This passage isn’t typical of Berger’s fine novel, but it’s among the few excerptible portions. The letter form is a difficult one to use if one wants to sustain a plot, and From A to X—like most epistolary stories—is almost plotless. The beauty and the depth of it are in the characters, only one of whom really gets the opportunity to speak. The action is almost completely implied, as in Greek tragedy when the most crucial turns of plot take place off stage. From A to X is more complexly structured, though, and throughly Modernist in sensibility. There is also a non-theistic spirituality at the heart of this novel, summed up toward the end of the story:
Without the evocation of Hell, the Church’s demonstrative wealth and ruthless power would have been far more openly questioned because they were in evident contrast to the teaching of the Gospels.
Hell bestowed a kind of sanctity on amassed wealth.
The inflictions of today have gone further. No need to evoke a Hell in the afterlife. A hell for the excluded is being constructed in this one, announcing the same thing: that only wealth can make sense of being alive.
—From A to X: A Story in Letters, by John Berger
Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells and their received messages form a network of ceaseless feedback and co-ordination. No high command, only a continual circuit of the body’s own messengers, some of which existed since life began, and which, in their multiplicity, weave—that’s the only word I can find—weave an intelligence comparable with the famous one of the mind. It looks as if body and mind are of the same substance. Angels are the powers hidden in the faculties and organs of men.That last sentence is a quotation from Aristotle, one cited by the letter writer earlier in the book. The argument here, the vision, reaches backward and forward from this point in the book, and I can’t bring myself to attempt a summary of what amounts to a profound description of what can only be called divinity as encoded in our bodies—and by extension the bodies of all creatures—at the cellular level.
All this must make From A to X sound dry or airy-fairy or … well, who knows. Nevertheless, it’s an engaging and engaged, if oblique, expression of solidarity, and it deserves to be widely read.
I have to add that I came to this book thanks to Lyle Daggett, who has yet to steer me wrong with his literary recommendations.