Concerning Gabriel Josipovici
Monika Fludernik, Professor of English Literature at the University of Freiburg, has produced the first monograph on the work of the British literary critic, novelist, and playwright Gabriel Josipovici. To date (November 2002), Josipovici has published 16 works of fiction, and 12 plays for radio and the stage. He has also published eight nonfiction works. In 2001 his very moving memoir, A Life, focusing on his late mother, Sasha Rabinovitch, was published. Josipovici is also a frequent reviewer for the the Times Literary Supplement.
Josipovici was born in Nice in 1940, and educated in Egypt in a English school, then in England. He read English at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, taking a first in his final examinations in 1961. In 1963 he joined the faculty at the University of Sussex where he was a Lecturer (1963-1974), then a Reader (1974-1980), part-time Reader (1980-1984), and subsequently Professor of English in the School of European Studies. Much of his time since the early 1980s has been spent writing, and he taught largely on a part-time basis. In 1998 he retired to devote all his energies to writing.
Fludernik's monograph appeared too early to include A Life. Her approach is formalist and factual, and her aim is "to provide a long-overdue critical appreciation of the writings of this sophisticated author. Josipovici's intelligence and depth of insight deserve a wider audience" (vi-vii). The introduction describes Fludernik's initial encounter with Josipovici's work, when she was working "on fiction written in the second person" (1), and her meeting with the author. She then summarizes information about his life, providing basic facts about him and the extent of his work. She treats, too briefly, an important element in his life, his "Jewishness" and its impact "on the themes and form of his texts" (6).
Following "The Silence that Calls Out to You: An Interview with Gabriel Josipovici," the first chapter is an analysis of her subject's short stories, or "Metaphorical Mirrorings." The second chapter deals with the novels and the third chapter is an analysis of Josipovici's "superb handling of dialogue both in his fiction and in his drama" (6). The fourth chapter is the first detailed discussion of Josipovici's dramatic productivity and draws upon typescripts available from the dramatist or his agent. Only seven of Josipovici's plays and only one of his fifteen radio plays have been published. (He has also written four television plays and a film script, none of which has been published.) Chapter Five contextualizes Josipovici within contemporary British writing and compares him with other fiction writers and dramatists. Fludernik's book concludes with the first "complete" bibliography of Josipovici. With sparse, sometimes one-word, annotations, this consists of biographical sources of information, followed by a section called "Poetological Statements by the Author"—in other words, six titles by him ranging from his "Getting it Right: True Confessions of an Experimentalist" (1982) to "Writing, Reading, and the Study of Literature" (1989). Three interviews are listed, as are Awards. There then follows the main bibliography with Section A, "The Writings of Gabriel Josipovici," is divided into eight subsections: Novels, Non-Fiction, Short Stories, Plays, Radio Plays, Television Plays and Films, German Radio Broadcasts (seven are listed), and Criticism. The subsection on Criticism in turn has thee parts: Monographs, Collections, and Selected Essays. There follows a Section B, "Works Cited: Texts by other Authors," in other words texts cited by Fludernik. Section C, "Works Cited: Criticism" consists of "Selected Reviews of Josipovici's Work" and "Criticism General"—those drawn upon by Fludernik. There is also an index.
There are three collections of Josipovici's short stories for which he is known. Mobius the Stripper, the first collection, published in 1974, won the Somerset Maugham Award, although the honor was rescinded because Josipovici was not born in the United Kingdom. A characteristic stylistic quality of the stories in this collection is what Fludernik calls "a metafictional loop." This is a typographic device and a further illustration of Josipovici's positive "experimentalism" and the "close correlation between content and form [that] is observable in all of Josipovici's writing." She discusses at length his use of "seemingly anti-realistic technique" in his short story "Death of the Word" (1977) and its transformation of the father from a memory into a motif. Again, in the short story "Second Person Looking Out" (1977) she draws attention to the "shift in this text from first to third person and then to second-person reference" which can prove "disorienting for most readers" (32-34). Other formal features Fludernik isolates at work in the short stories are "paradoxical" chronology in, for instance, "Second Person Looking Out," "intensified considerably by the use of the narrative present tense." She even notes "triple pronominal shifts" in this text (36-37). Many of the short stories are "metafictional": in short "Josipovici's writing is defined by the paradox of a demand for understanding and a resistance against understanding" (38). To illustrate this in detail Fludernik turns to the story "Brothers" (1983). This becomes the subject of four and a half pages of close analysis and paraphrase isolating the complexity of the narration, the "series of projections and pseudo-arguments" (40), postulation, reversal in the key fantasy scenes, the mixing up of story levels, and a "projective fantasy" (42). For Fludernik "Brothers" is an example of "one of the most striking aspects of Josipovici's writing, namely the surprising empathetic effect that is triggered by texts that refract characters' subjectivities rather than merely representing them" (43).
There is a "metafictional reading" of "The Bird Cage" (1987) focusing on the complex relationship between "I" and "you" in the story (43-48). Fludernik's account concludes with the idea that the story "clearly thematizes the important topics of the mirror" in Josipovici's writing. Other concerns are with "what the things we observe really ‘mean'" (48). This applies also to language itself which "does not ‘mirror' ‘reality'—it either separates and divides by means of framing, or it engenders an endless circuit of reflections" (51). Another preoccupation is with his depictions of the psychology of his characters, for instance, derangement in "A Changeable Report" (1982), and "the theme of exile and/or alienation" (55). Fludernik perceptively observes that in Josipovici's work in the 1990s these themes have "become more and more central" (55).
A similar approach is found in the treatment of the novels, which fall into "three formally distinct groups:" dialogue novels, monologue novels, and montage novels (63). For Fludernik the formative distinction correlates at least partly "with the thematic concerns" of the texts (64). Her chapter on the novels is followed by a chapter on "the author's conspicuous and innovative use of dialogue" (105). There is then a fascinating formalist discussion, based largely on unpublished texts, of Josipovici's drama and his radio plays, often correcting inaccurate information found in secondary works. In the final chapter, "Josipovici and the Scene of Writing" Fludernik, as a self-confessed "professional narratologist," pays special attention to Josipovici's "narrative techniques," to "his creative modification of traditional modes of writing," his indebtedness to Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and French "nouveau roman" (179), to Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute and others.
There is no doubt that Josipovici is a very important writer. Fludernik's study does its subject justice, illuminates his art, focusing on its narrative and other formal aspects. The last chapter is interesting for its conceptualization and perceptions of writing in Britain in the last decade of the twentieth century. The bibliography is invaluable. At times Fludernik's style is labored and rather pedantic and she misses some clues provided by her subject. As noted, an interview is included, "conducted by mail, April 2000," between Fludernik and Josipovici. He makes many perceptive observations about contemporary British writing and especially about the importance to him of William Golding's first four novels and Muriel Spark's writing: "I love her work" (26). Among the books he returns to frequently is Tristram Shandy, with its blank pages, narrative loops, and twists and turns. Many of the narratological devices found in Josipovici may be found too in Sterne—a point ignored by Fludernik. Some of her footnotes are illuminating but insufficiently developed. Josipovici has clearly been very much influenced by certain composers. To take one example, in a note Fludernik indicates that " the structure" of "Second Person Looking Out" "is linked with Stockhausen's musical techniques." Her source is "personal communication from the author" (37). Unfortunately she does little with the hint. Not enough attention is paid, either, to Josipovici's own fine academic writing, to his complex discourse on literature, the novel, and writing.
It is very curious that Fludernik spends so little time with Josipovici's interesting and, some would argue, his most important writing, his literary criticism. This encompasses various literary areas and genres although it mainly focuses upon fiction. The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction, first published in 1971, has taken on the status of something of a classic. Two more editions followed in 1979 and in 1994. Much of the work is preoccupied with what Josipovici perceives as a conflict between the creator, the writer, and the reader. For him, reading is a complex and far from passive process. Drawing upon illustrations from Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel Beckett, William Golding, and other writers, Josipovici develops a "frame" metaphor. Linda Cannon and Jay L. Halio correctly observe that in The World and the Book Josipovici argues that both the artist and the reader must recognize that removing the frames does not help us to see the world as it really is; the reality that must be seen, is "the fact that we are condemned to see through frames," and this is what brings with it "a kind of freedom, for it stops us from falling into the trap of thinking that meaning inheres in words, objects or events." (453) (1) Josipovici's exploration of the relationship between our perception of what we think we see and its consequences, and the manifold ramifications of "meaning," pervade his academic and nonacademic writing.
In a much later critical study, On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion (1999), Josipovici continues to be preoccupied with perception and its consequences. His chosen area of focus historically is Modernism. However, Josipovici also looks at other centuries, traditions, and authors: Plato, Homer, St. Paul, and the Bible. In the Old Testament there is a profound ambiguity rather than simplistic moral lessons. Josipovici is replete with insight when writing about the Old Testament as literature in this book and elsewhere. Indeed it could be argued that his The Book of God: A Response to the Bible (1988) contains his most sustained and finest insights on religious awareness and the presence of the "other." The distinctions Josipovici draws in On Trust are worthy of note: for him Plato and especially St. Paul removed death as a finality, leading to the rise of confessional literature found in, for instance, St. Augustine and Rousseau. In Dante and Shakespeare, and in spite of a movement inward, both geniuses use the past in fruitful ways. Shakespeare, for instance, in King Lear adapts a tale of a king's loss of authority to depict a disappearing world of vision and consensus. Such insights lead Josipovici to question the depth of subsequent writers such as the English Romantics. Wordsworth and Coleridge challenged authority but failed to transcend that challenge. By the time of the Romantics, personal authority as the summit of creative achievement and self-expression replaced the ancient values embodied in "authority." In the twentieth century literature has taken rather a back seat and in some quarters is regarded with suspicion. There are rival genres—especially film. Josipovici focuses upon the work of Proust, Kafka, and Beckett in order to show how their achievement is a product of tension: between suspicion of what they are doing, and trust in the process of writing.
I have attempted this rather superficial paraphrase in order to draw out the complexity of Josipovici's thought.(2) In his latest novel, Goldberg: Variations, Josipovici is again preoccupied with creativity. There are chapters of dialogue in a carriage, chapters entirely in the form of letters, and chapters telling tales of Neolithic archeology, incest set in the Orkney Islands, or focused on an insane Hölderlin-like poet figure. One chapter appears to describe a storeroom; on the other hand, it might describe a painting of a storeroom. The initial chapters seem to be placed in Laurence Sterne's eighteenth century. A central character, one Samuel Goldberg (perhaps a Jew, perhaps an echo from Johann Sebastian Bach), is apparently a writer dependent upon patronage. In the first chapter he is ordered to the home of an aristocrat, Tobias (echoes of Smollett) Westfield, with philosophical pretensions, and an insomniac. Goldberg's brief is to write a new story, a story that is really new, and one that will of course make the sleepless philosopher sleep. Goldberg, unable to perform, resorts to reading out a letter from his wife! Josipovici writes:
This is a wonderful illustration of the classical quality of prose passages of intense lyrical beauty which recur in Josipovici's work. The obsession with "trust," the "real" and the "false," with the act of writing, are also plainly evident here.
This essay merely scratches the surface of the work of a highly significant critic, novelist, dramatist, and thinker. Josipovici's work is important in each of the various genres in which he writes. An area I have not been able to discuss is Josipovici's sense of his Jewishness. This belongs to the actual historical experiences through which he and his family lived. It has not been up till now a formal ritual commitment. Josipovici's review of Marie-Anne Lescourret's Emmanuel Levinas (1994) provides an insight into his perception of Judaism. He agrees with Levinas's critique of a practice of Judaism based on "sentimental or purely ritual forms." For Levinas Judaism is "life and thought, not spectacle and folklore." Josipovici refers to Levinas's observation that "the daily fidelity to the ritual gesture demands a courage more calm, more noble and greater than that of the warrior[…]. The ritual lore of Judaism constitutes the severe discipline that is directed towards this justice." For Josipovici this is "not only […] overblown and absurd but as quite contrary to the joyful walking in the way of the Lord which is natural to the religious Jew" ("To Be"). Josipovici writes, in what the present reviewer regards as his finest work to date, A Life: "For the Jew the way to join one's admired ancestors, the way to live up to one's ideals, is to endure whatever the world throws at us and to remain ourselves" (292). As mentioned previously, A Life, published in 2001, came too late to be included in Fludernik's study, planned for publication on Josipovici's sixtieth birthday on October 8, 2000. Four years earlier his beloved mother Sacha died in Brighton General Hospital in Sussex on the English south coast. Her son movingly tells her story, and that of her ancestors, of the escape to Egypt from Vichy France, to their move to England and their life together in Lewes in Sussex. A Life is one of the most powerful depictions of the relationship between mother and son to appear in English Literature (and yes, the reviewer had read and been moved by Lawrence's Sons and Lovers!). A poet and translator, Sacha possessed remarkable insight. Her son's A Life, ensures that "her memory will be blessed."
1. The passage quoted from Josipovici (from p. 296 of The World and the Book [1994 ed.]), is also cited by Fludernik (50).
2. I am indebted to Stephen Mitchelmore's excellent review of On Trust, "Suspicious Minds," in the The Jewish Quarterly, no. 177 (Spring 2000): 83-84, and available online at <http://www.spikemagazine.com/1000ontrust.htm >.
Cannon, Linda, and Jay L. Halio. "Gabriel Josipovici." Dictionary of Literary Biography 14: British Novelists Since 1960, Part 2: H-Z. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983. 452-58
Josipovici, Gabriel. "The Bird Cage." In the Fertile Land 31-34, Steps 235-38.
___. The Book of God: A Response to the Bible. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.
___. "Brothers." 1983. Rpt. In the Fertile Land 27-50.
___. "A Changeable Report." 1982. Rpt. In the Fertile Land 45-50.
___. "The Death of the Word." Rpt. Four Stories 245-51, Steps 245-51.
___. Four Stories. London: Menard P, 1977.
___. "Getting it Right: True Confessions of an Experimentalist." 1982. Rpt. as conclusion to The Mirror of Criticism. 173-80.
___. Goldberg: Variations. Manchester: Carcanet, 2002.
___. In the Fertile Land. Manchester, New York: Carcanet, 1987.
___. A Life. London: London Magazine Editions in association with the European Jewish Publication Society, 2001.
___. The Mirror of Criticism: Selected Reviews 1977-1982. Brighton: Harvester; Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1983
___. Mobius the Stripper: Stories and Short Plays. London: Gollancz, 1974.
___. On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion. New Haven: Yale UP, 1999.
___. "Second Person Looking Out." Rpt. Four Stories 27-33.
___. Steps: Selected Fiction and Drama. Manchester: Carcanet, 1990.
___. "To Be Reckoned with?" Times Literary Supplement 27 Jan. 1995: 8. Rev. of Emmanuel Levinas, by Marie-Anne Lescourret.
___. The World and the Book. A Study of Modern Fiction. London: Macmillan; Stanford: Stanford UP,1971; rpt. Macmillan, 1979, 1994.
___. "Writing, Reading, and the Study of Literature." New Literary History 21 (1989): 75-95.