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

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Monday, January 9, 2017

Reading the late John Berger's best-known novel

British writer John Berger, who died earlier this month, was known primarily for his socially conscious journalism-nonfiction (Pig Earth, esp.); somewhat less known, at least in the U.S., as a novelist, but he did win a Booker Prize (value that as you will - there were some fine winners and others who were beneficiaries of clubbiness and log-rolling) for his novel G., published in the U.S by the usually trustworthy Vintage, so I'm giving it a shot. So far - about a third of the way in - it's a pretty impressive novel that bears some, perhaps too many, of the stamps of its age. Published in 1972, G. (the handle of the lead character, I think) can't help but dip into some of postmodern waters of its era: the entire novel is told in short sections, usually the length of one paragraph, sometimes a few paragraphs or a snap of dialogue, sometimes just a sentence; more annoyingly, Berger steps aside from his storytelling from time to time to comment on his own writing: I really don't know how to conclude this scene; words are inadequate - phrases to that effect. These devices must have seemed clever and liberating at the time, but now they seem almost quaint. On the plus side, G. is a pretty good character study: Berger begins with the protagonist's parentage, father a wealthy Italian vendor of candied fruits; mother a American divorcee and heiress, settled in Paris. The two meet and have a long-running affair. The mother gives G. up to 2 English cousins to raise him in the countryside - and that's our window into class politics, which is really Berger's main theme. G. is begin raised as a young English gentleman, but, partly under the influence of his nonconformist (and American) mother who sees him from time to time, he is developing a sense of the class struggle in England and, in particular, in Italy, which is going through a workers' revolution (G. is born int he late 19th century). In probably the best scene in the first third of the novel, a teenage G. witnesses a worker's revolt in Milan, getting caught up in the riotous crowd and coming under fire from the Italian army. Another fine scene: G. rabbit hunting with the cousin who is raising him (Jocelyn, who ever heard of that as a man's name?) and recognizing the privileged status landowners hold, for no good reason,  in turn-of-century England. As a "bildungsroman," this novel is occasionally sprawling and unfocused, but  the picture of G., at least in his youth, is beginning to emerge. Over the course of the novel, the question is: will he acquiesce and accept the privileges of his class, or will he struggle against the system?

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