John Berger Berger, John (Vol. 2) - Essay

Berger, John (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Berger, John 1926–

A British novelist, artist, and Marxist. Berger's latest novel is the unorthodox G.

I can see why [John Berger's novel G.] is terribly good (more of this later). I can also see why it is terribly pretentious and, a few weeks after reading it, it is the pretentiousness which tends to remain in the memory. I mean, it is incredibly affected, like the worst of D H Lawrence, in a way which should appeal to middle-aged liberals of the post-Bloomsbury sort….

Acne bursts from every page, in a series of subtle detonations designed to impress you with the enigmatic complexity of Berger's emotional insights. Its myopia is of a similar sort to Huxley's, only with less of Huxley's self-knowledge. Sometimes, mesmerised by his own ingenuity, Berger loses track of what he is saying and the carefully constructed image collapses like a meringue from undue stress. An air of contrived import or significance hangs over much of it which often the content cannot justify….

Berger, plus a sense of humour, would have been more penetrating than Coward but an element of charlatanism encompasses both….

Certainly … the book does contain some wonderful episodes. Berger's talent for invoking period is remarkable, often achieved by intercutting intimate, casual human conversations with straight accounts of remote historical events. This is particularly effective when he deals with the Great War….

The first chapter, set towards the end of the 19th century and dealing with the liaison between G's parents, is beautifully observed, again through a dexterity which conveys the period without resorting to obvious superficialities such as descriptions of costume or furnishings. It is like walking into a collection of sepia photographs and a great pity that Berger's discipline should crack up so soon afterwards.

This kind of juxtaposition is also used to relate meticulously examined human externals with Berger's broader considerations and sometimes this works really well….

In the same way the book contains a great number of vignettes, small bonuses as it were, which have no immediate implication in the emotional progress of G himself but nonetheless extend the foundations of the novel so that we can see the characters contextually rather than in biographical isolation. There is the Great Amoxa Delusion for example, or the conductor who arranged a concert 'at which the first syllable of the title of each work, as printed in the programme, spelt out an anti-Austrian slogan.' Amplifications like these are delightful, often arresting, like the section which begins 'Sunday, 9 May, appears to have been a sunny day all over Europe,' because they are precise and unusual. When he tries to apply the same sort of anatomical precision to philosophical scrutinising he ends up either being pointlessly convoluted or just plain messy. Berger's undoubted power to move the reader is too frequently undersold by the author himself.

Duncan Fallowell, "Berger on the G-String," in Books and Bookmen, September, 1972, pp. 70-1.

John Berger's excellent and fascinating new novel [G. is] "a novel on the theme of Don Juan"…. In the thick mulch at the roots of the English novel, the Don Juan figure, the libertine, played a central part. He was a self-justifying, self-contained character as pure in his way as the moral and spiritual woman who so often opposed him, each attempting to assert a personal definition of the self-sufficient personality. But Berger, who has been the art critic of [The New Statesman] and most recently the author of [The Success and Failure of Picasso] and [Art and Revolution,] makes his Don Juan more similar to Byron's—the boyish and fallible voyager after sexual adventure who sardonically but compassionately observes the shams and deceits of the societies he moves through….

Part of the power and fascination of [G.] comes from this extraordinary mixture of historical detail and sexual meditation—for at the intersection of G. and history is Berger's attitude toward heroism….

G. establishes a perspective apart from the subject-object and the object-object relations of public history. He is a vessel into which others may pour themselves to learn their shapes.

Sexuality is central to [G.], but in this book the timeless moment of sex must always be considered within the context of history. When Berger is not writing novels, he is a painter and Marxist art critic with a keen sensitivity to the unique psychological and esthetic moment of a painting as well as to the historical, social and cultural setting that conditions its creation. In [Picasso] he says "Only in fiction can we share another person's specific experiences. Outside fiction we have to generalize." Berger's decision to write fiction is dictated by a choice of subject matter, a desire to express himself in a way criticism might not allow. The urge of the critic to explain becomes transmuted into the urge of the novelist to be baffled. As Berger remarks in [G.], "All generalizations are opposed to sexuality."

[G.] in addition to its vividly portrayed characters and the crashing immediacy of its historical settings—is a complex novel of ideas that sets off in the reader meditations about sex, history and the nature of the novel….

Part of my pleasure in reading [G.] arises from … a growing feeling for the intricate relations between its characters, settings, ideas and form—a kind of interdependency that great novels always exhibit. [G.] puts the reader in contact with a writer for whom the novel is a special way of writing, a special way to think about the problems that most vitally concern us. The hermetic lure of the Nabokovian novel, with its equal attack against history and character, is the quintessence of the modernist lure: the novel that finishes novels, literature telling us that literature is basically worth nothing; fans, it's all parlor games, and now back to the real business.

[G.] belongs to that other tradition of the novel, the tradition of George Eliot, Tolstoy, D. H. Lawrence and Norman Mailer, the tradition of fallible wisdom, rich, nagging and unfinished. To read [G.] is to find again a rich commitment to the resources and possibilities of the genre—and a writer one demands to know more about. Not to sit at the feet of his aphorisms or unravel the tangles of his allusions, but to explore more fully an intriguing and powerful mind and talent.

Leo Braudy, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 10, 1972, pp. 5, 15.

First, let me express my sense that this [G.] is the most interesting novel in English I have read for a good many years (since Catch 22 to be precise, which one ought to be)….

G seems to me a fascinating work which, for all my admiration, I may well still be underestimating. It is one of the few serious attempts of our time to do for the novel what Brecht did for drama; to reshape it in the light of 20th-century experience and theory other than the purely subjective or self-analytical. Since most of us have become more or less incapable of responding to any art which is not so based, G isn't an easy book to deal with. To get on to the right track Thomas Mann is no doubt a help, but one might also profitably go back to the early Dos Passos novels….

Dos Passos managed to achieve what perhaps Berger doesn't, an immediate impact at once appreciable by an audience reared in a quite different tradition. But he achieved it at the expense of undermining the very aims of objectivity and demystification which one part of him was seeking. Berger is infinitely more conscious of what he is up to and what it implies in terms of art. It is possible, perhaps, to feel that he is too self-conscious and that this costs him an element, not so much of human complexity (he gets that all right) as of human warmth. But maybe such a reaction is itself part of the imprecision of feeling he is fighting. Fifteen years ago I'd have suppressed the doubt: now it seems important not to. But, emphatically, within the context of saluting a fine, humane and challenging book.

Arnold Kettle, "Trying to Reshape the Novel," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1972 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), October 7, 1972, pp. 30-1.