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Comprendre Josipovici

Beyond the “Grammar”

Au-delà de la grammaire
Vesna Main


En se référant plus particulièrement à Moo Pak, cet article étudie la poétique de la fiction de Gabriel Josipovici et défend l’idée selon laquelle son œuvre est centrée autour des questions d’art et de créativité dans un monde où les oracles ne nous parlent plus. Les protagonistes de ses nouvelles et de ses romans sont des artistes ou des écrivains qui souffrent de l’anxiété véhiculée par le besoin profond de créer, tout comme ils souffrent de la conscience du caractère inéluctable de l’échec. En mettant l’accent sur l’impossibilité herméneutique et l’incertitude ontologique, la « grammaire narrative » de Josipovici ne s’aligne pas sur la tendance dominante du réalisme social du roman britannique contemporain, genre qui diffère peu de son prédécesseur du siècle dernier. Josipovici, au contraire, écrit dans la tradition européenne du modernisme. Cet article pose la question de la marginalisation de l’auteur par le monde littéraire et fait valoir qu’il incombe au critique d’aider les lecteurs à rompre avec l’homogénéité du roman britannique contemporain et à devenir plus ouverts à d’autres types de texte, ceux qui sont écrits au-delà de la grammaire des tendances dominantes.

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  • 1 Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism? New Haven (CT/London:Yale UP, 201, (...)
  • 2 Gabriel Josipovici, Contre-Jour : A triptych after Pierre Bonnard, Manchester : Carcanet Pres (...)
  • 3 Gabriel Josipovici, The Big Glass, Manchester : Carcanet Press, 1991.
  • 4 Gabriel Josipovici, Goldberg : Variations, Manchester : Carcanet Press, 2002.
  • 5 Gabriel Josipovici, Moo Pak, Manchester : Carcanet Press, 1994.
  • 6 Gabriel Josipovici, Infinity :The Story of a Moment, Manchester : Carcanet Press, 2012.
  • 7 Gabriel Josipovici, « He » [1977], in In the Fertile Land, Manchester/New-York : Carcan (...)
  • 8 Gabriel Josipovici, The Air We Breathe, Brighton, Sussex :Harvester Press, 1981.

1In What Ever Happened to Modernism?, his most recent critical text, Gabriel Josipovici, with a nod to G. W. F. Hegel, writes that “the Oracles, which pronounced on particular questions, are dumb1” : they no longer have a voice in a world in which the social structures that made their existence possible have been replaced by modern capitalist individualism. Referring to Max Weber’s well-known diagnosis of this condition, which the German sociologist calls the “disenchantment of the world”, Josipovici goes on to ask what kind of art can be meaningful in such a world. I wish to suggest that not only is this question a consistent preoccupation of his critical work, but it is also at the centre of his fictional opus. As much as his critical texts expound on the philosophy of creativity, including its ontology, metaphysics and ethics, his novels offer a discussion on the question of art and its role in our world. Artists and writers are frequent protagonists in his novels and short stories (Contre-Jour2, The Big Glass3, Goldberg: Variations4, Moo Pak5, Infinity6, “He”7, among others) or make significant cameo appearances (Miss Lear in The Air We Breathe8). Many of his characters share an obsessive need to create, a need that is regularly accompanied by an anxiety about their own creativity. Above all, his artists are keenly aware that creative failure is inevitable.

  • 9 James Wood, « Keeping it real », The New Yorker, 15 march 2010. For Wood’s most recent exampl (...)
  • 10 Gabriel Josipovici, The Inventory, London : Michael Joseph, 1968.

2Josipovici’s novels are economical with words and exquisitely formed, each unique in style and narrative technique. Several are written almost entirely in dialogue. What they have in common is their rejection of social realism, the dominant mode of the contemporary British novel. Most characters exist through a single obsession or passion. Their private lives remain private: the reader learns nothing beyond the immediate concern that defines them, nor do we have access to their inner thoughts. At the level of the sentence, Josipovici’s voice is sparse: there are no metaphorical flights, the rhythm is musically cadenced through repetition, punctuation is minimal and quotation marks are infrequent. Extradiegetic narratorial comments are rare and their role is limited to that of a detached recorder of sights and sounds. Nor does Josipovici’s fiction show an interest in presenting a picture of society at large; the common themes of the contemporary British novel, such as the family as an institution, or an individual facing life-changing decisions, do not interest him. The descriptions of the material world lack “padding”, the formulaic apparatus of most novels, those incidental details designed to create a sense of the real world, what James Wood has so pertinently called “the grammar”, “the rather lazy stock-in-trade of mainstream realist fiction: the cinematic sweep followed by the selection of small, telling details”9. In fact, ever since the publication of his first novel, The Inventory10, in 1968, Josipovici has consistently eschewed the conventions of the dominant narrative. Instead, he employs a wide variety of techniques, and any one of his novels or short stories is an example of writing “beyond the grammar” of contemporary British fiction. Below, I consider Moo Pak, a novel which is essentially in monologue, and argue that it is precisely this writing “beyond the grammar”, i.e. in a style that does not conform to the dominant trend, which is responsible for Josipovici’s unfair marginalisation within the contemporary literary scene.

3Originally published in English in 1994, and released in French translation in 2011, this is Josipovici’s eleventh novel. It has no plot as such; that is, in the sense of starting with a problem whose promised resolution propels the narrative. In terms of the sequence of events, the novel can be summarised in a few words: it is a story written by Damien Anderson, who describes his walks and talks across London, over a period of thirteen years, with his friend Jack Toledano. Most of the text is taken by Toledano’s elaborate exposition of the novel he is writing. But what makes this intriguing novel is much more than its plot. The fact that nothing much happens in a traditional narrative sense – it is all talk – as well as the regularity and repetitiveness of the meetings between the two friends, and the near sameness of the content of each encounter, are subtly suggestive of the drudgery of human existence with its incessant and inexorable repetition. The meetings, talks and walks, very much like days that differ only through the change of seasons and conventions of social rituals, become indistinguishable and blend into one another so that the reader, just like the two characters, is not distracted by the incidental but is made to share in the passion and obsession of the protagonists. The effect is enhanced by the technique of using no paragraph separations, a structural device that makes the reader aware of the arbitrary nature of paragraphing, particularly important in a story where the unifying factor is the continuity of the conversation, the conversation that is always focused on its central preoccupation, that of writing, rather than on the incidental and mundane. The last time the protagonists meet, Toledano admits that there is no novel and never will be and, subsequently, he does not keep the next appointment. Anderson writes that he had for some time suspected that the novel did not exist. Now that he knows that for certain, he has to take down from memory what Toledano has told him. We realise that the regular meetings, and, as far as the novel is concerned, the characters’ lives, have been sustained by an illusion that was apparent to both protagonists. But Moo Pak is not a story of (self)-deception.

4Jack Toledano speaks for many of Josipovici’s characters and, I would venture, for his ideal reader, when he says:“For me covering the white page for the first time is so frightening and so desperate an act that I can only do it because the alternative is even worse”. (9)

5He echoes the sentiment many times:“I, at any rate, would be a more unhappy and smaller and meaner person if I was not committed to writing in the way I am”. (59)

6Driven, he is also torn by fear: “One can only work in the dark to the best of one’s ability and trust that if it has happened once it will happen again. But there is no saying that it will”. (78)

7And then there are the doubts:

You ask yourself all the time why you are doing it and if, like me, you are deeply suspicious of the notion of inspiration and of the notion that there is something you have to say to the world, then the temptation to turn to something more obviously worth doing is very great. (124-125)

8But the other side of this awareness of self-doubt is that it generates creativity:“I wrote my first work under the pressure of fear, he said, the fear that I would never be able to write anything more than five pages long”. (139)

9Paradoxically, as he points out, one can only go on if one has self-confidence:

10“I not only like but believe in the notion of regular daily work […]. But when it comes to it I cannot work unless I am fired by a belief in what I am doing”. (125)However, he stresses, “each work one starts must be thought of as the final one, the last and the best”. (106)

11As for the mechanics of writing, the character is only too aware that there is no mot juste and that only through regular work can the writer discover what he is trying to say. The problem is that, as he says:

[…] once I start playing with the words and sentences I will never be able to move forward and I will grow less and less sure which of the many possibilities is the one that will suit me best and then I will grow more and more unsure of what best means and of what I was trying to do in the first place and I will probably end up kicking the screen in out of frustration and despair. (10)

  • 11 Vesna Main, « Failing better : Heart’s Wings and Other Stories », PN Review 201, vol. 3 (...)

12He knows that, in the end, nothing can be said; nevertheless, one has to go on to “clear the air so that something might be said” (135); “something might be said”, that little possibility, that space between a hope – a hope that is often temporary and slight – and the reality of failure, that space between the drive to create and the inevitability of failure, that “might”, we understand, is what drives the writer on. Here, as elsewhere in Josipovici, the reader is reminded of Samuel Beckett’s “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”. Just like Beckett’s, this is a world of seriously grown-up characters who are tenacious enough to carry on despite their awareness of existential horrors. Equally, Josipovici’s world demands the readers be seriously grown up and strong enough not to expect the text to fob them off with fairy-tale endings or entertain them with gossip-like stories of affairs and their moral consequences. As I have said elsewhere11, while most of contemporary British fiction grants readers the position of a spectator, complete with the voyeuristic pleasure of spying on the lives of their neighbours and their neighbours’ neighbours, Josipovici’s work does not even attempt to satisfy such inquisitiveness. Instead, he takes the reader on a journey full of intellectual surprises. With no closure, the stories repeatedly eschew resolution and the reader has to learn to enjoy the travelling – Cavafy-fashion – rather than wait for Ithaka.

  • 12 Ibid, 104.

13Toledano, as much as other artists in Josipovici’s world, is self-critical and aware of his own limitations; he believes he has never succeeded because his “words have been clumsy and every sentence I wrote, instead of standing there like a stone, has only carried the echoes of my own querulous and sometimes petulant voice”. (135) Ultimately, he knows that an artist who is honest with himself has to follow a certain path, that is, make choices that are true to his art. As he says, “the great betrayal is to try and do what you think will bring you success”12 – words that one might say have not been heeded by the majority of contemporary British novelists.

14In the course of the walks, Toledano makes clear his own critical position (fuelled by his views on what I am here referring to as the “grammar” of the contemporary British novel) as he talks of “absurd and melodramatic plots”, of a “sentimental and cynical post-modernist who tries to give the impression that he has no feelings but wishes only to toy with all traditions and impress his peers and satisfy the fat cat publisher who has given him a ridiculous advance”. (14) He goes on to make us aware of his literary Pantheon, with frequent references to Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges and Stéphane Mallarmé. “After them”, he says

15“there is absolutely no excuse for writing a long book, scarcely any excuse for writing books at all, no excuse for going on and on about deforestation and ozone layers […] and at the same time contributing to it all by the printing of more and more and longer and longer books”. (96)

16Eventually, his bitterness about the current situation of the novel becomes explicit:

Today in the majority of cases our writers have substituted self-righteousness for integrity, they flow with the filthy tide and talk of subversion and risk. It is laughable, he said, to hear them talk on television and in newspaper interviews about how they are vilified and silenced and how the authorities deny them a voice. (105)

17As an artist, rather than a manufacturer of literary commodities, Toledano displays constant awareness of the fragility of the writing process itself: “It is never a question of just hanging on, least of all at the end. There are always decisions to be taken”. (146)

  • 13 Gabriel Josipovici, In a Hotel Garden, Manchester : Carcanet Press, 1993.

18The character’s emphasis on the nuts and bolts of the craft of creation – a preoccupation that he shares with a number of characters in the rest of the opus – is one of the features that makes Josipovici a writer’s writer. Similarly, Toledano’s subsequent words, “when we look up from our desk […] we are done for. But if we never look up from our desk we are also done for”, can be understood to show the character’s understanding the need to give complete attention to the form and to take into account the social reality, that is, what the writer sees when he looks up from his desk. Some critics have objected that Josipovici’s fiction is too experimental, too preoccupied with the form and not engaged with “social reality”. Quite apart from the question whether explicit social engagement is generically essential to the novel, such criticism operates within a very narrow definition of social engagement, as if it means no more than writing about dilemmas surrounding banking crisis, child poverty, the threat of global terrorism and the like. Where Josipovici’s text engages with social issues, it does so in much more subtle ways, such as in his novel In a Hotel Garden13, where the question of the Holocaust and its remembrance is addressed through discreet references, which is perhaps too muted a way for the reader used to the industry of Nemirovsky and co.

19In Moo Pak, readers looking for the novel’s social engagement cannot miss Toledano’s critical comments that go beyond his views on writing. We note that he is appalled by the consumerist culture of late capitalism: there are the “extreme and utter banality of the young” (20) and “the drunken bands of illiterate youths who roam our cities”. (35) He can only look with “distaste at the mindless trash that assaults our senses at every moment, the mindless beat of the music of the young” (61) who are always plugged in to “their dreadful music”. (20) We need to rediscover silence, he argues, and goes on to complain of “a swamping of native English values by American ones”. (117) In his view, bookshops are better in France (36) and he laments the disappearance of the “notions common to civilised people for centuries” such as “the idea that you can read a book […] put it down, think about it, think about what you have read, re-read it”. (61) All around, he sees a world of crassness and philistinism and cannot understand “the narrowness and bigotry of the present climate”. (21) This personal vision of reality, presented through the eyes of the character whose views on literature are informed by Maurice Blanchot, and of the character who is also a product of the high culture of European intellectualism, is the default position defining the protagonist’s, and the text’s representation of social issues. The text’s implied reader is asked to share the values of this high culture of European intellectualism, the values that are separated by a vast chasm from those of the common British reader who would therefore have to “read against the grain”, a task that is likely to be too onerous. In addition, this “strange”, evidently foreign, intellectual vision of reality is complemented by the novel’s subjective sense of time: the two friends meet over the period of thirteen years but despite the duration, there is no sense of time passing, of either of them ageing or of anything happening in the reality outside their immediate concerns. For example, there is no “padding”, no incidental, domestic detail about the characters’ lives. Instead, everything that is mentioned is linked to the preoccupations of Jack Toledano. He, in turn, exists through his single-minded obsession with his writing; that is what makes him and that is also what defines his relationship with Anderson, as well as with the world around him.

20We know very little about Toledano’s past and are given no indication that he lived happily ever after. He occupies a permanent present, as if to remind us that for a writer, the writing is always in the present. In his work, the protagonist experiences flashes of happiness, brief moments when he thinks that “everything falls into place” and he talks of the novel he is working on, not the one that he will write. His text can only exist as now, as an immediate possibility, about to be achieved, as a result of that “might”. On the other hand, the writing that is done, the writing that is in the past, is always a failure; he knows it is a disappointment and therefore it does not count. The writing of the future is what the writer dreams of, that is, the ideal that he hopes to achieve.

  • 14 Toledano’s obsessive talking about his writing makes me think of what for me is one of the mo (...)
  • 15 Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, translated by Ann Smock, Lincoln and London: (...)

21When Toledano reveals that the novel he has spent more than ten years talking about does not exist, the reader may be surprised but, on a structural level, this is hardly a twist in the tail. Josipovici’s texts are never simply about confounding the expectations of traditional narrative. In the context of Moo Pak and its constant awareness of the fragility of artistic creation, the ending is the ultimate and the inevitable expression of the doubts and uncertainties faced by the artist. It is the only plausible consequence of the fear that the art that exists in our minds is always elusive when we try to realise it, and anyone who has ever produced anything artistic is likely to identify with the sentiment14. And it is not simply that Toledano has fallen victim to his self-doubt, a possibility that he mentions earlier:“The difficulty comes when you get to the middle, he says, and when you begin to lose faith in the project and in your ability to carry it through”. (144) He has not even started writing the novel, and never will. As the narrator Damien Anderson tells us: “He had been talking and talking about it in the hope that it would materialise but […] it hadn’t and he had to face up to the fact that it never would”. (148) But what about the Beckettian “try again, fail better”? Not for Toledano, it seems: “he has come to the end of the road”. (150) While he may not be suicidal, unlike Mobius the Stripper, another intriguing character of the eponymous short story, whose failed search for the truth appears to lead him to take his own life, Toledano does not conceal the fact that he finds the situation difficult: “I cannot quite accept that I will never write again. It is a bleak prospect”. (150) He is ambivalent about his situation: there is bereavement, but also a sense of relief, “as if a weight had been taken off” (149) his back. In the context of the text that insists on creativity as a biological need, the reader cannot take Toledano’s words at their face value. For how can an artist ever stop creating? Blanchot – whose ideas on literature have strong echoes in Josipovici, here and elsewhere – writes that Kafka “lay in wait for that one moment of grace – when one would have to write no longer”15. For an artist like Toledano this might be both a utopian and a dystopian moment in equal measure.

  • 16 Gabriel Josipovici, « Mobius the Stripper », in Heart’s Wings and Other Stories, Manche (...)
  • 17 I wonder whether the idea could be extended further : does it matter whether a writer publish (...)

22While Mobius, too, is focused and dedicated, obsessive even, a “stickler for routine”, and defined by his passion – “a metaphysical need. To strip16”, he explains – the main difference between the two characters is that the protagonist of Moo Pak does not think that writing or art has anything to do with truth. In fact, Toledano comes to the realisation that his work would have made a difference only to him, not to the world. By talking about his novel, working out details of the narrative, describing what he is writing – even though no writing beyond a few notes took place – he is being creative and, by implication, happy. As with others of Josipovici’s characters, Toledano’s personal happiness is brought about by his creativity. But creativity here means a process, albeit with the odd eureka moment, rather than the end product, that is, creativity is a journey with no end, no arrival point. Even when the work is completed, the yearning continues, since the desire to create can never be satisfied, just as the created can never be anything but failure in the sense that it never lives up to the promise of the initial concept, of the imagined, of what the artist longs to create. Following from there, the fact that Toledano’s novel has not been written becomes irrelevant17.

23This idea of valuing the journey over Ithaka, as Constantine Cavafy’s poem instructs Odysseus, translates into ways of reading Josipovici in general. The reader has to learn to appreciate the reading process, to love to stumble and walk in different directions, without expecting narrative closure. As much as the characters, beset by doubts and uncertainties, engage in trials and errors, the reader – that is, serious grown up reader – must accept that there is no resolution, no final understanding beyond that of a hermeneutic impossibility. Anything else would be a lie. The problems and preoccupations the characters experience at the beginning of each narrative are still there in the end and the reader has even more questions, without answers, than he started with. As far as this reader is concerned, that is a bonus; Josipovici’s text reminds us that the novel is not a comforting bedtime story. Similarly, if “Mobius the Stripper” were a traditional story, the protagonist’s suicide would represent an obvious closure. But here, the structure echoes the Möbius strip device – the two stories are printed on pages split by a horizontal line – and allows the narrative to bifurcate, only to come back together with another tale, that of a character suffering from writer’s block. The circularity of the narrative sequence abolishes the distinction between the beginning and the end; the suicide acts as a spur to the other protagonist to start writing, and thereby the narrative teases the reader’s traditional expectations whereby the death of the protagonist means closure.

24But perhaps we are looking at the end of Moo Pak from a limited perspective. Toledano describes his novel at great length to Anderson, often in minute detail; he seems to have worked it all out. Can we then say that Toledano’s novel does not exist simply because it has not taken the material form of words on a page? We also remember Toledano saying at one point: “I have been flailing about for such a long time […] knowing what I wanted but not knowing how to set about achieving it. But now, he said, everything is beginning to fall into place”. (99) But this is not a matter of him lying or deluding himself: this feeling of certainty that “everything is beginning to fall into place”, only to evaporate like mist the next time one looks, must be familiar to anyone who has ever tried anything creative. Writers often speak of feeling good about a piece of work only to come back to it the next day to find that it does not work. Certainty is regularly followed by disappointment, by the realisation that one was mistaken. If Moo Pak, and Josipovici’s other fiction, tell us one thing, it is the fragility of the creative process: the satisfaction of the perfect expression can be only an illusion.

25“The paradox of creative work”, Toledano says, “is that when the work is finished it is the life of the maker which is renewed. As though by giving birth in this way you could replenish yourself”. (100) Does it mean that, now that he has abandoned the project, Toledano cannot count on his life being replenished? Again, we have to remember that it is the process of creation that matters, the writing, rather than completion. At this point, Toledano is besieged by other doubts too: “There comes a time in life”, he says, “when you ask yourself what use you have been to anybody, and I have to say my record is not one I am particularly proud of”. (149-150) Immediately after this we read Anderson’s closing words that his own life would have been poorer had it not been for the walks and talks with his friend Toledano. And we remember that as early as the first page, he has written that “there is nothing better than going for a walk with Jack Toledano”. (9) This reader can only add: except reading Moo Pak.

26As I have mentioned above, most of the text consists of Toledano speaking. Ostensibly, he is the narrator, the first person narrator. However, what we read is, in fact, written down by Anderson and hence he is the narrator, albeit more of a mechanical recorder, registering what he sees and hears and interjecting ‘he said’ attributions. There are only a few sentences at the opening and at the end that belong to Anderson alone. But then there are also phrases such as “wrote Damien Anderson”. Who is observing him? Another narrator, clearly. But what does it mean for the reader? Who are we with when presented with this Russian doll narration? By necessity, all three of them; the implied reader position shifts around, with Toledano occupying by far the largest space. However, this is not simply a matter of playing amusing post-modernist games with the reader, offering so-called unreliable and reliable narrators. Josipovici’s world is a world of ontological uncertainty and in that context the distinctions of reliability, or of a fixed position offered to the reader, cannot exist: every narrator is by definition unreliable in his own personal vision. The shifts between the three narrators contribute to readers’ disorientation to the point where they find themselves in a position that corresponds to the world of uncertainty occupied by the characters.

27Although the narrator who contributes “he wrote” is a third-person narrator, he has no insight, no privileged position to enter the minds of the characters – the technique of the classic realist text still favoured by the British contemporary novel. Neither does Anderson occupy more than a limited position: his comments are confined to what Toledano says, not to what Toledano is thinking. Despite thirteen years of walking and talking, and his valedictory remark that his life would have been poorer had it not been for the meetings with his friend, the two characters exist in their own worlds. That is so by necessity: Toledano’s exposition of his writing, like writing itself, is a solipsistic activity. As there is no dialogue between the two characters, Toledano, very much like an artist creating in solitude, appears to be talking to himself. Typically, most of Josipovici’s characters are solipsistic figures and rootless to boot. Some are geographical exiles, others are dislocated in terms of the way they experience alienation from the rest of the world. Toledano, a Jewish immigrant, has “no country, no language to call his own” (20) and “he could be happy and creative (the two went together) anywhere”. (63) Most importantly, he has “no nostalgia for anything lost”. (104) Mobius, too, is a foreigner. Rather than expressing national allegiance, the characters identify with intellectual pursuits and with those who share them. For Toledano, a “life without Sophocles and Dante and Donne and Stevens would be intolerable”. (20) He says: “I feel uneasy wherever I am, [that] I find the values of all countries and societies depressing and degrading. Only with a few individuals, like you, [he said,] do I feel reasonably comfortable, do I feel that I am not a lonely crank”. (117)

  • 18 Maurice Blanchot, op. cit., 237.
  • 19 Gabriel Josipovici, Goldberg : Variations, op. cit., 79.

28This, essentially modernist, sentiment has resonances in Blanchot’s thoughts on “the poet who is exiled from the city, from regular occupations and limited obligations”, the poet who is “a wanderer, the one always astray, he to whom the stability of presence is not granted and who is deprived of a true abode”18. Arguably, the most emblematic of all Josipovici’s characters in this respect is that of the Wander-Artist, based on Paul Klee’s image of a stick-like figure, legs apart, with one hand raised as if in greeting. His face has only two large dots for eyes: he is looking but there is no mouth to suggest his mood. Pared down to the bare essentials, stick-like, with no individual or identifiable (national?) traits, it is a figure that cannot belong, that is “of here and nowhere”, a perpetual foreigner, or “an extravagant stranger”, to echo a description of Othello, another dislocated character. Significantly, the figure of Wander-Artist is on the move, perpetually stepping forward. The image is reproduced on the cover of Goldberg: Variations and one of the novel’s chapters is narrated by the character. He says: “It does not matter where I have come from. You could say that I am only alive when I come into view and where I am going is anyone’s guess19” – words that apply to Jack Toledano and to many other characters in Josipovici’s fiction.

29To return to the idea of Weber’s “disenchantment of the world”: if it were possible to present a solution to the situation, Josipovici’s would be that of creativity. In his fiction, creativity is the sole human activity that can bring happiness, albeit temporary. His prose makes us aware that while art and literature come from that awareness of the disenchantment, they do not offer solace as there is no replacement for the religion and the gods we have lost. Any relief from our anxiety is transient. His characters are compelled to be creative, despite being aware that not only is there no promise of success, but failure is destined. Nevertheless, they carry on as is if it were possible to succeed. A writer has to sit at the desk every day as if creativity and the successful expression of ideas were possible. “Regularity and discipline cannot be questioned”, Toledano instructs. (59) In this sense, like Beckett, Josipovici is an artist of the pathos of human existence and here to be human means to be creative while, at the same time, being aware of the impossibility of creation. His text also reminds us of the pathos of middle age – the end of the time when everything is possible – and of the need to accept that one will never write that book, never paint that picture that seemed within reach. In Toledano’s words, “after the age of fifty, [he said,] you have got to ask yourself what you are doing with your life”. (149) But instead of despair, he is beset by a mixture of sadness and relief, as he realises and has to accept that he will never succeed in producing the work he is happy with. It is here that the essence of Josipovici’s modernity lies, in this constant questioning of the possibility of art, questioning that is without despair and that is accompanied by the effort and hope hinging on that “might”.

30In Moo Pak, the questioning is done through the topos of writing but this is very different from the way many contemporary novels, such as Ian McEwan’s Atonement, or Martin Amis’s Information, or Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot use writing, that is, either to explore ethical issues of control and influence, or to play with the text’s fictionality. With Josipovici, however, creativity, and writing in particular, are not metaphors, devices to say something else, or to point out some “truth of human nature”. Instead, they are at the core of the questions concerning ontology and epistemology. Above all, Josipovici is alert to the overwhelming question of the possibility of being a writer, in all its vulnerability and fragility. His texts often present writers struggling with words, worrying about meaning and facing myriad decisions in the process. In Moo Pak, the implied reader position demands that we share and admire the protagonist’s need for artistic endeavour and, at the same time, that we understand and accept its destined failure.

  • 20 Monika Fludernik, Echoes and Mirrorings, Gabriel Josipovici’s Creative Œuvre, Frankfurt (...)

31Monika Fludernik, in the only book-length study of Josipovici’s work to date20, refers to Moo Pak as a philosophical novel. But rather than developing an idea through its logical progression, Candide-style, the narrative fumbles along, and I mean that in the best sense of the word, as if it were mimicking a creative process, uncertain but nevertheless moving on, exploring the question of writing, without ever coming to a conclusion. Moo Pak is more of an essay-novel and as such it tempts the reader to reach for the index and look up the references to art, creativity, solitude, and friendship, among others. This is literature about literature which refuses to use its metatext as a narrative joke. Josipovici’s opus, both critical and fictional, presents literature and art as most serious human activities, rather than as entertainment, escapism, or social critique. As a text which consistently examines the experience of reading and writing, Moo Pak is a novel which expounds Josipovici’s narrative poetics, and puts that poetics into practice. In the words of Toledano, an idea without a form “is worse than useless and so is a form without content. Only when the two come together can a work of value ensue” (99) – a fitting comment on this writer’s narrative fiction.

32Josipovici’s poetics is situated very much beyond the “grammar” of the contemporary British novel, beyond all those texts where the pleasure of reading comes from voyeuristic peeping into the lives of individuals, in particular into their domestic arrangements, sexual affairs and professional jealousies – in many cases an activity that some might regard as the literary equivalent of reading Hello magazine. The description of Mobius the Stripper facing a group of giggling girls, who are working in the same club, and prying into his private life, provides a good illustration of what I mean:

  • 21 Gabriel Josipovici, « Mobius the Stripper », op. cit., 16.

But they felt melancholy in the late afternoon, far from their families, and in the early hours of the morning, when the public had all departed. ‘Where do you live?’ they asked him. ‘Do you have a man or a woman? Do you have any children, Moby?’
To all these questions he replied with the same kindly smile, but once when he caught one of them tailing him after a show he came back and hit her across the face with his glove so that none of them ever tried anything like that again.21

33The girls, melancholy and lonely, are not unlike readers of contemporary novels who seek distraction in finding out about the private lives of characters similar to them. The girls get their warning, but who is going to hit the reader with a glove across the face?

  • 22 Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel [1986], translated by Linda Asher, London: Faber and Fabe (...)

34More often than not, writers of the British contemporary novel are moralists even when they prevaricate over ethical questions: their protagonists seek redemption, and usually find it, in the shape of sex or love, money or career, the habitual concerns of the classic realist text, the text of the nineteenth century. But while the décor has changed and the characters have mobile phones and worry about global terrorism, the narration of these novels is hardly different from their predecessors a century ago; it conforms to the conventions of social realism with its assumptions about reality, language and subjectivity. The parochial concerns of the British contemporary novel, its unquestioning acceptance of the form and the belief in the continuity of the self, make it very difficult, if not impossible, for these texts to say anything about our specific conditions. One often wonders whether there is anything “novel” about these novels. As Milan Kundera said some time ago, a novel which does not reveal anything new about the human condition is immoral22.

  • 23 B.-S. Johnson, « Introduction », in The Unfortunates [1969], London: Picador, 1999, vii
  • 24 Zadie Smith, « Two Paths for the Novel », The New York Review of Books, 20 November 2008.
  • 25 Quoted from blog This Space. <, entry for 16 December 20 (...)
  • 26 James Wood, « Human, All too Inhuman », The New Republic, 24 July 2000.
  • 27 The agents in particular act as fierce gatekeepers : anyone who has ever tried to send (...)

35As long ago as the 1960s, the novelist B. S. Johnson – whose work certainly did not conform to the dominant trend – wrote that the “straightforward Dickensian novel had had its day” because “no matter how good the writers are who now attempt it, it cannot be made to work for our time, and the writing of it is anachronistic, invalid, irrelevant and perverse”23. Since then, critics and writers have bemoaned the state of the genre. Among others, Zadie Smith articulated the problem succinctly: “The world has changed and we do not stand in the same relation to it as we did when Balzac was writing”24. However, in the same breath, she admitted that she had written in this tradition herself and hoped for its survival. Josipovici himself has said that “straightforward realism also stops you actually recognising this mysterious thing that our lives are open, are not going to be subsumed in a narrative we can easily tell, but we are constantly going to come up against something which is much more mysterious, much stranger, much more un-inchoate than we can imagine25”. One of the most prominent and eloquent critical voices about the state of the novel has been that of James Wood, who came up with the term “hysterical realism”26. However, neither he nor any of the others have been able to influence the publishing and bookselling industries to reflect upon the questions about the genre that has become a commodity, fully co-opted into the capitalist economy, with the writer forced to perform like a show-business star. While we cannot blame publishers and booksellers, nor agents, for expecting to make their industries profitable and taking on what “sells”, we have to worry about the situation where any alternatives to the formula of social realism, any novels without a “story”27, remain consigned to the writer’s bottom drawer or, if the luck would have it, are taken by small, independent publishers whose resources and influence are no match for the power of big guys. This process ensures that the contemporary British novel is locked in stylistic homogeneity. With its social certainties and fixed identities, the novel has been reduced to a bourgeois genre that does not have much to say to the twenty-first century reader. At the same time, the work of writers such as B. S. Johnson, Ann Quin et al., and of Josipovici himself, remains largely out of print.

  • 28 In Britain, the only champions of the novel that do not conform to the conventions of social (...)
  • 29 Maurice Blanchot, op. cit., 199.

36Let me ask that question again: who is going to slap the reader, wake him up from the slumber induced by comforting bedtime stories? Whose job is it to help the reader grow up and show him that, as Mobius says “it’s not sexual, but metaphysical”? The only candidates worthy of the task are the critic and the reviewer. While the former has tended to be analytical and theoretical, distant from the reading public, the latter has focused on straight evaluation, supporting the conservative trend of the publishing industry by writing about the “failed empathy” with characters who “do not live” and bemoaning the lack of texture of real experience while praising the intricacies of the plot28. Critics and reviewers, however, should help the reader discover novel novels, that is, those texts that explore and interrogate generic conventions, those novels that aim to be of our time. Exposed to a repetitive diet of social realism, the common reader of the British contemporary novel has only parochial interests and limited expectations. What is required is a reader with more sophisticated taste buds and who would support the publishing industry in breaking new ground as well as take risks with a greater variety of writing, providing a feast rather than a set menu. Once again, Blanchot can be instructive: “What most threatens reading is this: the reader’s reality, his personality, his immodesty, his stubborn insistence upon remaining himself in the face of what he reads”29. Common readers of the British contemporary novel, used to the realism of characters like themselves, are likely to find Toledano, with his high intellectualism, passion for literature and writing, and his disdain for the vulgarity of popular culture, no more than an obsessive, eccentric old man in whom they have no interest. While the character is “realistic”, i.e. occupies a reality that is plausible in the sense of being consistent with the laws of physics, Toledano, along with most other Josipovici characters, exists in a self-contained world that is alien to most common readers.

  • 30 Ibid., 212.

37Like Jack Toledano, Josipovici is a modernist, which, in the words of his character, means “neither a sentimental Victorian who pours out his fantasies wrapped up in absurd and melodramatic plots nor a sentimental and cynical post-modernist”. (14) In Britain, where the majority of writers and readers are oblivious to modernism, his texts have been called “difficult” and “experimental”, the labels that the novelist has rightly rejected, the labels that say more about the situation of the contemporary novel than about his own work. In Blanchot’s terms, we could say that Josipovici’s novels are “objects of contemplation, they refer to nothing else”30. Not bound by hermeneutic closure, infinitely ambiguous, these novels demand and reward re-readings. Ultimately, no exegesis is possible: attempting to unravel Toledano’s views, the reader can only quote more and more, until the whole text is reproduced.

  • 31 Fludernik attributes Josipovici’s relative marginalisation to his being “a British cosmopolit (...)

38Josipovici writes in the tradition that includes Cervantes, Sterne, Kafka, Beckett and the nouveau roman among others, a tradition that has appealed less to British readers than to their European peers31. Toledano says that such “has always been the response of the majority of Englishmen to modernist artists and thinkers”, (6) but the question is whether the situation has to remain unchanged. What is not questionable is that Josipovici is the most intriguing contemporary writer in Britain and one can only hope that having missed Thomas Bernhard and W. G. Sebald, the Nobel committee will not be too late for him.

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BLANCHOT Maurice, The Space of Literature, translated by Ann Smock, Lincoln/London: U of Nebraska P, 1982.

JOHNSON B. S., The Unfortunates [1969], London: Picador, 1999.

FLUDERNIK Monika, Echoes and Mirrorings: Gabriel Josipovici’s Creative Oeuvre, Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang, 2000.

JOSIPOVICI Gabriel, The Inventory, London: Michael Joseph, 1968.

JOSIPOVICI Gabriel, “He” [1977], in In the Fertile Land, Manchester/New York: Carcanet Press, 1987, 61-75.

JOSIPOVICI Gabriel, The Air We Breathe, Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1981.

JOSIPOVICI Gabriel, Contre-Jour: A Triptych after Pierre Bonnard, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1986.

JOSIPOVICI Gabriel, The Big Glass, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1991.

JOSIPOVICI Gabriel, In a Hotel Garden, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1993.

JOSIPOVICI Gabriel, Moo Pak, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1994.

JOSIPOVICI Gabriel, Goldberg: Variations, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002.

JOSIPOVICI Gabriel, “Mobius the Stripper”, in Heart’s Wings and Other Stories, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010.

JOSIPOVICI Gabriel, What Ever Happened to Modernism? New Haven (CT)/London: Yale UP, 2010.

JOSIPOVICI Gabriel, Infinity: The Story of a Moment, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2012.

KUNDERA Milan, The Art of the Novel [1986], translated by Linda Asher, London: Faber and Faber, 1988.

MAIN Vesna, “Failing Better: Heart’s Wings and Other Stories”, PN Review 201, vol. 38, n°1, September-October 2011.

McILVANNEY Liam and Ryan RAY (eds.), The Good of the Novel, London: Faber and Faber, 2011.

SMITH Zadie, “Two Paths for the Novel”, The New York Review of Books, 20 November 2008.

WOOD James, “Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child”, The New Yorker, 17 October 2011.

WOOD James, “Human, All Too Inhuman”, The New Republic, 24 July 2000.

WOOD James, “Keeping it Real”, The New Yorker, 15 March 2010.

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1 Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism? New Haven (CT/London:Yale UP, 201, 13).

2 Gabriel Josipovici, Contre-Jour : A triptych after Pierre Bonnard, Manchester : Carcanet Press, 1986.

3 Gabriel Josipovici, The Big Glass, Manchester : Carcanet Press, 1991.

4 Gabriel Josipovici, Goldberg : Variations, Manchester : Carcanet Press, 2002.

5 Gabriel Josipovici, Moo Pak, Manchester : Carcanet Press, 1994.

6 Gabriel Josipovici, Infinity :The Story of a Moment, Manchester : Carcanet Press, 2012.

7 Gabriel Josipovici, « He » [1977], in In the Fertile Land, Manchester/New-York : Carcanet Press, 1987, 61-75.

8 Gabriel Josipovici, The Air We Breathe, Brighton, Sussex :Harvester Press, 1981.

9 James Wood, « Keeping it real », The New Yorker, 15 march 2010. For Wood’s most recent example of the “grammar”, see James Wood, “Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child”, The New Yorker, 17 October 2011.

10 Gabriel Josipovici, The Inventory, London : Michael Joseph, 1968.

11 Vesna Main, « Failing better : Heart’s Wings and Other Stories », PN Review 201, vol. 38, no1, September-October 2011.

12 Ibid, 104.

13 Gabriel Josipovici, In a Hotel Garden, Manchester : Carcanet Press, 1993.

14 Toledano’s obsessive talking about his writing makes me think of what for me is one of the most memorable cinematic images, that of a young boy, the bell maker, in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. While Toledano talks and walks, the child bell maker lies on the ground, foetus-like, clearly in intense pain. Both offer powerful representations of the anxiety of creativity and the inevitable failure.

15 Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, translated by Ann Smock, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1982, 72.

16 Gabriel Josipovici, « Mobius the Stripper », in Heart’s Wings and Other Stories, Manchester : Carcanet Press, 2010, 11.

17 I wonder whether the idea could be extended further : does it matter whether a writer publishes a novel or not, that is, whether it is made available to the wider audience ? For we could say that, ultimately, creation is solipsistic and the artist is the only true recipient of his work.

18 Maurice Blanchot, op. cit., 237.

19 Gabriel Josipovici, Goldberg : Variations, op. cit., 79.

20 Monika Fludernik, Echoes and Mirrorings, Gabriel Josipovici’s Creative Œuvre, Frankfurt a.M: Peter Lang, 2000.

21 Gabriel Josipovici, « Mobius the Stripper », op. cit., 16.

22 Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel [1986], translated by Linda Asher, London: Faber and Faber, 1988.

23 B.-S. Johnson, « Introduction », in The Unfortunates [1969], London: Picador, 1999, vii.

24 Zadie Smith, « Two Paths for the Novel », The New York Review of Books, 20 November 2008.

25 Quoted from blog This Space. <>, entry for 16 December 2010, accessed 25 April 2011.

26 James Wood, « Human, All too Inhuman », The New Republic, 24 July 2000.

27 The agents in particular act as fierce gatekeepers : anyone who has ever tried to send a novel to an agent would have been faced with the questions : Have you got a plot ? What’s the story ?

28 In Britain, the only champions of the novel that do not conform to the conventions of social realism have been various blogs, such a Ready Steady Book, My Space. A recently published collection of essays on (mostly) British contemporary novels, The Good of the Novel (2011), sets out to gather criticism that is both analytical and evaluative; however, its choice of texts serves only to confirm rather than interrogate the homogeneity of the genre.

29 Maurice Blanchot, op. cit., 199.

30 Ibid., 212.

31 Fludernik attributes Josipovici’s relative marginalisation to his being “a British cosmopolitan author”. She writes that “maybe that is the reason why he has antagonized se many British critics: not because he is not properly British, not, ultimately, one of their own” (op. cit., 12-13).

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Vesna Main, « Beyond the “Grammar” »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XII-n° 2 | 2014, mis en ligne le 27 mai 2014, consulté le 21 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Vesna Main

Vesna Main was born in Zagreb, Croatia. She holds a PhD in English from the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. She taught Shakespeare to Hausa students in Nigeria and was a lecturer at various English universities. Her novel A Woman with no Clothes On – a story of Victorine Meurent, Manet’s favourite model – was published in 2008. She lives in London.

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