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Not reviewing John Berger

By Joe Kennedy.


John Berger, A Painter of Our Time (Verso, 2010) and Corker’s Freedom (Verso, 2010)

In September 2010, Verso sent me a pair of reissued novels by John Berger to review for 3:AM. That I haven’t yet succeeded in doing so isn’t the result of laziness: I’ve published plenty of reviews and articles since then. In fact, I’ve tried to write something about A Painter of Our Time and Corker’s Freedom on numerous occasions, even after the date of republication had receded so far into the past that reviewing the books began to seem a little pointless. Each time, the task became undoable: the function of a review, most often conceived of as the provision of a summary and (brief) critical overview for a given constituency, seemed to be exceeded the moment I tried to articulate any sense of how these novels, from 1958 and 1964 respectively, might speak to a contemporary audience.

Although Berger, now entering his late eighties, continues to write and publish, and possesses a more acute sense of what is politically significant than virtually any other active British author, his novels have the semblance of broadcasts from another reality. In this, there is a great deal of continuity with his writings on art and politics; taken as a whole, his body of work vouches for a paradoxically passionate sobriety in which the exercising of critical rigour is valued over the tyranny of impulse, collectivity over individualism, and the comprehension of systemic failures over banal ’empathy’. In its vapid savviness and flaky ‘generosity’, most literary fiction in Britain today stands in opposition to Berger on all of these points.


It’s now exactly forty years since the incident which, in many respects, provided Berger’s career with a focal point. In 1972, his novel G won the Booker Prize (the judges were Elizabeth Bowen, Cyril Connolly, and George Steiner; this year’s include an actor from Downton Abbey). The prize was £5,000. In his acceptance speech, Berger announced that, due to sponsor Booker McConnell’s long-term trading interests in the Caribbean, and their consequent implication in both the slave trade and the region’s subsequent impoverishment, he would donate half of his winnings to the UK Black Panthers:

The historical destiny of our time is becoming clear. The oppressed are breaking through the wall of silence which was built into their minds by their oppressor. And in the struggle against exploitation and neo-colonialism – but only through and by the virtue of the common struggle – it is possible for the descendants of the slave and the slavemaster to approach each other again with the amazed hope of potential equals […] This is why I intend to share the prize with those West Indians in and from the Caribbean who are fighting to put an end to their exploitation.

Predictably, this gesture has been misconstrued: the British Panthers were, to all extents and purposes, a legitimate pressure group whose successors such as Race Today have continued to perform important work on the behalf of ethnic minority communities in London and beyond ever since. As for the remaining two and a half thousand? Berger kept hold of it, but only in order to fund the study of the conditions of Europe’s migrant workers that was published (in collaboration with photographer Jean Mohr) in 1975 as A Seventh Man.

In recent years, the Booker Prize has sought to make capital out of the controversy, using its website to paint the 1972 victor as a misinformed do-gooder:

Booker had had its sugar plantations and refineries confiscated 10 years previously – and the Black Panther movement had dissolved two years before. Rebecca West, a guest, was so shocked that she stood up and protested noisily.

The facticity, or otherwise, of the statements about the confiscation of Booker’s Caribbean possessions and the disbandment of the British Panthers is difficult to establish; in any case, Berger’s point was that the company’s early period of capital accumulation coincided with the last days of slavery and the first of indentured labour, not that they were still guilty of such practices. This is ignored in a move which simultaneously seeks to represent his politics as outdated and to mobilise them as a splash of unruly colour which makes the Prize seem more organic and edgy than it actually is. Once the detail about West is introduced,  it’s fairly clear that the old (but increasingly cherished) canard of British common sense is being appealed to: we’re meant to imagine the author of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as if played by Maggie Smith, upholding imperial decorum in the face of upstart ideas from That Continent. Booker’s point is ultimately that it’s Berger’s Marxism, rather than West’s traditionalism, which now looks antiquated.

Although one might predict such an attitude from the people behind a commercial literary event, such dismissals of ‘old-fashioned’ emancipatory politics can be found in more progressive quarters. In early 2008, the centre-left Guardian ran a series of blog posts on Booker winners of the past; when G’s turn came, it was patronised as a period piece. The novel is a mordantly ironic picaresque whose priapic eponymous protagonist sleeps his way across Belle Epoque Europe, all the while remaining oblivious to the revolutionary stirrings occurring from Barcelona to St Petersburg and Trieste to Amsterdam. Even forty years on, it’s still a sharp-witted and surprising meditation on false consciousness. However, the Guardian’s critic described it in the following terms:

[G is] a dated attempt to demonstrate Marxist principles […] which gives the book the feeling of a lecture – and a dated lecture at that. Given the fact that imminent environmental apocalypse seems to have trumped class inequality as the most pressing political issue today, Berger’s revolutionary advocacy reads as quaintly as a discourse on the qualities of lignin or the way the sun travels round the earth. An interesting curiosity, but hardly a pressing concern.

One has to wonder if inequality seemed quite so ‘dated’ or ‘quaint’ a few months after this piece was written, when the financial crisis kicked in. It’s probably best, however, to steer clear of such speculation for fear of sounding like the worst caricature of smug, glib, left-wing criticism: instead, it is telling to examine the rhetoric of this dismissal of what are taken to be the novel’s political concerns. This isn’t the fire-and-brimstone red-bashing of the conservative right, nor is it the slick appeal to a forgotten camaraderie between the centre and the left which informs so many liberal overtures to radicalism. In fact, it’s both more and less than either of those things. On one hand, there’s a hubristic assertion that the object of politics has transubstantiated – in leaving this verb active, I hope I’ve drawn attention to the fact that the critic doesn’t explain who did this, or how – and rid itself of the left-right spectrum in the process. On the other, there appears to be an anxious lack of conviction at work, a void which reveals itself in the forced jocularity of the similes: does anyone, anywhere really think that a discussion about economic inequality is as quaint as a ‘discourse on the qualities of lignin’? Really, does anyone think this, or is it just a bit of casual post-historical ‘banter’?

This piece of criticism will be of real value to cultural historians in the middle-term future, who will – providing academia retains some measure of critical autonomy over the next century – be able to see in it hard-to-refute evidence of the degree of overlap between the interests of neoliberalism and those of moderate ‘realism’ in the early twenty-first century. (One hopes that they won’t have to look at our Ben and Jerry-environmentalism in the same way that we regard Chamberlain’s ‘Peace in our time’ now.) Berger himself, I think, would err towards forgiveness here: his work, both fictional and critical, insists that ways of thinking must always be historicised, and that there are no straightforwardly ‘universal’ attitudes (even love, for me the real content of his ‘advocacy’, is depicted as an impulse which is always mediated by the social formation it arises in). For all his humane optimism, then, he is probably aware of how a latter-day reader of his work will come to it afflicted, if not completely incapacitated, by depressive hedonia, apathy, spuriously ‘post-political’ ideas about ‘sustainability’, a radically diminished attention span, and a reticence towards being politicised by art.

G is a novel that is difficult to read when hampered by these biases. It doesn’t spoon-feed: it expects its audience to possess, or to work to attain, a preliminary understanding of the historical undercurrents of Europe in the early twentieth century as it shifts focus from Milanese workers’ demonstrations to well-heeled Alpine retreats to the ethnically-turbulent northern Adriatic. It wants us to know about these things so that we can come to the realisation that G’s ignorance is itself determined by historical relations: his post-Casanovan ‘existential’ freedom is actually bad faith, and his romantic fantasies are – as Frederic Jameson says of Leopold Bloom’s – only ‘falsely subjective’. In 2012, one might expect to read a novel in which the sexual appetites of the protagonist were depicted as blinding them to social injustices, but the narrative would most likely frame this behaviour as a moral lapse, a malfunction of a broadly-defined ‘humanity’ which could be treated within and even by the extant system (Slavoj Žižek would perhaps call this Pretty Woman Syndrome).

Berger’s work, then, strikes the modern reader as puzzling in that it is obsessed by questions about the intersubjective, particularly those which pertain to the nature of empathy, but can only approach the idea of personal emotional experience, and in fact of subjectivity itself, through recourse to its confidence in objective (economic) analysis. This is stated most explicitly in A Seventh Man, where he declares that ‘the experience of the migrant worker […] can only be fully recognized if an objective economic system is related to the subjective experience of those trapped within it.’ We can’t simply empathise with the plight of the migrant worker, inasmuch as ‘empathising’ might involve us searching our own emotional vocabularies for something similar: their situation must necessarily remain obscure until it is situated within a framework of concrete inequalities. But a pervasive trend in contemporary literature, most visible in the middlebrow but certainly not constrained within that region, doesn’t believe this, doesn’t believe that, instead conceiving empathy as an act of pure imaginative will. Take works with titles which follow the formula ‘The <slightly arty profession> of <name of war-torn city>’: perhaps The Bookseller of Kabul or The Cellist of Sarajevo, and I’m sure there are others. While the motive behind them is no doubt noble, they want to read modern history as a tale of localised goodies and baddies, in which the ‘human spirit’ ultimately wins out over, say, ‘greed’ or ‘corruption’ or ‘cruelty’. A Seventh Man, by contrast, is as convincing an argument for a Marxist humanism as ever there was: it sticks determinedly to its thesis that ‘understanding’ demands that imaginative resolve is accompanied by an understanding of objective processes.

To review either A Painter of Our Time or Corker’s Freedom with any degree of fidelity to the texts necessitates the illustration of this dialectic, and how it differs from contemporary commonplaces about how one can and should be ‘humane’ and ‘empathetic’. As such, I’ve come to the realisation that the scope of such a review should probably consist only of this diagrammatic work: that all I want to communicate is that one should approach these novels prepared to encounter an epistemology fundamentally different from our own, but perhaps even more apt for the present day than the time in which they were written (Berger is maybe not a novelist of our time, but for it). The two novels are dry-runs for the ideas which were later to be expressed in G, A Seventh Man, and the seminal Ways of Seeing, but the kernel of materialist empathy can be observed in them nonetheless. Do read them (if you want a review): they are both, albeit in rather different ways, beautiful novels, but also texts radically out of step with the demands one expects literature to place upon us today.


Joe Kennedy writes criticism and poetry, and has taught literature and journalism at various levels. His articles and reviews have appeared in 3AM, The Quietus, and the Times Literary Supplement, amongst others, and he blogs at A Drawing Sympathy.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 9th, 2012.