Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Monday, November 09, 2009

An isolated note on Everything Passes


Over the Summer I was asked to contribute to a symposium on Gabriel Josipovici's novel Everything Passes and its relation to contemporary English-language literary fiction (a relation of distance). For various reasons the symposium never happened, so I'm posting my short essay below. It should be read with this context in mind. For another view, you can read Richard Crary's contribution at The Existence Machine.




An isolated note on Everything Passes

The first thing that strikes one about Everything Passes is its austerity. Unlike most other contemporary novels, it offers little in the way of framing information; no names, no faces, no time or place. It begins:
A room.
He stands at the window.
And a voice says: Everything passes. The
good and the bad. The joy and the sorrow.
Everything Passes.

A room.
He stands at the window.
Silence.
He stands.
Silence.
Readers of contemporary literary fiction – even those who relish what Nick Hornby calls "opaquely written novels" – are unlikely to feel at home here. It is as if writing is denuding itself. Where is this room? Who is "he", why is he standing at a window? And whose voice is speaking? So few words yet so many questions. Isn't it the job of fiction to fill in these blanks?

Given this beginning, there is an inevitable impulse to seek genre distinctions and so gain purchase on the smooth surface. "A novella" is the simplest label, though there are very few novellas like this. "Narrative poetry" perhaps; the short lines and caesura certainly suggest that. Yet the prose style does become more expansive later on, so perhaps it is more accurate to compare it to a piece of music; a string quartet perhaps. Josipovici has himself said the inspiration for the novel was to make a writerly version of Schoenberg's String Trio Op. 45. Also, the rhythmic repetitions of words and phrases provides the mesmerising experience of music. This direction of enquiry offers more clarity because, as questions of context and meaning are raised in music, they are answered at the same time, soothing the listener, diminishing anxiety, even if the music is by turns anxious and mournful as is the Schoenberg.
He stands at the window.
Cracked pane.
His face at the window.
Greyness. Silence.

And again the room.
The window.
He stands at the window.
Silence.
In listening to music, the reader is plunged into a world without distance or contradiction; feeling and movement are everything. Could Everything Passes then be affirming Walter Pater's submission that 'All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music'? Answer yes and, for 18 pages, the issue is settled. The unidentified man at the window is met by memories of a woman no longer present and by visits from his fussing children. It is as if the novel is developing a theme framed by the voice telling him that everything passes; a theme of memory and its permanence in what passes, our everyday lives. In this way we can place the novel as part of literary fiction, an idiosyncratic part – an experimental part perhaps – and thus more readily assimilated. We can then hurry back to the mass of more detailed novels in which backstory and expressive words fill in the gaps left open here. We may deem it a worthy failure too because, if Everything Passes aspires to the condition of music, doesn't its form admit to a inherent failure?

What happens on page 18 provides the answer. A literary scholar called Felix interrupts the stream of memories to begin a conversation over a cup of coffee with his girlfriend Sal. He talks about how Rabelais had recognised the consequences for authorship by the advent of prose fiction. Until then authors knew their audience: for example Chaucer read to a royal court and Shakespeare had London theatre-goers. He also cites Dante who, in Purgatorio, meets an old friend Casella. Three times Dante tries to embrace him but, as a spirit, he is incorporeal and Dante's arms meet only themselves. Dante then asks if it is possible for Casella to sing one of Dante's poems he sang on earth. Felix sings it to Sal:
"Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona"
cominciò elli allor si dolcemente,
che la dolcezza ancor dentro mi suona.
The answer is that the narrative is as isolated as with the man at the window, as bodiless as Casella. The interruption indicates a determination to face the issue. What Felix's scholarly musings in a café then turn us toward are the consequence in the loss of this connection with an audience. It is a loss of community, of a guiding tradition and the loss, thereby, of writerly authority. It meant Rabelais, one of the first modern novelists, "was the spokesman of no-one but himself. And that meant that his role was inherently absurd. No-one had called him. Not God. Not the Muses. Not the monarch. Not the local community. He was alone in his room, scribbling away". Nothing has changed. Sal listens.
— How did it go again? she asks, looking him across the table.
— What?
— The Dante.
— Love that discourses in my mind (that’s the first line of his old poem), he then began so sweetly that the sweetness still within me sounds.
He smiles at her: — Che la dolcezza ancor dentro mi suona, he says.
Despite the subject matter of the conversation, this is more what we expect from an English novel. Except it is the subject matter that turns Everything Passes from what might be dismissed a mood piece into a challenge to English fiction. The sweetness sounding in Dante has an equivalence in the voices streaming through the man at the window. Opposed they reveal the duality at the heart of fiction: an experience that stills our daily disquiet yet also delays our progress, just as it delays Casella and Dante from climbing Mount Purgatory. Together they constitute our experience of art – its joy and its sorrow – whether it is poetry, music or fiction. Yet it is only poetry and fiction that can reflect on its own status and include this reflection in the experience. It's nothing new and radical. We see it in the scene with Casella, a 14th Century poem.

It's no coincidence that Sal asks Felix to repeat Dante's own repetition of the song (that is, sung first in Purgatory itself and then in his poem of the same name). In it she is prompted to recognise the love discoursing over the café table. So, by describing Rabelais' recognition, Felix has opened a space in which communication becomes possible. His own isolation is implicated in his scholarly proposition, yet it also offers a promise of its end: Sal has become his audience, his community. Very soon after, she agrees to marry him. Here the distance between art and life — which is also the distance between Felix and Sal — is given measure. However, we must now realise that the conversation is also streaming through Felix as he recalls a happy time in the wretchedness of Sal's absence. He has lost his community, perhaps driven it away with a selfish focus on his own scholarly concerns, or perhaps the ultimate failure of communication, and thereby of art.

Everything Passes then is not so much a metafiction reflecting with postmodern knowingness on the elemental opening 18 pages than an Orphic gaze into the underworld of art and our inner lives. In exploring the issue within a novel, Josipovici implicates itself and our reading in the same process. The voices we hear resonate uncannily in our mind, offering the possibility of real expression and dialogue outside of all constraints imposed by the genre of the novel, yet also threatening to reinforce them with yet another beginning, middle and end. It is difficult to distinguish between the pathway and the cul-de-sac. To do so, we have to read, listen and write again. For the man standing at the cracked window things begin to look brighter as, toward the end of the novel, he finds release in creative life, only to make a discovery that seems to reverse all progress. Everything Passes risks such failure as no other English novel dare fail.

1 comment:

  1. Another one of these, from me - what happened to the symposium?

    ReplyDelete

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