Monday, February 2, 2009

John Berger's "G.": Book Review

This dense, philosophical Booker Prize-winning novel of ideas took six years to write. Appearing in 1972, it follows the amorous adventures of an Italian-English gentleman as he seduces, from a predictably precocious age, many women. Yet, this Don Juan, for me, lacks appeal. His encounters, recounted by an intrusive and omniscient narrator, intersperse with eloquent meditations on sexuality, eroticism, love, and desire as a construct trapping or freeing men and women in late 19th and early 20th century Europe.

Berger's mix of reflection and fiction may not flow lightly, but it moves often dazzlingly. The distance that the author places between himself and "G." serves to keep the reader apart from the characters, and G.'s lovers come and go suddenly, without conventional seductions followed by affairs ended by breakups. You get their couplings in fragmented, often very evocative and momentarily graphic depictions. But, without the aftermath, what accrues are episodes from G.'s love life, mixed with narrative reflection, historical and political mini-essays, and an account of the times from both a bourgeois and a proletarian perspective.

The result's better cited in its prose, so below I give examples of Berger's success. While I found many parts uninvolving, such as Chavez' first flight over the Alps, the accounts of rebellions and the WWI glimpses held my attention much more, not to mention many sensuous moments. But, this novel, in its fragmented nature and editorial intrusion, may put off readers rather than get them off.

It's a heady experience, nonetheless, for the more intellectually minded reader wanting philosophy mixed with affairs if not of the heart than of the groin. By entering this disturbing, powerful, and unsettlingly limned realm, Berger tries to demythologize romance. He offers instead an analysis in fiction and speculation of how it takes place, emerging from within the society of a hundred years ago. Less concerned with character and even plot, G. as protagonist and his antagonists may not grip you as much as the vignettes of passion whether in fighting on the street or coupling in the boudoir. It may be an exchange you are willing to accept, in return for so many thoughts about sex, death, desire, and longing so well told.

G.’s mother: “The mystery of her own poor health began with his [her father’s] death and gradually established the foundation of a lifelong right: the right to be less than present, the right to withdraw.” (3)

1898 Milanese workers’ rebellion: “On the road between the soldiers and the barricade, absolutely still, are the seven stones that have fallen short.” (74) “A cubic metre of space; empty it of your conception of that space; what remains is death.”

The body: “The process of maturing and, later, of ageing involves a gradual but increasing withdrawal of the self from the exterior surface of the body.” (84)

“The focus of sexual desire is concentrated and sharp. The breast may be seen as a model of such focus, gathering from an indefinable, soft variable form to the demarcation of the aureola and, within that, to the precise tip of the nipple.” (110) “All generalizations are opposed to sexuality.” (111)

The narrator's method: “I write in the spirit of a geometrician. One of the ways in which I establish co-ordinates extensively is by likening aspect with aspect, by way of metaphor. I do not wish to become a prisoner of the nominal, believing that things are what I name them. On the bed they were not such prisoners.” (137)

The battle of the sexes, "amour prope" a hundred years past: “The subjunctive realm of the woman, this realm or her presence, guaranteed that no such action undertaken within it could ever possess full integrity; in each action there was an ambiguity which corresponded to an ambiguity in the self, divided between surveyor and the surveyed. The so-called duplicity of women was the result of the monolithic dominance of man.” (150)

“For the nineteenth century European middle classes the state of being in love was characterized by an excessive uncertainty in an otherwise certain world. It was a state exempt from the promise of Progress.” (151) “For the woman the state of being in love was an hallucinatory interregnum between two owners, her bridegroom taking the place of her father, or later, perhaps, a lover taking the place of her husband. . . . The surveyed-within-herself became the creature of proprietor and agent, of whom both must be proud.” (152)

Speaking of the components of sexual desire, Berger finds some “violently nostalgic,“ reaching back to birth; others leap ahead to the unknown threshold of our annihilation. "At the moment of orgasm these points in time, our beginning and our end, may seem to fuse into one. When that happens everything that lies between them, that is to say our whole life, becomes instantaneous. It is thus I explain the protagonist of my book to myself.” (142)

Camille, one of his mistresses just before her first union with G.: “I have as many hairs on the back of my neck as you may have ways of touching me.” (202) “Undressing was the act of shedding the interests of those who make up the interests of her life. With her clothes she discarded the men he hates.” (203)

A wife may despise the accumulation of her future as she lives next to her husband; a widow “embraces the inexorable,” returning to an idealized past filled with her husband’s absence as its main event to come. A wife may be trapped within her husband’s reality; a widow refusing remarriage "tries to make her own life timeless.” (235)

“Von Hartmann argued that his wife’s adventures and extravagances should be appraised in their special relation to her lifetime with him. The licenses he had granted her had to be so graduated that she did not exhaust the possibilities of his compliance until she was too old to find another man.” (257) Jamesian style echoes?

Trapped by our time: “Certain experiences cannot be formulated because they have occurred too soon. This happens when an inherited world-view is unable to contain or resolve certain emotions or intuitions which have been provoked by a new situation or an extremity of experience unforeseen by the world-view.” (104)

The final pages: “Perhaps death when it arrives is always a mounting surprise which surprises itself to the point at which all reference—and therefore all self-distinction—disappears.” (315) “The horizon is the straight bottom edge of a curtain arbitrarily and suddenly lowered upon a performance.” (316)

Six years in writing, ’65-71. Dedicated “For Anya and her sisters in Women’s Liberation.”

(The start of this review and a few quotes posted to Amazon US today. Typically, the British edition has a better cover design, shown here. Vintage paperbacks in the US invariably suffer by comparison.)

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