From A to X by John Berger (2008) Verso (2008) 199 pp
John Berger has won the Booker before, in 1972, with G. His infamous acceptance speech is better remembered. Though my curiousity was leading me to read G someday, that day has just been pushed back since finishing From A to X. It wasn’t a bad book. In fact, there are some wonderful aspects to it. Nevertheless, it was enough to satisfy my desire to get to know Berger, at least for now.
Here is an example of a novel I like in theory but not in fact. It’s an epistolary novel: From A to X refers to letters sent from A’ida to her love Xavier (it is subtitled “Some letters recuperated by John Berger”). At the beginning, all we know is that Xavier is in a prison cell due to his accusation of “being a founder member of a terrorist network.” Because the book then just jumps into the letters, the reader must be willing to work pretty hard to get his or her bearings in the novel. This is not made any easier by the mind-numbing minutiae A’ida sometimes gives, delving into the quotidian. Nor is it made pleasant by A’ida’s lapses into sentimentality:
Eyes have only four or five official adjectives: brown, blue, hazel, green! The colour of your eyes is Xavier.
(The absent end stop at the end of that sentence is correct according to my copy).
However, within these letters are some rather beautiful passages, particularly those when A’ida gives her version of her relationship with Xavier before he was taken to prison. Rather than display her cheesy affection, she makes a believable case for why these two would remain lovers by post.
On the back of almost every letter Xavier has written something. Most of Xavier’s passages were annoying to me. I could just see Berger saying things like this at this years Booker Prize ceremony:
IMF WB GATT WTO NAFTA FTAA — their acronyms gag language, as their actions stifle the world.
Such declamatory statements are often silly, particularly when contrasted with passages where Xavier is quoting real people, like Fanon and Chavez.
These negative aspects of the novel aside (and, if you’re not careful, they’ll destroy the book for you as they almost did for me) I found the idea of the novel to be very satisfying. As we read these letters, which may or may not be in the right order, we see A’ida and Xavier age, and with that comes many changes. At first, A’ida writes letters about their marriage, which she’d like to take place soon after he is released. Before we know it, though, A’ida’s letters are more elegiac and look forward to the mere possibility that they will see each other again before death. The passage of time is unsettling given the context, and it’s the aspect of the novel that saved it for me.
I missed it on my first read, but the first letter in the book presents this theme of the passage of time:
The word recently has altered since they took you. Tonight I don’t want to write how long ago that was. The word recently now covers all that time. Once it meant a few weeks or the day before yesterday.
All in all, while I didn’t enjoy reading the book, I enjoyed ruminating about it when not reading it. I’m sure there’s a lot in it that would reward a second reading, which makes it a likely pick for the Booker shortlist, though I’d not put it on there in most years.