Josipovici, Gabriel (David) 1940-
JOSIPOVICI, Gabriel (David) 1940-
Born October 8, 1940, in Nice, France; son of Jean (a writer) and Sacha (Rabinovitch) Josipovici; married, 1963. Education: Studied at Victoria College, Cairo, Egypt, 1952-56, and Cheltenham College, 1956-57; St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, B.A. (with honors), 1961.
Home—60 Prince Edwards Rd., Lewes, Sussex BN7 1BH, England. Agent—Andrew Hewson, Johnson & Alcock, Clerkenwell House, 45-47 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R OHT, England.
University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton, England, assistant lecturer, beginning 1962, professor of English, beginning1984, research professor, 1997. University College, London, Northcliffe lecturer, 1980; University of Oxford, Weidenfeld visiting professor, 1996.
Royal Society of Literature (elected fellow), British Academy (elected fellow).
London Sunday Times award, 1970, for Evidence of Intimacy; Somerset Maugham award, 1975 (withdrawn because author lacked a British passport at birth); South East Arts Literature Prize, 1978, for The Lessons of Modernism and Other Essays.
The Inventory, Michael Joseph (London, England), 1968.
Words, Gollancz (London, England), 1971.
The Present, Gollancz (London, England), 1975.
Migrations, Harvester (Brighton, England), 1977.
The Echo Chamber, Harvester (Brighton, England), 1980.
The Air We Breathe, Harvester (Brighton, England), 1981.
Conversations in Another Room, Methuen (London, England), 1984.
Contre-Jour: A Triptych after Pierre Bonnard, Carcanet (Manchester, England), 1986.
The Big Glass, Carcanet (Manchester, England), 1991.
In a Hotel Garden, Carcanet (Manchester, England), 1993.
Moo Pak, Carcanet (Manchester, England), 1994.
Now, Carcanet (Manchester, England), 1998.
Goldberg: Variations, Carcanet (Manchester, England), 2002.
The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction, Macmillan (London, England), 1971, third revised edition, 1994.
The Lessons of Modernism and Other Essays, Macmillan (London, England), 1977.
Writing and the Body (Northcliff Lectures), Harvester (Brighton, England), 1982.
The Mirror of Criticism: Selected Reviews, 1977-1982, Harvester (Brighton, England), 1983.
The Book of God: A Response to the Bible, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1988.
Text and Voice: Essays 1981-1991, Carcanet (Manchester, England), 1992.
Touch, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1996.
On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1999.
Mobius the Stripper (stories and short plays), Gollancz (London, England), 1974.
(Editor) The Modern English Novel: The Reader, the Writer, and the Work, Open Books (London, England), 1975, Harper and Row (New York, NY), 1976.
Four Stories, Menard Press (London, England), 1977.
Vergil Dying (radio play; first broadcast, 1979), Windsor Arts Centre Press (London, England), 1981.
(Editor and author of introduction) Maurice Blanchot, The Siren's Song: Selected Essays, translated by Sacha Rabinovitch, Harvester (Brighton, England), 1982.
In the Fertile Land (stories), Carcanet (Manchester, England), 1987.
Steps: Selected Fiction and Drama, Carcanet (Manchester, England), 1990.
(Editor) Franz Kafka, Collected Stories, Everyman's Library (London, England), 1993.
(Editor) Franz Kafka, The Collected Aphorisms, Penguin (London, England), 1994.
(Editor) Samuel Beckett, Molloy; Malone Dies; The Unnameable, Everyman's Library (London, England), 1997.
A Life: Sacha Rabinovitch 1910-1996 (memoir), London Magazine Editions (London, England), 2001.
Author of plays produced in England, including Evidence of Intimacy, 1970, Comedy, 1971, Dreams of Mrs. Fraser, 1974, Stripper, 1974, Flow, 1974, Echo, 1975, Two, 1976, Marathon, 1977, Nobody There, 1978, Deep Water, 1978, and A Moment, 1979; radio plays include Playback, 1973, A Life, 1973, AG, 1977, Majorana: Disappearance of a Physicist, 1981, The Seven, 1982, Kin, 1983, Metamorphosis, 1985, Ode to Cecilia, 1986, Mr. Vee, 1988, A Little Personal Pocket Requiem, 1990, and Memorials of L. S., 1991. Author of introduction, Portable Saul Bellow, Viking, 1974; contributor to periodicals, including Adam International Review, Critical Quarterly, Encounter, European Judaism, Jewish Quarterly (London), Nouvelle Revue Française, Transatlantic Review, Tempo, Listener, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, Independent, and Salmagundi, and to Web sites, including RadicalPhilosophy.com.
"Gabriel Josipovici is a born writer not afraid of the dark," wrote Listener critic John Mellors. "He asks questions, mainly in dialogue, both in his stories and short plays, about identity, truth, memory, death, and the relationships between mind and body and writer and words." "Novelist and literary theorist, playwright and university lecturer, short-story writer and critic: Gabriel Josipovici is all of these," noted Dictionary of Literary Biography essayists Linda Canon and Jay L. Halio. "His erudition is surpassed only by his sensitivity to language and artistic form, making him one of the leading [British] experimentalists writing fiction."
Josipovici's first novel, The Inventory, was considered "an impressive debut," according to a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, a book "at once complex (in its implications) and lucid (in its style)" with a "fuguelike" structure and "barely a superfluous line." The Inventory follows a young man as he takes inventory of a dead man's belongings and becomes involved with acquaintances and relatives of the deceased. New Statesman reviewer Gillian Tindall found that The Inventory presents "an interesting view of reality and memory."
Josipovici's second novel, Words, tells the story, primarily through dialogue, of a couple visited by the man's former lover and her daughter. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer wrote that "the final outcome, and message, of Words is cleverly achieved."
Canon and Halio found Migrations to be the best example of Josipovici's application to his own work of "the principles of fragmentation and discontinuity, of repetition and spiralling, which we found underlying the works of Kafka, Eliot, Stevens, Proust, Robbe-Grillet, Virginia Woolf, and Beckett." Times Literary Supplement reviewer Blake Morrison acknowledged that readers may find Migrations difficult to follow, yet he felt that readers familiar with Josipovici's previous novels, "and with the theories promulgated in his critical study The World and the Book, will accept that the frustrations experienced in reading Migrations are Mr. Josipovici's means of making us share his protagonist's struggle to articulate a sense of life's purpose."
Times Literary Supplement contributor Peter Lewis called The Echo Chamber "immediately enjoyable and accessible." The action follows a young man as he leaves the hospital after a breakdown and attempts to regain his memory of the traumatic event that prompted his illness. The book "returns to the style of Words but with a significant difference," Canon and Halio observed: "like a mystery thriller (the genre it parodies), it builds up suspense concerning an event and reaches its climax and epiphany only on the last page."
The Air We Breathe, Josipovici's sixth novel, is another "technical tour de force," said Peter Lewis in the Times Literary Supplement. Kathleen Fullbrook, writing in British Book News, described it as "a novel which analyzes language and silence and the nature of the gaps that occur in the attempt to think about and to communicate experience through words. It is a distinguished addition to the shelf of postmodernist fiction."
Josipovici's nonfiction has also received critical attention. In The World and the Book, he extols the virtues of such authors as T. S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, and Vladimir Nabokov, comparing their unorthodox approaches to literature with the innovative techniques of François Rabelais and Miguel de Cervantes. Reviewing The World and the Book, David Lodge remarked in Critical Quarterly that Josipovici "is intelligent, eloquent, and formidably well-read. He cares passionately about literature and can communicate his enthusiasm infectiously to the reader." Lodge added that Josipovici's "stimulating and educative voice comes like a current of cool and invigorating air." A reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement said, "Great literary criticism is the most evasive of achievements. Gabriel Josipovici seems blessed with all the gifts: a lucid style, vast imaginative energy, a huge storehouse of reading, a living concern for art, as well as a certain self-conscious humility at this whole buzz and fuzz in the face of aesthetic experience."
Josipovici's second book of criticism, The Lessons of Modernism, appeared in the same year as Migrations. Lodge noted Josipovici's "beautifully phrased, brilliantly illuminating observations on particular texts." Yet the critic had reservations about Josipovici's blanket rejection of realism. Lodge argued that "criticism should surely account for the continuing vitality of realistic modes of artistic presentation, and refine its methods of 'reading' them, rather than just wishing them away." Other critics believed that Josipovici is correct in his dismissal of traditional forms. Alan Wilde, writing in Contemporary Literature, wrote that "this is a particularly exhilarating and engaging work, fused finally by its passionate unity of point and purpose."
Writing and the Body is an expanded text of the Northcliffe Lectures for 1981, which Josipovici delivered at University College, London. The author states in the first lecture that his purpose is "to examine the role which language, writing, and books play in our lives, the lives we live with our bodies." International Fiction Review contributor Harold E. Lusher wrote that the work is a "valiant and fascinating effort to widen our understanding and sharpen our awareness of how close the relationship is between the process and the organism. If that relationship is ultimately inexplicable, one must nevertheless give high marks to a writer who addresses the question anew with such courage and intelligence."
Tom Paulin noted in the London Observer that in The Mirror of Criticism, Josipovici's "analysis of C. H. Sisson's shoddy translation of Dante is wonderfully clever and learned, and his discussions of Chaucer are excellent." In a London Review of Books article, Malcolm Bowie called the volume "the travel diary of a perceptive and generous-minded explorer, going where the reviewing road takes him and inventing his notions as the journey demands."
Josipovici wrote the novels Conversations in Another Room and Contre-Jour, followed by a book that received widespread critical recognition. In The Book of God: A Response to the Bible he examines the Bible as literature and dissects the various translations of the first words of Genesis, the story of Joseph and his brothers, the instructions for building the Tabernacle, the Book of Judges, the questions of prose or verse, and the use and significance of dialogue. He also raises questions of interpretation, discusses the viewpoints of others, and gives his own reasoned opinions. Denis Donoghue, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, regarded Josipovici's response to the Bible as "not only highly intelligent but considerate. His personalism is at every point honorable, thoughtful, decent, and exacting in an entirely justified cause." Piers Paul Read, reviewing The Book of God for the Spectator, found that it "exceeds the hopes I had of a book of this kind. It is erudite yet lucid, impassioned yet impartial, and filled with insights gained from Josipovici's familiarity with European literature—with Dante, Proust or Joyce."
The title of Moo Pak, Josipovici's eleventh novel, is a reference to Moor Park, the house where Jonathan Swift met and fell in love with eight-year-old Esther Johnson, also known as Stella. The story itself plays as an extended metaphor, with the house and the moors that surround it representing the known and the unknown, the cultivated and the wild, dichotomies that also reflect Josipovici's preoccupation with the tension that exists between the written word and the imagination. In a review for New Statesman, Bryan Cheyette remarked on the novel's "meaty aphorisms," which he called "an uncomfortable pleasure to read." Despite the melancholy tone of the novel, Cheyette added, "Josipovici remains playful and detached."
Touch is "an experimental reflection on artistic creation and the warmth generated, or chill produced, between the created object and its viewer or reader," wrote Steven Jaron in a review for World Literature Today. The book explores the history of the artisan and ponders the fate of art in an age of mechanical reproduction; it also asks the reader to consider what draws and removes a viewer from a work of art. "The penetrating sensitivity of Josipovici's self-analysis buttresses the high quality of his cultural critique," remarked Jaron. James Hall, writing for New Statesman, called Touch "a stimulating but frustrating book. The frustration stems from the fact that Josipovici is more interested in the idea than the act of touching."
Stephen Mitchelmore reviewed Josipovici's On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion for Spike Online, calling it "an investigation into how admitting to the unworldliness of literature might yet still allow free range into truth. 'The problem,' the author says, 'is how to keep suspicion from turning into cynicism and trust from turning into facileness.'" Mitchelmore noted that Josipovici "traces the turn away from trust as far back as Plato's response to Homer and St. Paul's to the Bible. Plato turned the gaze of reason on The Iliad and found it wanting, while St. Paul took strict moral lessons from Old Testament stories where, as Josipovici shows us, there is only ambiguity. Both responses indicate a radical shift in consciousness, one that we are still mired in."
In reviewing A Life: Sacha Rabinovitch 1910-1996 for John Sandoe Online, Johnny de Falbe commented that with his more recent books, Josipovici, considered by many to be an experimental novelist, "has moved elsewhere … writing his own books instead of paying homage to others." De Falbe described the book in review, Josipovici's memoir of his mother, with whom he was very close, as "personal and passionate." In Style, William Baker called A Life "one of the most powerful depictions of the relationship between mother and son to appear in English literature."
In her Echoes and Mirrorings: Gabriel Josipovici's Creative Oeuvre, Monika Fludernik presents a critical study of his novels, stories, and plays. Fludernik includes an interview with Josipovici, discussion of his novels, analysis of his handling of dialogue, a chapter on his output, and the first complete bibliography of Josipovici. She also contributed a biographical article to Literary Encyclopedia online, in which she discusses Josipovici's writings, and particularly his plays, many of which are unavailable in print. Fludernik maintained that 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. He also engages in a sophisticated deployment of narrative and dramatic techniques. He 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."
Gabriel Josipovici contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
There is a passage in one of the poems of Samuel Hanagid, a Jewish poet who lived in Spain at the turn of the eleventh century, which runs:
She said: "Rejoice, for God has brought you to your fiftieth year in the world!" But she had no inkling that, for my part, there is no difference at all between my own days which have gone by and the distant days of Noah about which I have heard. I have nothing in the world but the hour in which I am: it pauses for a moment, and then, like a cloud, moves on.
I used this as an epigraph for my novel Conversations in Another Room, and could use it even more appropriately for this essay, since it is probably true that Marcel's walks by the Vivonne; Dante's climbing up the steps of another man's house in his bitter exile, and David's inability to come to terms with the thought that his beloved son Absalom is dead and swinging by the hair from the branches of a tree, are more real to me than my own past.
Nor would I particularly want it any other way.
I have never been able to understand people who write their memoirs or autobiographies. Writing, for me, has to be an exploration. It has to involve making, not telling. It must look forward, not back. Simply to recount a story you already know seems to me a funny way to spend your time. There is obviously something to it, since so many people seem to indulge in it, but it is not something I can understand.*
Is it possible to separate one's earliest memories from the stories one is later told about one's own childhood? I don't think so. Besides, these memories, if they really are such, come in the form of images, moments of clarity emerging from a sea of darkness. We make a story of our lives by fitting the images together. But what if meaning is bought at the expense of truth? Are there not many stories which might link the images to each other? Why select one and ignore the others? And why do we need such stories in the first place? Why not be content with the images alone?*
One of the earliest images I think I recall is of myself and my mother walking along a road. The bank rises steeply and is perhaps covered with grass, or perhaps made of steps. It is difficult to say because there are massed rows of men sitting there. As we pass they hold out fruit to me, oranges or perhaps apples or pears. My mother tells me I can accept what they are offering me. The men smile and laugh. There is a feeling of well-being.
Later I am told that these were Italian soldiers. I was two or three at the time. The place is Cannes, in the south of France. The year is 1942 or 1943.
I also learn later that we Jews were safe in the south so long as it was under Italian control. When Italy fell, though, the Germans swooped down on the area, where Jews from all over France had gathered, under the impression that they would be safe, and picked them up in their thousands.*
Another image: I am walking along a grassy track with my mother and father. We come to some large wrought-iron gates. My father takes hold of these and shakes them. They do not move. He says to me:
"We'll have to climb over." Laboriously, I do so. When I am safely down on the other side he pushes open the gates and steps through, laughing. In my rage I bend down and pull up a clump of grass. One of the blades of grass cuts my fingers.
This was in La Bourboule, in the Massif Central. When the Germans made their first raid on Nice my mother left the hotel where we were staying—she and my father were already separated—and took me for a walk along the promenade. When she returned the Germans had gone, taking as many Jews as they could cram into their trucks. But no one doubted that they would soon be back for more.
My mother ran into an old friend, Ida Adamoff, the wife of Claude Bourdet, the Resistance fighter and later editor of Combat. Ida told her she must get out, and put her in touch with friends of hers who were escaping to La Bourboule.
Today the train journey from Nice to La Bourboule, via Lyon and Clermont-Ferrand, takes a few hours. In 1943 it took two days and a night. At any moment our train might have been stopped and the passengers searched. My mother sat a little way away, leaving me in charge of the others. She knew she would not be able to deny her Jewishness if asked.
I remember waking up in the night. We are still in the railway carriage, but the train is stopped. There are bright lights outside, and a lot of noise. I ask where we are and am told: Lyon. The thought of lions frightens me.
Even today I find journeys difficult. The fear of those people in the railway carriage must have seeped through to me, for I cannot have known in any conscious way that we were in danger of our lives.
It must be to those early years in France that I owe my very strong sense of how thin is the veneer provided by civilization and how quickly it can disappear.*
My first novel is called The Inventory. There I tried to explore the curious fact that men gather possessions round them all their lives but that in the end these avail them nothing. They die as naked as when they came into the world. The things we pick up in the course of our lives remain to provide our descendants with the traces of what we had once been. They are perhaps no more than triggers for memory and imagination.
Ten years after that, in 1977, I wrote my fourth novel, Migrations. Though the immediate experiences behind that novel were as personal and diverse as the death of a beloved dog and the overwhelming impression made upon me by Harrison Birtwistle's Triumph of Time, as I wrote the book I discovered that my real theme was in fact that most common of twentieth-century experiences, the experience of being on the move and not knowing where you will end up, or indeed if you will ever reach a point of rest.
As I try to sort out these memories and images I see suddenly that between The inventory and Migrations there is a link, and that perhaps all my work has been concerned with the attempt to explore and so lay to rest the feelings of a three-year-old child in war-torn France.*
As an epigraph to Migrations I used a passage from the prophet Micah: "Arise and go now, for this is not your rest."
Shortly before writing the novel, I had begun to get interested in the Bible. My mother had told me the Bible stories when I was a child, but I had had no religious instruction, had never taken my bar mitzvah or even been inside a synagogue. But at the University of Sussex a colleague and I had started a course on "The Bible and English Literature," and another colleague, an Anglican priest who was also a Semiticist, was encouraging a group of us to learn Hebrew. For me the language was less alien than for some of the others, since I had spent ten years learning Arabic at school, and one Semitic language is much like another.
But the main reason why the Hebrew Bible seemed to speak to me was that it seemed to be almost entirely about the kinds of experiences I had myself undergone. Abraham, after all, is told by God to lekh lekha, to get up and go, leaving the country of his birth, his home, and his extended family. That is the start of the Hebrew nation. Of course Odysseus too travels to far-off lands, but that is only in order to come home again to his waiting wife and son. Aeneas is a little closer to Abraham. He too has to leave home and wife behind, knowing he will never return. But though Virgil has an uncanny awareness of the pathos of displacement and exile, it is the founding of the new home that is the main theme of his epic. Only the Bible, though of course it also celebrates the founding of a city, accepts that it is the fate of all cities to be destroyed, and suggests that the shadow of the wandering in the desert must always lie across man's fervent visions of rootedness and permanence.
In the Bible going and resting form part of the same whole. Arise and go, for this is not your rest, Micah tells the Hebrew nation. The dove sent out from the ark "found no rest for the sole of her foot," and Naomi tells her daughters-in-law, who wish to leave their native Moab and return with her to Israel:
"The Lord grant you that ye may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband." It is because rest, a house, a family, are so important, that the notion of wandering, of going, is so poignant. It is extraordinary though that exile and migration and the longing for an end to such a condition, which seems to be a quintessentially modern experience, should have been most fully explored in a book written over twenty-five hundred years ago. That is the wonder of literature.
In my own case I feel that my most successful pieces have been those in which I have been able to incorporate the maximum of movement, or unrest, in a form which eventually generates, in the reader, a sense of poise and rest. And one writes, of course, for the reader in oneself who is dissatisfied with what already exists.*
There is a golden statue of the Virgin high up above the harbour of Marseilles. For a week I stared at it from our hotel window, and on one of the last days of our stay my mother took me there. As is usually the way with these things, it is the expectation rather than the fulfilment which I remember.
The war was over. The popping of champagne corks, I recall, frightened me more than anything I had previously known. That was in La Bourboule. Men climbed up greasy poles for prizes, but in my memory at least they always slither down before they can reach the top.
My mother later told me that the greatest horror of the war for her was the reprisals against suspected collaborators, which were a feature of those days. Much the same was said by many of those interviewed in the moving film The Sorrow and the Pity, which we watched with particular interest because it focussed on the town of Clermont-Ferrand, not far from La Bourboule. The mayor of La Bourboule, who was aware that we were Jewish yet never denounced us, in fact went out of his way to help, was one of those murdered.
As the war ended, my mother's sister, in Egypt, was able to get word to us that she had booked us a passage on an English troopship leaving Marseilles. We were to make our way there and wait.
I had been born on the day when the last ship sailed for Egypt which my parents might have caught before the war engulfed them. Now, almost five years later, my mother and I were at last to leave Europe and its horrors.
I remember eating a whole fish. I remember the perfect skeleton on the plate before me when I had finished. But it may only have been something I saw in a restaurant window.*
The ship was called the Arundel Castle. Every morning we assembled on deck for safety drill. There was no certainty that we would not hit a mine.
When, eighteen years later, I got a job as lecturer in English at the newly formed University of Sussex, one of the first things my mother and I did was to drive out to see Arundel Castle, not twenty miles from Brighton. It is the seat of the dukes of Norfolk, the senior Catholic family in England. On that September day in 1945 when we boarded the ship, there seemed to be no earthly reason why I should ever come to live in England, far less earn my living as a teacher of English literature. I was, after all, a French-speaking Jewish child on his way to Egypt, where both my parents had been born. What had England or the English language to do with me?
I had never tasted chocolate. The rumour spread through the ship that my fifth birthday would fall on the day we docked at Suez. The English soldiers strung up bars of chocolate round the deck and I and the few other children on board jumped and climbed up to get at them. The soldiers were kinder than the planners of the victory celebrations at La Bourboule and we no doubt ate more than was good for us.
It was three years since the Italian soldiers, probably thinking of their own children left at home, had stretched out their arms to give me some of their fruit. Several million soldiers and civilians had died in that time. We were among the lucky ones.*
I remember a strange lady at Cairo station. She and my mother fell into each other's arms, leaving mc to look on.
Until then my mother had been my only family. We had walked together in sunshine and snow, she had taught me to read and write, she had told me stories and carved dolls for me out of pieces of wood. Now I discovered I had an aunt, an uncle, and two girl cousins, seven and nine years older than myself. I discovered what this all meant: communal laughter, furious rows, the disappearance of the sense of threat.
Though the war had of course come almost to the edge of Cairo, most people in Egypt had little conception of what those in Europe had gone through. My mother was thirty-five when she returned, but her hair was almost as white as it is now at seventy-seven, and both mentally and physically she was far from well. And I don't think one ever "recovers" from profound experiences such as this had been. One merely learns to live with them, for better or worse.
Consciously, I was unaffected. I had not been old enough to know what fear and danger meant. But at Groppi's, the tea shop which stood for so long as an emblem of the old, cosmopolitan Cairo (its place now, symptomatically, taken by the Cairo Hilton), I still scooped up the sugar as we left the table and slipped it into my pocket, amazed that no one tried to stop me.*
Maadi, where I was to live for the next ten years, was built by the English at the turn of the twentieth century. You cannot get lost in Maadi. It lies six miles south of Cairo and it is built on a simple grid plan, interspersed by a network of irrigation canals. The roads are lined with trees and many of the houses have sloping roofs and English gardens. In 1945 some of them were still inhabited by English families.
Maadi lies between the Nile and the desert, and all its main arteries run north to south. Furthest west is the Nile. Then comes the railway line, which links Cairo to Helwan, another eight miles further south. This is where my mother's father, a Russian-Jewish doctor from Odessa, had come to settle in 1907. He had been wounded in the Russo-Japanese War, and had then decided to travel. He had found Helwan, with its sulphur springs, the healthiest place in the world. Now it is a mass of crumbling, high-rise blocks, often built in the gardens of the old villas without even any attempt to demolish these. It is here that the new Egyptian work force live, here that the bread riots start.
After setting up his practice my grandfather married a local girl. Her paternal grandfather had come from Ferrara, and my family, like so many Italian-Jewish families, tends to regard The Garden of the Finzi-Continis as its book. On her mother's side my grandmother's family was said to have been in Egypt since the time of Moses.
Here in Helwan, in the villa called La Gabalaya, "the grotto" (there was indeed a grotto in the garden), my mother and aunt were born. Strangely, English was the first language they spoke, for they had an English nanny. My grandparents were so besotted by things English that they bought all their wedding furniture at Maples.
My mother still possesses an English Bible with an inscription "from her Godmother, Sister Margaret Clare, Feb. 1921." The reason for this is that when her father died, when she was five, her mother was befriended by a missionary and had her two little girls baptised. An inquisitive aunt reminded the family of this when my mother came to get married (her mother had died, after remarrying when she was ten), with the result that she had to go to the rabbinate in Cairo and undergo a ritual immersion in a filthy pool, while someone chanted outside the window, before the proper Jewish wedding could take place. My aunt had in the meantime met a Catholic boy and, before marrying him, converted to the Roman faith. One of her daughters in turn married a Moslem and converted to Islam, the other married a Greek Orthodox journalist, but has remained a Catholic.*
The trains from Cairo to Helwan ran every quarter of an hour. I know, because our first independent flat (we had begun by living with my aunt) was right next to the railway line. In the mornings we had breakfast on the terrace. Beyond the railway line were fields of maize. Beyond that, the stately movement of the tall masts of the hidden feluccas attested to the presence of the Nile.
When people came to visit they stopped talking when the trains thundered by and took time to get started again afterwards. We couldn't understand why they stopped. The trains, after a few weeks, did not even trouble my sleep.
My mother went to work in a milk shop at five in the morning. Though my grandparents had been well off, the Russian Revolution, the devaluation of the Deutschmark, and the fecklessness of my mother's relatives meant that we now found it very difficult to make ends meet. We must have been the only European family in Egypt not to have a servant, though that was less because we couldn't afford one than because my mother had a horror, which I have inherited, of being in a position to give orders to anyone just because you are paying them.
Once, when I couldn't get my trousers buttoned in the morning, I went out into the street and got a passerby to help me. He complied, politely, but I was given a good talking to and did not try again. However, as far as I can recall, nobody ever got raped, or mugged, or murdered. We rode about on our bicycles all day when we weren't at school. Maadi was a friendly place to grow up in.
But violence could erupt at any time. Every now and again we learned that the Moslem Brothers had assassinated a leading politician. At Ramadan the Arabs would find their nerves wearing thin, and fights would break out in the streets. The Egyptians are a gentle people, but when they get angry they will do things they later regret. Fathers would turn on their children and beat them about the face and head; a donkey that was too laden or tired to advance would be thrashed till it fell on its knees. There was nothing vindictive about this, but there was not much self-control either.
We moved to another flat, this time just the other side of the railway line. It was a basement flat in a house owned by a patriarch who lived on the top floor with his thirteen children, their spouses, and their innumerable offspring. When a member of the family fell ill, the witch doctor would be called in. He would slaughter a turkey in the garden and chant over it. Usually the person recovered.
We had a dog (we always had dogs in Egypt; my mother was known as the "mother of the dogs," my aunt, who at one time had forty cats—people would come from far and wide to watch the feeding of this army—as "the mother of the cats") who was driven wild by the sight of a galabiyeh. He would growl and sometimes, it must be said, try to bite the ankles of its wearer. I remember one scene, more obviously frightening than anything in the war. One of the landlord's adult sons is standing at the top of the garden stairs leading down to our basement flat, kicking at my mother's head and screaming that he is going to kill our dog. My mother tries to calm him while pushing the dog into the house behind her.
This must have been after 1948 and the first Arab-Israeli war. I cannot remember ever feeling any hostility to Jews in Egypt, though. After 1952 there was of course hostility to Westerners, and school would often be cancelled (to our great joy) because there were riots and burnings in Cairo and the buses couldn't get through. But I had many Egyptian friends and I never felt that they were hostile to me as a Jew.*
The next north-south artery after the railway was the central canal, with its border of giant eucalyptus trees. The irrigation system must have been excellent because I remember Maadi as constantly in flower. On one day of every week the gardens of a different section of the town were flooded. Within twenty-four hours the water had disappeared, but the earth clearly needed no more. The garden of one flat we lived in had a guava tree. In the beautiful bungalow we owned and lived in for the last two years and which gave onto the central canal just at the point where a little wooden bridge crossed it, there was both a mango and an apricot or mish-mish tree. This last gave onto the road, and the children on their way to one of the Arab schools would throw stones up into it to get the fruit down long before it was ripe. My mother would remonstrate with them, urge them at least to wait until they could eat the fruit, but they never seemed to take the point. Once too my mother got up in the middle of the night because she thought she heard someone in the tree. She went out onto the verandah and saw a white shape among the branches. "Who's there?" she called out. "Me," answered a sheepish voice, and the night watchman slowly clambered down.
In this house too the police came once in the night and took away the young and charming couple we had taken in as paying guests at a friend's request. They had been tipped off about the woman but it turned out that the real catch was her companion, one of the most wanted Communist agents in the country.*
The fourth and final main artery of the town was the great dyke, beyond which lay the desert. The dyke had been built before our arrival, after a flash flood had hit the town. Overnight the water had built up in the nearby waddis and rushed down out of the desert. For days afterwards, apparently, toilet rolls from the stores of one of the nearby army camps festooned themselves round trees and blocked up drains. The resourceful headmistress of my cousins' school got the girls to collect these and dry them in the sun. For ages afterwards this slightly wrinkled, brown-edged paper acted as a daily reminder of what had happened.
In 1950 some of the land on the other side of the dyke was irrigated and in no time at all there were green fields, and then strange modernist buildings started to spring up. This was to be the new Victoria College, Cairo, an outgrowth of the famous Alexandria school of that name, founded in 1901, on the good Queen's death. During the war it had been evacuated to Cairo and lodged in the premises of an Italian school. Now the Italians wanted their school back and the authorities decided to build in the more spacious area of Maadi. Thus when I was ready for my secondary education, the school, with its English teachers and its attempt at a public-school ethos (houses, prefects, etc.), though without a single English pupil, was on my doorstep.
When we had landed in Egypt I spoke only French and it was natural that I should be sent to a French school. My mother was horrified, however, when she discovered that they were giving me at least an hour's homework a day. What she felt I needed, after the anxiety and solitude of the war years, was to play with other children. So she took me out and sent me to the little English primary school in Maadi.
On such decisions hinge the directions taken by a whole life. My father had been educated at one of the grands lycées in Paris, and then at the University of Aix-Marseilles. His father, Albert Josipovici, had written, when still a very young man, a novel called Le livre de Coha le simple, in collaboration with his brother-in-law. Octave Mirbeau had contributed an enthusiastic preface, and the book enjoyed a great success in France when it came out, even being short-listed for the Prix Goncourt in 1919, the year when Proust won it with A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. It was an archetypal case of one member of the team having the style, the other the ideas, for when, in later life, each tried to write a novel on his own, one was stylish but dead, the other brimming with life but appallingly written. Both were failures. Now, by sending me to an English school at the age of five, my mother ensured that if I in turn were ever to try my hand at writing it would be in English and not in French, and that the natural place for me to end up in would be an English-speaking country. That, however, was not something she had in mind at the time.*
One of the things that most surprised me about England, when I came here in 1956, was that all the schools were English. In Cairo there were at least three English and three French schools (the Lycée, the "Pères," and the "Frères," as they were affectionately called), a German school, an Italian school, an Armenian school, a Greek school, and no doubt many more. Everyone spoke at least three languages, all badly, since it was always easier to say a word in a language other than the one one was using at the time if one couldn't think of the right word in that language. I'm afraid that is still how I speak to my cousin on the phone.
The fact is that Alexandria, Cairo, and Beirut were the last great cosmopolitan centres in the world, the last of the Hellenistic cities, as Cavafy instinctively sensed. Now all have vanished and in their place, for better or worse, are three Arab cities.
Victoria College is now Victory College. Maadi has become a suburb of Cairo. On the desert side, where we used to cycle out for picnics or to look for prehistoric arrowheads (the area was rich with archeological remains), there is now only barbed wire topped by signs which warn one to keep away from the military zone. The central canal has been filled in with rubble. It is apparently no longer necessary and was a breeding ground for mosquitoes. But the mosquitoes are still a pest and the dust merely rises up into the neglected eucalyptus trees. The drains don't work and water gushes out of holes in the roads and pavements.*
I saw all this when I returned to Egypt in 1976. I had won a travelling scholarship for my first volume of stories, Mobius the Stripper, and decided to use it for more than a trip to Paris.
It was twenty years since we had left.
Almost as soon as I had landed in England, Egypt had become unreal. In the following years my time in Egypt became the subject of anecdote but, because it was unrelated to anything else, it was as if it had never existed.
It was not even as if I had been born there. And I had left at fifteen, just at the moment when one begins to do more than take one's environment for granted. I had won a lot of medals swimming for my club. I had played tennis and football and even represented the school at athletics. I had spent a lot of time riding round on bicycles and whistling at the girls. But the "I" who had done these things seemed to have no connection with the person I now was, the student and then the teacher of English literature, the writer who looked for his models in the art and literature of Western Europe.
If I felt different from the English people I met, it was because I was as interested in continental literature as I was in English. I felt "foreign," but that seemed to have nothing to do with Egypt, only with a kind of rootlessness or, if one wanted to be positive about it, a cosmopolitanism which, I gradually realised, was not something I could take for granted even in those I found myself closest to intellectually and emotionally.
But as the years went by I found that, far from gradually becoming assimilated to England and the English, they were growing more and more strange and incomprehensible to me. I also began to sense, obscurely, that I had perhaps not quite understood the basis of my own difference.
I suppose it was during the Six-Day War that I, like so many others, had it driven home to me that I was Jewish. I began to read the Bible and writers like Franz Rosenzweig, the greatest modern exponent of Judaism. I began to learn Hebrew and to read Israeli writers like Yehuda Amichai and Aharon Appelfeld, who wrote in Hebrew but whose roots, like my own, lay in a peculiarly Jewish and not Israeli experience.
In that way my sojourn in Egypt, and the Eastern Mediterranean roots of my family, began to make a sort of sense. They helped explain to me certain aspects of myself, my instinctive response to writers as diverse as Cavafy, Pessoa, and Montale, and my aversion to the Puritan strain in English culture, Milton in particular. And they helped explain too why I also felt so alien to the dominant Anglo-American Jewish culture, which is, of course, East European, and harks back nostalgically to the warmth of the shtetl. My own family culture, as I learned about it from anecdotes and photos, was radically different: urban, cosmopolitan, cultured, wealthy. I found it mirrored, perhaps surprisingly, above all in Proust: that tolerance, wit, and irony, a quality of mind which takes for granted the benefits of civilisation yet is all too aware of the abysses covered over by culture, which emanates from Proust's work, made me feel at once, when I first read him, that he was my writer, that neither the English nor even the French could quite understand him.
And Proust was very much on my mind during the month I spent in Egypt in 1976. I had gone back partly to see my aunt and her family, partly to bring those ten lost years back into the mainstream of my life, and partly to try and understand my own distance from the European culture of which, whether I liked it or not, I was now a member. I accomplished all these things, but, naturally, not quite in the ways I had expected.
One of the most wonderful moments in A la recherche du temps perdu comes at the start of Le Temps retrouvé. The ageing Marcel goes to stay with Gilberte, now married to his old friend Robert de Saint-Loup, at their country estate of Tansonville, close to Combray. On his evening strolls with Gilberte, his first love, Swann's daughter, she shows him how, in a few minutes, one can walk from what in his childhood he had known as Swann's Way to the Guermantes Way. This is shattering to Marcel. For him the two Ways were as distinct from each other as two, separate universes. And yet, he now learns, they had all along been as accessible to each other as two adjoining Parisian streets. It takes the rest of the novel for Marcel to come to terms with this fact, the gulf between our childish perceptions of the world and the way it "really is," and to understand why it is necessary to be mistrustful of that word "really." For at some deep, instinctive level the newfound reality quite fails to annul the childhood perception.
I thought of this episode when I went back to Egypt. In my memory Maadi was divided into six or seven different "ways." Here was where we lived when we first arrived: here I fought with my enemy of the day; here I used to wait for a girl in pigtails as she cycled home from school, my heart beating, wondering whether I would dare speak to her. Here I had lived when I was twelve: on this corner I had drunk Coca-Cola with my friends; down that stretch of road we organised our slow bicycle races (the winner is the last home but falling over disqualifies you). Here was the little wooden bridge over the central canal and the bungalow we had lived in for the last two years; the sporting club was just five minutes away, and on summer nights, when an open-air film was showing, you could hear the music clearly and, if you strained your ears in bed, over the distant barking of the dogs, even some of the dialogue.
But now I found I could walk from one "way" to another in a few minutes. A house I had played in as a child of seven was actually in the very same street as another house, belonging to quite a different epoch, where I had found myself alone with a girl I was in love with and had not dared to take advantage of the situation. The swimming pool, where I had spent a good part of every year training and playing, turned out to be no different from other open-air swimming pools, filled with quite ordinary water and bounded by a quite ordinary wall and fence. I walked and walked and found it impossible to reconcile memory and reality, past and present.
And that is the absurdity of memoirs. Words convey the common, not the unique. I could have written a journalistic piece on Egypt in 1976, as a number of well-meaning friends urged me, but though that might conceivably have been of interest to others, it would have left out precisely what meant most to me about the return journey, the mysterious sense of disparity between what I was encountering and what I still felt in my bones about the place.
That is why Proust had to write a novel, not an autobiography, and why it took him half his life to find the form he needed. Simply to write down what he "remembered" would not have done; he had to construct a fiction in order to make sense to himself of the nature of memory and thus of his own life. But that of course is why we will go on reading Proust long after the memoirs of Canetti, Spender, and Patrick Leigh Fermor have been forgotten.*
My mother and I left Egypt in September 1956, eleven years after we had arrived, halfway between Nasser's seizure of the Suez Canal and the Suez crisis.
By the early fifties it had become clear that there was no future in Egypt for non-Moslems. Besides, all my education had been in English, and there was the unspoken assumption that I would finish my studies at Oxford. This was not snobbery, it was just that Oxford and Cambridge were the only English universities known in Egypt, and the myth still persisted that Oxford was for the arts and Cambridge for the sciences.
A few enquiries sufficed to make it clear that the only way to get a grant was for me to take my A levels in England (and a university education without a grant was out of the question). So the headmaster of Victoria College promised that he would try to find me a place in a sixth form at an English school. Eventually he reported that Cheltenham College, where he had previously been headmaster, would take me on as a day-boy from September 1956.
My mother had never felt well, physically or spiritually, in Egypt (unlike my aunt, who loves the place in spite of everything). England, since her childhood, had been a dream. She decided to uproot herself once more and try to settle in England, if that could be achieved. Now that I am older than she was when she took that decision I see what courage it required. What energy too. In nine months she succeeded in selling the property we had, which was our entire capital, and getting it out clandestinely (losing a good third, naturally), and acquired a passport for herself (hers had been confiscated when we landed in 1945) and for me (it turned out that my father had taken French nationality, so I was myself French). For weeks the authorities stalled about giving us exit visas, and we wondered if we would ever get away. And even as we boarded the boat in Alexandria we expected to be stopped at any moment and thrown into jail (taking capital out of Egypt was of course a crime). I felt sick too at leaving my dogs and friends, my whole life, behind. But that, it seemed, was what periodically happened, and one simply had to accept it as a law of existence.*
I think I was in a state of shock when I got to England. At school everyone was very kind, though, and I survived by smiling a lot and playing a great deal of sport. One of my reports said, in a wonderfully British way, "Should do well if he does not work too hard." But I could not afford not to work. I had to get a place at Oxford and a state scholarship to enable me to take up that place. If I failed to do either there was no knowing what my mother and I would do or where we would end up.
Fear, I discovered, is a great spur. I got the place at Oxford and the grant, and, after a lot of effort, my mother's request for a year's residence, renewable, was granted by the Home Office. After that it was relatively easy to do well at Oxford and move on from there to a job at the first and most interesting of the New Universities. I have been at Sussex ever since, and my life as a writer has so swallowed up my life as a person that there is, in a sense, nothing more to be said. Except perhaps to sketch in briefly the origins and growth of that new life.*
I was too young to go up to Oxford in 1957, so we moved to London and I had a year between school and university. It was a wonderful period.
The only culture in Egypt was the cinema. As a child I saw no plays, went to no concerts, saw no paintings, but did get to see most of the Hollywood films of the forties and early fifties. This was not altogether a bad thing. Though it meant I knew nothing, it also meant that I had no built-in prejudices (about Renaissance painting being an "advance" on medieval art, for example, or modern music being "cacophonous"). In that year in London I got to know all the great galleries, started going to concerts, and read my way through the masterpieces of world literature.
I read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Shakespeare and Donne, Eliot and Pound. And then I read Proust.
The impact which Proust made on me then—and still does—has, as I have suggested, partly to do with the fact that he seems to describe a familiar world. But much more important is the fact that here, for the first time, I came upon a writer who was not afraid to admit to failure.
Other novelists, of course, have dealt with human, personal failure. But they have done so in works which never seem to doubt their own ability to convey whatever it was that needed conveying. In Proust's great novel I found the story of someone who recognises the central place of creativity in our lives and yet who also recognises the perpetual frustration of that creativity, despite the best will in the world. Marcel realises early on that he wants to write more than anything else in the world. Yet as soon as he tries to write he finds either that he is not saying what he wants to say or that a sense of terrible tedium comes over him. But since he has at moments felt that writing was the one thing that could enhance life, could bring real and lasting joy, something seems to be wrong. The feelings of intense happiness which seize him every now and again seem to cry out to be made permanent, to be brought into the realm of words. Yet as soon as he tries to do this the joy departs, leaving only boredom and frustration. What is he to do?
In the end his great book grows out of exploring precisely this contradiction. It demonstrates that the cardinal sin is indeed despair, and that this is closely followed by laziness, the acceptance of what the world thinks rather than what you have felt. Swann, falling out of love with Odette, can dismiss the whole experience of his passion for her with the words: "She was not my type." But for Marcel the experience of passion is as important as the realisation that it has little to do with the object of passion. Why did I feel what I felt if she was not my type? is the question he keeps asking.
Proust gave me the confidence to fail, the confidence to be confused, the confidence to know that if one trusted one's instinct and refused to be satisfied with immediate solutions, one would probably get somewhere in the end.
But even a lesson of this magnitude cannot be automatically translated into action. Though Oxford was important to me—it was there that I began to learn to think as well as to feel, there I met people who were driven by some of the same concerns as myself, such as the composer Gordon Crosse—it was not till 1966 that I was able to internalise that lesson.
I had taken the job at Sussex imagining, like so many hopeful writers, that the academic life would give me time to get on with my writing. And, like many hopeful writers, I soon discovered that the reality was rather different.
First of all there was the heady stimulus of working with lively colleagues and teaching a huge variety of great works, from Dante to Eliot. The trouble with that was that my own efforts then seemed pointless and trivial, lacking the very qualities I admired in ether writers. Even more insidious, though, was the sense that while a day or even a week spent on a critical essay or preparing for a lecture would never be wholly wasted, even if I made very little progress, weeks or months might be totally wasted on fiction that didn't turn out as I had hoped.
The temptation to win the respect of colleagues, students, and friends, and even of myself, by writing a good critical essay, giving a good lecture, instead of producing bad fiction, was immense.
And yet somewhere deep inside me there was a need to write fiction, a need almost as strong as the need for air and food. After three years at the university I began to feel that I would have to get out for the sake of my sanity.
The crunch came when I was granted my first term of paid leave, to get on with a critical book I had been toying with on and off ever since I had started a B.Litt. at Oxford. I was terrified. I sensed that this was my last chance. I had been promising for too long. I was twenty-five. I had to write my novel or get out.
The problem was that when I tried to write instinctively, as I wrote my short stories, the novel would peter out after a few pages. Yet when I worked out a plot beforehand I lost all interest in the thing. How then to keep the excitement of writing which the short stories gave me, with the comfort of working at something bigger than a short story?
Fear, as I had already found when working for my A levels, is a great stimulus. It pushes one past the barriers of what one thinks one can do to the discovery of what it is one can really do. But it has to be genuine fear. And this was it all right. I would wake up in the mornings in a cold sweat, wondering how I would be able to cope with the day to come. Every hour became a test.
I read—quite by chance—I still don't know what made me take the book off the library shelves—the autobiography of an American thriller writer—I don't even remember his name. He had been at Harvard Business School but had decided that he liked the outdoor life and wanted to be his own man, so determined to become a successful thriller writer. A friend then gave him the best piece of advice I have ever come across: You had better write the first seven books fast, he said, because only the eighth is going to be any good.
I decided then and there that I wouldn't worry about how my book came out. I would simply be concerned with getting it written. And I worked out that if I wrote ten pages a day for fifteen days I would have the draft of a novel in a fortnight. In this way I hoped to beat the size bogey.
A word had come into my head: inventory. Just to repeat it to myself filled me with excitement. The reason for this, I realised, was that it pointed in two opposite directions at once. An inventory is a list of objects, the most impersonal and external thing imaginable. But hidden in the word is the ghost of the word "invent," the most subjective and internal thing imaginable. The word spawned a rudimentary plot: a man dies and his relatives gather round and make an inventory of his belongings. In the course of this one of them tries to understand her relations with the dead man, and to do this she recalls (or perhaps invents) one scene after another.
Thus the woman's search would become mine, or mine hers, and I wouldn't lose the excitement of exploration. Yet now I encountered another block, which I had not reckoned with (there is nothing like tackling a big piece of work for forcing problems—and therefore solutions—on you). I realised as soon as I began to write the first sentence that something in me revolted at the thought of telling a story, describing houses and people. It quite literally made me feel sick to write down the equivalent of "She laid her lovely white hand on his sleeve, her rings sparkling in the lamplight." I didn't mind reading this in Tolstoy—it occurs in a crucial scene between Anna and Vronsky—but I could not be party to it myself.
Critics sometimes accuse me of writing difficult books, even books specifically designed to annoy the reader. But would anyone spend a large part of his life shut up by himself in a room simply to annoy people he doesn't know? Writers may be daft, but they aren't that daft. Clearly one writes because one has to. One writes to bring a little order and clarity into what is otherwise murky and confused, and to make something clean, bright, and true. But if that is so, how could I put down a sentence like Tolstoy's? I have never seen that hand or those rings sparkling in the lamplight. What childish nonsense to pretend I have merely to persuade an imaginary reader. Surely writing ought to be concerned with more important and interesting things?
So I learned for myself the implications of the Proustian dilemma, which I had responded to with excitement ten years earlier but which had to be learned the hard way: I needed to write for my own survival, but it had to be a different kind of writing from Tolstoy's.
Give me specific problems, not general ones, Stravinsky once observed. In The Inventory I solved the specific problem of narration and description by eschewing description and dealing only with what interested me, the interplay between characters and the generation of plot expressed only by means of dialogue and inventory lists. When I grasped what it was I wanted to do, the book changed from being a painful and boring task to being a wildly exciting (though frightening) one. The book became possible, it became something I wanted (wanted desperately) to do, because it was now no longer a question of telling, as if it were true, a story I had made up in my head, but of bringing into the world something which did not and could not have existed before, of making something which, if I succeeded, would have a life of its own and be irreducible to paraphrase. It turned out that if one trusted one's instinct—and, perhaps, was scared enough—then it might be the first and not just the eighth book which would be good enough to publish.*
Though I had found teaching inhibiting at first, once I began to have confidence in my own writing I realised how lucky I was to be at Sussex. For here, in the sixties and seventies, I found an atmosphere in which genuine and valuable work could be born. It seemed to be the natural continuation of what my friends and I had come to believe in at Oxford, but which neither Oxford itself as an institution nor English literary culture at large seemed prepared to understand.
I had gone up to Oxford raw and confused, but with the sense of tremendous possibilities in myself and in the world at large. There was so much to discover: Greek drama, medieval art, Hölderlin, Kleist, Valery, the music of the Renaissance and of the Far East—it was endless. In Gordon Crosse and the other musician in my year at Saint Edmund Hall, David Phillips, and in John Mepham, a biochemist from Magdalen (now a philosopher and literary critic), I found people who were equally curious, equally willing to explore and discover. Gordon persuaded me to join the Contemporary Music Club, where I heard the music of Varèse and Stockhausen for the first time, and where most of the leading British composers came and talked. We went over to see Peter Maxwell Davies at Cirencester, where he was teaching, and I remember introducing him to my former tutor, Del Kolve, knowing they both had a passion for the art of the Middle Ages—a passion I had come to share. Webern and Messiaen were the rage then, but Webern forced one to go back to late medieval polyphony and Messiaen to the music of Southeast Asia. It was clear to us that you could only understand the new if you understood the old and distant, and vice versa. People who said they loved Beethoven but loathed Stockhausen, loved Dickens but sneered at Robbe-Grillet, in effect only demonstrated their prejudice and laziness. It was not a question of old and new, traditional and experimental, but of the ability or otherwise to read, listen, and see.
At Sussex I found a new university fired by the same principles. The student would read Homer and Proust, Dante and Eliot. Not in some general Great Books course, but in courses designed to make him grasp the specific cultural and historical matrix of each author, how Homer differed from Proust and Dante from Eliot, as well as what they had in common.
Sussex gave me the confidence to write my first critical book, The World and the Book, which I had been turning over in my head since my undergraduate days, and which I dedicated to Peter Maxwell Davies because it seemed to me that he embodied in his own work and person much that the book was trying to say: how an understanding of pre-Renaissance modes of thought and artistic purpose could help one in one's own art today, and how a response to modern art could open the doors to an appreciation of pre-Renaissance and non-Western art in general.
What Sussex (and in particular the School of European Studies under its first dean, Martin Wight) was setting out to do in the sixties was paralleled by developments in English musical life. William Glock had become Controller of Music at the BBC and instigated the wonderful Thursday Invitation Concerts. The secret of these weekly events lay precisely in their juxtaposition of works. The first concert consisted of two Mozart quintets and Boulez's Le Marteau sans maître; later, I seem to remember, we had Ockeghem and Stravinsky, Beethoven and Schoenberg, Messiaent and Javanese music. Boulez became principal conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and concerts became more frequent and more adventurous. The London Sinfonietta was formed and Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle formed the Pierrot Players, giving memorable performances of medieval and Renaissance music and the music of the Second Viennese School, as well as that of the two founders themselves. Srockhausen, Boulez, Berio, Ligeti, and Lutoslawski were regular visitors and often gave pre-concert talks. The halls were packed and the sense of excitement at each concert immense.
Alas, that excitement did not spread to the literary scene. It has become clear to me over the years that with the coming of the world war English literary culture turned decisively away from Europe. The great Modernists are intensively studied at university, but as classics, not living presences. As far as the literary establishment is concerned, [now, in the late 1980s], it is as if Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Woolf had never existed. England is once more the country it was when Pound and Eliot first arrived: smug, self-satisfied, distrustful of foreigners and their ways. True, a number of foreign writers, such as Grass, Marquez, and Kundera, are almost idolised in certain circles, and used as sticks with which to beat the timidities of the English, but there is little sense of any understanding of the literary context from which they have sprung, and many better, though quieter, writers are totally ignored. All this is reinforced by a peculiar brand of English Marxism, profoundly moralistic and puritanical in its inclinations typified by Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton, which imagines it is fighting the establishment but is in fact (at least to my outsider's eye) the victim of precisely the same insular prejudices.
This, sadly, is beginning to affect every aspect of English life, and even the University of Sussex is starting to look very much like any other English university, while the musical life of the country, since Glock's retirement and Boulez's departure, has markedly deteriorated.*
One thing Maxwell Davies taught me by example was not to be afraid of trying anything new, for it is often only by trying one's hand at a new form or even medium that one discovers one's potential. So I have, when the opportunity has arisen, written stage and radio plays, as well as stories, novels, and essays.
Most of the time, of course, one has to live with frustration and the sense of failure: one has not done what one had hoped to do; somehow, at some point, one has betrayed the work. Yet every now and again the opposite happens: it all works out infinitely better than one could ever have imagined.
This occurred with the play I wrote for the Actors' Company in 1973, Flow, where a very precise commission led to a work which embodied material so profoundly buried I did not know it was there; and it happened again with my last novel, Contre-Jour.
I had been gradually turning from music to painting as a stimulus for my work. This was partly under the impact of meeting a wide range of figurative painters, from the septuagenarian Polish-Jewish painter Josef Herman to R. B. Kitaj and younger artists such as Timothy Hyman, Andrzej Jackowski, Christopher Couch, and Stephen Finer. I found again, as I had at Oxford with Gordon Crosse, that artists who were not writers seemed to have a much wider sense of the possibilities of art, and to be much more in tune with my own aims and ambitions, than most English writers.
One day, on the radio, I heard someone talking about a Bonnard exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. In passing he mentioned that one of the main reasons why Bonnard painted so many nudes in bathrooms was that his wife had been a compulsive washer.
Within two or three hours of that talk an entire novel had taken shape, where before there had been absolutely nothing. I dropped everything else I was working on. I knew I simply had to keep my days clear and give myself entirely up to it, and the novel would write itself. It was almost as if I were reading from a very faded page on which, nevertheless, everything could be made out if I only concentrated hard enough.
The novel is not "about" Bonnard at all. For one thing, half of it consists of a monologue by the painter's daughter, and Bonnard and Marthe had no children. Yet the more I learned about Bonnard's work and about the man, the more I liked and admired them: his reticence, his modesty, his un-Romantic sense of dedication, and the way he combined the classical and monumental with the impressionistic and the fugitive. You start to look at a painting, focussing, as usual, on the centre, and quickly find your eye drawn outward, to the periphery, where a head peers in, or a tiny figure can be made out in the shrubbery, or a dog is about to disappear. So many of Bormard's paintings are in effect impossible objects, yet with none of the slickness of Escher or the high polish of Magritte; so many of them express deep suffering, but transmuted into a kind of acceptance, and even happiness.
I did not want to write a fictional biography. I did not want to pretend that I could "be" or even "understand" this painter. We cannot ever understand the people or the artists we are fondest of. Perhaps the best we can do is recognise the nature of their distance from us.
And that, in the end, is what the book is about, and (I think) explains its form. I knew from the start that the daughter was absolutely essential, but I didn't know why. I think now that she is perhaps my lead into the centre of the book. For she feels excluded from the close relationship of her parents, just as I felt excluded from the relationship of Bonnard and Marthe. But then her feeling is strangely reduplicated in her mother, who in turn feels shut off from the life of her husband. And yet she knows, as he knows, even though a part of her refuses to acknowledge this, that there is a deep bond between them, and even that it is this which makes his work possible.
When it was done the book felt like a Paradise to the Hell of Migrations and the Purgatory of The Air We Breathe. A sombre paradise, but at any rate the nearest I would ever be able to get to it.*
What I find interesting about the way the novel came to me is that once the right objective correlative had been found (been given), it allowed material which had obviously always been there, but which I had not known about, to find the light. The book came in a single clear jet because I found myself able to talk about many things that were close to my heart. But the corollary is frightening. Had it not been for that chance overhearing of a talk on Bonnard, had the speaker not mentioned a strange fact about Bonnard's married life, would it have remained buried forever?
That is an amazing thought. It suggests that most of us, for most of the time, are completely out of touch with what is most central to ourselves. The Romantic and Realist error is to imagine that one has something to express, and that then it is simply a question of finding the best way to express it. But the truth appears to be very different. It seems that even when one imagines that one is quite open to oneself, one is still likely to pass over nine-tenths of what is really important to one. And, most probably, to die without ever becoming aware of this.
It seems that only the act of making can lead to discovery. The act of memory cannot. That is why autobiography is so misleading. It can tell us what a person thinks he is like, perhaps what he would like to be like. It can provide a form of gossip, telling one who knew whom, and when, and even who went to bed with whom, and when. But that is all.
Autobiography and memoirs can never make manifest their own limitations. They always give the illusion (to their authors as well as to their readers) that they are adequate to the task in hand. Only fiction can point to its own limits, can remind us that not everything has been said or can be said. Autobiography fosters the illusion that our lives are stories and as such can be told. It thus does nothing to appease the deep sense we all have that this is not so. Only fiction, in the right hands, can awaken in us the sense of how little we know of ourselves and the world, and how intense is our desire to change that condition. By so doing it brings us back in touch with both ourselves and the world.
That is why I have felt the need—it grew on me as I was writing—to organise even this brief memoir into a tight and somewhat arbitrary form (derived from Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire).
Even so, I am relieved to bring it to an end (for I cannot help but be suspicious of its implicit as well as its explicit claims), and to return to the rigours and pleasures of fiction.
Gabriel Josipovici contributed the following update in 2004:
After Contre-Jour and all the short stories I had written around paintings and painters in the seventies and early eighties, I promised myself that I would in future keep away from the subject or I would risk falling into a predictable pattern. So much for good resolutions. I happened to read an interview with Marcel Duchamp in which he was asked how he had reacted to the news that his masterpiece, Large Glass, had been smashed in transit when, in 1923, shortly after its completion or, as he put it, his "definitive abandonment of it," he had it sent to Chicago to be exhibited. "I was delighted," Duchamp answered. And though he wouldn't elaborate, a moment's thought sufficed to make one see why. The Glass, it turned out, had not been shattered beyond repair: Duchamp went up to Chicago, assessed the damage, and repaired it as best he could. But, as anyone who has seen it in its splendid setting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art will know, the great reflecting rainbow of its shattering lends it a quality utterly missing from Richard Hamilton's reconstruction for the Tate Gallery. It makes the Glass come alive as nothing else could. For, after all, Duchamp had been looking to build chance into his work ever since he had found his true direction. The trouble is that chance built into a work is not really chance at all. This was Duchamp's dilemma. However, the fortuitous shattering of the glass in transit (the two panels had been placed one on top of the other, hence the reflecting rainbow effect) accomplished for him what he could never do for himself: no wonder he was delighted.
I decided to abandon my resolution and to write about that moment, again transposing characters and events, this time to England in the seventies. For a long time it didn't have the right tension about it, the right Duchampian dadaism, but finally (helped no doubt by my reading of Thomas Bernhard) I hit on the device of having two characters at the centre, one a critic, one the artist, close friends, and to have the critic copying and commenting on a text by the artist. With that the book fell into place.
I followed it with a novel which picked up some of its themes, notably the doubling of the central character, but which also went back to the subject of my abortive B.Litt thesis at Oxford, Jonathan Swift. Swift had spent several years at Moor Park in Surrey, as secretary to Sir William Temple. There he had become acquainted with Temple's ward, Esther Johnson, known as Stella, who remained the central female figure in his life. I had picked up by chance a copy of an Aramaic grammar stamped "Moor Park Theological College Library," and begun to think about a novel in which Moor Park would be the central "character," imagining it changing from being the home of the Temples to being a lunatic asylum, a theological college, a primate research centre, a decoding centre during World War II, and finally, now, a school, in which the pupils are set the task of describing the history of the house, and one of them begins: "Moo Pak was wuns the hous of a English lord, Sur Wiliam Timpl." As I worked I found that writing a book of this kind was not my style, that I needed a different angle from which to approach it. I have always been fascinated by interviews with artists, feeling that they were usually much more revealing than even the best criticism of their work. Why not, I thought, write my own extended interview, a spoof interview but one which would nonetheless allow me to say many of the things I had often felt but never been able to say about writing and writers, about displacement, and about many of the other things I had thought about in thirty years of producing books and teaching in universities? So I switched to writing about a Sephardi Jew from Egypt walking through London talking to a young acolyte about his life and beliefs and the masterpiece he is writing, an imaginary history of Moor Park. The trick, I felt, was to make my hero as different from me as possible and yet capable of saying, among the many outrageous things he does say, many of the things I might have wanted to say, had anyone walked the streets of London with me, asking me questions about my life and beliefs. Moo Pak, as I called it, was finished in 1993 and published the following year.*
In 1989 I had published a story which was at once a conceit and a homage to Bach. I had long been fascinated by the story told of the genesis of the Goldberg Variations: how a wealthy German aristocrat, Count Kaiserling, who had difficulty in sleeping, had asked Bach to compose some music for his court harpsichordist, the young Gottlieb Goldberg, which would be capable of sending him to sleep. I decided to transpose the scene to England, the time to around 1800, and the musician to a writer. Thus in my story Goldberg, an English writer of German-Jewish origins, is invited by a landed gentleman, a certain Mr. Westfield, to come and read to him to send him to sleep. When he arrives he is told that what he must read is not something already written but something he must write himself. Thus we have a nice variant of the Scheherazade motif, with the story-teller succeeding if his listener is able to fall asleep.
A year or two after the story was published I heard the Scottish composer, Judith Weir, whom I knew slightly and whose work I greatly admired, talking on the radio about what Bach meant to her, and I sent her a copy of the story. It was a fateful move. She wrote back a week later to say she had read the story on a train journey, with great pleasure and interest, and when was I going to write the other twenty-nine? (Bach's Goldberg Variations consists of an "aria" and thirty variations.)
I kept the letter by me and often looked at it. I tried to imagine what another twenty-nine stories would consist of. I loved the idea of a large work made up of many small ones, which would add up to much more than the sum of their parts although each of them would be completely self-contained, and I decided that I would have a go at satisfying Judith.
I worked on the book for a year after finishing Moo Pak before I realised that it was collapsing under me. To write a story set in 1800 is all very well; to write a whole novel means setting up as a historical novelist, and I not only did not have the skill to do so, I realised I was actively opposed to writing what I have always considered to be, like science fiction, a deeply uninteresting form of literature.
So as not to fret at the collapse of what had just a short while before seemed such an exciting prospect, I decided immediately to turn my hand to something else. My cousin is in the habit of giving me the literary supplements of Le Monde, after she and her husband have read them. I enjoy glancing through these, as they give me a sense of what is going on in France in the world of books. Occasionally a review makes me prick up my ears and I order a book I would otherwise have missed. It so happened that at the precise moment when the Goldberg book was collapsing round my ears I read something in one of the literary supplements to Le Monde which had an extremely violent effect on me. It was a review of a first novel, written, so the reviewer said, almost entirely in dialogue. And dialogue, the reviewer pointed out, cuts across the two main forms of the novel, the subjective first person and the objective third-person narrative. Neither subjective nor objective, and taking the same time to read as it takes for the characters to speak, dialogue, said the reviewer, made this book live for the reader as no novel had ever done in his experience.
I immediately phoned my friend Dan in Paris and asked him to find a copy of the book and send it to me. The post takes time, however, and I couldn't stop myself, as I waited for the book, from jotting down what I imagined it to be like and even inventing scenes based on what I had gleaned from the review the book was about.
When the book did arrive it was a bitter disappointment. It was nothing like what either the review or my imagination had conjured up. For a day I went around almost in mourning for the novel that had shone so brightly on the horizon only to disappear once I had got close to it. And then it suddenly came to me: why not write my own version? Why not go on with the book I had already imagined? Would that be plagiarism? But can one plagiarise from a review of a book one has not read? I decided to go ahead anyway.
I finished a draft in the summer of 1995, only a few months after I had begun it, and showed it to my mother, as I did all my work. "Good," she said, "but not one of your best." She had loved Moo Pak and I think felt this was rather light-weight in comparison. Still, it was an achieved piece of work, as the Goldberg book, though much more ambitious, was not. I began work to revise it, and had almost finished the revision when my mother, after enduring two weeks in bed with a vicious stomach chill, fell down the stairs after suffering, as the doctors later told me, a mild heart attack, and had to be taken to hospital.*
She never left it. She died there six weeks later, on March 23, 1996. She was eighty-six and I had of course been bracing myself for her death for many years, but it was still the biggest blow I had ever had to endure, for she had been my best friend, critic, and companion for the whole of my adult life.
I was due to give eight lectures in Oxford as the Weidenfeld Professor of Comparative Literature the following autumn, and for a few weeks I thought I would have to cancel them. I had done all the reading and thinking, but they had still to be written, and the last thing I felt like doing in the wake of my mother's death was to sit down and write lectures. At the same time a part of me knew that if I could bring myself to do so it might help me through what I knew would be the most difficult months of my life. It was a gamble: if I didn't let Oxford know soon they would not have time to make other arrangements; but if I went ahead I might not be able to get the lectures done, or perhaps might find myself incapable of delivering them.
In the end I decided to take the risk. It was the best decision I ever made. In those first weeks and even months I had to negotiate every second of the day, plan what I would do for the next half-hour, do it, and then plan for the next half-hour. Having the lectures to write meant several hours in the mornings taken care of, and when at night I forced myself to bed and tried to sleep I could always turn my thoughts to the next morning's work.
Even if I had been fully fit and in full command of my life it would have been hard. Eight lectures is in effect a small book. I knew what I wanted to say, roughly, but I had to write the lectures at the rate of one a fortnight if I was to have time to revise them at all. I kept to the schedule from June to September, then went to Turkey with a friend for a brief holiday, before arriving in Oxford at the beginning of October.
I had decided to write on the subject of trust. I had touched on the topic in the margins of other essays, but I had doubts as to whether the subject could sustain a head-on attack. My friend and colleague at Sussex, Brian Cummings, persuaded me that it could and that I should have a go at it. He was right. As I worked I found that more and more things came into focus, and I soon realised that I would have not too little material, but too much.
I had felt for some time that there was something wrong with what Paul Ricoeur has called our culture of suspicion, a turn of mind he associates with Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. In essence these men questioned the validity of the positivism and liberalism dominant in European intellectual circles at the time, and called for an examination of the history and genealogy of such notions as Progress and Freedom. I had no time for those conservatives who simply dismissed the new culture of suspicion, but I felt strongly that when one contrasted even the most suspicious writers—Kafka, say, or Beckett—with their philosophical counterparts, it was clear that there were some things philosophy could not express, and was, indeed, in conflict with. The suspicion of Kafka and Beckett towards language, towards art and towards the clichés of the time could not be more radical; yet there was, in the end, one thing in which they trusted deeply, and that was the impulse to write. That impulse was for them, if not an unquestioned good (they do question it), yet a kind of blessed surplus, an inexplicable gift. And that was enough to distinguish them from the totally suspicious, like Nietzsche and especially from his disciples, such as Foucault and de Man, and from all ironic postmodernists. I began to understand that suspicion itself had its own history, and that that history needed to be examined, quite as much as the belief in Progress, or God.
The lectures did get written in those terrible months, and I am proud of the fact that they and the subsequent book based on them show no trace of the difficult circumstances in which they were written. In Oxford I was made welcome at St. Anne's, where the professorship was based, and I had the pleasure of seeing again my old tutors, Graham Midgley and especially Rachel Trickett. If the lectures were written primarily for my mother and as part of a dialogue I had had with her throughout my life, they were also in a sense a continuation of the papers I had produced for Rachel as a third-year undergraduate, and I was pleased that she came to the lecture I devoted to Shakespeare and suspicion, and approved of it.*
As soon as my mother died I found myself jotting down phrases of hers I remembered and trying to describe moments in our lives together which kept coming back to me. This is the natural consequence of loss. At a certain moment, though, I realised that I would have to write a book about her, that nothing less would do. I knew from the start that it would have to be more than a memoir if it was going to help me, for a memoir would only throw me back onto myself and my pain. I wanted to try to see her as she was, not as she had been to me, and I wanted to celebrate a long and complex life, the first half of which had been full of pain and loss—I have touched on it in the first part of this essay. I wanted to explore the world of Sephardi, well-to-do Jewry in Egypt at the start of the twentieth century, of which she had been a part, and to bring out her courage and her considerable literary—she was a published poet and translator of distinction. But I also knew that I wanted to stay close to my pain, and not to spend years in archival work, trying to dig up the background of her father's family in Odessa and much else of which I had little knowledge. I discovered, for example, that though my mother and I had talked about so much, and she had told me about my sister who had died barely a week after her birth in France during the war, I had no idea of the girl's name. Fortunately my mother had been very close to her slightly older sister, who was still alive and living, as she had always done, in Egypt. Her letters to me telling me about their childhood became an important element in the book.
My decision to write a book about my mother added a new dimension to my life. Instead of being the simple expression of loss and suffering, my jottings about her now began to fill me with excitement, with the thrill of making something, which has always been the reason why I have written. It did not lessen the pain, but it brought a new pleasure into being alongside it.
One of the central problems with the book was going to be that I had been at the centre of my mother's life, her raison d'être, from the moment of my birth until her death, yet I didn't want to be the centre of the book, since I wanted the book to be about her. How was that to be achieved? At first I tried writing about myself in the third person: "her son …" But that felt too arch, and I soon abandoned it. I realised that there were no rules I could apply, I would simply have to write the book and feel my way towards my goals as I had done with all my previous books, even if this one was in many ways utterly different from the others.
We know so little about what motivates us. It was only when the book was almost done that I realised fully for the first time why I had undertaken it and what the writing had done for me. I included that insight in the book: "Sacha, by her death, seemed to have taken my life with her as well," I wrote. "Because of the strange circumstances of our existence she had been the only witness to all the important events of my life. Now, with that witness gone, it was as though the past had begun to grow dim and dissolve. Until that moment I had not realised the importance of witnesses. And the importance of stories. When Sacha told me stories about her childhood and youth she was doing so in part because she herself had never had any parents. When she told me stories about my childhood it was because I had no brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and grandparents, who had known me from my earliest years. Now she is gone and I have started to tell her story I find a kind of calm descending on me and I know why: by piecing her life together I have begun to reconstitute my own. This is more than the therapy of confession. It is not the wounded spirit that is being healed, but, in a way I could never have anticipated, my body that is returning to me."*
When I returned to Sussex after my term at Oxford as the Weidenfeld Professor I found that the changes which had been creeping up on the place over the past ten years had accelerated alarmingly. We were moving from being a tutorial university to being a seminar-based one; the beautiful and educationally innovative school structure, which had been the envy of universities all over the world when it was first unveiled in 1961, was being gradually eroded. For fifteen years I had been separating myself spiritually from the place, teaching only two terms out of three and as a consequence being free of the main administrative burdens. But now even this could not protect me from the ravages which were being inflicted on the English University system. Many of my contemporaries had fled to well-paid jobs in America, but I had no desire to go there. I had given a single institution thirty-five years of passionate allegiance, and I felt it was now time to go.
I went with a heavy heart. It is not often that one can see in one's lifetime the rise and fall of an ideal. But that is what had happened at Sussex. Created in a climate of liberal optimism and boundless cash, it had fallen victim to the new climate of suspicion, accountability and belt-tightening. I felt very lucky to have been there almost from the start, and pitied my younger colleagues, some of whom, no less idealistic than I was, now found themselves having to compromise at every step. And I was sorry for the students, who would never know what Sussex had once had to offer. Nevertheless, it was a relief to get out.*
I was working on the book about my mother when Now was published. It got an intelligent review in theTimes Literary Supplement, but very little other coverage. However, this influential review set in train a whole set of new developments. A German publisher, Gerd Haffmans of the Zürich-based Haffmans Verlag, wrote to ask for the German rights and told me he wished to translate it himself. At about the same time one of my former students, who was working in the Berlin Jewish Museum, invited me to Berlin. And thus, free of the burdens of teaching, I began a new, German chapter in my life. Haffmans published Now in 2000, and went on to publish Contre-Jour in 2001. Both of them were better received, commanded far more intelligent reviews, and sold better than they had in Britain. And, with Franziska, I began to explore Berlin on bicycle and on foot, and fell in love with the city.
The population of Berlin seems to consist largely of perpetual students. Everyone seems to have plenty of time to sit in cafés and talk. It is a lovely place to write in, for one can cycle along the towpath of the river or the canal, stop in a café, tie up one's bicycle, sit and write or think, and then move on. I loved being able to get to the opera on a bike, or to the great national gallery, the Gemäldegalerie, which seems to be always empty, for Berlin is not yet on the tourist circuit. I loved the sense it gave off of a provincial, East European city, with its quiet tree-lined streets and old men walking their dogs, which nevertheless has a vibrant street-life in the centre and provides as much music and art as one could wish for. I loved the fact that one could put the bikes on the tube and get out to Potsdam or other outlying towns in less than an hour, from which one could ride round the lakes that encircle Berlin and, if the weather was right, stop and have a dip. How fast Berlin will lose its charm, now all the new embassies are being built in the centre and landlords are starting to "renovate" their old apartment blocks and rent out the flats at exorbitant prices, is anyone's guess. But for the moment it really is a city that has solved the urban problem.
It was in Berlin that I found the solution to my Goldberg book, and in Berlin that I rewrote most of it. I finished it in 2001, twelve or more years after I had first started to think about it. I have never written a novel over so protracted a period of time and as a result I have no idea what I think of it. At times I feel it is my best work, at others that it is a total failure. The answer probably lies somewhere between the two, hard as that is for me to accept. I am glad to have done it, though, and not to have hanging over me the thought of those twenty-nine unwritten stories.*
Another German element entered my life at about this time when a professor of English at the University of Freiburg, Monika Fludernik, wrote to ask if I would approve of her writing a book about my work. I had corresponded with her about a story of mine, "Second Person Looking Out," when she was engaged on a narratological exploration of second person narratives, and had found her likeable and intelligent. I was touched at her request and said that while I would not wish to help her, I would certainly not put any obstacles in her way. She asked to be allowed to consult any papers and reviews of my work I might have, and spent an industrious weekend in Lewes, doing just that. In the course of this she unearthed a story of mine that had been published in the school magazine in Victoria College, Cairo. I must have been thirteen or fourteen when I wrote it. The amazing thing about this story, "The Road," is that it has so much in it of my later work:
The road winds slowly through the country. An overwhelming stillness surrounds it. The night is just done and a heavy mist hangs in the air. The road has been like this for the past fifty years: quiet, clean and beautiful.… The little birds wait for the road-mender—the road waits for him.… It is as if the very air waits for him, but he does not come.…
It is of course naïve and doesn't quite know what it is doing, but for that reason, perhaps, its closeness in "feel" to my later work is all the more amazing. And it raises fascinating questions about writers and writing. It brings out the fact that, whatever happens to one in one's lifetime, it is not that which dictates the basic contours of one's writing, its inner rhythm and even the subject-matter to which one keeps returning, but something else, something which is perhaps with one from the start, or at least from a very early age. What that something else is, though, remains a mystery.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 6, 1976, Volume 43, 1987.
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 14: British Novelists since 1960, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.
Fludernik, Monika, Echoes and Mirrorings: Gabriel Josipovici's Creative Oeuvre, Peter Lang Publisher (New York, NY), 2001.
Josipovici, Gabriel, A Life: Sacha Rabinovitch 1910-1996 (memoir), London Magazine Editions (London, England), 2001.
British Book News, April, 1982, p. 259.
Contemporary Literature, summer, 1979, pp. 369-376.
Critical Quarterly, summer, 1972, pp. 171-185.
Criticism, winter, 1974.
International Fiction Review, winter, 1984, pp. 69-71.
Listener, November 4, 1971, pp. 624-625; January 9, 1975; September 29, 1977.
London Review of Books, July 5, 1984, pp. 22-23.
Nation, December 24, 1983, p. 676.
New Statesman, October 4, 1968, p. 435; December 17, 1971; August 26, 1977, pp. 279-280; January 8, 1988, p. 32; December 2, 1994, p. 38; October 18, 1996, p. 45.
New York Times Book Review, April 10, 1988, p. 18.
New Yorker, December 26, 1988, p. 97.
Observer (London, England), February 5, 1984, p. 53; June 1, 1986, p. 22; December 13, 1987, p. 22; January 1, 1989, p. 39; February 24, 1991, p. 63.
Spectator, March 22, 1980, p. 21; January 7, 1989, p. 23; November 25, 1989, p. 44.
Style, Volume 37, number 2, William Baker, review of Echoes and Mirrorings: Gabriel Josipovici's Creative Oeuvre.
Times Literary Supplement, October 31, 1968; November 12, 1971, p. 1409; February 25, 1972; March 24, 1978, p. 361; March 21, 1980, p. 312; November 13, 1981, p. 1330; January 7, 1983, p. 6; November 30, 1984, p. 1392; July 25, 1986, p. 819; May 13, 1988, p. 533; March 31, 1989, p. 331; March 8, 1991, p. 19; August 14, 1992, p. 7; September 23, 1994, p. 23; April 11, 1997, p. 24.
Washington Post Book World, April 19, 1992, p. 1.
World Literature Today, summer, 1997, p. 661.
Gabriel Josipovici Home Page,http://gabrieljosipovici.inwriting.org (April 13, 2004).
John Sandoe Online,http://www.johnsandoe.com/ Johnny de Falbe, review of A Life: Sacha Rabinovitch 1910-1996.
Literary Encyclopedia,http://www.litencyc.com/ (April 13, 2004), Monika Fludernik, biographical article.
Spike Online,http://www.spikemagazine.com/ (April 13, 2004), Stephen Mitchelmore, review of On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion.