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When What Ever Happened to Modernism? came out critics and writers pounced on Josipovici’s well-reasoned remarks about the deficiencies found in the works of Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Philip Roth. The local tempest needn’t be recapitulated here, and indeed, Josipovici’s comments on his fellow writers occupy only a few pages of the book. More serious discussion occurred–though not a great deal of it–concerning Josipovici’s argument that Modernism had not found a lasting place in the homeland of Virginia Woolf and Wyndham Lewis, and the adopted home of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. In Josipovici’s view, Modernism is not a style or period of 20th century literary history, but stretches back in time (taking in Cervantes and Wordsworth, for instance), and is closer to a philosophical position. As he says about Mallarmé, Hofmannstahl, Kafka and Beckett – words that may apply as well to Josipovici – they all feel impelled to write, this being the only way they know to be true to their own natures, yet at the same time they find that in doing so they are being false to the world – imposing a shape on it and giving it a meaning which it doesn’t have – and thus, ultimately, being false to themselves. Their works feel like an interference with the world... lacking proper authority they have strayed into a place where they should not be...

In the wake of the stir caused by What Ever Happened to Modernism?, a reader might pick up Only Joking expecting to find it the equivalent of eating something disagreeable yet good for you. This isn’t the case at all. Despite its title (for we’re aware of the irony of that expression, and how seldom it consoles when we’ve been made the butt of a remark), Only Joking is a witty, complex comedy of machinations, mirror figures, sex and love, art, and verbal dexterity. In 2009 Josipovici’s After & Making Mistakes was published: it consists of two novels collected under the same cover, with “Making Mistakes” based on Mozart’s comic opera Cosi fan tutte. For all I know, the same underpinning could be present here. However, there’s enough business with doors, telephones, disguises and cats to qualify Only Joking as a pastiche of British farce.

Jeff Bursey reviews Gabriel Josipovici's Only Joking in the Winnipeg Review.

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