New Josipovici

I do not think there is any writer working in English at present who is more subtly inventive or more original than Gabriel Josipovici. It’s the surprising lightness of his touch that entrances the reader; the way the most troubling questions find themselves encapsulated in the most mercurial of tales. What starts out deceptively mundane, slight and entertaining will suddenly transform in his hands into something dark and profound, dissolving before the readers eyes into a swirl of complex implications. Reading his new publication, a volume containing two novels, After and Making Mistakes, I’ve come to the conclusion that whereas most great literature calls on gravitas to give it authority, the weighty burden of hefty concerns, strenuously raised, Josipovici fuels his narratives with celeritas, the playful swiftness of sleight of hand. It’s a daring trick he never fails to pull off.

The first of the two novels, After, opens at a party that will provide the setting for a dangerous encounter. Alan, is a literary critic on sabbatical leave, writing a book about Rabelais. He seems a pleasant enough chap, compassionate towards his artistic friends, with a loving partner and children hovering just out of the reader’s sight. But he has a secret in his past that seems surrounded by guilt and violence. At this party he is shocked to meet Claude, a woman visiting with her husband and daughter from the States, who clearly knows him from way back. Claude insists on calling him Alain, to his obvious discomfort, and is equally determined that they will meet and talk alone. We get the impression that Claude is stalking Alan, but her intentions are opaque and Alan’s grasp of their relationship is fraught with uncertainty. The reader knows only that something dreadful has happened in their past. Claude’s mission may be reconciliation, but it may also be vengeance, and Alan is as drawn towards her as much as he is menaced by her. As the narrative edges closer to a climax, we wonder what shocking revelations are in store, what the truth of their past together will be. Josipovici’s resolution to the drama is extraordinary and unique. It tips the story out of one familiar frame, a Hitchcockian tale of suspense, into something completely different: a postmodern questioning of the very notion of narrative as a place of revelation and disclosure.

What I love about Josipovici is that he is unafraid to use patterns in his stories to both lure the reader in and mislead them shamelessly. As we move towards the final confrontation with the past, possible outcomes and explanations are beautifully prefigured in the encounters that flow around Alan. If we know who he is, we think to ourselves, we might be able to figure out his secret. There’s his friend, the moribund Ronnie Chin, who wallows in guilt and misery – is this a reflection of Alan’s real state of mind? Then there’s the young woman, Cynthia, with whom Alan is having a delicate flirtation – are we to read into this his capacity to be a heartless seducer? Is this the crime at the heart of Claude’s pursuit? The narrative is scattered with clues that might be significant in the final revelations, or they may of course be red herrings. But probably the most telling exchange happens between Alan and Claude. ‘Why should one know everything?’ Alan asks. ‘Its unnatural. But people keep thinking they have to be clear. I’m not clear about a lot of things, but that’s all right. That’s what I always tell my students: genuine puzzlement is much more productive than false clarity.’ To which Claude replies: ‘I wonder if your theory is not a little dangerous when applied to life and not to the problems of the mind.’ It’s precisely these dangerous waters that the narrative will proceed to swim in, not least because narrative is the arena in which life and the problems of the mind collide; where we try to make sense intellectually of the murk and mire of existence, its lack of shape, its refusal to cohere, the genuine puzzlement we all inevitably experience.

This novel teases the reader with the conventional belief that if a story holds a secret, its revelation will inevitably bring truth. But for all that this is a playful taunt, the game play is perfectly serious. What is the alchemical formula for bringing words alive? For making stories perform their magical trick of transforming into something real and vibrant and vital? Alan’s study of sixteenth century writer, Rabelais, throws some light on this concern. Rabelais was part of the crossover generation who saw storytelling leave the oral realm and enter the world of printed pages. What effect did this have on him, Alan wonders? He tells an exquisite story from one of Rabelais’s works to his mother (his best critic, and the person who continually insists she doesn’t understand him). In it two Rabelaisian characters happen upon a strange island haunted by the sounds of a battle that is clearly not taking place. Instead, they find lumps of frozen words lying on the ground that a change in climate is starting to thaw, releasing the sounds of the past. Perhaps, Alan suggests, this is what the miracle of print means to Rabelais? Did he think of a book as a container for frozen words that are warmed up and released in the presence of the reader? Or, is it more the case that having been separated from his words by the medium of print, Rabelais experienced the freedom of being able to say whatever he liked without fear of persecution, but it came at the price of his personal authority – he was now invisible behind the cover of his book, just a ghost in the reader’s mind. As ever in Josipovici not a word is wasted, and this dilemma is transferred onto the climax of the story. Will Alan and Claude manage to defrost the past and bring it alive again, or will words just offer them a means to be freely inventive in a way that lacks authority?

After is an extraordinary narrative, so dense whilst being ostensibly so simple and accessible. It’s a little masterpiece. Making Mistakes is undoubtedly the lighter of the two novels, but this is only relatively speaking, and as such it makes an ideal companion piece to After, picking up some of its themes, re-using some of its scenarios, but in completely different ways. This story is a re-working of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutti, in which two couples change partners, and then change again, with the help and hindrance of a modern day Don Alfonso, romantic stage manager. If After concerned the difficulty of being sure what happened in the past, even in the most intense and significant moments of our lives, Making Mistakes concerns the difficulty of being sure of what we feel in the present, even in the most important of our relationships.

The story opens at a dinner party, held by Tony and Dorothy, at which Dorothy’s sister rings up to say she is leaving her husband. Dorothy, the absolutist, the standard-bearer, the Queen of high expectations, is most annoyed. This regularly happens, it appears, and she has no patience with the messy moral entanglements of others. But by the end of the evening a very different story has emerged. It turns out that, long ago, Dorothy was involved with Charlie, her sister’s husband, and Tony was involved with Beatrice, her sister. It was only after a trick played on them by Alfonso that the couples swapped partners. Now events will conspire to throw the security of both couples into doubt once again, and the choreography of desire will rearrange the partners of love’s dance.

Once again, Josipovici shows how language holds out patterns for lovers to ease their unwieldy feelings into, rationalizations and self-evident truths and justifications that are clearly no such thing, but which lend shape and form to nebulous desire. Central to this narrative is the concept of the mistake, which Josipovici delicately deconstructs, until we reach the point where the mistake looks indistinguishable from what we might call a right decision. This novel echoes and reinforces some of the quieter concerns of the first, focusing in on the wayward trajectory of desire; women consolidate their role as the stronger characters, the ones who push for change, who are determined to know their minds, who call the shots. The men are charming in their weakness, seeking escape and uncertainty as their places of security. And what dazzles us again is that sleight of hand, the incremental movements by which the narrative accomplishes surprising u-turns, the slightest intervention proving to be a catalyst for the most profound change.

Josipovici produces works that are cunning, intricate and elusive. Written almost entirely in fast-flowing streams of dialogue, they cut to the quick of what is lively and alive in both people and in narrative, the world of oral storytelling encapsulated in swarming vibrancy on the printed page. Rabelais would have been very proud of him. If you’ve never read him before, this is a wonderful place to start; but if not here then start somewhere – either In A Hotel Garden or Everything Passes, both of which are magnificent. There is no one else like him, and it’s a daunting claim that he upholds with charm and panache.

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21 thoughts on “New Josipovici

  1. Oh yippy! He has a new book! His books are so slim I sometimes think he should write faster but then he must really work to make those slims books as brilliant as they are. And that reminds me, I think I have two unread ones on my shelf at home. I must dig them out!

  2. Charlotte – He’s like a masterclass in dialogue – what he does with it is quite amazing. I’d love to know how you get on. I’m also looking forward to doing the same thing for one of your novels, one of these days. :)

    Stefanie – and this is a BIG one – 270 or so pages, because it is two novels combined. I was kind of profligate with this and read it as soon as I got hold of it. But I’m having trouble committing to the other ones I possess as I can’t bear the thought of not having anything new by him to read, and his work can be quite hard to get hold of. Still, I’ve got Moo Park and Goldberg Variations still sitting here, unopened!

  3. Hmm, looks like I’ve already tried one of his books – Goldberg Variations. I couldn’t get into it at all. Is this new one different enough to make a difference? For example, as much as I admire Saramago, I have only been able to get through a couple of his books because of his style of writing narration.

  4. I’ve never even heard of Josipovici, but this sounds so good, I just have to give him a try. My library only has In an Hotel Garden and Goldberg: Variations, so I’ll probably start with one of those.

  5. Litlove, I’ve got that book in a TBR pile, and look forward to it. You will enjoy Goldberg: Variations too, I’m sure. I wish he was better known on this side of the atlantic, as his books are almost impossible to come by

    You have always shown such care and attentiveness to his work; such a show of respect. I like your warm engagement with his books.

  6. I say this every time you write about Josipovici (how do you pronounce that?) I must read him. I want to say it again this time, but I’m up to my eyes with reading at the moment. I do at least promise to put him on my library wishlist!

  7. Andrew – your comments disappeared into moderation (they came in overnight while I was sleeping!) but hopefully you can see them now. I have to admit I haven’t read Goldberg Variations yet, but the most notable feature about these two novels is that they are written almost entirely in dialogue (which isn’t the case with GV, I think). It makes them very easy to read, but of course, only you know how you feel about that particular kind of formal experiment. I do think Josipovici is worth another try, but then I say that as a big fan.

    Teresa – definitely start with In A Hotel Garden. I loved that, and it’s quintessential Josipovici. I’d love to know how you get on if you do find a copy.

    Dorothy – I think you might like Josipovici, and I’d love to know what you make of him if you try his work.

    JB – looking forward very much to your thoughts on these when you make your way to them. Josipovici is one of the authors I feel most affinity for – I think it’s because for me he translates the best of European style into fiction written in English. You don’t see that much (or indeed at all), which makes him hard to fit into general reviewing and reading categories and leads to a very unjust lack of appreciation of his work. There’s definitely a lot of internet support for what he does, so I hope that will gather sufficient momentum to turn the tide of popular opinion. I find him very accessible, so feel able to encourage people to give his work a try.

    Ann – I know! You have to take a run at the name! I quite understand about the piles of reading,but also would love to know what you think of him if you do give him a try.

    Doctordi – as I said to Charlotte, he’s a dialogue masterclass, and pretty nifty with the plotting too. If only I could learn things by osmosis, I’d be a wonderful writer by now! ;)

  8. Litlove, I’ve been meaning to leave a comment on your page for several days. But, you always blow me away, and it’s usually hard for me to gather up my thoughts, and by the time I do, you’re on to another lovely posting, and then I have to start thinking all over again. Darn it. You wrote so honestly about spirituality, it was impossible for me to know how to comment. And now this review. I think I may have heard of Josipovici, but I’m not sure (although it’s a name one isn’t likely to forget). You make me want to read him, though, which is the important thing.

  9. I am surprised that you have not read Goldberg: Variations. With your affinity for Josipovici’s affinity for patterns I think you would really enjoy it. As for me, I had no idea that the man wrote in English. Thought his work was in translation; I guess that must have been because of what you wrote JB above–that his work (structure, shading?) is in the European idiom, even though his language is not. Such a wonderful insight, and one that will send me scurrying to find this book (both novels together?). Thank you.

  10. I have Goldberg Variations as I heard from so many people how good it is, but I’ve not yet gotten to it. If an author is creative in how he writes his story–with language or narration I tend to be hesitant about reading those sorts of books, as I’m always a little afraid it will be a little beyond me. I need to get over my fear and give him a try, though, as these stories do both sound really good.

  11. Lilian – if you do read him, promise me you’ll start with In A Hotel Garden. You’ll see why when you get to it.

    Grad – that is such a nice comment, thank you. I think I may have been possibly a little too honest in my last post – there is such a thing as restraint, and it’s good in certain circumstances! Josipovici is rather shamefully ignored in print media, but there’s a big following for him on the web, so you may well have come across his name. I just love what he does. You might well like Everything Passes which is about, in part, the difficulty of writing. It’s super short so no time wasted if he isn’t your cup of tea!

    ds – I’ll let you into a secret. I am afraid that one day I will run out of work by Josipovici to read. So every time I take Goldberg: Variations down from the shelf I think to myself ‘oh not just yet, wait a little longer’ and put it back again. And JB is a fantastic reviewer – I’ve learned a lot from him myself.

    doctordi – lol! If you find the key, let me know. :)

    Danielle – I have trouble myself with authors who don’t use paragraph breaks. That strikes me as very un-user-friendly! But you needn’t fear with Josipovici (I don’t honestly think you need fear with any author – you are a formidable reader) as he is very accessible. These two novels are almost all written in dialogue, using very ordinary, everyday language, and aren’t difficult in that way at all. I’d love to know what you think of him, so you know I’ll urge you to give him a go!

    Gentle reader – Ah I’d forgotten you read Goldberg: Variations! I have that but keep saving it up for when I really need to treat myself with a book. I loved these two new novels, though, and would certainly recommend them. But if you haven’t read it already, do try In A Hotel Garden. I thought that one was pretty special.

  12. I wish our library would get more Josipovici, because every time I read about him either here or on other blogs, I go in search of him. I guess I’m just going to have to break down and buy some of his books (a horrible sacrifice, I know, but we readers must make such sacrifices to keep the book alive).

  13. So happy to see that I can go away for so long, return, and still find posts about Josipovici! Very exciting, although I am so far away from anywhere that might even possibly sell his books in a store or stock in a library…

  14. Pingback: Best Books of 2009 « Tales from the Reading Room

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