John Berger: a tribute by Timothy O’Grady
What he was most about, I think, in his life and in his work, lay in the fundamental acts of looking and listening
John Berger: “there are people unknown to him in far corners who have found themselves on unexpected journeys following an encounter with him on a page”
Recently I sent him a teapot from Poland; he sent me a drawing he had made of a key
John Berger died on Monday in Paris. He was aged 90 years, one month and a few days. He was laughing down phone lines, drawing, thinking and writing very nearly to the end. He’d still have been riding his motorbike if not for a bad back.
Some adhered to him as if to a wise parent or source of energy; some despised him for his politics or what they took to be his naivety; vast numbers never heard of him; some knew him only for his Ways of Seeing because they were art students or because it was on television.
Into the first category were grouped people from all over the world – from Subcomandante Marcos in Mexico to Palestinian refugees visited and supported by the Jewish Berger; from Kurdish poets to Indian novelists; from Portuguese migrants to French shepherds; and to readers and writers and artists and thinkers in all places. In Ireland he is not greatly known. From his side, he had visited Jack Yeats in Dublin in the 1950s and enthused about him all his life. He admired the work of Maurice O’Sullivan and Tomás Ó Crohan as well as the more salient geniuses. He loved the voice of Sinéad O’Connor.
I first encountered him in his novel G when I was on Gola Island off the coast of Donegal. He did things in this book I’d never seen done before. Amid the aeronautical displays and amorous encounters and mass action in the street I found John himself, intermittently appearing on the page and telling us what he was seeing and thinking and dreaming as he created the scenes we were reading. He walked right out through the fourth wall unembarrassed and pleased to meet you. Sometimes he distilled something he was watching in his mind into a short, single-sentence maxim. I didn’t think you were allowed to do that. Throughout the work I read thereafter he was among other things a permission giver, for each work had, as Michael Ondaatje said, “broken the vessel they were written within in some way”. It had on me an effect something like first hearing Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone – it took me out of what was familiar and into a far more fascinating place. This could be intimidating – it usually is; but it can also give you an appetite for trying to do the same.
It is rare to get to know people who do such things to you. I first saw him in a Communist bookshop in Charing Cross Road in London when his book Pig Earth came out. He took each book he’d been asked to sign over to a stairwell where he sat beside his mother and thought for up to 10 minutes about what personal and original thing he could write in the purchaser’s copy. A few days later he was in the French pub in Dean Street in Soho with a group of peasants from his village in the Haute-Savoie. He had brought them over for the launch of the book. Some of them may have been characters in it. The men were Brylcreemed and wide-eyed and wore suits too short in the sleeves. I corresponded with him. When much later I was faced with the task of writing a text to go along with photographs by Steve Pyke, I would not have been able to proceed had I not had his books to lean on. I would not have written of rural life as I did without Pig Earth, or migration without A Seventh Man, nor found a way to put photographs and text together had I not studied his collaborations with Jean Mohr. The book became a novel called I Could Read the Sky and it wouldn’t have been a novel at all had I not seen his arranging of photographs into a work of fiction in Another Way of Telling. Another writer might have thought it touched the borders of plagiarism. He graced it with a preface.
When I was in ruins and asked him how many times he thought a person could fall in love, he walked around the room in his stockinged feet for a while and said, “If you are WB Yeats, perhaps once; if you are Charlie Chaplin, perhaps every day.” When I was in ruins again after I lost the manuscript of a novel I had been writing for three years I called him and asked him what he thought. “Two things,” he said, after consideration, and then advancing delicately. “Try not to chase the ghosts of previous sentences; and second, as this book is about loss and you have lost something, use it.” More recently I sent him a teapot from Poland; he sent me a drawing he had made of a key. More recently still I sent him two blue teacups to go with the pot; he sent me a drawing of a decanter of vodka and a lemon. The world definitely feels an altered, more bereft place for me without him in it.
What he was most about, I think, in his life and in his work, lay in the fundamental acts of looking and listening. “I am a storyteller because I listen,” he has said. He wrote a great deal about looking. He brought everything of himself to the act, except habit. He was committed to it. He was profoundly serious about it, even if in the end it produced humour. He went in thus unguarded, he looked, and then he came out again. What he subsequently said or wrote was simple, original and could produce sensations of surprise and inevitability. If he hit it right it would do what he said in A Painter of Our Time was one of the jobs of art - “to make a highway out of a maze”. In any case the intention was to provoke, to generate a further thought in the listener or reader. He tended not to look back. He was not even introspective. Interviews were not easy for him because he was not greatly interested in talking about himself. Nor did he wish to make a static object and be applauded. He wanted to meet you, for something then to be exchanged, and then to set off, either together or separately. It was an exchange intended to be dynamic. There are people unknown to him in far corners who have found themselves on unexpected journeys following an encounter with him on a page.
He was exemplary in this and many other things, not least in not being for sale, whether the inducement was money, fame, a tenured faculty post, or a reputation for agreeableness and collegiality among publishers, literary editors and prize awarders. He was, so far as I could see, a free man.
Timothy O’Grady’s latest work, with Steve Pyke, is Children of Las Vegas (Unbound)