The Air We Breathe by Gabriel Josipovici
In the brief introductory note to Steps (1990), a collection of fiction and drama which includes the 1981 novel The Air We Breathe, Gabriel Josipovici maintains that all of his novels, short stories and plays are best seen as the indispensable "steps on the way" that made him realize just what captivated him as a writer:
I hope that the individual items will give pleasure, and that any constants that emerge will seem less like compulsive repetition and more like the shadowy outline of that secret signature Proust suggests all artists are unconsciously in the process of signing in the course of their working lives.
Even if Josipovici's talents skew the odds in favor of the latter option, the phrase "compulsive repetition" is a fitting description of the reasoning of the main character of The Air We Breathe. On introspective overdrive, Gina is caught up in a drama of her own making. At first sight, the scope of this internal drama seems to be uncomfortably limited: one closed setting, a handful of insignificant incidents. Obsessed with a childhood summer place and the people who used to live there, she anxiously returns to the same store of memories with freshly concocted whys and wherefores.
The novel shifts quickly between conversations taking place in different times and locations, and the prose bludgeons the reader with a succession of almost identical patterns of dramatic action. Over and over again, we read of a male character posing questions to which Gina then proceeds to answer with oblique sentences after many hesitations. Little by little, things start to clear up. An old man who used to live in the French summer place is at one point described as "a rock in the family". The quiet man spent his days sitting by the river for hours on end. The reasons for his behavior remain unknown, as do the particulars of his death. He drowned, that much is certain, but was it an accident or a suicide? None of the characters know. But the fate of the strange old man, along with the incomplete history of the summer place, provides a safely narrow focus for Gina's restless mind. The replaying and reworking of the same material helps to somewhat quell her teleological urges:
- I'm trying to understand, she said.
- Haven't you had enough of it? he said. Why don't you leave it alone? She was silent. Then she said: - Yes. Perhaps.
- Well then.
- But I have to understand it. [...]
- But what is there to make sense of? he said.
- Just the two things, she said.
- Any two things, he said. Any two things are odd if you put them side by side like that.
She was silent.
- Don't you see? he said.
- Yes, she said.
Short conversations such as this fill the novel, and most of them have a habit of collapsing into searching monologues as Gina struggles to put into words just why she feels compelled to revisit the familiar memories the way she does. The novel also has numerous passages which get close to the source of Gina's anxieties:
... she longed for a moment of clarity, a moment of illumination, when she would be able to look down on it all, on the mess and the confusion, the doubts and uncertainties, the thousands of half-begun and half-completed endeavours, when she would be able to look down and see, even if only for a second, what it was she had to do, how it was she had to live, but the moment never came ...
In another of her clear-sighted moments, Gina remembers reading about Walter Benjamin's idea of the Angel of History:
... were there no moments in which it was possible to stand outside, above, to look down on it all, to draw lines round it and across it, was everyone like this, hurtled forward into nothingness, their faces turned towards the past, where had she read this quoted recently, something about the angel of history, someone had quoted it, someone had written it, the angel of history, something about chaos and history and the rush of a mighty wind, other people looked so calm, seemed unaffected by this, and she too, there had been a time when she too was like them ...
The writer of On the Concept of History was famously inspired by Paul Klee's painting Angelus Novus (1920), and it seems like Josipovici set out to one-up Benjamin in one of his more recent works. In the masterful 2002 novel Goldberg: Variations, the late Klee work Wander-Artist (ein Plakat) has a crucial part to play. The work, created full twenty years after Angelus Novus, depicts a stick figure of a wandering man. Through consummate word magic, this rudimentary creature composed of thick black lines is given a voice. Speaking for all of art, the wanderer says: "To put it another way: If I was not here, passing through, there would be either the dead weight of history or the dead weightlessness of pure invention."
What a sentence! Gina's re-enactments of the incidents in the French countryside are the products of pure invention: they fill her head, these thoughts, and form taut clusters of nonsensical fabrication that clarify nothing. However, these fictions at least hide from view the unimaginably immense mesh of events that constitutes life. Later in Goldberg: Variations, an author is having trouble finishing his book. Suddenly, a voice speaks to him, and what this mysterious voice has to say also has a bearing on Gina's plight:
- Perhaps it is not the details that count, although every story is made up of details, but something else.
- What?, he asks.
- That which lies in between, for example, the other says. In between the details and in between the different stories. [...] Between is only a way of talking. What is important is not to be found in any place and it is not to be found in any time, either the time before you began or the time after you have finished. It is not inside anything or outside anything, but is what has made these things happen. Do you understand?
- Perhaps I am beginning to, he says, smiling at the other's smile.
The voice is talking about time. The author, the voice says, should start seeing time as a healer instead of a destroyer. Gina of The Air We Breathe conceive of time as anything other than as a continual undoing. She does not want to be carried by the flow of time, but of course she must. She does not want the present moment to pass by without first yielding all of its secrets to her. Why must the present elapse before she has had the chance to fully understand its nature and purpose? Gina believes that if only she is stubborn enough in her search, she will ultimately gain access to a total comprehension of the world. In a word, she believes in a poor human invention.
The last line of The Air We Breathe comes from the poem The Glass of Water by Wallace Stevens. Choosing a table near the windows of a bar, Gina observes the light hitting her glass of water. This makes her recite the words: "The light is the lion that comes down to drink." The relevance of the poem to Gina's life is captured already in its opening lines:
That the glass would melt in heat,
That the water would freeze in cold,
Shows that this object is merely a state,
One of many, between two poles. So,
In the metaphysical, there are these poles.
The seeing of sunlight as a ruddy-eyed lion, the poem continues, is yet another state. Free to move beyond that which is possible in actuality, the human mind can create states which exist wholly in the imagination. Gina, if she indeed recalls the whole poem, could be realizing that life is not about controlling or preserving something permanent and complete. We cannot know if this recollection will change her life. Perhaps, in time, the loudness of this line of Wallace Stevens' will soften until it becomes inaudible among the other everyday murmurings of Gina's consciousness. The lion is perhaps only a kin to the angel of history: both of them could be merely partially recalled metaphors that entice the mind without managing to offer a key to a new kind of life. She will once again forget that a life of total familiarity is a corrosive falsehood, an impossibility. We can never become truly familiar with the world. Even in a village of the indigenes, so to speak, the capricious play of the imagination will continue to discover new possibilities. Light capering is hardly the only thing creativity is capable of, however, and the character of Gina is an exemplar of the many ways in which the human mind both sets up and is captured by intellectual snares. (The wide noose: "I know a thing or two." The entrapment: "So why not everything there is to know?" From here on out, the loop will only get tighter.)
As a literary work, The Air We Breathe tries to give shape to Gina's ideas and yearnings, but the result is a joyless book of elusive speech and oppressive interruptions. Why should the novel be such a thankless one? After all, Goldberg: Variations is largely a treatment of the same themes which animate The Air We Breathe, but the narrative atmosphere and creative vitality of the two books are a world apart from one another. The modular structure of the latter novel unites the varied and unhurried chapters into a striking whole, thus producing a real sense of space and clarity. This sense is further evoked by the assured and refreshing changes in style and mood: the humorous, the pensive, the erotic, the homey, these are some of the dominant moods conveyed and freely mixed by the book's many conversations and narratives. The Air We Breathe, on the other hand, is an unrelenting procession of tense incidents centered around Gina's severely restricted concerns. In effect, the work asks the reader to behave like the protagonist, and to scour the text in search of a supreme shape hiding behind plain language. The Air We Breathe asks too much. But if the novel was one of the "steps on the way" Josipovici needed to take in order to write the magnificent books he has produced over the course of the last two decades, so be it.