From A to X by John Berger

Reading John Berger’s attentive stories of friendship, oppression and love induces in me a languor, comparable to that of sitting on a beach late at night, food eaten and wine drunk, raging fire ablaze, listening to a storyteller. Something in his depiction of inanimate objects, with so clearly an artist’s eye, slows the pace, evokes that staring into timeless night that comes with sitting on a beach past midnight.

They [blackcurrants] stain your fingers red, the blackcurrants, and their taste, not their colour, is black, black and marine, like the taste of something living on the seabed. A sea urchin or some other echinoderms might have the same taste, though it would be less strong, less pungent.

Like Nabokov, I am no enthusiast for epistolary novels. In From A to X we are offered up ‘some letters recuperated by John Berger’. Writing of the ‘easy epistolary form’ in Mansfield Park, Nabokov wrote, “This is a sure sign of a certain weariness on the part of the author when she takes recourse in such an easy form”. But this is John Berger, an author whose shopping list I would read if offered. The typical challenges of the epistolary novel are present in Berger’s book: a lack of narrative propulsion, and the unreal nature of many elements of the letters, reminding the recipient of his personal history.

Berger chooses to keep ambiguous the identity of the oppressor, or the crime(s) that earned two life sentences for Xavier, the recipient of A’ida’s letters. The setting, hinted at in Xavier’s notes – a device to allow Berger to be present in the narrative – is non-specific, a fictional Middle Eastern/Central American setting. It is possible to drift through, drowsily admiring the beauty of much of the prose, without truly engaging in the story.

If From A to X interests you, there are very many proper reviews, from the enthusiastic to the uncomplimentary. Take your choice.

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Where shall I begin? The very begininning: the title The Penelopiad suggests spoof, comedic writing, not my favourite literary feeding ground. Why not the Penelopesian Wars? But I enjoy Margaret Atwood’s books, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake are serious, intelligent, subtle works. I blamed the marketing department at Knopf Canada for the title. The slaughter of the maids and mutilation of Melanthius is the brutal conclusion to a story I have been reading on and off for twenty years. After the block of the title, I expected much from Atwood: a feminist reading of Penelope’s story (putting aside Butler’s theory that The Odyssey was written by a woman) – a brilliant idea.

I didn’t completely dislike Atwood’s story, just found it wanting, compared to her other books. The humour lacked subtlety. Describing the race Odysseus won to secure Penelope as his wife, Atwood writes:

He cheated. […] He mixed the wine of the other contestants with a drug that slowed them down, though not so much as they would notice; to Odysseus he gave a potion that had the opposite effect. [So far, so good …] I understand that this sort of thing has become a tradition, and is still practised in the world of the living when it comes to athletic contests.

A single movement: my eyes followed that line, a snort, and the book flew, pages fluttering like a quail, across the room. Is this the Margaret Atwood who wrote in The Handmaid’s Tale lines like, “I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will . . . Now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping.” Has Spike Milligan taken the role of Atwood’s Muse?

Spike Milligan, or perhaps the Pythons, are also presumably the inspiration for ‘The Anthropology Lecture’ and ‘The Trial of Odysseus as Videotaped by the Maids’ chapters.

But I didn’t completely dislike The Penelopiad. It was an opportunity to hear retold one of my many favourite parts of The Odyssey. And, readable in two sittings, it had the virtue of brevity.

Sincere apologies to Dolce Bellezza, who was the inspiration to read this book. Please read her kinder thoughtson the story.

Laconia: 1,200 Tweets on Film by Masha Tupitsyn

There was a time when the Duc de La Rochefoucauld’s book of Reflections or Sentences and Moral Maxims accompanied me wherever I went. If the Duc were alive today, there is a very high likelihood he would be tweeting, his maxims anticipate Twitter:

If we had no faults we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.

And, of course, there are at present four Twitter accounts just tweeting  La Rochefoucauld’s maxims.

Other proto-twitterers: Twitter may have constrained the prolixity of Montaigne and Lord Chesterfield, but they may have been tempted, Pascal’s (‘We only consult the ear because the heart is wanting.’) uber-nerd genius would have been unable to resist, Tacitus would have tried but abandoned the attempt. Twitter is a natural home for those that can capture, haiku-like, the aphorism or opinion in 140 letters.

I’ve read a couple of books consisting of email exchanges, both were dire, and I expected little from a collection of tweets published in book form. Masha Tupitsyn’s Laconia: 1200 Tweets on Film is remarkable. Ostensibly a series of condensed thoughts on film and gender, Tupitsyn’s ‘literary experiment’ expands into extended cultural commentary and diary. As she explains in the introduction:

[..] each tweet in LACONIA is a miniature exegesis; an appraisal of the world through film and media since our understanding of the world has become increasingly, if not entirely, shaped and mediated by both.

Masha Tupitsyn, like Geoff Dyer, writes with that tender attentiveness, and perceptive humour, that reveals truths. Here are a couple that made me laugh and had me whispering, ‘Yes, yes, that’s exactly how it is!’

103. I just can’t bring myself to watch Changeling or Wanted because looking at Angelina Jolie’s already-dead face is like looking at [2:19 PM July 27th]

104. Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull. [2:20 PM July 27th]


141. I think what happened to Christian Bale happened to Mel Gibson. Both actors lost their talent (and their sanity) when they turned into [2:03 PM Aug 18th]

142. “Americans.” [2:04 PM Aug 18th]

Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger

In Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting (Tratatto) he advises a neophyte artist to ‘quicken the spirit of invention’ by observing walls stained by damp, or the coloration of rocks, and in them to see magnificent landscapes or scenes of battle. Commissioned to paint a mural in S. Maria del Grazie, Leonardo astonished the prior by spending three days contemplating the wall he was to paint.

[…] standing for days on end in front of the wall he was to paint, without touching it with his brush- an incident Croce quotes as evidence of this “inner” process of expression-we may suppose that the thoughts that occupied his mind were of painted surface, were perhaps images of ever-developing articulation of what he was to set down. Thus a work of art was created that was both in an artist’s mind and in a medium. (Art and its Objects – R. Wollheim)

Wollheim writes much of expression in his seminal 1968 book. The etymology of ‘expression’ is early fifteenth century, originally the ‘action of pressing or squeezing out.’ It is a word that came to mind frequently last night at a reading John Berger gave of his remarkable Bento’s Sketchbook. Interviewed by Sally Potter, Berger often struggled to unearth the precise words to respond to Potter’s questions. When, however, he disinterred a satisfactory articulation, Berger expressed himself with remarkable concision and ‘tender attention’.

Asked my a member of the audience to ‘sum up Spinoza in three minutes’, Berger took less time, explaining that Spinoza’s accomplishment was to pull down the Cartesian notion of a duality of body and spirit, yet retain space for the sacred.

Bento’s Sketchbook begins with plums, ‘the quetsch blue is like a vivid but vanishing blue smoke’. It ends with a broadside against economic fascism: ‘ Narrative is another way of making a moment indelible, for stories when heard stop the unilinear flow of time and render the adjective inconsequential meaningless.’ In this beautifully produced Verso edition, Berger juxtaposes Spinoza’s words with his drawings, and his deeply attentive stories.

A Connoisseur of Non-Time

He saw a film a day, sometimes two. He became a connoisseur of the non-time that preceded the  films themselves, especially in small cinemas where there were no advertisements or previews, where the audience was made up of four or five people, all of them alone. It is easy to see why, in films, fugitives and wanted men went to the cinema: not just to hide in the dark but because these intervals between performances were out of time. To all intents and purposes you might as well not have existed – and yet, simultaneously, you were acutely conscious of your existence.

[Geoff Dyer – Paris Trance, 1998]

A Literary Renewal

The text below from This Space is a small excerpt of a terrific assessment of the work of Peter Handke. I urge you to read Steve’s quest to revive interest in this writer’s work.

When the novel was published by Methuen in 1989, with the paperback of the translation following two years later in the superb Minerva imprint, it completed a series of three consecutive clearing novels: it was preceded in 1986 by Across and by Repetition in 1988. All three are long out of print and a new work by Handke has not been issued by UK publisher since Absence in 1990. Perhaps this fact explains the reason for my sudden need to revive attention for these books and this particular moment twenty years on. The more likely reason is that I want to understand how a quiet, reticent book like The Afternoon of Writer can mean so much more than the overtly worldly and eventful novels that are published instead. How is literary renewal possible?

Whilst I await Across on its journey from a Canadian bookseller, I plan to read The Weight of the World, into which I have dipped but never completed.

Distant Cousins

Boring or beguiling, Berger’s writing invites reaction. Like his protege, Geoff Dyer, Berger is always discursive, roaming where inspiration takes him. Bento’s Sketchbook is a delightful indulgence (a folly in the original sense of the word), inspired by Spinoza’s sketchbook, an imaginary object, Berger uses it as a vehicle to meditate on art, people and politics.

I am struck with how succinctly the following excerpt captures the ‘why’ of book blogging (for me, at least), not that this is Berger’s intention. A little context: the narrator is unable to borrow The Brothers Karamazov from the municipal library as both copies are out.

I wonder who’s reading The Brothers Karamazov here today. Do the two of them know each other? Unlikely. Are they both reading the book for the first time? Or has one of them read it and, like myself, wants to reread it?

Then I find myself asking an odd question: if either of those readers and myself passed one another – in the suburban market on Sunday, coming out of the metro, on a pedestrian crossing, buying bread – might we perhaps exchange glances that we’d both find slightly puzzling? Might we, without recognising it, recognise one another?

When we are impressed and moved by a story, it engenders something that becomes, or may become, an essential part of us, and this part, whether it be small or extensive, is, as it were, the story’s descendant or offspring.

What I’m trying to define is more idiosyncratic and personal than a mere cultural inheritance; it is as if the bloodstream of the read story joins the bloodstream of one’s life story. It contributes to our becoming what we become and will continue to become.

Without any of the complications and conflicts of family ties, these stories that shape us are our coincidental, as distinct from biological, ancestors.

Somebody in this Paris suburb, perhaps sitting tonight in a chair and reading The Brothers Karamazov, may already, in this sense, be a distant cousin.

We Are Eternal

On this day of Rapture:

Jacques-André Boiffard – Bouche

We sense and experience that we are eternal. For the mind no less senses those things which it conceives in understanding than those which it has in the memory. For the eyes of the mind by which it sees things and observes them as proofs. So although we do not remember that we existed before the body, we sense nevertheless that our mind in so far as it involves the essence of the body under a species of eternity is eternal and its existence cannot be defined by time or explained by duration.

Spinoza, Ethics, Part V, proposition XXIII

The Tragedy of the Leaves by Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski’s poetry is new to me. ‘The empty bottles like bled corpses’ is stunning, but it is the closing lines that linger for hours: ‘and I walked into a dark hall where the landlady stood execrating and final, sending me to hell, waving her fat, sweaty arms and screaming screaming for rent because the world has failed us both’.

[Update 16/11/13: The concluding confrontation between Bukowski and his angry landlady in this early, gloomy poem, according to Howard Sounes’ biography of Bukowski, reflects the place Bukowski was living at the time.]

The Tragedy of the Leaves

I awakened to dryness and the ferns were dead,
the potted plants yellow as corn;
my woman was gone
and the empty bottles like bled corpses
surrounded me with their uselessness;
the sun was still good, though,
and my landlady’s note cracked in fine and
undemanding yellowness; what was needed now
was a good comedian, ancient style, a jester
with jokes upon absurd pain; pain is absurd
because it exists, nothing more;
I shaved carefully with an old razor
the man who had once been young and
said to have genius; but
that’s the tragedy of the leaves,
the dead ferns, the dead plants;
and I walked into a dark hall
where the landlady stood
execrating and final,
sending me to hell,
waving her fat, sweaty arms
and screaming
screaming for rent
because the world has failed us

Bukowski in correspondence with John William Corrington who published Bukowski as the American representative of a tradition of literary outsiders stretching back to Villon and Rimbaud:

‘Old Man, Dead in a Room is my future, ‘The Tragedy of the Leaves’ is my past, and the ‘Priest and the Matador’ is a dawdling in between.

A Truly Original Writer

Customarily I expect each book I read to suggest subsequent reading material. Reading Simone de Beauvoir offered up André Gide and William Faulkner, and also lead indirectly to Bernard-Henri Lévy and Stendhal. Geoff Dyer suggested Rebecca West, leading to Henry Green, whom she describes:

He was a truly original writer, his prose was fresh minted, he drove his bloodless scalpel inches deeper into the brain and heart, none of it had been said before. He is nearly forgotten.

Four other writers merit West’s favourable mention, each of which I shall try to squeeze into my life:

Now I admire Muriel Spark, for she is an innovator. And I am a fanatical admirer of A. L. Barker. If you cannot read her it is your fault. You should ask your vet to put you down if you do not admire The Middling or An Occasion for Embarrassment. I admire the grand architectural force of Paul Scott, and the subtlety of Francis King, notably his book The Widow.