PEN/O.Henry 2012: John Berger, “A Brush” from Harper’s, September 2010

Fernand Legere, "Les Grandes Plongeurs Noirs"

Fernand Legere, “Les Grandes Plongeurs Noirs”

I first noticed her because she swam differently. The movements of her arms and legs were curiously slow, like those of a frog, and at the same time her speed was not dramatically reduced. She had a different relationship to the element of water.

I’ve been looking forward to this story ever since Aaron Riccio mentioned, as we were starting this anthology, that it was perhaps his least favorite story of all time. I’m not sure I’d go that far; but I have to admit, if I’d encountered it in a workshop rather than in a prize volume, I’d have some serious criticism.

Isn’t that an odd thing – because it’s written by someone who’s published numerous novels and stories, won prestigious prizes (including the Booker prize), and is a recognized authority on art, and because it first appeared in Harper’s and now here – I’m willing to work harder for it. If so many learned people saw great value in this, I need to find out what that value is.

I see glimmers. The overall story is very simple – a man encounters a Cambodian woman in a French public pool, finds out she’s an artist; he gives her a brush he’s treasured, and she paints him a picture. In between there’s reference to art and Cambodian history.

For me, a good part of the problem is that stylistically it’s nearly unreadable. That sounds harsh, I know, but the prose is what anyone who’s ever been workshopped would call clumsy. The opening paragraph:

I want to tell you the story of how I gave away this Sho Japanese brush. Where it happened and how. The brush had been given to me by an actor friend who had gone to work for a while with some Noh performers in Japan.

I can hear minimalists and writing teachers everywhere saying, “Don’t tell me what you want to do, do it! And if you’re going to bring in an actor friend, s/he’d better have more significance than this passing reference.”

The story continues:

I drew often with it. It was made of the hairs of horse and sheep. These hairs once grew out of a skin. Maybe this is why when gathered together into a brush with a bamboo handle they transmit sensations so vividly. When I drew with it I had the impression that it and my fingers loosely holding it were touching not paper but a skin. The notion that a paper being drawn on is like a skin is there in the very word: brushstroke. The one and only touch of the brush! as the great draftsman Shitao termed it.

There’s a lovely idea here, the brush touching skin – a kind of communication (I instinctively took the skin to be that of a living, breathing person, not some kind of dead animal skin like parchment, though using “a skin” casts doubt on that). The idea of a single brushstroke is a motif that plays throughout. But… those three choppy sentences that begin the paragraph, what is that? And again, it feels like someone just talking randomly, not telling a story.

The setting for the story was a municipal swimming pool in a popular, not chic, Paris suburb…
The building is long and squat, and its walls are of glass and brick….

Seen from the outside, it’s an urban not a rural building, and if you didn’t know it was a swimming pool and you forgot about the trees you might suppose it was some kind of railway building, a cleaning shed for coaches, a loading bay.

Again, there’s some good material here – appearances being deceiving, the long squat shape, the contrast of glass and brick, of rural and urban. But add tense changes to the “here is what I’m going to do” explanation, and I’m pulling my hair out. In fact, when I was reading, at this point I went looking for a translator, thinking maybe it wasn’t originally written in English, or the writer was more comfortable in another language and was using that syntax. But no.

This went through two editors. It has to be a deliberate choice. But why? Because the artist does not look like an artist? An emphasis on the horizontal (I vaguely recall from Art for Dummies that horizontal lines convey rest and stability)? Is it really necessary to torment me with style to convey these things?

Three times the narrative is interrupted by a short paragraph about a specific artwork: Huang Shen’s drawing of a cicada on a willow to explain the single brushstrokes used for each leaf; Ferdnand Leger’s plongeur series (one of which is shown above) which brings in the dream of leisure (how interesting the series was painted mostly during WWII, not a great period for leisure); and Qi Baishi, whose frogs, a symbol of freedom, seem to the narrator to be wearing bathing caps, like the Cambodian swimmer. Then there’s a lengthy review of the tragedy of modern Cambodian history. I wonder if Berger, a Brit, is scolding us Yanks. As though we need it.

The last line – “And again I understood a little more about homelesness.” – while powerful, doesn’t seem earned to me. I understand the Cambodian woman has been cut off from her home. Maybe the horizontal building becomes a symbol of home, rest, stability; maybe the branch the bird she paints sits on is the same; it’s hanging upside down and so perhaps its grasp on home seems precarious.

All of this is good material, but again, it stops the narrative in its tracks and is conveyed as if the author suddenly decided to give an art lecture. I was thinking maybe it’s something like how he describes the painting of bamboo the Cambodian artist makes for him:

The bamboo is drawn according to all the rules of the art. A single brushstroke beginning at the top of the stalk, stopping at each section, descending and becomming slightly wider. The branches, narrow as matches, drawn with the tip of the brush. The dark leaves rendered in single strokes like darting fish. And last on the horizontal nodes, bruched from left to right, between each section of the hollow stalk.

I see a clue here: in the same way, the narrative stops, and a horizontal rest point – a description of art, or the history of Cambodia – is inserted before beginning again; it is one story, one brushstroke, but is chopped up, and the tiny sentences, perhaps imitate the leaves and branches.

But that’s really reaching. It’s a kind of respect, I suppose, to allow for an author of Berger’s stature and experience. But like the paintings that “could’ve been done by a 5-year-old” (which, by the way, is virtually never true even if it does make a great put-down), this story feels like it needs serious editing. Maybe it’s perfect, just the way it is, and I’m being narrow-minded and not appreciating the artistic value of what he’s done here.

But I don’t think so. I think it’s an interesting theoretical idea that doesn’t work in practice. And damn, couldn’t he at least fix those tense shifts?

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One response to “PEN/O.Henry 2012: John Berger, “A Brush” from Harper’s, September 2010

  1. Pingback: Shani Boianjiu: “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” from The New Yorker, 6/25/12 « A Just Recompense

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