More Josipovici


Well, I have to say that Gabriel Josipovici has done it again for me. I’ve just finished his slim, vibrant novel, Now, and was once again confounded by the way Josipovici manages to pull something extraordinary out of the recognizably everyday. This is a novel written entirely in dialogue, focusing on the relationships within an extended family. With a kind of excessive realism, we are presented with the often banal, insistent, repetitive and yet oddly yearning conversations that knit us together in daily life, in the here and now. The novel concerns the parents, Sam and Ella, he abrasive, irascible, in his desire to be free of the tedium of other’s demands, she fretting uncertainly at the bonds of her many responsibilities, gently bullying her family towards making the connections she wants for them. They have two children, Licia and Freddy, Freddy unhappy at home and seeking an outlet in affairs, his wife Julie entrenched in the victim’s position in which no one else’s help can ever be enough. Licia fascinated me because she has chronic fatigue, and I’ll return to her in a moment in more depth. At either end of the generational ladder, there’s aged Uncle Simon whose spell in hospital is a torture for him that he unceremoniously dumps upon his relatives, and Freddy’s two children, who are scrambling to grow up and to hang onto stability, the best they can. Without descriptions of people or places, Josipovici’s characters nevertheless leap off the page in their vivid reality, they are so much like people we know, their situations so redolent of the frustrations and the comforts of family life, of any kind of intimate connection, in fact, where we reach the dangerous point of depending on one another for the satisfaction of our complex and often contrary and capricious needs.


What this novel really made me consider was the uses and abuses to which we put speech. Josipovici’s flawless ear catches the way that we rarely speak to those we love in order to communicate a message with words. Instead a lot of the speech is used to batter others with the stances we take, with the attitude we put forward and with emotions we haven’t quite mastered. Repetition is a weapon of insidious destruction here, whether it’s Ella’s endless insistence that Uncle Simon should be given a lift to the house for his Sunday lunch (which none of her menfolk wish to do), or Robin’s endless enquiries as to whether he may contact Licia (who has no interest in him and wants to be left alone), speech transforms into a kind of anthem, a banner waving above the speaker’s head proclaiming an unmet need and insisting on help. The unreasonableness of people when they don’t get what they want, their fickle changes of position, their unacknowledged caprices are all laid bare here, and it’s a brilliant portrayal of human stubbornness, intransigence and general bloody mindedness. But Josipovici accomplishes this with a remarkably light touch and a great deal of humour. His scenes move swiftly, and we cut rapidly between different conversations, leaving an impression of fizzing, bubbling life, richly textured, deeply problematic, and rarely seen and understood for what it is. What isn’t said is as important, and as loud, as the words characters exchange in this novel, and often conversations trail away into the statement ‘you know what I mean’, with the interlocutor forced to agree that they do. As ever the paradoxes in Josipovici’s work are finely wrought, the unsaid being powerfully present in its silence, and the dynamism of speech, destined to provoke, to compel, to demand and to emote repeatedly undercut by the sticky inertia of life, the fundamental difficulty of moving on.


For me the central figure of the narrative became the chronic fatigue sufferer, Licia, whose continuous refrain ‘I’m tired’ is particularly noticeable in relation to her uncomprehending father. Sam is at his most dislikeable here in his forthright rejection of his daughter’s suffering. He simply doesn’t want to see it or to accept it, and his response is anger or subterfuge. Under the circumstances it is not so surprising that Licia repeats her tiredness over and over, on the one hand waiting to be heard, on the other shielding herself aggressively from his disapproval. But Josipovici is always tender; Sam’s despair when Licia begins to refuse to talk to him at all is palpable – at least she used to argue with me, he wails. Licia explores her own condition in a guarded way with a man she meets while sitting on a park bench. Speech is used most as communication here, and in other places where strangers meet or there is the possibility of desire; at that point it abandons it’s blunt weapon techniques and perks up, reaches out, caresses ideas.


But sometimes there is a real exchange between family members who are prepared to love each other through the promise of freedom from constraint; although it’s far from perfect, the relationship between Licia and her brother Freddy is also a space where something might be dared. It’s here that Licia declares in a rare outburst ‘I don’t know how to make an effort any more…. When I think of what any effort may entail I panic. I don’t know which part of myself I have to start galvanizing first. It’s as if the present moment is all I can cope with and as soon as I start to think about doing something different in the future it gets too much for me. That’s not normal, is it?’ I found this a particularly intriguing speech, not least because of its perspicuity in relation to chronic fatigue, but also because in many ways it could in fact underlie the speech acts of so many of the characters in this novel, if they examined themselves with honesty. Unresolved dilemmas remain that way here, with the characters rarely even managing to transcend their moods or the need that seems most immediate in their minds. And all this made me wonder whether chronic fatigue isn’t in part an existential condition, the weariness that afflicts those who see up close the exhausting transactions that compose our daily interchanges. Every single character in this novel uses some means to buffer themselves from the relentless demands of others and for Licia, it seems that tiredness is her form of self-protection, although a form which feels like a defeat. Licia’s cry, that’s not normal, is it? might well be answered, yes, it’s normal, so long as it passes unacknowledged and hidden.


So all in all, I remain deeply admiring of Josipovici’s ability to produce something experimental and exquisitely truthful, that uses eccentricities of form to such brilliant effect. Far from being an author’s fetish, the exclusive use of dialogue puts the reader in touch with a vibrant immediacy that seethes with uncomfortable and yet intriguing questions about what we want, ask and need from one another. The now of speech opens up the fleeting, complex present moment which seems to simple and yet is so hard to grasp as it passes by, although it provides the only moment in which action might be taken, connections actually made. It is not surprising that the here and now is all Licia can deal with; for Josipovici shows us convincingly that its myriad possibilities for engagement are often more than we can manage.

15 thoughts on “More Josipovici

  1. This sounds like life as we know it. Family is a magical, magnetic and mysterious bonding of of individuals. Whatever pulls and holds them together does so against forces which are contained in the individual and forces from without, always exerting a counter-pull. The family structure has to stretch, contract and distort to hold all these things in check and the buffering is essential if the whole thing is not to explode apart. I wonder sometimes if that isn’t the real meaning of the atomic family. The fewer the participants the more focussed the potentially destructive features become. If the shared bonds cannot cope, or find an outlet in a more diverse and diluting family group, either things fragment or fall into a debilitating silence. Like society at large the family gives a structure of reassurance, but can only do so by an element of adherence. If the trust and comfort of the family is lost, the effort to maintain it is diminished. This sounds like an interesting investigation of how language or its witholding operates in the transactions between people which are central to most lives. Thanks for your account, alas and alack my TBR pile.

  2. This is a great review. I’m not familiar with the author, but this book sounds fascinating. I love the idea of a book written entirely in dialogue. The books that I usually end up loving focus on the characters more than a plot.

  3. Using dialogue alone, that’s pretty incredible. I think that dialogue, as the outward projection of a character, creates a space for that character completely independent of anything else in the novel. I like your comment on how revealing repetition in speech can be, how that can become, “a banner waving above the speaker’s head proclaiming an unmet need and insisting on help”. I’m fascinated to see for myself how Josipovici plays with that and will definitely look for this and other Josipovici works. Thanks, litlove.

  4. Convincing dialogue can be hard to do sometimes, so for Josipovici to write an entire novel in it and do it well is an accomplishment. I really do need to give his work a try.

  5. Oh boy, do I have to read this one. I love dialogue, but have been troubled by it ever since my high school creative writing teacher wrote on one of my papers next to some dialogue “Do people REALLY talk this way?” It’s a question I’m always asking myself. This sounds like a good thing to read to get over that. But even if it wouldn’t be a good study in dialogue for me, the way you describe the relationships between the characters sounds fascinating (right up my alley, surprise, surprise).

  6. This is going on my TBR list too. Thank you! It sounds as though the dialogue is real and, like Emily, unreal dialogue bothers me. I am intrigued by the thought that much of the conversation trickles away into ‘You know what I mean…’ So much of communication actually happens in the interstices between words.

  7. Lisa – I would love to know what you think of this if you do read it. I think Josipovici is a tremendous talent – really accessible stories and yet so unusually written. Verbivore – I love what you say about dialogue and may well steal that at some point in my academic work! 🙂 Do read Josipovici; I think you would find him most intriguing. Danielle – this novel is so very easy to read, once you’ve settled into the unusualness of the dialogue-only style. I’d love to know what you think of his writing. Emily – one of the reasons I gave up fiction writing was because I felt I had no ear for dialogue! I don’t think that’s true at all for you, but I would love to know how you get on with this if you read it. Emily – I’d love for you to read something by him – but begin with Everything Passes. Somehow or other I feel that’s the right place for you (and contains brilliant dialogue, too). Musings, you have that exactly right – those interstices are the places where Josipovici really works his magic. I’d love to know what you think of this book.

  8. Oh, my, this book sounds like something I definitely need to read. I’m not a chronic fatigue sufferer, but when you write about “the weariness that afflicts those who see up close the exhausting transactions that compose our daily interchanges” I know just what you mean. No wonder I retreat to my study so often … this book sounds wonderful.

  9. How fascinating, a novel all in dialogue. I was thinking how true to life this would be since we don’t have narrators in life, but then I realized, we do have narrators, and we are they. We narrate our lives, filling in around the dialogue, with our thoughts and the stories we create to make sense of the words that are spoken or not spoken. So would a novel all in dialogue force the reader to become the narrator? For some reason I find that an intriguing prospect, but then it’s also early Friday morning and I’m tired so it’s possible it isn’t as intriguing as I think it is 🙂

  10. I’m so interested in your insightful comment about chronic fatigue, for I have wondered if this disease – along with depression, and fibromyalgia – may be incited in some cases from being overwhelmed with “the relentless demands” of society and our interactions with others. Sometimes, our physical systems react to things that our emotional systems can no longer tolerate.

    Certainly the characters in this book sound as if they would put this theory to the test.

    Fascinating review.

  11. Dorothy – I loved your comment about retreating to your study! I so often think that’s the fundamental characteristic of arts academics: we’re delighted to comment on life as we watch it pass by, but get caught up in it? No thank you! Stefanie – I can assure you that you are still on form (or perhaps already on form) at an early hour! I think it is the case that the reader naturally fills in the narratorial role, particularly as the novel often lets you work out who is doing the talking rather than telling you. I swear I have images of all the characters and the places they inhabit without a word of description having been offered! It’s what Barthes would call a ‘writerly’ text rather than a ‘readerly’ one, meaning that we have to do our fair share of putting the story together. Ravenous reader – I think that’s an extremely sensitive and insightful remark you make there. I couldn’t agree more. Courtney – thank you for such a lovely compliment! I appreciate that so much. Jacob – that pleases me more than I can say. I’m so glad that my reading of him fits in with yours, and I might easily return the compliment when it comes to reviews!

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