Some writers are companions, though you never meet them in person. Their books sit on your desk, your shelves, your bedside table, ready for conversation. For solace. And for advice. Often the advice is oblique. But when you’ve read their books for years, decades even, you are familiar with the codes.
John Berger died yesterday. He’s been one of those writers for me, though of course I know I’m not alone (and that feels comforting). Sometimes when I’ve struggled with boundaries in my work — prose? poetry? fiction? not? — I’ve turned to his books. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, for example: love, loss, absence, and the spaces in between, written in the most beautiful elliptical language possible. And the one I keep close to hand, always: Here Is Where We Meet. A fiction, the cover tells us. But is it? The narrator, John, meets his mother on a park bench in Lisbon. She has been dead fifteen years. “I’ve learned a lot since my death,” she tells John. “You should use me while you are here. You can look things up in a dead person like a dictionary.”
I take that to heart. My mother comes to me quite often, though she died in 2010. And in surprising places (though perhaps I should not be surprised at all):
In Toulouse, in March, I dreamed of my mother. I’d been thinking a great deal about geographical loneliness. Not only for a place one has left, often forever (my grandmother never returned to Europe and as far as I know, she had only very sporadic contact with her family there), but also the loneliness we feel when we try to follow the traces our ancestors made across a landscape. A field loved by a child for its birdsong, the scent of plum blossom after a long winter, a tree planted to celebrate a wedding, a birth, an occasion long-forgotten. So the dream of my mother surprised me. She was on a tour, just before heart surgery. I always wanted to travel to France, she said, her eyes glowing as she jostled and joked with her new friends, but no one would ever go with me. She had photographs – a long road leading down to the sea, a restaurant filled with sunlight, a plate of sausage. I held her hand and thought, I have another chance. We went to the restroom together and she was running. Please, Mum, don’t run, I pleaded with her, only half in fun. Please. I don’t want you to die on me!
No one wrote about food like John Berger. The feast in To The Wedding! And the preparation of the wild sorrel soup in Here Is Where We Meet! No one wrote about art in such an inclusive and democratic way. I’ve never forgotten his piece in the Guardian on the Chauvet caves. He went in to see the drawings, 25,000 – 32,000 years old, the animals, the hand-prints in red ochre and the stencils of hands in dark pigment, and he wrote so evocatively of the place and those who came to work there, to enter the mystery.
How frequently did they come? Did generations of artists work here? No answers. Perhaps there never will be. Perhaps we have to be content with intuiting that they came here to experience, and to carry away with them in memory, special moments of living a perfect balance between danger and survival, fear and a sense of protection. Can one hope for more at any time?