Nur ein Scherz by Gabriel Josipovici
‘Felix lächelt, die Augen auf die Straße gerichtet.’ (Felix smiles, his eyes on the road.)
Quite a lot may be said about this simple sentence, which comes from the first page of Gabriel Josipovici’s Nur ein Scherz (Only Joking). Felix is the butler-chauffeur in attendance on ‘the Baron’, and he is perhaps the one character who knows what is going on throughout this charming comedy of art theft — the theft of art and the art of theft — and love. At the moment in question, he is probably seeing through the Baron’s story that these Saturday afternoon outings are to visit a former nanny, though amusement, in general, he takes as part of his wages. In that respect he has something in common with his author — and certainly with his readers — for this little book finds Josipovici in unusual high spirits.
But what is most curious about Felix’s smile is that it comes in German. Here we have a delightful novel, by a writer of high reputation, a writer who has lived all his professional life in Britain, and no English-language publisher could be found for it. Worse yet, nobody is surprised. Apparently Josipovici’s original text is now due to appear, but for the moment admirers of his work will have to make do with Gerd Haffmans’s translation, which seems just about perfect. Happily, because Josipovici’s writing is syntactically straightforward — and because the book is so engaging — those of us with nothing more than school German can get through, even if it does seem odd to be encountering a new work by a living writer at second hand, especially when the setting is more or less contemporary London.
Nur ein Scherz is one of Josipovici’s dialogue novels, reading like a film script that gives minimal indications of setting and action (such as the quoted sentence, which is thus exceptional within the context of the novel). To make it into a film, though, would be to miss the point. These are people we encounter almost entirely through their own words, placed along so many angles of subterfuge, seduction and challenge. The Baron, with Felix’s help, employs Alphonse, a former clown, to keep tabs on his somewhat younger wife, Elsbeth. Alphonse accepts the job without disclosing that he is already working for Elsbeth, who is fearful that the imminent birth of the Baron’s first grandchild will jeopardize her financial status. While yielding his clients none of the information they want, Alphonse through other contacts — with an Italian restaurateur and with Natascha, an art student — brings about the inevitable happy ending by way of a heist that deprives the Baron’s unpleasant son, Giles, of his trophy Braque. In the last of the forty-seven short scenes the Baron has escaped to a Greek island with Natascha, having secured a modest future for Elsbeth (a future she will share with Alphonse) and left everything else to Fritz. This chapter also completes the alphabetical scherzo, in which each character — and each restaurant — has a different initial letter (which Haffmanns’s edition nicely renders, on first appearance, in a clownish typeface).
Nur ein Scherz is a gem, and, while unexpected, fully part of Josipovici’s engagement with where words can lead us.