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Letters From A to X: An Ethics and Politics of Space

A to X : Éthique et politique de l’espace
Diane Leblond


Dans un monde fictionnel très similaire au nôtre, From A to X (2008) de John Berger imagine une correspondance passée, imparfaitement conservée, entre A’ida et Xavier, son amant et activiste politique incarcéré pour avoir mis au défi un gouvernement autoritaire. Le roman combine le genre épistolaire et un dialogue intermédial entre les mots et dessins d’A’ida. La lettre, en tant qu’unité graphique tracée sur le papier aussi bien que texte adressé à un destinataire, joue un rôle crucial dans l’élaboration de stratégies de résistance—notamment parce qu’elle propose une autre compréhension de l’espace. Les débats critiques sur le rapport mot/image ont longtemps reconduit la conception agonistique d’une lutte entre les formes esthétiques du temps et de l’espace. Mais dans From A to X c’est une toute autre pensée de la spatialité qui s’ébauche, dans la résistance à une séparation autoritaire entre ces deux modalités perceptives. L’écriture épistolaire permet l’articulation d’un espace et d’un temps qui ne soient plus des formes du sens distinctes. Dans et par la lettre, la fiction élabore un lieu de résistance anti-dualiste, destiné à des citoyens lecteurs qui sont eux-mêmes des créatures spatio-temporelles.

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1In 2008 John Berger published From A to X, an epistolary novel based on the correspondence between A (A’ida) and her lover X (Xavier), a political activist incarcerated by an authoritarian regime for his revolutionary activities. The novel opens with a paratextual fiction that accounts for how three bundles of letters were ‘recuperated’ by the author after being discovered in cell no. 73 of a disaffected prison in the city centre of ‘Suse’. What we read in the rest of the novel, therefore, is one side of the exchange, in the form of letters carefully kept by the last occupant of that cell. We will never know Xavier’s responses to his lover’s news. However, his voice does resonate throughout the story, as we read the notes he wrote ‘on the back of the pages of A’ida’s letters’ (Berger 2). Those reflections on the state of the world and chronicles of his life in prison constitute a meditative counterpoint to A’ida’s intimate narrative, transcribed and printed in italics, ‘a more muted typeface’ (Berger 2).

  • 1 See, for instance, the work he did with photographer Jean Mohr in A Fortunate Man (1967) and The Se (...)
  • 2 His Booker-Prize winning G. (1972) does have a few drawings inserted within the text, but this is n (...)

2Upon opening a book by Berger there are many reasons why readers might expect some degree of intermediality, from the ‘signature variegation’ (Dyer ix) of his œuvre as an art historian, essayist, and fiction writer, to the multiplicity of his collaborations with visual artists and chroniclers of contemporary lives.1 But the dialogue between word and images is less commonly found in his fiction.2 It seems significant, in that respect, that From A to X does include a number of drawings alongside the text. What does the mixing of media imply in this case, where it is not made necessary by a commentary on existing pictures or the result of a four-eyed, four-handed endeavour with a photograph or illustrator? At the point where it is first introduced in A’ida’s letters, the copresence of text and drawings testifies to the protagonist’s attention to the very act of putting pen to paper, the material gesture by which lines are drawn across pages:

I wanted to put my hand on a letter and draw its outline to send you . . . I came across a book which explained how to draw hands and I opened it, turning page after page. And I decided to buy it. It was like the story of our life. All stories are also the stories of hands—picking up, balancing, pointing, joining, kneading, threading, caressing, abandoned in sleep, cutting, eating, wiping, playing music, scratching, grasping, peeling, clenching, pulling a trigger, folding. On each page of the book there are careful drawings of hands performing a different action. So I’m going to copy one.

I’m writing to you. (Berger 69)

  • 3 For a study of the physicality implied by the act of writing, whereby ‘letters on a page acquire a (...)

3From that point, other hand drawings and drawings of hands continue the conversation between image and text. The collaboration of words and drawings metadiscursively points to the one activity through which the protagonists may still reach out to one another, that is, the tracing of lines on paper.3 The intermedial nature of the novel arises from A’ida’s particular attention to the work of the letter, both as an individual graphic sign and as a collection of lines looped and crossed and ready to be sent out to her detained lover.

  • 4 For a study of the connection between the fictional letters of From A to X and Berger’s own practic (...)

4The letter, which represents the only possible connection between A and X, inscribes itself as a fragile counterpoint to an authoritarian regime, in a story that constantly reexamines how we may inhabit time and space when they are ruled by absolute power.4 And it makes sense for this questioning of time and space to be formulated through the connection between writing and drawing. Indeed, in the history of aesthetics, the exploration of the relation between word and image is often intimately connected with a reflection on time and space as forms of perception and understanding. In Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, W. J. T. Mitchell actually identified the agon of time and space as one of several binary pairs fundamental to Western theories of relations between art forms. A well-known reference point in that respect was Lessing’s Laocoon (1766), which classified the arts according to the aesthetic form that naturally suited them. Following Lessing’s model, the visual arts as ‘spatial’ arts were to be distinguished from such media as literature and music, which were materially tied to sequentiality, constrained by time. Mitchell’s essay pointed to the enduring influence of Lessing’s essentialist vision, intimating that ‘the one thing that unites all the antagonists on the issue of literary space is their common reverence for the principles established in Lessing’s Laocoon’ (Mitchell 1986, 97). Indeed, the debate on the role of spatial form in literature did historically subscribe to the principle of binary separation between aesthetic forms, including when it came to challenge the original conception of literature as an art form essentially inscribed in time. In 1945, Joseph Frank’s ‘The Idea of Spatial Form’ conceived of the modernist turn as a change in dominant, from the supposedly natural sequentiality of literature to the less evident potentalities of space. Almost fifty years later while revisiting his original paper the critic noted that the notion of spatial form had found fertile ground in Figures II, where Gérard Genette intimated that the space of the page and of the book was not bound to the sequential time of reading, but inflected it and in some way ‘abolished’ it altogether (Genette 46). In many cases, critical discourse presented the literary field as a battleground, and considered the connection between spatial and temporal forms as a struggle leading to the triumph of one or the other dimension.

5In Ideology, Mitchell presented this agonistic conception of the role played by time and space as aesthetic forms as a critical construct, a fiction upheld throughout the history of intermedial criticism rather than dictated by the essential characteristics of media. He proposed to consider the interaction of time and space within some art objects under a different light, from their necessary articulation rather than their systematic opposition:

Our beginning premise would be that works of art, like other objects of human experience, are structures in space-time, and that the interesting problem is to comprehend a particular spatial-temporal construction, not to label it as temporal or spatial . . . The terms ‘space’ and ‘time’ only become figurative or improper when they are abstracted from one another as independent, antithetical essences that define the nature of an object. (Mitchell 1986, 103)

6This will guide our exploration of Berger’s writing, and its inscription of both space and time.

7In From A to X we are confronted with competing conceptions of space. One corresponds to the logic of prison, and treats it as an absolute, an area or volume to be divided and occupied according to geometric coordinates—an abstract form freed from the constraints of time. The other guides A and X’s resistance to the authority that separated them: it presents space only insofar as it is shaped by the history of human beings, invested through and through by time-bound individual and collective subjects. Rather than maintaining the dichotomy of time and space by ‘choosing’ one as the key to making sense, Berger’s writing insists on their entanglement. By producing objects in ‘time-space’ the letter proposes itself as a locus of resistance to authoritarian power, from the graphemes of the title to the correspondence it designates, between A and X.

Abstract Space, Absolute Power: A Fiction of Contemporary Authoritarianism

  • 5 The critical debate around the notion of spatial form in literature did bring up this possibility: (...)

8In the agonistic model described by Lessing and commented on by Mitchell, time and space figured as separate modalities of perception the dominance of which defines the distinct characteristics of art forms and the aesthetic choices made by artists within the confines of those art forms. The coexistence of media within From A to X would, in and of itself, point to Berger’s reluctance to observe a dichotomous distinction between time and space as forms of intuition and understanding. But as indicated by Mitchell’s analysis of the ideology underlying our theories of aesthetics, the deconstruction of this binary opposition goes further than affirming the legitimacy of an intermedial approach to writing. In the political fable that From A to X represents, it suggests that the separation of time and space actually serves the exercise of repressive power. By enforcing the separation of time and space as abstract forms, an authoritarian regime gives itself the power to restrict our capacity for making sense, or indeed to dissolve meaning altogether. Across the novel, the regime that incarcerated Xavier reigns supreme especially in the places where time and space are treated as absolutes.5 Detached from any sense of sequentiality, timeless, space becomes a tool in the hands of punitive power, as it isolates and encloses individuals, assigns them places that will not allow them to make any sense of their situation beyond the unilateral exercise of power.

  • 6 Here, as in later excerpts from Xavier’s notes, I quote the text as it appears on the page, in the (...)

9The clearest example of repressive space is provided by prison. Xavier’s place of incarceration presents itself as a ‘pure’ receptacle, a space that has abolished time, and with it any citizen’s ability to make sense of their own time-bound existence: as A’ida assures her lover, ‘[a]s soon as they gave [him] two life sentences, [she] stopped believing in their time’ (Berger 27). Because it is defined in such absolute terms, as a ‘here’ that is detached from any ‘now,’ gaol is no longer just a place but has become the very idea and the only instance of ‘place,’ against which everything is defined negatively as an insubstantial elsewhere. This binary logic underlies Xavier’s theory of the global under late capitalism, as delineated in a note: ‘Delocalisation. Refers . . . to the plan of destroying the status of all earlier fixed places so that the entire world becomes a Nowhere, and a single liquid market. . . . This prison is not Nowhere’ (Berger 23).6 The world has become divided between the ‘nowhere’ of outside and the eternal ‘here’ of prison. Inside, space follows a rational, geometrical organisation signalled by the number and dimensions of Xavier’s cell—73, 2.5 m × 3 m and 4 m high—, values which replace any possible toponymy with the absolutes of mathematics. Outside of these confines, however, space has dissolved, it is no longer habitable, the adjective ‘liquid’ both qualifies its financial function as ‘market’ and brings up a metaphorical network connecting flux and time. In the radical opposition which the adjective ‘single’ stresses, between space (an eternal here) and time (a fluid nowhere), what is erased is the possibility of a common ground: for the prisoner confined to his cell, but also for those citizens who are left ‘nowhere,’ deprived of places to share and from which to imagine different lives.

10The complementary relation between inside and outside, the eternal ‘here’ of prison and the ‘nowhere’ that is the ‘free world’ might be taken paradoxically, as a reason to celebrate incarceration in that it represents an alternative to the global market. Though it does represent a counterpoint to the murderous liquefaction of the world outside, the prison system can hardly be interpreted as an object of celebration in Berger’s œuvre. The treatment of gaol hinges on an ambiguity: it is both the opposite of the fluid global order created by late capitalism, and a space where repressive power is not hidden from view, obfuscated by the free circulation characteristic of the market. As such, it is the sort of margin from which an alternative understanding of the commons might emerge. In the correspondence with A’ida the neo-liberal destruction of any common place finds a counterpoint, and this subversion of the dominant economic order can only be undertaken from the marginal space that is prison.

Other Spaces or: Looking for Gauche Readers

11In the novel, the dissolution of space as locus, a place to be inhabited by communities, the final liquefying of oikoumene is shown and subverted by a paradoxical use of geography. The narrative plays with referentiality so that it becomes impossible to tell exactly where the story takes place, or to situate the State that punished the protagonists. Their use of Spanish and Arabic as well as English, and the cultural, historical, culinary references they share would point equally to countries in South America or the Middle East. Berger therefore presents us with a fictional world that challenges our sense of cartography, as places overlap and become mixed; and this in turn undermines the binary separation of time and space.

12The impossible overdetermination of space, the superimposition of places that we recognise from a flurry of incompatible details, points to the concept of heterotopia first coined by Michel Foucault in ‘Des espaces autres: hétérotopies.’ Foucault presents heterotopia as an ‘other’ space, a fragment of ‘outside’ that disrupts the patterns of social and geographic space from within. Foucault explains the dialectical function and the paradoxical position of heteropia by referring to the mirror—which harnesses the virtual space of reflection and the real, hard surface of the visual dispositive. As the combination of inside and outside, virtual and real suggests, the referential dysfunction that produces heterotopias is in a sense opposite to that which utopias are built on. Heterotopias do not constitute themselves outside of any reference to our contemporary space, the way utopia might. Indeed, in From A to X, the heterotopia that is its fictional country challenges spatial patterns that we might recognise from our world, in part because the places it presents us with are overdetermined, saturated with incompatible elements of referentiality. This suggests that alongside other places defined by Foucault as heterotopias, we might consider the fictional space constituted in the moment of reading.

13As a paradoxical place neither fully within not entirely out of our world, an outside working from the intimacy of our relationship with the book, and questioning the places we inhabit daily, the heterotopia in A to X invites us to find our place in ‘pockets’ of resistance to an unjust political order. In the absence of any clear indication as to where the story unfolds, we will hypothesise over that space by relying on its historical nature: though it does not materialise on any real-world map, the fictional place A and X write about is geographic, shaped by the encounter of language and politics. As such it is steeped in history, though the landmarks it brings up will probably never produce a linear and coherent sequence, any more than its geographical details allow us to place it. This might happen, for instance, should our search for clues lead us to reinterpret Xavier’s cell number, 73. While the numeral would normally signal a geometrical, divisible space the primary function of which is to keep individuals separately enclosed, it fails to remain a pure mathematical abstraction, unshackled by discourse. In the context of Berger’s floating, ill-defined geography, 73 signals the encounter of maths and history, when a number becomes a date—for it is also 1973, the year when a military coup overthrew Chile’s elected leader, replacing him with dictator Augusto Pinochet. The process by which reading reinfuses a seemingly abstract category of space with a sense of time is politically charged: it reminds us of the interconnections between human space and history, and with it the possibility or indeed the necessity of resistance to authoritarian power.

14The commitment to a certain political practice that comes with this entangling of space with time is also reflected in the refusal to adhere to a fixed binary division of the public sphere between left and right. In his notes on resistance, Xavier writes

Approached frontally the enemy is impregnable. Approached frontally the enemy has to be recognised as a victor. To continue as victor the enemy needs new frontal enemies. They do not exist; so the enemy invents them. We await this as our opportunity for countless side attacks. This is the strategy of resistance. (Berger 47; original emphasis)

15It is of little use frontally, symmetrically to oppose the forces of oppression: resistance destabilises the fixed balance of an order solidified by authoritarian power, it tugs at a structure that clearly identifies, essentialises and situates opponents in order to subjugate citizens to its rule. Working from the margins, resistance assumes the possibility that it may miss its mark: quite similarly to democratic power shared between equals, it is clumsy.

However good a law is, it is invariably clumsy. This is why its application should be disputed or questioned. And the practice of doing this corrects its clumsiness and serves justice. There are bad laws which legalize injustice. Such laws are not clumsy . . . And they have to be resisted, ignored, defied. But of course, compañeros, our defiance of them is clumsy! (Berger 26; original emphasis)

  • 7 This translation and displacement would find an interesting counterpart in Yves Citton’s praise for (...)

16Like legitimate power, resistance refuses the simplified, binary division of the political arena into a fixed left and right: its commitment to social justice does not position it firmly as ‘on the left,’ but implies that it is forever ‘gauche’—and here the potential for deviation is signalled by a bilingual pun, in a multilingual novel by an Englishman living in France.7

Public Transport or, a Common Metaphor for Space-Time

  • 8 In various instances in the novel, we are reminded that A’ida’s letters will have been opened befor (...)

17In the face of the authoritarian separation between time and space as categories of perception and meaning, resistance strategies consist in tentatively reclaiming space by challenging its status as a fixed structure, showing the processes that contribute to shaping it. This explains why, in spite of the temporal absurdity that is keeping Xavier in gaol, A’ida insists on distinguishing ‘absence’ from ‘nothingness’ by bringing up temporal adverbs: ‘There’s no larger mistake possible than to believe that an absence is a nothingness. The difference between the two is a question of timing. (About which they can do nothing.) Nothingness is before and absence afterwards’ (Berger 95–96). Elsewhere the third person plural constantly intrudes between the ‘I’ and ‘you’ of the letters, denying them the possibility of contact, and in this instance again they have just turned down the protagonists’ application for a marriage.8 What finally suspends the power of the anonymous ‘them’ for a moment, negating their ability to quash Xavier’s existence altogether and placing them between brackets, is A’ida’s forceful reassertion that the space beside her is not simply void, but has been left empty—that she will never experience Xavier’s being away as an absolute ‘nothingness,’ but always in contrast to what once was, when he was there with her.

18Rather than found the possibility of meaning either on the spatiality of text or on the sequentiality of narrative, the letters in From A to X bring up motifs that function as catalysts of time and space. The first of these motifs that forego the binary distinction between modalities of perception but rather points to their entanglement concerns the movement of human bodies through space—the itineraries they follow. When we imagine the wanderings, the to-and-fro of human travel, space no longer preexists as an empty volume to be measured. Rather it is opened up, given proper substance by those comings and goings, the routes and courses that run through it—and whether we consider the Latin past participle that gave us the word ‘route’, or the polysemy of ‘course’ as a line drawn through space and time, we are reminded that an itinerary is ‘an object in space-time’. Worlds apart from a prison designed for an analytical and static distribution of bodies, with each convict confined to a small portion of space, this knitting together of time and space reopens the ethical and political possibility of a connection with the other. This is what transpires from the metaphor A’ida uses when recounting her first encounter with a fellow political prisoner and future friend, during hours of compulsory work:

[O]n my first morning Manda chose to take the empty place beside me. I saw her approaching like a crowded bus that had crossed the Sierra; all the passengers, who knew each other after the long journey, were joking inside her. . . . I wanted to climb into her bus. There was a place for me. (Berger 41 42)

  • 9 See John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket, London: Bloomsbury, 2001.

19In the intimate connection made with the other, the image of the bus signals how human itineraries persist defiantly in the face of the immobility enforced by prison. Within new friendships one finds public transport, the potential of a route to be shared—A’ida’s seat, her ‘place,’ is there waiting for her. This sharing of space-time partakes of an ethics and politics of human connection: in the moment that another is welcomed a ‘pocket of resistance’ is formed.9

  • 10 Across the suite, the dramatic intensity produced through music works to evoke visual impressions i (...)

20The ability to move through space features as a primary motif of resistance to the logic of gaol: the freedom that it seeks articulates time and space within the act of wandering. The motif of the walk appears precisely in conjunction with an artistic reference that challenges the traditional division between ‘spatial’ and ‘temporal’ artforms. Mussorgsky’s Tableaux d’une exposition (1874), which Xavier hears on the radio, elicits the following response: ‘for Murat and me, what the piano was playing was a prisoner’s walk from the prison after his release. The small door in the large prison door had shut behind him and he was striding along the street towards town . . . and the music [was] following the rhythm of his walking’ (Berger 114). Here the piece itself challenges the notion that music is essentially sequential and therefore an art of time. The programmatic suite was inspired by an exhibition held in memory of the composer’s friend, painter Viktor Hartmann. Recurring between movements each devoted to a canvas, the melodic theme or ‘Promenade’ accompanies our wanderings around the exhibition, and seals the encounter of sister arts across the divide of time and space.10 Within the confines of gaol, the visitor’s ramble and contemplative pauses in front of the pictures reconfigure freedom of movement as space within time, spaced time, or ‘rhythm’—whether embodied in a series of steps or experienced as music. Through its intimate connection with walking, the piece brings up a vision of liberation. As such, it challenges any understanding of space as a static volume or area, reminding us that it must be considered in relation to a person’s free movement, as prepositions ‘from’ and ‘towards’ trace their course away from the fixed point of prison.

Love in the Post:11 An Ethics and Politics of the Letter

  • 11 This section title is inspired by the film adaptation of Derrida’s The Post Card: From Socrates to (...)
  • 12 The reference to ‘spacing’ as a notion is borrowed from Derrida’s deconstruction of linguistics. In (...)
  • 13 In the letters addressed by Derrida to the woman he loves, which serve as a prelude to the essay on (...)

21The prisoner’s dream of freedom takes the visual shape of a door closing behind oneself, of the ever-expanding distance between oneself and that symbol of closure. This points towards spacing as another spatio-temporal locus from which the authoritarian enclosure of space and meaning can be resisted. From single characters to notes travelling by post, letters in From A to X designate space not as a dimension per se but as a process inscribed in time. By considering the material conditions of writing as spacing we are bound to look at the dialectics of verbal and visual media by way of this intrication of time and space. This was what W. J. T. Mitchell intimated when his reflection on intermediality redefined writing as ‘spacing’: ‘writing [is] a visible representation of speech, a “spacing” of the temporal’ (Mitchell 1994, 109).12 The generic choice made with the epistolary novel provides a basic framework for this as the form of correspondence builds the narrative upon the distance that separates the protagonists, the ever-recurring discrepancy between the first and second persons. As an itinerant object, the sign of a discursive encounter expanding over space-time, the letter also shows that the activity of making sense is open-ended. Unfolding in a letter, the here and now of a discursive situation is distended, stretched out towards the there and then of its reception. This structural spacing out of the word and of meaning is multiplied by Berger, who only gives us access to one side of the correspondence between A’ida and Xavier, thereby reiterating the trajectory from A to X and never looping back from X to A. Xavier’s voice as it appears in the text provides no answer, it does not complete the correspondence: inscribed on the back of A’ida’s letters, it makes up a collection of undirected, unsent notes. In the imperfection of a conversation only half overheard, what looms is a crisis of destination reminiscent of that which Derrida delineated in his prologue to The Post Card—one which reminds us of the infinite task of making sense.13

  • 14 The Geographers’ A-Z Map Company Ltd., A-Z or ‘A to Z’ for short, was founded in 1936 and was the f (...)

22As the title itself reminds us, the active distance that separates the protagonists conditions the travelling back and forth of the letter, not only across space, but also from one end of the alphabet to the other. From A(‘ida) to X(avier), the space that separates and connects the lovers brings us back to an elementary form of the sequentiality supposedly inherent in literature—that is, the order of succession that rules the ABCs. The assimilation of the sequence to a spatial motif will be familiar to anglophone readers used to orienting themselves thanks to A to Z maps. From A to Z, such cartographic diagrams promise to close down the distance between both ends of the alphabet—the visual corollary for this complete sequence being the visually exhaustive mapping of a place.14 The preposition that opens up the trajectory, ‘from’ A to X, designates a departure that exists in space as well as time. And here again, in contrast to the promise made by the cartographers at A to Z, Berger’s title shows that the encounter of time and space fails to bring closure, to loop the loop: from A to X, we will not have run the entire alphabet, we will not be done with our exploration of space. Spacing works as the active principle that constantly elicits our resistance to the forces that would keep us separate and foreclose meaning.

23Throughout the novel, the letter produces an entanglement of time and space which opens up pockets of resistance to an essentialist, dichotomous distribution of place and power. And as the distinction between time and space resonates with dualistic theories of being—where bodies partake of space while minds remain free from it—we can read From A to X as an exercise in deconstructing dualism: ‘You in your brig can’t cover distances—except the repetitive minimal ones. Yet you think, and you think across the world. . . . Thought and extension are parts of the same stuff. A single cloth’ (Berger 164). Poles apart from the essentialist theory that underpinned Lessing’s classification of the arts in Laocoon, Berger’s writing weaves thought and extension together: its protagonists are creatures in space-time.

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Berger, John, From A to X – A Story in Letters, London: Verso, 2008.

Bower, Rachel, ‘John Berger: Epistolarity and a Life in Letters’, On John Berger: Telling Stories, eds. Ralf Hertel & David Malcom, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2016, 163 185. DOI:

Derrida, Jacques, La Carte postale, Paris: Flammarion, 1980.

Dyer, Geoff, ed. John Berger: Selected Essays. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Foucault, Michel, ‘Des espaces autres: hétérotopies’, Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 (octobre 1984): 46–49.

Frank, Joseph, The Idea of Spatial Form, Piscataway: Rutgers UP, 1991.

Genette, Gérard, Figures II, Paris: Seuil, 1979.

Hertel, Ralf, ‘The Body of the Text: To the Wedding, From A to X, and the Corporeality of John Berger’s Later Fiction’, On John Berger: Telling Stories, eds Ralf Hertel & David Malcom, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2016, 143–161. DOI:

Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim, Laocoon: An Essay upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry, 1766, trans. Ellen Frothingham, Mineola: Dover, 2013.

Mitchell, W. J. T., Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986.

Mitchell, W. J. T., Picture Theory, Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.

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1 See, for instance, the work he did with photographer Jean Mohr in A Fortunate Man (1967) and The Seventh Man (1975), or his later collaborations with illustrator Selçuk Demirel, in Cataract (2012), or Smoke (2017).

2 His Booker-Prize winning G. (1972) does have a few drawings inserted within the text, but this is not the case of the Into Their Labours trilogy (1991), or To the Wedding (1995), for instance.

3 For a study of the physicality implied by the act of writing, whereby ‘letters on a page acquire a quasi-tangible quality’ (Hertel 147) and seek a ‘quasi-physical engagement’ (Hertel 146) in the reader, see Ralf Hertel, ‘The Body of the Text: To the Wedding, From A to X, and the Corporeality of John Berger’s Later Fiction.’

4 For a study of the connection between the fictional letters of From A to X and Berger’s own practice of letter writing, especially as a form of political and ethical commitment to the other, see Rachel Bower, ‘John Berger: Epistolarity and a Life in Letters’: ‘The use of epistolary conventions and techniques in From A to X speaks to a wider preoccupation in Berger’s late work of launching an ‘appeal’ to the reader. Berger uses the letter’s present tense, first-person narrative and stress on encounter to challenge incarceration, evade censorship and pursue dialogue’ (Bower 163).

5 The critical debate around the notion of spatial form in literature did bring up this possibility: in The Sense of an Ending (New York: OUP, 1966), Frank Kermode warned critics against the consequences that might come from solidifying spatial forms and resisting the ebb and flow of time. He specifically pointed out the coincidence between the development of such aesthetics according to Frank and the rise of totalitarianism in the political sphere. Though the critique might sound like it would have been better directed at a later critical movement such as new criticism, where the choice of space over time did legitimate a decontextualised, depoliticised approach to writing and to art in general, the connection between space as an absolute form detached from time and the absoluteness of authoritarian government does provide an interesting framework to read Berger’s highly committed fable.

6 Here, as in later excerpts from Xavier’s notes, I quote the text as it appears on the page, in the ‘muted typeface’ (Berger 2) of italics.

7 This translation and displacement would find an interesting counterpart in Yves Citton’s praise for political ‘gaucherie’ in Mythocratie: storytelling et imaginaire de gauche (Paris: Amsterdam, 2009).

8 In various instances in the novel, we are reminded that A’ida’s letters will have been opened before reaching their destination, and part of the correspondence will have been confiscated altogether.

9 See John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket, London: Bloomsbury, 2001.

10 Across the suite, the dramatic intensity produced through music works to evoke visual impressions in accordance with the titles of the pictures, from ‘Gnome’ to the monumental city gates in Kyiv. Berger’s choice of the piece, which can be explained by the way it bridges between verbal, visual and musical arts, is all the more emblematic as the Pictures at an Exhibition refer to a friendship built on the assertion of authentically Russian art. What Hartmann sought as a painter, as Mussorgsky did through his music, was to inscribe art and its practices within a particular geographical and historical area. This effort at contextualisation, which transpires in the composer’s use of Russian folksongs, does not imply an exclusionary retreat to nationalist values. Indeed, the Promenade and Hartmann’s pictures take us across the borders of Europe and across language barriers, to France (Tuileries), Italy (Il Vecchio Castello), and to some geographic-linguistic areas whose existence was suspended or problematic at the time, with Cum Mortis in lingua mortua (in Latin, ‘With the Dead in a Dead Language’), and Bydło (‘Cattle,’ in Polish).

11 This section title is inspired by the film adaptation of Derrida’s The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond (1980, Chicago: U. of Chicago P.), Love in the Post (Joanna Callaghan, Heraclitus Pictures, 2014). By mixing word and image, the intimate and the theoretical, and altogether reflecting on the Post office as institution and system, the essay arguably provides a very stimulating background to read Berger’s From A to X. See (accessed March 26th, 2023).

12 The reference to ‘spacing’ as a notion is borrowed from Derrida’s deconstruction of linguistics. In De la grammatologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967), Derrida brings up ‘spacing’ as part of his critique of Saussure’s linguistics and the status it devotes to spoken language as origins. Against the divinely inspired, unadulterated ‘Word’, the idea of spacing points to a form of non-conformity that is not a latecomer to language practices, but actually at the heart of what it is to speak. Writing manifests a distance within spoken language itself, a form of ‘non-coincidence’ or non-presence that reminds us that we inhabit language not as a principle, essence or form, but as an active process in space and time. Spacing might therefore appear, in some respects, as a correlative to ‘différance’, a conceptual tool that explores the resistance to closure through reiteration and deferment—with both notions working from a particular articulation of space and time.

13 In the letters addressed by Derrida to the woman he loves, which serve as a prelude to the essay on Freud, the tracing of letters and the entire Post as a dispositive mark the possibility and indeed the necessity of a deviation, a spacing out that precludes any conclusive encounter of both correspondents within the space of the letter: ‘[à] l’intérieur de chaque signe déjà, de chaque marque ou de chaque trait, il y a l’éloignement, la poste, ce qu’il faut pour que ce soit lisible par un autre, une autre que toi ou moi, et tout est foutu d’avance, cartes sur table. La condition pour que ça arrive, c’est que ça finisse et même que ça commence par ne pas arriver. Voilà comment ça se lit, et ça s’écrit, la carte de l’adestination’ (Derrida 34–35). The connection between the spacing orchestrated by the Post and the notion of différance features later in the text, where it indefinitely postpones any attempt at locking down meaning: the postal principle is a ‘différantial relay’ which forbids any rest and keeps us on our feet, pushes back or deviates the circular movement of speculation.

14 The Geographers’ A-Z Map Company Ltd., A-Z or ‘A to Z’ for short, was founded in 1936 and was the first independent publisher of maps in the UK until it was bought by Harper Collins in 2020. It is notably famous for its iconic map of the UK capital, ‘the London A-Z’.

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Diane Leblond, « Letters From A to X: An Ethics and Politics of Space »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 65 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2023, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Diane Leblond

Diane Leblond is a Lecturer in British Contemporary Literature and Visual Culture at the University of Lorraine in Metz, and a member of the research team IDEA (Interdisciplinarity in Anglophone Studies). Her PhD thesis entitled “Optics of Fiction” consisted in an exploration of visual culture through its representations within British contemporary fiction. Her current research explores the interface of visual culture and literature, and the epistemics, ethics and politics involved in the distribution of the sensible as manifested in contemporary writing and audio-visual media. Diane has published papers on Martin Amis, Nicola Barker, Rupert Thomson, Ali Smith, Jeanette Winterson and Jenni Fagan, on the feature documentary Notes on Blindness (2016) as well as British nature programmes. In October 2022, she co-organised the SEAC conference commemorating the work of author and art historian John Berger.

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