Two Novels: After & Making Mistakes Gabriel Josipovici. Carcanet Press. 274pp, $14.95.
Like Beckett’s plays, Gabriel Josipovici’s works fend off resolution; also, his texts have more white space than is found in most novels (mainstream or not), and there’s a great use of dialogue. Great, as in its great compactness, naturalness, and poetry—but also as in a lot. There are few narrative passages in the recent novels Goldberg: Variations (2002) and Everything Passes (2006). The space around the words emphasizes that each line counts, and allows each line to breathe on its own. They have, so to say, sentience. The lulls and repetitions of Josipovici’s prose give readers the opportunity to see how his characters come across while they think, feel, talk, repress, obfuscate, and go about their business.
Not that we get much of their daily business. Josipovici doesn’t substitute describing an occupation for the creation of a personality, beyond giving the points that attract him. We don’t visit his stage sets to learn something practical or to experience the so-called real world. When we pick up a Josipovici novel we know we won’t be informed about the hot issues of the day, or taught how to scrimshaw; we don’t get much in the way of character, and lyrical descriptions are few. Instead, he provides spare lines packed with incident, and discussions of timeless matters, all offered in a mood of generosity on the part of the author to what words can do. Whether using them to move us or involve us, he shows words respect.
This use of words illustrates Josipovici conviction that we should take the time to consider these fictive events that have been set down. Why? To save us? I doubt Josipovici has any missionary zeal. But I do read Two Novels: After & Making Mistakes (2009) as his asking us, as he has in earlier works, to consider the way we go about what William Gaddis has called “concocting, arranging, and peddling fictions to get us safely through the night” (William Gaddis, “The Rush for Second Place,”). Josipovici’s new book also underscores—not in desperation or sadness but in wistful and at times wry acknowledgment—how few of us are bloody-minded enough to interrogate relentlessly the “real” world.
In “After,” an academic named Alan meets other friends who are artists and talks with his mother about the book he’s writing on Rabelais (a shared interest with the main character in Everything Passes). He relates an incident from Gargantua and Pantagruel:
—Pantagruel and Panurge and their companions reach an island, he says, and start to hear strange sounds of battle, guns going off, the cries of wounded men, the shouts of soldiers urging each other on, the neighing of frightened horses. That sort of thing. But there’s no one about The island seems to be deserted. . . . Then their guide explains it all to them: A battle once took place in this very spot, in the middle of winter. It was very cold. In fact, it was freezing. The sounds of battle rose into the air and froze there. They’ve remained frozen to this day, but now it’s suddenly getting warmer and they’re starting to thaw. As a result the sounds that were frozen are once more being released into the air. Pantagruel and his men wander about the island and find a number of words and sounds, still in their frozen state, lying on the ground like large hailstones.
Alan interprets this for his mother: “This idea of words being frozen and then thawing as it gets warmer. You see, the strangeness of this new print culture of which he was now a part never ceased to fascinate Rabelais. Perhaps he’s thinking here of words on the page, frozen in print, which need the warmth of a living, breathing reader to release them back into themselves.” His mother considers “[t]he printed book as sleeping princess.”
There are additional details to the story that Alan doesn’t offer. Rabelais uses, among other sources, an essay by Plutarch on the progress of virtue in which he refers to a certain Antiphanes, who told of a city where the words were frozen due to the intense winter, then thawed out the next year when they were heard by everyone. In Plutarch’s retelling this points to those who go about citing Plato’s lessons without understanding them, until they gain maturity. (This story is used in many places, such as “The Winter of the Blue Snow,” from Paul Bunyan Swings His Axe (1936) by Dell McCormick, where the words of loggers freeze until the spring.)
Wisdom coming with age is a notion that increases in relevance as we read on. A former girlfriend, Claude, returns to England to confront Alan about their last day together, spent on a beach. (Claude may be likened to a denizen of that Frozen Sea where Pantagruel and Panurge heard the sounds of battle, but she’s no sleeping princess; Alan is the one woken from slumber.) Their recollections and interpretations of that day, like exegesis and eisegesis of a buried text, are stories of violence filled with accusations and questionable motives; past events suddenly unfreeze and crash down around them. The set of charged conversations they have alter our perceptions of Alan and Claude, or muddy them more precisely, and like witnesses to an accident we come away with no clear idea what happened. Unanimity is possible on only a few points; everything else is a fiction. Here we see Josipovici returning to the non-closure he favors, while also writing a novel of ideas in which ideas provide the momentum. This reminds me, in every good way, of the exciting ferment of ideas found in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities.
“Making Mistakes,” a somewhat lighter work using Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte as a model, is full of switching partners, mistaken meanings, and witty dialogue, with lines–”Now it is Alfonso’s turn to shrug, though he does it with more panache than Tony”—that read like witticisms but which foreshadow characters’ natures. All the farcical material does not disguise the fact that hearts are broken, people suffer, and children lose parents through divorce. Josipovici’s set-pieces for the two sisters, Dorothy and Beatrice, are long paragraphs ending consecutive chapters that simultaneously tell us about the marriages they have (to Tony and Charlie, respectively), perform incisive post-mortems of events, and bookend each other on a structural level. Speaking to her philandering husband, Beatrice says: “You never listen, do you? You want to be a little boy all your life. You want to do all the things you want and then have mummy forgive you. But I’m not your mother.” Charlie’s lover, Angie, is different from his previous flings: “She frightens me in a way none of the others did. They seemed to understand the rules. I don’t feel she does.” It’s not stated, but part of his fright comes from her dominance of him: “Get me a drink will you?” Angie says a few pages later. “There’s some white in the fridge. And then if you’re a good boy I’ll suck your cock.” Mummy indeed.
The sisters’ relationship is summarized in an exchange, started by Dorothy, with Charlie:
—She doesn’t confide in me. You know that.
—She feels you’re always judging her.
—She feels she can’t live up to your high moral standards.
—Still so absolute?
—How can one change, Charlie? At our time of life?
While Tony considers Dorothy “the most beautiful and spiritual and perfect person he had ever known,” this perfection goes against his nature, finally. Or it always has. “But people have to be responsible for their actions.” Dorothy says more than once, and as a result of his behavior she takes swift and decisive action. We’re meant, I think, to ponder if inflexibility is also being discussed, and to consider what it would be like to live with someone who can bloody-mindedly (again) pursue an unswerving course in life. Is that kind of commitment admirable or frightening?
In Two Novels: After & Making Mistakes we see that the artificiality of each structure contains great (as in deep) resonance; these are works that appeal to our desire for aesthetic pleasure while supplying insights into relationships and marriages. The comedy, and the grimness, satisfy both our softer and more world-weary natures. Josipovici’s respect for what words can do is married to philosophical restraint and a firm purpose; he respects his own creations, and their seeming likeness to those we love or at least live with in our own worlds; and he respects the reader’s intelligence.
Canadian writer Jeff Bursey has written reviews and articles for journals in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. His first book, Verbatim: A Novel, will be released by Enfield & Wizenty this fall.
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