Monday, December 17, 2007

In A Hotel Garden: Gabriel Josipovici

Having finally decided to read Gabriel Josipivici, I got hold of his essays called The Singer On The Shore and a few of his novels. He is the only British writer that I have chosen to read in a long time, as personally I feel that there is a dearth of good writers here, even though that opinion might appear biased, as fiction here exists in a vacuum, in a kind of grip that isolates the real and brings forth the topical, which is bad taste and celebrates a kind of celebrity cult that has no connection with the reality of life, the true concerns of literature, the seething politics of life, of fiction.

I chose to read In A Hotel Garden, published in 1993 and his compilation of essays in the Singer collection. Josipivici remains perhaps unknown in mainstream literary circles which is not surprising, for he is considered experimental and outside the general realms of so called literary fiction. He is a literary theorist and a critic and remains an example of the writer-critic. In many well read blogs in this country, Josipovici is highly regarded and most British bloggers are somehow in awe of him. He has published a substantial amount of work, including literary criticism and The Singer collection includes his best essays.
A fine website for his works here and a post on this novel at RSB.

In an essay called This Is Not Your Rest, Josipovici finds his identity in being a Jew, though he asks himself what it might mean, in the same way we might ask what being human might mean. In his own self, he does not find himself belonging to any country, nor France where he was born nor England where he lives. In short he feels uncomfortable in belonging and also cannot define himself as an exile, for an exile has a country to return to, somewhere to go. This rootedness is central to his concern, for that seems foreign to his conception of a literature. In this permanent displacement, Josipovici finds his identity as a Jew more enhancing, for he thinks of their displacement as his own, in a way. There are other essays too, a tribute to Aharon Appelfeld, on Kafka and Kierkegaard which are good reading. His writing style is not pretentious at all even though we know he is well read. His style is confident and self possessed but not shrill and rhetoric at times is balanced with a sense of uncertainty. I will try to write about his essays another time.

Coming back to the novel, in a hotel garden however. This short novel is written entirely in a dialogue form and figures a narrator called Ben, telling his two close friends of the details of his short trip to the dolomite alps where he met a Jewish woman called Lily. It seems Lily has made the trip before and after a few walks around the mountains, lily reveals her earlier trip to Siena, to a hotel garden, where her grandmother, before the holocaust had met and fallen in love with a young man who later perished in the holocaust. Lily is making the trip to understand and Ben is trying to understand that. It is however clear to Rick, one of the two friends why Lily might actually have wanted to do so and not to Fran who wonders why. Ben thinks it is evident to those who can understand it or try to. The novel ends with Ben debating as to whether he should meet Lily again, now that they are again in London, now that he has separated from his Partner Sand and Lily is thinking of doing the same with hers.

That is the rough plot. I must admit that I am disappointed after having read this novel for it baffles me as to why the writer should go to such painstaking lengths of inventing a plot that even though realistic is so crushingly boring in the way it is written. Ben meets Lily and then pesters her with questions and it seemed embarrassing to me to hear him, asking her relentlessly about her grandmother. What of British reserve! The dialogue nowhere rises above the mundane though that is its saving grace. There are realistic touches, especially the kitchen scenes where he talks and behaves naturally. The dialogue is interrupted by Fran's son Robert who asks them irritating questions. The concerns that Lily has about her grandmothers unsuccessful love affair with a man who died in the pogroms are understandable but Ben's preoccupation seems obsessive.

Perhaps Lily is trying to live through her grandmother's love, maybe not, maybe she is remembering what cannot be expressed through words, but Josipovici seems to stretch the forgetfulness aspects of the holocaust to tedious lengths. One can understand the main concerns he has, the dispossession of Jews and their sufferings and the blurring with memory of such events but through his narrator Ben, he has chosen a character who seems to be least equipped with that concern, and specifically not to his two listeners. As a piece of fiction, I think it is exaggerated, the style is dull, the characters lack an emotional resonance and Ben frankly is a bore. The language is common and there is neither prose nor poetry though I must admit it seems realistic. I do realize his experimentation with words and language and his admiration for Blanchot etc, and that this might be his considered ploy whilst writing this novel. However, it is a trifle disappointing though I haven't given up yet, for I intend to read Goldberg: variations and his longish essay on the Bible called The Book Of God. However, a writer who pays a tribute to Appelfeld in such lavish terms does not inspire much confidence.


* said...

i do like Josipovici too, but i have not yet read a lot of him, he really has that special essayistic talent, like Calasso and so on. I certainly will have a look at the Hotel Garden one too.

Kubla Khan said...

I think he has an essayistic flair, you are right. but then his prose is not conventional, and in this as in another novel i am reading, there are experimental strains.
it is just that this novel seemed remote and distant, perhaps that was the purpose aimed at.
i am reserving my judgement(for what it is worth) till i finish Goldberg:variations.