John Berger: From A to X

Before you read the book:

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 (2008, to be published in the U.S. next week).  It wasn’t a bad book – in fact, there are some wonderful aspects to it – but 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 sometimes 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.

After you read the book:

Ten Bookers down, two to go (I’m not going to read Gaynor Arnold’s Girl in a Blue Dress).  When I’m done, I’ll return the content to this section of my review.

23 thoughts on “John Berger: From A to X

  1. Can’t say I’m sold on this one I’m afraid Trevor, one can enjoy ruminating about many things but you didn’t actually enjoy reading it, which is a bit of a flaw in a novel really.

    And the acronym rant you quote, that is very tired stuff. I read (and sometimes comment on) the Guardian’s blog section in the UK, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen stuff like that, it isn’t as original as those posting it often seem to think.

    One thing, A’ida? What’s with the random apostrophe? Is it just a wholly made up name? It seems very jarring to me, do you think it’s an intentional distancing device or deliberately jarring or does John Berger merely feel the apostrophe is sadly underused in contemporary literature?

  2. Max, I wondered if the book could be classified as “good” just because of the idea behind it. I had to conclude: no. There are so many books that do both, so this book failed in that way.

    And I agree totally about the acronym quote! Many of Xavier’s quotes, when he isn’t quoting someone else, are pretty awful. I like a good “voice from the dissent” book, but thoughtless, cliched ranting is a waste of time.

    Now, the name A’ida didn’t bother me too much. I think it was an inauthentic attempt to make the character seem foreign and exotic. I don’t think it was successful, but it didn’t stunt my reading – there were plenty of other things that did that.

  3. KevinfromCanada says:

    Trevor: I’m still waiting for my copy of this book to arrive so I read your review with interest. As a reader who hasn’t seen the book, I would like to salute you for an excellent review. You have given me some things to watch out for (both positive and negative). You have been more than generous in opening up the potential of the book. And you have been honest about where that potential was not realized, at least for you.

    For me, this review could serve as an ideal model of what a good look at a book should be. Thanks. I can’t wait for it to arrive and then, of course, I will probably disagree on several points.

  4. Kevin, thanks for your kind words about my review. I had a difficult time with this one, so I’m glad it served its purpose.

    I look forward to your disagreement as I’m sure it will enhance my experience with the book!

  5. KevinfromCanada says:

    The post office van pulled up a moment after I submitted my post. So, paying attention to your review, I made myself breakfast and then settled in. I am about to start letter packet three but have taken some time off to ruminate, as your review suggests. It hurts me to say it, but I haven’t found anything to disagree with yet — I will work very hard on that in the last part of the book.

    As for previous comments about “A’ida”. Given that all the variant spellings of al Qaeda are versions of al Qaida, don’t we think that might be a clue? I certainly do.

  6. You’ve really sped through the book then, Kevin!

    About your al Quaida insight: I didn’t consider it. I think it is very relevant, though it doesn’t make the book anything more impressive to me.

    I look forward to your ultimate verdict!

  7. KevinfromCanada says:

    Like you, I liked the idea of this book and found the execution lacking. On my first read, it didn’t seem to be about anything. So I ruminated a bit and had a second go.

    The following ruminations are probably a SPOILER for anyone who hasn’t read the book and are just a hypothesis that I may well be rejecting in a day or two.

    Three things I couldn’t understand:
    – the opening statement about the found letters not being in chronological order (although I found no obvious mixed up chronology in the reading)
    – the unsent letters, which do seem to have more political activity in them than the found ones
    – the drawings, which don’t seem to add anything or have meaning until we meet the enigma of X’s own drawing on the final page.

    So here’s my hypothesis: X wrote the found letters to himself as a way of creating the beat of regularity referred to in the final pages of the book. They were his survival technique, creating at least a mental world in which he had a place. The chronology issue arises because he did not necessarily write them in chronological order.

    A’ida does exist — the unsent letters were in fact written by her and do describe real events.

    Give the last 30 pages of the book a read from that point of view. You’ll find some hints (mostly about time) that offer some support for the hypothesis. Note also how X’s own contributions change as the book draws to a close and start to relate a little more to the found letters. (It was the note on page 178 about the bouquet of clocks that started me off on this tangent.) And there is also a reference in one of them to the temperature being several degrees below zero after it has been in the 40s throughout most of A’s letters — which suggests to me the world of X’s mind in the letters he is writing to himself is a long way from where his body is.

    As I said, by noon tomorrow I may be regarding all of this cud-chewing as badly in need of yet more rumination, but for now it makes the good idea of the book somewhat more palatable in the delivery.

  8. Aagh, my detailed post was eaten by the internet.

    Anyway, here goes another take.

    Al Quaeda does indeed have multiple spellings, as it is taken from the Arabic and so is originally not in our script.

    Some Arabic origin names experience the same effect. For example, Ayse, Aisha, Ayesha, Aise, these are all the same name though differently transcribed in our alphabet.

    A’Ida though as best I can tell is wholly made up (cue someone posting now to correct me by referencing centuries of people named A’Ida). If therefore the point is to draw a parallel with Al Quaida I think it’s a somewhat quixotic choice, as in order to criticise Western neo-Colonialism (as he would see it) he is assigning a made up exotic name to someone of another culture.

    That smacks to me in that instance of Orientalism, of exoticising the other, it also seems odd to criticse the colonisation of people’s countries while yourself failing to recognise them as real people rather than object lessons.

    All that aside, I admit the occasional fashion in literary fiction for giving characters bizarrely unlikely names is one of my personal bugbears. If the goal is to create a distance between the reader and the novel, I think there are more skilful ways of doing that. Otherwise, I think it mostly just lends the novel an air of needless artificiality and acts as a jarring barrier to immersion.

    The Al Q’aida point is a good one, I think you may well be right Kevin, but if anything it makes me less sympathetic to his naming choice for A’Ida, not more.

    Interesting discussion though, you have definitely both shed light on the book for me.

  9. KevinfromCanada says:

    Max: I’m tending to agree with you on your critique of my earlier thoughts about the origin of A’ida. Mainly because of my later post about approaching this book from a different point of view. I still think my original thought is worth considering — I’d also agree that it is an idea that probably should be rejected.

    I’m going to try to post on the Man Booker theme for this book my guidelines for How Kevin reads Berger. You might want to take a look, and are certainly welcome to disagree totally.

  10. KevinfromCanada says:

    One other thing, Max. The character in the book is A’ida (like the opera) not A’lda which I agree is totally made up, except for the ex-star of MASH and I certainly don’t think that was Borger’s reference.

  11. Kevin, I just read your thoughts on the book on the Man Booker website’s discussion board. Excellent thoughts! I especially liked your insight that Berger is a 600 pages novelist who writes 200 page books.

    At any rate, you are helping me appreciate the execution of the book more, which is really one of my big hangups with the book. Still think I like it more in rumination than in reading, but you’ve started pushing me toward a second read.

  12. KevinfromCanada says:

    Trevor: Keep ruminating. There is much more on your agenda right now, but when there is not, I guarantee a return to this book will be worthwhile. And it definitely makes more sense to wait until you are ready rather than try to force the issue.

    Your review indicated you had not read Berger before. Part of my comment on the other site — and my very long comment on this one — was to suggest to people that if they want to take this author on, they have to respect the challenge. Personally, I find it is rewarded, but I also recognize that the number of people who start a book knowing that they probably have to read it three times is probably pretty small. Given your thoughts on other books, I do think you would find To The Wedding (it is another 600 page novel produced in 200 pages) would reward your time when it was open.

    On another matter, I was finally reading the Aug. 14 edition of the New York Review of Books and couldn’t help but notice that The Day of the Owl headed off their Summer Suspense Collection of three novels. I don’t have the titles of the other two handy but wonder if you have read them as well and have any thoughts. I figured they looked quite different (ranking #1 and #14 on Men’s Journal’s top thrillers of all time is not really a recommendation for me) but wanted to keep an open mind. If all that is Greek to you, put up a post and I’ll give you the titles, authors and translators.

  13. I will definitely take you up on that challenge to read more of Berger and to respect the work. I am afraid that this whole reading the longlist thing has stunted my reading, and my evaluation of the last books is going to be very low just because I couldn’t wait to finish them. I expected to like Sea of Poppies much more than I did (review to come up on Monday), and forcing my way through The Northern Clemency is, as I know you know, a major chore. Consequentially, I just can’t wait to get this thing over with so I can approach books on my own terms. I wasn’t expecting this to happen to me this year; in years past I’ve never had a major problem working through a list.

    As far as the other two books on the New York Review of Books go, I saw the two you’re talking about: Red Lights by Georges Simenon and Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. I have not read them, but they looked very interesting to me. In fact, after reading more about Red Lights I thought that Simenon would be an author I’d like to get to know very soon; in fact, his other novels looked even more interesting than Red Lights: Dirty Snow, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, The Strangers in the House, Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, and The Engagement all looked more appealing to me than Red Lights. I haven’t read a word of any of them, but this happens to be one of the reasons I’m anxious to get through this Booker longlist, which, thankfully, is going to be very soon!

  14. KevinfromCanada says:

    The only reason to finish The Northern Clemency is out of feality to a pledge to read all books (and you and I have both used living in North America to excuse ourself from the Arnold). It is a dreadful book. I don’t normally advocate cheating, but would definitely consider it in this case.

    Thanks for your comments on the other two NYRB Books. Given the price break on ordering all three (and I am certainly not price sensitive), I’m thinking I’ll take a shot. I don’t always agree with the NYRB but they tend to be right more often than wrong. Just the fact that they chose to group them piques my interest — particularly since your review of The Day of Owl makes it sound like a most interesting book.

    And, without causing you to groan too much, you can consider that for me the Man Booker longlist is just a warm-up. The Giller Prize longlist for Canadian novels is released Sept. 15 and that’s when my real work starts.

  15. Kevin, I’m thrilled to have your insight while the Giller prize longlist is in session. I’ve never followed it at all, though I think its jury is a bit more of my style than the Booker’s was this year. What winners and shortlisters from the Giller Prize do you recommend to give me a tantalizing taste?

    (And while I’m being faithful with The Northern Clemency my mind is not following it well. If I cheat, I’ll disclose it in my review – which cheating would be a bit of a review in and of itself.)

  16. KevinfromCanada says:

    Trevor: This is probably going to be a long reply, boring to others on the post, but what the heck.

    I would be happy to provide Giller recommendations but they may have to wait for a few weeks. I’ve been grumpy about the Giller in the last few years. Two winners were short story collections (The Runaway by Alice Munro and Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam); they are both fine books, but I admit I am not a short story fan, don’t read many of them and don’t feel qualified to either recommend or dismiss them. Last year’s winner, Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay, is a fine book but I don’t think it would travel well — set in Yellowknife, it is mainly about the modern frontier experience and you need a knowledge of the CBC to truly experience it.

    Your comment has, however, moved up two other books on my re-read list. Clara Callan by Richard Wright won the Giller in 2001 and Netherland caused me to think I should give it another read. The book is an exchange of letters between sisters — one in New York where she is a soap opera radio star, the other in the Ottawa River Valley (all this in the 1930s). I quite liked it when it was published — I’ll give it another read and see if it has stood up to the last seven years. I’m also planning to reread The In-Between Life of Vikram Lall by M. G. Vassanji which won in 2003. Vassanji is topical now because his latest book (The Assassin’s Song) is just being released in the U.K. — it is not a good book. When he is good, Vassanji is very, very good — when he is bad, he is horrid. Again, I’ll send more thoughts later.

    I note your interest in translated work and wonder if you have ever run into Nancy Huston. She was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta (that’s where I live) and moved to Paris in her teens which is where she is now. She writes most, but not all, of her work in French and then does her own translation. She is very, very successful in France — has won the Prix Gencourt, Prix Femina, etc. — and routinely sells hundreds of thousands of copies there. Alas, her English translations get little attention. Her most recent book, Fault Lines (and it is the one I would point you too) sold more than 400,000 copies in 2005 in France and won the Prix Femina — but won’t be published in the U.S. until Oct. 1 this year. I thought it was an excellent book (albeit with flaws) — Google it and check out the Guardian review, which I think is quite fair. It does strike me as your kind of book and I think Huston is a very good author.

    And finally, given your interest in NYRB Classics (which I both share and salute), have you looked at John Williams? He only wrote three novels in his life — Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner, which NYRB publish, and Augustus: A Novel, which is still in commercial publication. I ran into his name in an NYRB article and was ashamed that I had never heard of him. Ordered and read all three and think he may be one of America’s most under-rated authors ever. The three books are dramatically different — although I would rank the first two with Stegner if I was making comparisons. Augustus is totally different but also very good. My wife and I are fans of Rome (the HBO-BBC) epic and this novel actually picks up where the TV series left off. I’ve now loaned it to four different people who loved the series and like the book equally well. It is completely different from his other two books (I don’t think Stegner could have script written Rome) but all three books are very good. It is most interesting to me to run into a writer who wrote so little, wrote so differently and, most important, wrote so well.

    I’m sure your to-be-read pile is high, just thought I would see if I could make it higher.

  17. You’re right, Kevin. My to-be-read pile is high and growing; yet I welcome enthusiastically your recommendations. I’m especially interested in Nancy Huston and John Williams now. I’d never heard of Nancy Huston. And John Williams has only come up as I’ve perused the NYRB books.

    I look forward to more of your recommendations. It’s nice to be connected with people who like similar books. It’s easy to find “classics” and current bestsellers. But I’m always looking for more of what I’d consider modern classics that are almost forgotten. I find them to be so rewarding, so thanks for the recommendations!

  18. KevinfromCanada says:

    I’m happy to have piqued your interest, and hopefully that of others as well. If and when you get time for either Huston and/or Williams, I think you will find it well invested. Neither is a perfect novelist, but both are worth reading.

  19. Colette Jones says:

    I hadn’t thought much about the apostrophe in the name while reading the book but when I saw mention of it here, I am more inclined to see it as an abbreviation of the small Majorcan town of Algaida rather than Al Qaeda / Al Quaida.

    (I’m Ang from Man Booker forum).

  20. KevinfromCanada says:

    Colette: Thanks so much for that last note — I think it makes great sense. We have exchanged thoughts on the MB forum and this last observation really helps me in my interpretation. I do see a distance between A’ida (who I think is real — I just don’t think she wrote the sent letters, but did write the unsent ones) and the prison (which I do think is somewhere else). Placing her — and the actions those sent letters describe — in Majorca makes great sense.

  21. Kevin I have mentioned your patent Berger reading method on my blog post about From A to X tomorrow and can’t thank you enough for it. I loved the book first time round and said so a while back , then read Sam Leith’s rather vitriolic review in The Daily Telegraph and started questioning quite why I’d enjoyed this book so much. I’m mid-re-read using your new set of assumptions and know I’ve found a writer in Berger who I will read much more of.I liken the gaps and silences to the writing style of Penelope Fitzgerald who invented less is more I think!
    Re The Giller Prize I do try and tap into that because I love CanLit and reviewed Vincent Lam’s book on the blog a few year’s ago.I was sad that it never really took off here in the UK. BTW I have The Northern Clemency down as one of my best Booker Longlist reads so far, perhaps you need to have lived it to love it:-)

  22. KevinfromCanada says:

    dovegreyreader: Thank you very much for the kind thoughts — I will check out your post tomorrow and leave a comment. I do think the comparison with Penelope Firzgerald is quite appropriate. She is a little more accessible on the first read — it is only the second and third time through that you really come to appreciate what it is about, although you don’t usually have to make the kind of stretch that Berger requires. Isn’t it amazing how good a book can be the second time through when your mind starts looking at it starting with a totally different set of assumptions?

Leave a Reply