Chekhov said that the role of a writer was to describe a situation so truthfully that the reader could no longer evade it. Across essays, novels, poems, journals and reviews, on television, in correspondence, drawings and conversation, John Berger presented us with a story of humanity that could not be ignored. He did so by paying close attention – by looking – at two of its most redeeming features: the capacity for fraternity to emerge in even the most terrible circumstances, and the unconquerable urge to produce enduring works of art.
It seems impossible that he is gone. In November, Berger’s 90th birthday was greeted with a flurry of new books, two films, tributes, performances and events (as if the Berger canon were not already large enough – even addicts confess to knowing only a little of it). “It is not simply enough to lobby for Berger’s name to be printed more prominently on an existing map of literary reputations,” Geoff Dyer wrote in 1986, “his example urges us fundamentally to alter its shape”.
It was through collaboration and listening that so many of those works came to fruition. The ideas associated with the 1972 TV and book series Ways of Seeing, produced by a team that included the feminist Eva Figes and the film-maker Mike Dibb, are today a part of our cultural inheritance. We know them even if we’ve never seen the book.
That is not to diminish them. When a casually dressed, curly-haired man stands before a much-lauded Dutch still life and reminds you that what you are seeing is a display of wealth, the power and simplicity of the observation carries. How many historians end their historical surveys by encouraging scepticism of their interpretation of events? “To be continued by the reader . . .” is the final line of Ways of Seeing.
Berger was born in 1926 in London, though he lived most of his life abroad, labouring, marking the days and breaking bread with a small community of agricultural labourers in the French Alps. He referred to these people as “my university” – and no doubt scared them witless with his habit of riding a booming Honda Blackbird motorbike around the mountains at breakneck speed.
There are biographical landmarks – the years writing art criticism for the NS in the 1950s and 1960s, the 1972 Booker Prize win for the historical novel G (he donated half the proceeds to the Black Panther movement), the constant development of his ideas around subjects as diverse as photography, zoos, public swimming pools, museums, philosophers and what he concisely termed “the work of art”. He seemed reluctant to think in biographical terms about his own past, preferring what he called “the common moments”, the experiences he shared with others. It was a view he came to early in life.
In the poem “Self Portrait 1914-18”, Berger explained how the First World War shaped him: “It seems now that I was so close to that war,” he wrote, “I was born of the look of the dead/swaddled in mustard gas/And fed in a dugout”. The critic Walter Benjamin saw the Great War as the beginning of the end of storytelling. The skills a storyteller needs – listening, effort, experience and patience – had been reduced by technology and bloodshed to mere information. “Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent – not richer, but poorer in communicable experience?” Benjamin wrote. Berger’s entire output can be viewed as an opposition to this reduction.
When I visited him in Paris in 2015 to conduct an interview for the NS, I pressed him to say what he felt was his greatest achievement. He bristled at the idea, but then mentioned a visit to Istanbul, to the draughty cabins of economic migrants hoping to find work on the outskirts of the city. They had invited him in for tea. Incredibly, on a rickety wooden shelf, sat one of his books, translated into Turkish – not that his hosts had any idea that he was the author. This is precisely what Berger meant by fraternity: even in great solitude, against the dehumanising reality of servitude to capital or war, connections can be formed. Our differences diminish.
Everything Berger wrote was simultaneously subjective, aesthetic and political. He was a European writer born in England who had to migrate into the margins to be at home.
Shortly after his 90th birthday, the morning after the US election, I scoured my bookshelves for something, anything, that might lighten the gloom. I picked up To the Wedding, Berger’s 1995 novel about a betrothed couple, one of whom, Ninon, is slowly succumbing to Aids (the book began when a family member was diagnosed with HIV, and its royalties were donated to an Aids charity).
It is an unforgettable novel – no less beautiful, no less political than his essays, poems and reviews – and yet somehow, miraculously, it gives hope. I noted a line I liked in my diary, a question that seemed to know exactly what literature, or storytelling, might be for. “What shall we do before eternity?” it asks. “Take our time.”
John Berger was born in 1926 and died on 2 January 2017
This article appears in the 04 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain