In 2009 John Berger donated his archive to the British Library. Some of the drawings, manuscripts, correspondence and other papers can be seen at Somerset House until 10 November. The title of the exhibition, Art and Property Now, is taken from an essay Berger wrote for New Society in 1967. The show is one of several events taking place in London this autumn to mark the 40th anniversary of both Berger’s TV series Ways of Seeing and his novel G.
On Wednesday, several of Berger’s collaborators will be talking about working with him at the London Review Bookshop. Last Friday, the British Library screened Ways of Listening, a new 25-minute film based on Berger’s conversations with Tilda Swinton. It was shot by Colin MacCabe (who joked on Friday evening that ‘the rushes are embargoed for 30 years’) at Berger’s house in the French Alps in December 2010. Berger and Swinton cook, draw, rescue a car buried in snow, talk and sit together in silence. Their conversation keeps returning to their fathers: both were soldiers – Berger’s fought in the First World War, Swinton’s lost a leg in 1945 – and never spoke to them about it.
Some of the papers in the exhibition at Somerset House are frustratingly hard to make out. Peering at a letter from Berger to B.S. Johnson, I struggled to get past ‘Dear Bryan’. In a note from Tom Waits, the only words that stand out are ‘LOVE to collaborate on anything’. The closest I thought I would ever get to collaborating with Berger was translating a chapter from Here Is Where We Meet into Russian. But a few days ago I got an email from the magazine in Moscow that printed it saying that Berger has sent them a letter addressed to me.
I haven’t seen the letter yet, so can only guess what might be in it. Waiting, I’m reminded of a passage in Bento’s Sketchbook, in which Berger describes going to a library to take out The Brothers Karamazov and finding that both copies are out on loan. ‘Without any of the complications and conflicts of family ties, these stories that shape us are our coincidental, as distinct from biological, ancestors,’ he writes. ‘Somebody in this Paris suburb, perhaps sitting tonight in a chair and reading The Brothers Karamazov, may already, in this sense, be a distant, distant cousin.’