Master of diversity

Arts profile - Paul Bonaventura talks to a prodigious writer who changed our way of seeing

John Berger turned 75 on Bonfire Night. For most of his life, this illustrious man of letters has been engaged in an odyssey of radical intellectual and emotional exploration. Indeed, his contribution to the cultural development of the English-speaking world has been far more explosive than anything that the Gunpowder Plot conspirators could ever have brought off.

Berger is, first and foremost, a teller of stories, and it is as a storyteller that he has the distinction of being one of the most original thinkers of this age. And yet, as Geoff Dyer contends in his introduction to the Selected Essays, published this month to commemorate Berger's birthday, his achievements as a writer are difficult to grasp. Some of that difficulty stems from the sheer diversity of his interests, covering everything from art, cartoons and music to sociology, politics and natural history. Berger has produced essays, novels, plays, screenplays, short stories and poetry in prodigious quantities.

Dyer compares Berger to D H Lawrence, "another nomadic self-exile", in having a similarly "unruly" output. "If I've written about a lot of different kinds of things," Berger explains, "it's because I'm interested in a lot of different kinds of things. So are most people." But this lack of specialisation has also meant that for Berger writing has been, in a sense, more difficult. "It's not simply a set of tools that you can immediately pick up and use. You have to reset them or even invent another tool when you're coming at another subject. Which is, in fact, why I write very clumsily, very slowly, correcting a great deal."

The bones of Berger's biography are well enough known. After serving in the British army from 1944-46, he attended the Central School of Art and Chelsea School of Art and taught drawing between 1948 and 1955 for the Workers' Educational Association. He began writing for the New Statesman in 1952, and quickly became a convincing and persuasive art critic, fighting for realism in fine art and trying to establish the kind of painting subsequently categorised as the Kitchen Sink School.

In his 1986 biography of Berger, Ways of Telling, Dyer compared Berger's technique in his twenties and thirties to the one Raymond Williams noted in George Orwell: to assert and then argue within that assertion. "It is essentially a combative style," says Dyer, "and set him in opposition to established tastes." Indeed, Berger's declared political allegiances gave his critics a ready weapon to use against him, and his principal antagonists at the time were the painter Patrick Heron, who also worked for the New Statesman, and the art critic David Sylvester.

Commencing in 1958 with his first novel, A Painter of Our Time, Berger has also generated a large body of fiction, including G, a novel about Garibaldi and Don Juan, which, uniquely, won the Booker Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Guardian Fiction Prize in the same year (1972). Controversially, the author donated half his Booker proceeds to a Caribbean chapter of the Black Panthers, getting into trouble with people on both sides of the political coin (the right was angry with him for giving any money; the left was angry with him for giving only half the money).

For the past three decades, Berger has lived mostly in a small village in the French Alps. Fascinated by the way of life of the mountain people, he has written about them extensively, most notably in his trilogy Into Their Labours, which was completed in 1991. Although he gave up painting in his late twenties, Berger continues to draw on a regular basis. "The relative amount of time I give to writing and art has changed over my life," he says. "When I was a painter, I worked very hard all the time. And then I decided to stop and concentrate on writing, because I thought one couldn't do both seriously. And now I find that I draw almost all the time and hardly write at all."

What prompted him to start writing? "It was in 1952-53, at the height of the cold war, and the equivalent maniacs to Bush today were talking quite openly about the possibility of a preventative war with atomic weapons against the Soviet Union. And the threat of atomic war was incredibly real. If you go back and look at the work of other people at that time, like Doris Lessing or Ken Tynan or Peter Brook, it will all tell you the same thing. In this context, it seemed to me that to go on doing oil paintings to hang in dining rooms seemed so far away from the urgency of trying to do something about the very extreme and desperate situation the world was in. OK, writing might not change very much, but at least it's more direct. And that's why I began writing, for Orwell's Tribune and then art criticism for the New Statesman. The decision was a question of political juncture, of extreme political obligation."

In the present context, the question of political engagement acquires a new currency. "I can't accept human liberation as something that can be finally gained," Berger says. "I think it's something that has to be constantly and eternally struggled for. Paradoxically, it's in the worst situations - the most 'hopeless' situations - that the struggle is at its strongest. Not so much in terms of achieving human liberation, but of preserving human dignity in the present.

"Consider what would happen if, instead of thinking one is marching towards a kind of heaven, one becomes aware that one is living in a kind of hell. Would one's reactions be so very different? I don't think so. To think about September 11 and Afghanistan now is very difficult. Something incredibly resonant and important has happened. Everything has suddenly shifted, changed, with new dangers, with new cruelties, but also with new possibilities."

At its best, Berger's work has changed the way we think about the world, about creativity and intellectual reach and what the linkages might be between them. In his fiction and non-fiction, Berger has irrevocably transformed the relationship between reader and subject. Years before the postmodern era was officially ushered in, he not only imagined that relationship transformed, but brought into being the means by which the process of transformation could take place, establishing a productive union between occurrence, programmatic investigation and intuition.

John Berger: selected essays edited by Geoff Dyer (£25) and The Shape of a Pocket (£16.99) are both published by Bloomsbury