I do not think there is any writer working in English at present who is more subtly inventive or more original than Gabriel Josipovici. It’s the surprising lightness of his touch that entrances the reader; the way the most troubling questions find themselves encapsulated in the most mercurial of tales. What starts out deceptively mundane, slight and entertaining will suddenly transform in his hands into something dark and profound, dissolving before the readers eyes into a swirl of complex implications. Reading his new publication, a volume containing two novels, After and Making Mistakes, I’ve come to the conclusion that whereas most great literature calls on gravitas to give it authority, the weighty burden of hefty concerns, strenuously raised, Josipovici fuels his narratives with celeritas, the playful swiftness of sleight of hand. It’s a daring trick he never fails to pull off.
The first of the two novels, After, opens at a party that will provide the setting for a dangerous encounter. Alan, is a literary critic on sabbatical leave, writing a book about Rabelais. He seems a pleasant enough chap, compassionate towards his artistic friends, with a loving partner and children hovering just out of the reader’s sight. But he has a secret in his past that seems surrounded by guilt and violence. At this party he is shocked to meet Claude, a woman visiting with her husband and daughter from the States, who clearly knows him from way back. Claude insists on calling him Alain, to his obvious discomfort, and is equally determined that they will meet and talk alone. We get the impression that Claude is stalking Alan, but her intentions are opaque and Alan’s grasp of their relationship is fraught with uncertainty. The reader knows only that something dreadful has happened in their past. Claude’s mission may be reconciliation, but it may also be vengeance, and Alan is as drawn towards her as much as he is menaced by her. As the narrative edges closer to a climax, we wonder what shocking revelations are in store, what the truth of their past together will be. Josipovici’s resolution to the drama is extraordinary and unique. It tips the story out of one familiar frame, a Hitchcockian tale of suspense, into something completely different: a postmodern questioning of the very notion of narrative as a place of revelation and disclosure.
What I love about Josipovici is that he is unafraid to use patterns in his stories to both lure the reader in and mislead them shamelessly. As we move towards the final confrontation with the past, possible outcomes and explanations are beautifully prefigured in the encounters that flow around Alan. If we know who he is, we think to ourselves, we might be able to figure out his secret. There’s his friend, the moribund Ronnie Chin, who wallows in guilt and misery – is this a reflection of Alan’s real state of mind? Then there’s the young woman, Cynthia, with whom Alan is having a delicate flirtation – are we to read into this his capacity to be a heartless seducer? Is this the crime at the heart of Claude’s pursuit? The narrative is scattered with clues that might be significant in the final revelations, or they may of course be red herrings. But probably the most telling exchange happens between Alan and Claude. ‘Why should one know everything?’ Alan asks. ‘Its unnatural. But people keep thinking they have to be clear. I’m not clear about a lot of things, but that’s all right. That’s what I always tell my students: genuine puzzlement is much more productive than false clarity.’ To which Claude replies: ‘I wonder if your theory is not a little dangerous when applied to life and not to the problems of the mind.’ It’s precisely these dangerous waters that the narrative will proceed to swim in, not least because narrative is the arena in which life and the problems of the mind collide; where we try to make sense intellectually of the murk and mire of existence, its lack of shape, its refusal to cohere, the genuine puzzlement we all inevitably experience.
This novel teases the reader with the conventional belief that if a story holds a secret, its revelation will inevitably bring truth. But for all that this is a playful taunt, the game play is perfectly serious. What is the alchemical formula for bringing words alive? For making stories perform their magical trick of transforming into something real and vibrant and vital? Alan’s study of sixteenth century writer, Rabelais, throws some light on this concern. Rabelais was part of the crossover generation who saw storytelling leave the oral realm and enter the world of printed pages. What effect did this have on him, Alan wonders? He tells an exquisite story from one of Rabelais’s works to his mother (his best critic, and the person who continually insists she doesn’t understand him). In it two Rabelaisian characters happen upon a strange island haunted by the sounds of a battle that is clearly not taking place. Instead, they find lumps of frozen words lying on the ground that a change in climate is starting to thaw, releasing the sounds of the past. Perhaps, Alan suggests, this is what the miracle of print means to Rabelais? Did he think of a book as a container for frozen words that are warmed up and released in the presence of the reader? Or, is it more the case that having been separated from his words by the medium of print, Rabelais experienced the freedom of being able to say whatever he liked without fear of persecution, but it came at the price of his personal authority – he was now invisible behind the cover of his book, just a ghost in the reader’s mind. As ever in Josipovici not a word is wasted, and this dilemma is transferred onto the climax of the story. Will Alan and Claude manage to defrost the past and bring it alive again, or will words just offer them a means to be freely inventive in a way that lacks authority?
After is an extraordinary narrative, so dense whilst being ostensibly so simple and accessible. It’s a little masterpiece. Making Mistakes is undoubtedly the lighter of the two novels, but this is only relatively speaking, and as such it makes an ideal companion piece to After, picking up some of its themes, re-using some of its scenarios, but in completely different ways. This story is a re-working of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutti, in which two couples change partners, and then change again, with the help and hindrance of a modern day Don Alfonso, romantic stage manager. If After concerned the difficulty of being sure what happened in the past, even in the most intense and significant moments of our lives, Making Mistakes concerns the difficulty of being sure of what we feel in the present, even in the most important of our relationships.
The story opens at a dinner party, held by Tony and Dorothy, at which Dorothy’s sister rings up to say she is leaving her husband. Dorothy, the absolutist, the standard-bearer, the Queen of high expectations, is most annoyed. This regularly happens, it appears, and she has no patience with the messy moral entanglements of others. But by the end of the evening a very different story has emerged. It turns out that, long ago, Dorothy was involved with Charlie, her sister’s husband, and Tony was involved with Beatrice, her sister. It was only after a trick played on them by Alfonso that the couples swapped partners. Now events will conspire to throw the security of both couples into doubt once again, and the choreography of desire will rearrange the partners of love’s dance.
Once again, Josipovici shows how language holds out patterns for lovers to ease their unwieldy feelings into, rationalizations and self-evident truths and justifications that are clearly no such thing, but which lend shape and form to nebulous desire. Central to this narrative is the concept of the mistake, which Josipovici delicately deconstructs, until we reach the point where the mistake looks indistinguishable from what we might call a right decision. This novel echoes and reinforces some of the quieter concerns of the first, focusing in on the wayward trajectory of desire; women consolidate their role as the stronger characters, the ones who push for change, who are determined to know their minds, who call the shots. The men are charming in their weakness, seeking escape and uncertainty as their places of security. And what dazzles us again is that sleight of hand, the incremental movements by which the narrative accomplishes surprising u-turns, the slightest intervention proving to be a catalyst for the most profound change.
Josipovici produces works that are cunning, intricate and elusive. Written almost entirely in fast-flowing streams of dialogue, they cut to the quick of what is lively and alive in both people and in narrative, the world of oral storytelling encapsulated in swarming vibrancy on the printed page. Rabelais would have been very proud of him. If you’ve never read him before, this is a wonderful place to start; but if not here then start somewhere – either In A Hotel Garden or Everything Passes, both of which are magnificent. There is no one else like him, and it’s a daunting claim that he upholds with charm and panache.