In the mid 1970s John Berger began a new life—and a new family—in a small mountain village outside Geneva in the Haute-Savoie. He was close to fifty. At first he and Beverly Bancroft did not live in the village of Quincy itself, but up the road in an old farmhouse. The ground floor was an unused cow barn; in the kitchen an iron furnace burned coal and wood. Even so, the house was frigid in the winter. There was running water, but no way to heat it except on the stove. The toilet was in an outhouse across the driveway. There was no telephone. Upstairs Berger kept a study with a desk, typewriter and books; from the window the massif of Mont Blanc was visible in the distance. It was a short walk to the village, but there was no commerce there. The nearest grocer and post office were several miles down the main road along the river.

For some, the move was a retreat. It was seen by many as quixotic, Tolstoyan. Here was one of England’s most renowned leftists living in the French countryside when Thatcher was ascending to power, the welfare state crumbling, and coal miners out on strike. Whenever he visited London, which he did about once a year, there was always the inevitable question. "What are you doing over there," in one friend’s paraphrase, "with romantic ideas about peasants, when you should be over here at the sharp end of the class struggle?"

To others it was an aesthetic capitulation, a nostalgic turn away from the rigorous modernism of his novels. In a remarkable conversation—remarkable for its intimacy and frankness—commissioned in 1983 by Channel 4, a regal and silver-streaked Susan Sontag, sitting across a small table from Berger, continually pressed her friend on this point. "But haven’t you changed, John," she said again and again. Berger seemed taken aback. "Well, I have had to relearn how to write," he admitted, half reluctantly and half with a recalcitrant pride.

However native he may have gone in the foothills of the Alps, he of course always had the privilege of leaving, of travelling, of his education, of his friendship with important artists and publishers. Berger’s French, for that matter, remained faltering and heavily accented to the end. He was never more than an hour’s drive away from Geneva, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe, where his ex-wife and two grown children lived. And by the mid 1980s he was dividing his time between the Haute-Savoie and a suburb of Paris, where he had a new companion, the Ukrainian-born writer Nella Bielski, a woman Beverly shared him with.

Despite all this, the move to the country was anything but a caprice. Even those friends who could be skeptical—who may first have looked askance at what they saw as rural gentrification or fashionable country squatting—had to admit, once they visited, that he had indeed found a new and fitting home. Berger shared in the life of the village. He helped with the haymaking during harvest, visited the higher pastures when it was time for the cows to graze, accompanied woodcutters as they felled trees, picked the apples to be pressed into cider, and drank the gn˘le that was passed around at local celebrations. He participated in and was part of the gossip that made up the social fabric of the valley. He did not own land at first, choosing instead to rent his house from a neighboring farmer, who became a friend. "I feel at home here in a way I have felt nowhere else," he told an American journalist who made the pilgrimage in 1981. "Certainly not in England. I don’t feel French particularly, but I do feel at home in this village, accepted for who I am."

A retreat implies an escape—either to surrender or to rest. Berger did neither. If anything, the specter of the charge made him work harder: not only with his writing, but with all he did that was not at his desk. "I didn’t have a wish to get away," he said. "I had a wish to meet something. Yes, I had a wish to meet and know more about rural life. Not in contrast to urban life, or as a relief from urban life." And the very idea that the rural was, perforce, a getaway spoke to what he saw as the historical solipsism of the urban professional class.

The list of subjects he found in Millet, whose reputation he came to defend, constituted his own newly chosen chores: scything, sheep-shearing, splitting wood, potato-lifting, digging, shepherding, manuring, pruning. The French painter was not a sentimentalist, he argued, but an agitator stuck in a bourgeois form. And so disruptive was his desire to bring the "previously unpainted experience" of the peasantry into the gilt-framed tradition of the oil painting that any failure on his part only demonstrated the difficulty of the task. How to represent an experience so immediate to one class of people and so foreign to another? The viewer of the landscape would always be in front of what the farmer lived within.

"There is an inescapable kinship between farming and art," observed the American conservationist Wendell Berry, "for farming depends as much on character, devotion, imagination, and the sense of structure, as on knowledge. It is a practical art." In his first book on Renato Guttuso, Berger had noticed something similar. The extent to which the land in Italy had been worked, almost every acre of it ploughed or terraced, suggested to him a correspondence between the craftsmanship of husbandry and Guttuso’s own paintings, of which every inch had been similarly turned over. Landscape, in this sense, can be both a noun and a verb. "It is a large canvas, 2 by 3 meters," Berger wrote in his first novel, A Painter of Our Time (1958). "That is the equivalent of tilling 10 hectares."

If Berger spent his formative years drawing men at work, he was now drawn into the work itself.

His income came from his books, of course, but he now spent his days outside, working the land in the sun and rain, living the seasons along with his neighbors. "The best way to get to know peasants is not by talking but by doing things, working together," he said. "If you are, as I was, prepared to get dirty with them, clean stables and work the fields and so on—and do these things ludicrously badly, so that they are master and you the idiot—if you can do this, the distance can be overcome, a closeness felt." (A generation above him, the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil had advised something similar: it was only by spending "whole days doing exhausting work side-by-side peasants," she said, that they opened up and "heart-to-heart talks" became possible.) And the twin affects he sought out, as ancient as day and night, were the bodily sensations of effort and exhaustion.

In conversation Berger always said that A Seventh Man (1976) was the pivot. When researching that book, he spoke to hundreds of migrants from the southern peripheries of Europe: Portugal, Spain, Greece, Turkey. Almost all of the men had come north to work in factories or mines or public works. They lived on the outskirts of cities. The particulars of this new life, Berger said he could picture. But what they had left behind, the life of their parents and of their village, he said he could not. Nearly all of them were the sons of peasants. "When they talked, I realized a great deal of what they were feeling I couldn’t locate," he said. "I was ignorant. I wanted to try to get over that ignorance."

At the height of his international fame, after Ways of Seeing and the Booker prize, after a decade or more of restless travel, having only nominally been based in Geneva but without any real sense of permanence, after a crisis and a divorce, Berger found in the working life of Quincy not only a home but an anchor: a community.

Excerpted from A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger by Joshua Sperling. Copyright 2018 by Joshua Sperling. Published in November by Verso. All rights reserved.