Wednesday, October 21, 2009

John Berger, Tears and Dead Moon

The day I turned 30, I was in Santa Cruz with Katy, already a well-documented trip, and went to my old place of employment, Logos Books and said what the hell, maybe they'll have something I've been looking for, something my own store doesn't have or that I haven't seen yet.

Amazingly, I found this first edition of To The Wedding by John Berger for a very good price. Inside was a postcard of the cover of the last book I had read: Jean Rhys, The Complete Novels. A simple, if somewhat strange coincidence. Later we went to a spa with our books and didn't get them wet and when I got home, I inscribed my name in the book, with Logos and 30 underneath it.

Of course, it hadn't taken me long to become enraptured with Berger's works.

All I had to do was become reappraised of him and to judge among his large, and bewilderingly varied output and to read one of his latest works a few months back, Here Is Where We Meet, a poetic, fictionalized autobiography of landscape and loss that still dazzles my memory and haunts my own writing.

Today, in an infrequently patronized cafe, I finished To The Wedding and found myself dabbing away hot late morning tears over my large cup of weak coffee. Crying doesn't usually happen when I read but Berger, at least based on these two novels I've read, deals in a sort of transformative poignance that is unlike anything I've encountered before in fiction, except maybe for Coetzee in Waiting For The Barbarians and Life And Times Of Michael K.

But Berger's vision is even larger, large enough to contain historical episodes, artistic interludes, geographical quirks, odd species and local customs, among the whole range of variation and fable that are his palette.

Speaking of found objects, because so much of Berger's work feels like a chain of found objects possessing its own logic:

I had forgotten until the other day that I had since replaced the postcard of the young lovers in Brassai's French bistro with another, older postcard that Katy found in one of the books in the sale cart in front of my store.

By all accounts, Eastern European peasants or Roma of some sort, and a mysterious piece of writing on the back.

I hadn't started the book after my birthday trip but instead had laid it aside while I finished another birthday present, The Secret History, a wonderful novel in its own right.

But with To The Wedding, I took my time, I savored the gem-like sentences, the undulating episodes that often, in their telling, take on the form of the wondrous landscapes that Berger, with his painter's eye, renders palpable on the page, mostly black, night-darkened mountains that are being pierced by a sagely motorcyclist and long rivers with many fingers and conduits upon which a melancholy, Czech woman with an aching finger is idly floating down en route to a rendezvous.

The wedding in question is truly, purely bittersweet; and the love story that initiates it feels like one of the most honest, uplifting ones that can exist, mainly because corrosion and mortality and disease are such a defining feature of it.

To love someone unconditionally who is doomed to a wildly premature death, who is tainted with a terminal, ravaging virus, to know that she has 2, maybe 3 years without a blemish before the disease starts to do its rapid destructive work. Berger poses this quandary amidst the plane trees and fields and rice paddies of rural Europe, in the shadow of Communism's failure, in the general soul failure of middle class existence and in all the little things, the trinkets, the food, the palaver of life that constantly bubble to the surface of his prose.

Berger, while remaining staunchly a Communist, a farmer, a man clearly on the side of the earthy and the earthly, turns books into prayers almost, but prayers to the earth, to mortality itself, not to get even with death but to sing of the paradoxes that beset us, as if acknowledging them in the most beautiful, haunting way possible will make them more understandable.

It's a beautiful book, quite possibly as beautiful as everyone has claimed. I would be hard-pressed to distill from all the complex tragedies and joys of life a book that seemed so much like an invocation, a promise to the dead, some ancient Greek form of homage that has long been forgotten.

As Michael Ondaatje says, "In some countries it must still be the writer's role to gather and comfort. . .to hold and celebrate a moment before darkness. With To The Wedding, John Berger has written a great, sad and tender lyric, a novel that is a vortex of community and compassion that somehow overcomes fate and death. Wherever I live in the world I know I will have this book with me."

It left me kind of shattered today after I read it, and then I had a strange day at work, with many awkward, misunderstood and tantalizing encounters. For some reason now I feel sore and beaten, but for no good reason and I better pluck up because I got to go to Chicago in a day from now for a wedding as well! A very happy wedding I'm excited to be attending.

Oh -- and because brute passion really is the stuff of good art, I'll leave you with a band I listened to at work that reminds me of the passion of John Berger: a three piece band from Portland called Dead Moon who played for nearly 20 years, husband on guitar and vocals and his wife on bass and vocals.

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