University of Freiburg, Germany
Gabriel Josipovici is one of the major contemporary British authors. If this fact has so far escaped the notice of British literary critics and much of the British public, this is no doubt due to Josipovici's denigration as 'merely' an "experimentalist." Although Josipovici's early short fiction, which made him go first place in the Somerset Maugham Awards in 1975, is technically extremely versatile and innovative and therefore answers to the label from a formal perspective, the author's later fiction no longer obtrudes formal solecisms on the reader and should therefore be exempted from this type of criticism. In any case, the oeuvre of Josipovici has in the meantime reached a critical mass which requires that one take it seriously, particularly since Josipovici has remained faithful to his artistic views with admirable tenacity and refused to be swayed by the popular vote. His art, he says, is resolutely modern, and he compares its modernism to that of the major authors and visual artists of the early twentieth century: Kafka and Beckett, Picasso, Duchamp.
Josipovici's writing spans more than one genre. Besides the short fiction and now fourteen novels he has published a substantial body of literary criticism, a book on the Bible ( The Book of God, 1988), a memoir of his mother ( A Life, 2001), and over a dozen plays and radio plays each. He also serves as a regular reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement . His dramatic oeuvre has only recently received critical attention (Pernot 1994, Fludernik 2000).
Life . Gabriel Josipovici was born on October 8, 1940, in Nice, France, where his Egyptian-Jewish parents were foreign students. He survived the war in the French Alps and returned to Cairo for schooling. His mother followed him to England in 1956, where he completed his university entrance schooling and then became a student, lecturer and eventually professor at Sussex University. Gabriel Josipovici retired from his post in 1998.
Fiction . Gabriel Josipovici's major early successes came with his short fiction, particularly the stories collected in Mobius the Stripper in 1974. The title story juxtaposes the stripping of Mobius, who denudes his soul rather than his body, with the anxieties of writer's block on the part of a young man. Mobius's story is provided on the top of each page and the text on the lower half of each page deals with the young writer in his creative throes. At the end of the top story Mobius kills himself, thus creating the blank page which confronts the first-person narrator in the bottom half story. At the end of the first person narrator´s story, he suddenly manages to overcome writer's block and starts to write — Mobius's story printed at the top, one presumes.
Despite what at first glance appears to be a facile formal trick, this device in fact helps to contrast two agonized men in their search for truth. Mobius, who is a great philosopher, is peeling off layer after layer of argument to arrive at the empty centre of truth, whereas the narrator agonizes over the inability to say anything worthwhile until he hits upon the story of this impossibility exemplified by Mobius.
After this first volume of stories which made Josipovici into an immediate celebrity, especially after the Somerset Maugham Award was withdrawn because of his lack of a British passport at birth, Josipovici continued to write short fiction consistently into the 1980s, producing a final collection called In the Fertile Land in 1987. Since then only a few stories have appeared, and the author has concentrated on the genre of the novel.
Josipovici's first published novel, The Inventory (1968, reprinted 1990 in Steps ), is typical of much of his fiction: it consists almost entirely of dialogue sequences and juxtaposes a number of plot strands. Josipovici's short fiction and novels abound in dialogue, and he can lay claim to unexcelled virtuosity in the handling of verbal communication patterns. His most recent dialogue novel, Now (1998), which became a huge success in its German translation, also consistently employs dialogue in which people deliberately fail to understand one another.
Conversations that run aground and plot strands that do not come together are recurring features in two other novels, Migrations (1977) and Conversations in Another Room (1994). Whereas Migrations depicts a group of alienated characters in search of their bearings, juxtaposing a hostile urban environment with the agonies of loneliness and hopelessness, Conversations in Another Room emphasizes a further feature of Josipovici's prose, his humour. Two old ladies squabbling with each other, their jealousy and distrust of one another and the stubbornness of old age emerge with stunning realism. The novel anticipates the hilarious parts of The Big Glass (1991) and Now . Perhaps the most accessible of Josipovici´s novels is Contre-Jour: A Triptych After Pierre Bonnard (1986), a fantasia on themes from the painter's life. Two novels that have received wide critical acclaim are The Air We Breathe (1981), runner-up for the Booker Prize, and In a Hotel Garden (1993) which manages to treat the traumas of the holocaust in extremely subtle fashion and is perhaps Josipovici´s most obvious echo of Aharon Appelfeld´s work.
Drama and Radio Plays . Between 1970 and 1994, Gabriel Josipovici also wrote a considerable number of stage and radio plays. The majority of the stage plays were premiered at the Gardner Centre of Sussex University (Brighton Actors' Workshop). Moreover, one play was commissioned by the National Theatre ( A Moment , 1979), one performed at the Royal Court ( Dreams of Mrs Fraser , 1972) and two plays at the Cockpit ( Mrs Fraser 1975; with Echo ), and Flow (1973) premiered at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh.
Many of the plays are as yet unavailable in print. The same holds for the radio plays, a great number of which have been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and 4. Of the many exciting pieces, I would like to concentrate on Vergil Dying (1978), a play available in print in the collection Steps (1990), and on Mr Vee (1988), which received the Society of Authors Award for Best Original Script in 1988. Vergil Dying , conceived as a stage play but premiered as a radio play, depicts the final moments of the Latin poet Virgil before he dies (in the stage version this death occurs on stage). He tries to destroy his scroll with the Aeneid but fails to do so. The protagonist obsesses about the morality of his art and the ethics of imperial poetry. The poet's soliloquy echoes passages from the Aeneid and other works by Virgil. The play can easily compare with Broch's novel The Death of Virgil (1945).
Mr Vee , a fantasia based on Velásquez' painting Las Meninas , shrewdly supplements the reflections within reflections rendered on the canvas by an illicit love affair between the lady of the house (Rachel) and the painter (Mr Vee), who paints his own instead of the husband's face in the mirror depicted in the background of the Velásquez' canvas. This fantasy of belonging together turns out to be the reality that Rachel chooses over elopement with Vee.
Gabriel Josipovici presents us with a wide panoply of work that ranges from the sympathetic portrayal of man's loneliness and alienation to the hilarious evocation of everyday misunderstandings and the sophisticated deployment of narrative and dramatic techniques. Gabriel Josipovici is one of the leading British fiction writers and one of the most interesting British Jewish authors of his generation, although the full extent of his genius still needs to be recognized.
A slightly different version of this essay appears at The Literary Encyclopedia;
it is copyrighted by them and used with permission.