Everything Passes, a novel, by Gabriel Josipovici
When I finished Gabriel Josipovici’s book What Ever Happened to Modernism? I wasn’t quite sure what to read next. I looked at the shelves and pulled off a Beckett, Josipovici’s Everything Passes, a Huysmans and JL Carr’s A Month in the Country.
I took a look at the opening page of Josipovici’s novel to see how his critical theory manifested in practice. I’d already pretty much decided to read something else first. Here’s the opening two paragraphs. the entirety of the first page:
He stands at the window.
And a voice says: Everything passes. The
good and the bad. The joy and the sorrow.
He stands at the window.
I’d read What Ever so I had some idea what was going on, what questions to ask. What room? Who is he? What voice is this? His? An internal one? Is someone else present? Is it the author’s voice? God’s? There is no evident answer. Still, it was easy to read. I read on.
Before I knew it I was around 2o pages in. The whole book is only 60. I figured I should stop as it was very late, but I was 30 pages in before I did and only then because I was too tired to continue. It’s hard to capture it from such small quotes as those above, but Josipovici can write. I found myself turning the pages as if it were a thriller.
As the book continues it becomes apparent that it is not written in chronological order. The paragraphs may be the man’s memories and thoughts as he gazes out that unidentified window (is it always the same window?). They may not be. Still, as the words slide past a sort of story began to emerge. I began to get a picture of the man’s life, forming from the fragments before me.
When I reviewed Berger’s A Painter of Our Time I spoke of it as being a cubist novel. That’s what’s happening here too (though the style is very different). Through fragments of perspective one sees the whole life, but no part of that life is given priority over any other.
Here’s another quote which should illustrate what I mean:
His face at the window.
The crack in the pane.
His face at the window.
The shuttlecock flies into the bushes.
– I can’t! she says. I can’t play any more!
– You want to stop?
– I want to lie down, she says. I’m sweating all
over. I want to lie down with you in the grass.
Who is she? Where is this garden? At the time I read that I didn’t know. By the end of the book I had a pretty good idea. On its own it makes little sense, in the context of the whole work though it comes together and why this incident matters becomes apparent.
In What Ever Happened to Modernism? Josipovici made a number of arguments about what modernism is and what it’s a response to. I discussed that there, so won’t here, but the arguments are present here too. They’re present though in vastly condensed form, and are perhaps better for that.
– Rabelais, he says, is the first author in history to find the idea of authority ridiculous.
She looks at him over her coffee cup. –
Ridiculous? She says.
– Of course, he says. For one thing he no
longer felt he belonged to any tradition that
could support or guide him. He could admire
Virgil and Homer, but what had they to do with
him? Homer was the bard of the community. He
sang about the past and made it present to those
who listened. Virgil, to the satisfaction of the
Emperor Augustus, made himself the bard of the
new Roman Empire. He wove its myths about
the past together in heart-stopping verse and so
gave legitimacy to the colonisation and
subjugation of a large part of the peninsula. But
Rabelais? If enough people bought his books he
could make a living out of writing. But he was
the spokesman of no one but himself. And that
meant that his role was inherently absurd. No
one had called him. Not God. Not the Muses.
Not the monarch. Not the local community. He
was alone in his room, scribbling away, and then
these scribbles were transformed into print and
read by thousands of people whom he’d never
set eyes on and who had never set eyes on him,
people in all walks of life, reading him in the
solitude of their rooms.
– Do you want another coffee? she asks.
– Yes please.
That’s an extraordinarily didactic passage. So much so that on first reading it I was rather troubled by what then seemed to me a blatant (and rather clumsy) authorial intrusion into the text. I normally avoid ascribing character views to authors, but here I’ve read the author’s theories on the same point and I know this is his view. He really is inserting himself into the text.
It’s not that simple though, because it’s also the character’s view. Josipovici has used his character to present his thesis, but it soon becomes apparent that the character himself actually is didactic within the fiction, perhaps even a bully.
– The trouble with most works of literature, he
says, is that they face you head on. It’s never like
that in real life. Things just slip past us and
we’re hardly aware of them before they’ve gone.
You know what I mean?
– Your food, Felix, Sally says.
– Can I finish what I was saying?
She is silent.
– Damn, he says. I’ve lost the thread.
As the novel continues it becomes increasingly questionable what use this truth of the character’s is. Even if he’s right, so what? What good does it do him? He criticises the art, the writing, of others which he sees as pandering to the market but he struggles to write himself and there’s no evidence that he’s correct when he accuses another writer of not being true to his own voice. That writer replies that what he writes is his own voice. Who’s to say he’s wrong?
Worse yet, it’s not even clear that reality can live up to the rigor of the character’s views on the relationship between art and the world. At one point someone tells him that they are in love:
-In love? he says. Do you think you’re in a
film or something?
Josipovici set out his thesis, but his own text undermines it. His character proposes, but his life seems to negate that proposal. This is plainly not accidental.
Josipovici subtitles his book “a novel”. It’s sixty pages long, and as you can see from the quotes those aren’t pages packed with text. What then does he mean by making that assertion? For me it said that this is a novel because it contains a life. It contains all that needs to be said, and leaves nothing unsaid that needed to be said. I’ve used the novella category in making this post because at 60 pages it fits neatly into that category on my blog, but that doesn’t detract from the point the subtitle makes.
In writing this I’ve had to avoid discussing what’s actually happening. A huge part of the pleasure of this book is putting it together. Who is she? Are all the she’s the same she? What are the events of this man’s life? What leads him to the window, if that’s a destination at all?
When I finished Everything Changes I took a breath, turned back to the first page and started again. I never really do that. I found it though an absolute blast of fresh air and I found myself wanting to see what I’d missed, to puzzle out more of what Josipovici was doing. On finishing a second time I seriously considered reading it a third. I’m sure I shall read it again at some point.
In the comments to my What Ever review Caroline asked if Josipovici does what he preaches. Having read Everything Passes I can firmly say yes, he does. In this book Josipovici addresses themes as diverse as love, a parent’s relationship with their children, life versus art, illness, death, and the value of truth. That’s big stuff for 60 pages. Enough for a novel.
I found online this review at ReadySteadyBook which I thought rather good. I would caution though that from my perspective it does contain slight spoilers and I think it would be better read after reading the book rather than before. It’s very good on the structure of the novel, which is critical and which even so I’ve not addressed. It’s difficult to discuss that structure without discussing content, which is why I made that choice. That same decision means there’s a lot of symbolism in the novel I can’t really discuss, but I can say it’s fun discovering it.