Josipovici: Everything Passes

A room.

He stands at the window.

And a voice says: Everything passes. The

good and the bad. The joy and the sorrow.

Everything passes.


And so begins, with masterful, concentrated economy, Josipovici’s tiny gem of a novel. The image of a man standing at the window of a contour-less, unlocated room will return again and again, like a lyric chorus or a line of melody, as we travel back and forth across the narrator’s life in a series of fragments of scenes. Details will accumulate about the room; its creaking floorboards, its cracked window pane, greyness, silence. Sartre used to call it the gamma point, the still center from which fiction spirals out, but in this récit it becomes the place to which the narrative cannot stop returning, as if to remind us that no matter what passes, there is a present, even if an enigmatic one, from which this life is viewed.

The life belongs to Felix, and we slowly piece it together from the scraps of dialogue he recalls, conversations with his first and second wife, his two children, his friends. The tenderness, the warmth, the exasperation of relationships are powerfully conveyed with swift brush strokes, but Felix is a man whose life has been dedicated to art and whose standards for all involved in the act of creativity are inflexible and high. These standards apply to himself, and the blank spaces, so much a feature of this text, sometimes ache with the absence of creativity, with the silence of not saying. But the brilliance of Josipovici is to make those blank spaces take on so many different hues and shades of emotional colouring. When his children are bullying him through a veil of good intentions, the silences ring of a suffering that to them seems self-indulgent, whilst to the reader it seems profound and in need of protection. When his women leave him, then the white spaces have an absolute quality to their emptiness, a stark reminder of the terrible quietness of loss. When the narrative evokes Felix’s illness, then they take on the clinical whiteness of death. I found those blank spaces quite chilling, for Josipovici makes them uncompromising in their representation of the void; nothing is all that can honestly be said about the absence of creativity, or the reality of loss, but most narratives are kinder to us, filling spaces with chatter to bridge what might otherwise seem unbearable.

Silence speaks loudly to the reader in this narrative, but as silence, as itself, not as a problem to be solved or a place to ponder on what has passed. Rather the blank spaces are the places where everything passes.

By contrast, in the swift interchanges of dialogue that break up those empty spaces, the question of speech is itself intriguingly posed, in part through Felix’s disquisitions on Rabelais and Shakespeare. Felix reads Rabelais quite brilliantly as the first writer of print, the first man who understood that print ‘meant you had gained the world and lost your audience.’ The writers who preceded him, Shakespeare among them, knew exactly who they were writing for, could see the effect of their writing on the faces of the audience as they witnessed it, and often wrote in order to please, to persuade or to follow a party line. But Rabelais ‘was the spokesman of no one but himself. And that meant his role was inherently absurd. No one had called him. Not God. Not the Muses. Not the monarch. Not the local community. He was alone in his room, scribbling away, and then these scribbles were transformed into print and read by thousands of people whom he’d never set eyes on and who had never set eyes on him, people in all walks of life, reading him in the solitude of their rooms.’

I felt that the question of who is receiving was as important to this brief narrative as the question of who was writing, who is listening as significant as who is speaking. For all his sensitivity to the question of the audience, Felix can regularly be seen not listening to what he is being told, as being stubborn and intransigent in his own positions, the spokesman of no one but himself. Yet his voice in this narrative fluctuates between vivacity and a kind of disenchanted deathliness depending on his audience. This flight of eloquence on Rabelais encapsulates a marriage proposal to the woman who listens with loving attention to him, for instance. What stays with me after reading this récit are the patterns it produces: the fragile chain of intermittent fragments of dialogue, the cat’s cradle of time passing, as we travel back and forth in Felix’s life, the three dimensions of interlocutors in space, be they lovers, or writers and readers, shaping, interfering with, moulding, resisting, each other’s lives. This is an extraordinary thing: a mobile, dynamic narrative draped around a moment of suspended animation as a man stands contemplatively in a room. It’s the elasticity of this narrative that astounded me, how it changes its sense to us, as each new fragment adds a different perspective on the picture of Felix we are creating. I experienced the final revelation of the novel (of which I will say nothing) as the most extraordinary twist that made me rethink, and reassess, everything that had already passed.

You can tell the quality of a writer by the power of the paradoxes s/he creates, and I’m still astonished by the deceptiveness of Josipovici’s simplicity, the richness we find in the sparseness of his prose. Felix’s story is very precise, very particular, and yet Josipovici manages to open it up to vistas that stretch far beyond the individuality of its concerns, to the question of creativity and art, to the state of suffering in silence, and to our own quiet reception of the story, in the solitude of our rooms. Its accessibility, stark beauty and it brevity means that this is a tale in which everything passes quickly, but the effect it leaves on the reader is one of lingering wonderment.

12 thoughts on “Josipovici: Everything Passes

  1. This is just the sort of book I might look at and think: pretentious. So thanks for the wonderful commentary which will ensure I won’t reject it for the cardinal sin of going off looks alone. And thanks for the advice on Rilke.

  2. “Its accessibility, stark beauty and it brevity means that this is a tale in which everything passes quickly, but the effect it leaves on the reader is one of lingering wonderment” Sounds marvelous. A real gem of a book and those don’t come along very often.

  3. This sounds beautiful, the style and mood evoked, the silence and passing of time… your post already has me in zen-like state, resting in the silent moments, so I do look forward to reading it! Thanks Litlove for another wonderful recommendation.

  4. Bookboxed – you’re very welcome! And yes, this little novel could so easily be pretentious but the quality of it means it isn’t at all. Stefanie – I felt more excited about this author after I’d read it than any other in quite a while. I instantly got hold of cheap copies of two of his books of essays and everything else by him available in the UK has gone on my wish list! He is a gem. Kirstenjane – I’d love to know what you think of this. I did indeed find myself thinking about it long after I’d put it down and it IS one of those stories that puts you into a contemplative mood.

  5. This sounds beautiful! Josipovici is someone I will get to very, very soon, as soon as I feel I have the mental energy to do his books justice. With so many people writing brilliantly about him, how can any of us resist?

  6. Dorothy – really, I promise he’s a very restful writer to read. This tiny novel made me think and gave me goosebumps, but it was the easiest thing in the world to read. I’d love to know what you think of him. Gentle Reader – You’re very welcome! I’d be so very interested to know what you think of his writing, too!

  7. This is a great review, and was recommended to me. I can see why. Nicely done. (My review of the book comes out in January in _American Book Review_.) Jospiovici’s so little known in Canada and the US. A friend told me about him, and that – as with your site – may be how his name gets spread most.

  8. JB – If there’s a link to your review when it comes out, I’d love to read it. I heard about Josipovici via The books of my numberless dreams (check it out from my blogroll) and Imani’s been doing wonderful things with Goldberg: Variations. And thank you so much for your kind words – I appreciate them no end!

  9. Thank you very much! I’ve just checked that the link works fine, and now I’m going to go and read them. And please do think of me when the ABR review is published.

  10. Pingback: The Mind of the Modern: An Interview with Gabriel Josipovici — Victoria Best » Numéro Cinq

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