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Ways of Telling

Geoff Dyer

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Title: Ways of Telling
Author: Geoff Dyer
Genre: Criticism
Written: 1986
Length: 164 pages
Availability: Out of print
  • The Work of John Berger
  • Includes an interview with John Berger

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Our Assessment:

B : an earnest and fairly useful survey of John Berger's work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 19/3/1987 Peter Campbell

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The complete review's Review:

       In his Anglo-English Attitudes (see our review) Dyer speaks of his "mentor, John Berger" -- and "Ways of Telling, my dull little book about him." The judgement is a bit harsh: Dyer's study is earnest and traditional in its presentation and analysis, but it is also a decent read.
       Dyer was correct writing in 1986 (as he still would be today) that John Berger is critically underappreciated and that "his stature as writer and intellectual has not adequately been recognized." In Ways of Telling the earnest young acolyte tries to set things right. Dyer gives a chronological overview of Berger's life and work, emphasizing the literary over the biographical. He examines most of Berger's output (up to 1985), though there is no discussion of Berger's collaboration with Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner -- covered instead in an interview with Berger that is appended to the text.
       Berger is an interesting and significant writer and his career, from his early New Statesman contributions through Booker Prize winning G. through the famous Ways of Seeing television broadcast and book and onwards, is fascinating. Politically engaged and socially conscious (too much so for some tastes), Berger has produced an impressive and varied body of work.
       Dyer goes through the works one by one, though perhaps the most useful aspect of the book is the brief survey of Berger's early career. Berger's early development is not sufficiently known and provides a useful context for all the later work.
       Dyer's discussion and analysis of Berger's work is solid and occasionally insightful. Dyer is clearly partisan, a devoted Berger fan, but he is willing to be critical when necessary (or unavoidable). "The Foot of Clive is a bad novel that should be a play; even then it would not be a very good one," he acknowledges. A book so bad it's almost fun, Dyer can't help but let rip: "Prose gives way to dramatic notation; Berger cries 'havoc' and lets slip the dogs of Clive." (Berger's "chunks of dog lore" have since come back to haunt him in his recent doggie-tale, the sincere but failed King (see our review) -- obviously he should stay away from the canines in his work.)
       Other books are resoundingly praised -- the "quiet masterpiece" A Fortunate Man, the "masterpiece" G.. Of specific interest to Dyer is Berger's effort at literary innovation, of which A Fortunate Man is a notable example. Dyer contends that it has "attracted so little critical attention (...) because it is not a work of fiction." He also insists that "Berger's innovativeness is of a simpler and higher order." A Fortunate Man is a remarkable book -- the story of Sassall, a village doctor, and his position in the community, perfectly captured by Berger. Dyer is also able to examine the crucial occurrence after the fact: Sassall was a suicide. Dyer calls this "a tragic postscript," missing the point that this unwritten part remains outside the text. Dyer offers a tentative analysis, suggesting that Berger saw Sassall's fate, that it was prefigured in the text. He does not call Berger's action -- the writing of the book -- into question in light of the later occurrence (which can be described as a consequence thereof, though Dyer emphatically denies this, suggesting an inevitability to it that Berger glimpsed but could do nothing about). Here, for once, a more critical voice is necessary.
       Dyer handles Berger's critical work -- on Picasso and Neizvestny, for example -- well. The overview of Berger as art critic (which is how he began his career) and the triumph of the seminal Ways of Seeing are also covered well. Dyer acknowledges Berger's weaknesses as an art critic (for example regarding Berger's dismissal of the work of the sculptor Henry Moore), even while reminding of his strengths. We would also have preferred more than just the interview regarding the work with Alain Tanner -- though the conversation is fairly informative.
       Ways of Telling is a useful, though now dated (i.e. not up-dated), survey of John Berger's life and work. It still has value as such. The great value of this book, however, is in what it reveals about Geoff Dyer. Dyer is one of the more interesting writers of this age. Stylistically superior to Berger (and most other writers), though still lacking a certain critical acumen, Dyer practices as Berger preaches. He is not as politically engaged as Berger (politics colours and determines all of Berger's work), but he has taken Berger's innovative vision and ambition and applied it to his own work -- with great success. Dyer is one of the few writers trying new things with the literary form. Think of his entreaty to readers to consider his But Beautiful (see our review) as "as much imaginative criticism as fiction" (the italics are a plea -- a scream, even). There it was to no avail (no one reads But Beautiful as criticism -- regrettable but true). His Lawrence-piece, Out of Sheer Rage (see our review) came closer to the mark (or rather, came closer to being seen as such).
       Dyer acknowledges Berger as his great mentor (dedicating But Beautiful to him), and Berger seeps into almost all his work. For this reason alone it is interesting to see how Dyer first viewed the master.

       Recommended to anyone interested in either John Berger or Geoff Dyer. Otherwise of limited interest.

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John Berger: Geoff Dyer: Other books by Geoff Dyer under review: Books by John Berger under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Geoff Dyer was born in 1958. He attended Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He has written several novels, a study of John Berger, and several books that his publishers describe as "genre-defying".

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