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John Berger: an interview by Nikos Papastergiadis.

Nikos Papastergiadis: Now that your trilogy Into Their Labour is complete, it might be an opportunity to ask you to tell a few stories about storytelling. In particular I would like to focus on the space of the other in the project of writing. Perhaps we can investigate the presence of a borderline between the self and the other in the writing process.

John Berger: Is it a borderline, or is it a process of osmosis? It seems to me, that as soon as you begin to think of writing about another human being you begin to efface that border. You might then ask, where does the energy come from for the effacement of that border? I think it comes from what one has already lived. That which has become part of one's own experience and life is already other people. If one wants to put it in a rather cheap aphorism: the self is already collective. That collective is made of all those people with whom one has interacted positively or negatively, it is made up of pain and pleasure, of hope and fear, of security and risk. Think, for example, of how we dream, and in particular of how we dream of people, either of people who are dead but whom we knew, or people who we once knew and are still alive. We say that they come back to us in our dreams, but what it means is that they are already within us. Writing about other people at the most primary and deep level is writing about those who are already inside us. I'll give an example which says something about the area which we are trying to approach. About ten days ago I was in the Swiss mountains, high up, about two hours walk from the nearest road and there was one of these small alpine lakes. I was fascinated by this lake and I wrote a page about. If you like I could read it to you?

I am an alpine lake. I measure 750 metres by fifty metres. I am about seventy

metres deep. One of my neighbours to the west is an alpage called Annely. I am

called Falin. I reflect with my eyes shut. When I do this indiscriminately, you,

you see dark green, nothing else. In my depth are arctic fish and a current that

never stops. Men take photos but they never work because I keep my eyes

shut. On my surface, flat stones when well thrown, ricochet. And whenever I

am touched ripples of sensation are visible. The snows melt in May and June.

In August, when the sun is hot, Hunstein pours cool sand down my spire. The

sun is high enough to reach me only in the summer. And every summer

Schlafberg and his rockfaces tell the same story; it is the kind of story which is

told when a crowd of people are drunk. According to this story I was once a

fountain in a bath parlour, a haman. After being massaged, men came to play

dice on low round stone tables arranged around me, sometimes they brought

women to me. They gambled for whatever good they could see on this earth.

One day a man lost everything he had and might have. He was a god, and it is

dangerous to let gods lose. We've always known that. In his terror he lifted up

the haman and threw it on its side. The gambling tables rolled through the

walls like millstones and have stayed there vertical ever since. Everybody fled.

Nobody returned. The edge of the table cracked and crumbled. Grass grew

where the dice once rolled. But in the summer, when the sun is in the right

position, one can still see the round gambling tables and the shepherds call

them Hunstein. When I reflect indiscriminately with my eyes shut, the dark

green you see may change in mid afternoon to turquoise, and at dusk when the

trout leap through my lids the turquoise becomes slate. In August, kids row

the length of me. But, at other moments, concentrated by the pain of memory,

eyes still shut, I reflect with discrimination. I reflect shadows, light, stone,

sky, goat, pine, cows, rowing boat man, face, moustache, earring, linen shirt,

Hunstein diving, Schlafberg floating on his back, grass grass grass, stars, a

boy's zizi. People try to buy me in jewels, but I am never there, nor my sister

Zamtisa. About her I cannot sing. But it happens to me that, sometimes, I

open my eyes. When I do it, you fall into me, helpless.

After several readings of this piece I realized that it is the story of Narcissus seen from the other point of view. Even more precisely, it is the Narcissus painted by Caravaggio. You see how myths are inside us? For while I thought I was writing about a lake which was out there, I was writing actually about something which was already inside me, although I wasn't writing about myself. I suppose it is worth remembering that the myth of Narcissus is one of somebody who cannot escape the self. By telling the story from the point of view of the lake, and lending a kind of intentionality to the lake, I reverse the story. Suddenly it isn't that Narcissus can't escape himself; on the contrary, it is that he answers a call. We could say that Narcissus looks at his own reflection and falls in love with its life. In looking at himself he looks at something outside himself.

NP: Let's move back in time and talk about your art criticism in the fifties. Despite the constraints of the genre, each critical essay is written like a story. I marvel at their elegance and the clarity of every portrayal of a character. If the vibrancy and authority of each article seems to emerge from experience, then how is it that one person can be the author of so many images?

Berger: Let's begin with something very simple. When you are writing for a newspaper, the first things that you know is that you only have so many inches, and you have to arrange what you have to say within that space. The elegance that you talk about, if there is an elegance, comes from the need to seize that space and to arrange it exactly like you arrange furniture in a room. Before I started writing, I would have in my mind a small number of key metaphors which were the principal bits of furniture. I would arrange them to fit that space, and to make that space as hospitable as possible. Then I would write. If we continue with the image of the room or the house, you might ask whose room, whose house? In a sense it was my house, because it was I who was arranging it, but the way that I arranged it was to make it a room for the work of the artist I was writing about. That would be true of about nine-tenths of what I wrote, and it was true even if I was negatively critical of a work or an artist. The one-tenth when it wasn't true was when I wanted to attack something ferociously. Then, probably, the room belonged to my own anger and the result was not very good writing because anger, although sometimes justified, has within it its own spiral of egocentricity.

NP: This metaphor of arranging the imaginary room of the other explains the strong sense of a visit that I experienced while reading your criticism. There was always the sense of a revelation of a unique ordering process and a sort of journeying towards an unknown space. Your criticism was never an evaluation of the consequences of an artist's achievement but a rumination on how artist works, or an estimation of aspirations.

Berger: I think that is true, and that was quite conscious at the time for me. It only occurs to me at this moment that this is something which is very parallel to what a painter does on a canvas, or what a sculptor does within a space. Wait a moment, this can be very easily misunderstood. The point of this parallelism between my writing about painting, and the painting of a painting, is that what interested me was not what the painter had made but the making of it. Christian Bobin, a French writer whom I admire very much, said: "When you are reading a book you are writing it." Similarly, when you are really looking at a painting you are painting it. A more commonplace example is when you are listening to a singer: you find yourself singing.

NP: Indeed the process of identification and empathy is very important to the reader, but the process of identification is something that has received much scrutiny. I can see now a possible rationale for the self-conscious role of storytelling that your writing has taken, and the move away from the modernist experimentation with the multiplication of perspective which was crucial in your novel G. I think the emphasis in your recent fiction is more on trying to allure and draw in the reader rather than to self-consciously play with the elements of a text which can distance and ironize everything. This brings us to thinking about the seductive role of the storyteller, but then again I am not very satisfied with that metaphor.

Berger: Better than the seduction metaphor is the metaphor of hospitality. And maybe that touches your preoccupation with exile because we know that the duty, awareness and need of hospitality is at its most intense amongts nomads. The more sedentary and fixed abodes become, the more formal and the less spontaneous hospitality often becomes.

NP: When a critic responds to your work positively, they seem to take it in order to fly faster to somewhere that they seemed to be already going, and over the years the number of destinations have been as diverse as the social fashions and the political commitments that each critic subscribes to. Whereas the negative criticism always reads as if it were written by the same person. Now I have come to the realization that, more than anything else, it is a knee-jerk reaction against the position that you assume. In their own ways, they are saying we don't need to go where Berger is taking us, or that the place he writes of does not exist. Along with this is a rejection of the position of one who has voluntarily left his place of origin. The ambivalence of your social location seems regularly to launch the same set of cultural projections.

Berger: I am sure that these questions of house, place, of the ground between travelling and being fixed, this question as to whether one is at home or not, are very deeply embedded in my imagination and in my writing. But it is difficult for me to say very much about it. I can say simple things. I don't own a house and I have no wish to. This predisposition in myself (it is almost a repugnance) perhaps served me well in my relationship with the peasants who were my neighbours when I first moved to the country. In a village, when a foreigner buys a house it feels to everybody and even perhaps to the person who sold it, as the illegitimate taking of something. If justice existed, it would still belong to them! My friends Louis, with whom I make the hay every summer, always calls me le comedian which, in a certain sense, means the bohemian, but also the wandering player.

NP: What do you call him?

Berger: La patron, the one who decides, the one who is in charge. I live in a house which he owns, and for which I pay a small rent. A few years ago the chimney caught fire and the house almost burnt down. It was a question of two minutes. Had it not been for all the neighbours who came with water, the whole thing would have gone. Fortunately, the damage was not very great. Knowing that Louis would hear about it very quickly via the bush telegraph, I immediately went to tell him. His reply was: "Well, as long as you are fine, it's all right." A couple of months later I went around to pay the rent and he refused to accept it. "No, I don't want the money. You use it to buy the things of yours that were burnt."

NP: Such stories about relationships of trust gained through work and from living in proximity brings us to one of the persistent themes in your work: the distinction between modern and traditional, urban and rural. One of the strongest lessons we can draw from your work is a critique of the wholesale disavowal of traditionalism in modernity, and the understanding that the possibilities within the present are partly shaped by our continuous imaginings of the past and the future. The question of destiny and history is always open at both ends. I wonder if this is also related to what you've said in Pig Earth and A Seventh Man concerning the relative space for secrecy within the village and the city. Perhaps the cruelty of the city is in the attempt to regulate the infinity of secrets that it contains, whereas in the village, the absence of a central law but the presence of a shared past facilitates a greater flexibility in the realm of ethics.

Berger: Yes, but I think this comes about not through any intrinsic virtue which implies that rural life is purer or nobler than urban life, of course not. Rather, it comes about for quite pragmatic reasons to do with experience. If you are continuously dealing with nature, with all its unpredictability and with all its constant secrets, then the rigid application of rules is the surest road to catastrophe! You have to continuously weigh one thing against another and, then, guess.

NP: Is this guessing another metaphor for your writing process?

Berger: It is, actually, a kind of listening. It isn't that one projects a guess as a solution, it is rather that one listens and something comes as a solution. Weighing one thing against another and then listening, I suppose you might say that is how I try to narrate and guess.

NP: How does it relate to the earlier metaphor of arranging that you used to describe criticism?

Berger: In storytelling the space is arranged in a somewhat similar way, but there's another dimension which is the waiting for the voice of the story.

You know the story which is called "Once in Europa"? For many years I had the idea of writing this story and I tried writing it but it never came. It was never right. I knew all about the setting of the story. I knew the factory very well, I had spent nights in it, smuggled in by my friends. The kind of woman the story was centred on was also there in my mind. But I couldn't find what I call the voice of the story, so I abandoned it. Then one day I met a woman who was a peasant and whom I knew quite well. She said to me:

"You'll never guess what I did last week, John."

"What did you do?"

"I flew."

"Where to?"

"No, no, not in a plane, I flew!"

At that time, hang-gliders jumped off the mountain at a point near her chalet in the alpage. A young man, seeing this lady with her goats, had said jokingly:

"If you like, you can have a ride with me."

And, I am sure to his great surprise, she said:

"Yes, all right. Tomorrow."

So, he took this woman, who was nearly sixty at the time. They circled for half an hour over the mountain and landed on the village below. When she told me this, I saw that my story had to be told by a woman whilst she was hang-gliding with her son, which is actually how "Once in Europa" is now told.

I'll give another example, this time concerning the story of "The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol." In real life there was such a woman, although she wasn't called Lucie Cabrol, who was in fact murdered. Again, this was a story that I tried to write on many occasions but couldn't, until I realized that the story should be told by a man who had once loved her when she was young. As soon as I found, invented, this man, I was able to write the story of Lucie Cabrol. The voice came.

NP: What these stories have in common is that the "voice of the story" came after you discovered a position for the narrator. I wonder if we can use this to lever us back into the distinction between storytelling and criticism. For me the distinction implies that criticism begins when I know where something is going, but in storytelling you are already there: encircling your subject.

Berger: That's right, and here's another example. Not, this time, fiction: my book, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. For a long time I wanted to write a kind of essay about time. I had done an enormous amount of reading and thinking around the subject. But it wouldn't come. Then one day I had the idea--no, it was a compulsion--to write what I had to say in the form of letters to Nella. Nella had given me an extraordinary book with brown pages, like wrapping paper, a little shiny. It was when she gave me this book that I decided to write those letters to her. That's how the idea came.

NP: Storytelling as a response to the gifts of a lover?

Berger: Yes, and brown paper for gifts!

NP: Returning to the early questions of empathy and identification, which the social sciences invariably reduce to regressive and passive forms of understanding. The position that you repeatedly describe, however, is a more vigorous and critical form of identification. It is a sort of oscillation between distance and intimacy. A passage from the introduction in Pig Earth is very illustrative of the relationship between an author and his or her subject, but perhaps it can also serve as a guide to the reader:

To approach experience, however, is not like approaching a house. "Life," as

the Russian proverb says, "is not a walk across an open field." Experience is

indivisible and continuous, at least within a single lifetime and perhaps over

many lifetimes. I never have the impression that my experience is entirely my

own, and it often seems to me that it preceded me. In any case experience folds

upon itself, refers backwards and forwards to itself through the referents of

hope and fear; and, by the use of metaphor, which is at the origin of language,

it is continually comparing like with unlike, what is small with what is large,

what is near with what is distant. And so the act of approaching a given

moment of experience involves both a scrutiny (closeness) and the capacity to

connect (distance). The movement of writing resembles that of a shuttle on a

loom: repeatedly it approaches and withdraw, closes in and takes its distance.

Unlike a shuttle, however, it is not fixed to a static frame. As the movement of

writing repeats itself, its intimacy with the experience increases. Finally, if

one is fortunate, meaning is the fruit of intimacy.

Berger: Think of the experience of being read to as a child. If you remember listening to stories as a child, you will remember the pleasure of hearing a story repeated many times, and you will also remember that while you were listening you became three people! A strange fusion! You become the storyteller, you become the protagonist and you remain yourself listening to the story. You are all three. This is one of the advantages of having heard the story before. The fusion is something which is intrinsic to storytelling at its most primitive and, therefore, at its most profound.

NP: In Lilac and Flag I found the choice of the old woman as the narrator intriguing for a number of reasons, some of which are quite personal. Having the story told by the old women in the village provides a sort of haunting bridge to facilitate the traffic between the worlds to which the protagonists belong and struggle to reconcile. In one sense, the village then becomes more than the conventional site for nostalgia in the story of migration. Locating the narrator there also adds a paradoxical twist, for she receives the experiences of the protagonists without witnessing them, and she receives them in an incredibly compassionate and knowing way. This prescience reminds me of all those proverbs my mother would drop like aspirins into my despair. What always impressed me was not only their uncanny contemporaneity but also the fact that she had so many in store. For each new experience which to me seemed to be beyond her reach there was yet another proverb, and it always seemed to come from a place which I didn't know of.

Berger: There was a woman, who is dead now, called Angeline. She was the inspiration, not in the sense that I told myself that the story of Lilac and Flag would be told by Angeline, But when thinking of the old woman I would nevertheless think of Angeline. When she was alive I would refer to her as "Ma," as a joke. She was a mother figure, but always more complicated than that. She was an extraordinary woman, never lost for a repartee, she was funny, sad and incredibly compassionate. The connection with your mother. Nikos, is strange, because Angeline used to say to me: "Huh! Yes, well, you're a writer and all writers are liars. There are no bigger liars in the world than writers. That's what you do, you go into that room and write down lies, don't you!"

She talked about her death through a local expression. Instead of saying, "When I die," she said: "When I shut my umbrella." The last time I saw her was when she was in hospital. She was talking to her son about her father. As I entered, she said: "And now you come in, the Holy Ghost!" That was almost the last thing she said. Although it is nearly two years since she died, whenever I go near the house, I forget, and I say "Angeline." It is always a shock. I've already said her name before I remember she is dead. Angeline. Now I think she's in Lilac and Flag.

In Germany there was a critic who said something which I found to be very interesting. Instead of saying, as a lot of people have said, that Lilac and Flag is a very synthetic book, not proper narrative, et cetera, he said that the whole book was actually composed of voices, and these voices were interrelated as in a requiem. What's left out, that which makes people think it's synthetic, is what has to be left out if you have a requiem.

NP: I can see why the other critics have seen Lilac and Flag as synthetic because they are describing what you describe, whereas the German critic describes what you made. Troy, the city in Lilac and Flag, is a patchwork of desperation and love, ambition and nostalgia, but your book is not a map of Troy.

Berger: There is a book which coming out in England by a Turkish woman writer called Latiffe Tekin which is called Tales from the Garbage Hills. It is a book she wrote ten years ago. This book was very important to me in writing Lilac and Flag. I owe a lot to her. It is a book about a shanty town outside Istanbul, where she was born and spent her childhood. It is a book entirely made up of rumours and full of incredible inventions. It is not a novel in the ordinary sense, because how can you have a novel about a shanty town? It would be a contradiction in terms because for a novel, in the classical sense, a minimum of security is necessary. Here in the shanty town everything is makeshift, nothing is controllable, everything is inexplicable. The only voice is the voice of rumour. Rumour is one kind of collection of voices. A requiem is another. They are different but they still have something in common. She has shown how it is possible to write about this shifting world of the poor in a big city. There are shanty towns in other books, but only as decor, or as a moral and political problem. Latiffe Tekin makes it possible to see how such a place can be seen as the centre of the world, somewhere between earth and sky.
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Author:Papastergiadis, Nikos
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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