A Painter of our Time by John Berger

I confess to being partial to a number of independent publishers, and a recent discovery has been the left-wing imprint, Verso. They product a lot of very interesting-looking non-fiction (I am currently trying to resist the call of “NIghtwalking), but I was intrigued to discovery recently when they had a flash sale that they also publish fiction. A title which caught my eye was this one, by an author who’s probably best know for being behind the TV series (and book) “Ways of Seeing” – John Berger.

a painter

Berger has a long history in the arts, but the section on this novel on Wikipedia deserved picking out and reproducing here:

In 1958, Berger published his first novel, A Painter of Our Time, which tells the story of the disappearance of Janos Lavin, a fictional exiled Hungarian painter, and his diary’s discovery by an art critic friend called John. The book’s political currency and detailed description of an artist’s working process led to some readers mistaking it for a true story. After being available for a month, the work was withdrawn by the publisher, under pressure from the Congress for Cultural Freedom.The novels immediately succeeding A Painter of Our Time were The Foot of Clive and Corker’s Freedom; both presented an urban English life of alienation and melancholy. In 1962 Berger’s distaste for life in Britain drove him into voluntary exile in France.

I found in fascinating that the book should have been considered so subversive in 1958 that it had to be withdrawn; but then I remembered that the world was still in the grip of the Cold War, and that 1956 had seen the abortive Hungarian uprising. So it was a given that I had to pick up a copy to see what it was all about.

As the Wiki entry states, the book is narrated by art critic John, whose commentary frames the diary kept by Janos Lavin, the Hungarian painter of the title. Lavin, a Communist by belief, has washed up in London with his second wife Diana after a life spent moving around the continent: from Hungary, through Berlin then to France and finally on to Britain. His political beliefs and activities have been at the root of his constant movement, as each country becomes too hot to hold him, and he’s retreated from active politics, instead spending his time scraping an existence teaching, painting and being supported by Diana (who comes from a monied family and has a personal income, supplemented by work in a library). But although Janos seems to have cut himself off from the past, it is never as clear-cut as it seems; and as John reads through the diary, much of Janos’s past (previously unknown to John) is revealed. But where has Janos gone, and what prompted his disappearance?

“A Painter of our Time” was an absolutely fascinating read. One one level, there is a mystery, the solution of which gradually becomes clear as we make our way through the diary. However, the book is in many ways an extended meditation on the meaning of art; why we create, whether it’s relevant, whether political action is a better choice and so on. Janos, having abandoned political activism, puts everything into his work: his beliefs, his wish for the world to change, the accumulation of all his life’s experiences. And as his story is gradually revealed, like someone scraping away layers of old paint, it seems that he has indeed had a very active life; his memories of torture, betrayal and all the nastiness existing in the early part of the 20th century are powerful. All is not dark, though – there are hints of happiness with his first wife in the early days of their marriage, and of his powerful, comradely friendship with Laszlo.

As Communists we believe that we understand how, on a far more urgent and immediate level, we can make life better, richer, juster, truer with a speed that has never been possible before. I believe this despite the harshness, the treachery, the deaths. I believe it with Asia and Africa, for whom such an improvement is life and death for their own and the next generation. The point from which politics starts for me is hunger. Nothing less.

In fact, without giving too much away, Laszlo is a critical element of Janos’ tale; the events in Hungary during the 1950s inform Janos and Laszlo’s eventual destinies, and trigger pivotal decisions. I don’t want to say any more as it would risk spoiling the development of the book – but a basic knowledge of the Hungarian situation in the 1950s would help…

john berger

There is also a little light relief, to be found in the form of Len, a ‘Sunday painter’; a butcher by trade, he’s fascinated by the clichéd image of a tortured Parisian in a loft with a beret (rather reminiscent of Tony Hancock in “The Rebel”) and longs to paint his wife Vee in the nude, much to her bourgeois embarrassment. Len regards Janos as the real deal, and despite the man’s limitations, Berger is surprisingly kind to him and his artistic ambitions, almost as if he regards his naive aspirations as more honest than some of the posing of the so-called professional artists. The book also captures brilliantly the atmosphere of foggy, post-War London and Berger’s writing is quite evocative in places:

I can see the moon through the skylight, and somewhere there is an owl. It is surprising how many owls there are in London.Writing as I have done makes me nostalgic. Why do the lights on the Erzebet Bridge still flicker for me, whilst the recollection of sailing under it, lying on my back on the bottom of a dinghy, leaves me only incredulous about the way I lived then? Why do the lights on the Erzebet Bridge still flicker for me? The bridge has been destroyed, anyway.

Janos is very much an outsider, and you get the sense he has been all through his life. It’s only towards the end of the book, ironically, that his work gets an exhibition of its own and it seems as if his paintings might become fashionable and start to sell. However, unexpected events take over and choices have to be made.

“A Painter of Our Time” was an absorbing read, giving a fascinating snapshot of political and artistic life in the 1950s. I felt that Berger had really captured the dilemmas that must have been faced by intellectuals at the time. Janos is a man drawn in two conflicting directions, torn between politics and art – can they ever be reconciled? The book also hints at just how little we humans really know each other; John is chastened to find out how little he really knows about Janos, and if it hadn’t been for the diary he would have had no idea what was going on beneath the painter’s surface level daily life. I’ve definitely had my thoughts provoked by “A Painter of Our Time” and I think I might well nudge “Ways of Seeing” closer to the top of Mount TBR…