G. is the aptly titled winner of the 1972 Booker Prize winner by novelist, John Berger, who is probably better known as an art critic. In a unique combination of this two artistic representations, the novel is rendered in flickers and strokes, and layers of meaning some of which emerge as images and some of which simply exist to form a textured background, much like a modern painting might be created.
The protagonist, G., is the product of an extramarital affair between Umberto, an Italian merchant, and Laura, the daughter of an Englishman and an American. Both parents are married to other people but Umberto leaves his sickly wife at home to travel the globe with the young Laura, who has herself abandoned the husband she married at seventeen. Both parents give themselves freely to the affair for several years, indulging their hedonistic pleasures, only changing when Laura becomes pregnant and Umberto wants to install her in his hometown, an arrangement Laura pronounces would make her wore wifely than she desires. Instead, she takes her son to England where he is raised on a farm by her cousins and grows up believing his father is dead and his mother is an elusive dream.
On the farm, he acquires a hyper-sexual awareness from observing the natural way of animals, the almost but not quite incestous closeness between the cousins who are his guardians, and from five years old, he starts having his own sexual fantasies of being with his older governesses.
In his early teens, he is reunited with Laura who takes him to meet his father and the illusions are shattered – the reality of his parents versus the fantasies he has created. Additionally, the family reunion is interrupted by scenes of the war in Italy and G. is caught up in the resistance, not being able to speak the language and thus he becomes a pawn without even knowing the prize.
By establishing the family structure in which G. is raised and by introducing the characters that will be his teachers even before presenting G. himself, the author uses artistic tools as the framework for telling the story which invites the reader to have the nature versus nurture discussion.
As the novel progresses, and G becomes a traveler with a widening sphere of influence, the story incorporates his highly sexualized attitudes with his attempt to dominates and layers his conquests over the political dramas unfolding around the world at the same time. So we are introduced to the Amaxhosa tragedy in South Africa because the cousin he seduces was once stationed there. In the Amaxhosa incident, African black natives were encouraged to destroy their own property to discourage the Europeans who wanted to invade and settle on their land. Many of the Amaxhosa tribe lost their way of living when they destroyed their crops and animals, and the author makes a comparison between the two instances of domination of a majority by a minority power.
In the course of his travels, G. visits the Alps to witness his friend Geo attempt to be the first pilot to scale the mountain but he becomes distracted by pursuing a hotel maid for a intimate encounter. G.’s conquests are compared and contrasted with the aviator’s heroic acts, and how these two different men affect the world through their own personal conquests.
Even later, G. travels to Trieste and is present around the eruption of World War I, having encounters with Bosnians and Slovenians who are on the periphery of the incident leading up to the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. G. is himself caught up in the violence, pursuing the hedonistic pleasures that have defined his entire life, meanwhile his actions impact the massive scale political decisions being made around him.
The novel’s format is unique in that it is not the simple unfolding of one character’s life, nor does it provide a clear allegory where the reader can point to a point in history that is being alluded to. In fact, the main character’s movements make the case for the universality of the story. The storytelling technique is a challenging one to follow because it takes a meandering path, establishing points and returning often to link them to other, later parts of G’s life. The artistic rendering of the story reflects the styles of Italian masters whose names also appear in the novel – Caravaggio who worked in chiaroscuro and presented his subjects in alternating shadows and light to show the extremes of their lives, and the versatile Titian who emphasized his nudes with bold colors and loose brushstrokes but whose paintings experimented with technique and subject and format. The main character, G, encompasses these artistic characteristics but also reflects the hero Garibaldi, who is credited with being one of the heroes who unified Italy in the late 1800s.
As a composite of all these various elements of history and art, the novel is pedantic and scholastically challenging, as a representation of G’s origins and family structure and how his gene pool and early childhood experiences may have influenced his adult lifestyle, the novel provides fodder for an interesting psychological discussion. The sole caveat about this book concerns the sexual nature in much of the presentation – the author presents the characters in an almost titillating way, including pictures and graphic descriptions meant to transmit the character’s sexual prowess and the ease with which G. appeals to his conquests mentally so that they willingly cede to his advances. While this functions as a symbol of political domination, it might be off-putting for some readers. In this case, I hope you can see the forest behind the giant sequoia trees because G. by John Berger is so much more.