Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771
Despite its assertive subtitle, “A Novel,” John Berger’s G. hardly seems a novel at all. Many of its pages are taken up with reports about historical events contemporaneous with the narrated fictional incidents in the life of the hero, and many more are occupied with the narrator’s reflections upon his...
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- Critical Essays
Despite its assertive subtitle, “A Novel,” John Berger’s G. hardly seems a novel at all. Many of its pages are taken up with reports about historical events contemporaneous with the narrated fictional incidents in the life of the hero, and many more are occupied with the narrator’s reflections upon his own task as a writer: the difficulties he faces in telling the story, knowing how the plot will come out, grasping the innermost springs of his invented characters. The formal problem presented by this text is symmetrically opposite to that of Berger’s earlier novel, A Painter of Our Time (1958). There, the events of the narrative were largely presented by the narrator who told the story of the life of his painter friend Janos Lavin, while Lavin’s journal provided the occasion for philosophical reflection upon politics and art. In G., it is the narrator who talks incessantly about the theoretical problems that are inherent in aesthetic production, while the protagonist simply acts out the life of a modern Don Juan, for all the reader knows without the slightest selfawareness of what he is doing or where he is headed.
The novel opens prior to G.’s birth, with the rivalry between Esther, the wife of G.’s father, Umberto, and Laura, Umberto’s mistress and the mother of G. While Laura greatly desires to have Umberto’s child, she is unwilling to have that child reared by his father—nor is she prepared to be a proper parent herself. She thus allows G. to be reared by her cousins Jocelyn and Beatrice in rural England. The former initiates G. into violence by taking him hunting, the latter into sex. G.’s seduction by Beatrice is the result of a peculiar concatenation of circumstances, the most fully revealed of which involve Beatrice’s own past as the wife of a British officer posted to Africa (where Beatrice goes mad). The encounter will in turn send G. off on a long string of amorous encounters, all illicit and many involving physical danger to himself (which G. seems to relish). The comparison between G.’s career as a lover and that of his mythical namesake, Don Juan or Don Giovanni, is made explicit throughout the novel, not least in the spectacular finale of G.’s death.
After Beatrice’s seduction, the scene shifts from rural England to a small town in the Italian Alps, and the time moves ahead some eight years to 1910. The context involves the attempt by a flier, Chavez, to traverse the Alps by air. While Chavez is successfully making the crossing—only to crash upon arriving in Italy—G. seduces Camille Hennequin, the wife of a prominent French businessman. The husband subsequently attempts to avenge himself by shooting G., who is wounded but recovers in the same hospital where Chavez is dying nearby. G.’s ostensible lack of regret over the death of his friend Chavez disgusts their American compatriot Weymann, and the entire episode ends with G.’s reflections upon his now lost mistress Camille, marooned in Paris, and with Chavez accorded the funeral honors of a hero.
The long final section of the novel takes place in Trieste in 1914. Then under the domination of the Habsburg Empire, the city is a crossroads of European culture and politics, including among its population a large number of Slovenes as well as Italians. G. attempts to seduce a young Slovene named Nusa, at the same time that he is carrying on with the wife of an Austrian banker. G. bribes Nusa to attend a formal ball with him by offering to obtain a forged passport for her political-conspirator brother. She consents, and when the two appear at the ball, the banker correctly construes this as a direct insult to him (he knows about his wife’s infidelity but is content to allow it as long as she remains discreet). More important for the action, however, G.’s mistress Marika is outraged and attacks Nusa with a horsewhip. Driven from the ball, G. and Nusa are eventually arrested by the Austrian police, interrogated separately, and released. G. makes good on his promise and delivers the passport on the day Italy declares war on Trieste. Caught up in the anarchic violence of the crowd, G. is recognized by a group of Slovene patriots who believe him to be a traitor. He is carried off, knocked unconscious, and dumped into the Adriatic to drown. The novel closes with a description of the sea at sunset, the line of the horizon compared to the edge of a curtain ending a dramatic performance.