Agreeing with Berger

Peter Campbell

  • Ways of Telling: The Work of John Berger by Geoff Dyer
    Pluto, 186 pp, £4.95, December 1986, ISBN 0 7453 0097 9

John Berger is 60. He is not forgotten. Permanent Red, his criticism from the Fifties, is in print. Ways of Seeing is the antidote put in the hands of students who have drunk too deeply of Courtauld art history. His novels, too, have created a stir. His first, A Painter of Our Time, had such vitriolic reviews that the publishers withdrew it, and G won the Booker Prize: Berger’s hard swallow on that sugarplum made him briefly notorious. His behaviour was un-English – but that was to be expected, for his work had never fitted English pigeonholes. In A Fortunate Man he and Jean Mohr produced a report from rural England which, like Let us now praise famous men, Agee’s report from the American Dust Bowl, imposed a solemn simplicity on its subject (Mass-Observation would have been nosier). G is an un-English mix of fiction and essay-like elements. His fiction has been didactic and his criticism passionate. He is also adaptable: as well as half a dozen novels and volumes of essays there have been television programmes and films. This varied body of work hangs together. The epigraph to the first chapter of Geoff Dyer’s book, a quotation from 1956 – ‘I am a political propagandist ... But my heart and eye have remained those of a painter’ – could apply equally well to the later work at the other end of the book.

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