ReadySteadyBlog

Below is an unused review of Gabriel Josipovici's two 'novellas' After and Making Mistakes that was never taken up and I'd almost forgotten having written.

I'm not sure it quite ever fully opens up, but it does the beginning of a job, I think:

To be human is to be amongst those who thoughts we don't we know; to be in the dark. Perhaps this condition is the source of our urge to speak. Language, born of absence, filling a lack, generating light. To be human is to be alone, and also to know that we are in thrall to thoughts we call our own, yet are barely aware of. Perhaps this very unknowingness is the source of writing. Writing from out of a void, to fill a void. Both speaking and writing, then, veil ignorance of ourselves and of others even as they display it, even as they ameliorate it.

There is an element of Bad Faith to the traditional novel. This gloriously humanistic art-form is peopled with voluble, intelligible puppets, but the novelist's urge to get inside his or her characters in order to make those characters "fully-rounded" – the oddest beacon of a novel's success and one that has become a fetish for most reviewers – is the one thing that should give us pause. By colonising a character's thoughts a novelist, finally, confirms that they are only characters and subverts the entire project. Realism collapses in the face of what we've been told to think of as realistic characters. This is why a novelist like Dickens can be simultaneously so sympathetic – the humanist urge is palpably there – and so sentimental. Certain books in the Modernist tradition (from Joyce to Kafka and beyond) whilst accused of being cold (lacking in 'humanity') or austere or overly-intellectual have every right to complain that their radical humanism (their concern with writing itself, their awareness of their potential for solipsism, their ability to see and respect both the Self and the Other as finally unknowable) has been ignored because it doesn't display itself as mawkishly as the character-stocked mainstream.

Gabriel Josipovici is a writer firmly in the modernist tradition. As a critic he has taught that modernism is not merely an aberration (or exultation) in the arts that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but rather a thread (a threat?) that runs from the most exuberant early novelists (Sterne, Rabelais, Cervantes) through the Victorian novel where it was rather submerged and flowered again, at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, in the period of (official) Modernism. But modernism remains a challenge, an embarrassment to the (post-)Victorian novel, a question posed against its unacknowledged assumptions. The work of Beckett is vital here. From the fifties, a singular body of work appeared that made much of the rest of American and European Letters look flaccid and insincere.

It is facile to suggest we should judge Josipovici’s critical work by how well he writes himself. Nonetheless it is fascinating to see how such an important critic (whose recent What Ever Happened to Modernism? has gained a good degree of notoriety) goes about the real work of writing fiction, and whether or not his own fiction could withstand a dose of Josipovician critique.

In After, Alan Schneider finds himself ‘pursued’ by a woman from out of his past. Alan is married but, we’re led to believe, also has something of an eye for the ladies: we oversee him flirt, for example, at a party and on his way to see a grieving friend. Claude, however, is different, more than an earlier dalliance, more substantial and more threatening. Alan is unnerved by her reappearance, and by memories of the event that led him to leave her and Princeton where he worked, and return to London fifteen years before we meet him.

At a critical point in the narrative we learn casually: ‘And now it seems, they are walking in Epping Forest.’ This is quietly devastating. Josipovici allows his characters to come alive simply by the conversation that seems to occur naturally between them, but simultaneously – the harder part, the key to the artistry revealed here – reminds us that these are not real people. This is an ethical move embedded in the fiction rather than a post-modern trick that brings attention to itself. It suggests we can never know what someone is thinking: we meet them via words. The literary blurs with the real, then, not because of fidelity to facts, but by revealing the literary shape, taste, depth of the real itself.

The same trick occurs when Alan speaks with his artist friends, and with his own mother, about art and writing. What is at stake for his characters is at stake for Josipovici as a writer. None of this is arch. Josipovici is a hugely intelligent writer, yet this is an awkward form of praise with which to burden such an entertaining one. That the critical event in After, the reason for Claude’s reappearance, the memory of which is insubstantial, contradictory, but requires both their conspiracy and their co-creation, reminds one of Blanchot’s concept of the Disaster, and of the rupture that Alain Badiou portentously calls an Event, or, more appropriately, what Proust has written about memory and its infelicities, voids, tricks and inversions, about the delusions we hold about ourselves, others and the past – all could suggest a stubborn intellectuality. But nothing could be further from the truth. Warmth and humour exude from these two short novels which are best described as comedies (with all the historic weight of that word acknowledges) – and, incidentally, would make wonderful radio plays.

It is a cliché most normally applied to poetry, that it is the gap between the words that are most important. It is true for Josipovici’s work. Making Mistakes is more playful than After. It is a story echoing the tale told in Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Two couples change partners, and then change again. The comedy here is both richer and more absurd, the writing sparkles. A lightness of touch – lightness is a touchstone in Josipovici’s criticism – is maintained throughout. But witty repartee never masks the fact that couples – lovers, readers/writers – will keep making mistakes, especially if they think we can ever really know one another. And we can't. Because we are never transparent, not even to ourselves, making mistakes is what we do, it is what makes us human. Only a writer as subtle as Josipovici could remind us of this old lesson in a form that so often wants to pretend our opacity away, to use a knowing verbosity to fake what is going on inside. Lighter is better, and better at keeping us in the dark.

Readers Comments

  1. What an extraordinary and different take on things, the paradox of the depth of modernist humanism that is characterized so often as anti-human , I was sad it wasn't published, it made me want to look even further into the illuminating darkness of Gabriel Josipovici

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