"In the center of a square in Lisboa there is a tree called a Lusitanian (which is to say, Portugese) cypress. Its branches, instead of pointing up to the sky, have been trained to grow outwards, horizontally, so that they form a gigantic, impenetrable, very low umbrella with a diameter of twenty metres. One hundred people could easily shelter under it. The branches are supported by metal props, arranged in circles around the twisted massive trunk; the tree is at least two hundred years old. Beside it stands a formal notice-board with a poem to passers-by written on it. I paused to decipher a few lines: . . .I am the handle of your hoe, the gate of your house, the wood of your cradle and the wood of your coffin. . ."
This is the opening paragraph to John Berger's utterly beautiful and ambitiously non-classifiable "fiction" called Here Is Where We Meet.
It was probably the last book I read and the last book I really, really loved. Because it is ostensibly about a man named John Berger walking through the cities and villages he's loved (Lisboa, Krakow, Geneva, Madrid, and rural Poland) and meeting people he once loved who are now dead, interspersed with the most vivid, painterly details about plazas, food, light, water, architecture, love-making, war, weddings, and death, it would be easy to ask the question: what genre is this? It's easier and far more relevant to ask: who cares? It's absolutely brave and brilliant and heart-rending. And it was probably the twentieth book he wrote too.
John Berger is someone I'll talk more about. I reported on him once before at the Rumpus. There are entire paragraphs from this book that are worthy of being quoted in full.
To understand him as well, it is necessary to appreciate what he looks like now. His author photo is one of a kind.
I think Susan Sontag's description of Berger is one of the most complimentary things I've ever heard one writer say about another:
"I admire and love John Berger's books. He writes about what is important, not just interesting. In contemporary English letters, he seems to me peerless; not since Lawrence has there been a writer who offers such attentiveness to the sensual worlds with responsiveness to the imperatives of conscience. . ."