John Berger and Anne Michaels
photographs by Tereza Stehlíková
by Jesse Freedman
Some books assume an atmospheric quality. Railtracks, which records a series of conversations between the acclaimed art critic John Berger and novelist Anne Michaels, is among them. Accompanied by the haunting photography of Tereza Stehlíková, this beautiful collection is equal parts history, poetry, and philosophy. It is, as Michaels makes clear at the start, a book in search of lost worlds. “A photograph of a ghost,” she writes, “is sound.” Berger, too, is absorbed by the ephemeral. “The Angel of Memory looks down at her feet; everything flows past her.” That atmospheric quality—of regret, of longing, and solitude—permeates Berger’s journey, one which begins with Michaels in London and expands across the lonely tracks of time: to Greenwich, Liverpool, America, and beyond.
Those familiar with Berger’s work—including now canonical texts like About Looking and Ways of Seeing—will recognize in Railtracks his fascination with what lurks in the shadows, at the edge of our vision. “In the minute that’s still left we have to do everything. I hurry ahead faster than the train. This way, for a fraction of a second, I’ll see you approaching again.” This image is one to which Berger returns later in the book, when he and Michaels describe remembrance in a manner reminiscent of the late German author, W. G. Sebald. “Memory,” writes Michaels, “carries lovers in her arms; not the way a mother carries a child, but the way one man carries another man.” At its core, Railtracks is a book about history’s weight, and memory’s often futile attempts to claim its part.
The influence of Sebald permeates the dialogue between Berger and Michaels: everywhere are frozen landscapes made real through photographs. And yet, these photographs reinforce an unavoidable reality: even the most profound moments are fleeting. Trains, like pictures, evoke pain: there is a part of us that “longs to follow and is left behind.”
It is this tension—between moments and movement, between the transient and the eternal—that hangs over Railtracks. Michaels, in particular, offers a number of harrowing meditations on the role of trains, writing of that first lurch, that “great weight waking” in the night. Like Sebald, she is sensitive to the associations in Europe between trains and tragedy: “No one else,” she wails, “could tear open the night like you—or leave behind such chilling space.” Whether Michaels is addressing the transformation of London’s skyline, or the sorrow of European history manifest in Stehlíková’s photographs, she approaches trains both as machines and as cloaks for a darker set of emotions.
Ultimately, Berger and Michaels conclude their journey on a rueful note. Implicit in the migration of animals, they argue, is the idea of return. Indeed, “an animal migrates for the sake of its return.” The same cannot be said of humans: we travel to reach our destination. Sometimes, that destination is of our choosing; other times, it has been selected for us, and the pleasure of return is denied forever. Return, in effect, becomes a distant memory.