There is a lot in G. which holds true to the nature of Berger’s speech. It is a book in which individual sensory and aesthetic experience is a means to experiencing history; it is the reason one cannot ever exempt themselves from history. To say (as often is said) that it is a novel about a Don Juan figure’s sexual exploits across Europe at the turn of the century is something of an oversimplification in a post-MeToo era. We are speaking of the writer who, in the same year G. was published, re-framed what it means to look at the naked female body in Ways of Seeing. G. is a book about sex and sensory experience as a means to think through personal freedom, collective experience, and what form, precisely, the stories we tell ourselves take — what impact that narrativisation has on the broader sweep of history.
Yes, G. has many colourfully described affairs in the novel. Equally well and simultaneously rendered are the Bava Beccaris massacre of 1898 in Milan, the Boer War, Jorge Chaves’ first flight across the Alps, the outbreak of the First World War. It is a beautiful and fragmented and strange book. It features a narrator who winks at the reader with pronouncements like, ‘Why does writing about sexual experience reveal so strikingly what may be a general limitation of literature in relation to aspects of all experience?’ It features a ridiculous doodle of a smiling penis.
It has been an enlightening experience to put together this documentary for the Booker about G.’s history as a novel in collaboration with Yves Berger, Farrukh Dhondy, Lisa Appignanesi, the British Library, and Oxford Brookes Special Collections Library. The film examines Booker’s past response to Berger’s speech, pieces together a first-hand account of what happened on the night Berger met with the British Black Panthers, and looks over his personal archive with those who knew and admired him.
In the research and preparation I’ve carried out over the past few months, I have tried to be as true to the spirit of Berger’s speech and novel as I could be. I encourage you to read the speech. While watching this film, I encourage you to think analytically about the question of heritage in the arts, and the roles of prize culture and media reportage in the book industry. Finally, I implore you, whole-heartedly, to buy a copy of G.