“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.
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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.
One thing that struck me personally from this conversation is that the first stories I remember were told to me orally, about members of my family that I never met. Soldiers, farmers and explorers. It then occurred to me that my mother came from an oral storytelling culture – she did not go to school until she was 13, her mother did not go to school at all. They lived on a huge cattle property in central Queensland in Australia that had been in the family for over 100 years. My father on the other hand grew up in nearest big tow town, (5 hours drive on the sealed roads that had been created by the time I was a child, when they were kids it took a lot longer), which was becoming a city as he came of age. He lived in books and our house was literally a library. I once packed up my father’s library to move him, and it came in at 300 banana boxes. That is a lot of books. But my maternal grandmother told me the stories of the bush, and the world that she remembered from the 1920s as a child.
Those were the days, when Channel 4 (and BBC2) could broadcast such unvarnished, serious conversation. The very nice intro/outro graphics + music (written by Bobby Lamb) brings it all back instantly.