Book Review

Now by Gabriel Josipovici

Now is a conversation novel mapping the relations of an extended family living in London over a time period which feels like two or three months. Part of the family is Jewish and there’s an uncle who mentions Martin Buber. In addition to conversation and the name of the speaker, there’s the occasional present action, such as “He puts the book down.” By staying on the spoken surface of characterisation the novel remains light and quick. Juxtaposition through editing keeps the map of emerging relations shifting. A convincing mimesis of everyday speech provides a surface which runs into the fissures and cracks of the quotidian.

–I’m sorry.
–I just wanted to get it quite clear, she says.
He waits.
–Aren’t you going to say something? she asks.
–What is there to say?
–What is there to say? Is that all you can say?

In conversation, relations are mapped as they are spoken. When one person speaks, others speak through them, “There is always another breath in my breath, another thought in my thought, another possession in what I possess, a thousand things and a thousand beings implicated in my complications” as Deleuze put it in The Logic of Sense, “For we are so sure of living again (without resurrection) only because so many beings and things think in us”. A conversation novel is composed purely of enunciated assemblages and habits. As for living again, in Now this possibility is not always Deleuze’s joyful message but a relation to eternity which has dropped out of or become unrelated to life: a central character, Licia, is “too tired” to act:

–I’m tired, she says.
–Where? her father says.
–All the time, he asks.
–All the time, she says.

For Licia, the present moment has opened out until it becomes the entire field. “I don’t know which part of myself I have to start galvanising first. It’s as if the present moment is all I can cope with and as soon as I start to think about doing something different in the future it gets too much for me.” By contrast, Freddy – an art critic, unhappy in his marriage and having a series of affairs, always saying he’ll sort things out later, “when this catalogue is done” – appears to live in a despair which, in Kierkegaard’s survey of the forms of The Sickness Unto Death, appears to be the despair which comes to the man of immediacy. This is the world of use and value. Buber’s I and Thou characterises such a world as one of objects in which your being is not opened to another, the I-it relation, “to some extent a reliable world, having density and duration. Its organisation can be surveyed and brought out again and again; gone over with closed eyes, and verified with open eyes. [. . .] But you cannot meet others in it. You cannot hold on to life without it, its reliability sustains you; but should you die in it, your grave would be in nothingness.”

Josipovici’s novel is a graph of this world, this nothingness, thought as an inability to meet face to face by some, not by others, for Now is also a crash of constant possibility, in human babble an echo of Messianic time but brought to bear on tiny developments – a child learning a new word, making a new distinction. Father and daughter at bedtime after a death in the family:

–Why is it cheaper to burn than to bury.
–Because fire cleans.
–It doesn’t. It makes a mess.
–Not if it’s strong enough.
–But if not so many people had died would she have been buried?
–I don’t know.
–What happens when you burn?
–Everything is reduced to a few ashes.
–But ashes are dirty.
–They put the ashes in an urn.
–What’s a nurn?
–A jar. Shall I go on with the story?

Shades of Jacques the Fatalist in these interruptions to a tale; elsewhere, there are other elements which take up styles from earlier conversation works. The children, Becky and Joe, speak directly, picking up more than the adults tell them, reacting in ways the adults don’t always seem to read as the children in the shadowed milieu of James Schuyler’s Alfred and Guinevere do. The concentrated talk of adulterous lovers brings the multiple trajectories of Philip Roth’s Deception back to a simple series of couplings, furtive and banal.

Thinking of the urn, and earlier, at the zoo, a tarantula, I wonder, What is it to learn a new word, or even to speak words newly? Zukofsky, writing for his nineteenth month old son three months before the end of the Second World War: “Yet as I heard your first syllables, no matter how blank the world was it again seemed possible.” This sense of possibility only gains traction in the now, as Josipovici’s prefacing quote from Emily Dickinson reminds us:

‘So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going all along.’

Going all along. Where? Licia often chats with a stranger on a bench somewhere on a nearby common. One time they describe the words spoken by humankind:

–If they are not recorded somewhere then where do they go? he says. They fade into the air.
–Perhaps somebody remembers them, she says.
–And then that somebody too is forgotten, he says. They too fade into the air.

-- Reviewed by Edmund Hardy on 12/10/2006

Further Information
ISBN-10: 185754367X
ISBN-13: 9781857543674
Publisher: Carcanet Press
Publication Date: 01/05/1998
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 144

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