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Artist, polemicist, dreamer: John Berger’s life in literature

CultureArtist, polemicist, dreamer: John Berger’s life in literature

John Berger’s sensibility was shaped by the aesthetic ideas and political struggles of his time. That’s the thesis of a recent literary biography by Joshua Sperling, writes Vineet Gill. 



There was a time when John Berger was considered the most influential art critic in Britain. What he had to say, what he chose to publish could make or break careers. At a very young age he became, to all intents and purposes, the high priest of the art crowd and his popularity didn’t sit well with many of his contemporaries.

The critic David Sylvester, Berger’s no-love-lost rival, never forgave him for his narrow-minded championing of social realism. Sylvester believed that Berger was often reflexively dismissive of all abstract idioms of art, even when they carried the imprimatur of genius, as in Giacometti or Francis Bacon. “Here was a great painter and Berger was too damn stupid to see that,” Sylvester said in a 1999 interview, referring to the “damage” Berger had done to Bacon’s reputation by his negative appraisal.

It’s true that Berger found no merit in Bacon’s work. He was also impatient with the rootless form abstract painting was taking in the ’50s (“…artists in Oslo, Buenos Aires, Tokyo and Toronto all paint as though they lived in Paris”). But he made amends as far as Giacometti was concerned (too late, complained Sylvester). Just as in the late ’60s, he began a lifelong engagement with cubist painting.

This was one of Berger’s great strengths as a critic: he was ready to change his mind. If it is the artistic imagination that’s amenable to such change, then in his best moments Berger emerged as an artist-critic, doing his thinking on the page, like the master practitioners of the essay form. He once wrote, “Rather than ask of a cubist picture: Is it true? or: Is it sincere? one should ask: Does it continue?” That’s the smartest thing anyone has ever said about cubism. But what’s more interesting here is that the statement is addressed as much to the reader as it is to the writing self. Berger’s literary voice captivates us because so often it’s the voice of a man talking to himself.

Sometimes we can sense anger in that voice. There is a polemical edge to all his writings—even the most seemingly anodyne of pieces he wrote were imbued with a sense of political purpose. “Far from politics dragging me into art,” Berger once said, “art has dragged me into politics.” Joshua Sperling’s literary biography of Berger, A Writer of Our Time, switches expertly from the political to the personal and back, mapping the highs and lows of an eventful—and sometimes turbulent—life.

Having come of age in the contentious climate of 1950s Culture Wars in Britain, Berger made enough enemies in his 20s to last him a lifetime. His Marxism—never officially embraced, yet never abjured (not even after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956)—was another thorn in the side of the mainstream English press. He was often at the centre of bitter disputes and slanging matches carried out in print. The struggles were taxing and it was Berger who capitulated. In 1962, he decided to leave England, “to get outside the straitjacket of English journalism”, in Sperling’s words.

But in Berger’s life, escape was often a prelude to new discoveries. When he was 16, he ran away from school and joined an art course in London. Similarly, his decision to leave England was inspired as much by an urge for reinvention as by discontent. He left England because he wanted, by his own admission, to become a European writer. Thereafter, he spent most of his time on the Continent: settling first in Geneva and then, until his death in 2017, in a small village named Quincy in France. Intellectually, though, he let his roots spread far and wide. He read Victor Serge (“The essence of the man and his books is to be found in his attitude to the truth”); Walter Benjamin (“…whose originality precluded his reaching whatever was defined by his contemporaries as achievement”); the poems of Mayakovsky (“Russian poetry when read out loud, and particularly Mayakovsky’s, is nearer to rock than to Milton”).

Europe also made Berger think more seriously about form. The trajectory of his writing career follows a winding course from art criticism to fiction to essays to poetry to something more uncategorisable and free-form that made room for all the previous categories. In addition to this, Berger was also painting, drawing, collaborating with photographers (three books with Jean Mohr) and working on screenplays (three films with Alain Tanner).

A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger By Joshua Sperling; Publisher: Verso; Pages: 293; Price: Rs 1,695

Much of his European education was brought to bear on his 1972 TV series Ways of Seeing, which he later adapted into a book. The documentary was a frontal attack on establishment figures (Sir Kenneth Clark) and establishment values (beauty, tradition). It got Berger something more than plaudits—it got him rockstar levels of fame. Then, that same year, he won the Booker Prize for his novel, G. Berger’s acceptance speech for the award is a work of art in itself. Another confirmation, if one were needed, that he was ready, as ever, to throw it all away, and that he didn’t mind making powerful

Berger begins his Booker speech on a clarifying note: “…the whole emphasis on winners and losers is false and out of place in the context of literature.” This is followed by a rather straightforward apologia: he is here because he needs some money for his next project, a book on migrant workers. And then, to borrow Sperling’s metaphor, he lobs the grenade: he says he is giving away half his prize money to a militant political organisation, the Black Panther movement. It was a gesture of solidarity with the exploited migrant workforce in the West Indies, and a gesture of defiance against the Booker McConnell firm, sponsors of the prize and holders of “extensive trading interests in the Caribbean for over 130 years”. “The half I give away,” Berger said, “will change the half I keep”.

“The speech generated immediate hostility,” Sperling writes. “Many guests began to clink their glasses. Others shouted over him.” There’s of course an obvious political angle to this controversy. Yet it’s best not to forget that Berger was also violating certain sacred cultural codes here. (He never saw culture and politics as separate domains.) Rebecca West was in the audience that day and was among the glass-clinkers. The previous year’s Booker winner, V.S. Naipaul was fuming in the morning papers. Two of the post-war generation’s finest critics, Cyril Connolly and George Steiner, were on the jury that year, and they wouldn’t have been pleased with Berger’s behaviour. He was calling out the literary elite for their shallow games and distancing himself from them. “The issue,” as Berger said in his speech that day, “is between me and the culture which has formed me.”

The man and the culture that formed him are the two focal points of Sperling’s excellent book. It contextualises Berger’s growth as a thinker and artist by placing his life against the backdrop of a sort of slideshow intellectual history of the 20th century, with its pitched battles between Marxism and capitalism, realism and abstraction, the global and the provincial. Still, A Writer of Our Time has its blind spots. “Even admirers tend to know him in only one or two of his many incarnations,” Geoff Dyer wrote about Berger. Understandably, then, there are many incarnations missing from Sperling’s book. We don’t find in these pages any traces of Berger the poet, the playwright, the committed draughtsman or the leather-clad motorcycling enthusiast. How does one do justice to a subject this complex? Perhaps a life so multifaceted merits biographical attention that spans multiple volumes. In that case, Sperling’s book is a great start.


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