So farewell then, John Berger – polymath, Booker Prize-winning novelist, painter, art critic, cultural interpreter, semiologist, thinking women’s pin-up and – hang on, here’s a new book by John Berger.
Announced in the week of his death at the age of 90, Smoke, a collaboration with the Turkish artist Selçuk Demirel, is the last work the grand old man prepared for publication. Although it won’t be released until the end of March, Popla has had a sneak preview and can guarantee that – like a pack of slim cheroots – it will provide hours of pleasure to Berger fans.
JB, it should be noted, was an enthusiastic and lifelong smoker. He once said of his poison, ‘A cigarette is a breathing space…The time of a cigarette is a parenthesis, and if it is shared, you are both in that parenthesis. It’s like a proscenium arch for a dialogue.’ Now the human fallibility and secret comradeship of smokers – set against a background of skies polluted and fouled by exhaust and factory fumes – is one of the themes in the little parable he left as his final testament.
What could Berger be saying? Since the contents of Smoke are still under press embargo, we wouldn’t want to illustrate from the text. But perhaps it’s worth remarking that he was essentially an early-Seventies figure, at his best during the ‘permissive’ society, when he urged people to see the world through new eyes and reject the sclerotic hold of the academy.
You could say that he was an anti-elitist and anti-authoritarian. (Remind you anybody?) He certainly had a keen sympathy for traditional communities displaced and fractured by the onset of new technologies and an indifferent market. Then again, he was a rich Marxist, and could get a bit misty-eyed. Probably from the fag smoke.
Smoke will be published by Notting Hill Editions on 21 March (£14.99). From the end of January, it can be bought direct from the publisher’s website at a special pre-publication price of £11.99. Popla readers should enter the code SMOK01