“Can you tell me where the island of Lidingo is? I want to go there, if it isn’t too far.”
“It will take at most an hour,” he said. “There’s a meadow filled with wild strawberries and lilacs and just beyond it, near the bridge, you’ll see a pond with ducks and swans.”
“The name of the house I want is. . . . . ”
“Here it is, where I am putting the red mark.”
I found the meadow and the pond, and was walking quickly over the grass after looking at the swans. Ahead of me a man was ambling along, gesturing vehemently with his whole body, spinning around and talking loudly. Just as I was about to catch up to him, he cried out “The coulter rusts that should deracinate such savagery!” in rapid German. Bertholt Brecht was taking his daily walk.
He stopped and gazed at me.
“Have you a message for me?” he asked .
“No,” I said. “I’ve come to see you.”
“Oh,” he said, again in German. “I was expecting a message from Zurich and I told them at home where I would be walking, so I thought. . . . . ”
“I can’t tell you,” I said, “how much of an influence your writing has had on me.”
“The fact is,” said Brecht when we had walked on a little way and in answer to my questions, “that I’d be embarrassed to tell you how many things I have not written. They’re up here.” He raised his hat. “Sometimes you work something out so fully that the peace you seek from writing comes from working it all out in your head. And sometimes that peace can take away the desire to actually write it.” Thus mused Brecht in the Swedish summer of his exile.
“In my own experience,” I said, “I’ve found that sometimes I get strength from writing and sometimes I need strength to write.”
We went through an iron gate. The drive wound among trees and then forked, one branch leading to a large house. “That is ours,” said Brecht. He waved to two women and some children waiting at the door.
I asked him if he was pleased with the opening night reception of Mother Courage and Her Children.
“Oh no! The audience was moved to tears.”
“They really got it then?”
“No. They didn’t get a thing. The whole thing is an artificial construction. I wanted them to be aware of the artifice of theater, to be drained of sympathy or empathy for the characters. I wanted them to think about the implication of Mother Courage: there is this war going on that’s going to go on forever. Don’t cry! Think! It’s like when they laugh and laugh at the stuff in my plays that attacks the filthy rich. It gives them the feeling of being superior to themselves. Don’t laugh! It’s you I’m pointing at.”
I would have gone inside with Brecht but he asked me not to.
“In 30 years John Berger will write something that I’ve taken very much to heart,” Brecht said.
“If, while fully conscious of death, we could concentrate our entire attention upon life, what we experienced would acquire the quality of a work of art.”
“Try writing with that in mind,” said Brecht. “And see what it does to your style.”
Then he turned away and went into the house with the two women and the children.