Tuesday, November 10, 2009

the last book I read

G. by John Berger.

John Berger's career and public profile follows an interesting trajectory: painter and art critic and occasional novelist from the late 1940s up to the early 1970s, suddenly phenomenally famous in 1972 owing to the prize-winning success (of which more later) of this novel, and also of the book and television series Ways Of Seeing (most of which is available on YouTube, for instance episode one which is available in four parts here, here, here and here), then back to art criticism, exile in France and political activism, all of which he still pursues energetically at the age of 83.

On the face of it the story he tells in G. is a pretty simple one - boy born to a British/American mother and an Italian father, grows up in England in the 1890s, is seduced by his cousin at the age of 15 and therafter becomes a sexual adventurer, serial seducer and libertine who pops up Zelig-like (or Forrest Gump-like, if you prefer) in the background of various momentous events in western Europe during the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War (and therefore ending up in a similar place time-wise to the previous book in this series), depite having no interest in politics whatsoever, or indeed seemingly much at all beyond the constant thrill of the sexual chase. When he does, more by accident than anything else, become directly involved with an uprising in Trieste in the early days of the war he is promptly killed and dumped in a canal for his troubles.

The point of the book, though, is not so much to tell G.'s story as to use it as a jumping-off point for various things, firstly a series of tangential fictionalised musings on various real historical events such as the Milan riots of 1898, the race to achieve the first air crossing of the Alps in 1910 (eventually achieved by Jorge Chávez, but at the cost of his own life), and the battle for control of Trieste between Austria, Italy and Slovenia in the run-up to World War I, and secondly for Berger to do various metafictional experimentation:
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.
A cubic metre of space; empty it of your conception of that space; what remains is death.
Er, yeah. There's a fine line here, on the wrong side of which this sort of pretentiousness would be profoundly irritating, but the relentless energy of it all rescues it, plus the occasional amusing sex doodles scattered throughout the text. We aren't given anything as bourgeois and obvious as any sort of motivation for G.'s development into a fairly heartless Don Juan, or indeed for his last-minute conversion into political activism on the streets of Trieste; indeed the character of G. himself remains as opaque and mysterious to us at the end of the book as at the start.

G. was the fourth recipient of the Booker Prize in 1972; Berger's radicalism made him briefly notorious as he announced during his acceptance speech that he would be donating half of his prize money to the British arm of the Black Panthers in retaliation for Booker McConnell's history of exploitation of sugar workers in Guyana. G. also won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in the same year, so you can add it to the lists mentioned here and here. It is also the second book in this series to feature a cover which could conceivably cause some consternation on the bus, among the unusually prudish anyway.

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