Book review: G. by John Berger, 1972

The Bad Sex prize was set up in 1993 by Auberon Waugh, with the intention of “gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels”. It’s such a pity that the award wasn’t around when John Berger published G., because he would have run away with it. Perhaps they should introduce a retrospective prize?

Set at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, G. is the story of a modern Don Juan, someone totally focussed on the pursuit of sex, to the exclusion of any other concerns or interests. Women fall out of their clothes and sleep with him at the first opportunity – he is irresistible to them. Strange how women only behave like that in novels written by men, isn’t it? Contemporary historical events, such as the outbreak of the First World War, are used as a backdrop to his sexual adventurism.

Trigger warning for very badly written sex:

“She opens her legs. He pushes his finger towards her. Warm mucus encloses his finger as closely as if it were a ninth skin. When he moves the finger, the surface of the enclosing liquid is stretched – sometimes to breaking point. Where the break occurs he has a sensation of coolness on that side of his finger – before the warm moist skin forms again over the break. She holds his penis with both hands, as though it were a bottle from which she were about to pour towards herself.” (109)

Berger was an art critic, and apparently developed the concept of the male gaze, (in feminist theory, the male gaze is usually defined as “the act of depicting women and the world, in the visual arts and in literature, from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer”) which makes it all the more remarkable that his writing about sex is completely from the male perspective, devoid of any empathy with women. Reddit has a forum called “Men writing about Women” which collects examples of men demonstrating their ignorance of female anatomy. Berger would fit right in there as well:

When he enters her, when this throbbing, cyclamen headed, silken, apoplectic fifth limb of his reaches as near to her centre as her pelvis will allow, he, in it, will be returning, she believes, to the origin of his desire.” (204)

If this cyclamen headed monstrosity wasn’t enough, the scene is illustrated by a childish sketch of a “fifth limb” that would not be out of place on a bathroom wall.

Later Berger pontificates on the differences between men and women:

If a woman threw a glass on the floor, this was an example of how she treated her emotion of anger and so of how she would wish it to be treated by others. If a man had done the same, his action would only have been an expression of his anger….This subjunctive world of the woman, this realm of her presence, guaranteed that no action undertaken within it could ever possess full integrity”. (150)

I’d like to think our understanding the differences between the sexes has matured somewhat since the early 1970’s!

I appreciate this all makes me sound very prudish, but to be clear, my concern isn’t with the fact that Berger describes sex, it is that he describes sex so very badly. But this isn’t just a bad sex novel. It’s a bad everything novel. The sex is as bad as the rest of the novel I am sorry to say. There are scenes of such intense embarrassment that I very nearly gave up –only the most stubborn completist streak in me kept me going. In a clumsy attempt at post-modernism, random fourth wall breaks are introduced into the text with irritatingly pompous asides by the author or narrator, such as

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.” (136)

I know of course that this is intended, along with the fragmented narrative and various other ostentatious techniques to tell the reader that this is a post-modern novel where their expectations will be regularly confounded. It tries hard to be innovative and European, but underneath it all is a rewarmed version of a traditional sexual adventurer’s story.

I have written about this before, but one thing I can’t stand in realist novels is inauthenticity. Characters behaving in a mannered, unrealistic and obviously fictional way, not because the author wants to make it clear this is a non-realist text but because the author can’t write realistically. There is one scene in G. where this point was illustrated perfectly. G. is buying a woman, Camille (he endearingly calls her Camomile) a pair of Italian leather gloves, as part of his whole flawless, irresistible seduction technique:

“The Italian woman blew into the second glove before passing it to Camille. Filled with her breath, the glove took on the form of a hand which suddenly and deeply frightened Camille. It was a languid boneless hand, a hand without will, a hand floating in the air like a dead fish with its white stomach uppermost.” (172)

If you can persuade me that anyone, ever, was frightened by a glove, however fragile and nervous they might be, while buying a pair of gloves then I will give up reading this minute. It’s the second glove as well – it’s not like the gloves loomed up at her unexpectedly. This irritated me far more than it ought to have done, but for me it is the cardinal sin of the novelist. The characters become themselves mere puppets, tools of the novelist to display archetypal feelings or reactions, all to further the novel or avoid a plot complication. It’s not absurdist or experimental, it’s bad. Defenders of this novel will claim this alienation technique is deliberate, and that I am being far too literal in my reading. Which of course is quite possible. Is this a clumsy technique to ensure the reader pays attention to the construction of the novel as a cultural artefact? Or is it just bad writing? Some authors have earned the benefit of the doubt, and I will usually try to work out what really is going on when I am pulled up short by some apparently awful writing. But Berger, an English art critic, essayist, novelist, painter and author, hasn’t earned that degree of commitment from me as a reader.

Time can be cruel to a novel and novelists. G. was once deemed by a Booker prize jury to be the best novel written in 1972, albeit against a pretty forgettable shortlist (Susan Hill’s The Bird of Night, Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, and David Storey’s Pasmore. Both Keneally and Storey were to go on and win the prize themselves. Susan Hill said of her The Bird of Night that it “was a book I have never rated. I don’t think it works, though there are a few good things in it. I don’t believe in the characters or the story.”) Now G. is largely forgotten, unread except by Booker winner completists, and sometimes not even then. It’s not all bad, there are moments of interest – the description of the battles of World War One are actually readable. But these are brief interludes in the otherwise stultifying descriptions of G.’s attempts to seduce yet another young woman interspersed with the author’s pontifications on whatever idea had briefly captured his attention.

P.S. Goodreads says of Berger that “One of the most common themes that appears on his books is the dialectics established between modernity and memory and loss”. (That should be in his books surely?) Anyway, does anyone know what “the dialectics established between modernity and memory and loss” means?

8 thoughts on “Book review: G. by John Berger, 1972

  1. I enjoyed your review. I do recall reading the novel, many years ago, and it was so eminently forgettable that I remembered nothing at all about it! As I’d recently enjoyed watching Berger’s Ways of Seeing, I might have been tempted to revisit the book; you have saved me a few precious hours…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did rather give this one both barrels and feel a bit guilty about that. I am sure it is not as bad as I made out, but sometimes being fair to an author just isn’t within me!


  2. Sounds pretty bad. I doubt your assessment is overly harsh. Some of the passages you shared made me laugh out loud. Have no idea about the dialectics—sounds a bit Emperor’s-New-Clothesish to me.

    Liked by 1 person

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