Thoughts: G, by John Berger

I have finally made it into the 2017 part of my TBR list! Yay!

So this was kind of a weird one. All the reviews I saw on Goodreads were either very highly rated or very low rated, but my own experience was decidedly… middling.

Partly I couldn’t quite get into the story, partly I think I was missing some background context (Italian history in the late nineteenth century, the Don Juan story in its various forms…), just a variety of little things that stopped me loving it.

Usual spoiler warnings ahead.

The title character, G, off bonking his way around Europe while various grand historical events are going on, is kind of the story. But we get to spend a lot of time with his parents before he was born, and we spend a lot of time watching those grand events play out while G is elsewhere or not paying attention, and also a significant amount of the text is interjections from the narrator explaining his thoughts on various things (mostly sex and the impossibility of conveying feelings and experience through prose). G fits a lot in, and a lot of it I even liked, but I’m not sure it all came together into a convincing whole for me.

There were whole sequences I enjoyed (Nuša’s parts and Chavez’s flight especially), and to Berger’s credit, he writes his characters regardless of gender with the same attention to depth and inner life and personality, which is greatly important in any work about a womaniser, let’s be honest here, and the prose is quite beautiful, but I couldn’t let myself go in it. The story holds us always a little at arm’s length, even without the narrator jumping in to tell us that actually the real sexual experience is impossible to describe, so I couldn’t immerse myself in it.

Also G himself remains something of an enigma, however much time we spend in his head. He professes not to be political even when he ends up a sort of spy before WWI, and he tells his aviator friend that he doesn’t care about flying even though he has talent for it (and indeed spends Chavez’s flight across the Alps, the first ever flight across the Alps, with a waitress he’s become obsessed with after something absurd like two days), and is clear that his only passion is women, which whatever, fine, but I couldn’t quite catch hold of him. I couldn’t get to grips with why he was doing most of the things he did.

A couple of times he uses his experiences (or pointedly not-experiences) with wives to get one over on their husbands, which is always going to be a little uncomfortable, and though a couple of the women are not interested in him when he makes his initial advances they always end up willingly doing the deed, which is also a little uncomfortable (they are always willing but the fact that he never gets refused and succeeds through perseverance, and that this was all written and orchestrated by a real man in our world is the context from which I’m coming, you feel me?).

And I might as well say, if you’re going to read this in public or when in a childish state of mind, there are a couple of amazing sketches, very Kurt-Vonnegut’s-Breakfast-of-Champions, which may jar you out of the mood.

In conclusion, then, this one didn’t really do it for me. It had stretches where it almost got there, bits where it was almost as perfect as Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books, but it couldn’t let itself go enough for me to let myself go, and I don’t think I could see the shape of the whole well enough to appreciate it.

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