Experience III - Absalom's Hair: Gabriel Josipovici's In a Hotel Garden
At the heart of Josipovici's In a Hotel Garden is the attempt to tell of an event that happened long ago to a young woman we do not meet. She is called Liliane, but we know her as Lily. Her granddaughter, who lives in our present, bears the same name.
In her youth, the grandmother met a young violinist, already engaged to another, in a hotel garden. They spoke all day. There was no romance; nothing happened between them. Later, he is killed by the Nazis. For a long time he sent her letters, and once a toy donkey. Now he is dead. The grandmother marries; soon she has a daughter and moves to England.
The granddaughter comes to Siena to find the hotel garden. She believes she finds it. Then she meets Ben, another holidayer from England. They walk in the hills. She tells him why she came to Siena. He asks her about the hotel garden to which she alludes. Lily tries to tell him, but she is reluctant and it is difficult. The drama of the first part of the book lies in waiting to see when she will speak and what she will say. What, we ask ourselves, happened in the hotel garden? Then we learn of it, quickly and unsentimentally.
Lily and Ben part. When they meet again, in London, Ben finds Lily has returned to the partner whom she had left to come to Siena. She had told Ben about her lover while in Italy. She had come to Italy to think about her affair, she had said. But in London, Ben finds he has returned to her lover. Ben and Lily part again and he speaks of her to his friends Rick and Francesca. The drama of the second part of the book bears on the significance of Lily and her story for Ben. Will Lily be the grandmother of his children? Or just another woman who, for a time, held his attention?
Running through the novel is a meditation on Absalom, the spoilt son of David who came to desire his father's kingdom. It was whispered to him by a flattering advisor that he was the Messiah, that kinghood had been prophesised for him and glory awaited him. Thus was the indulged Absalom tempted; thus was he led towards his destiny. Every year Absalom cut his hair before the people knowing they would be impressed by his long, luxuriant locks. He died when, as he rode with his army, the hair of which he was so proud was caught in the branches of an oak. The Bible says he hung between heaven and earth while his horse kept going. Then he was killed as he hung by his enemies. So were his pride and vanity rewarded; so did his rebellion lead to his ignominious death.
Lily asks Ben, Do you know what the rabbis say about Absalom? Ben says, no doubt surprised, the Rabbis, and she says, Absalom gloried in his hair - therefore he was hanged by his hair. Later:
- I wonder if it's really like that, she said.
- Like what?
- He gloried in his hair so he was hanged by his hair.
- You mean ...?
- If life has a pattern like that. And, if it does, whether we can ever grasp what the pattern is when we're in the middle of it.
A pattern? What does this mean? That there is a secret event that determines the course of your life.
- Do you think Absalom understood? she asked him. At the end? In the wood?
He looked up at her again. She was still staring straight at him.
- I don't think he did, she said. I think he was tired and frightened and everything happened too fast.
Absalom did not understand the fittingness of his death. Its fittingness becomes clear in the telling, as the Rabbis observe. So too may we miss the appointment that would have revealed what for our whole lives we sought.
What does Ben, the stranger she meets in Italy mean to Lily? Why does she feel the need to speak to him? He is a stranger, but he is interested, receptive. Perhaps there is an attraction between them. So she speaks and he listens. She speaks, and he wants to hear more. Soon the whole story is told. Perhaps she has discovered something too, through that telling.
Later, when they are back from Italy, she agrees to meet Ben in London. To start an affair? - We know she has gone back to her lover and to her lover’s dog (we know the dog’s name, Bess, but not the name of the lover). There is no affair, no melodrama. Once again, there is a conversation. Once again, it concerns Absalom and the hotel garden.
- He had his hair, she said. No one else had hair like that.
- I had a look at that passage, he says. With a father like that what else could he do?
- He chose to act as he did, she says. He chose to do that with his hair.
Ben wants to excuse Absalom because his father spoilt him. Lily disagrees. It was Absalom's choice to weigh his hair every time it was cut, reveling in its glory, she says. With that choice, she says, Absalom set his destiny in motion even though he would never understand his destiny. Readers of the Bible and the Rabbis understand. But what is understood? Perhaps the lesson is that we have to take account of the choices we have made and of the destiny upon which they set us. Choices make us even if they have been chosen for us.
Ben and Lily turn to the event at the centre of the novel.
- But that past, he says. What you told me about it. It has nothing to do with you, does it? It was just an episode in your grandmother's life. It may not even have happened as she told it.
- It doesn't matter, she says. That day was a turning point for her. And for me.
- But it didn't change anything.
- It did for me, she says.
Lily who flew to Italy to search for a hotel garden. She did not know what she would find until she came there, only that she had to come. To come and to think about her current relationship with her unnamed lover and his named dog. She came to the garden; that was the turning point. Now Lily is trying to understand the meaning of that turning, of the conversation in the hotel harden. It is as though she has been chosen by that event. An event that caught her in its unfolding, and will now, in another way, catch Ben.
The life of the young man who met her grandmother was 'snuffed out', she says. 'It's the silence that's so frightening'. For his part, Ben says he cannot admire an engaged man who writes to another woman. Then Lily changes the direction of the conversation.
- Anyway, she says, when something like that happens it makes you think not just about your own past but about that of Jews as a whole.
He presses her - surely she doesn't mean just the Jews. But she does. Just the Jews. To think of humanity as a whole is too abstract to her.
Lily was born after the Holocaust. But it made a choice for her in the death of the young man who talked with her grandmother in a hotel garden. It chose her, a Jew, what happened as the Holocaust and the wholeness of life lived before the horror.
Later, when they meet in London, Lily tells Ben she might have been wrong. It may have been the wrong garden, the one she found. It doesn't matter, she says. She just felt she had to tell him that she might have been wrong. Because he'd helped her to talk about it. Now she feels a bit like a fraud, she says. It was the wrong garden. But she says the trip to the garden helped. 'I just feel more established in my difference now I've been there'. And then:
- I suppose it's to do with a past, she says. Having your own past and nobody else's. This is you. There isn't anybody else like that. There never was and never will be. So it's a responsibility.
Having a past. What does it mean, this responsibility? To have a past and to feel different in the way one has a past? It is, I think, a responsibility to oneself - to discover the secret plot of your life. Of the choices you have made and those that have been made for you. Of freedom and necessity. Has she found the event that will allow her to find her way toward the future?
Little has changed outwardly. She is still with the lover she perhaps does not love. She loves his dog but perhaps she does not love the one she lives with. And inwardly? She knows her difference. Her Jewishness. The choice made for her before she was born. Not an abstract choice, but a specific one. At once the fate of a people who were exterminated, and a conversation in a hotel garden.
Ben is the witness to Lily’s change. He questions, he listens. But what does he understand? Perhaps not enough for Lily. Perhaps that’s why she leaves him abruptly in London, without making plans to see him again. But perhaps her fate is still unknown to her, and she cannot trust herself to make choices. Perhaps Ben reminds her too much of her unknown fate and her difference; she will need to discover what they mean by herself.
We talked about everything. Nobody disturbed us. It was if we were sealed off from time. And from other people. It was as if I was there with him, talking, and as if at the same time I was at an upstairs window, looking down at us talking. I couldn't hear what we were saying but I could hear our two voices, like two streams, intermingling and flowing together. And then it was time for him to go, and he went.
It came to me at the airport. 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.
except it was the wrong garden.
It doesn't matter where it was. The important thing is that everything came together in a single moment in a single enclosed spot. And if I could really feel it, really understand it, then perhaps I could understand why I was alive and what I had to do.
Ben is a witness. But this book is about Ben, not just Lily. What of his past and his responsibility? What does he have to do?
Ben speaks of Lily to his friends. To Francesca, married to his friend Rick. She once had a relationship with Ben. Ben had loved her, though that was a long time ago. He has loved many others since. And now? Francesca is happy with Rick, their son and their dog and they speak of Ben. Their conversation:
She says to him:
- He went on at me about whether he should see her again or not.
- And what did you advise him?
- How could I advise him? she says. Whatever he does it'll be wrong.
- Why wrong?
- It always is. He thinks about it too much. It's all theoretical with him.
A bit later:
- Oh for God's sake, she says. He doesn't know her. He's only obsessed with this garden of hers. And it turns out not even to be the right one.
- It might be the right one, he says.
- Oh it might be! she says.
- I don't think it matters anyway, he says, whether it's the right one or not.
Francesca thinks it does matter. Later, she says, 'Anyway [...] there'll always be another woman with another garden'. It’s the same as when Ben went out with the woman from the Egg Marketing Board because he was curious about a job title like that. The fascination with Lily is another example question of Ben’s curiosity, according to Francesca. But this is facile. We know, reading, there is no comparison between the Egg Marketing Board and the hotel garden.
Later still, Rick and Francesca go to bed. Francesca says, 'Do you know anything about Absalom's hair?' Ben had told her of Absalom earlier.
They sleep. What would Francesca know of Absalom and of what the Rabbis said about him?, I think to myself as I read. It is clear: everything is easy for her. She has her husband, her dog, her child. She thinks she is practical, but in fact she has just been lucky. Perhaps, as she says of herself at one point, she is just unimaginative.
Ben is different. The incident in the hotel garden reverberates through him. We always hear him questioning Lily. Does he understand? What does he understand? Why does he need to ask? Perhaps he is like Absalom in the wood, tired and frightened. Ben is confused. What should he do? Lily could be the grandmother of his children. Or then again, no one at all. What should he do? Call her again?
We are not told what happened. Is the hotel garden any different to the Egg Marketing Board? To be fascinated by this book, to be implicated it, is to experience this difference for oneself. So might the book tell of our hotel garden and of our fates.
But what does this mean? In Italy, Ben and Lily went for a long walk. Later, when Ben is pressing her for the story of the hotel garden, Lily says:
On the walk [...] When we really tired. Coming down on the other side. And then sitting having coffee in the hut. I had the feeling that I was telling you about it and it was making sense - to me and to you. I don't need to find the words, they were just there, I had only to think them and you heard them. Not even think them. Do you know what I mean?
Ben says he does not.
We were so tired [...] It was if we turned inside out. Do you understand? Like gloves.
Perhaps the book reaches us in that tiredness. Perhaps tiredness is the mode in which we are given to experience the event dissimulated by the bustle of the everyday. Perhaps it names that slackening that allows an unbidden event to arise for us from our memory. A book, in this case: In a Hotel Garden . A book that chooses us, and chooses to remember itself in us in the same way that Lily learns through the hotel garden of the still recent Holocaust, and how it sets her apart in her difference as a Jew.
And Ben? Is he on the side of forgetting or of memory? Of Francesca or Lily?
Ben is tired of ringing and writing women and chasing after them, all that. But this tiredness is only an obstacle to the life he perhaps thought was possible for him. A life possible, no doubt, for Rick and Francesca who are happily settled, but that seems to deprive itself to him now, he who wanders without understanding the choices by which he lives.
There are those among us whose lives seem incomplete, or less complete than our own. They search, but for what are they searching? What is it they want and what might we give them? Perhaps there is nothing can be given and there is no cure. Perhaps the search is all.
Sometimes, that search will awaken in us a search of our own. As though we were implicated in their search. As though, because of their incompletion, we too experience our rootlessness. But this is an experience at one remove from theirs.
What does it mean to love someone like that? You will never have them, that is true, perhaps - or they will never have you. There is a mismatch; she (let us say it is a she) has turned away from you. She turns and turns and does not face you. But that, by itself, fascinates.
Perhaps part of us wants not to be wanted. That is why, in love, there must be gaps of non-love, where the other, the beloved, turns away. Then you will have to earn her love again. You become the hunter and so your love is reborn in ardor.
But what if the turning occurred before there was love? What if it occurred at its brink, there where there should have been the beginning of an affair? Then, after she has turned, you are not sure anything happened. Did it begin? Or was it stalled before it began? Either way, you have still been caught. Love did not begin. But its possibility began; a space was opened.
Perhaps there is a reading that is like this interrupted love. A reading of a book which holds you at its distance. A distance that the novel, in our time, can safeguard as a way of remembering the horrors dissimulated by our benign and unextraordinary lives. Which pierces the ignorance which is also our lot, we who delegate our choices to the same modern world even as we vaguely know what is lacking is a complete life, the unity of a world. Even as we go like Absalom, ignorant of the fate that has been chosen for us.
Such is today’s literature, written after the covenant between reader and book was broken. Such is its incompletion, its questing rootlessness, even as it attempts to hold back for a time the streaming of a life that is always tiring and frightening and in which everything happens too quickly. Holding it back, it asks you about your fate and your fatedness, of the choices you have made and those made for you.
Absalom’s Hair: Gabriel Josipovici’s In a Hotel Garden is the third of Lars' Experience articles. His first was Leaning Against the Wind: Bernhard's Gathering Evidence and his second was The Ninth Country: Peter Handke's Repetition and his fourth is Silence: Aharon Appelfeld’s The Story of a Life and Tzili: The Story of a Life.