The Sunday Salon

Sunday morning at The Sunday Salon

Yesterday I received through the post a slim volume from Carcanet Press with a glossy dark brown cover that at first glance I thought was poetry. I’d never ordered a novel by Gabriel Josipovici before and I don’t know whether Everything Passes is representative of his favored style. But I was struck by the amount of white space the reader is confronted with on each page, the writing being confined to a slender column of dialogue that is itself intermittent, fragmented by vertiginous silences. I began to read the first few words and felt myself slipping, slipping, as if down a polished chute, those aching blank spaces dragging me across to the next portion of dialogue as if across a dangerous precipice. I had to put it down for a while because it frightened me. And for the same reason I had to pick it up again. When it was finished, I was stunned. It was quite the most extraordinary piece of writing I had encountered in a long time.

This morning I’ve been rereading it. I’m not a good rereader. The sense of déjà lu makes me jumpy and lazy, and I haven’t been able to begin at the beginning and carry on to the end. Instead, I’ve skipped about in the text, returning to passages I loved (there’s the best discussion of Rabelais’ writing I have ever come across), weighing the weight of certain phrases, unpacking the structure, although that’s difficult to do here. I don’t want to start talking about what happens in it or what it means as, thin and brief as this narrative is (a mere 60 pages), it requires a proper review, which I’ll give it in the week. I wanted just to stay for a moment instead with the sense of shock that accompanies a reading that unexpectedly moves me, that sets me a formidable challenge. I return to the book, open the pages randomly. Yes, it is still there. Am I expecting it to have metamorphosed into a conventional narrative over night? I open the pages, flick around in the fragments, read a little here and there and close it quickly, as if I could somehow startle it into revealing its meaning to me. Josipovici usually wins this game, which is only right and proper if I am to maintain this level of respect for him. On one such dive into the fresh, bracing waters of the prose, I notice that the dedication at the front of the book is to Stephen Mitchelmore, whose blog I read regularly. Well, ok. That impresses me, too.

4.00pm

I’ve been reading a book that’s been recommended to me: Stop Thinking, Start Living, by Richard Carlson. The premise of the book (so far as I can see) is that one can live a happier, freer, lighter life by recognizing the fictional nature of one’s thoughts. We depress and limit ourselves, the author claims, by giving our thoughts credence, taking them too seriously, and analyzing situations we should simply experience. Once we recognize that thought is like steam rising off our minds, potentially dense but permanently evaporating, then we can get on with the business of living, not tied down by reflection, anxiety, doubt and the endless need to investigate. I’m sure he’s right, but this is not good news to someone like me, essentially an analytical mind on legs. Most of my day is taken up with reflection, investigation and analysis, and my entire working life has been put to the service of exploring the power of the imagination in the form of fiction, and within those fictions, the way people think, feel and react themselves into and out of crisis situations. What interests me in life is the way we think; I’ve not reached the end of my curiosity concerning our mental structures and our uses of symbolization. So here’s the question: is it possible to work on thought but to live with an entirely different relationship to it? Is it possible to analyse novels but not myself? It seems an act of compartmentalization way beyond my capacities. I know I need to change, but is there a plan B?

What I really need is a new novel to read. The Josipovici is a tough act to follow and I’m not sure what I’m in the mood for. It used to be that my reading was dictated by whatever I was teaching or researching and I’d squeeze comfort books in around the edges. Now my reading is often picked with an eye on this blog. The series I’ve been writing on men in love is still intriguing me and I have a long-ish list of possible novels to read: Peter Carey’s Theft: A Love Story, Mary by Nabokov, James Salter’s Light Years, Javier Marías’s All Souls, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Of Love and Other Demons. And yet I’m not sure I’m in the mood for any of them. I’ll try and come to a decision.

 

6.15

One last, brief addition. Searching my shelves only resulted in more choices: André Makine’s The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme, Julian Macdonald-Ross’s Of Love and Hunger (Penguin sent me this modern classic free and I am feeling very guilty about not having reviewed it), Niall Williams’ Four Letters of Love, Colm Toíbín’s Mothers and Sons. After Josipovici I wanted something clean and beautiful, but the men were holding out on me. Peter Carey’s first few pages were as pungent as stepping into the back yard of a restaurant before dustbin day. I wasn’t in the mood for a jaunty, fast-paced, expletive ridden monologue. I had hopes for the Toíbín as I thought it would be a different perspective on loving, but the writing, though clear and clean was shot through with a kind of desperate bleakness in the first story, at least, that sat uneasily in my mind. The Marquez was like the fetid remnants of a Roman feast, overripe, lush, cluttered, rich. I was looking for some Swiss pure mountain air and could only find the dank perfume of the sewers. The Makine was very promising; his prose style has a syrupy hint to it that he lightens with bittersweet beauty, but no, not the war, not today. In the end I settled on the Marías. It’s a busy, busy form of prose, rather like being talked at by an overenthusiastic Radio 4 presenter, but it worked to entertain me, and I couldn’t resist the accuracy of his account of taking a translation class in Oxford. I’m a few chapters in and liking it very much indeed.

 

 

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20 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon

  1. The wonderful White Space. As in theatre it is often not the words which tell the story but the silences between the words. I first found White Space in a slim volume of poetry called “Love is an Attitude” by Walter Rinder (pub. 1970). The poetry in this book influenced my own writing. Perhaps that is why there is so much White Space on my blog. It can be very powerful in emphasising composition. Which may be another way of saying that I pad out the paucity of my thoughts with White Space. Now you have piqued my curiosity and I must look for a copy of this book. I will be very interested in your review.

  2. Apollinaire played around with it a fair bit, too, Archie. Well, and Mallarme and several others. It is a strangely powerful device. I’d be interested to know how you get on with Josipovici. I’ll try and do you a decent review!

  3. Pingback: A second Sunday Salon with Josipovici « The Books of My Numberless Dreams

  4. Oh yay. I don’t know if you knew but I read Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations earlier this year and fell in love, completely, absolutely, and found it a hard book to move on from. So much so that I’m rereading it for Sunday Salon. It’s longer than yours, almost 200 pages, and more “conventional”, but it has the same strangeness, that remarkable can’t-quite-capture-it-all quality, and I’m surprised I haven’t bought all of his books yet. (Probably because I found the book a bit intimidating — a reaction I enjoyed. How often can you say that about a book?)

  5. Ok, so now I’m sold on Josipovici, of whom I’d never heard until I read this post and comments. Your second discussion, Litlove, reminds me of a dear friend who was once told by a counsellor that her problem was that she thought too much. ‘Easy enough for him to say’, she complained to me afterwards, ‘but how does he propose I stop?’

  6. Imani – Ah, so it was you! I remembered reading about Josipovici and feeling very attracted to his work, but I couldn’t remember whose blog it was! I had just the same experience of being intimidated and yet relishing it. He is a remarkable writer. Ann – your comment did make me laugh! That’s exactly how I feel. If I could only find the tap or the switch….

  7. I’m not Sunday Saloning today, but I’m enjoying visiting people’s SS posts. Stop Thinking, Start Living sounds like a book I need to read, though I usually avoid self-help books.

  8. Well, that’s an endorsement of Josipovici! I’ve got Goldberg: Variations waiting for me, as soon as I feel I can do it justice … I’d like to read Marias too — I’m glad to hear you are liking it.

  9. Frumiousb – I think Imani’s started something here! Do read Josipovici, though. He’s worth your time. Dew – I usually avoid them, too, but this one doesn’t feel quite so much like a car manual as some. The way the author puts his case together is quite convincing. Clare – you’re very welcome! I’ll be interested to read about what you think of him. Dorothy – can’t wait to hear what you think of the Goldberg: Variations. I want to get hold of that one now! Shameless – isn’t rereading strange? I fully see why people love it, and I’ll do it myself for research purposes, but for fun? Just can’t quite sit down to it.

  10. Of all the things you could have said about a book to make it irresistible, I suppose saying that it frightened you would have to be the best! Not because it was about frightful things, I gather, but because you felt yourself being led to a frightening place? You haven’t said you enjoyed it, which I also like, only that you loved certain passages. That’s all deeply intriguing. Thank you, as always, Litlove, for adding to the stack of things I need to read.

  11. I would love to know what you think of it, David. Josipovici is the first writer I’ve encountered who is possibly more economical with his words than you are! In both cases to maximum effect, I might add. ‘Everything Passes’ conjures up the absolute emptiness of loss, its irreducibility, and I found that utterly disquieting.

  12. First Imani and now you. You two are conspiring to get me to read Josipovici! I have Moo Pak on my shelf and have meant to get to it for years. It’s such a slim book and yet I still haven’t managed. But now…maybe the Thanksgiving holiday next week would be a good time. Hmmm.

  13. I’d love to know what you think of him, Stefanie. I haven’t heard of Moo Pak, but then I haven’t made a very careful study of his other titles. If you think it’s good, I’ll be sure to try and get hold of it!

  14. Hello, litlove. I’ve just been told about your site, and came to this heading by chance.

    As you’re looking for something to follow _Everything Passes_, and if you haven’t gotten Josipovici’s _Goldberg: Variations_ (Carcanet), may I recommend Mati Unt’s _Things in the Night_? Unt was estonian. The novel is like one by Sebold, only more wistful and not quite so… heavy is an approximate word. Weighted, perhaps. There’s more play in it. Dalkey Press Archive is the publisher. I read it in 2005, I believe, and it was the best novel I read that year. The writing is at times just beautiful.

  15. JB – hello and welcome to the Reading Room! Thank you so much for the excellent reading suggestion. I will be checking that one out pretty much as soon as I have finished writing this comment!

  16. Litlove,
    You say, eloquently, that it was the most extraordinary piece of writing that you had encountered for a long time. What was it that you think you were looking for that made it so when you got there ? How do you think the form contributed to the enjoyment – the vertiginous movements which I would think Josipovici made possible by the form he deliberately used in the book ? In contrast, for example, I have rarely found such polished shutes as I did when reading Salter’s Light Years, in an entirely different form, of course. I would be very interested to know having recently read and then re-read Everything Passes.

  17. Quink – what interesting questions! I’ve had to think about these for a while. I think the Josipovici made such an impact on me because it managed to evade any expectations I might have had. I’ve been writing on books for twenty years now and it takes a bit to surprise me. I was surprised initially by the form, and then surprised again by the twist at the end which forced me to reconsider the entire narrative. Without that spacious, vertiginous form, the twist at the end wouldn’t have been possible, of course. The incorporation of such beautiful insights on other writers was also a lure for me; the whole issue of creativity is handled so richly yet with such economy. And the very ordinariness of the dialogue seems so right and perfect, too. It was as ever, the combination of these qualities that took my breath away, rather than any one in isolation.

    I’m now going to find the Salter, which your comment has just bumped up my reading list!

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