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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Berger and the "bad" DH Lawrence - and other narrative problems

An NYT review on back jacket of the Vintage International ed of John Berger's novel G. compares Berger with DH Lawrence. That's sweet, but unfortunately - the comparison should have specified: the Bad Lawrence, the one who wrote mawkishly and w/ high seriousness (I doubt there's a single funny line in all of DHL's fiction, for that matter) about sex. Berger's novel is ostensibly about a young man, the eponymous G., who becomes a Don Juan/Lothario in his late teen years and, following the path of his father, has a # of affairs throughout Europe in the first half of the 20th century, some apparently just flings, others more enduring. His first sexual encounter (aside from an infancy crush on his nurse) is w/ his first cousin (once removed) who was essentially raising him. This strange encounter between a 15-year-old and the widowed cousin give Berger occasion to blather on for several pages about the mysteries of sex and why it's so hard to write well about sex (that is true). Unfortunately, Berger wanders into some strange territory, with some ultra-anti-feminist diatribe about about woman's subjugation (DHL could maybe be excused for this but by 1972 Berger should have known better). Part of the strangeness of this novel is that it contains many sections full of empathy with the oppressed: Italian workers, African slaves, e.g., and some pretty sensible Marxist observations, such as a short discussion about how ruling classes build an ideology (e.g., the caste system) that suggests it's the way of nature to oppress others. Well and good - Berger's political sympathies are well known - but when it comes to the narrative, the drama of the novel, he loses sight of his ideology and his characters, G. in particular, behave w/ blithe indifference to their class privileges and the harm they bring upon others (G. has an affair w/ a hotel maid - an example of exploitation if there ever was one - which she later realizes will ruin her impending marriage to a working-class man in her town). What makes this particularly galling is that some of the sections of this novel are so well written and so compelling, such as the episode about the pilot trying to be the first to cross the Alps into Italy; why couldn't Berger have stayed with this more conventional narrative, rather than dressing this novel up w/ all of the gimcrack of the 1970s: scraps of pseudo-philosophy, shifting narrative POV, interpolated poetry, postmodern references to the work under progress itself, even a few freehand sketches?

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