To begin, I must confess to knowing very little (read: nothing) about the work of John Berger, nor am I especially well read of fiction of the mid twentieth century. So, in my attempt to remedy this, and become more familiar with for example, Nobel Literature laureates and Booker winners of bygone days, I embarked on John Berger’s ‘G’ the Booker winner from 1972. Suffice to say, I had no real idea what to expect and what I found was both pleasantly surprising and at times, laboriously post-modern.
Berger began his career as an art historian, a critical lens that frequently surfaces in his oeuvre. He taught art history as well as exhibiting his own work and made his name as a critic. In addition to writing several works of fiction, he is also known for his numerous screenplays and works for the stage. All of these influences are evident in this novel.
The title, ‘G’ refers to the name of the main character, though little is communicated directly from him. Indeed, as if to set the tone, the novel begins with a detailed discussion of the love affair that led to G’s conception, and we don’t find out his name until about a third of the way in. The name itself remains suitably ambiguous and carries sufficient anonymity as to make him appear both aloof and obscure – we are never told if ‘G’ is a shortened version of a longer name. He is born in the late nineteenth century to a pair of successful entrepreneurs. His mother is an independent and spirited young woman, who on discovering she is pregnant, refuses to let G’s father (married to someone else) be involved with the child at all (reason? – see previous brackets…). The father, an Italian businessman, is extremely rich and frustratingly weak when it comes to asserting his paternal rights. As a result, G is thenceforth taken to England, where his mother leaves him with relatives on a farm for most of his young life. She reappears when he is almost in his teens to take him to Italy to see his father for the first time, the real purpose of which is to secure money from the later for G’s schooling. G then matures to manhood, and is carried along on the fleeting social currents of the early twentieth century. As a postmodernist work, plot, though important in its way, is not really the focus here: indeed it becomes secondary to the vicarious fragmented details of G’s life and the scope of the novel is just that, G’s life – I suppose one could read this as a very idiosyncratic biography: subverting the genre in time honoured post-modern fashion.
G’s early life on the farm is told through many different narratorial segments, each betraying details of his formative desires, sufferings and discoveries; sexual and otherwise. As becomes characteristic, these passages are laden with direct comments from the author, all in the spirit of reflexive dialogue; as in the following when G has fallen from a horse:
The old man comes to the bed and sits on it. In face of the arrested time just ending, the boy may be as old as the man.
What the old man says, I do not know.
What the boy says in reply, I do not know.
To pretend to know would be to schematise.
When G is taken with his mother to meet his father in Italy, his early frameworks of understanding and his innocence/ignorance of the wider political world are projected onto the upheaval he witnesses in the plazas of Rome. Italy is on the brink of revolution and despite the chaos in the streets, his parents sit down with G discussing political alternatives and of course G’s imminent financial needs; comfortably disassociated from the dread tumult that is continuously bustling around them (This is exactly the condition of G throughout the rest of the novel – arrogantly ambling from one encounter to the next with no real conception of what is going on – a state of blissful apathy). In his naïve curiosity, G leaves the hotel alone early one morning to wander the streets and find out what all the fuss is about. He is swept along in the rioting, bustled here and there and in the midst of the violence becomes infatuated with a young girl who takes him under her wing. This pattern of behaviour becomes endemic, not just his indifference, but also his non-violent yet insatiable pursuit of women. As he matures, G is a witness to many significant historical events of the period (the focus of which is less the events themselves but the ignorance of G in relation to them) and the ever-present details that make up the whole.
The novel is said to represent the decline of the old bourgeois order of which G is a vestige (Berger is a Marxist sympathiser). He travels Europe in a flurry of arrogant promiscuity and a casual ignorance of the possible severity, not just of his own actions, but the actions of the vying political factions around him. He is largely unaware, an apathetic young man pursuing his appetite whither it leads and for the most part unaware of the consequences. It is this attitude that, spiralling out of control, leads eventually to his death - which ironically occurs amidst a similar radical demonstration as he found himself in Rome as a boy.
To consider the rather stark gender politics of the novel, it is perhaps best to refer to Berger’s analytical work. In his most famous critical work on art, ‘Ways of Seeing’ (written around the same time as ‘G’), Berger argued that paintings of women often conveyed the idea that their observer was male. Indeed ‘…men act, and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at…’ Berger was in favour of challenging these conventions as he saw them, and while he makes G utterly guilty of these, he allows his narrative to explore the feelings of the women as well as G’s own, challenging what he saw as the boundaries of art through the narrative form. Attempting to create a psychological dimension to the female psyche is a fitting enterprise in the decade that built on the radical social activism of the 1960’s. G is a voracious young man, an anti-hero, whom, we are told in addition, was not especially attractive. He is an exile from his own world, unable to find a niche in the changing currents of the day. Yet the women although seen by him as little more than sexual objects, are given a voice and a perspective of their own (this however, in my opinion could have been emphasised somewhat…). He sees them, but they, far from merely watching themselves ‘be seen’ are active players in the world. G’s time has ended; another era must take its place.
G himself remains determinedly unaware. On witnessing the first man-made flight over the Alps, when not seducing his friend’s wife, he is gazing skyward, oblivious to the masses rushing round his feet preparing for what will become the first world war. He has no coherent goal or purpose, no real drive, at his death there is no great sense of loss; he was a necessary sacrifice to allow for a new order. What takes precedence for Berger, are the tiny minutiae of his daily life, little moments that occur, seemingly inconsequential events, sights, sounds, smells, that come back to haunt him. This is what makes the book so compelling. Berger is making the tiny events as important and as life changing as the great dramatic historical events that G ‘blindly’ witnesses. And for G at least, these small occurrences are of a greater magnitude than the enormity of the events being played on the world stage (a typical consequence of his skewed perspective…).
Berger’s fascination with ‘ways of seeing’ is an important one in the context of this novel. His authorial interjections are at once, illuminating and challenging. He occasionally switches tone to write as if it is the reader that G is approaching, touching or speaking to, and then just as abruptly, switches back to the third person. These changes in the narrative voice are both disturbing and transfixing, working to stimulate the potential multi-perspectives of a scene. He also interrupts the prose at selected moments to launch into private conversation with the reader. Note the following, in the middle of a scene where G is seducing a woman:
Some say of my writing that it is too overburdened with metaphor and simile: that nothing is ever what it is and is always like something else. This is true, but why is it so? …I am forced to use another method to try to place and define events. A method which searches for co-ordinates extensively in space, rather than consequentially in time…I do not wish to become prisoner of the nominal, believing that things are what I name them. On the bed, they were not such prisoners…
These narratorial ticks are extensive and while often pretentious, they carry a wry, controlled ‘tongue-in-check’ cadence. His own narrative technique is designed to offer the maximum possible ‘ways of seeing’ what the prose has to offer, and this is not just achieved via the written word. The text gives way to small line drawings (representative of G’s own doodling) on more than one occasion, and during the revolutionary marches in Rome in which the young G becomes embroiled, we are given a small musical score to illustrate the tune of one of the songs being chanted. The main body of the prose is divided up considerably into many smallish paragraphs and regularly skips from one plot thread or time sequence to another. The result can be disorientating, though I’m guessing that’s part of the point. His life is made up of tiny segments of experience so that’s how the book will chart it. Memory is fleeting and unpredictable, so that’s how the book will record it.
‘G’ is a powerful, though disquieting, novel combining the subtleties of detail with the cinematic scope of possibility and historic gravity. The experimentation with narrative devices is both innovative and clever, though at times overblown as to seem a little too impenetrable. It is at once a tale of emptiness, but also of grandeur. It is fascinating to consider the influential impact such work has had on the contemporary novel.