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.