Gabriel Josipovici has always been very clear about what sort of writer he is, and isn’t. Born in Nice and raised in Egypt, he has often recalled his bafflement when, as a teenage reader besotted with Proust, he turned to the writers admired in Oxford in the late 1950s: Angus Wilson, Anthony Powell. The action, he decided, had to be taking place elsewhere – mostly in France, as it turned out, with the practitioners of oulipo and the nouveau roman.
Josipovici’s own ambition, in the almost 20 novels – highly Gallic in their brevity, intimacy and love of talk – which he has published over the last 50 years, has been to channel or embody something he designates “modernism”. Exhibiting the literary impulse at its most rapturous, curious and formally ambitious, this movement lasted not from, say, 1885 until 1939, but a good while longer – from Rabelais to Alain Robbe-Grillet and beyond.
Is English literary culture any more comfortable with these tendencies now than when Josipovici was a student? The reception of his funny and potent new novel, The Cemetery in Barnes, may provide some clue. It has received almost no coverage, and though it has made the shortlist for a major literary prize, the Goldsmiths, perhaps the existence of a prize for experimental fiction – and the fact that some books need it – indicates the various obstacles to progress that have surfaced over the course of this decade.
When Josipovici published the most recent and probably best-known statement of his position, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, in the summer of 2010, it seemed as if a shift was occurring. David Shields’s recent attack on the conventional novel, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, was popular and much-debated, “catching the mood”, as Josipovici has written, “of a disaffected intelligentsia”. Tom McCarthy’s C, a work of meta-modernism, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Then the same honour was extended, in 2012, to other works in this vein, Will Self’s Umbrella and Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home.
But contrary impulses were also registered the intervening summer, when the Man Booker judges talked up the virtues of books that “zip along”. It wasn’t simply that the message was unmodernist in spirit. By emphasising the claims of the romp and the crime novel, the debate obscured the doubts that had been raised over the merits of the outwardly serious, lightly plotted, upper-middlebrow literary novel. While the judges seemed to be stepping back from the populist brink in their choice of winner, the highly respectable Julian Barnes, they were also anointing a novelist who, far more than any thriller writer, had served as the villain of What Ever Happened to Modernism?
It’s probably not a coincidence that Barnes and Josipovici have much in common personally (an Oxford education, strong ties to France, an art-critic sideline) and in their fiction (the orgies of chatter, the portraits of the illustrious dead, the mild plot twists and low page counts). Both of their most recent novels provide the record of a life whose central emotional event was a long-ago first marriage, in South London, to a woman who died. Both have three time-frames – four if you include the future point of narration. And both are light on detail and description – while Barnes’s narrator in The Only Story never tells us what he studied at Sussex in the 1960s (“I can’t be bothered”), he may well have been taught by Josipovici.
The similarities end at what you might call temperament. In the new novel, as elsewhere, Josipovici favours a sort of insidious obliqueness when it comes to treating his chosen theme – in this case, the thin line that divides the malleable from the capricious (or schizoid) in human behaviour. He also provides passing reflections on what he considers Barnes’s vice, a knowingness that masks “a fear of opening oneself up to the world” – here recast as the charge levelled by the central character’s “second wife”, that he used to protect himself against reality.
The novel’s present-day sections return obsessively to the house in the Black Mountains (“high up above Abergavenny” becomes an uncanny refrain) where the couple engage in “banter” about the daily rituals, bordering on the obsessive, that the man observed as a widower in Paris, which included making a pot of Ceylon Orange Pekoe long-leaf tea and translating an endless succession of novels that reduced life’s “infinite variety” to “six characters and five plots”.
Alongside such swipes at the mainstream, the novel teems with positive models and precedents for what it is trying to do: Joachim du Bellay’s poetry, for example, with its mixture of “strict formality” and “apparent artlessness”; Pierre Bonnard’s habit, when painting his wife in the bath, of catching the light in the room and thereby forcing the viewer to “recognise that we are all temporal creatures”. In Josipovici’s handling, the method praised in du Bellay yields Bonnard’s allusive abstraction. The Cemetery in Barnes, though outwardly modest, expands in the mind and then lingers there – a tribute to its author’s rejection of the need to explain, his willingness to hint at all the ways in which life is a “labyrinth” without trying to say the last word about any of them.