Category Archives: Gabriel Josipovici

The search becomes the work

As in all of Beckett after the great crisis of 1945-50, when he gradually realised that the ‘dark he had struggled to keep under’, as he wrote to a friend, was actually what he had to write about rather than escape from, a voice searches for the right formulation, does not find it, and gives up, but the search becomes the work. To read such pieces is not to enter another world but to enact a desperate movement in the inner reaches of one’s being and to find, at the end, that the enactment of failure has led not to triumph but to a quite physical sense of release.


Why was it that works of literature such as the poems of T S Eliot, the stories of Kafka and Borges, the novels of Proust, Mann, Claude Simon and Thomas Bernhard seemed worlds apart from those admired by the English literary establishment (works by writers such as Margaret Atwood, John Updike, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan)? The first group touched me to the core, leading me into the depths of myself even as they led me out into worlds I did not know. The latter were well-written narratives that, once I’d read them, I had no wish ever to reread. Was it my fault? Was I in some way unable to enter into the spirit of these works?


Gabriel Josipovici arrived in Oxford to be interviewed for a place to study English – the most un-English of students, Jewish, twice-displaced, already passionate about the great European writers: “They kept asking me what English novelist I most admired and I kept saying ‘Dostoevsky’, and they kept saying, ‘English novelist, Mr Josipovici’, and I kept saying ‘Dostoevsky’, vaguely aware that something was profoundly wrong but unable, in the heat of the moment, to put my finger on it.”

Gabriel Josipovici, (via here)

What happens when we sit down in the silence of that early morning and start to draw the fruit? We begin to discover its otherness. We begin to learn, in our bodies, through our fingers, what its breath is, we begin to feel the stream of life in which it floats. We begin to experience that stream as other than ours, and yet by the activity of hand and eye and mind and body we begin to partake of that stream. And as we do so we are more possessed by the melon than possessing it. And in that state we start to discover something about ourselves, about the stream of life in which we float. We start to experience ourselves not, as we ordinarily do, from the inside, but from some point outside ourselves, we start to sense ourselves as having no more but also no less right to exist than the melon before us, the cat lying asleep on the table beside it, the tree that can be seen through the window.


Proust conveys miraculously both the sense of pleasure Marcel takes in the world about him and his intense desire to transmute that pleasure into something permanent by writing about it; but he also conveys the failure of such attempts. I cannot tell you how exhilarating I found this. Instead of feeling that the failure I was encountering daily was a purely personal one, I now saw that it had to do with the nature of the project itself. And, if that was so, then it was something that could be lived with and, by being accepted, be overcome. Overcome not by being left behind but by being incorporated into whatever had to be said.


They all tell stories in a way that is well crafted, but that is almost the most depressing aspect of it — a careful craft which seems to me to be hollow.


A challenge and an embarrassment

Modernism is still a challenge, and an embarrassment. We all know — and by “we” I mean all the writers, reviewers, editors and publishers who make up the literary scene in England today — we all know Modernism happened, and that it marked a decisive moment in Western culture; but most of us prefer not to know.

If we acknowledge that it happened, we say that it was a long time ago and is of no concern to us today. But how else are we to respond? One way was typified for me by a lecture I once heard given by a Professor of Philosophy, Patrick Corbett. Corbett was a huge man, and as he spoke he prowled round the lectern, kicking at the wainscoting and the floor. The lecture went something like this:

“Kierkegaard! Hunh! Marx! Hunh! Dostoevsky! Hunh! Nietzsche! Hunh! Kafka! Hunh! Nothing that a good walk on the Downs wouldn’t have put right!” In other words these pathetic ninnies were all suffering from over-sensitivity mingled with self-regard; what they had to say was the result of their cosseted upbringing and a bit of exercise and fresh air was all that was needed to bring them to their senses. This, of course, is the view of a large section of the British public today, given courage to voice it by, for example, Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, whose epistolary exchanges (“all these cheerless creeps between 1900 and 1930 — Ginny Woolf and Dai Lawrence and Morgy Forster”) are exactly on a par with Corbett’s lecture.

— Gabriel Josipovici, ‘Fail Again, Fail Better’