The author thinks it's nonfiction

Dec 19, 2007 at 12:00 am

"Stories are one way of sharing the belief that justice is imminent," writes John Berger in Hold Everything Dear, his new, raggedly uneven collection of recent essays. A humanist concern for justice marks these texts, which range in length from two pages to 20 and are characterized by Berger's messianic sense of conviction. His fervor is inspiring when he bears witness to the perseverance of individuals in battle-scarred lands or dilates on poems, films and photographs. But more often it is off-putting, as he grandiloquently and unmindfully rages against multinational corporations, the current U.S. administration, Israel's occupation of Palestine, and what he calls the delocalization of the entire world. In these texts, which repeatedly catalogue unequal access to military resources, Berger loses his sense of what he calls "the real terrain of what is being lived" and levels sweeping accusations unsupported by detail or fact. This would be more acceptable were the prose regularly lifted to the realm of art — a domain Berger has occupied repeatedly during his five-decade career as an art critic, novelist and amateur sociologist — but too often reading these texts feels like peeking at the unedited journal entries of a man upset by the nightly news.

Even "Ten Dispatches About Endurance in Face of Walls," which dexterously collages quotes from the Russian writer Andrei Platonov and Berger's musings on poverty and is the best piece in the collection, suffers from an uncontrolled outburst. In a parenthetical aside, Berger begins ranting, checks himself — "No need to quote the figures" — then, two lines on, does precisely that before continuing his digression for another half-page. Another attempt at collage titled "War Against Terrorism or a Terrorist War?" attempts to forge puerile connections between Sept. 11, 2001, and the bombing of Hiroshima, then limps to an ending but not a conclusion.

Some essays rise up momentarily from mere rhetoric to communicate larger truths: "I Would Softly Tell My Love," with its address to and quotations from the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet; "The Chorus in Our Heads or Pier Paolo Pasolini," about the Italian master's little-known hour-long film of edited newsreel footage; and "Another Side of Desire," a brief meditation on the liberating power of reciprocal infatuation. But too much of this book consists of the kind of gaseous bombast publishers wouldn't accept from a lesser writer, and, even if agreeing with its leftist sentiment, readers shouldn't accept from this one.