS; and, fast-forwarding to 2016, A Sparrow’s Journey, a study of, and celebration of, and continuation of the storytelling genius of Andrey Platonov - looking back over this career, I am reminded of Coleridge’s wild fig-tree, its old roots deep in a rock, “still starting up anew, with the playfulness of the Boy...”
Berger achieved his evergreen feat “amid the profoundest and most condensed constructions of hardest Thinking.” And not just thinking: feeling, too. Both are in constant play in his writing, each animating the other. There are times when his prose has the articulate energy and sensuous beauty of poetry. Take this little extract (slightly edited), for example, from his story “The Accordion Player”, from Once in Europa (1983), which is the second of his Into Their Labours trilogy, set in the mountains of Haute-Savoie where Berger spent much of the second part of his life:
The milking finished, he entered the kitchen. He had closed the shutters... to keep the room cool. Light from the sunset filtered between their slats. On the window sill was the bunch of flowers he had picked. On seeing them he stopped in mid-stride. He stared at them as if they were a ghost... He pulled a chair from under the table, he sat down and he wept... Odd how sounds of distress are recognised by animals. The dog approached the man’s back and, getting up on its hind legs, rested its front paws on his shoulder blades. He wept for all that would no longer happen...
Berger said of himself, in a recent interview with Kate Kellaway (Guardian, 30 October, 2016), that “If I’m a storyteller it’s because I listen”. Yes, he listened; and, just as importantly, he looked. He looked as intently as a field naturalist, or an artist - which Berger was, all his days – drawing someone’s portrait, or his favourite philosopher, Spinoza, practising his trade as a lens-grinder, or “la vigie - the lookout guy on a boat”, as he told Kate Kellaway. He looked, and he saw more than most of us.
The very titles of some of Berger’s books confirm this commitment to closely examining things in all their minute particulars. There is The Look of Things (1972), About Looking (1980), The Sense of Sight (1993), as well as the already mentioned Ways of Seeing.
If you have watched Berger on TV and heard him speak, you will have detected the way that so long an immersion in his Haute-Savoie neighbours’ French had inflected his native English voice. More significantly, if you have read the many poems that he translated from other languages, you will understand the way that a wide world of inspiration had inflected his thought. Aime Cesaire, Bertolt Brecht, Nazim Hikmet, Mahmoud Darwish, and others: the labour of wrestling their meaning into alternative expression served to broaden Berger’s already broad internationalism. He was the least insular of Englishmen, the least Eurocentric of Europeans. He was a world-citizen, viewing as he did the pages of literature “as if it were a place, an assembly point”: a sort of convivial commons.
All of the titles that I have listed above, plus the many more that I have omitted that I might equally well have listed, are open doors to such places. It is sad to think that their maker and sharer has written his last.
David Betteridge is the author of a collection of poems celebrating Glasgow and its radical traditions, 'Granny Albyn's Complaint', published by Smokestack Books in 2008. He is also the editor of a compilation of poems, songs, prose memoirs, photographs and cartoons celebrating the 1971-2 UCS work-in on Clydeside. This book, called 'A Rose Loupt Oot', was published by Smokestack Books in 2011.