What Are They Reading?

What Are They Reading?

John Berger, best known for the essay collection Ways of Seeing, is not a timid writer. His oeuvre comprises novels, poems, criticism and plays.


By John Berger.
Vintage. 101 pp. Paper $9.

John Berger, best known for the essay collection Ways of Seeing, is not a timid writer. His oeuvre comprises novels, poems, criticism and plays. Among the subjects he likes to tackle are art, politics, love, sex and death.

Every year or so, I pick up a Berger book, and the experience is always bracing. My last foray into his world–a world of passionate curiosity, highly sensitive perceptions and ethical astringency–was the genre-resistant And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. My advice to browsers who glimpse it on the shelf is: First, forgive the title. Then, don’t be misled by its dimensions. At a svelte hundred-odd pages, it’s weightier than it looks. A prefatory note clears that right up: “Part One is about Time,” it says. “Part Two is about Space.” As is typical for Berger, the weight is all muscle.

Yet the book is entrancingly readable. In clear, urgent language–prose as well as verse–it delivers a series of dispatches from Berger’s mind and heart. (Other books of his, such as Keeping a Rendezvous and Photocopies, do the same.) He serves up many observations in aphoristic nuggets: “Pleasure has a constant tendency to exceed its functional purpose, to not know its place”; time, in our age, has become “a sentence and a punishment…. Only somebody reprieved from a death sentence can imagine time as a gift.” (A friend of mine, not a fan, compared such proclamations to Saturday Night Live‘s “Deep Thoughts,” without the irony. To me, they’re more like philosophy without the jargon.) Some of the chapters are love letters to an absent “you”: “I live in you then like living in a country…. Yet in that country I can never meet you face to face.”

My favorite passages are those that offer peeps through Berger’s receptive, responsive eyes:

And at that moment everything was forgotten because a hare ran across the road, ten yards away from us. It was a lean hare with tufts on the tips of its ears of brown smoke. And although it was running slowly, it ran for its life.

How did he see that? I suppose it’s a fair return on all the attention he pays. Preoccupied by the right things, he is immune to frivolity. I can’t imagine him fretting about a zit or an awkward social encounter. And reading him steels me against those anxieties too.

Although Berger is an outstanding writer, he is not a poet, even when he slips into verse. By his own account, poems are “nearer to prayers than to stories, but in poetry there is no one behind the language being prayed to.” Poetry addresses language itself, and “words are a presence before they are a means of communication.” But for him, words are, principally, tools for communicating his insights and experiences. It is not language he loves best. It’s the hare, and his favorite paintings and his lover’s body. Distinguishable from, though not lesser than, an artist, Berger is a transcriber of his own genius for living, loving and seeing.

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