British writer and artist John Berger – 90 years-old on 5 November, 2016 – has lived in the nearby French Haute-Savoie since the 1970s and has made a name celebrating the vanishing culture and life of European peasants. But as Peter Hulm points out, Berger is also a surpising fan of bourgeois Geneva, and of an author who seems on the surface to be his complete opposite: the teasing, brilliant Argentinian, Jorge Luis Borges, who died in Geneva of liver cancer at the age of 86 thirty years ago.
The grave of Borges in the Cemetery of the Kings at Plainpalais, with its headstone inscriptions in Anglo-Saxon and old Norse, has become a place of literary pilgrimage. Berger visited the Plainpalais grave some 15 years ago as Iraq was being torn to pieces and re-built as a temporary ‘democratic’ shell that has been falling violently apart ever since.
Berger mentions the destruction of Iraq in an essay entitled Genève, part of his collection Here Is Where We Meet (2005). Without making a big issue of it, Berger contrasts Geneva’s perennial quiet with what was happening to people at that time in the Middle East. The piece explains the secret of the shrub on the writer’s grave, the story behind its headstone inscriptions, why a star soprano from The Grand Theatre was imitating a starling on the streets of Geneva in the baking sunshine (and perhaps was applauded for her efforts). “The only other European town whose natural situation may be as breath- taking is Toledo,” he writes. The Genevois “frequently get bored with their town, fondly bored”, he observes, but they seldom leave for good.
Borges himself said he had been “mysteriously happy” in Geneva and regretted writing harshly of the city and his formative teen years here at what is now the Collège Calvin. For his part, Berger describes Geneva as “sexy and secretive” — not the first words most people would use, but the English writer fixes the city’s puzzling charm in the feeling residents get that “nothing she hears or witnesses shocks her”. Its insatiable curiosity is not that of a nosy gossip. “Genève” — for Berger the city is teasingly feminine, at least in his imagination — “is an observer, fascinated by the sheer variety of human predicaments and consolations”.
Berger finds Geneva “as contradictory and enigmatic as a living person”. Nothing else I’ve read captures the city’s bland seductiveness that still bewitches many inter- national civil servants with its imperturbability decades after they came here for what they imagined would be short-term assignments. Geneva’s secret passion, he further suggests, is for recording what has been put aside (and not just committee reports and speeches). In Argentina, Berger notes, while Director of the National Library, Borges too used his imagination to become “the tireless collector of put-aside objects, torn tell-tale notes, mislaid fragments ».
Genève is a narrative tour de force, as we have come to expect from Berger, in a completely different register from the tightly woven pieces that characterize Borges’ writings. But their differences, though deep, do not disguise the instinctive solidarity and empathy that the left-wing poet of the working poor shows for the deeply conservative aristocrat.
Berger remarks that Borges in life was “scandalously or grievously lost in politics”. He met Pinochet in Chile at the height of the Rightist killings and described the dictator him as “an excellent person”. Borges was also made a Knight Commander of the British Empire. A Chilean poet and translator achieved notoriety with a photo apparently showing him urinating on Borges’ grave in protest at the Argentinian’s politics. It was later revealed that the offending liquid was just water.
In contrast, Berger, who is the last person you would expect to accept ennoblement, was a self-proclaimed Marxist for decades and published a collection of essays entitled Permanent Red. As part of his personal convictions, his writings renounce all the conventional literary tricks and fabulations that are superficially impressive to reviewers. It makes Berger hard for critics to position as a member of any school.
But Borges’ description of his art in later life could easily apply to Berger: “I have done my best,” Borges asserts in the Preface to Dr Brodie’s Report, “to write straightforward stories. I am not, nor have I ever been, a fabulist. I have given up the surprises inherent in a baroque style.”
So Berger paints for us a Geneva in high summer when his daughter suggested they visit the grave together. The few pedestrians are mainly the elderly, moving like sleep- walkers over the pavement. The tightly packed streets south of the Rhône, he writes, face each other as if they are library shelves of hidden lives, and their varnished doors gleam like the front of drawers.
The essay retains its magic and remains inexhaustible no matter how much you quote from it. A 15-minute read, its few thousand words tell us much more about Borges, his secrets, the city, its people (local and foreign), motorcycling, the realities of peasant life, Borges’ relationship with his father silently contrasting with Berger’s friendship with his own daughter, and a trip inside the Grand Theatre that most of us will never take, plus a brilliant rendition of music – all in an unbuttoned style that never comes off as forced or formulaic.
Berger’s insights also point outwards to Geneva’s many other secrets. The Plainpalais cemetery, for example, created in 1482, is named after the Rue des Rois on which it is found. The kings in this fiercely republican city are not nobles and this is not their graveyard. The kings are the winners of an annual archery competition that was staged by the city’s professional guild of arquebusiers, who used the land for their training. The hackbut society, founded in 1474, still flourishes.
Today the cemetery is also dubbed Geneva’s Pantheon, but in fact the graveyard started as a burial ground for plague victims and was the only cemetery to survive Calvin’s purges because it was outside the city walls. The cemetery is now officially restricted to people who do Geneva honour (and its magistrates!). Nevertheless, its 300 graves include that of the activist prostitute Grisélidis Réal (who died in 2005) as well as Jean Calvin’s. You won’t find her on the official tally of notables on the city website. Dostoevsky’s daughter, however, makes the list. Secretive Geneva. But still secretly sexy.
John Berger’s Here is where we meet is available from Bloomsbury Paperbacks or Amazon (including a Kindle edition). His “dispatches on survival and resistance”, Hold everything dear, is being reprinted in a new edition by Verso for his 90th birthday.
By Peter Hulm
Peter is a reporter and editor based in the Geneva region. He teaches communications at universities here and is a specialist in postmodern cultural theory.