Hello your extraordinary sensitivity.
The Times Literary Supplement recently asked the writer Ian McEwan twenty questions. One question was framed as a game called ‘humiliation’ in which McEwan had to name the most famous work he had never read. McEwan, it turns out, has read less Pericles than I… not that that means he’s missing out on much. If I had been asked the same question, my answer would have been, and with considerably greater pathos, the late John Peter Berger.
John Berger died one month ago to the day. Up until 2017 I had heard of him only in passing and hadn’t read him at all. It turns out that the reputational benefit incurred posthumously to the modern artist can be instantaneous – I think that nothing other than this death would have forced him upon my attention with quite the same verve. With Virgilian grace, for me he now speaks on everything.
Continuing with the adjective pastoral, I should briefly reflect on some of his poetry. In his poetry he wrote of an agrarian simplicity that has been eaten away with the passing of time. For him, the melancholy here lies not with strict conservatism – despite knowing Berger only a little, I sense that he wouldn’t wish to wipe away our cities and all the social benefits they incur – instead, his poetry is melancholic because of our failed remembrance. We know not what we have lost. His was a sadness for the future.
An extract from, ‘They are the last’.
Now that they have gone
It is their endurance we miss
Unlike the tree
the river or the cloud
the animals had eyes
and in their glance
Much like these animals, John Berger’s artistic glance will also prove to be permanent. I am confident that this will prove to be the case, because there is much that I look forward to enjoying with Berger: his essays, his novels, his films. And it is with Berger that I suspect to enjoy them because from only a few interviews the voice of John Berger is already unmistakable to me. John Berger does not in fact do interviews; he does conversations. He will often put questions to his interviewer with child-like eagerness. When it is his turn to speak he will run his hands through his hair before his voice rises in old excitement only to dissipate a moment later like cigarette smoke down a grate. His silence then arrives, one which is made compelling by his eyes, eyes that continue to plumb the depths of an idea for many many seconds after his last run-off sentence. The man as a writer and his spoken voice are inseparable.
It feels like Berger’s death was the passing of something in totality, as when the last man falls in a platoon. He was a thinking Marxist, the muddy-field conservative, a biker for liberty; but above all else else he stood out as an extraordinarily sensitive human. He once said that he felt intimidated in any room other than his studio and his kitchen. The death of John Berger. The world’s loss is my gain.