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Posts from the ‘John Berger’ Category

Recently Read: Two Slim Books by Josipovici and Berger/Platonov


The first release from the new House Sparrow Press is a beautifully produced book/CD combo called A Sparrow’s Journey: John Berger Reads Andrey Platonov. The book contains a short story by Platonov (1899-1951) called “Love for the Motherland, or A Sparrow’s Journey: A Fairytale Happening,” along with a piece of writing by Berger that is obliquely about Platonov called “That Have Not Been Asked: Ten Dispatches about Endurance in Face of Walls,” a brief essay about Platonov’s story by Robert Chandler (who co-translated it with his wife Elizabeth), and an even briefer piece about discovering this previously untranslated story by Gareth Evans, editor of House Sparrow Press (among other things). Platonov’s story about a fiddler and a sparrow was written in 1936 in homage to Alexander Pushkin in advance of the one hundredth anniversary of his death in 1937.

A Sparrow’s Journey is one of those publications that remind you how wonderful it is to hold and read a book. Smartly designed and nicely printed on thick paper, handling this small volume is like holding a sparrow in your bare hands. The accompanying CD of a recording of Berger reading the Platonov story is housed in it’s own paper folder with artwork by Georgia Keeling.  The story fits into 25 slim pages but Berger takes a full 44 minutes to read it in his quiet, luscious, and deliberate voice and I didn’t want the reading to come to an end. Somehow, Berger’s reading gave me insights into Platonov’s story that I never suspected were there.

As I was writing this yesterday, word spread that John Berger had died at the age of ninety. Do yourself a favor and get this publication and listen to his voice over and over.


An old man stands in a room, staring out the window, listening to the sounds of children in a playground below. Incomplete snippets of conversations – shuffled into chronological disorder – appear on the pages of the slim book I am reading. Conversations between the man – Felix – and his two wives, between Felix and his son and his daughter at various stages in their lives. The conversations with the second wife and his friends often drift into the subject of literature. Felix listens to Beethoven’s String Quartet in A minor, opus 132 and stares out the window some more.

Gabriel Josipovici’s Everything Passes (Carcanet, 2006) is a rich and suggestive novelette that is only 60 pages long including oodles of white space. It reads like poetry with every sentence resonating with possibilities. During the brief time that it took for me to read and reread the book, I realized that Josipovici had cunningly fractured the reader’s viewpoint so that we observe the characters and the sequence of events from multiple perspectives simultaneously – as if looking through the compound eye of an insect. Everything in Everything Passes takes place in the present tense, so it is ambiguous whether Josipovici is deliberately presenting the fragments to us in random order or whether we are witnessing the order in which Felix is recalling memories. Is the reader inside Felix’s mind or an observer watching the observer as he stares out the window? Or both.

As he has tea with his second wife, Felix explains his one great and final obsession – to write down his theory on how literature became modern (a topic Josipovici considers at length in his 2010 book What Ever Happened to Modernism?). But the writing won’t come.

Rabelais though, he says, sucking his spoon, understood what this new miracle of print meant for the writer. It meant you gained the world and lost your audience. You no longer knew who was reading you or why. You no longer knew who you were writing for or even why you were writing… I want to tell people about his modernity. About what he means or should mean to all of us, now.

He looks at her. She smiles.

There are two main events in Everything Passes, but it is not clear which happens first. Felix has a heart attack and is saved by an injection into this heart, a “red hot needle.” And one day the writing suddenly starts to flow.

I was writing fast, without pause, setting down on the white paper what had been waiting all those years. Everything would be said. I knew that. I couldn’t write fast enough. All in the right order. I knew it was the right order. It flowed out of me. I couldn’t stop.

Depending on the reader’s predilection, the outcome, which I won’t reveal, is either a moment of heartbreaking sadness or of joyous release. Probably, it’s both.

Railroad Conversations – part 2


A. – We may be one of the last generations with memories run through by trains.

In my two posts called Railroad Conversations, I’m looking at two books of prose and photographs about railways that each began as site specific artworks before being transformed into books. In both cases, the creators of the performed artworks and/or the publishers opted not to produce a publication that would serve as traditional documentation for the performances, but instead chose to create new literary works that would stand on their own.  This might have something to do with the fact that the performances were created by people who are primarily writers: Lavinia Greenlaw in the case of Audio Obscura (discussed in part 1 of Railroad Conversations) and Anne Michaels and John Berger, discussed below.  In each of these books, it is also curious to note that the photography was not part of the original performances but was newly added, undoubtedly to give the book some sense of its origins in the performative world.

Railtracks, by Canadian writer Anne Michaels and English writer, critic, and artist John Berger, is structured as a number of conversations between A. and J., who seem to be lovers with a long shared history of traveling that includes references to Canada, the United States, and Britain.  As the title hints at, Railtracks refers to the rail system as a whole, almost as a kind of living, breathing, and now dying body of technology and memories that symbolizes the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  In their brief conversations, which run from one to six pages apiece, A. and J. speak both of personal matters and of history, lacing their conversations with references to stations, tracks, freight trains, passenger cars, rail yards, timetables.  Even far away from the tracks themselves, one can still hear the ever present sound of trains and their whistles.  The railway symbolizes separation and return, exile, hope, despair, nostalgia, while railway stations have been places where people linger and dream, where men went off to war, and where lovers could meet in anonymity.

But it is the tracks themselves – with their paradoxical ability to represent parallel and converging lines at the same time – that serves as the key metaphor in these conversations.  Echoing this paradox, A. and J. speak of the intimacy possible across vast distances (thanks mostly to the telephone), and they reminisce about placing “trunk calls” through an operator from public telephone booths located in stations.  Love is enriched by separation, since separation implies the joy of reunion.  “Impossible now to think of train travel without a kind of tenderness – as if that is what love is: arrival after arrival,” A. says.

At times, the conversations turn highly allusive and start to resemble something very close to a poetry of suggestions.

A.  The noise of wagons gaining speed.
J.  The flight of starlings at dusk.
A.  The spitting sizzle of sausages being cooked.
J.  Political arguments.
A.  Sunday morning in bed.
J.  Pamphlets.
A.  Many different languages and hand signals.
J.  Scams of every kind.
A.  Friendships of every sort.


The conversations are separated by color photographs by Tereza Stehlíková, whose blurred images are of landscapes taken from inside moving trains.  In the book, the images are cropped with rounded corners suggesting the shape of train windows.  For me, her images evoke the cocooned separation one feels seated inside a train and watching the world whiz by, permitting one’s thoughts to turn inward.


A small note tucked in the back of Railtracks explains that the book constitutes the “full pre-perfomance text” of Vanishing Points, which was a site-specific work directed by Simon McBurney of Complicite and produced for “Here Is Where We Meet,” a season of cultural events dedicated to John Berger in 2005.  Here is the blurb about Vanishing Points from the season website:

Vanishing Points is a unique site-specific collaboration between the writer and commentator John Berger, poet and novelist Anne Michaels and theatre-maker Simon McBurney.  Vanishing Points takes its audience from the industrial to the metaphysical, from the huge movements of globalisation to the interior pulses of memory, and from the present to a past that still exists in vibrant, essential traces.  Vanishing Points speaks of memories and hidden histories, of arrivals and departures, of love and disappointments, seeking with reflective urgency to bear witness to changes that affect us all.  Vanishing Points takes place in the evocative setting of the historic German Gymnasium, located in the capital city’s largest transport nexus, Kings Cross and providing a compelling backdrop to explore the event’s themes of immigration, deportation and conflict.

It’s pretty clear that Vanishing Points and Railtracks are radically different beasts.  The book’s intimate two-person dialogue is replaced in the performance by multiple voices (none of which resemble a dialogue) and layers of sounds and multilingual background texts, transforming it into a considerably more political and historical project.  Since texts that do not appear in Railtracks can be heard in Vanishing Points,  I would hazard a guess that the odd qualifier “full pre-performance text” might mean that Railtracks is meant to document the text as originally written by Michaels and Berger, not as performed by Complicite.

As I wrote this post I kept looking for a place to insert my favorite line from the book, attributed to A., but I never found the right context.  So here is the line all by itself.

A photograph of a ghost is sound.

Railtracks was published in London by Go Together Press and in the U.S. by Counterpoint in Berkeley in 2012. This post is based on the U.S. edition.

railtracksusThe cover of the U.S. edition of Railtracks, with photograph by Tereza Stehlíková.