John Berger died yesterday. Reviewing his selected essays in the LRB in 2002, Peter Wollen wrote:
Berger, despite his concentrated seriousness, is quite capable of breaking out of the box, seeing things in unexpected new ways, becoming excited by the unusual and the perverse and the eccentric, bringing a pungent subjectivity to the most delicate of judgments. For me he is the man who has written movingly about Seker Ahmet and the Douanier Rousseau and the Facteur Cheval, artists from outside the mainstream, who created their own strange worlds, in which the perspective was disjointed, ‘deeply and subtly strange’, or in which ‘clumsiness was the precondition of eloquence’ or which were filled with ‘strange sculptures of all kinds of animals and caricatures’. Or Grandville’s engraving of a bear dejectedly pulling a pram. Or the amateur artists of Hiroshima. Or the carvings of white wooden birds, with wings and fan tails, about six inches long, made from well-soaked pine-wood and hung in the kitchen of a peasant home, in Czechoslovakia, in the Baltic lands, or in Berger’s own Haute-Savoie. This is the Berger I admire most, a man who is at home anywhere, curious, intense, always on the side of the underdog and the eccentric, always thrilled by creativity.
On a visit to Palestine in 2003, Berger reflected in the LRB:
The time of the victors is always short and that of the defeated unaccountably long. Their space is different, too. Everything in this limited land is a question of space, and the victors have understood as much. The stranglehold they maintain is first and foremost spatial. It is applied, illegally and in defiance of international law, through the checkpoints, through the destruction of ancient roads, through the new bypasses strictly reserved for Israeli settlers, through the fortress hilltop settlements, which are really surveillance and control points for the surrounding plateaux, through the curfew which obliges people to stay indoors night and day until it is lifted. During the invasion of Ramallah last year, the curfew lasted six weeks, with a ‘lifting’ of a couple of hours on certain days for shopping. There was not even enough time to bury those who died in their beds.
Berger was also one of the London Review Bookshop’s ‘first and most loyal customers’.