||Documenting Old Europe
by Jerry White
There is no living writer quite like John Berger. I insert that adjective "living" with considerable sadness, because the writer who was most like his peer, most in solidarity with his political and especially aesthetic aims, was Susan Sontag. Berger dedicated his 1978 essay, "Uses of Photography", to Sontag, no doubt because she had just recently published her own book On Photography (1977). That the connection between them is manifested via photography says a lot about what kind of intellectuals they were (Berger still is), since neither of them specialised in this artistic form. Berger had made his reputation writing art history and criticism; Sontag's critical focus was largely literary. But both Sontag and Berger were polymaths. They both wrote about cinema, in addition to writing screenplays (Sontag also directed); both wrote novels. It must be said, though, that while both Sontag and Berger will live on as truly great critics, it is Berger whose fictional contributions will be remembered as well as his critical writing. His screenplays with Alain Tanner (La Salamandre, Le Milieu du monde, and most famously, Jonah Who Will be 25 in the Year 2000) are minor masterpieces of 70s European cinema; his novels, particularly the Into Their Labours trilogy (Pig Earth, Once in Europa, Lilac and Flag) are full-blown masterpieces of late-twentieth century European literature. You just can't say the same thing for Sontag's novels or films.
Berger's latest novel, Here is Where we Meet, will feel quite familiar to those who have read the Into Their Labours trilogy, or who have read his Booker-winning novel G (1979). The melancholic, slightly cryptic tone, so central to Berger's work in fiction and criticism, is here in spades. In the opening chapter (or story), "Lisboa", he writes: "Lisboetas often talk of a feeling, a mood, which they call saudade, usually translated as nostalgia, which is incorrect. Nostalgia implies a comfort, even an indolence such as Lisboa has never enjoyed. Vienna is the capital of nostalgia. This city is still, and has always been, buffeted by too many winds to be nostalgic." That sense of painful remembering, a feeling that is too alive to be thought of as melancholy, but too still and quiet, as Berger writes, to prompt action, is key to the mood of this book. And that sense of a living stillness, still-searing memory, is also key to the novels of the Into Their Labours trilogy, particularly "The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol", the virtuoso story that closes Pig Earth (and was turned into a play in 1994), and which concludes with a rush of memory, history, restlessness, and rootedness that can only be described as dizzying.
What will also feel familiar, from this passage and other, is Berger's deep commitment to the culture of Europe. All of his novels have been engaged with the kind of "deep culture" that feels foreign and is in danger of being wiped out, but which is for him the defining quality of European life. In the Into their Labours trilogy it is the old rural culture. In Here is Where we Meet, it is the quiet, sad remembrance that is embodied by the architecture and layout of great European cities (there are chapters devoted to Lisbon, Geneva, Krakow, and Madrid) but which is sometimes given more organic life by Berger in the form of Proustian sense-memory. For instance, sorrel soup-about which a reader of this novel will hear more than she could possibly imagine-that stands in for the Madeleines (the tiny buscuity-pastry that Proust, in Remembrance of Things Past, dunks in his tea, thereby triggering a rush of memories).
This is a crucial intervention. Too often "European culture" is understood as monolithic, and economically uniform. But one of Berger's ongoing projects has been to illuminate the diversity of Europe to life, and to do so largely by taking us into the continent's darker corners. The French alpine village in which he had lived for several decades has taught him the way in which traditional modes of farming and economy precariously survive, never in isolation from the metropolis, but also rarely in cooperative coexistence with it. Berger's vision of Europe, his interest in the continent's deeply set-down culture, reminds me of no one more than Italian filmmaker Vittorio de Seta. De Seta is a documentary filmmaker who worked mostly in Italy's south (although his most recent film is about an immigrant's trip across the Sudan). What attracted de Seta to Southern Italy was not only a political commitment to a terminally impoverished region (a commitment that Berger certainly shares), but as well the fact that the region was (and to some extent remains) isolated enough to ensure that it did not lose its traditional rhythms and processes of agrarian existence. De Seta documented these practices with a kind of painterly clarity that is very close to Berger's intense, vivid prose. De Seta and Berger are brothers under the skin, artists deeply committed to evoking a historical continuity and linking that to the need for struggle against the forces of homogenising modernity.
Where we Meet is frequently as eloquent as anything in Berger's oeuvre, and yet, there are times when his poetic formulations slip into the realm of the semi-incoherent. He writes at one point: "Choosing a wedding dress is unlike choosing any other garment. The bride, when dressed, has to appear to have come from a place where nobody present has ever been, because it is the place of her own name." That sounds kind of lovely, but it doesn't make sense. Berger recovers quickly with the next sentence: "The woman to be married becomes Bride the moment she is transformed into a stranger. A stranger so that the man she is marrying can recognise her as if for the first time; a stranger so she can be surprised, at the moment when they make their vows, by the man she is marrying." Now there's a formulation that is tricky and a bit uncanny, but which does settle down into something quite beautiful.
All in all, Berger's novelistic powers are undiminished. This latest work is a bit looser, and far more subjective, than what has come before, but it is still part of the same project. It's just that with Sontag gone, and filmmakers like de Seta or Tanner far less active than they once were, it increasingly seems that he's struggling alone. He feels more like one of his own melancholy protagonists than ever before. ò
Jerry White is Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the University of Alberta.