Gabriel Josipovici was born in Nice in 1940, of Jewish parents both born in Egypt. He lived in Egypt from 1945 to 1956, when he came to England. He read English at Oxford, and from 1963 to 1998 was a member of the School of European Studies at the University of Sussex. He is the author of over a dozen novels, three volumes of short stories, some twenty plays for stage and radio, and half a dozen books of criticism.
Mark Thwaite: Your latest novel, Only Joking/Nur Ein Scherz has just been published in German translation. What was the inspiration for it, and are we likely to see the English version soon? Why do you think your work is so well received in Germany?
Gabriel Josipovici: I wrote Only Joking immediately after Goldberg: Variations (2000). That book had cost me a lot of effort. It had taken longer than any of my other books to bring to completion – there were moments when I felt my head was splitting in two. So when it was done I felt I wanted to do something fairly light, something that would amuse me. It was also personally a very bad time for me, and one way of coping with quite severe mental anguish was to write something purely comic. I’d been carrying in my wallet for a while a newspaper cutting about a court case, in which the much younger wife of a rich businessman was accused of hiring a contract killer to do away with her stepson and his family, who would be inheriting when the husband died. The man she hired turned out to be an ex-clown, whose professional name was Banjo, who got cold feet and went to the police. From the moment I read the piece I thought it would be nice to write a novel round that, and this is what I eventually did in Only Joking.
Carcanet told me after Goldberg came out that they were going to stop publishing novels. They had been publishing my fiction since the mid-eighties. My agent then tried placing Only Joking with other English publishers, but they weren’t interested. It was pretty depressing. Luckily Gerd Haffman, who had published two of my earlier novels, Contre-Jour and Now, in German, liked it very much and decided to publish it and even translate it himself. He’s now an editor at Zweitausendeins, who have published Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi and have also just published the first German translation of Finnegans Wake, so I’m in good company. All my German friends tell me he’s done a wonderful job, that by and large it reads as if it was written in German. The reviews so far have not just been good, they’ve been enthusiastic. But then my previous novels have also had very good – and often very intelligent - reviews in Gemany. Why? Who knows? Is it a coincidence that the first book on my work should be by a German writer, Monika Fludernik (Echoes and Mirrorings: Gabriel Josipovici's Creative Oeuvre)? I have found, doing readings of my novels and stories, both in Berlin and elsewhere, that the audience starts from the premise that the books are interesting and worth exploring, not (as in England) that I am a ‘difficult’ or ‘avant-garde’ writer (whatever that means) and therefore in some obscure sense their enemy. Simply, the level of sophistication of German readers is far greater than I have ever found in England. I feel understood, not in the sense that every detail of what I am doing is grasped, but in the sense that we share assumptions and horizons of expectation. When a witty reviewer writes that Nur Ein Scherz ought to be awarded the "Cosi fan Tutte Prize for depth of exploration of the relations between lovers" I feel he or she has understood profoundly what I was after. I’ve never felt this in England, in close on forty years of publishing fiction. I’ve got the occasional good or even understanding review, but it’s always felt like an uphill battle, as if I have to justify what I do every inch of the way. That is not a very healthy state of affairs or one that encourages writers who perhaps do not conform to certain expected ways of proceeding.
As for future publication in English, I think that’s on the cards now, for 2007, but we’ll have to wait and see. Anyone who likes my work will have, for the moment, to struggle with the German. But it’s a light piece, not the greatest thing I ever wrote. I’m pleased with it but not wildly proud.
MT: In the past you’ve said that, from your perspective, British culture appears to be "narrow, provincial and smug". How would you say this manifests itself when it comes to literature?
GJ: Coming to this culture from the outside I’m amazed at how mean and provincial it is. What do I mean by that? It’s difficult to put into words. It’s like a fog that has covered the British Isles and people go about in it and think that’s how the world is. Look at the bookshops. I lived in Paris for a few months two years ago, in the Montmartre area, not a particularly intellectual quarter, but there were four independent bookshops within five minutes walk of my flat. Their owners had run them for ten to twenty-five years and, while they of course had all the latest works, they also reflected the owners’ tastes. ‘Içi, moi je suis la reine’, one of them said to me one day. Here, every town you go to has the same dreary Waterstones with the same dreary books piled high on the tables, two for the price of one in some instances, supermarket style. I wonder if it is the first time in history that the line between fashion and culture has disappeared. Disappeared in the minds of the reading public, of literary editors, of prizegivers, even of writers themselves. Don’t get me wrong. I like Waugh’s Decline and Fall more than Ulysses and think Raymond Chandler and P.G.Wodehouse have more to offer me than most of the Goncourt and Booker Prize winners. But I feel English literary culture, in sharp contrast to the musical and fine arts culture, has retreated into a safe little Englander mentality, imagining that merely by writing ‘about’ great events and deep subjects you are producing great and deep works of literature. Alas, two minutes of Webern is worth all the hours of Havergal Brian’s symphonies, the 100 pages of a Duras novel worth all of – well, take your pick.
GJ When I finished Only Joking I decided to tackle something I’d been thinking about for a long time. In 1946 Arnold Schoenberg, in his seventies, and by now living in California, suffered a severe, almost fatal heart attack, and after other attempts had failed, was revived from apparent death only by an injection into the heart. Afterwards he claimed that he had been fully aware of the injection. Very soon after that he wrote one of his greatest works, the String Trio, Opus 45, which, he claimed, described his feelings in that moment of crisis. It certainly is a remarkably violent work, even for Schoenberg, but it also has a desperate, plangent quality which is deeply moving. I wanted to try and find a writerly equivalent. Of course, as I worked at the piece, I found that it was nothing like Schoenberg but rather like other things of mine, if a little more concentrated than most. The anecdote about Schoenberg figures in it and the central character, though he is a writer, has some of the character traits of the composer. When I had finished I found that the piece was 60 pages long. This won’t do at all, I thought, even if publishers were queueing up to publish me, which they aren’t, they wouldn’t want to publish something of 60 pages. Fill it out, I thought, round it out, turn it into a proper novel, even one of your (very short) novels. So I worked and worked at it and eventually I felt it really was done. It was all of 56 pages. I put it in a drawer and got on with another novel, but I did mention it to Michael Schmidt at Carcanet, who read it and decided he would like to publish it. Which is why it is that, after four years without a book out I now have two in one year (three if you count the German version of Only Joking).
MT: The Singer on the Shore, your new collection of essays and reviews, is published this month. How does your non-fiction relate to your fiction?
GJ: The Singer on the Shore consists of 19 of the best essays I have written over the past fifteen or so years. There are essays on the Bible, on Kafka, on Borges, as well as on Twelfth Night and Tristram Shandy, on the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld and two art essays, one on Rembrandt and one on the contemporary artist, Andrzej Jackowski. All the pieces were commissioned, either as lectures or as introductions or essays for volumes. But it’s also quite personal. There are essays on what it means (to me) to be Jewish, on memory, and on writing and teaching. As I put the collection together I realised that two themes ran through it, which have run through all of my work really: the idea of art as a toy and the sense that we are the creatures of time, can never stand outside ourselves but must do the best we can trapped here in time and unique bodies.
How does the non-fiction relate to the fiction? From the start I wrote essays on books and writers I admired to try and understand what moved me about them. So I think of the critical work as being in one sense a completely natural thing, like chatting to a friend about a film we’ve both seen (which writing fiction or drama isn’t, of course), and in another as a clearing of the ground, a coming to terms in conceptual language with the things that haunt and trouble and excite me when I’m writing. There is also another element, which I feel sure is there in the critical remarks of other writers, like Coleridge or Eliot, which is to bring to the attention of the reading public writers you admire and who form a kind of tradition for you, so as to prepare the public, in a sense, for your own work. Of course, it never turns out like that – people may respond to ones criticism and get to admire the writers one admires oneself and for the same reasons, but the next step, sadly, doesn’t seem to follow. I feel suspicious too of the writerly credentials of someone like Susan Sontag, who says: ‘I am much more radical in my criticism than in my fiction.’ I find exactly the opposite – I find myself being much more ‘radical’ in my writing, simply driven by the demands of the work, than I am in my tastes.
MT: In this country we tend to see literary novels as ‘heavy’ and popular fiction as ‘light’. Yet you have referred to the ‘lightness’ of The Iliad. What is this quality exactly? Are there modern novels that are light in this way?
GJ: There may be two or three different issues here. I find contemporary works that take themselves terribly seriously a pain, as I’ve said. I’d much rather read a good thriller or a good comic novel than one that is bidding to become a Booker prize-winner (and often succeeding). Unfortunately even thriller writers - especially American ones - these days want to show they are ‘important’ writers, which is a disaster for their work. But there is also a large historical issue. For complex reasons art before the Romantics could be both profound and ‘light’. Homer’s and Shakespeare’s plays are cases in point. After the onset of Romanticism it’s as if depth had to entail solemnity, weightiness. Contrast Mozart and Beethoven, Pope and Wordsworth, Fielding and George Eliot. I love many works written after 1800, but I wish it were lighter. And I can’t stand those great nineteenth century works that take themselves so seriously and try to found a new religion, like Mahler’s symphonies. That’s why I love Stravinsky: for me he has everything: wit, lightness, precision, yet a plangency that is deeply moving. He remains the artist I would most like to emulate (one can have ones dreams). I love some of the novels of Bellow and Nabokov and Muriel Spark and Thomas Bernhard because I think they laugh at themselves and their own pretensions even as they burrow into the depths. I love some of the novels of Aharon Appelfeld because they say what they have to say in the simplest way and then stop, and what they have to say moves me deeply. But I could go on and on, with a list of my favourite modern novels – which would include works by Malamud, Shabtai, Simon, Perec, Duras, Robbe-Grillet, Kundera, Joseph Heller and Peter Handke.
MT: You seem to be prolific. Just how do you get down to the task of writing? Does it vary from book to book? How have these methods changed over the years? Does a computer help or do you write in long hand?
GJ: I think of writing as I imagine painters think of painting: they go into the studio every day and hope that good work will emerge. It’s never quite like that, of course, there are fallow periods and periods when there are not enough hours in the day, but basically I try to work every morning, and to make sure there is always something on hand to be getting on with. (I used to love getting down to a radio play after a long struggle with a novel, it was easier and shorter and there was the blessed sense of working with people – but that dried up in the early nineties when the BBC basically stopped being interested in innovative radio drama. I went on writing plays for German radio stations for a while, but it wasn’t the same – I wasn’t involved with the production and that had been half the fun.) There are lots of started things, which I couldn’t at the time see how to go on with, and I go back to these and sometimes I suddenly see my way forward, at other times I discover I still can’t advance. So there’s lots of discarded or unfinished stuff and one or two finished pieces that in the end didn’t seem good enough to send out, in files.
From the moment I began to be serious about my writing – in my early twenties – I sensed that I shouldn’t write by hand, that what I wanted was a rhythm that was somehow other than that of my hand forming letters. I wanted to feel I could move forward at speed, and then have something that was impersonal, that didn’t remind me of myself, to revise and revise again. So I learned to touch-type and for many years worked straight onto the typewriter. Now, because of incipient arthritis I’ve had to switch to a word-processor, because the keys are lighter, and it took me a while to readjust, but now I work straight onto that in just the same way. I write many drafts – seven to ten is normal – until I feel it’s as ‘right’ as it’ll ever be, or until I feel it is beginning to go dead on me. Then I stop and go on to something else.
MT: There is, to me, a scepticism of the academic study of literature. You seem to think academics don’t have a feeling for literature. What is this feeling/sensibility that you think academics lack?
GJ: I admire many academic books, but on the whole they are the ones that tend to deal with earlier literatures or cultures. John Jones’s books on Wordsworth and Keats and Dostoevsky and Greek tragedy are wonderful and I will always want to have them by me. One of the most important books in my intellectual formation was Erich Heller’s The Ironic German, a study of Thomas Mann. There are wonderful books on Shakespeare and Chaucer. But there is something about modern art that is deeply at odds with the whole notion of ‘discourse about’ and that is what academic work is – whether it’s old-fashioned or new-fangled, ‘English’ or ‘continental’. I won’t go so far as a friend of mine, whose father was a painter and who said that as he was growing up he vowed that the one thing he would never become was an art historian, for of all the people who stood in front of his father’s pictures and commented on them the stupidest were invariably the art historians (ironically, an irony he savours, he is now an art historian) – but I know just what he means.
MT: What poets, novelists, philosophers, critics writing now (in any language) do you rate most highly?
GJ: I will read anything by Muriel Spark, Aharon Appelfeld, and Peter Handke (who’s been trying my patience more and more). I loved Yehuda Amichai’s poetry and Thomas Bernhard’s novels, but you ask me about those writing now. I enjoy reading Michael Wood’s criticism and the art history of Joseph Koerner. His book on Caspar David Friedrich, along with Jean Echenoz’s novel, Ravel, have been recent joyful reading experiences. I’m sure there are lots of fine writers I haven’t come across, but even if there aren’t there are enough books I want to reread to keep me occupied till the day I die. We all experience the Mallarméan ‘Le monde est triste, hélas, et j’ai lu tous les livres’, but that is usually a temporary feeling, to be balanced by Lucien Freud’s: ‘When I lose my way in my work and nothing seems worth doing any more a visit to the National Gallery soon returns me to the sense of what art can do and how much there is still to be done.’
Two little mottos that have stood me in good stead: John Berryman’s: ‘Write as short as you can/ In order/ Of what matters.’ And Stravinsky’s: ‘Had Beethoven had Mozart’s lyric gifts he would never have developed his rhythmic capacities to the extent he did.’
About the Borges essay you are putting online: I’ve always loved Borges, ever since I first read him as an undergraduate student at Oxford. I had never heard of him but found a French translation of Ficciones (the French, or rather, Roger Caillois first introduced him to Western Europe, in those hideous yellow NRF Gallimard covers they used for their South American stuff) and shortly after that Encounter published some of his stories and by the late sixties he was as much of a cult figure as Beckett. But I always felt that he had been misunderstood, that he had been hailed as the creator of labyrinths and imaginary worlds, whereas while it was clear that these fascinated him, it was also clear to me that for him such worlds were the enemies, that what he wanted to convey was how precious this world and all its details is – but in order to do that in fiction you have to create a sense of how it is threatened – you have to find a way of conveying what Wallace Stevens called ‘the plain sense of things’ and what Beckett struggled with when he talked about ‘imagination dead imagine’. Reading Kierkegaard much later I saw how an understanding of what Kierkegaard says about novels and endings in the Preface to The Book About Adler and elsewhere can help us understand Borges. When I was invited to take part in a Borges symposium that seemed the chance to see if my intuition held up – and the piece in the book is the result of that invitation.