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The best books on John Berger

recommended by Tom Overton

The biographer and editor of John Berger reveals how Berger's self-characterisation as a storyteller is visible across the numerous genres he writes in.

Tom Overton

Tom Overton is the editor of Portraits: John Berger on Artists (2015) and Landscapes (2016), two volumes of John Berger's writing about art published by Verso Books. He is currently working on Berger's biography, and The Good Archivist, a book on archives and migration, both for Allen Lane. He is a Fellow of the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College London, and a Writer in Residence at Jerwood Visual Arts.

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Tom Overton

Tom Overton is the editor of Portraits: John Berger on Artists (2015) and Landscapes (2016), two volumes of John Berger's writing about art published by Verso Books. He is currently working on Berger's biography, and The Good Archivist, a book on archives and migration, both for Allen Lane. He is a Fellow of the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College London, and a Writer in Residence at Jerwood Visual Arts.

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Can you characterise John Berger as a writer?

In the preface to Portraits he denies being an art critic, in quite sweary terms. The way he characterises himself instead is as a storyteller. When he was writing his series of novels about peasants in the French Alps, he looked back at the rest of his works and said, “even when I was writing about art, it was really a way of story-telling.”

The genesis myth for this storytelling involves his being called up for military service after having run away from public school. Because he’s been at this public school, he was offered a commission straight away. That was apparently how conscription worked then. He’d already fallen in with various anarchist thinkers and recognised the ridiculousness of this and turned it down. So, because they thought he was being awkward, they sent him to Ireland. In Ireland he was a PT instructor, doing physical training with these recruits who were all a lot tougher than he was. So he seems to have established this relationship where, in return for them not beating him up, or ‘protecting’ him, he would write letters home for them: lots of them couldn’t write themselves.

“In the process of trying to write about someone’s life, Berger realises there’s always this distance which it’s the work of literature to negotiate, to examine, but to realise ultimately is never bridgeable.”

For Berger, rather than be an isolated novelist, he wanted to be a story-teller, to be a conduit through which other people’s stories travel. But, if you’re being a critical reader, it’s also a persona he’s carefully constructed. That’s why working on a biography of him is so interesting; one of the ways he evolves as a story-teller is through writing things that are basically biographies.

In the preface to this book he says he gave up painting because he would have had to practise everyday, like a violinist, and he wanted to live more. Does writing enable such a life? Does this characterise his writing style?

The reason he gave is that the political ends he wanted to meet with his work seemed less direct in painting, and he could be more campaigning in prose. The idea whether one has to practise more as a painter than a writer is less clear. Even with a lot of the drafts apparently destroyed before it arrived, the archive at the British Library still shows a lot of rewriting in process. With painters like Frank Auerbach, or Leon Kossoff—Berger corresponds with him in Portraits—think of the surface of paint built up on their work, and their habit of scraping it off and starting again. Behind Berger’s writing, there are similar things going on. You could say he dedicated himself to practising writing like a violinist. The disclaimer there is that is that he kept drawing, and still does now. Actually, he’s recently made a load of images he calls ‘texts’, which are mainly flowers.

To what extent does his politics make his writing difficult to read now?

Berger has been writing in a committed way for a long time now through lots of different political moments. It seems like several lifetimes sewn together. A Painter of our Time, his first novel, was written in the late 1950s, after the death of Stalin and the Khrushchev secret speech and the flow of information about what had been going on in the USSR. The crisis point of that novel is the moment where the USSR sends tanks to crush the Hungarian uprising and the question which is left unanswered is: what is the right response to this for the committed socialist or communist artist or intellectual? Solidarity with the world communist movement? Calling this an atrocity? It’s a diary novel, at the end it’s not clear what the author of the diary does. In the press, Berger said his commitment was to the USSR. In retrospect, that seems like very much the wrong decision.

There are other things that have an enduring relevance. The biography I’m writing is structured around these moments, where he makes decisions about how his politics are going to affect the sort of writer he wants to be. One is the sharing of the Booker prize with the Black Panthers. He won the Booker in 1972 for G., and found out that the proceeds were from Booker McConnell. They’re this interestingly protean organisation: at the time they were a cash-and-carry, now they’re a financial services outfit, and in the eighteenth century they owned Caribbean plantations. Their wealth is largely built on imperialism and slave labour, which the novel G. is partly about. He realised that accepting that money would be contradictory in the terms of the novel, but would also affect his next project: A Seventh Man, which is about migrant workers. People still refer to this episode every time issues to do with arts and sponsorship come up.

Later, he shared the proceeds of To the Wedding, his novel about Aids, between Aids charities in the countries it was published. A similar gesture, like the decision to donate his archive. His politics are often the reason people might read him in the first place.

Your first book is The Success and Failure of Picasso. What does Berger say about Picasso?

As the title suggests, it’s about where he thinks he went right and where he thinks he went wrong. The success and the failure comes down to his relationship to the public. He says the kind of success offered to artists now by bourgeois institutions is not something they want to accept, and that this is for their own sake. The book was published in ’65, so this must have been in Berger’s mind when he was offered the Booker.

So it’s also important as a book for thinking about Berger. He quotes Picasso writing to his dealer, Marius de Zayas, and explaining why there’s huge formal variety in his work. He says, “Whenever I’ve had something to say, I’ve said it in the manner in which it ought to be said.” That is a good template for what Berger has done throughout his life. We were talking earlier about the shift from painting to writing. The thinking behind that is that painting was no longer the best way he had for saying what he wanted to say, writing was, and within that there’s the formal variety of all the different sorts of writing Berger has done: poetry, poems, plays, novels, short fiction, essays.

I read some pretty scathing contemporary reviews of it. Why would people dislike it?

A lot of that is the animosity Berger built up over his career. When he was the art critic for the New Statesman in the 50s in London, he was very combative and made quite a lot of enemies. He had a Marxian approach informed by people like Frederick Antal, who had been his mentor. Picasso was an artist whom he enormously respected and thought was very important. But he thought that various things about the way he presented himself had been harmful for his work. A lot of Berger’s writing about art comes from the position of someone who had tried to make art themselves. It’s studio criticism, in the sense that he’s trying to think as a fellow artist. Picasso had become such a sacred cow at that point that that seemed pretty presumptuous. He is such a big figure that people become possessive of their way of approaching him being the correct one. Also, Berger is not an art historian in the meticulously footnoted fashion. That isn’t why you’d read him. To art historians, that can be very frustrating.

Which were the reviews that you read?

There was one in the Burlington Magazine and one in the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts. So they were very much from an art-historical perspective, and were about generalisations and value-judgements of Berger’s which were disagreed with. Like you said, it’s not the kind of book you’d read to get their perspective. What kind of perspective would you hope to get from it instead?

It’s an essayistic perspective. Often in critical writing, I think the more academic it is the less honest it can be about what criticism actually does, which is to present you a subjective perspective as a way into a subject. Looking at it more widely, the book is Berger using the process of writing about this figure as a way of working out what he wants to do. That makes it interesting, not just if you’re interested in Berger, but because it gives him an optic, an insight into how Picasso shaped his career. It doesn’t fit with everyone’s. Picasso’s such a varied and impossible to pin down character. What can be produced in the process of trying to get there is the interesting thing.

Book two is A Fortunate Man. My father and sister are both NHS doctors and this book is hugely important for both of them in terms of their vocation. Can you tell me about it?

Did it make them decide to become doctors?

No, but I think it made them feel good about the decision.

Probably slightly trepidatious as well.

It’s recently been republished with a foreword by a writer called Gavin Francis, for the same sort of reasons. Francis tells a story about when he was training to be a doctor, or had just qualified, trying to give the book to everyone as a present and it becoming very expensive because it was out of print. It was published in ’67 and was kept in print by the Royal College of GPs at one point because it had this influence on doctors. I have another friend who decided to retrain as a doctor because of it.

The story behind it is that Berger’s friend Victor Anant, who was a writer he met in Paddington Station, introduced him to Dr John Eskell. He became Berger’s doctor, and Berger was fascinated by his practice and his isolation. He was a country GP, living in this community in the New Forest, and he had this extremely intimate relationship with the people around him because he was their doctor, but also because of that he had to be extremely distant.

Like many of Berger’s books it’s uncategorizable. It’s a photojournalistic collaboration with a photographer called Jean Mohr. Jean’s photographs and John’s writing add up to these case-studies. The photographs are documentary, showing what is happening to someone in a consultation, and the prose narratives also describe true events. But Eskell’s name is changed to Sassall, these case studies are blended and edited together in such a way that from fact comes this fiction, which is itself an attempt to get closer to the ‘fact’ of the doctor’s experience.

So the book uses fictional devices for documentary ends. It all adds up to a portrait of a country GP working in what seems now a very different version of the NHS, but also in a very different, far more patriarchal, society.

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In the process of trying to write about someone’s life, it has to reflect on the impossibility of doing that. There’s always this distance which it’s the work of literature to negotiate, to examine, but to realise ultimately is never bridgeable.

That’s one of the reasons the subject of a doctor is so interesting, because of this very strange pattern of intimacy and distance. The position of the doctor in society is analogous to the position of the writer in society. Maybe you could say it’s Berger drafting a warning to himself. There are passages in the book that talk about Sassall’s mental health issues. He did later take his own life. He was a fortunate man because he was so committed to and absorbed in his work. But it’s also an ironic title, because it wasn’t enough for him. When Berger found out about his suicide it deeply affected him. There’s an interview in the early 90s where he talks about this and the very strange position of knowing that, in writing this book, he drew a line around Sassall’s life. Berger’s interpretation was that from that point Sassall felt as though he had to move on from that life.

I wonder if it played a role in Berger wanting to see himself as a storyteller, and far more immersed in the community around him.

Your next book is A Seventh Man. Can you tell me about this book?

Berger used half of the money from the Booker prize to travel around Europe with Jean Mohr, the photographer, and document the lives of migrant workers in Europe, who were and are being exploited to ensure the European standard of life. Going back to your earlier question about whether his politics make him more difficult to read, here they’re precisely one of the reasons one would want to read him now. At the launch of Portraits Andrew Marr put up his hand and started talking about how important A Seventh Man was to him as a book. It feels like a response to things that are happening now.

He says that ‘the migrant is no longer seen as another man, as a unique centre of his own experience’ in news coverage, that he’s just seen as part of a series of processes. I found that very striking in relation to current events and news coverage, which is very much about disassociating people from their rich inner lives, while fiction obeys the opposite impulse.

Yes. It’s precisely about making it easier not to think about these people as humans, and we don’t have to think about them and engage with them in the way we might with people we know and love. It’s strange because often the way it’s presented is that if you’re arguing against certain border policies you’re being unrealistic, dodging the reality, while that’s precisely what you’re not doing.

The book is largely about Turkish Gastarbeiter in Germany. Through talking to them, he realised a lot of these people came from villages in Turkey, and they were largely the sons (sometimes daughters) of peasant communities, who had gone off to seek their fortunes. In doing that, they represented the breakdown of their community. All of the traditions and ways of life of those communities were collapsing. He describes it as a form of human dignity that was being lost. I think that was what got him interested in the decline of the peasantry.

So he moves to Haute-Savoie in the Alps to write the Into the Labours trilogy. It’s often presented as being a trilogy of novels, but each of the books is divided up into short stories. Over the three of them, there’s an overarching narrative that’s like Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, in that it follows interconnected families through several generations and traces what’s happening to them. The first book, Pig Earth is largely about stories from the local area. In the archive you see him picking them up and a lot of the time they’re just anecdotes. Stories that go around communities are often total hearsay, but can have a quality of fable to them. He thinks the relationship between the living and the dead is very important to peasant culture: having a very different attitude to history than one has in the city.

The first book is specifically about the area around where he is living in the Alps; the second is about the transition between the two states; the last one is about when all of the descendants of these families have settled firmly in the city, it’s an urban novel. It’s the one that works least well.

Some of the reception of Pig Earth accuses Berger of this bourgeois artistic sensibility of moving into a place and observing people and exploiting them. How does he deal with or overcome this in the book?

The question of writing about people who are very different to you is a broader one of any writing that isn’t a novelist writing about themselves. It’s something he wrestles with. The question of whether or not it succeeded is ultimately answerable only by reading the book and deciding for yourself. But somewhere he really grapples with it is a TV documentary about Zola’s Germinal he made in ’72. It bridged the gap between A Fortunate Man and Pig Earth. In it, he talks about the experience of people who spend a lot of their lives in the ground mining coal, and uses a nineteenth-century novel to do it. It’s for the Open University, and it’s being broadcast in a Britain where mining is still then a huge source of employment. Inevitably, he is a man from a certain background trying to write about people from a different background. It raises a much broader question about art and literature and representation and politics in general. What gives you the right to narrate? How do you possibly speak for someone else’s experience?

“For Berger, rather than be an isolated novelist, he wanted to be a story-teller, to be a conduit through which other people’s stories travel.”

I think it’s the ability to think yourself into another person’s position and I think it’s, in Berger’s case, what he would describe not just as empathy but a sense of solidarity. Even if you don’t have the same political views as Berger, I still think this category of solidarity is important, and is one of the things you can draw from his work.

Indeed, the act of writing is to document people who would otherwise be invisible. It isn’t self-aggrandising as otherwise they disappear.

It’s the story-teller thing.

This last book is the only novel by Berger on the list. Why did you choose this book?

Of his novels, it’s probably my favourite. I find bits of Pig Earth and A Fortunate Man very moving, but I find To The Wedding moved me the most, which isn’t something you can always account for in particularly critical terms.

To explain it, it’s an Aids novel. It’s from 1994. I get the impression that it grows out of his engagement with Susan Sontag. They had been in correspondence a lot and shaped each others’ writing on photography. She published AIDS and Its Metaphors in 1989. At that time it was a particularly pressing subject. Berger began writing it, and as he was writing a member of his family was diagnosed as HIV-positive and he ended up caring for them, so he gained a different perspective.

It’s a development of this almost Joyce-like shadow-self that’s in a lot of Berger’s novels, called “Jean”. In his first novel, A Painter of our Time, there’s an art-critic character called John, who both is and isn’t Berger. He develops into Jean in this novel. Jean in To the Wedding rides a motorbike, as John does.

It’s about central Europe, and also about tamata: Greek charms which correspond to an ailment in a particular part of the body. With Aids, what kind of charm would work? It’s so unplaceable. It becomes a very powerful way of expressing that. It brings out this materiality that’s important in a lot of Berger’s work. The first novel A Painter of our Time is abut discovering a diary, a more recent book Bento’s Sketchbook is about discovering a sketchbook. I think it’s part of having a history as an art-critic, or as a painter, this interest in the material object and how it relates to the literary object.

You mention that a member of his family was diagnosed with HIV, we’ve been touching throughout on the idea of Berger’s works as life-writing. To what extent is Berger purely inventive as a writer?

Two of the shorter things that aren’t in Portraits that I think are important are the Booker speech, and something he wrote about Joyce, for Bloomsday more recently. He says one of the things he learnt from Joyce is that to separate fact from fiction is to stay on dry land and never put out to sea. In all of his work he is actively trying to resist those separations. I think it is often like A Fortunate Man. There is a factual raw material that goes in, but it gets treated in this fictional way that brings it closer to the truth, something that’s closer to the experience.

Interview by Beatrice Wilford

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