A Writer of Our TIme by Joshua Sperling


Over the last few years, Verso released Portraits and Landscapes, two collections of John Berger's writings edited by Tom Overton, who is writing a biography of Berger. Meanwhile, Verso recently published Joshua Sperling's A Writer of Our Time, subtitled "The Life and Work of John Berger". It's partly a biography, partly a critical study, partly a tribute — and works well as each, so long as the partly is emphasized. In his introduction, Sperling says one of the goals of the book is to "provide a fuller picture of Berger's development", and that it does admirably.

Though I look forward eagerly to Overton's biography and I hope that fuller critical studies appear, Sperling's book is tremendously useful and welcome now as we reckon with Berger's legacy. Sperling says that Berger's "stature is undisputed, but the total significance of his work is often misunderstood. He simply produced too dizzying an array of forms for a culture rooted in specialism to come to grips with. ... The sixty-year body of work he left behind is one of the most wide-ranging and beloved of any postwar writer; but it is also ... one of the least worked through." This all seems to me true — Berger is perhaps best known as an art critic, but he also famously (controversially) won the the Booker Prize for his novel G., published numerous other novels throughout his life, as well as poems, stories, essays of all sorts, hybrid works, and collaborated with other creators on films, tv programs, art shows, etc. Since I was in college and read Berger's The Success and Failure of Picasso, I've followed his career, but there were numerous items from that career that I'd never heard of before reading about them in A Writer of Our Time. I read the book quickly and avidly, not only discovering elements of Berger I never knew about, but, more thrillingly, getting a sense of how the different pieces of Berger's work fit together into a lifelong project — a project full of changes and contradictions, but an overall project nonetheless.

Sperling is a clear, compelling, and insightful writer. He put words to many things I'd sensed about Berger; for instance, writing about his early art criticism: "And if Berger's evaluations of his contemporaries were regularly wide of the mark — often wildly so, seeing genius in overwrought sincerity, while condemning artists for the very reasons they are now loved — his attacks on the system of art proved to be remarkably prescient."

Or, on one of Berger's most important books, A Seventh Man, Sperling says that the text refuses to accept a dichotomy between theory and experience, but instead seeks to subvert it:
Hence the montage; hence its alloyed form. It is neither an argument nor a story, but a hybrid of juxtapositions. ... Through a literal scissors-and-glue method, the book dismantles and reassembles our compartments of cognition. The strategy is to appeal alternately to the intellect and to the emotions, to connect the two, to see one through the other, and to explore the ways in which the contradictions of global capitalism manifest themselves in the very division between thought and feeling.
Or on Berger's development after G.:
There was much in G. that Berger would leave behind: the aggressive modernism, the clinical austerity, the fixation on orgasm and revolution, the Oedipal feuds, the blind spots of misogyny. His later fictions — important, stories, not novels — give up the revolutionary individual for other concerns: the loving couple, the threatened community, the complications of prolonged care, convalescence after loss. Unlike so many aggressive male writers, who curdle into old curmudgeons with age, Berger grew softer. Love took the place of sex as the site and origin of resistance: no longer revolution, but resistance. 
Thought-provoking insights occur again and again as Sperling discusses Berger up to the 1980s.

But then the book begins to sputter into generalities and repetition. The last two chapters are the weakest by far (though this is a relative statement: each contains useful ideas). For instance, Here Is Where We Meet is proclaimed to be the "most important book he wrote in old age", but we learn nothing about it — the book is only ever mentioned in passing. To the Wedding, one of Berger's most beloved books, gets a couple paragraphs of description, but these paragraphs only serve to heighten an awareness of just how thin the later analysis is. From A to X, which was longlisted for the 2008 Booker Prize, is never even mentioned. Similarly, individual essay collections get no notice, and few of Berger's post-1970s essays are discussed.

It's as if the excellent discussions of Berger's work up through G. and Ways of Seeing exhausted Sperling, and he could barely summon the energy to lightly sketch all that came later. It's a shame, because the great value of the first 2/3rds or so of A Writer of Our Time lies in how it synthesizes so much material, allowing us to perceive overlaps, enthusiasms, and meaningful divergences that might otherwise slip from sight. The last part of the book does something of a disservice to the later Berger, presenting the final few decades of his work as a generalized, undigested mass.

Though I cannot say I closed A Writer of Our Time with a sense of satisfaction, I did have a sense of hope. The hope is that there will be a sequel, because Sperling is an engaging writer with valuable insight into Berger's body of work — a body of work that the world has barely begun to reckon with.

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