Saturday, August 09, 2008

John Berger's From A to X

The problem is in the deep phoniness of the whole conception: its gross sentimentality (all faceless oppressors and noble peasants); its intoxication with its own portentousness.
Sam Leith's review of John Berger's Man Booker Prize longlisted From A to X - the first I've seen - comes as a relief. In the time since reading the novel, I've wondered if I had missed something. Even if the source of his antagonism is the Telegraph's fusty politics, Leith's final line, reminiscent of an impatient blogger, is not unfair. So why on earth has the prize committee chosen this very unsatisfying novel for the longlist? Is it for political or literary reasons?

In the past I've been asked if my own antagonism towards Ian McEwan's fiction is due to one rather than the other but, despite wishing to explain more fully how in this case they're inseparable, I've been unable to swim in the dead sea of Establishment Literary Fiction. However, you won't find Berger dining with Laura Bush at 10 Downing Street. His political commitment is appreciated by Arundhati Roy and Harold Pinter. And, unlike McEwan's stiflingly formal approach, From A to X takes a relatively challenging form, refusing the gifts of elaborate scene setting, characterisation and plot. Perhaps against expectations, this refusal is what makes the novel so easy to read.

The bulk of the book is a collection of short letters to Xavier, a life-term prisoner, from A'ida, his partner on the outside. We're able to read them because, as “J.B.” informs us in the foreword, they were discovered in an otherwise empty cell in a condemned prison. The personal nature of the letters means readers feel at home despite the hasty exit of the hand-holding reporter. An illicit quality to the reading experience remains even after he has, as it were, given permission to read. But there's also an aura of mystery because, as A'ida can assume Xavier's knowledge of family and friends, work and politics, we cannot place them with a definite political arena. We are compelled to withhold judgement as we await a deeper understanding and engagement. For these reasons, each reader becomes a witness to an intimate fortitude and thereby sympathise with A'ida's hopes and fears. However, this has the downside of placing extra pressure on the quality of the letters. Unfortunately, what they lack in a fully-fleshed background, they make up for in weightless anecdotes and vague folk wisdom.

A'ida's first letter opens with a question about her last parcel before moving on swiftly to an evocation of the bucolic ambience of her freedom: a blue sky, a braying donkey, “the rustling noise of a shovel turning cement”. She even adds a postscript about a chameleon climbing down a tree:
They way they can twist their pelvises – their very small pelvises have iliac crests like ours but they swivel differently on the backbone – is comic and handy. They can plant their weight, at the same moment, on a vertical wall and horizontal floor! For negotiating certain difficulties we might learn from them, don't you think?
This might be forgiven as a nervous, formal start; perhaps A'ida is unused to writing letters. But this is unlikely for a pharmacist and for someone who uses words like “iliac” and fussily precise adjectives such as “comic and handy”. And the book goes on like this. A'ida begins a letter with another question: “Remember the three pickled snakes in jars in the shop window of the pharmacy?”. There is no doubt to the answer because we're soon given more unnecessary detail: “A grass snake, an aspic adder and an adder with a wider mouth.” Another anecdote demonstrating their people's inexhaustible virtue follows. The reader's faith is broken as sweet pity becomes saccharine.

The lack of distance between the qualities and the problems of From A to X suggests a certain amount of authorial trust in the choice of the epistolary form. The explicitly-flagged nobility of these activists against state power must be gained through an equivalent trust from readers; by allowing another to speak without interruption or a given frame, even if it is not a speaking to us. Rational discourse is set aside. Otherness is irreducible even in the free space of the imagination. But here, if the demand for trust is indeed the intention, Berger is asking for too much of the form. The letters comprising Antonio Tabucchi's It's Getting Later All the Time develop a similar aura of smugness around the regular use of the rhetorical "Do you remember...?". The more precarious device Tabucchi uses in his wonderful Declares Pereira (the title-switch here is deliberate by the way) might confirm this. Perhaps aware of the danger, between A'ida's interminable letters Berger scatters notes made by Xavier. These consist of political facts, dreams, anecdotes, quotations and more folk wisdom. In the final note Xavier remarks on the similarity of precariousness of their situation twenty years before and the precariousness of the situation now: "this is strangely reassuring in face of what we are up against today, for it suggests precariousness is our strength." This is perhaps also this fiction's futile hope.


  1. Anonymous9:03 am

    Flattered you've picked up on my review, and that you're in agreement. I'd like to protest, though, that the "fusty politics" of the paper I work for have nothing to do with why I think Berger's book fails as fiction...

  2. Thanks Sam. I meant that line for readers who might assume that is the reason for the negative review (and who might then inform me so with a patronising comment). I had hoped "Even if..." would indicate its unlikelihood.

  3. Anonymous10:40 am


    Is there a source for this McEwan/Laura Bush dinner date - I can't find one on Ellis's blog.

    Serious question.

  4. Google it and you'll find reference to it here:
    It doesn't say whether he accepted or declined the invitation.

    By the way, I should add that I am not offended by such a meeting. My use of Ellis' blog was to emphasise the distance between McEwan and Berger, enough to suggest my response to their work is literary rather than political.

  5. Anonymous12:03 pm

    Great. Thanks for this.

    The article says:

    'The man who was last year invited to Downing Street by Cherie Blair to meet American's first lady - who said she keeps a McEwan novel by her bedside - found himself detained for four hours before being turned back.'

    So like you say, all we really know is that he was invited.

    But Ellis says that 'While 100,000 people marched through central London protesting against the visit of the warmonger Bush, McEwan was enjoying the reception at Number 10 for the President and his wife.'

    But was he?

  6. I think if he had declined, the report would have mentioned it, particularly as it might have been considered revelant (albeit indirectly) to the detention story.

    Perhaps Ellis can supply the other information though it's not relevant to this post's point.

    Maybe Ellis is offering playful homage by using unlikely but poetic coincidence as McEwan himself does in Saturday ...

  7. Anonymous12:57 pm

    Playful homage - well, who knows?

    But yes, this is really off topic.

    I will try to find out why people assume that McEwan accepted this invitation when there appears to be no evidence that he did; and why he was barred from the US if the President's wife is such a huge fan.

    Thanks for your response.

  8. Anonymous6:29 pm

    I agree that this is off topic but this may interest you Max Dunbar---

    'MRS. BUSH: I'll come talk to the press for a minute and tell you what a wonderful time we're having on our trip here. ... We've met a lot of new friends. Today, at 10 Downing Street, Mrs. Blair invited authors, some of my favorite authors, English authors, to have a chance to meet, and that was really a thrill for me. I met writers whose works I've admired for years, Tom Stoppard, Ian McEwan, whose book, "Atonement," I just read.'

  9. I've been away, and have only just caught up with this.

    I hope Max Dunbar is now satisfied that McEwan did indeed have lunch with Laura Bush. If he isn’t, he could always take the advice he once dished out to someone else in connection with McEwan: “Why not email him and ask?”

    In view of Dunbar’s passionate concern for accuracy perhaps he would now retract the bizarre assertion made on his blog (Jan 25), accusing me of “claiming without evidence that McEwan spent the eve of war at an official dinner with George W Bush.” I have never claimed any such thing. Dunbar is patently confusing two quite separate dates and occasions.

    McEwan was refused entry to the USA by a border official in Washington State on the grounds that he was arriving to give a paid lecture and lacked the appropriate work visa. I guess the official had never heard of McEwan and was unaware that this would become a major news story.

    On his blog Dunbar charmingly describes my review of On Chesil Beach as “completely insane”. I can only suggest that readers compare my review with his and decide for themselves which of us has something worth saying and worth reading:

  10. Anonymous8:28 pm

    Stephen: I'd like to point you to my comments about this book on the Man Booker discussion group blog concerning it. I think you might find that most of your objections would disappear if you followed my assumptions about the book. I'm think Berger "got" both you and sam leith.


  11. Thanks Kevin. I did see the link from DGR's site. From what I read on the thread, you have a different approach to reading - looking for clues for interpretation as if it's a crime scene. I have to read the book according to how it asks to be read. Speculating on how it *might* be interpreted is potentially endless. You ask "what if Xavier wrote himself letters about the outside world and then stored them in his Marlboro's cartons on the cell wall instead"? - Well if he did, it doesn't make the letters any less cringeworthy.

    Also, the "assumptions" you say we should set aside are those provided by the "John Berger" introduction. If there is another truth behind these letters, it is buried to the point of invisibility. As I said, if the lack of a background is about enabling others to speak and for us to listen without judgement, then perhaps it is a challenging book. But even if this is right or you're alternative readings are right (though right and wrong are essentially irrelevant here), on a local level the novel remains dreadfully sentimental. This is the main, overwhelming problem and will never disappear.

  12. Anonymous4:00 pm

    Point taken and accepted.



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