Gary Raymond reviews Railtracks – a collaboration between novelist, artist, critic and commentator, John Berger and Canadian poet Anne Michaels.
John Berger, artist, critic, Booker Prize-winning novelist, cultural and political commentator, is still, in his eighties, a writer of such prolificacy that many of his most sublime projects can pass with almost no mainstream rigmarole. That Berger is the finest writer in the English language alive today makes this not only disappointing, but often to the heavy detriment of Western culture. Whether the marketing campaigns for the works of Berger are truly up to the task, however, is frankly neither here nor there. The man answers, it is easy to feel, to a slightly higher power.
In 1972 Berger changed the way the West views its artwork with his essay and TV series Ways of Seeing. The same year he won the Booker Prize for his novel G, the award money for which he famously donated half to the Black Panthers and the other half to fund his book of the exploitation of European migrant workers, A Seventh Man (1975). Since then his work has elicited several more nods from the Booker panel, a seminal essay in the field of Animal studies, ground-breaking political novels, essays and films. Berger was from a very narrow school of intellectuals who were both Marxist humanists as well as vociferous critics of the Soviet Union. On the odd occasion when he returns to the UK (he has lived in a peasant village in France’s Giffre Valley since the early 1970s) Berger is treated with near-reverence even by his political opposites. Rather than being treated like an oddity by the ‘serious’ BBC programmers, like, say, Slavoj Zizek is (note Stephen Sakur’s derisory, almost Buckley-esque, tone when he interviewed him on Hardtalk in 2010), all but the red carpet is rolled out for him.
Most notably Newsnight dedicated a pre-recorded interview with Berger last year during his promotional visit to London for Bento’s Sketchbook. In short, when John Berger speaks even the right put down their silver spoons and listen. So it was a major claim when he said in 1997 that Canadian poet Anne Michaels’ debut novel Fugitive Pieces was the ‘most important book I have read for forty years’. And indeed Michaels is one of those poets who transmutes her craft into something quite different for the novel. As a poet she is extremely gifted, and as a novelist she is as good as Berger suggests. Collaboration between the two has been a long time coming, and with this is deliciously compact book, punctuated with the whirring images of Tereza Stehlíková, it seems to have been certainly worth the wait.
The book takes the form of a dialogue between the two authors, here rendered simply as J and A, infusing them with a fictive resonance as well as the weight of their reputations, accomplishments and autobiographies. On one level Railtracks is a love note to the past, using anecdotes and musings on the role of train stations and the tendrils that stretch out from them as a way to explore the nature of human travel, and the compulsive exploration of the inner and outer world. The story spreads out from the terminal much as the tracks do, through time, through meaning, each page filled with symbolism and the weight of accumulative meaning that is usually found in the finest poetry.
The dialogical structure has several effects, sometimes coming across as a conversation between two lovers, the sepia and steam of An Affair to Remember the most dominant tone of the early pages. And then sometimes they are positioned like news anchors, adjacent to each other but looking straight at the lens. Other times there is more than a touch of Samuel Beckett’s Play.
But it really is a love note to the gentle ravages of nostalgia, a book that lingers on the specialness of the phone box, the cobbles, the steam, the high ceilings, the cast iron. But it is nostalgic for progress too, for the progress that is myopically distrusted by the shallow minds of free market thinking who see flea-bitten glory in an overpriced sandwich and nothing in the architecture of Grand Central. For these crook-fingered bean counters – with which our government is infested – the human story of this book is way beyond, for it is also concerned with the role that industrial connections has in movements of our emotional lives. Railtracks have moved humanity through the natural landscape, connected us to the earth as well to our fellows. In Anne Michaels’ case, it brought her father from the dangers of Europe to Canada’s new world. New lives are born and energised along these tracks. Or they were.
The two voices dally with an electrical connection themselves, and it is difficult not to think from the start of Berger’s great epistolary novel From A to X (2008). In From A to X we are presented with the hidden letters, discovered in the wall of a prison cell, from a woman to her lover and collaborator who was once kept there as a political prisoner in an un-named South American dictatorship. Here, perhaps, we get to read what may have been the absent responses from the prison cell, full of inspiring musings and philosophies on the progress of the human spirit and the struggles therein. ‘We imagined all the towns brought into boom by the laying of the rails, all those gradually vanished because the rails passed them by’. If J is in a prison cell in this instance, it is one of time, of human endeavour and the interconnectedness of the emerging global experience.
The book develops inch by inch along a track of its own: a pitted biography of Berger’s own evolution. It is a charming memoir, matched with reminiscences of Michaels as she uses Union Station as a way in to the history of her own immigrant family. Berger remembers how the rail network informed his earliest career as a painter, as he worked in the attic space of world renowned child psychologist Dr Donald Winnicott. He was painting the streets of the London that filled in the landscape between the train station he used to get to the studio and the studio itself, as the doctor, several floors below, rolled around on the floor with babies and their toys. It was during this time that Berger realised that his painting was telling a story of the people, of their landscape but of their issues as well, and that ‘its very pigments are political.’ These moments are all the more moving and affecting for their fleeting presentation, offered to us by a man in his ninth decade; ‘our lives glimpsed like back gardens… as the train draws out.’ As a metaphor for life the train track is inexhaustible, but that is not the same as it not being tiresome. Both Michaels and Berger expertly understand the limits of the metaphor, and the trust of the reader.
That trust is never allowed to dip. The book is captivating as a personal history of a famously impersonal city. The physical history is just as important for the poetical insinuations therein as the musings. To take Berger’s London as an example, it is a narrow, if intriguing history. He takes us through the first coroner’s court to be built in the city, ‘The Hardy Tree’, and the death of Maurice Margarot. Each simple tale is riddled with the politics of the time and of Berger himself. And that is where Michaels’ voice comes forward to open the narrowness up to the universe; ‘before clocks there were church bells. And in each day’s ringing, eternity.’
Here is one of many moments when the book opens up from the ‘terminus’ of the premise. Michaels, in her reflections, asks, ‘I want to know… what makes a northern Ontario forest different from a Polish forest?’ The smell, perhaps? Of course the smell of the Polish forest is marked with the memory of the Nazis who hid their death camps in them. Is the reader meant to direct so pointedly to this? From the dense steam of Noel Coward to the thick, putrid emanations caught hanging in aftermath in Claude Lanzmann’s famous film in just a few pages? It is difficult not to believe Berger and Michaels are precisely aiming for this definition of human evil and inflicted misery. This is a book of such depths as well as mirrored heights. ‘If one could separate the human history from the trees, could one tell the difference?’ And just as Zizek suggests that every conversation should bear the mark of the Shoah, so Berger and Michaels put this into practice with extremely moving poetic sensitivity.
The book itself – small, narrow – is its own metaphor for the content within that is waiting to unfurl on opening. Moments like this abound. It is rare to see such perfection on the page. And It does not matter at all that Railtracks rushes by in only eighty five of them, because it is not a book that is completed at the end; immediately it is a volume that will forever be pressed into the corners of travel cases, pushed into jacket pockets for train journeys; it will be returned to again and again for as long as eyes can see, and when they fail, someone else can read it to me.