TagThe Affirmation

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.

Christopher Priest, The Affirmation (1981)

The other week, Jackie from Farm Lane Books asked for recommendations of literary science fiction and fantasy. I recommended (amongst other names) Christopher Priest, as did Amanda of Floor to Ceiling Books; Jackie subsequently read The Prestige, and now it’s one of her top 20 favourite books. Of course, I’m pleased that Jackie enjoyed it so much; but I was also reminded that I am not as well-read in Priest’s bibliography as I’d like to be, so I took his 1981 novel The Affirmation down from the shelf.

Having lost his father, job, home, and relationship, all in quick succession, Peter Sinclair is at his lowest ebb. He takes on some work helping to renovate a friend’s country cottage; inspired by his ability to turn his vision for one of the rooms into reality, Peter resolves to write his autobiography, in the hope that, by doing so, he can make some sense of his life. After trying various approaches, he decides that the best way to achieve what he wants is to write metaphorically about his life; it won’t be what ‘actually’ happened, but it will attain (what Peter sees as) the ‘higher truth’ of capturing what the events of his twenty-nine years meant to him.

So, Peter creates an alternative version of himself, with the same name, but living in an imaginary world, and all the key people in his life given different names – and writes this Peter’s life story to represent the ‘higher truth’ of his own. Peter has almost completed the manuscript when he is interrupted by the arrival of his estranged sister, Felicity, and is forced to break off his work mid-sentence.

This happens in the fourth chapter of The Affirmation; the fifth is again narrated by Peter Sinclair (his voice is recognisably the same), but it’s the Peter of the imaginary world (a world, incidentally, also used by Priest as the setting for his ‘Dream Archipelago’ stories), who is sailing south to a clinic, having won a lottery to undergo a medical procedure which will effectively confer immortality on him. Okay, one supposes, this must be an extract from the ‘real’ Peter’s manuscript – but, no: the Peter in this world has also written a fictionalised autobiography; and the events of this strand subtly contradict what we know of the other Peter’s manuscript. One is left with no option but to conclude that the ‘imaginary’ world has its own valid reality.

And so, as the novel continues, the two realities shift back and forth, with the reader never allowed to pin down one of them as being more real than the other. Even the nature of the text presented to us is uncertain: we never knowingly get to read any of the manuscripts referred to, so what exactly is the testimony that we’re reading? And we only know Peter Sinclair through his words on the page, so what can we trust? This is what Priest is so good at: undermining our expectations, hiding the truth, making the realities of his stories profoundly uncertain.

There are imaginative pleasures a-plenty in The Affirmation, then; but the novel also works on other levels. It’s a fine meditation on memory, and how it can make us who we are. Peter believes that memory is central to the creation of identity, but he also knows how fallible our memories can be; this is played out in several different ways in the novel, including a quite literal one in the shape of the athanasia treatment – a side effect of the procedure is to erase patients’ memories; they’re required to complete a questionnaire beforehand, which will be used to reconstruct their memories – but can they possibly be the same people afterwards?

The Affirmation is also an acute portrayal of a man in a fragile mental state (though, as noted, it resists being interpreted as solely a tale of delusion). We discover early on that Peter hasn’t actually painted his ‘white room’ at all (though he imagines it painted, and it’s that ‘higher truth’, he insists, that really matters); this is only one of the first indications that the world viewed through Peter’s eyes may not be what a third party would see. This leads the protagonist into difficulties relating to other people. For example, Peter’s ideas of what his girlfriends (in both worlds) are like don’t reflect the reality, which puts a strain on his relationships; the way Priest reveals the ramifications of this is simply superb.

I’ve read three of Chris Priest’s novels now, and they have all been excellent. Seriously, if you have yet to read him, you’re missing out. As for me, I doubt it will be long before I read another of his books, and I very much look forward to doing so.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of The Affirmation: John Self at The Asylum; Matt Cheney at The Mumpsimus; David Auerbach at Waggish.
Christopher Priest’s website

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