G by John Berger – review
John Berger's 1972 Booker prize-winning novel rewards serious reading
Sunday 19 May 2013 00.05 BST
he one thing people tend to know about G is that when it won the Booker in 1972, John Berger ˚pledged half his prize money to the Black Panthersin order to "turn the prize against itself" (a reference to the Caribbean sugar, or slave labour, that had fed the sponsor's wealth). This all but guaranteed the novel's place in literary history, if not actual readers: Tom McCarthy's C (2010) could advertise a heavy debt to its structure and themes yet still be hailed as a breakthrough.
We're not invited to care about the philandering hero so much as grapple with the historical and philosophical reflections that Berger pegs to his pan-European escapades. Giovanni – G – is the product of an Italian merchant's adulterous fling with a footloose Anglo-American fresh from ditching her millionaire mineral-baron husband at 19. She sends the boy to cousins on a farm in England, where a piano-playing governess awakens the lust that proves the keynote in a series of fragmented episodes set during the years before the first world war – a prospect G relishes on account of all the women it will widow.
"Why does writing about sexual experience reveal so strikingly what may be a general limitation of literature in relation to aspects of all experience?" he asks; an 11-page essay on the problem draws an analogy with blackberries before resorting to the kind of sketch you might find in a public toilet. It isn't for sniggerers: you can't enjoy G without taking it as seriously as Berger does, but the sense of a writer giving everything he's got makes that easier than you'd think.