The curiously-named G. by John Berger won the Booker Prize in 1972 as well as the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Wikipedia has very little to say about the book so although there is a bit of chat about it on GoodReads I presume that it isn’t widely read and nobody feels confident about writing the definitive entry about it for Wikipedia.
I liked it, and I liked it a lot. It’s unashamedly postmodern, but it’s picaresque which makes it a reading experience somewhat different to other postmodern books I have read.
The central character is the English-Italian G, and if Berger explained why he doesn’t have a proper name, I missed it. At first I thought it might be an allusion to Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian hero who led the movement to unify Italy, because G (via British Foreign Office machinations) gets mixed up in the irredentist position of Trieste, an Italian seaport that was under the control of Austria at the outbreak of World War I and not formally annexed to Italy until 1920. Following this line of thought I remembered that Giuseppe is an Italian variant of the Hebrew name Joseph (Son of Jacob, the one with the many-coloured coat) because the name means ‘one who enlarges’ – but it all seems a bit tenuous because G is more of a Don Juan than a proper spy. If he was a spy at all. So now I think he’s called G because Berger just wanted him to be enigmatic.
Scholars, I expect, might have a grand old time reading and re-reading this book to unpick its treasures, but general readers are best advised just to ‘go with the flow’ and just read it as it comes. The plot (such as it is) will gradually emerge, and with it will come the sense that the affairs of men which seem of such importance to the people involved are insignificant beside the grand events in history which form a backdrop. While G is philandering with an assortment of other men’s wives, provoking melodramatic revenge by one outraged husband or masterful resignation by another, the aviator Jorge Chavez was redefining the possibilities of flight and the geo-political map of Europe was being redrawn.
The scene where Italian peasants flock to see Chavez’s plane cross the alps and to attend his funeral is a reminder not only of the adulation that attended these pioneers of flight, but also of the momentous changes wrought by aviation. The domestic drama of G, dawdling in Trieste to seduce Marika, the wife of the Austrian Von Hartman, is juxtaposed against the horrors of trench warfare and Italy’s decision to become involved. It’s very powerful, not least because (since we all already know about the war) the reader tends to be as interested in the seduction as G is. The moment that I recognised that I was as oblivious to the main event as he was came as a bit of a shock.
Berger’s technique forces acknowledgement of a novel’s artificiality. Here’s an example, where the author’s assertion that what he is writing is an artificial construct intrudes/harmonises with (take your pick) into the narrative about the revolt in Milan on 6 May 1898 (when Garibaldi was leading the nationalists towards their goal of unifying Italy). G, still a boy, is fleeing the insurrection with a Roman girl who has found him lost in the street when he wandered away from his hotel, but the narrative segues away from the child’s plight:
Along the street several riflemen have been posted in the windows of upper rooms from where they can fire, over the barricade, at its defenders. Under their covering fire the soldiers in the street are advancing. Already three defenders have been wounded.
Let me speak of one of the wounded. The bullet has entered just beneath his right collarbone. If he keeps his right arm still, the pain is constant but it does not move: it does not lunge out and devour his very consciousness of what remains unhurt. He hates the pain as he hates the soldiers. The pain is the soldiers in his body. He picks up a stone with his left hand and tries to throw it. In throwing it he inadvertently moves his right shoulder. The stone goes crooked and only hits a wall.
Write anything. Truth or untruth, it is unimportant. (p73)
Berger also uses beautiful poetic imagery to alert his readers to what he is doing in his story. A wife, attending a ball, has ‘deer coloured hair.’ (p281) Immediately the confident Marika who believes she is in control of her romance becomes something else; like the soldiers on the battlefront she is destined to be a victim of forces beyond her control.
I like the way Berger amuses himself with disingenuous regret, when he admits that any attempt to describe a seduction would be ‘absurd’.
The experience was central to her life : everything that she had been, surrounded by her present experience as land surrounds a lake. Everything she had been was turned to sand and shelved at the borders of this experience to disappear beneath its waters and become its unseen, mysterious lake bed. To express her experience it would be necessary for us to reconstruct around ourselves her unique language. And this is impossible. Armed with the entire language of literature we are still denied access to her unique experience. (p131)
It’s surprisingly easy to follow what happens in the story even though Berger keeps wandering off into sub plots and private reflections about the nature of writing. This technique will probably drive some readers crazy, but if you can tolerate ambiguity and a haphazard structure there is much to enjoy in G.
Author: John Berger
Publisher: Viking Press, 1972
Source: Personal library
PS By coincidence, my good friend Sue at Whispering Gums posted about marginalia the other day, and reading my copy of G. provided me with yet another reason to object to it. Berger was writing in the 1960s when feminism was emerging as a potent political force, and some of his ruminations are about the role of women. My copy of G. is a first edition and an expensive addition to my Booker Prize collection, so I was somewhat disconcerted to find that the previous reader had made several savage stabbings with a ballpoint pen to indicate her displeasure with some of these passages. This reader has failed to recognise Berger’s irony – and I find this ignorance intrusive. I turn the page, my eye is attracted straight away to the blue biro, and immediately my reading is arrested and I become aware that once again there is a passage there that has annoyed this previous reader. This marginalia gives the passage and this other reader’s interpretation of it, a dominance it ought not to have. It’s as if there is a rather stupid third person interfering with my reading of the book, interrupting me, demanding that I take notice of her angry ideological perspective. Ok, it was her book to use as she pleased, but she has ruined it for anyone else.
I bought the book two years ago from a second-hand dealer in America who advertised it as a ‘very fine copy’ so I emailed him to let him know that while it was my responsibility to have checked the book properly when it arrived, he should have checked it properly before advertising it. I wasn’t expecting anything except perhaps an apology, but to my surprise he has insisted on refunding my money which he is under no obligation to do. It just goes to show that people who love books are special people indeed, eh?