I had heard of but never read anything by John Berger and sometimes this becomes one of the plus points of a Bookerthon read, finding an author you've always meant to read and now 'have' to.
From A to X a Story in Letters has been the quietly powerful book on the list for me this year. It should be a book utterly savage with anger and revenge as A'ida writes to Xavier as he languishes in prison serving a lengthy sentence for insurgency, but it is one infused with something quite different and thereby special.
There are ways around anger and John Berger finds them.
Our very own Mark Thwaite (as in he that sort of belongs to the blogworld but is making his way in the world of print review now, good on yer Mark) is quoted on the cover of the book asserting that John Berger is one of our finest writers, and one to cherish, and it would be hard to disagree with that on the strength of this book. John Berger art critic, novelist and painter and an analyst of the visual image in his seminal art theory book, Ways of Seeing. Perhaps equally renowned for winning the Booker in 1972 and donating a chunk of the cash to the Black Panther Party, if he wins this year, well who knows?
More fictional letters in From A to X and they seem to be featuring in my reading lately and are certainly a great way of telling a story in intimate and uncluttered detail and there is no clutter here as A'ida's love for Xavier is pronounced in the most heartfelt and emotionally expressive form. It's the highly favoured gaps and silences that work so forcefully and the slightly elusive comments from Xavier on the reverse of each letter, thought association and a silent one-way conversation with A'ida (and one that she never sees which adds to the effect) and the reader in the process. Like Penelope Fitzgerald, John Berger doesn't patronise his reader, endless work left to be done and I did it, there's an afterburn to this book which glows warm long after the final page.
There's a danger that fictional letters can tip over the sentimental edge and that happened slightly for me with the recent read of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a sprinkling of saccharine and the credibility dissipates. John Berger as you might expect doesn't go there, and for that reason these letters touch the heart with a greater depth and sincerity, a degree of skill that must be the envy of many a writer.
It's a fine balance and perhaps writing at the age of eighty-two gives you something of an edge there, a lifetime lived and with it the experience; all that hindsight, insight and clear sight put to supremely good use in this book.
I assume you'd expect an artist who also writes about art to have a head start in the ability to set up the visual imagery via words and do it just as well as they can can with paints, and this knowledge of John Berger gained after the read somehow explained the skill I knew had stood out for me in From A to X.
Determined and subversive, A'ida continues the struggle on the outside, her love for Xavier unwavering, fierce yet tender and the imagery with which it is defined is constant and remarkable. I can't quote from the proof but nothing but nothing is going to diminish A'ida's abiding love and loyalty to both her man and their shared cause or her ability to convey this too him via her letters.
I was unprepared for the fact that I would find this book quite so exquisite and it all left me desperate to read Xavier's non-existent letters in response, occasionally hinted at but never shared.
From A to X probably the surprise good read on this year's longlist for me, well-deserving of its place and at the rate I'm going with the rest this is another absolute certainty for my shortlist.