John (Peter) Berger Biography
Nationality: British. Born: Stoke Newington, London, 1926. Education: Central School of Art and the Chelsea School of Art, London. Military Service: Served in the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Infantry, 1944-46. Career: Painter and drawing teacher, 1948-55; contributor, Tribune and New Statesman, both London, 1951-60; television narrator, About Time, 1985, and Another Way of Telling, 1989. Artist: exhibitions at Wildenstein, Redfern, and Leicester galleries, London, Denise Cade gallery, New York, 1994. Awards: Booker prize, 1972; Guardian Fiction prize, 1972; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1973; New York Critics prize, for screenplay, 1976; George Orwell Memorial prize, 1977; Barcelona Film Festival Europa award, 1989; Lannan Foundation award, 1989; Australian State prize, 1989.
A Painter of Our Time. London, Secker and Warburg, 1958; NewYork, Simon and Schuster, 1959.
The Foot of Clive. London, Methuen, 1962.
Corker's Freedom. London, Methuen, 1964; New York, Pantheon, 1993.
G. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York, Viking Press, 1972.
Into Their Labours (trilogy in one volume). New York, Pantheon, 1991; London, Granta, 1992.
Pig Earth (short stories). London, Writers and Readers, 1979;New York, Pantheon, 1980.
Once in Europa (short stories). New York, Pantheon, 1987;Cambridge, Granta, 1989.
Lilac and Flag: An Old Wives' Tale of a City. New York, Pantheon, 1990; Cambridge, Granta, 1991.
To the Wedding. New York, Pantheon, and London, Bloomsbury, 1995.
Photocopies. New York, Pantheon Books, 1996.
King, a Street Story. New York, Pantheon Books, 1999.
Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l'an 2000 (screenplay), with Alain Tanner. Lausanne, Cinémathèque Suisse, 1978; translated by Michael Palmer, as Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, Berkeley, California, North Atlantic, 1983.
A Question of Geography, with Nella Bielski (produced Marseille, 1984; Stratford-on-Avon, 1987; London, 1988). London, Faber, 1987.
Les Trois Chaleurs (produced Paris, 1985).
Boris, translated into Welsh by Rhiannon Ifans (produced Cardiff, 1985).
Goya's Last Portrait: The Painter Played Today, with Nella Bielski. London, Faber, 1989.
Screenplays, with Alain Tanner: La Salamandre (The Salamander), 1971, Le Milieu du monde (The Middle of the World), 1974, and Jonas (Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000), 1976; Play Me Something, with Timothy Neat, 1989.
Pages of the Wound: Poems, Photographs, Drawings by John Berger. London, Circle Press, 1994.
Marcel Frishman, with George Besson. Oxford, Cassirer, 1958.
Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing. London, Methuen, 1960; asTowards Reality, New York, Knopf, 1962.
The Success and Failure of Picasso. London, Penguin, 1965; NewYork, Pantheon, 1980.
A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor, photographs byJean Mohr. London, Allen Lane, and New York, Holt Rinehart, 1967.
Art and Revolution: Ernst Neizvestny and the Role of the Artist in the U.S.S.R. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York, Pantheon, 1969.
The Moment of Cubism and Other Essays. London, Weidenfeld andNicolson, and New York, Pantheon, 1969.
The Look of Things, edited by Nikos Stangos. London, Penguin, 1972; New York, Viking Press, 1974.
Ways of Seeing, with others. London, BBC-Penguin, 1972; NewYork, Viking Press, 1973.
A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe, photographs by Jean Mohr. London, Penguin, and New York, Viking Press, 1975.
About Looking. London, Writers and Readers, and New York, Pantheon, 1980.
Another Way of Telling (on photography), with Jean Mohr. London, Writers and Readers, and New York, Pantheon, 1982.
And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. London, Writers andReaders, and New York, Pantheon, 1984.
The White Bird, edited by Lloyd Spencer. London, Chatto andWindus, 1985; as The Sense of Sight, New York, Pantheon, 1986.
Keeping a Rendezvous. New York, Pantheon, 1991; London, Granta, 1992.
Isabelle: A Story in Shots (with Nella Bielski). Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour Editions, 1998.
Contributor, Happiness and Discontent. Chicago, Great Books Foundation, 1998.
Translator, with Anya Bostock, Poems on the Theatre, by BertoltBrecht. London, Scorpion Press, 1961; as The Great Art of Living Together: Poems on the Theatre, Bingley, Yorkshire, Granville Press, 1972.
Translator, with Anya Bostock, Helene Weigel, Actress, by BertoltBrecht. Leipzig, Veb Edition, 1961.
Translator, with Anya Bostock, Return to My Native Land, by AiméCésaire. London, Penguin, 1969.
Translator, with Lisa Appignanesi, Oranges for the Son of Asher Levy, by Nella Bielski. London, Writers and Readers, 1982.
Translator, with Jonathan Steffen, After Arkadia: The Wickerwork Tram and The Barber's Head, by Nella Bielski. London, Viking, 1991.
Seeing Berger: A Revaluation of Ways of Seeing by Peter Fuller, London, Writers and Readers, 1980, revised edition as Seeing Through Berger, London, Claridge Press, 1988; Ways of Telling: The Work of John Berger by Geoff Dyer, London, Pluto, 1986.
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From his 10 years as art critic for the New Statesman through to his present storytelling narratives concerning AIDS and homelessness, John Berger has been constantly experimenting with various perspectives, voices, and kinds of writing. But certain qualities remain constant in all of his mixed-genre writing: the seriousness of tone and attitude toward human life; the conviction that "seeing comes before words" (Ways of Seeing); the determination to show how the ways of the modern capitalist world distort and destroy lives and imaginations; the spirit of affirmation of, and faith and hope in, possibilities of the creative imagination and humans' capacity as social animals to recognize the roots of value and meaning and to bring about change. As an oppositional and interdisciplinary thinker, Berger sees writing as a social act and writes not out of any particular tradition, but out of his rational and humane Marxist convictions, mitigated somewhat over the years by broader philosophical investigations.
His first three novels are set in the London of the 1950s and 1960s. A Painter of Our Time uses the world of an émigré to explore the crossroads of culture and politics. It arose out of Berger's art critical essays of the 1950s and out of his experiences with people he knew in the art world, particularly certain émigré artists. The novel sets Hungarian painter and scientific socialist Janos Lavin's artistic and political ideals against modern London's cynical and opportunist art business, with which he must deal, and explores his isolation as an exile with no suitable context in which to work.
Berger "thought about [his next three novels] quite consciously in terms of British society" (interview with Diane Watson, May 1988). He maintains that bourgeois society "underdevelops" consciousness and life on an individual level, and empathy consistently informs his fictional portraits of those whose lives are most "under-developed," from his examination of those disabled by modern British society, to those ignored or dismissed by Marxism, such as the peasants about whom he writes in his trilogy Into their Labours.
In The Foot of Clive Berger departs permanently from the world of art in his fiction, and dramatizes the minutiae of the daily actions and the subconscious impulses of six men from across the class strata who are patients in a hospital ward. The lack of a collective dream and the void left by the society's destruction of a coherent heroic image informs the quality of life and relations in the ward, a microcosm of British society. Prevented from action, they lead a passive, static existence; all they can do is think, talk, and feed off their fears.
In A Fortunate Man, Berger's most moving work of non-fiction, he describes the situation of "wholesale cultural deprivation"; in Corker's Freedom—his most underrated novel—he illuminates the situation by examining the consequences of this deprivation for one particular individual, Corker, the owner of an employment agency and a self-proclaimed "traveller." Mainly by depicting the contours of Corker's self-consciousness, the novel traces several days in his awakening to what he feels to be his true potential and his struggle to liberate himself from his sister and from his society's expectations of him.
Berger's best known work of fiction, G., closes out the phase of works written from inside the society of which he is most critical; it looks backwards to ideas and struggles of previous work and forwards to the solving of questions it raises about writing and to other possibilities of philosophical—mainly existential and phenomenological—and ideological perspective. This highly technically experimental novel grapples with the living of two kinds of time, historical and subjective, elucidates the workings of memory, and documents the historical preconditions that make a Don Juan possible: the novel is set in the period between the late nineteenth century and the beginning of World War I. G. is grounded in Ways of Seeing, particularly in its consideration of sexual appetite and social roles as determined by political, historical, and cultural contexts. Its global resonance is brought about by the author's imaginative identification with not only particular individuals, but with a historical period of a continent, with a revolutionary class, and with women. The mysterious, cosmopolitan Don Juan figure, G., has brushes with all that is vital about his period in history, but is interested in engaging with nothing but moments of liberation through sexual passion.
Berger described his "thinking about narrative" as "having become tighter and more traditional" after G. ("The Screenwriter as Collaborator," interview in Cineaste, no. 10, 1980), and he turned his attention to a culture whose perspective predates that of progress and capitalism. Throughout the three-part project Into Their Labours—comprised of Pig Earth, Once in Europa, and Lilac and Flag, each of which addresses a different stage of this process—he acts as a witness to the disintegration of traditional French peasant work, perspective, and experience, and adopts a storytelling voice and narrative style. In storytelling, Berger has found a language that speaks of and from lived experience, in opposition to that which reflects and perpetuates the constraints and limitations of bourgeois society. He values the art of storytelling for its ability to situate people, individually and collectively, in history, and as a kind of narrative that feeds and answers to imaginative and metaphysical experience. This rich and lyrical trilogy contains some of his best writing, particularly in Once in Europa, a book of love stories that turn on the mystery and amplitude of intimacy.
Berger's penchant for poetic declarations, coupled with his characteristic humanism, lends his fiction a strong sense of the aphoristic and even the allegorical. In his latest two novels, To the Wedding and King: A Street Story, Berger mobilizes a markedly sensual, erotically charged prose to once again explore the nature of political and physical resistance. To the Wedding, for example, is narrated by a blind storyteller who literally "hears" the novel. Berger deftly turns the reader into a "listener of voices" and the effect of the work, so rife with similes and preoccupied with both ancient and modern poetry, is beguilingly lyrical. The plot concerns the trauma of a young woman who contracts AIDS and, specifically, the uncovering of her past and the past of her family and friends as they journey to her wedding. Berger's specific descriptions of the physical body combating the AIDS virus constitute a terrible but revealing analogy of political struggle. When Nino, the protagonist, is eventually diagnosed the narrator confronts the utter bleakness of her situation and asks: "How to change nothing into everything?" It is a jarring and resolutely Berger-esque question—and one that King, Berger's most recent fiction, takes up directly.
King 's eponymous protagonist—ostensibly a dog—is a sort of roving watch-mutt, not to mention a first-rate yarn-spinner, for a group of homeless squatters living on a motorway-bordering wasteland. Early on in the novel, King interrupts his own narrative to relate a brief parable about a sparrow trapped inside a house. As King explains, the bird eventually finds its way back into the air and then releases a chirp of joy. King itself, the reader recognizes, is a meditation about freedom and also, fundamentally, about the political responsibilities of the storyteller. Though King is essentially a tragic, even pessimistic novel—the squatters are, in the end, violently removed from the land—such is Berger's gift that his multi-vocal reportage seems to survive the community's destruction.
As unflinchingly brutal as Berger's descriptions of dispossession and human evil can be, the very act of writing remains—Berger convinces one of this—a sign of profound hope. Throughout his evolution from one of Britain's best social realists to master storyteller, his aim remains consistent: to point to possibilities of disalienation. And while his fiction moves increasingly in the direction of philosophical speculation and metaphysical rumination, it loses none of its political impact. Thus the small, seemingly insignificant sparrow engaged in its heroic escape comes to resonate and challenge the most dire, most bleak of closures. As Berger writes in his essay "The White Bird": "Under the fallen boulder of an avalanche a flower grows."
—Diane Watson, updated by
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