If you could sit down for an hour or two with a writer or two - not necessarily novelists - living or dead, who would you choose?
I'd go for George Orwell and art historian and critic John Berger. Their writing styles are similar, both deceptively straightforward but with their own sense of directness and a sensitive simplicity. And they're similar in other ways.
Orwell came to maturity as a writer in the era of growing fascist dominance (he was badly wounded fighting against Spanish Nationalist forces) which he commented on at length while maintaining a genuine concern for the lot of working people (from his essay 'Down the Mine, for example: " It is impossible to watch the ‘fillers’ at work without feeling a pang of envy for their toughness. It is a dreadful job that they do, an almost superhuman job by the standard of an ordinary person. For they are not only shifting monstrous quantities of coal, they are also doing, it in a position that doubles or trebles the work. They have got to remain kneeling all the while — they could hardly rise from their knees without hitting the ceiling — and you can easily see by trying it what a tremendous effort this means." )
Berger's field was, to begin with, art criticism, approached from a social perspective then almost unknown, as in pointing out that the rise in popularity of Dutch oil painting coincides with the growing wealth of the merchant class and their desire for a permanent and ostentatious display of their purchasing power and possessions (noting that the chief characteristic of oil paints is the ability to capture an almost photographic tactility, whether of the fruit and flowers of still life studies that adorned the walls of bourgeoisie interiors , or the flesh of compliant female nudes). From there Berger progressed to a decades-long study of and involvement in the last vestiges of peasant life in rural France, which produced e a trilogy of novels written in the open style of his art criticism.
In his 'Looking at Animals', Berger describes the distance that, since the nineteenth century. has opened between ourselves and the animals upon which we were once so reliant (and, at least for food, still are),and of how most of us today have no immediate contact with animals other than pets entirely reliant upon owners for food and, so often, for exercise. In an almost throwaway remark he comments that within this divide may lie the roots of fascism...
Oh gosh, I would love to talk with Dante – about his spiritual love for Beatrice and his feeling that he had lost his way in the complicated world of medieval Florence. Something happened at that time to make him change his muse from courtly love to holding the woman up as a paragon of virtue and salvation, a Christ. I would love to get him to explain about his notion of the logical conclusions of sin which would be suffered in Hell, and why he chose Hell to be freezing cold instead of boiling hot, and to ask did he really believe those evil characters were in Hell or actually resting in peace until Judgement Day.