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

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

G.: A good novel, or a narcissist mess?

The puzzling thing about John Berger's 1972 novel, G., is how to judge the protagonist - and, more specifically, what to make of Berger's attitude toward the eponymous G. (Why this coyness about the protagonist's name? His school nickname was Garibaldi, in homage to his Italian parentage and to the revolutionary leader.) To start, G. is a despicable guy: OK the novel sets him up as a Don Juan character, and DJ in literature and art isn't always despicable: he's a creep and a cad in the great opera, but also funny and lovable (mille tre!) and he gets what's what in the end. But what works in opera does not work in literature: we can't help but see how G. goes about ruining lives and destroying marriages. He has no feelings for any of the women whom he seduces; he's acting out a compulsion - and he's particularly drawn to the most young and vulnerable women. Why would we like him or even be interested in him? Strangely, I see no evidence that Berger is stepping aside from his protagonist; rather, Berger holds him forth as some kind of sexual idealist - going off in rapturous and sometimes incomprehensible narrative ecstasies about G.'s various conquests. And by the way, how does G. manage to seduce all of these women? He's not especially handsome, bold, intelligent, or wealthy. Berger seems to have the weird belief that women just fall under the spell of a guy who shows persistent interest in them, who pursues them relentlessly. What a juvenile idea. And what makes this so strange is that throughout the novel there are some fine passages and some progressive politics: Berger is attuned to social classes and to class struggle; he seems to have sympathy for the people's in Italy and for various European freedom fighters in the early 20th century - so what's with his archaic attitude toward women? Is he perhaps saying that the male domination of women is analogous the domination of a powerful state or government over oppressed people and classes? That's something I thought about maybe in college, but it's a line of thought that today to me looks puerile and shameful. He's a writer of such talent, learning, and at times insight - but so unbridled. This novel is a good (or bad) example of what goes wrong in an era when anything "new" in style was lauded, accepted, and published, even if it made no sense and turned a potentially good novel into a narcissist mess.

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