Sunday, May 14, 2017

This business of speech: In a Hotel Garden by Gabriel Josipovici

There is an element, in any good novel, of something that cannot be taken away without dissolving the whole book. If you remove everything else, that’s what remains. But what that core quality is, is hard to say. You can talk about it in negative terms. It’s not that the novel is so terribly exciting from a psychological point of view. It’s not that it has such unusually interesting or original insights into structures of contemporary society. It’s not that it’s so fascinating to get to know the characters, however eccentric or unique or typical. It is something else entirely, and it’s that insoluble quality that has to be there. That’s really all I can say.” – Dag Solstad

Before I had finished reading Mathias Énard’s Compass – the link goes to my review – I re-read Gabriel Josipovici’s 1993 novel In a Hotel Garden, perhaps because it has just been published in French translation and I wanted to remind myself of why I read it so often in the mid-1990s, or perhaps because I felt that, despite its many qualities, something was missing from Compass and this was the first place that occurred to me to look for its name. I assumed it wouldn’t hold up to memory and fade in estimation to match the colours on my copy's spine because many of the novels that followed – Moo Pak, Goldberg:Variations, Everything Passes, After and Infinity – are more adventurous or unusual in form and content. Could it be really as special as I remembered?

In a Hotel Garden is certainly a very quiet novel, told almost entirely in dialogue and set in everyday situations, which one reviewer compared to those in the gentle comedy of Posy Simmonds’ cartoons of English middle-class life. It begins with two friends chatting while walking a dog on Putney Heath. Ben tells Rick about his holiday in the Dolomites with his girlfriend Sandra, in particular about meeting Lily, an Englishwoman staying in the same hotel. His curiosity is piqued because she hesitates to explain her reasons for visiting northern Italy. At first she says she needed space to think about her relationship with her partner Frank back in London, who she would probably leave if she didn't love his dog so much. Ben has the chance to learn more because, as Sandra struggles to adapt to the altitude, he spends more time with Lily, chatting over coffee and then trailing in her wake on a day-long walk in the mountains. However, rather than the beginning of a traditional love triangle, the drama surrounds Lily’s reticence and Ben's persistence in trying to get her to talk.

When she finally does, she admits she wasn’t sure herself what draws her back to this part of Italy. She now realises it is because of a story her grandmother had told her about how, as a young woman on holiday in Siena with her family, she had met a young Italian man, also with his family and staying in the same hotel. They spent a great of time together in the hotel's garden. A romance appeared to be developing, even though he was already engaged and he had to leave soon for Trieste to continue his studies. They agree to meet in the same hotel the next time the family visits but, before that happens, he writes to tell her that he is marrying his fiancée. Despite this, he keeps writing letters as if nothing had happened. She never replies. Eventually he stops and his final contact is to send her a toy donkey, a gesture that upsets and offends her. Soon she gets married herself and has a family, but cannot let go of that time in the garden, repeating words to her young granddaughter:
The garden in Italy, she would say. I don’t know how I imagined it. The word garden took on a kind of magic for me. The words hotel garden. The words garden in Italy. The garden, she would say. The hotel garden.
Later, we learn that the reason the young man stopped writing was because he and his family were killed in the Holocaust. So this is a Jewish story too and Lily’s wish to find the garden becomes more complicated than the usual stuff of romance novels. Indeed, the novel's epigraph is from midrash on Genesis 39 – "Potiphar's wife too wished to belong to the history of Israel".

Back home in London, and after much deliberation, Ben contacts Lily and they meet up beside the Thames and it is here she tells him that what happened to the Jews in the past came alive for her through the young man in the garden. 
It came to me at the airport, she says. Why it was so important, that garden. It's as if that day their whole lives were present to them, their lives before and their lives after. Everything that would happen and not happen and all that would happen and not happen to their descendants. Everything. Enclosed in that garden. Held together by the trees and the wall and the silence. That's why I had to go there. To feel it for myself.
She shakes Ben's hand, says goodbye and crosses Hungerford Bridge, leaving him alone and as confused as ever. What had happened between them? Would she want to see him again? Was he only ever an inadvertent means to work through her personal issues?

The answer might not be present to Ben because it lies in the garden of the novel. When they're talking over coffee about the sights in Siena, Ben asks Lily if she had seen the mosaic in the cathedral, as it had always been covered up whenever he visited. Lily has: it depicts Absalom, third son of King David, hanging from a tree, his hair caught in low-hanging branches as he tried to escape from a battlefield. Lily says the rabbis point out that he who had gloried in the length and beauty of his hair to win popularity and undermine his father died for the same reason. Lily wonders if life can really have a pattern like that, and if we can become aware of it while in the middle of it. She decides we cannot.

To answer his questions, Ben returns to what appears to be his own pattern: talking. He talks to Lily, he talks to Rick, he talks to Francesca. This would seem harmless but, on their return from holiday, Sandra leaves Ben, without a word. Ben glories in talking about Lily and his relationship dies by it. And if we notice Ben's pattern, we begin to notice it throughout the novel: Lily talks to Ben, Ben talks to Rick, Ben talks to Francesca, and Lily's grandmother talks to the young man in the hotel garden and then talks to Lily about talking to the young man in the hotel garden. These conversations are always with someone at a certain remove: friend, granddaughter or complete stranger. Lily says her mother probably had no idea about the garden story. So what's going on here? The effect on what is said is peculiar, as Ben observes to Francesca:
– And I can’t get over this business of speech, he says.
One talks about things that could change one’s life but it’s just like talking about the weather.
In a Hotel Garden is very quiet novel because the central drama indeed appears no more pressing than the weather, and this is because we too are at a certain remove whatever the illusion of intimate access novels appear to allow. It should be no surprise then that Josipovici's novels, especially those as quiet as this, often provoke ambivalence because, while it isn't 'experimental' in any obvious way and cannot be patronised as such, neither is it a hefty tome with large characters or intense action. Indeed, it's not difficult to imagine a 500-page historical fiction following the parallel lives of Lily's grandmother and the young man, their brief intersection and their very different fates, with all the period detail you'd expect and with the holocaust narrative looming as large as a royalty cheque. And easy to imagine a keen reviewer telling us how it "tackles" themes of war, love and loss, and proves historical fiction "deserves more recognition". One might say these novels glory in life, and it's no coincidence that the novel Ben takes on holiday and fails to read is Henry James' The Ambassadors with its European setting, theme of liberation from a cramped culture and famous line "Live all you can, it's a mistake not to". If we assent to its demand, as so many do, hence its fame, why do we need its place in a novel to assure ourselves and others of its truth?

What suggests itself is that, however much we valorise living all one can, whatever we experience, distance takes possession of it. Everything that happens is already a book, even if it is one as evanescent as Lily's standing in the hotel garden. That is, what she experiences there is itself a novel. Everything is enclosed there, held together by the trees and the wall and the silence. It's why she had to go there. 

In a Hotel Garden investigates this paradoxical condition in which experience is never itself until it is what we understand as distance from experience, and therefore cannot rise above its implications. While dialogue – talking – appears to be as natural and realistic as can be, it is also as artificial and stylised as Howard Hodgkin's painting that graces the British edition. (Hodgkin once explained that he paints to recover the emotion of a place or situation and stops when that emotion returns, even if the painting is as artificial and stylised in comparison to its origin.)

I bought my copy of In a Hotel Garden on 9th February 1993. The date is written on the inside cover in red felt tip. Fifteen days later, Josipovici appeared on BBC Radio 3 to discuss the novel with John Tusa, Howard Jacobson and Kate Figes. Tusa began by asking if the title was chosen because 'hotel' and 'garden' had special meaning for Judaism: hotel standing for dispersion and exile, garden for the Garden of Eden. Josipovici was uncharacteristically fazed, so Jacobson asked if 'In' might have more meaning. He went on to say that he wrote the novel because, if he could say what he wanted to someone, he would say it to them in person and not write a novel. This adds an external displacement to those internal to the novel and substantiates the strange necessity of displacement, of writing fiction.

"Fifteen days later" was Wednesday, 24th February 1993: the day Bobby Moore died, the day the BBC broadcast a production of Beckett’s Endgame featuring Charlie Drake, and the day I drank a half a bottle of vodka in an hour, something I had not done before or since. I have no idea how I managed to record the TV and radio shows, but I did, hence the detail included here. Re-reading it again after twenty years has been a revelation, much like Lily returning many times to Italy only to discover the reason late on, and much like the author's 1977 Migrations two years ago. The revelation is I think that a book as quiet as this is necessary to enable a certain kind of speech; a speech displaced from speaking. And this is why I quoted Dag Solstad at the beginning. What's intriguing about In a Hotel Garden is that what one cannot take away without dissolving the whole book is not in fact present. Its core quality is that the core is absent, or is itself an absence that seeks to be filled with speech, and it might be this that drew me back.

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