“Somebody dies,” says John Berger. “It’s not just a question of tact that one then says, well, perhaps it is possible to tell that story,” but “it’s because, after that death, one can read that life. The life becomes readable.” His interlocutor, a certain Susan Sontag, interjects: “A person who dies at 37 is not the same as a person who dies at 77.” True, he replies, “but it can be somebody who dies at 90. The life becomes readable to the storyteller, to the writer. Then she or he can begin to write.” Berger, the consummate storyteller as well as thinker about stories, left behind these and millions of other memorable words, spoken and written, when he yesterday passed away at age 90 himself.
This conversation aired 35 years ago as “To Tell a Story,” an hourlong episode of Channel 4’s Voices, “a forum of debate about the key issues in the world of the arts and the life of the mind.” Though Berger and Sontag surely agreed in life on more than they disagreed (“not since [D.H.] Lawrence has there been a writer who offers such attentiveness to the sensual world with responsiveness to the imperatives of conscience,” the latter once said of the former), they here enter into a kind of debate about storytelling itself: why we do it, how we do it, when we can do it. Berger, for his part, characterizes all fiction as “a fight against the absurd,” against “that endless, terrifying space in which we live.”
Sontag, in the words of Lily Dessau at Berger’s publisher Verso, “considers the storyteller as inventor, in control of the material, out of which the ‘people come.’ Berger conversely takes the form of the story as the result of the language coming out of the people — but he does characterize their differing views as arriving at the same place — the scene of the text.” While both of them wrote fiction as well as essays, “Berger considers the story and essay in one breath, both as a form of struggle to model the unsayable,” while “for Sontag the two are entirely separate, although the struggle persists in both.”
Or, as Berger puts it in highlighting another aspect of the difference in their perspectives, “You say you want to be carried away by the story. I want the story to stop things being carried away into oblivion, into indifference.” The many tributes already paid to him, especially by influential creators formed in part by the influence of his work, indicate that Berger’s legacy hardly finds itself now on the brink of an indifferent oblivion. Now that his long life has reached the end of its final chapter, well, perhaps we can begin to read, and to tell, his story.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.