What would you like to know about this book? That I couldn’t put it down? That I read it over two days? That I can’t remember much of the content? That it is utterly brilliant?
When a friend mentioned the name John Berger to me recently it lightly tinkled a bell in my subconscious but nothing Quasimodo would be interested in peeling. But on being told his book Ways Of Seeing is a must read insight into understanding art, I was more intrigued by the content of the back cover of Confabulations which begins, “Language is a body, a living creature…” I bought it.
John Berger is a story-teller; or rather was. I learned he died in 2017 and, prompted to look at some videos he produced, I recognised that familiar, rugged face. There is an episode of a 60 minute programme he made for Chanel 4 television back in 1984 called About Time in which he explores the concept of time, punctuating his own thinking with fables and stories of old in a style reminiscent of Aesop and a book of his fables I read as a small boy. Another video sees him in an hour long tête-à-tête with Susan Sontag. They discuss story-telling but lofty as the conversation is, it felt contrived.
Confabulations is a book of stories from Berger’s own experience which he relates to the subject of language. Language in all things, song, in art, in objects, even in flowers all born of the mother tongue. I was reminded of a line in Maggie Nelson’s book, Argonauts, my first reading of 2018 in which she asked, are words good enough? John Berger is certain they are not:
“A spoken language is a body, a living creature, whose physiognomy is verbal and whose visceral functions are linguistic. And this creature’s home is the inarticulate as well as the articulate.”
John Berger’s stories are wonderfully entertaining and the great thing about reviewing a book is it provides an opportunity to revisit them. I did and they contain more and offer more the more they are read. They are mainly about lives, lives different to our own but appealing lives, lives we would perhaps like to live ourselves if only we weren’t so tied to the lives we live.
Please read this book. It has helped me understand where language exists and where to find it. It is a book of discoveries and to discover it is to enrich.