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...
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