Thursday, October 08, 2020

A rare sort of writer

Today is Gabriel Josipovici's 80th birthday. To mark the occasion, I'll link to various posts I've written over the years – after a brief interlude.

I read him first in July 1988 after borrowing The Lessons of Modernism from the second floor of Portsmouth Central Library because it had essays on Kafka and Saul Bellow. The link explains how significant that brutalist building was for me and how vital it is to keep such libraries open. After that, I borrowed the collection In the Fertile Land, which was in the fiction section on the ground floor, and was knocked out by the first story Death of the word, and then by Distances, the short novel that concludes the collection. 'Knocked out' is an appropriate cliché, not only because those were the words I would have used then but because, without being to articulate it at the time, they displaced my assumptions about what could be moving in fiction – not, as first assumed, ornate language, big ideas and big events, though they played their part in other books, but rhythm, repetition, pattern and reticence.

The final word there is discussed in his latest non-fiction book, Forgetting, which he says "once had great prestige in English culture but which...has now fallen into abeyance" because it is understood as a form of concealment, suggesting someone has something to hide, and that its opposite, expression (or 'brutal honesty' as it's often called now), is always a good thing. This may explain why his fiction has been neglected in a culture that values sensation and revelation so highly.

His most high-profile publication is What Ever Happened to Modernism?, which I wrote about at length. In an interview last month on the Unsound Methods podcast, he says he was unhappy to write polemically like this, but I would say such unhappiness only emphasises the problem with the wider culture that demanded such a response.

If you're unfamiliar with his work, I recommend reading Victoria Best's superb interview The Mind of the Modern. She says his novels "have such extraordinary elasticity" and "open up new spaces in [her] mind", which is exactly my experience, and this is important for anyone coming to his fiction for the first time to appreciate; forget keywords like 'modernism' and 'experimental' and just read. The novel Victoria is talking about in particular is Migrations, which deserves to be reissued and which I wrote about it five years ago following a revelatory chance re-reading.

A passage in an earlier interview develops a little more about this elasticity: 

I don’t know if what I write are novels, and names don’t seem to matter. I quicken at the apprehension of some human drama that is affected by time, and feel the need to find words for what would otherwise remain wordless. [...] This has something to do with time, with how human beings respond to time, with what time does to us, the losses it brings, and the sense of possibilities unrealized, but also the Proustian sense of sudden loops in time and the way our lives are sealed off to us but suddenly, in time, open up momentarily.

This sums up what I found so powerful when re-reading In a Hotel Garden a couple of years later. It's a challenge to write about this experience without reaching for familiar terms, which explains why I'm less content with other pieces about other novels such as:

In recent months I have posted similar lists of blogposts I have written about Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard, two other writers who have been important for me and this blog. Fortunately, the third marks a happier anniversary and reminds me of Josipovici's review of the third volume of Beckett's letters, which he says reveal "that rare sort of writer who grows younger as he ages". While it is fair to say that of Josipovici too, I want to say also that, as a reader, I grow younger reading his sort of books.


For more information about Josipovici's novels and critical books, visit the website dedicated to his work.

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