Recently I read two books by Geoff Dyer who has nothing but good things to say about John Berger. Well, since I loved the style (and the substance) of the two Dyer books I thought I owed it to myself to read something by John Berger. It was not a mistake. Berger’s book consists of 29 brief stories, sketches – some loosely connected, some not. Stylistically they are woven together in feeling, in a sense of connectedness. They all seem to come from that same place in the soul. Honestly, even when I couldn’t necessarily place a story in the context of the whole, I was glad I spent the time within the confines of the story. Many of the events are singular, defining moments never to be repeated. They are small moments, but feel momentous.
The first story has a woman show up unexpectedly. A woman who restores frescoes that the man had met for perhaps 5 minutes in Madrid . Yet here she is. They talk of many things, peasants, Paul Klee, of Galicia where she was from. They have supper. A picture is taken with a primitive camera obscura of the man, the woman and a plum tree.
Many of the stories concern people now dead, like Angeline, who had worn black for 30 years in remembrance of her deceased husband and her dead son: Her suffering sought the suffering of others so that they could stand side by side. None of these stories would be described as “sad” – a lovely poignancy, perhaps. Death is a part of living, its natural end.
Many of the stories go like this: the man once spent an evening with Irish painter Jack Yeats, an evening full of “stories and whiskey”. Thirty years later on a bus trip between Dublin and Derry, a conversation is struck up between the man and a young girl going to Omagh who tells him tall tales. The man borrows the title of a Yeats painting to kick of this breezy story: “That Grand Conversation was Under the Rose”.
Sheila! she’ll tell her girlfriend, I met s stranger on the bus and I spun him the tallest stories ever!
Did he believe you?
And Kathleen will mod her smiling and wounded and slightly mocking head.
In “A Man Wearing a Lacoste Sweater” which takes place in a prison, the subject of escape (actual or momentary as in losing oneself in a story) comes up. The storyteller describes the escape as a masterpiece, as in
An achievement, which in its imagination, ingenuity, discipline, persistence, planning and concentration, can compare with the bronze doors of the Sacristy in Florence by Donatello or Thelonius Monk playing “Epistrophy”.
This description renders the perfection he’s trying to convey. This is why I’ve fallen in love with Berger’s writing.
In “A Young Woman with Hand to Her Chin” a man is drawing a musician. The subject, the visual arts, is one which Berger brings up on several occasions. Photography vs painting. What is a “likeness”, anyway? The very title of this collection alludes to the whole subject – Photocopies.
I’ve never known what likeness consists of in a portrait. One can see whether it’s there or not, but it remains a mystery. For instance, photos never have a ‘likeness’. The question isn’t even asked about a photo. Likeness has little to do with features or proportions. Maybe it’s what a drawing receives, if two aims touch like the tips of two fingers.
Sometimes the juxtapositions are meant to jar the reader, to make him really think about what he is reading with a new eye. When in “A Man in One-Piece Leathers and a Crash Helmet Stands Very Still” wants to describe an auto-crash, Berger goes back to “Sophocles around the year 450 BC” for the reference.
Nothing is lost, he says, all that you have ever seen is always with you.
The physics of aesthetics. In “A MAN BEGGING IN THE METRO”, Berger again has an interesting discussion between an old, famous photographer (who has since given it up for drawing) and the ever-present unnamed man. The old man has blue eyes which seems to be a signature eye color for Berger, at least in this collection. The conversation takes place in a cottage where Monet and Renoir painted. Victor Chocquet lived in the flat below.
Chcquet, the man Cezanne painted a portrait of, with a gentle thin face and a beard? I say.
SHEETS OF PAPER LAID ON THE GRASS
The woman from the first story (the photo and the plum tree) makes another appearance here.
There are very many kinds of drawings. The ones now laid on the grass were written like letters.
Flight from Oneself (First State) /1923
Pen and colored inks on paper, mounted on cardboard. (42.2*58.2cm)
Kunstmuseum Bern, Paul-Klee-Stiftung
Also touched upon are unfulfilled dreams (“I would love to go, she said, to one of the islands, and she never did and she died in another city…”; quiet lives of dedication to a calling (“A Bunch of Flowers in a Glass”); political turmoil and displacement (“Two Recumbent Male Figures Wrestling on a Sidewalk”); struggling artists (“A Painting of an Electric Lightbulb”); an elegy to Simone Weil (“A Girl Like Antigone”); In “A Young Woman Wearing a Chapka” the subject is history (“At historic moments, two, three, even four generations are sometimes compressed and co-exist within the lived experience of a single hour. Those who believe that history is finished have forgotten this”; “Sometimes it seems that, like an ancient Greek, I write mostly about the dead and death. If this is so, I can only add that it is done with a sense of urgency which belongs to life.” (A Friend Talking (for Guzine)); free will and sex (Two Cats in a Basket);
God decided to give men free will. As soon as there was such a thing as free will, the naturals of necessity – all the laws of cause and effect – were called into play. Evert story ever told by men or women is in part against the indifference of those laws…It was then that God had to invent all the acts that promise sexual pleasure. One by one he invented them. And since that time, when making love women and men pardon this life and glimpse another.
Amen. Fin. I’ve discovered for myself a great new writer.