Friday, April 6, 2012

Tony Messenger - G. - John Berger

Earlier this week Athena's wrote about "C" I'll write about "G."

I know it has been a while since I last posted a Booker Prize review, there is a very good reason for that, this novel took me a very long time to conquer. And a serious battle it was. You know that feeling when you pick up a lauded book, you struggle with it, but you have that determined psyche, the one that says “you will not beat me”. Unlike a number of other Booker Prize Shortlisted novels (and “The Satanic Verses” springs to mind here), I am proud to say this one did not beat me. I won!!!

Essentially “G.” deals with the life (from birth to death) of a man we simply know as G., the son of an Italian candied fruit seller and his mistress, the daughter of an American mother and “her father, now dead, a general in the British army”. At a young age G. is farmed off to live with his relatives, has a minimal relationship with his parents, acts throughout as a “Don Juan” (the novel’s reference not mine), witnesses the first flight over the Alps, is in Trieste during the outbreak of War etc etc.  However it is not the narrative which is important here, this novel is a complex mix of emotions, philosophical ravings, lyrical observations and more:

Animals do not admire each other. A horse does not admire its companions. It is not that they will not races against each other, but this is of no consequence, for, back in the stable, the one who is heavier and clumsier does not on that account give up his oats to the other, as men want others to do to them. With animals virtue is its own reward.

We have the usual references to the passing of time – and one which clearly brought to memory a passage from the 1971 Shortlisted “Briefing for a Descent Into Hell”  by Doris Lessing. A passage that I had quoted in my review of the novel a couple of months ago – this time the slowness of time is not from falling off a ladder but being knocked from a horse (see my earlier post for Lessing’s quote):

Time is measured not by numerals on a clock face but by the incidence of our apprehended possibilities. Without these – in face of the branch already above the galloping pony’s ears, time suffers an extraordinary change. The slowness of it cannot be imagined.

G. is an impersonal novel, one where you cannot become entwined with the main protagonist, simply due to the distant writing style, as the whole novel is made up of interconnected paragraphs but not ones that obviously flow together to form a chapter or section. The conversations are hard to follow with passages not containing quotations, nor identifying the speaker.

I do believe that this is the first Booker Prize shortlisted novel where the writer has included themselves as part of the narrative:

Everything you write is schema. You are the most schematic of writers. It is like a theorem.


Some say of my writing that it is too overburdened with metaphor and simile; that nothing is ever what it is but is always like something else. This is true, but why is it so? Whatever I perceive or imagine amazes me by its particularity….

I can assure you that it does become quite distracting, however it fades out as the novel progresses which feels as though Berger has forgotten to include all the ruminations later in the book. Besides being distracting Berger’s writings are no Italo Calvino:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice – they won’t hear you otherwise – “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t’ heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

An interesting and rewarding (in a way) novel, one I’m glad I’ve read, but not one I’d recommend to people who are starting to discover the Booker novels.

Cross posted at my blog.


  1. Congratulations on getting through this one ... I couldn't do it. I claim to have "read" all Booker winners, but the truth is there are two I couldn't finish (this one, and The Famished Road). It haunts me, but not enough to make me go back for a second attempt!

  2. Sounds like fair warning - but its still on my list!

  3. Thanks for the 'health warning' on this one Tony. I was planning to read it in the next few months but seems like I might need a stiff G&T in hand first.