Berger, John (Vol. 19)
Berger, John 1926–
Berger is an English novelist, essayist, art critic, poet, screen-writer, translator, and editor. G is his best known novel, winning for him the Booker Prize in 1972. This tale of a twentieth-century Don Juan is, according to Arnold Kettle, "one of the few serious attempts of our time to do for the novel what Brecht did for drama; to reshape it in the light of 20th-century experience and theory other than the purely subjective or self-analytical." The author of The Success and Failure of Picasso and Toward Reality: Essays in Seeing, Berger is generally considered to be the most important living Marxist art critic. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)
George A. Silver
[A Fortunate Man is] a beautiful book, beautifully written, and illustrated with [Jean Mohr's] striking, movingly apt photographs. Its beauty should occasion no surprise because it is a long, thoughtful essay on man….
The fortunate man is Dr. John Sassall, a country doctor by choice, in a depressed English country setting. The place may not matter, in the ordinary sense, since the relativity of human experience is accentuated. However, the evocative prose and the pictures do not so much complement the scenes and episodes as give pure visual expression to the heard and spoken words….
Berger has undertaken to evoke two levels of humanity in his long, somewhat rambling essay: the country doctor, and a country doctor. Sassall, a country doctor, comes through more strongly than the genus, particularly since the photographs of the grim parish he serves and its moody parishioners command our attention even when the essayist is generalizing on man, the role of the doctor or eschatology….
There is another aspect to Berger's deep, thoughtful commentary. He correlates the dilemma of the doctor's questioning to humanity's quest, and here he makes equally striking observations. In a not unlikely analogy he sees Sassall as a creation of Conrad's—an ex-navy officer, living a shipboard life, whose interim existence is of the same questing nature of Conrad's heroes…....
(The entire section is 295 words.)
Art and Revolution, while purporting to be a book on [Soviet sculptor Ernst] Neizvestny and the role of the artist in the U.S.S.R., actually is a brilliant chapter in Berger's continuing inner debate on the social role of the artist and his obligations to society.
The fact is that Berger uses Neizvestny as a tool to expound his own theories. Neizvestny is convenient because Berger believes that the sculptor has remained faithful to the idea of the revolutionary role of the artist…. Berger believes that the Russian artist has been preoccupied throughout history with truth and purpose rather than with aesthetic pleasure….
He believes that art criticism, at its best, is a form of intervention between the work of art and its public. Thus his essay on Neizvestny becomes a creative "intervention." (p. 99)
Berger maintains that Neizvestny is not opposing "private" art to "public" art, that like his academic opponents he creates monumental sculptures for the public, for crowds. Thus Neizvestny's dilemma parallels Berger's. One is trying to maintain his integrity as a Communist sculptor, the other struggles to maintain his integrity as a Marxist critic….
Instead of letting Neizvestny or his friends talk, Berger attributes thoughts to him. The artist himself becomes irrelevant to the critic's theories….
Berger's analytical brilliance shines through when he...
(The entire section is 430 words.)
The Times Literary Supplement
[In] so far as we are concerned with the overall style or structure of G, one notices that Mr Berger attempts to translate Cubism into literary terms by employing and rather overtaxing many of the devices used in recent years by Sarraute, Sollers, Butor and the other novelists who have said farewell to naturalistic certainty and divinely certified mimesis. Mr Berger's entire narrative is broken up into hundreds of double-spaced sections, some of them constituting only a single line or phrase, thus deliberately exposing the hiatus between conception and achievement. The gear shift in which he moves from "he" to "I" to "you" is so well greased as to be virtually automatic. This is alienation with a vengeance.
With increasing frequency Mr Berger imposes himself on his own story. Turning the page, one may suddenly come across a personal dream having no direct bearing on the action, or an account of a recent visit to a Paris laundry…. There are also passages which stretch the reader's credibility.
To emphasize that the failings of G are the result of a rich endowment of talents and of a bold, experimental intelligence which distrusts the safe, mediocre and provincial, is not to explain these failings away. One comes away from G as from many modern paintings: provoked and stimulated, yet baffled and faintly resentful.
"What We Might Be and What We Are: John...
(The entire section is 259 words.)
[G] can be quite sententious, and there is some fine writing here which creates doubts: what does it mean to credit someone with absolute desires who has been declared to be without needs? What does it mean to say that his desires are not rooted in him, as are those of the other men mentioned? But the general picture is clear enough.
If G. is God's gift to women, it's a gift that is rapidly removed from each in turn, though these lightning departures do not spoil the miraculous cures. His departures resemble those of the traditional Don Juan….
If G. is a sexual revolutionary who is also a social revolutionary, his subversions and his seductions are seldom seen to coincide. Not only that, the healing effects of his seductions are largely a matter of assertion on the writer's part…. At times, the author of this book reads like an involuntary male chauvinist who is on the side of Women's Liberation because he is on the side of revolution….
The book has an interest, however, which can't be argued away like this. It was a good idea to bring together the roles of seducer and subversive during a period when there seems to have been a powerful relationship between greed for money and the glorification of adultery: a powerful relationship, both of attraction and revulsion, between business killings and lady-killings. G. isn't exactly a person: he is mythical and anonymous, and a striking last...
(The entire section is 485 words.)
It is difficult to know how to describe John Berger's [A Seventh Man]. The cover proclaims it to be 'the story of a migrant worker in Europe', while the title-page maintains that it is 'a book of images and words about the experiences of migrant workers in Europe'…. Although it is sometimes difficult to separate Mr Berger's economics from his fiction, it is at least evident that what he and his friends have produced is not so much a book, more what the Americans call an 'integrated, multi-media package'.
And what an extraordinary package it turns out to be…. Mr Berger tries to make his package fit a number of other moulds also. Among these are: a Marxist tract on the nature of modern capitalism; an impassioned polemic against the economic condition euphemistically termed 'underdevelopment'; and a speculative essay on the Self and its relationship to space-time continua. Given that he tries to do all this in less than 90 pages of text, it is not really surprising to find that most of these secondary projects seem to go off at half, or even quarter, cock.
Personally, I am not too bothered by such failures. After all, it is in the nature of Mr Berger's writing that he tries to do several different things at once. What really counts this time is the way he has kept his main objective firmly in his sights. He set out to portray the plight of the migrant worker, and portray it he has damn well done—often in an...
(The entire section is 452 words.)
In his commitment to a dialectic view of reality [John Berger] involves the reader in a scrupulous working out of interlocking contradictions, rather than in ritual affirmations of dissent. His views on art, his original field and the one in which he is most expert, run so much against the grain of current dogma that they are more often sneered at than confronted; his novels are too densely cerebral and schematic to be easily digested; his social criticism is too idiosyncratic to offer much comfort to orthodox Marxists, while at the same time it offends the dominant mood of liberal expediency in the West. Yet, fashionable or not, his 11 books make a strong claim to represent, for the post-war period, the broadest and most cogent expression in English of the socialist imagination. (p. 20)
Paul Delany, "John Berger's Socialist Imagination," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 11, 1976, pp. 19-20.
(The entire section is 158 words.)
Of all socialist artists, Berger is the most powerfully engaging. He recognizes, as few others have, how generative and dramatic dialectic can be…. A Seventh Man is a collage, a total environment, which mixes theory, praxis and the inescapable documentation of the photograph. Berger is the best of believers: his commitment to Marxism admits a minimum of dogma. He is too intent on his purposes to argue poorly. His untiring willingness to articulate helps dispel many of those old fogs which blur our perceptions of the nature of political arrangements. In A Seventh Man we begin to understand the power of the myth of the city to the immigrant—the ways in which the city promises openness and change, escape, "an opportunity to earn enough money to act." (p. 26)
Berger's reach is global here. He describes the interrelation between the poverty to which the migrants are condemned and the need in the industrial countries for unorganized, undemanding labor which can be imported for a set term yet terminated conveniently in a recession….
In giving the reader as much as he does, Berger demands a great deal—he asks for a clearheaded assessment of the circumstances which create the plight of these 11 million men…. A Seventh Man, indeed all of Berger's work, attempts to create this imaginative empathy, to construct the delicate filigree which bridges subjectivities. The demands are political here, but...
(The entire section is 279 words.)
To write convincingly of peasants, not least if you once produced a book on Picasso, would seem as doomed a literary enterprise as creating Trotskyite love-lyrics. For no social figure has surely been glamourised and debunked in such fine proportion; the word can suggest the moral beefiness of an Adam Bede just as easily as it can evoke a surly cretin smeared in cow-shit. Pig Earth is a set of stories, poems and essays about French peasant life by a well-known English intellectual; and it's therefore obvious even before opening it that its chief problem will be that of the stance it assumes towards its own subject-matter.
It's a relief to learn as early as page 7 that John Berger does actually live in a peasant community and to some extent shares its working life; but the real evidence that the book isn't the fruit of research in the British Library emerges in its doggedly scrupulous detail….
Pig Earth is a relentlessly realist work, silently dedicated to smashing the demeaning stereotypes of its subject in the interests of telling it like it is. But how is it, exactly? For a socio-political account of the plight of the world peasantry we have to wait for the finely analytic 'Historical Afterword', in which Berger reflects upon the peasantry's economic infrastructure, its cultural conditions, the possibility of its impending extinction as a class. That Berger is one of the few English writers who can...
(The entire section is 436 words.)
There is no longer an English peasantry. John Berger lives and works in a French peasant community and Pig Earth is the first fruits of his labours there. It is a very striking book indeed, a collection of compelling stories portraying, without literary sentimentality or sociological heavy-handedness, the world that his neighbours inhabit. Discovering an entry point into their experience through his own established role as a story teller, Berger moulds his narrative round gossip and anecdotes from the village to produce a work that can legitimately lay claim to the privileges of both fiction and ethnography. He brackets these stories between analytical accounts of peasant "survival culture", a culture which, for the first time, faces the possibility of extinction and replacement, not by affluence, but by wage-slavery.
John Ryle, "Catching Up, Fiction: 'Pig Earth'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1979; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4003, December 7, 1979, p. 104.
(The entire section is 155 words.)
Whereas dandies like Nabokov flaunt syntax and diction like a cardinal his robe, the 'socially committed' are grammatical ironsides; dependent clauses and out-of-the-way correspondences are the devil's (ie middle-class) work. One style lends itself to preciosity, the other to portentousness, John Berger's besetting vice. Not that he doesn't occasionally allow himself an image, and very good images too, but uttered in such tones as to leave the reader in no doubt that the exercise is performed exclusively for his spiritual betterment….
The form of [Pig Earth] is reminiscent of Brecht's Tales from the Calendar, itself a conscious revival of an earlier tradition. But where Brecht is cool, witty and informative, Berger is merely solemn and, I fear, condescending, both to the friends he memorializes and to his readers.
The poems are simply inept…. The stories are better, but far too self-consciously in search of primal realities….
William Scammell, "Moralists," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1980), Vol. 19, No. 12, March, 1980, p. 92.∗
(The entire section is 158 words.)
Since the publication in this country of John Berger's prizewinning novel G. in 1972, his reputation here among leftists, and leftist artists especially, has grown steadily; and with good reason. Today, the example of his work over the last twenty-odd years (beginning, significantly enough perhaps, from around the time of his departure from Britain's stifling CP) constitutes, in effect, the first major set of standards for Marxist literary practice, and creative cultural practice in general, in the English-speaking world.
Of this achievement, and this set of standards, at least two elements seem particularly distinctive, both of which are amply in evidence in the two works under review. First, the example of Berger's openness to a variety of cultural practices, a willingness to open out to radical possibility, which manifests itself not only in the range of Berger's work … but in his rare commitment to finding moments of such possibility outside those places where they are conventionally expected to be….
[Also] there is the matter of Berger's rootedness in what can now be called a tradition of overlapping radical and phenomenological concern. It is this concern that makes Berger's art criticism so accessible and vital, combining a dual emphasis on both the artist's and the viewer's perceptions with a sensitivity to the historical fields in which both operate. And it is this attention to the politics...
(The entire section is 1186 words.)
John Berger is an amalgam as odd as his strange new book…. "Pig Earth" is the first of a trilogy of fictions he will publish under the general title "Into Their Labours," an account of the metastasis of peasant society into a modern metropolis—a sort of prayer book of alienation. Mr. Berger wants us to understand that peasants are virtuous victims; their conservatism is a kind of guile; their guile is somehow liberating….
[A] particular peasant, Marcel, has deep thoughts: "Walking is a form of thinking, whereas machines, such as tractors are harbingers of debt, of a mortgaged future." For a peasant, Marcel thinks too much; his observations on the transforming of work into spirit, or of work into imagination, are unlikely and incredible. Equally unlikely and incredible is the epiphany of another peasant, Lucie Cabrol…. (p. 513)
Mr. Berger can't make up his mind. The Marxist in him knows that the peasant is doomed; agribusiness and the seductions of the big city will consume the mute, inglorious Miltons. On the other hand, the fact that peasants survive, obdurate and cunning, is miraculous. They know the past, if not history; their history is routine; as a class, they have manners, but no future. Dialectical materialism will abolish them.
But Mr. Berger feels bad. He will miss their resourcefulness, their neighborliness, their comradeship, their dignity. (pp. 513-14)
(The entire section is 396 words.)