Saturday, February 5, 2011

Review of the Day: G

John Berger won both the Booker Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for G, his picaresque novel about the illegitimate son of an Italian merchant and an English intellectual. The plot follows the life and loves of the unidentified hero from his birth in the late 1800s through middle age.

So far so good. Then, like Berger, I have to switch to metaphor to describe the book: Imagine sitting at a table with a watchmaker as he demonstrates to you how to take apart and put back together a complicated watch. He explains each minute process in detail to make sure you understand every intricacy.

In theory, this should be interesting – seeing a master craftsman demonstrate his talents doing something you've always taken for granted (how a watch works) and making you think in a new way. But in reality, it is going to be tedious. The parts are tiny, it takes forever, and no matter how much he explains, you are never going to be able to track it all.

Now imagine that you have to sit there while this watchmaker takes apart and reassembles four or five different watches, explaining the process in the same excruciating detail.

Now, for watchmaker and watches, substitute John Berger describing G's sexual conquests – in excruciating detail, from seduction, through climax, to afterthoughts. Over and over.

Now – yes, it gets worse – add a third person at this table. Interspersed throughout the Don Juan episodes (sometimes interspersed in alternate paragraphs with no transitions and no punctuation to indicate dialog), this omniscient narrator drones on and on about the historic events that are the backdrop to G's adventures. There is a 19th century labor uprising in Italy, the early Socialist movement in England, the Boer War, the first airplane flight across the Alps, WWI trench warfare, and Italy's plotting to free Trieste from the Austrians. But G isn't actually involved with any of these events, so they never become more than a newsreel playing in the background. (Sorry to mix my metaphors – blame Berger.)

G has more plot than many an experimental novel. And, like reassembling a watch, it may involve genius. But I was more than happy to see it end.

(If you would like your review of this book listed her, please leave a comment with a link and I will add it.)

This was my "double-dipper" choice for the 2010 Battle of the Prizes, British Version.

The 2011 Battle runs from February 1, 2011 to January 31, 2012.  Sign up here, or click the logo.


  1. My god, no wonder you're mixing metaphors. I would be tearing my hair out, so thank you for saving me a bad read.

  2. I'm so sorry that my initial instincts were correct about this story. They usually are and it hit me on the first or second page that I wouldn't like it so I stopped. I was actually shocked by my reaction as I loved every other Berger work I've read, 8 or 9 books, I think. I was so hoping it would redeem itself but now we know. Thanks for your thoughts.

    I went back to your friend's site at Hotchpot Cafe and he'd actually changed his blog and made a reviews page so we could find them easier. What a nice thing to do, just because I couldn't find the title in his tag cloud. I'm off to read his review now.

  3. I love your review -- the watchmaker metaphor is perfect. I'm impressed you read the entire book!

  4. I love this review, your use of the watchmaker to explain your feelings about this book was priceless. Not the book for me!

  5. Nice review! I was torn between buying and not-buying this book. Now I am sure I wont. Sometimes I wonder how many of the books out there can actually can stand the test of time. I can see that this book may have been popular during its day, but perhaps too rambling and repetitive for today.

  6. I plowed through this for completions' sake, but I only really got interested in the last few pages. And then poof: march, canal, the end.

    If it's genius, I'm not able to recognize it. Sigh.

    (As for the blog, I thought Sandra's complaint was a valid one, so I'm working on the solution. Always room for improvement!)


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