Happy Birthday, John Berger

By Kevin Rabalais

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On November 5, John Berger—storyteller, artist, poet, novelist, critic—turned ninety. That day and in the weeks since, I’ve celebrated by reading and rereading a selection of Berger’s essays, notebooks and fiction. In that work, I’ve found a worldly guide, one who gazes far and wide at art, literature and the stories of individuals and crowds with urgency and enviable energy. In the past two months alone, Berger has published several books, including Landscapes, a selection of essays on art; Garden on My Cheek, reflections on the artist Liane Birnberg; and Confabulations, essays about the relationship of language to art, song, storytelling and political discourse. 

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I once had lunch with a novelist and a psychologist, both of whom considered Berger not only an influence but an indispensable figure in their fields. As the conversation progressed, it became clear that they spoke of Berger as though he were several writers. The breadth and reach of his output—novels, plays, poetry, screenplays, critical works on the visual arts—means that reading John Berger can entail, and justify, a lifelong project. Such are the pleasures and rewards of a reader’s life.

Berger published his first novel, A Painter of Our Time, in 1958. In 1972, his landmark project for the BBC, Ways of Seeing, revolutionized the way many comprehend art, photography and visual advertising. He has always pursued diverse roles. His work employs multitude of voices and forms—sometimes blending verse with prose, often using art (his own and others’) to pursue an understanding of the world.  

In my most recent sojourn through this work, I discovered John Berger the reader. We encounter that side of him in Bento’s Sketchbook, his response—through drawings, philosophical inquiry and general observation—to the seventeenth-century philosopher Spinoza, also known as Bento de Spinoza. Spinoza’s letters and manuscripts survived his death, though not the sketchbook that he reportedly kept for much of his life. Berger imagines what the philosopher might have recorded in that lost sketchbook. In one entry, he finds himself inside a municipal library in search of The Brothers Karamazov. Both copies in the library’s holdings are checked out, a librarian informs him. Berger writes:

I wonder who’s reading The Brothers Karamazov here today. Do the two of them know each other? Unlikely. Are they both reading the book for the first time? Or has one of them read it and, like myself, wants to reread it?

Then I find myself asking an odd question: if either of those readers and myself passed one another—in the suburban market on Sunday, coming out of the metro, on a pedestrian crossing, buying bread—might we perhaps exchange glances that we’d both find slightly puzzling? Might we, without recognising it, recognise one another?

Berger continually reminds us that we live inside a common story, a shared humanity. Everything moves toward an attempt at comprehending the diverse roles of story—visual, written and spoken—from its function in society to its ability to provide sanctuary.

Such attempts—that willingness and desire to know the stories of those our lives touch, however tangentially, along with the stories of the nameless and voiceless who populate the world—propel Berger’s work. He continually reminds us of the countless tales that thrive, often beneath the frequency of our comprehension, throughout the world. Reading this work reminds us to look and listen and, importantly, to think more carefully.

Consider the following observation that one character makes in Berger’s 1995 novel, To the Wedding:

East of Torino, where the road runs on the southern side of the Po, the name RITA has been written on a high brick wall in white paint. Half a kilometre later the same RITA has been written again, this time on the blind end of a house. The third time RITA is on the ground, on the asphalt of a parking lot. Many places are named after people. Following historical convulsions the names get changed. The road with Rita’s name will always be Rita’s road for the one in love with her, the one who went out one night—a little drunk, or a little desperate, as happens if you’re in love with Rita—with a paintbrush, a screwdriver with white on its handle and a pot of white paint.

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A fleeting detail becomes, in Berger’s hands, an unforgettable moment in this slim novel. The many narrators of To the Wedding give us this story of Ninon and Gino, each voice passing it along through brief sections that unfold like gifts that we want to share. Berger’s main characters are young and in love, and Ninon is dying of AIDS. The narrative follows their romance, also the lives of Ninon’s parents, each traveling from separate corners of Europe toward the wedding. One perspective comes from a blind Greek who sells tamata—those offerings typical of the Greek Orthodox Church—in an Athens market. From him, Ninon’s father buys a tamata in the hope that it will lessen, if not heal, his daughter’s pain. In the novel’s first pages, he tells the Greek of Ninon’s illness.

Berger writes in the Greek’s voice: “I will think of her, I said, arranging the money. And as I said this, I suddenly heard a voice. His daughter must have been elsewhere in the market. Now she was beside him.”

From that moment, the Greek finds that he wants, even needs, to pursue the stories of these people he has met. That is, he needs to understand them if he is to live fully.

Voices, sounds, smells bring gifts to my eyes now. I listen or I inhale and then I watch as in a dream. Listening to her voice I saw slices of melon carefully arranged on a plate, and I knew I would immediately recognize Ninon’s voice should I hear it again.

Berger examines this type of desire—our perpetual desire for story, and the effects that stories have upon us—in Bento’s Notebook.

When we are impressed and moved by a story, it engenders something that becomes, or may become, an essential part of us, and this part, whether it be small or extensive, is, as it were, the story’s descendant or offspring.

What I’m trying to define is more idiosyncratic and personal than a mere cultural inheritance; it is as if the bloodstream of the read story joins the bloodstream of one’s life story. It contributes to our becoming what we become and will continue to become.

“Every storyteller has his or her own procedure,” Berger writes in Bento’s Sketchbook. “No two are alike.” As readers, we recognize the differences among writers at once. We witness style, the selection of one detail over another, the idiosyncrasy of perspectives and, importantly, the quality of a writer’s humanity. We find ourselves returning to our favorite writers for these reasons.

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The final, in particular, propels me back to Berger’s To the Wedding every few years. Berger fills the novel with unforgettable moments and characters, such as the taxi driver who carries one hundred postcards with him every day so that he can view them while he waits between fares, thereby enriching his life.

“Art begins, if the wind is right and the sails are properly trimmed, at the point where we forget out destination and the purpose of our voyage, ” Berger writes in A Painter of Our Time. The narrator speaks, here, about the act of creation, but similar advice holds true for the act of reading a writer such as Berger, one whose books provide us with the means of engaging in and deepening our conversations.

Late in To the Wedding, one character says to another, “When I listen to you, I feel you deploy your encyclopedic knowledge—for that’s what it is—so as not to have to face the pain of it, the cruelty of life.” Berger’s work provides us with similar sustenance.




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