four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
20-Jan-Feb-2006
By: 
John Berger
user_rating: 
0

A Fiction

A-HereWhereMeetThe young student receiving pearls of wisdom from an elder is a familiar story. But what if the student has four score years under his belt and his tutors are the deceased? Berger’s new book, a collection of individually titled memoir-like vignettes, finds his fictional alter ego pacing the streets of grand European cities from Krakow to Lisbon, conversing with the dead (his mother, a teacher, a few lovers, Jorge Borges, Rosa Luxemburg, and many more) and examining the traces they leave behind. The stories ring true with grief and sentimentality, but instead of being depressed by the presence of the dead, the stories are enlivened by their wisdom.
Pantheon. 237 pages. $24. ISBN: 0375423362

Guardian (UK) 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Sad, reflective and peppered with unforgettable images, ‘Islington’ does what all great short stories do: it makes us stop and take a breath. It makes us see the world afresh. Makes us do a double take." Nicholas Royle

New Statesman 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Berger may well be the only writer who could turn the description of a piece of fruit into something not merely poetic or metaphysical, but political—as he does in ‘Some Fruit as Remembered by the Dead.’ … It seems, in this tale of slow recollection and historical acceleration … very much a genre of the future." Brian Dillon

Harper’s Magazine 4 of 5 Stars
"[Q]uite brilliant. … In Paris, Moscow, or Madrid, his past is peopled with spectral teachers, there to remind the nomadic Berger that ‘all you have to know is whether you’re lying or whether you’re trying to tell the truth.’" John Leonard

Independent (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"What saves it from whimsy or sentimentality is wise impassivity and grief. Berger wishes to honor his dead and to bring them back to life, and his evokings of European cities today, all haunted by their own histories and ghosts, are vivid and detailed." Peter J. Conradi

Portland Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Berger holds us in thrall to the quiet authority of his reflections, the bittersweet fruits of his aging." Vernon Peterson

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[H]e creates a work of narrative art that is a fusion of all the forms he has mastered: the travel essay, the art essay, the novel, and the memoir. … In letting the dead speak plainly and simply, in showing how we can travel back into our own history, in informing us how looking and listening matter so much, Berger once again is our guide to being truly present in life." Richard Wallace

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Berger seasons his seemingly disparate tales with observations about the ubiquity of pain, the importance of human frailty, and the sharpness of expectancy—all childhood hunches that he later found borne out by his adult experience." Heller McAlpin

Critical Summary

Though critics can’t agree exactly what genre Berger is working in ("autobiographical fiction, fictional autobiography, or maybe a hybrid of breviary, consecration, and ancestor worship," says Harper’s), the praise for his writing comes so close to unanimity that classification seems beside the point. It’s one thing to earn artistic freedom, something this British author has done with classic works of fiction (the trilogy Into Their Labors) and art criticism (About Looking and Ways of Seeing); it’s quite another to create something lasting from that sense of liberation. Some tales fare better than others, but the leadoff ramble around Lisbon is an example of an author working at the top of his game—at age 80, no less. Rather than looking to the past, Berger brings the dead to life today, when it seems he and the reader need their guidance the most.

Also by the Author

G. (1972): Award Star Booker Prize. An early twentieth-century Don Juan, G. creates a platform from which to examine sex, intimacy, the hearts of both men and women, and the ultimate loneliness G. experiences.

Ways of Seeing (1972): In these seminal essays on art criticism, Berger asks questions about art—why we view art and how we interpret its psychological impact and social implications.