By Colin Mylrea
When people think about John Berger, who passed on Jan. 2, they’re probably thinking about the documentary series Ways of Seeing, in which he discussed the perception of art, touching on subjects like oil painting, the nude, and reinterpreting Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction for a new generation. However, Berger’s true strength lay in his written works: eight novels and a multitude of nonfiction texts have come to define his legacy as a humanist and sagacious interpreter of art.
Here are some of his notable works.
Published the same year that Ways of Seeing was originally broadcast, G. was Berger’s first great novel. The story is an update of the Casanova plot and centres around the escapades of the eponymous narrator who seduces his way through Europe at the turn of the 20th century. While the novel shows Berger’s ability to refine his experimental style, it is most remembered for the controversy it caused. G. was named the winner of the Booker prize in 1972 and Berger used his speech to decry the damage the prize’s sponsors had caused in the Caribbean. Berger would later go into self-imposed exile, leaving England for France.
Into Their Labours: Pig Earth (1979), Once In Europa (1987), Lilac and Frag (1990)
A trilogy of novels written during, and inspired by, Berger’s time in a farming community in the alps, Into Their Labours is his finest work, lack of recognition notwithstanding. Not so much a work of cohesive prose fiction as much as it is a collection of poetry, fiction, and essays, Labours is a postmodern masterpiece that makes full use of Berger’s concern with human rights and his elegiac prose. Unlike Berger’s other works, which are more or less optimistic in tone, Labours has an incessantly grim undercurrent that makes it stick out all the more.
To The Wedding (1995)
One of Berger’s more impressionistic works writing-wise, To The Wedding is also one of his more philosophically dense. Examining the lead-up to a doomed wedding, the novel moves at a glacial pace, allowing the narration to pass from character to character. Berger’s already experimental writing style becomes even more so, lending the novel a sense of fabulism, which can make the novel’s (well-argued) philosophical aspects seem somewhat pedantic. The biggest draw of the novel is the sweeping romance at its centre which, despite some clichés, is quite moving. It’s not to everyone’s taste but neither is Berger.
Bento’s Sketchbook (2011)
John Berger’s literary experimentation reaches its apex with Bento’s Sketchbook. A sort of artificial nonfiction, Sketchbook is an imagined collection of drawings and notes by the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Drawing on his knowledge of Spinoza’s work as a lens-grinder and his own artistic talents, Berger successfully merges their two voices. One of his last major works before his death, Sketchbook is an interesting work as it signals Berger’s return to something (Spinoza’s philosophy) that fascinated him since youth and how he was able to engage with it as a formidable intellectual himself.