This review has been rather a long time in coming, given that I read the book many weeks ago now, but Josipovici is such a brilliant, subtle and powerful writer that I always want to do his books special justice when I discuss them. I feel quite justified in saying that he is unique as a writer whose books are models of accessible simplicity that pack the most incredible punch at a conceptual level. I don’t know of any one else who creates narratives of such disarming lucidity and such sophisticated thought; you read them in a day and then think about them for weeks afterwards. Why isn’t this man winning the Booker? Why isn’t the publication of a new novel heralded by major publicity in the literary sections of the big newspapers? There are times when I just don’t understand the book world.
Well, I’ll rest my crusade banner against the wall here for a minute and tell you about In A Hotel Garden, first published back in 1993 but as fresh as the day it was written. It’s essentially the story of Ben, a rootless, indecisive young man, who becomes increasingly obsessed with a Jewish woman he met whilst on holiday in the Dolomites. Unsure whether to pursue the relationship, Ben tries to explain what happened to his suburban friends Rick and Francesca. Rick and Francesca have a settled life of surface contentment with a demanding child and a feckless dog and an air of having long dealt with those troublesome questions of origins, desires and purposes. Rick wants to understand but finds it hard to do so, Francesca simply finds Ben’s endless shilly-shallying a source of irritation and fatigue, and it is against this backdrop of abrasive, uninspired friendship that Josipovici weaves a tale that questions the possibility of profound sympathetic understanding.
The tale concerns Lily, whom Ben meets when stranded in an Italian hotel with a grumpy and unresponsive girlfriend. He and Sandra have come away together on holiday at the tail-end of their relationship, and Josipovici’s portrait of Sandra as a woman who simply does not want to be where she is, is wonderfully done. Left to his own devices, Ben starts to become interested in Lily with her self-possession and her reticence to tell a story that binds her family history to her travels in Italy. Gradually, over the course of the time they spend together, Ben prises it out of her, but it’s a strange tale that confuses him as much as it fascinates him. Whilst they sit sipping capucchinos in their hotel garden, Lily takes him back in time to the 1920s of her grandmother’s youth and another hotel garden, perhaps not so far away geographically. Holidaying with her family, her grandmother struck up an acquaintance with a young Jewish man. They enjoyed each other’s company, there were possibilities that something more could come of the liaison, but in the end the young man returned home where he had a fiancée and although he wrote to her grandmother several times, she never replied; perhaps out of modesty and convention, perhaps a little out of pique. Many years later her grandmother found out that he had perished in the Holocaust. Lily’s reluctance to confess this tale to Ben is bound up in the profound effect it has on her, as it seems to speak to a sense of roots and origins and history that she has never before experienced but which now becomes achingly alive. Attempting to put words on this phenomenon is beyond her capacity, but Lily knows what she felt and knows what she is driven to do. She has been trying to find the hotel garden where her grandmother spent a day in delicious and empathetic conversation with the young man, to put herself in her grandmother’s place, as it were, and to coincide her personal history with the history out of which she was created. And although she thinks she finds the garden, and has her moment of epiphany there, it is only afterwards that she realizes she was mistaken, and that the garden continues to elude her.
Out of this jumble of longings old and new, and near-misses, old and new, Josipovici weaves a complex tapestry of space and time. Ben’s nascent interest in Lily makes him long to understand her story, and to experience in imagination the sense of placement and belonging Lily feels in a garden that turns out not to be the right one, and a story of a love affair from which she is quite clearly not a direct descendent. When he tries to repeat the story to his friends Rick and Francesca he is met with bewilderment or blank incomprehension. Francesca is inclined to ridicule the whole encounter as idleness and sexual frustration curdling into romantic pretension. But oddly enough, her harsh and uncompassionate judgement throws into relief the genuineness of Lily’s strange quest. Francesca is not without kind qualities – we see her patiently dealing with her son’s awkward and taxing moods, but she is in such a different place to Ben and Lily that the story is empty and pointless for her. But once again the notion of being in the same place as a fundamental prerequisite for sympathy is raised. We might need to be in the same geographical space to coincide with an event in a different historical time, or we might need to make the imaginative leap to the same mindset as another person, to understand an enigmatic point of view, but true sympathy demands that we change places, that we move ourselves either physically or mentally into another realm altogether, so that the same perspective might be shared. And the point of doing this, Josipovici seems to suggest (to me at least) is that this whole awkward business of moving and mental shape-shifting is one of the basic and most admirable building blocks of love. Francesca puts herself in the place of her child, just as Lily puts herself in the place of her grandmother, and Ben tries to inhabit the space that Lily describes to him. And in this way maternal, familial and romantic love are mobilized.
But whilst sympathy remains both a necessary and a somewhat idealized element of admirable human relations, the novel suggests that it is hard to come by and easily lost. The difficulty of finding words to put in the same place as our feelings and experiences becomes as important in the story as the concept of sympathy. It’s a tribute to Josipovici’s skill as a writer that such rich ribbons of complexity stream out from a narrative that’s all about ineloquence, the awful difficulty we have in expressing what’s most important, significant and yet abstract in the business of living. Lily cannot quite explain herself to Ben, who makes even more of a hash of passing the tale onto his friends. Once outside of Lily’s company, and separated from her by time and the familiarity of his old life, Ben quickly begins to doubt the possibility of a relationship between himself and Lily and to question whether she would want such a thing. Of course this is simply another imaginative leap on his part, but this one falls into the chasm of self-doubt, his hopes evaporating in a miasma of uncertainty. And beyond the immediate drama of the here and now, the Holocaust hovers in the background, threatening to swamp all possibility of understanding as a moment in history when sympathetic compassion for another’s difference was subject to radical, brutal, irrevocable failure.
As you might have discerned by now, I found this a fine and poignant novel, rich in its implications and yet as refreshing to drink down as the mint tea that sustains Ben and Lily. If you haven’t ever read Josipovici, this is a good place to start. There is no need ever to feel intimidated by his work – you can make a lot of it (and it pleases me to do so) but the stories themselves are marvels of simplicity and quick to read, unless you care to linger over his extraordinary technique. But I urge everyone to try him; reading his novels is like standing on the top of a mountain ridge and scarcely comprehending how far in the distance you can see.