It's been nothing short of a revelation to read all the other Booker longlist reviews in the light of my own findings as I consider the books for my shortlist, and none more so than From A to X by John Berger.
I have no history whatsoever to fall back on here, I knew next to zilch about John Berger and have never read him before so I brought nothing with me to this book, not a single pre-conceived idea, no assumptions, no comparisons waiting in the wings, no knowledge of previous Booker ceremony behaviour.
Blank canvas me, I just opened the book and read and let the words paint whatever impression they chose.Several other longlist books have fallen between those identical goalposts, been read likewise and failed to score.
However, once I turned the final page of From A to X I had that rare readerly feeling that happens now and again. This was hardly emperor's new clothes from an 82 year old writer, this was a book with a depth that I had barely skimmed, but I knew it was there. I knew for certain that I was swimming in reading waters where my feet would be a long time touching the bottom. This book was going to be on my shortlist that was for sure.
'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.'
However I needed to be absolutely sure of my ground once I'd read this piece by Sam Leith in The Daily Telegraph because his opinion of the book stunned me into silence (unusual) and I quote,
'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...there's a name for this sort of thing, and it's "b******s".'
Sam clearly didn't like this book then, perhaps knows far more about John Berger's writing than I do, but the depth of his dislike meant I needed to have a rethink. Had I been duped by a load of sentimental old rubbish?
So I pondered again at length and some, and I knew I disagreed with Sam Leith from the depths of my heart but how to put my finger on why? I can't even begin to say except that I think it's the old different drum scenario and if you pick up the beat and your heart pulses in time with a book something inexplicable happens. Amongst other things this might be why I'm a bog-standard Health Visitor and not the Literary Editor of The Daily Telegraph, because how helpful to all of you is 'inexplicable'?
There's some classy debate on the Booker site about From A to X and I can only commend to you the interpretation of the book advanced by someone called Kevin who I'm assuming lives in Canada.
Kevin is a self-confessed lover of Berger's writing and he has gently lifted the veil on this book for me with his suggestion that it is well worth the effort to read John Berger at least three times and hold a different set of rules in your head each time. Like Penelope Fitzgerald and as Kevin agrees, John Berger writes the 600 page book in 200 and leaves much work for his reader to do and Kevin helpfully offers a different set of reading rules. So just to be certain about the book's dovegreyreader shortlist status I even opted to read From A to X again taking in those suggestions.I am midway through my second read which I hardly have time for this week, but I actually have all the time in the world for this book as it gathers a power between its covers that is reading dynamite.
Now I read back over my earlier thoughts and merge them with my latest ones and I see that I could have been tantalisingly close but not quite as I tried to pin down that slippery idea of the ' silent one-way conversation'. This is a book, like my first Penelope Fitzgerald The Bookshop, that leaves me breathless and hyperventilating on the edge of discovering a writer who I think I may like for what they don't write as much as for what they do. I will now read as much of John Berger as I can find.
It stays firmly on my shortlist of course and names in comments for the chance of a prize-draw copy of From A to X thanks to publishers Verso. Decide for yourself whether it's b******s or brilliant.