Published 15 December 2010
A Painter of Our Time
Verso, 208pp, £9.99
Verso, 240pp, £9.99
Verso has done the world, and especially British literature, a great service in republishing two of John Berger's early novels. Readers might be familiar with G, which won the 1972 Booker Prize, or Berger's more recent offering From A to X: a Story in Letters, which appeared in 2008 and was longlisted for that year's Booker. But A Painter of Our Time and Corker's Freedom, first published in 1958 and 1964, respectively, have been long out of print and thus they have been largely forgotten, even by dedicated followers of the author. As it turns out, and contrary to what one might expect of novels republished after a half-century of being unavailable, both works are as freshly readable and as timely as anything else in Berger's oeuvre.
For one thing, they persuasively amalgamate late-modernist formal conceits with intriguingly melodramatic plot elements. In the case of A Painter of Our Time, the plot revolves around the mysterious disappearance of the artist responsible for the notebooks that constitute the bulk of the work, while Corker's Freedom pivots on a slightly noirish heist conspiracy that lingers in the background until a crucial climactic moment. This fusion of
approaches allows Berger's novels at once to challenge generic and ideological conventions and to remain compulsively readable fictions - a combination of effects that contemporary novelists, by contrast, have considerable difficulty managing.
A Painter of Our Time centres on an exiled Hungarian painter named Janos Lavin, and in particular on his writings about life, art and politics. We first encounter him mired in obscurity in London. Then we observe him emerge into a brief moment of fame when he is given an exhibition at a prestigious gallery, before he disappears again for reasons that remain unclear. But the primary drama of Lavin's notebooks, and thus of the novel that they comprise, is his individual negotiation of the fraught relationship between communism and painting.
Berger's stand-in narrator in the novel, "John", muses at the end that Lavin must have left London and returned to Budapest to support the Soviet-backed János Kádár - a speculative turn that led to Berger attracting accusations of totalitarian sympathies. On the initial publication of the novel, Stephen Spender is said to have claimed that it "stank of the concentration camps" and could only have been written by one other person - Joseph Goebbels.
Although the political controversy that surrounded the events of 1956 in Hungary has receded, Berger's character's ruminations on the relationship between left-wing politics and beauty seem as pertinent as ever, and transform this book into an entrancing narrative version of the primary preoccupations of the author in the guise we are more familiar with today - the politically minded explicator of fine art.
The plot of Corker's Freedom centres on a situation that at first seems far less compelling than that in A Painter of Our Time, but it turns out to produce an even more vividly fascinating work of fiction. The novel focuses on a day in the life of William Corker, proprietor of an employment agency in a dingy part of Croydon, who has suddenly decided to vacate the house that he has shared with his ageing and infirm sister Irene - apparently in order to embrace life more fully. His only employee, Alec Gooch, happens to have consummated his first sexual relationship with a "girl named Jackie" the previous night.
In a sort of bleakly mirrored version of the relationship between Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's Ulysses, Corker's Freedom chronicles the attempts by a cast of characters to transcend the quotidian banality of modern urban life - its clerical jobs, its cramped living conditions, its sexual and ethical hang-ups.
The central event in the plot - an audacious move on Berger's part - is an extended episode in which Corker delivers a narrated slideshow, ostensibly on the topic of "Vienna: City of the Blue Danube", to an alternately bored, outraged and fascinated audience assembled at a local church. Berger constructs the sequence in the form of a multiply focused montage, crossing Corker's speech and background thoughts with those of the assembled listeners: a sexually aroused Alec and his girlfriend, the parish vicar, a woman with hopes of serving as his housekeeper, one of the conspirators in the plot to rob him and, by the end, Corker's scorned and outraged sister.
The formal combination of so many subjective viewpoints at once invites a number of pressing questions that are, nonetheless, left to the reader to answer. What is the relationship between Corker's europhilic utopianism and his late-arriving mid-life crisis? How do we reconcile his extrapolations of a potential good life for all from the Schönbrunn Palace with his assistant's ecstatic massaging of his sex partner's nether-parts during the presentation?
The sequence is emblematic of Berger's juxtapositional gifts as a writer and thinker. It crosses meditations on the art and culture of Europe with what we might term the immanently utopian aspirations of the everyday - which in this case, once all is said and done, amount to nothing more than a warmed-over, Speakers' Corner-style fantasy of international harmonisation.
In a recent article, the novelist and literary scholar Gabriel Josipovici worried about the inability of present-day British writers to overcome the banality of novelistic convention:
The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world.
A Painter of Our Time and Corker's Freedom, even though they are now 50 years old, are works that suggest a path towards the fulfilment of Josipovici's demands. Berger's republished works underscore that it is still very much possible, even long after the heyday of literary modernism has passed, to be formally adventurous and deeply readable, sharply critical of the status quo and unremittingly humane - all at the same time.
Michael Sayeau is a lecturer in the English department at University College London