Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

G. is undoubtedly Berger’s most ambitious and probably his most successful novel. It incorporates and synthesizes the obsessive themes of the early fiction: alienation, the relationship between art and politics, the difficulty of sustaining vital, life-giving aesthetic forms under an increasingly reified regime of daily life. In addition, it is the culmination of the more than fifteen years during which he worked as one of the liveliest and most penetrating art critics in the English-speaking world. Finally, it marks a kind of terminus for the modernist novel in English, for it is difficult to see how anyone could go further than Berger has down the road of a fiction that self-consciously reflects upon its practice and the problems of narration as an aesthetic mode. By comparison, The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) or the later novels of John Barth are child’s play—one might even say childish.

As Wyndham Lewis once said of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), G. is less a revolutionary work (in the aesthetic or formal sense) than it is a terminal moraine. G. marks not only a terminus in the formal possibilities of the English novel but also a kind of cul-de-sac for Berger himself. His subsequent nonfiction works, the collaborative books with the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr, the art criticism, and the mixed mode of Pig Earth (1979) have proven thus far poorer achievements by comparison with G. This is not to say that Berger’s career has reached its own end point, merely to observe that the historical moment of revolutionary possibility which Berger himself located in the epoch of cubism has not found its contemporary analogue in any of the arts—at least not in the so-called First World. If one takes Berger’s conclusions about the relationship between the artist and the determining force of history seriously, it should come as no surprise that John Berger has not been able to surpass the achievement of G. The trajectory of contemporary history itself will have to present artists such as Berger with the material and the impetus to go beyond the moment of G.’s revolutionary realism.