CategoryJosipovici Gabriel

Kaleidoscopes and building blocks: two novels by Gabriel Josipovici

I first came across Gabriel Josipovici’s name from blogs such as This Space. I read some of his critical work, and was particularly taken with his idea of art as a toy. Broadly speaking, I understand this to mean art that keeps its component parts in view, in the same way that a hobby horse can still obviously be a stick. Then we can take those component parts and make our own experience with them.

This idea struck a chord with me because it seemed to me that many of my favourite books worked that way. Well, now I’ve read a couple of Josipovici’s novels, and discovered that they work that way as well…

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Infinity: the Story of a Moment (2012) is the account of an Italian composer, one Tancredo Pavone (inspired by the real-life figure Giacinto Scelsi), whose words are related by his manservant Massimo in interview. Pavone comes across as an absurd, pompous figure in many ways, with his vast collection of clothes that may be worn only minimally, and his strident opinions (“German composers have been so busy airing their souls, he said, that they forgot to air their clothes”).

But there’s something else in there: Pavone argues for a more primal sort of art than what he sees (or hears) around him. He sees music as “a vehicle for the body to express itself.” Pavone goes on: “The language of music is not the sonata and it is not the tone row…it is the same kind of language as weeping, sobbing, shrieking and laughing.” I can understand this by instinct: why I think about the art that I’ve responded to most strongly (books especially, but not only), it was a response that went through my whole body – a sense of being more intensely alive.

The most powerful aspect of Infinity for me is that it’s structured in a way that brings out the same feeling. Pavone’s personality fills the book, larger than life, but his vulnerability starts to show as time goes on. By the end, Massimo is telling of the period after Pavone had a stroke, shoring the composer up, giving him a voice in a way that Pavone himself couldn’t by then. The composer’s intense engagement with existence is what most stands out , and the circuitous way that Massimo tells Pavone’s tale creates a space which allows us to experience that intensity. To bring in a toy metaphor, Infinity is something of a kaleidoscope, turning to reveal different aspects of its subject’s world.

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If Infinity is a kaleidoscope, The Cemetery in Barnes (2018) is a set of building blocks. It begins with the unnamed protagonist, a translator, describing his daily routine as a single man in Paris. After three pages, another voice interjects, that of his second wife – and suddenly we’re in Wales, where the couple are entertaining friends in their converted farmhouse.

There’s something quite startling about the way this is done: sketching his Parisian life vividly, then pulling us out of it into a vivid new life. The novel continues, sliding between Wales, Paris, and an earlier stage of the translator’s life, with his first wife in London. The rhythm of these switches is always uneven – it’s not something we’re allowed to take for granted.

Something that I found intriguing early on was the way Josipovici makes the very idea of there being different stages in one life seem strange – it just feels so improbable that the single man in Paris might become the married man bickering with his wife in Wales, for example. But then the novel goes further: “One sprouts so many selves,” comments the protagonist. There are glimpses of contradictory pasts and futures, some much darker than others.

The Cemetery in Barnes put me in mind of a rather different novel, Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation (1981). Priest’s novel has two versions of the same character, one living in what looks like the real world, and one in what looks like a fantasy world – but neither life has more reality than the other, so both have equal weight. Similarly, the question arises in Cemetery: are we reading about one imaginary life or many? The reader can choose which blocks to use to build meaning, but ultimately any meaning only lasts until the book is closed.

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Infinity and The Cemetery in Barnes are both published by Carcanet.

Towards language

I used to approach my reading in terms of content. I’d be looking for particular genres, or at the very least I would choose books based on whether the subject matter appealed to me. But something has changed (or maybe something has been brought out) in the years since I’ve been blogging. I now approach books much more in terms of language.

What do I mean by this? Well, I don’t mean that I’m drawn to ‘fine writing’. Indeed, I think that literary style, in and of itself, is a red herring. What counts for me is not the style of writing per se, but what the writing opens up. In the work I value most, the language embodies what it seeks to portray; the way a piece of fiction is written becomes part of what it means.

WakePB

 

 

A good example is Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which is set in the immediate aftermath of the Norman Conquest of England and written in a ‘shadow tongue’, a modified version of Old English. The effect of this shadow tongue is to estrange the reader just enough from what might otherwise seem an overly familiar historical period. The crucial thing is that the same story couldn’t be told in a more contemporary style (or even a more conventional ‘historical’ one), because the style of The Wake adds its own layer – a particular relationship between reader, text and world – to the work, one that can’t be replicated otherwise.

 

 

So perhaps it’s not surprising that I tend to gravitate towards fiction that departs from stylistic norms (though not fiction that does so just for its own sake – the interplay of style, form and subject is important). But there are less obvious examples, too, such as The First Bad Man by Miranda July. This novel is written a slightly heightened way that often gets labelled ‘quirky’; when I read it, I recognised the general tone from a whole raft of contemporary American fiction. But then it became apparent that all the artifice in July’s book is there to represent a shield between the characters and the harshness of the ‘real world’. Again, the language of the novel adds a further dimension to the whole.

MJuly

 

Recently I came across Gabirel Josipovici’s idea that art can be like a toy (see, for example, his essay ‘I Dream of Toys’, collected in The Singer on the Shore. He describes how children turn the most ordinary objects into toys by applying imagination: a cardboard box becomes a house; a stick becomes a hobby-horse – but, at the same time, they’re still a box and a stick. Josipovici goes on to suggest that some works of art function like this: their component parts are plain to see; we can take them and make our own experience.

This idea really strikes a chord with me, because I can’t help but thing that the kings of books I’ve been talking about here – the kind I most want to read – act in a similar way. To go with the same examples: the distortions of language are clear enough in Kingsnorth’s and July’s novels; when I open my imagination to them, the books gain a deeper richness.

Book details (Foyles affiliate and publisher links)

The Wake (2014) by Paul Kingsnorth, Unbound paperback

The First Bad Man (2015) by Miranda July, Canongate paperback

The Singer on the Shore: Essays 1991-2004 (2006) by Gabriel Josipovici, Carcanet paperback

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