The news of John Berger’s death in January encouraged me to read some of his books again. One of my favourites has always been Here Is Where We Meet, published in 2005. Like many of his books it’s unclassifiable: you may find it shelved among fiction, but Here Is Where We Meet is not a conventional novel. Though its memories of people known in different places and at different times is narrated in the author’s voice it’s not a memoir. Moving freely between past and present, via Lisbon, Krakow, London in the Blitz and Geneva, Berger’s lyrical and sensuous narration incorporates reflections on Paleolithic cave paintings, Borges, Rembrandt, and Rosa Luxemburg. Continue reading “Rereading John Berger: Here Is Where We Meet“
Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.
Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, chronicles the life of a teenage slave named Cora, who flees the Georgia plantation where she was born, enduring unremitting hardship in search of freedom. The first time she had been approached by fellow-slave Caesar she had said no. Three weeks later they ran, pursued by a fanatical slave catcher named Ridgeway, determined to hunt them down and destroy the abolitionist network that has aided them. In flight, Whitehead’s narrative evolves into something both unexpected and surreal as he conjures scenes that fracture the distance between America’s past and its present. Continue reading “The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: ‘If you want to see what this nation is all about, you have to ride the rails’”
On this day in 1907 WH Auden was born. His poem ‘September 1, 1939’, written in a bar in New York at the outbreak of war, seems to chime with our own time (even if he later disowned the poem, saying it was ‘infected with an incurable dishonesty’). And on this day in 1933, Nina Simone was born. ‘I wish I knew how
it would feel to be free; I wish I could break all the chains holding me,’ she sang, while in her song ‘Revolution’, after a lifetime of tireless advocacy for the civil rights movement, she saw in the demand for Black Power the challenge to continuing racism, inequality and repression in the United States: ‘The only way that we can stand in fact/Is when you get your foot off our back.’ And now, written this month we have a superb poetic response to the present situation in America from Joanna Clink.
Terrific In Our Time this morning (the 750th broadcast!) on John Clare, with his biographer Jonathan Bate joining Melvyn Bragg and other experts to discuss the Northamptonshire labouring class poet. The small cottage in Helpston he shared with his parents, his wife Patty and their six children still stands, now renovated by the John Clare Trust. Continue reading “John Clare celebrated in terrific 750th episode of In Our Time“
Following news of the death of John Berger I decided to re-visit some of his books, many of which I last read decades ago. In this post I want to discuss his novel To the Wedding, first published in 1995. There must be some truth in the notion that the circumstances surrounding an encounter with an artistic work somehow may affect our response. When I first read this book soon after publication, I admired it as much for its portrayal of a post-Cold War Europe in which the novel’s characters could move with greater freedom across borders as for its its story of two young lovers facing a future poisoned by AIDS. Reading it again this week, still grieving after our own personal loss, the novel overwhelmed me with its humanity, its assertion of love in the face of death, with the fierce determination of a couple who seize joy from the present with a wedding feast described by Berger in transcendent passages that form the book’s conclusion.
What shall we do before eternity?
Take our time.
Dance without shoes?
Re-acquainting myself with To the Wedding, I now believe this to be John Berger’s masterpiece. Continue reading “Rereading John Berger: To the Wedding“
I’m re-blogging this item from Open Culture because it deserves wide circulation in these times when migrants are told they’re unwelcome, when borders are manned and walls are being built, when the Dutch prime minister says, ‘Behave normally or go away‘, and when outsiders are attacked or vilified. And because today is Holocaust Memorial Day.
Little Englanders, Brexiters, Daily Mail keep them out and send them home types: these are the words of Shakespeare, our national poet and treasure. Worth a listen? Continue reading “Ian McKellen reads a passionate speech by Shakespeare, written in defence of immigrants (reblog)”
At the weekend I read David Grossman’s latest novel A Horse Walks Into a Bar. Now I want to set down some thoughts about this intense and unsettling book. On stage in a comedy club in an Israeli town, a stand-up comedian, Dovaleh G, settles into his usual routine of edgy gags and mocking, abusive comments about members of the audience. Slowly, though, the spectators realise that they are watching a man falling apart before their eyes as Dovaleh G unfolds the story of a childhood trauma from which he has never recovered.
Since Grossman is a progressive Zionist and long-time advocate of peace and reconciliation between Israel and Palestine, does his novel stand as a metaphor for a wounded nation? Or is it the study of a man who presents a public face of cruelty and cynicism whilst hiding deep within himself the vulnerable yet irrepressible child crushed and betrayed by what happened to him one day in 1973.