Posted on 18th July 2011

By Alan Wall, Novelist, short story writer, poet

Heart’s Wings & Other Stories

Gabriel Josipovici

The stories here were written over four decades. They demonstrate that delight in formal inventiveness, and literary allusiveness, which characterises all of Josipovici’s fiction. One story, ‘Second Person Looking Out’, plays the kind of game with windows that Borges played with mirrors and libraries. Voicings are shifted to indicate that, in Blake’s phrase, the eye altering alters all. Borges is a commanding presence here and actually makes an appearance in ‘The Two Lönnrots’, where the dying Argentinian ponders his own story ‘Death and the Compass’.

In the eponymous story about Mobius the Stripper we are presented with the writer and the written, two independent voicings regarding the same narrative events, demonstrating the way in which any voicing, as a point of perception, does not merely ‘observe’ events, but constructs them into that narrative which then becomes the events themselves. ‘Mobius the Stripper’ presents the narrative from two sides (as though it were a Möbius Strip flicking back and forth, first this way then that) and so shows us the way in which narratives are constructed. It is the literary equivalent of a Cubist painting, demonstrating how we assemble the visible world in our minds. Josipovici is very much in favour of foregrounding the device, as the Russian Formalists liked to put it: he wants fiction to be frank about being fictional, in the way that the Cubist painting acknowledged its existence in two dimensions rather than three.

‘Heart’s Wings’ presents us with Josipovici’s redoubtable mother, re-approached through the memory of her devotion to Arthur Golding’s Elizabethan translation of Ovid. This is the most touching piece of writing in the book. The details of his mother’s life, and of his own when young, are extraordinary and their unusualness does not seem to require any formal italicization. When, in another story, Josipovici tries to portray a more orthodox family, in a relationship between father and son, the effort fails. Perhaps his own unorthodox experience of family life places too large a distance between his imagination and regular nuclear arrangements.

The stories here raise the same questions that Josipovici’s criticism has explored over the years. His argument is that modernism should have put an end to our craving for narrative in the traditional sense. The wish to read ‘realist fiction’ – a trickier term than is often acknowledged – displays for him a sort of cultural infantilism, the wish to be merely entertained rather than fully engaged at the intellectual level. Josipovici has been frank about his disappointment at the evaporation of modernism into clouds of cultural reminiscence; although in his view modernism represented the great achievement of twentieth-century literature, what we have ended up with, mostly, is not postmodernism but pre-modernism. So many writers continue to write as though modernism never happened. Most of the writers with the biggest sales do.

The truth is that modernism never had the cultural impact which our retrospective accounts sometimes credit it with having had, with one notable exception: cinema. The only genuinely new artistic form of our age employed montage, that radical Cubist manoeuvre, as a matter of necessity. Cinema cannot exist without montage. Radical discontinuities, successions of contrarieties, are part of its formal structure. The writers Josipovici feels most strongly about, writers like Kafka and Borges, perceived a world where disintegration was inescapable, a world that appears before us as montage. It was the world Marx saw when he wrote: ‘All that is solid melts into air.’ Josipovici’s point is that to present such a world in a seamless narrative is to be dishonest about it. Form must acknowledge, through its own cuts, inversions, regressions and ellipses, that we are presented with a disintegrative spectacle by modernity, and modern literature should be obliged to acknowledge the fact formally.

Borges had an interesting line on this. He never wrote a full-length work of fiction. The prospect filled him with such tedium that he simply never bothered. Instead he provided summaries of what such full-length works might have been, parenthetical accounts in his short fictions of potential grand narratives. These are in one sense ghosts – the term bibliographers use for a title which is announced in a prospectus but never actually appears as a book. Modernism dispensed with a great deal. It cut the continuity passages, and the page-upon-page of pictorial description. Like cinema at its best, it cut to the action, though the action often took place thousands of years ago. It is one of curiosities of modernism that it was in love with antiquity. Primitive forms permitted a more forceful shaping of experience than the attenuations of nineteenth-century naturalism.

Josipovici’s views have been expressed with great forcefulness, and have of late provoked considerable argument. Our relationship to narrative, our love of it, our residence inside it, raises issues that can’t be dealt with here. Jean-Luc Godard was once asked by an exasperated critic if he did not think that films should have a beginning, a middle and an end. Certainly, replied the great cinematic experimenter, but not necessarily in that order. The truth is that we can’t escape narrative, we are enmeshed in it psychologically, we turn everything into stories incessantly. What we can do, and what modernism helped us to do, is to acknowledge that these are constructed narratives, that there is not merely a narrative called reality which is transmitted through the neutral medium of speech. Another way of putting this was Nietzsche’s remark: ‘If it can be thought, then it is certainly a fiction.’ This is not to say that it is untrue, but that it could be constructed otherwise.

Josipovici’s formal openness, his readiness to foreground the narrative device, to make it visible, is a welcome species of intellectual honesty. This supremely intelligent writer is always engaging and intriguing. It is a sign of the times that his fiction here is published by Carcanet, primarily a poetry publisher. It was also Carcanet who published Elaine Feinstein’s brilliant novel, The Russian Jerusalem. It speaks well of Carcanet, but it also tells us something about our cultural condition, and the value presently placed upon some of our most serious writerly endeavours.



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