Recently, I’ve remembered one the important functions of Literature: to remind us of what we already know to be true but are on the verge of forgetting or have already forgotten…
In our everyday lives, full of news of wars and starvation, elections and systems of corruption, it becomes so easy to give in to the jading impulses of consumer imperialism. We walk with veiled eyes, avoiding even the consideration of the colossal problems that face us as a divided race. But in Literature, in good Literature – the kind of Literature that begins with a capital “L” – all of that can fall away, even if the major themes of the novel we’re reading are in fact those very issues. This is because Literature offers us something more – an insight back into what it is to be human? a glimpse at an ideal we once held true in our own life? the logical destruction and redemption of our own folly?
I’m currently reading This is Where We Meet by the English novelist John Berger, a Christmas gift from my fiancé’s mother. I had vaguely been aware of Berger, although I can’t recollect when or how my own literary journey crossed paths with his name and likeness – but I hadn’t read any of his work, until now.
It’s not so much the stories that Berger is telling to me in This is Where We Meet that are what makes the novel great. The stories themselves revolve around common scenes. In each chapter, the main character as an old man, also named John (the fictitious alter-ego of the author himself, perhaps?) interacts with family members or friends, recollecting, almost sentimentally, their childhood or early adult years.
Nor is it the way in which he tells the stories (don’t worry, you’ll know this by page 10 if you haven’t read the book already) – in many of the chapters he’s actually holding conversations with the dead. For example, chapter one is a series of conversations, taking place in Madrid, where John discusses his childhood with his dead mother (a ghost? a spirit? the imaginings of an old man coming unhinged?).
Nor is it the beautiful language, and there is much beautiful language in this book. In his descriptions of the locations – for each chapter also deals with a specific location that is as important as the specific character from the narrator’s past – there is a magic, a beauty. It’s a man telling us the intimate secrets about one of his lovers.
Indeed, it is the combination of all these things that elevates this book into the realm of capital “L” Literature. These almost mundane, sentimental recollections of a man’s childhood, or his university experiences, or his interaction with his daughter (named Katya, which also happens to be the name of Berger’s daughter in the real world), juxtaposed with the elegant traveler’s descriptions of the cities themselves, intertwined with just enough post-modernism to give it a mystical edge (he’s talking to dead people! or is he talking to himself?) merge to form a fascinating narrative that reminds the reader, or at least this reader, how much the little things matter.
Maybe it’s because I had a bit of a heart-to-heart with my own mother over Christmas that these life experiences that I’ve taken for granted have suddenly been cast into a new light. Maybe it’s because two days from now I’ll have revolved around the Sun thirty-one times, and that kind of distance starts to make a man realize his own mortality. Maybe it’s because global warming is causing one of the strangest winters I’ve ever experienced and… Or maybe it’s just the brilliant magic of John Berger’s writing.
I don’t know, but reading Here is Where We Meet has reminded me of all of the little things that are beautiful, sad, brilliant, delirious, wonderful, joyous, painful, and otherwise life-making – those little things that are the true experiences of a life. And it’s those little things that we know, the ones that we keep forgetting as our resolve is chipped away by the jading blows of so-called civilization, that Literature continually reminds us are important.