Corker’s Freedom, by John Berger
A man (and it’s usually a man) lives a life of quiet desperation among the English lower-middle classes. He dreams of something better, but when he tries to realise his dreams he finds the stultifying weight of society harder to shake off than he had imagined. Worse yet, perhaps he finds himself not quite up to the challenge.
How many novels does that describe? Quiet suburban desperation is well-explored territory for the literary novel. There were a spate of them in the 1960s though the trend goes back much further. Even today they haven’t gone away. I doubt they ever will.
William Corker is a middle-aged (on the cusp of just plain old) man who runs a small employment agency in Clapham. It’s taken him years to build up the business and it gives him a comfortable living with regular foreign holidays (no common thing in 1960 when this is set). Here’s the opening paragraph:
(William Tracey Corker, bachelor, aged 63, has this morning, April 4th 1960, walked out on Irene, his invalid sister, in whose house he has lived for the last twelve years. He has no intention of returning. Alec Gooch, Mr Corker’s junior and only clerk, will be 18 in two months’ time. Last night he went to bed with a girl for the first time in his life. The girl, with whom he is in love, works in a florist’s shop and is called Jackie.)
It reads to me like directions in a screenplay. The stage is set. The day is a momentous one, far from ordinary. Both men’s lives have transformed within the past 24 hours. Even so, there’s little sign of it as the day begins. The first section of the novel deals with their morning in the office: clients phone up asking for people to be placed with them; potential employees come in for interviews hoping to be given work; Corker and Alec chat a bit.
Alec is trying to make sense of the world. He has categories that he tries to fit all his experiences into. One is “office day“. Another, a new one, is “having Jackie“. He’s starting to realise that the world may be much larger than he imagined and that there may be a great deal that he can’t neatly file.
Corker’s internal reverie is quite different. He thinks about his life, about himself and his own innate uniqueness (there are no other William Tracey Corker’s in the world), about women and age and all manner of things. The difference between the mundanity of his job and his flights of thought is jarring and true.
If I had to trace a graph of my interest in this novel it would start high (a Berger!); as the novel progressed it would dip slowly down falling eventually quite low (again with the mental filing Alec? How many clients do these people see in a morning?); having hit a dangerous low point by the half-way mark it would start to make a wavering recovery as after lunch Corker and Alec start clearing the upstairs rooms so that Corker can move into them (Corker’s interior world so unexpectedly rich); it would rise further as the day ends and the story moves to a church hall that evening where Corker is giving one of his regular talks and slideshows on the subject of his most recent foreign holiday to Vienna; and it would stay high from there.
Berger here contrasts Corker’s outer and inner world, and Alec’s too but Alec’s is far narrower. He has not travelled as Corker has. He has not lived years in frustration with a woman to whom he is related but for whom he feels little affection. Alec sees life opening up before him and Jackie showing him worlds he never dreamt of but that were always present. Corker sees his world closing down and wants to seize some of it while he still can.
In an extraordinary sequence (and not the only extraordinary sequence) Corker gets Alec to help him move some furniture. The narrative subdivides. There is what Corker says. There is what he knows but does not say. There is what he fantasises. Here Corker has just cut his finger and is waiting for Alec to return:
(The following concerns Mr Corker whilst he waits upstairs in the front room after Alec has gone down for the second time to find the First-Aid Box. Mr Corker has slipped off the armchair into the seat so that his legs now dangle over the arm and his head rests on the other arm. He cannot sit in the chair in a normal position because the front of the chair is still wedged against the sideboard. His eyes are shut.)
Corker thinks: Something I said made him cross. He was quite rude about what I was telling him about the Blighty ones. It’s always the same thing – if you give an inch, he takes a mile.
Corker knows: I have been telling him lies, ever since lunch I have been telling lies. This lying is not altogether deliberate on my part. My memories are lies, yety the are, when all has been said and done, my memories. So I do not know how I can talk about the past and not lie. It is true that I want to impress Alec and so sometimes I embellish even the lies that are my memories. For instance: many men shot their hands off in the war. I saw one man who had shot his hand off. I told Alec I had seen many so that he should not believe I was making a fuss about my finger. I know that I want to impress Alec particularly today.
Corker thinks: He’s taking advantage of me.
Corker makes believe: He will walk out on me today of all days. He is down by the front door now. He is leaving me in the lurch.
Corker thinks: Funny how I can’t help being fond of him too. And that’s the trouble I daresay – I’ve spoilt him. A nice mess I’d be in if he did leave me in the lurch now.
A voice screams: Abandoned again! Again!
Corker makes believe: Sir Lancelot for his sins is put to shame and lies defeated in the wood. On the ground he groans but no man pays him heed. He heard their voices. ‘Tis the end of Lancelot, they said.
Corker thinks: I can hear them saying it – He’s gone to pieces, aged you know, ever since he left his sister…
It’s a long quote I know, but I wanted to get across the unsparing honesty of it and the contrast between thoughts, fears and fantasies. In this incident the internal monologues, dialogues really, extend for a few pages. Later at the church hall there is a much longer section exploring thought, knowledge, fantasy, what is actually said and what is projected on the screen all alongside the internal thoughts and reactions of the audience. It’s a world in a drop of water.
In Wind, Sand and Stars Antoine de Saint-Exupery thinks about how each person carries a world inside their head. He talks about the miracle of consciousness and of how it can lie sleeping and how it can be woken. Corker’s freedom is partly the freedom of his own self-awareness (though Corker’s freedom can be interpreted in a number of ways some more pressing than that).
When we deal with each other in life we deal only with one small aspect. As I ask a post office clerk to issue me with some form for all I know within their head I’ve (barely) interrupted their seduction of a movie star; their successful battle against star-pirates; their recreation of a day out last year with their children; their dream of leaving home and job and everything and painting in the South Seas.
My notional postal clerk may say to me “We don’t stock that here”. At the same time they may be thinking “why should I help you, are you aware I exist?”. They could even be dreaming “this man asking for a form will have a heart attack, after I resuscitate him everyone will burst out in applause. It was nothing I’ll tell the ambulance crew as they thank me, anyone would have done the same.”
This is why I love Berger. Few novelists make me think as much as he does.
At the village hall Corker gives his talk and the contrast between what he says (bogged down in tedious detail and irrelevancy) and what he wants to say (about how to live) is painful. As the evening draws on his desire to break the barrier between what he says and what he thinks grows ever stronger. His life is ordinary and yet has potential for glory within it, even if it would be glorious only to him, even if it would be absurd to everyone else. The same could be said for a great many people.
This is a book about the gap between surface and content. When Alec meets Jackie in the shop where she works she must maintain a pretence that he is just a customer. Nothing can hint at what happened between them the night before; of how he left that morning after a few hours sleep having eaten eggs she cooked for him. The world is expectation and compliance while out of sight there is passion and desire and beauty.
Corker’s freedom is freedom from his sister. It is freedom to think and to dream. It is freedom to live as he chooses. To live as a Viennese would even if not in Vienna. More than all of that though Corker’s freedom is something much more prosaic. Corker’s freedom is money.
Corker’s business is successful. He has his own premises with rooms above them. He can afford to go on holidays. He can afford to leave his sister. He can afford dreams because he may be able to afford to fulfil them. The difference between Corker and his audience at the church hall is not that he has dreams and they do not; it is that he can afford dreams and they cannot. Alec is the only exception, and his dreams are mostly of Jackie’s thighs.
There are times this is an extremely funny novel. Overall though it is suffused with melancholy and yearning. It’s daring in terms of structure and form and it’s provocative too. It’s not an unqualified success. I did get dangerously close to boredom, even irritation, during the first two-fifths or so, but I’m glad I read it and I’m glad too that Verso reissued it.
While writing this I found that Tom had covered it over at A Common Reader, here. Tom’s take is as ever well worth reading. I also came across a review in the New Statesman, here. Like Tom I received my copy of this book as a review freebie from Verso. Books like this are exactly why publishers like Verso are important.