by John Berger
Viking, 311 pp., $7.95
by Michel Tournier, translated by Barbara Bray
Doubleday, 373 pp., $7.95
Berger and Tournier have almost as much in common with each other as Webster and Tourneur have, those companions of the Jacobean Literature syllabus. And perhaps they also have something in common with Webster and Tourneur. Both their novels relate historical crises—respectively, the First World War, together with certain disturbances that preceded it, and the Second World War—to legend, and to the activities and fantasies of a heroic individual. Berger would be likely to sympathize with Tournier’s reference to “the stupid massacre of ‘14-‘18”; both try to explain such stupidity. Both novels use the image of a phallic Cyclops, of a penis with an eye in it, both invoke the shade of Don Giovanni, and these and other coincidences of myth and metaphor could suggest that both contain an element of vogue, and that the fashions and forces that shape them are at no great distance from one another. Different as they may now appear, they may eventually be seen to belong to a category no broader than that of the ethos of the Jacobean stage.
Meanwhile the differences between the books, which are no less important, can be expressed in Jacobean terms. Tournier has a little of Webster’s ready rhetoric and self-indulgent liking for the grotesque; Berger describes a sexual Machiavel whose seductions might look like a principled revenge against the ruling class.
John Berger’s book is “for Anya and for her sisters in Women’s Liberation,” and its hero, G., is a sort of Don Juan who liberates his women and subverts a merciless social order dominated by the search for colonies and capital. G. is the illegitimate son of a candied-fruit merchant in Livorno and of a rich American woman: his mother soon abandons him and goes off to serve the Fabian Society. The boy is looked after by his Aunt Beatrice in an English country house given over to the worship of horses, an ambience of centaur-squires. At puberty he watches the revolutionary fighting of 1898 in the streets of Milan, which occasions an illumination—to do with his not wanting to die. He goes to bed with his aunt, and embarks on a career of seduction. The arrival of aviation, which attracts his attention, does not dampen his sexual ardor: during the first flight over the Alps, which ends in disaster for the heroic aviator Chavez, G. is intent on flights of his own with a chambermaid in a nearby hotel. After that, he engineers the conquest of Camille, wife of an industrialist, Hennequin, who wings him with a revolver. After that:
He made his plans quickly. He would go to Paris, visit the Hennequins, make a point of ignoring Camille, reassure the husband and would quickly begin an obvious, public affair with Mathilde Le Diraison. In this way he would avenge himself on Hennequin by making the whole shooting incident appear ridiculous….
He would then disappear—quickly, no doubt—from the Hennequins’ circle.
The Great War breaks out …