(Back in March, I discussed Josipovici's work with him at the Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts. No recording exists (but there are a few pictures), but I thought I'd put up my introduction to the event.)
Gabriel Josipovici is a major contemporary English novelist, playwright and critic, whose work spans several genres. There are now eighteen novels, four collections of short fiction, eight critical books, a memoir of his mother, the poet and translator Sacha Rabinovitch, and numerous plays for stage and radio. He is a regular reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, and has two books forthcoming this year: a study of Hamlet from Yale, and a collection of essays from Carcanet.
Gabriel was born in 1940 in Nice, France of Egyptian-Jewish parents , surviving the war in the Auvergne region, before returning to Cairo with his mother. He moved with her to England in 1956, where he read English at Oxford before becoming a professor at Sussex University, where he retired in 1998. His work has been widely celebrated, but he has never been a literary insider, and, indeed, has often found himself at odds with English literary culture.
This may have something to do with the unique perspective he brings to both his fiction and his critical writings. Gabriel has said that he’s never felt ‘inward’ with England and with English life. This is not something he laments – indeed, these circumstances, he says, are less a disadvantage than a privilege. Part of this privilege is that it’s meant that he has cultivated a sense of the fragmentariness and insecurity of human experience – a sense that our lives are more incomplete and disordered than they might seem, and that we are never quite at home in the world.
This is apparent in Gabriel’s account of the novel. Take the two great achievements of the novel genre: psychology, that is, the depiction of interior life, and social expansiveness, that is, the surveying of a complex social universe. Novels typically show depth in their rendering of human interiority, and breadth in their presentation of a social panoply. The danger comes when the achievement of this depth and breadth is dependent on a simple-minded model of representation, since this kind of realism depends on a kind of bad faith. This becomes particularly apparent, Gabriel suggests, in the use of an impersonal narrator, describing a scene from a position outside the space and time of the narrative. Since this kind of superhuman position is unavailable to us in life, it should unavailable in fictional narration, too.
The use of first-person narrative might seem a solution to this problem, but too often one finds exactly the same kind of remove, for example, in the use of description, which implicitly depends on the narrator stopping to describe an environment. Bad faith again, since we rarely pause in this way. The question for Gabriel, then, is how we write without the remove in question. How do we show fidelity to our experience of passing through the world in all its openness and its fleetingness, and in the necessary fragmentation of our awareness? How do we attend to a kind of uncertainty and unknowing that is implicit to our experience?
Gabriel's solution is to place emphasis on the direct presentation of dialogue in his fiction. Gabriel is, indeed, a peerless writer of dialogue, using it to drive his stories forward rather than psychological analysis. His novels are usually chamber-pieces, with a limited number of characters, and often focus on artists and musicians, who explore the same kind of questions Gabriel responds to in his fiction.
Gabriel is not, as is often portrayed, a difficult author. He is not committed to grim-faced experimentalism or to the most forbidding varieties of high modernism. His fiction is never solemn, but light; never monumental, but modest. It is sparse, dialogue-driven, and often witty. It is moving, yet utterly unsentimental. He can deal with the grimmest of topics without ponderousness. And it is, above all, playful, in a way that, as Gabriel argues in his critical work, several centuries of Western art has made us forget. He is insistent that his art should be seen not a window on the world – a representation of the way things are – but as a toy, as a hobby-horse on which we can jump and ride and then discard as a mere stick (the allusion here is to Sterne's Tristram, a touchstone work for Gabriel). Gabriel's work seeks our co-operation. It asks us to admit that we know less than we think we do, and that the world is more open than we think. It asks us to remain with doubt and uncertainty, and does not hide its artifice.
Why, then, has his work not been met in this spirit? Perhaps because the freedom it gives to its reader is too great – because it does not resemble the slick and technically accomplished literary fiction that guards itself from openness, from experience. In one sense, Gabriel’s fate is that of second-phase modernists such as Gert Hofmann and Thomas Bernhard – authors ignored by mainstream English criticism, which prefers its literary fiction ponderously focused on ‘big’ themes or moments in history. But Gabriel’s situation is very different from these Europeans, since he is based in this country and, in his criticism and reviews, has addressed himself to our literary establishment.
Those of us have always felt that our literary culture is paranoically enclosed, shut tight against Europe, against Modernism in its various phases, against anything but the Usual Stuff, have been unsurprised at the hostile and philistine reception of Gabriel’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?, as well as by the widespread neglect of his recent novels. Thank goodness, then, for the alternative media, the world of blogging, which has seen a broadening of readers acquainted with Gabriel’s work. And thank goodness for our event tonight, which I hope will introduce or re-introduce you to one of our few examples of literary integrity.