Jackie Wullschlager at the Financial Times:
At its best, there is a sort of poetry about Berger’s mix of storytelling and critique, and his receptiveness to literature of all stripes, which consistently enriches this account. An outstanding example is essays on Velázquez and the harsh “Spanish landscape of the interior”, which connect to a musing on unpaintable landscapes worldwide (“if we tend to forget this it is the result of a kind of Eurocentrism”) and — verging bravely, provocatively, on fraught orientalist territory — on the “special place” in Arab poetry of the blade, knife, sword, dagger.
“In the Sahara one enters the Koran,” Berger writes. “Islam was born of, and is continually reborn from, a nomadic desert life whose needs it answers, whose anguish it assuages . . . the blade was a reminder of the thinness of life. And this thinness comes, very materially, from the closeness in the desert between sky and land . . . In the thin stratum of the living laid on the sand like a nomad’s carpet, no compromise is possible because there are no hiding places; the directness of the confrontation produces the emotion, the helplessness, the fatalism.”
Berger’s vision of geography shaping history shaping art and life is almost always infused with such imaginative empathy. When, rarely, it is not, the absence is also revealing: the artists with whom Berger struggles are those seeming to him to lack that empathy, their focus on existential alienation excluding them from social constructs and connections. Giacometti’s “extreme proposition” that no reality could ever be shared “reflects the social fragmentation and manic individualism of the late bourgeois intelligentsia”.