Monday, January 02, 2017

John Berger, writer

John Berger, who has died at the age of 90, taught me everything about writing.

By which I mean, he taught me nothing about writing – if by writing you mean punctuation and word choice and style and rhythm. And this though his work is everything you want writing to be: lyrical and terse and delicate and rolling with cadence.

“The act of writing," he wrote in an essay published almost four decades back, "is nothing except the act of approaching the experience written about." Then he expanded on an insight from Borges to note that experience is indivisible and continuous and that the experience of approaching that experience moves backwards and forwards through referents of hope and fear -- and that this continual and seemingly banal motion conjures the exact magic of writing: “As the movement of writing repeats itself, its nearness to, its intimacy with the experience increases. Finally, if one is fortunate, meaning is the fruit of this intimacy.”

His trilogy Into Their Labours -- the novels Pig Earth, Once in Europa, and Lilac and Flag -- achieved that transcendent intimacy and nearness. In a natural yet pointillist way that yielded great beauty and pain, he honored the arduous journey from the village to the city decades before it was recognized as the dominant way of the world. Later, with the largely unsung King: A Street Story, he approached the squatter and migrant experience in dawn-of-the-twenty-first-century Europe. He also helped usher many literary evocations of the migrant experience to readers -- including Latife Tekin's Berji Kristin: Tales from the Garbage Hills, and Emine Sevgi Özdamar's The Bridge of the Golden Horn. As he wrote in the intro to Özdamar's novel, “Since their beginning, stories have pretended to take place far away. Faraway and once-upon-a-time are code words for Here and Now.”

In a sense, Berger worked in partnership with all the experiences he approached. He found kinship in the words and experiences of those who had different words and experiences than he did. And, with humility and firmness, he refuted the lies and fabrications that prevent these stories and experiences from being appreciated. His essays, novels, poems, criticism, translations, appreciations, and collaborations are fully imagined and fully alive.

In 2005, when I published Shadow Cities, I wanted to let him know how much his books had meant to me. So I dug up his address in rural France and sent him a copy. Three years later, with no fanfare, I received a short email back. He signed off this way: "With gratitude and solidarity (and the solitude that inevitably accompanies it) and an abrazo fuerte. John."

An abrazo fuerte back, John, in solidarity and solitude.

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