Meeting John Berger by Les Back

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To remember John Berger is to read him and let his words echo on unquietly. Like so many people I admired the sensuous nature of his attentiveness to the world, lived-with ideas and remain inspired by his example. In the days following the news of his death there have been many tributes from those who knew him well. I didn’t know him aside from on the page but I met him once very briefly in November, 2004 at the Arcadia Author Event ‘The Writer as Translator.’ At the time it was a rare London appearance. In the years that followed John Berger visited London more regularly and his work was more widely celebrated. In many ways the piece reproduced here argued the case for why his work was important. This encounter with him is portrayed through the kind of lens and ear that Berger himself embodied in his own writing. His final comments seem even more urgent and relevant now.

***

The blueness of John Berger’s eyes is striking even from the back of the ICA cinema. He is here tonight at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in central London to talk about translation with his friend and fellow translator Lisa Appignanesi. In Britain Berger is mostly remembered for his 1972 television series Ways of Seeing and the seminal book of art criticism that accompanied it. Strangely he is much better known as a literary and political figure in Europe and Scandinavia. Born in Stoke Newington on Guy Fawkes day in 1926, he moved to France in the early 1960s and made a conscious choice to become a European writer, publishing nearly 30 books, ten of them novels, as well as poetry.

He has returned to London to talk about his translation of Nella Bielski’s novel The Year is ’42 that he worked on with Lisa Appignanesi. The book is an elegiac and subtle tale of people besieged by war in Europe under Nazi rule. “I translated the book because I wanted it to be read,” says Berger with his trademark directness. “It is not a French book but a book in French.” Nella Bielski is sitting in the front row. She was born in the Ukraine but lives in Paris. It becomes immediately clear that the translation of the book is an exercise in smuggling stories across the borders of language from Russian into French and then English.

Berger’s thinking is characterised by carefully chosen words; the sell-out crowd hangs on every single one. Listening to him one is struck by the fact that we live in a culture that speaks too quickly and thinks carelessly. Lisa Appignanesi asks him to summarise the book. He takes his time, he pauses and sighs, “Oohh K”. He cups his forehead in the palms of his hands covering his eyes. Then the silence is broken irritably, “No… this is impossible, I am mean I am here – the translator. Nella is there – the writer. It is impossible for me to summarise while she sits there.” Instead he reads but the reading is much more like a dramatisation than merely reading the words aloud.

When the reading is over Berger tells the audience, “Translation is a secondary activity”. He stands before a huge white screen and draws two invisible squiggly, parallel lines horizontally. He explains that the lines represent a single sentence and a translation of the sentence into another language. The project of translation for him is not simply a matter of finding corresponding words across the surface of the language – ie, between the lines he has drawn. The audience looks on intently at the visual illustration Berger is making with his finger, yet bizarrely there is nothing to see on the blank white screen. He explains that the true challenge of translation is to reach for the inarticulate human experience that is behind language, behind the screen. This lived reality needs to be rendered within the language of the translation and not simply by finding words that correspond to the literal meaning.

At this point there is more reading, this time a poem: first, it is read in Russian by Nella, then in French by Lisa and finally in English by John. The rhythm of the poem somehow communicates its quality of feeling and emotion, regardless of whether we understand the words or not. The clocks are slowed down as we listen, almost to the point of timelessness. It occurs to me that all good poetry does this; it stops time. “Listening is what is important. The listening to a story is primary, the listening is always primary,” Berger says. All of his writing is cast through such careful listening.

Berger turns his attention to the language of politics. “The situation of the world today is where the words that politicians say and the words the media use make no sense at all. The powerful’s speech is corrupted in referential terms. ‘Democracy,’ ‘terrorism’ – they are all corrupted. We can say ‘We don’t use those words because they shit up everything’.” The phrase is awkward, perhaps revealing he is someone who lives outside his mother tongue. On the table in front of Berger is a copy of Michael Moore’s book The Official Fahrenheit 9/11 Reader. Berger wrote a passionate defense in The Guardian of Moore’s film about 9/11 as “a work inspired by hope”, praising its director as a “people’s tribune.”

It is just days after George Bush’s re-election in 2004. Moore’s Reader begins with the piece written by John Berger but its presence there on the table is a reminder of the magnitude of Bush’s triumph. Berger says that the political struggle is sometimes in the nature of language, in defending the integrity of words and their meaning. “This is still important – more than ever. The world has descended to a situation where the way politicians speak about the world makes no sense at all to the people who live on the planet now. It is why it is important to go on talking and writing.”

A final reading and this time one of Berger’s own stories. “This is a story about your city and mine,” he says. He reads a description of the train sidings at Willesden Junction seen through the eyes of a young boy. The sound of Berger’s voice is like a lullaby. Halfway through I hear a breathy snore coming from a heavily pregnant woman sitting behind me. She is not bored but has been charmed to sleep. The applause that meets the story’s end wakes her abruptly from the enchantment. There are questions now from the audience. When confronted with an intelligent comment Berger’s face lights up. He seems above all animated by beauty in things or in thought.

As the evening draws to a close the audience file out to the bar or make their way home. My friends suggest that we stay and meet him. It is something that I am embarrassed to do. We decide to buy copies of The Year is ’42. The man who introduced me to John Berger’s writing is a translator. It seems fitting to have a copy signed for him. A queue has formed in the bar. John Berger is speaking energetically with each person and he is generous with his time. I remember that Kingsley Amis once commented that in the full flow of conversation John Berger’s hands look like “two warplanes in a dog fight”.

The queue shortens. It is my friend Vicky’s turn next. She is Greek and Berger tells her his daughter is married to a Greek man. Berger’s hands are thick with labour, his fingernails cracked. They are the hands of typesetter or farmer and not those of a writer. As he says goodbye he stands and kisses Vicky extravagantly on each cheek. It is my turn. He reaches out his hand and the initial caution on his face is somehow disappointing.

I explain that I’d like him to sign a copy of the book for a friend of mine called Stephen who is a translator. “Do you spell that with a ‘ph’ or a ‘v’?” he asks. There is no room for the profanity of a spelling mistake. I explain I wanted to ask him how he thinks his writing is affected by living in France and outside the language he writes in. The question somehow gives him another burst of energy and he immediately warms to it.

He takes a long gulp from a glass of red wine and then squeezes his forehead in his palm. “Well it gives me distance in a way… it is refuge from the chatter of the media. English is my mother tongue but at the same time I have a distance from it, which in a way helps me to think clearly. Does that make any sense?” I tell him it does and that since the Iraq war I have felt most at peace when I have been abroad in a non-English speaking environment. “This has happened to me at least on one or two occasions when I pass through London,” he says introducing a new story.

I crouch by the table where he is sitting and signing books and he puts his hand on my shoulder. “I am in a pub and I am drinking a beer and I am talking to someone about football or something. Then the person with whom I am speaking looks at me and says, ‘You know you speak English very well.'” We both erupt into laughter of the kind that is embarrassingly loud. “As if they are speaking to a foreigner, a tourist!” he continues, still laughing. There is something telling in that one of the most artful exponents of English prose can be mistaken for a foreigner in his place of birth!

I tell him how much I enjoyed the piece he wrote about Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Had he ever met Moore? “No, I haven’t met him but I had a long conversation with him on the phone after that piece was published.” I told him that the night of Bush’s re-election I watched the film for the first time and of the desperation that many of us felt after hearing the election result. I find myself asking naively, “What are we going to do?”

The evergreen radical replied unflinchingly, “We must go on, we must go on, that is what Michael Moore would say if he were here.” I produce another book for him to sign. This time it is A Seventh Man, his classic study of migration in Europe. “Could you sign this one for me?” He asks my name. John Berger returns my books and I thank him. I turn back the cover as I turn away. In scratchy blue ink the inscription reads:

For Les – and the language we share!

With best wishes, John Berger.

 Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.

For more from Goldsmiths Sociology read :

Meetings – John Berger in the Library by Nirmal Puwar

How John Berger Changed Our Way of Seeing Art by Vikki Bell and Yasmin Gunaratnam

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