- 2 For decades Josipovici was, for instance, absent from The Oxford Companion to English L (...)
- 3 His last but one novel to date (October 2012), Only Joking, was, for instance, first pu (...)
- 4 Already in the 1980s Josipovici was dubbed “the cutting edge of the avant-garde” and as (...)
1Gabriel Josipovici (*1940) is a remarkably prolific author. As Monika Fludernik’s authoritative online bibliography shows, he has continuously enlarged his oeuvre since his first published novel The Inventory (1968) and has covered various media and genres: novels, short stories, plays for the stage, radio and TV, as well as films and, last but not least, important non-fictional criticism. In the face of this output it is equally remarkable that Josipovici has remained relatively unknown with only a few critical studies dedicated to him, among which Fludernik’s monograph Echoes and Mirrorings: Gabriel Josipovici (2000) is the most profound and comprehensive study to date2. The fact that Josipovici has remained far less popular among critics and readers alike (as well as among English publishers3) than other contemporary authors writing in English such as Julian Barnes, John Maxwell Coetzee or Ian McEwan is, however, not too difficult to understand. Many of Josipovici’s (fictional) texts offer considerable resistance to their readers through their “experimental” non-conformism4 and their refusal – reminiscent of aspects of modernism and postmodernism – to tell straightforward, eventful stories.
2For anyone who wants to become acquainted with Josipovici’s particular style of fiction-writing without having to invest the energy necessary to read his novels, his short stories arguably provide the most accessible road: the form of short fiction combines the amenities of being easily manageable as far as reading time and energy are concerned with the gratification of perusing complete works of verbal art. Additionally, his short fiction not only offers viable access to his oeuvre at large but also forms an important and rewarding part of it in its own right. All of this is reason enough to justify the focus of the present contribution on Josipovici’s short stories. In the following, an overview of the characteristic features of Josipovici’s (short) fiction will be given, followed by a discussion of some exemplary stories. In this, the emphasis will be on the content and form of Josipovici’s stories as illustrations of a sceptical worldview in which epistemological as well as general negativity – that is, the insistence on suffering as well as on our lack of knowledge and on the fact that ultimate truth is inaccessible to us – are combined with a transcendental gesture pointing to, but also beyond, the limits of our knowledge and understanding.
3Josipovici once said in an interview: “I love the form of the short story”. (Signorelli online)
4This love is demonstrated by the fact that so far he has published no fewer than five short story collections. The most recent one is Heart’s Wings and Other Stories (2010), which was preceded by Mobius the Stripper: Stories and Short Plays (1974), Four Stories (1977), In the Fertile Land (1987) and Steps: Selected Fiction and Drama (1990). This predilection for the short story form is particularly understandable in the case of Josipovici, since it reflects one of his principal aesthetic tendencies: a reductionism which in many cases may even be called minimalism and which often produces gaps of meaning or Leerstellen sensu Iser (1970/1975) and an effect of fragmentation.
- 5 For “metareference” as an umbrella term for various meta-forms, see Wolf, 2009.
5This reductionism, which to a certain extent accounts for Josipovici’s eccentric position as a non-mainstream writer, is most conspicuous on the content or story level of his fiction. As in texts by Samuel Beckett, with whom his fiction shares quite a number of features, his settings tend to be almost bare rooms with windows framing lonely, often anonymous figures gazing out. Frequently, these figures are authors or artists – bespeaking a conspicuous metareferential5 tendency to which we will return later. The action of Josipovici’s stories is also characteristically reductionist as far as events are concerned. His plots tend to lack teleological closure (a narrative ending being one of the most powerful means of creating and arresting meaning) and often appear to be aimless, repetitive and static rather than dynamic unfoldings of happenings and events. In many cases the action is reduced to monologues and dialogues – and thus to linguistic action. All of this is already enough to frustrate conventional reader expectations.
- 6 For metalepsis see Genette, Wolf 2005b, and 2009, ch. 5. 2.
6Such expectations are further frustrated by the fact that these building blocks of Josipovici’s story-worlds, in addition to being minimalist, are often unreliable and turn out to be curiously instable or even contradictory. This refers to spatial relationships as well as to the linearity of time, the identity or at least clear identifiability of characters and, as a particularly characteristic feature of these story-worlds, also to the distinction between dreams or thoughts and waking life, between fiction and reality, distinctions which often become blurred, in particular by means of metalepses6.
7Josipovici’s reductionist tendencies are also displayed on the discourse level. Here, the various kinds of texts normally to be found in fiction (recountings of action, descriptions of settings and characters, authorial explanations and psychological comments on characters’ minds, etc.) tend to be radically reduced except for dialogue. As a result, Josipovici’s narrative texts frequently resemble drama more than traditional fiction.
- 7 Josipovici’s novel Goldberg: Variations (2002), for instance, combines references to painti (...)
8Further typical features on the discourse level, as well as of Josipovici’s story-worlds in general, include a marked tendency towards contradictions and even paradoxes. Moreover, his texts show a predilection for allegory as well as for metareference (both implicit as well as explicit metafiction and metalingual reflections, the latter, explicit, variant being frequently transmitted through utterances of author or artist characters) and tend to create intratextual “echoes and mirrorings” – as the title of Fludernik’s monograph on Josipovici (2000) aptly suggests. To this is added an almost musical tendency towards a ‘polyphonic’ montage technique and variation. This latter device is reminiscent of the serial principle as a hallmark of the French nouveau roman. This principle, which is, for instance, at work in “Brothers” (1987) as well as in “The Reconstruction” (see below), consists in showing that fiction is not derived from an imaginary preceding reality whose transcript the text supposedly is, but that narrative text is simply generated from language and linguistic building blocks called générateurs: thematic and motivic elements which are then combined and recombined or varied throughout a text. Besides this structural affinity with musical composition, intermedial references to other arts, such as painting in particular, are generally recurrent elements of Josipovici’s fiction7.
9As far as typical Josipovician themes are concerned, the first and foremost is an epistemological and metareferential (metafictional as well as metalingual) questioning of the writer’s medium (but also writerly creativity) from a sceptical point of view. Other recurrent themes are a concern with both mental and physical suffering, the nature of death, questions of identity, loneliness, and the failure of interhuman communication as well as in reconstructing the past and in giving meaning to existence. All of this bespeaks a clearly anti-realist, non-mimetic and anti-illusionist aesthetic, which in turn is correlated with a sceptical implied worldview and aesthetic. Meaning, knowledge and truth (not to mention human happiness) always appear as relative, unstable and limited, in Wittgensteinian fashion, by language and its failure to convey clear meaning.
10Yet, if all of this ‘experimentalism’ and epistemological as well as philosophical and aesthetic negativity seem to align Josipovici at first sight with radical postmodernism or even deconstructionism, at second sight the limits of such an alignment come into focus. For Josipovici does not restrict his fiction to a mere illustration of negativity but strives to imitate what he, in The World and the Book (1971),
- 8 This predilection for modernism (Kafka, Proust and Beckett, whom Josipovici also counts (...)
11“welcomes as typical of modernism, to which he is particularly committed8, namely
[…] revealing what cannot be spoken: the existence of the world beyond these limits. […] The modern novelist […] constructs a book which is the negative of reality and which always asks of us that we move from it to its silent referent.” (306 f.)
12What Josipovici admires is thus a literature which acknowledges the limits of all knowledge and indeed the inaccessibility of metaphysical truth, but at the same time also points beyond such negativity: this paradoxical verbal art, which dedicates itself to “revealing”, or gesturing towards “what cannot be spoken” and actually escapes language is an art characterized by what one may term ‘transcendental negativity’.
13The “silent referent[s]” of this literature and the motivating forces for human fictionalizing are for Josipovici “things of which our knowledge is most uncertain”, (1989-1990, 87) areas of uncertainty beyond rational discursivation which largely correspond to what Wolfgang Iser, in his literary anthropology, termed “the inscrutable” (1990, 953) – one of the principal reasons for humankind to develop fiction and to constantly devise new stories. For Josipovici the inscrutable focuses precisely on the aforementioned thematic issues, which again and again inform his narrative oeuvre. In particular, he calls into question our own identity and the identity of the other, the liminal experience of death, and the nature of an ultimate essence and meaning of existence (and, in addition, the enigma of human creativity). By constantly dealing with such philosophical questions and transcendental issues as well as with the epistemological impossibility of finding clear answers to them, his fiction acquires a depth which distinguishes it from merely formal postmodernist experimentation. In addition, as the transcendental referents which his fiction gestures at must remain “silent”, outside “what can […] be spoken”, his fiction is informed by a tendency towards silence reminiscent of Beckett, since silence is an apt correlative of Josipovici’s project of “revealing what cannot be spoken”.
- 9 A more recent issue of Contemporary Literary Criticism shows that the mixed feelings about (...)
- 10 If space had permitted, this story could also have been presented as a seminal text introdu (...)
14Such paradoxicality, namely writing in order to illustrate silence, and at the same time gesturing towards an inscrutable beyond, renders Josipovici’s literary texts, including his short fiction, highly eccentric and difficult to read. This alleged lack of reader-friendliness has also earned him some criticism (as can be seen in the critical review of research by Marowski/Matuz [220, 226, 228])9 and at any rate has prevented him from becoming a truly popular author. The tendency to hide the actual (thematic or worldview-related) content beneath a misleading or banal surface means that it often requires a second reading for the recipient to make sense of texts such as the metalingual allegory “Death of the Word” (1976)10 or the story with the revealing if puzzling title “That Which Is Hidden Is That Which Is Shown: That Which Is Shown Is That Which Is Hidden” (1987), and thus contributes to what is sometimes perceived as obscurity or (unnecessary) difficulty. The following interpretations of some of Josipovici’s short stories will reveal that he is indeed not an ‘easy’ author, but that on the other hand reading his texts is highly rewarding. As Josipovici has by now published several dozen short stories, only some exemplary texts can be analyzed in this paper. The following stories have been selected first and foremost because they offer a good introduction to Josipovici’s poetics and worldview, but also since some of them are interesting in their use of characteristic, more or less experimental devices.
- 11 In the following, quotations from “He” will be taken from this reprint.
15Our first example, the story “He”, originally appeared in Four Stories (1977) and was later reprinted both in In the Fertile Land (1987)11 and in Josipovici’s most recent collection Heart’s Wings and Other Stories (2010). On the one hand, “He” belongs to a group of stories that can hardly be called experimental and therefore may seem to be less typical of Josipovici’s short fiction. On the other hand, the fact that the author has reprinted it twice and thus has obviously wanted to keep it in the public consciousness for over two decades testifies to its importance within his oeuvre. In fact it is a central text when it comes to illuminating the author’s poetics and thematic concerns. (cf. Jarfe, )
16In “He”, Josipovici tells the story of an anonymous young writer, who one day receives a telephone call from the mother of his best friend Alan and thus learns to his surprise that his friend is dead. The main part of the text recounts the protagonist’s various attempts to come to terms with the scandal of this death and the “unanswered questions” (64) it elicits as well as with what turns out to be the otherness of his friend, which manifests itself in this death. At first, the circumstances of his friend’s passing away are obscure, but after a short time it becomes clear that it was a suicide – this fact and the unhelpful suicide note, however, enhance the mysteriousness of what happened rather than dispelling it. For Alan seems to have been in a positive phase of his existence, in which he appeared to have found “a meaning […] for [his] life” (67). What is more, he, like the protagonist, was a declared opponent of suicide. In consternation the protagonist thus has to acknowledge that what had hitherto appeared to him as a firm fact, namely “that there had been [a] real understanding between them”, was in reality a mere “illusion”. (67)
17The protagonist’s emotional reactions to the mystery of this suicide do not prove to be helpful either, nor do they contribute to a better understanding of the other. Anger prevails for a moment but is then rejected as “another manifestation of guilt”. (67) Yet guilt is in turn rejected by the protagonist, for like the sorrow he also feels it appears to him that such feelings are “ultimately selfish” (69) and thus fail to illuminate the other: guilt, since it reminds the protagonist of “masochism”, (68) and sorrow, since it appears to him to be a “destructive” form of “self-pity” “lead[ing] nowhere”. (69)
18Another of the protagonist’s reactions is to take refuge in a general suppression of disagreeable reflections and emotions. In an early flight in this direction the protagonist clings to “the little immediate practical things” (63) during the telephone call with his friend’s mother; a second occurrence of the same strategy, the denial of death, is an unconscious reaction in a dream, in which what happened is sublimated into an accident which the friend survives as a result of the protagonist’s interference; and a third manifestation is the protagonist’s conscious attempt to resist any wish to find explanations and meaning at all. However, like the other evasions, this last one is also doomed to failure, thus making the protagonist aware of something which is generally characteristic of Josipovici’s fiction: namely that a simple suppression of the desire for understanding and meaning is both impossible and inacceptable.
- 12 Cf. Josipovici 1972, 114: “[…] we are not free of God as a kind of transcendental (...)
19For a moment, religion seems to offer a viable solution: prayer at the funeral and the priest’s sermon at the funeral service, which is based on a sermon by John Donne and his characterization of death as “the gate of heaven”, (70) elicit a deep response in the protagonist. Curiously enough, despite the presence of an otherwise explicitly irreligious protagonist devised by an author writing in the context of predominantly sceptical if not atheist postmodernism, indeed an author who elsewhere appears to reduce God in the wake of Nietzsche to an effect of language12, religion here does not appear right from the start as an illusionary system of meaning. Rather, in this story, it is treated in an ambivalent way – like the power of words, on which religion rests to a considerable extent: on the one hand religion is stirring and apparently helpful, but on the other hand religious discourse also appears to be opaque and its words are like “alien presences, demanding to be understood and stubbornly resisting understanding”. (70) The attempt to come to terms with the problem of death by means of religion thus ultimately turns out to be another failure.
- 13 Concerning an ultimate essence and meaning of life, cf. for example: “There is (...)
20After so many failures and “endless” talk, (65) a Wittgensteinian silence, which Josipovici had quoted as early as in The World and the Book (306): (“What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence”) seems to impose itself. As mentioned above, silence is indeed a key term which Josipovici’s (like Beckett’s) literary oeuvre recurrently thematizes and to which it constantly tends – yet ultimately Josipovici as a writer can hardly subscribe wholeheartedly to it, just as Beckett cannot either. Questions such as the ones elicited by death do not disappear because they are unanswerable or met by silence; on the contrary, their resistance to answers perpetuates and intensifies them. In this, they point towards the aforementioned “silent referent[s]” which Josipovici has recurrently adumbrated as the covert objects of both literature by other authors (in particular modernists) and his own13.
- 14 Josipovici’s oeuvre is thus yet another symptom of what I have termed elsewhere the Metar (...)
21Ultimately, Josipovici’s fictitious author-protagonist (similar to the real author Josipovici himself) does not fall silent. At length he decides to retreat into a hotel in the mountains in order to find a solution to his problems there – by composing an elegy for his friend. This decision and the reflections it brings with it introduce a conspicuous metareferential dimension into the story, a self-reflexivity which is characteristic of both Josipovici’s writing and postmodernist fiction at large14. By viewing art and literature as the realm of an allegedly objective, “clearer order” which contrasts with the “anguish and confusion” of subjective responses in life, the aesthetic domain, in the protagonist’s reflections, becomes fraught with an immense claim. Indeed, the protagonist expects no less of (verbal) art than that it will fulfil his hopes “to get at the reality of what had happened […] [and] to escape […] into a truer understanding”. (71)
22A claim of this nature is, of course, also doomed to failure, for the ‘flight into literature’ produces new problems. There is, to begin with, the inevitability of subjectivity (“his own selfhood” ) even in this field, which reduces the sought-after objective Truth to partial aspects tinged by, and selected in accordance with, his personality; and there are also difficulties presented by the literary medium and the necessary creativity to make it work: “He could not put a sentence down without questions of style, of selection, of appropriateness, thrusting themselves upon him”. (71) Whatever solution he may hit upon, literature, too, thus turns out for him to be a “betrayal”, (71) a “distort[ion] [of] reality”, (74) which reduces the outrageousness and singularity of a “specific […] unique event” to “still one story among thousands” (70) and thus fails to render “the reality of death” as something “final, irrevocable”. (70 f.)
23Even when the protagonist finally solves the crucial question of which narrative situation to choose (first-, second- or third-person narration) by opting for an impersonal third-person narration, literature visibly remains a problematic medium of knowledge and truth. For there is always the danger of “too much noise” – the naive rendering of a “thousand partial meanings” (73) – and “too much silence” – the suppression of meaning altogether. In this dilemma, the protagonist tries to find a middle position, firstly by indulging in what he originally felt reticent about, namely yielding to his desire to express “explanations or emotions” (73) in order to then be able to make the following second step:
Once the meanings and the feelings had been recognized […], then it would be possible to eradicate them […] it was precisely here that art came in. The process of extinction would in fact be one with the process of revelation. The work of art would bring to light what had previously lain in darkness and in so doing would reveal it for what it was: partial, confused, blind, egotistical. […] Once written out, neither explanations nor meanings would any longer remain behind to haunt. (73 f.)
24This double gesture of verbal art as a kind of exorcism, as a reconstruction and then destruction or eradication of meaning as “blind, egotistical”, a gesture destined to stop “explanations” and “meanings” from ‘haunting’ us for good (and more efficiently than mere suppression), seems to set Josipovici’s fiction in the context of deconstructionism. In fact, the underlying negativity of this “process of [the] extinction” of meaning and the corresponding epistemological negativity, which defines the only “form of understanding” as the disillusionment of “understand[ing] our distance from understanding”, (74) all seems to point in this direction.
25It would, however, be rash to establish too close a relationship between Josipovici’s fiction and deconstructionism, for the negativity appearing in passages such as the one just quoted (in which the protagonist seems remarkably near the implied author’s position, perhaps too near) is, as it were, translucent and allows glimpses of a distant realm beyond our present position as humans. It is indeed one of Josipovici’s most powerful tenets, informing both the worldview and aesthetics underlying his oeuvre, that it is the task of art and literature to point to this transcendental realm in the very act of denying its accessibility. In the protagonist’s words, this adumbrated transcendence is “that towards which art can point but which it can never speak”. (75) This combination of negative denial with a gesturing towards a transcendental realm is what one may term Josipovici’s ‘transcendental negativity’.
26In this context it is interesting to note the way in which the protagonist circumscribes the mystery of human nature. He does so by implicitly rejecting the deconstructionist tenet of linguistic determinism, using a biblical passage from the funeral service for his friend – “We brought nothing into the world, neither may we take anything out of this world” (69):
[…] what are we? We came into this world with nothing and we will leave it with nothing. Are we synonymous with our possessions? Clearly not. With our thoughts? No. With our language? No. […] Of ourselves we are nothing, no ‘I’ or ‘he’ or even ‘you’; only a potential that can be stirred into life by such impersonal activities as games or art, praise or lament. (74)
27Man here appears not as an essence but a potential – next to the sceptical epistemology implicated in Josipovici’s transcendental negativity mentioned above, this newly found awareness of the protagonist is one of the most important philosophical tenets informing Josipovici’s oeuvre. It is all the more important as this potential does not remain abstract rational knowledge; rather, the individual comes paradoxically into his or her own through “impersonal activities” such as “games or art”, language games and the literary expression of emotions: in short, rather than stable essences it is the process of performativity which allows the contours of individuality to emerge.
28It is this literary expression of the individual as well as of the other which is in fact the result of the protagonist’s attempts to come to terms with the questions haunting him: after his metareferential reflections, which for a time amounted to writer’s block, and after his philosophical and epistemological ruminations, which all seemed to be mere evasions of, or at best preludes to, the elegy he actually intended to write, a surprise is in store for the readers, when they come to the opening sentence of the concluding paragraph: “He stopped in the silence of the hotel room and looked up from his page and read over what he had written”. (75)
29This seems to indicate that the protagonist has finally managed to complete his elegy. The elegy itself is, however, not quoted; that is, unless we follow the lead of the story and consider the entire text which we have read so far as the (prose) elegy which the protagonist has produced. From the vantage point of this new perspective we may thus be induced to regard the heterodiegetic third-person narration as a covertly homodiegetic one, quite similar to the way in which Ian McEwan, in the “Postscript” to his novel Atonement (2001), reveals that the text which we have read so far, a third-person narration, is in fact a first-person autobiography in disguise. If we accept such a new reading, “He” takes on the structure of what Steven G. Kellman has termed a “self-begetting novel” (see Fig. 1), that is, the story is revealed to be the history of how it came to be written.
Figure 1: structure of a self-begetting story
30By permitting authors to make the reader participate in the problems, process and underlying convictions of literary production as formulated by a fictional author-figure, this structure, which Kellman exemplifies (among other texts) with Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927), has proved to be a convenient (and not only postmodernist) means of transmitting both metareferential issues and problems of identity. This coupling of metareferential ruminations on the artistic medium and general philosophical problems of relevance to all humans is crucial for Josipovici’s oeuvre, in which metafiction rarely just points to ‘merely’ literary problems of the author or text at hand. As the protagonist in “He” explains in a meta-metareferential critique, when he rejects second-person narration as an implicitly metafictional form for his elegy: “[…] this was far too self-conscious and literary a device […] [and] would draw the reader’s attention to the work and to its author instead of making him focus more lucidly on the event he wishes to illuminate”. (72)
31Yet even if we accept the self-begetting reading, a crucial question remains open: is the last paragraph of the story, beginning with “He stopped […]”, itself a part of the protagonist’s discourse or is it the discourse of a superior narrator? Both readings are rendered possible by the choice of third-person narration. Perhaps, rather than trying to come to a conclusive answer here, it is more important to see that the origo of the speaking voice will ultimately remain doubtful and inscrutable, thus constituting a remarkable formal (iconic) parallel to the uncertainties of philosophical knowledge discussed in the text itself. In fact, it is more than a parallel tinged with iconicity: it is the realization, in aesthetic practice, of what has previously been discussed from a theoretical point of view. The same may be said about the metareferential positions concerning literature as gesturing towards a transcendental meaning while at the same time refraining from speaking it, from giving it clear discursive shape: the text itself – like so many of Josipovici’s works – leaves unanswered questions, occasionally characterizing itself, as at the end of “He”, as “only another failure” (75) – yet it insists on the inscrutable; it denies access to it while pointing to it, and this paradoxical ambivalence, this transcendental negativity or negative transcendentalism, is what, in the terms of Josipovici’s programmatic short story “He”, may still count as “the nearest [one] would ever come to success […]”. (75)
32Illustrating philosophical as well as aesthetic positions rather than merely discussing them is indeed the author’s chosen approach concerning the problems of death, selfhood and writerly creativity. As for death, its effects are theoretically discursivized by the protagonist as “creat[ing] a vacuum into which meanings and emotions rush” (72) – and this is exactly what the story “He” does: it illustrates the attempts to make sense of death as well as the emotions elicited by it with reference to the protagonist and some of his friends and then puts them, to use a Derridean notion, “under erasure”. Importantly, however, the result is not deconstructionist utter negativity or absurdity but the paradoxicality typical of Josipovici’s transcendental negativity of juxtaposing “extinction” and “revelation”, of “mak[ing] manifest that which [art] cannot express”. (74)
33As for the problem of selfhood and the artistic creativity of an authorial self, “He” again proves to be an illustration of the protagonist’s theoretical reflections: it is an exploration of the self through art as an “impersonal activit[y]”. (74) This activity, albeit impersonal, is nevertheless apt to adumbrate something of deep concern to every individual, namely his or her identity. From its very title, “He” preserves the impersonality of an anonymous protagonist. And yet his personality is pointed at beyond the horizon of the impersonal discourse and the “clanging objectivity of the ‘he’” (71): ‘he’ is an agent who is able to actualize his creative potential in the performative act of writing an elegy and in doing so illustrates yet another paradox:
Through the gradual extinction of the mythical self […] we arrive not at a lifeless husk but at its radiant opposite, an animate potential which includes the dead as well as the living, where (for a moment) you are Alan as well as me […] and I understand that this is both true and not true […]. (74)
34The recurrence of paradoxes here, as elsewhere, is no coincidence. Rather, it is a symptom, frequently to be encountered in Josipovici’s texts, of his attempt to approach that “unsayable truth” (72) which is generally in focus in his stories without their ever explicitly formulating it. It is no coincidence either that at the precise moment of the aforementioned crucial reflections on understanding Donne’s sermon, which is used in Alan’s funeral service, it is quoted for the third time – at the passage where it unfolds conspicuous paradoxes – but it is quoted with an important change in reference: while in the original text, the reference is to heaven, Josipovici’s text focuses on its central epistemological problem, namely “understanding”: “[…] in this understanding, at long last, there is no darkness and no dazzling but one equal light, no noise and no silence but one equal music, no end and no beginning but one equal eternity”. (74 f.)
35Although the content of such understanding remains obscure, a crucial awareness is raised here both in the protagonist and the reader – one that is again formulated in a paradox:
36“[…] to understand our distance from understanding is itself a form of understanding”. (74)
37This is why “He” is also paradoxically both at the same time a “failure” and a “success” – for the protagonist, who thus comments on his writing, but perhaps also for the author Josipovici. The negativity and paradoxical obscurity which informs “He” as the recounting of a failing search for meaning thus obtains the dimension of an enlightenment. The result is a text which highlights – not least by means of a metareferential discussion and illustration of what literature can do in this respect – the narrow confines of all meaning when it comes to crucial, philosophical or religious questions but also manages to gesture towards the inscrutable as something beyond the horizon of human texts and human constructions of meaning.
38In “He”, the illustration of the inscrutable in the mode of transcendental negativity is still carried out by relatively conventional literary means. The structure of the self-begetting story is after all not wholly implausible, nor are the metareferential reflections: they are justified by the choice of an author-character as a protagonist and thus do not lay bare the fictionality of the text in an aggressive way. Even the frequent paradoxes which can be observed in “He” remain on the level of discursive reflections and do not invalidate the credibility of the story as such. All in all, “He” – perhaps in order to ensure maximum readability for this covertly programmatic text – remains more or less within the limits of traditional, even illusionist storytelling, for to a large extent it respects traditional narratemes such as causality and teleology (albeit in a treacherous way, since the circularity underlying the structure of the self-begetting story undermines teleological closure), and at least makes clear distinctions between diegetic reality and fiction (in this case, the protagonist’s dream of his friend’s survival).
- 15 In the following quotations are taken from the 1974 reprint.
- 16 Cf. Fludernik, 2000, 33; Freiburg, 334; Imhof, 247; Korte, 154 f.; McHale, 111, 122, 192 (...)
39As mentioned above, such traditionalism is, however, not typical of Josipovici’s fiction at large. In accordance with the author’s explicit dissatisfaction with the realistic “traditional novel” (1989-1990, 86) many of his stories use much more obtrusive metareference and other defamiliarizing elements, and thus seem more closely aligned with postmodernist experimentation. A particularly conspicuous example of such experimentation is the story “Mobius the Stripper”. It first appeared in 1972 in Penguin Modern Short Stories 12, and like “He” has repeatedly been reprinted since (1974 in Mobius the Stripper: Stories and Short Plays, 1990 in Steps, and 2010 in Heart’s Wings and Other Stories)15. It is one of the most interesting works of Josipovici’s fiction from a technical point of view and also the story which is most frequently discussed or at least mentioned in research16. In most cases the critical emphasis is on the fact that this story is a good example of Josipovici’s formal experimentation while the function of such experimentation usually receives short shrift, so that one may often get the impression that this story is really no more than, as one critic put it, a “charming though finally rather bloodless metafictional exercise”. (Evans )
40As a matter of fact, both the subtitle of the story, “A Topological Exercise”, (64) which points to a mathematical concept and labels the story an exercise, a sort of étude, as well as the story’s uncommon layout (showing two texts which are divided by a long stroke and are printed on the upper and lower halves of each page respectively) may encourage such merely formalist readings. Yet the story is much more than that: like “He”, it focuses on a search for truth and the nature of selfhood and, moreover, for the locus or topos of storytelling in the context of a postmodernist “Literature of Exhaustion”. (cf. Barth, 1967/1977)
41The hero of the upper, third-person story is the fat, eccentric and vaguely foreign-sounding Mobius. He loves eating bananas (seemingly phallic symbols, but, owing to the fact that they can only be eaten when stripped of their skin, symbols also in another respect) and earns his living by stripping in a night club. However, his activity as a stripper goes beyond the merely sexual, as he himself emphasizes and as is also adumbrated by the second connotation of bananas just mentioned. Rather than being sexually motivated, his stripping has a metaphysical and even religious aim: in Mobius’s words, it is destined “[t]o take off what society has put on me. […] And I say to me: What are you Mobius? […] I want to get right down […] to the centre of me”. (65) Stripping as a means of penetrating from the outer and accidental layers of being to the innermost truth (“to get behind chance to the TRUTH” ), in particular to the centre of selfhood – this symbolic act performed on the story level of the upper story of “Mobius” parallels the protagonist’s reflections on “the gradual extinction of the mythical self” in “He” as a path to discover the inscrutable essence of one’s individual being.
42Stripping as symbolic self-reduction and a paradoxical path to selfhood is, however, only one approach when it comes to dealing with the inscrutable. The second path illustrated in the upper story of “Mobius” is the endless production of discourse – and in this a further parallel to “He” appears, namely a metareferential, even allegorical dimension which both stories share. For in their proliferation of discourse both Mobius and the protagonist of “He” are actually reminiscent of the activity of their author Josipovici himself and indeed of most if not all literary authors, namely to produce texts in order to explore the inscrutable. Similar to a Beckettian character, Mobius is obsessed by an insatiable but ultimately unsatisfied “need […] to explain”, (64) a thirst for discursive construction of ever elusive meaning. This thirst paradoxically prompts him to strip, that is, to commit acts of self-reduction which are both a laying bare and a negation of one’s normal appearance. While stripping, Mobius, otherwise a taciturn character, is driven to incessant talk in spite of having barely mastered English, which seems to be a somehow opaque medium of expression to him: “Like that I talk I feel my essential self-emerging. Filling the room”. (81)
43A search for meaning and essence by means of the paradoxical conjunction of reductionism and discourses produced in a partially opaque medium – this sounds like a general formula of literature as created by Josipovici himself and renders Mobius a strange sort of metaliterary allegorical character.
44Stripping and talking are, however, only provisional activities, means to an end, and thus intended to become superfluous when (or if) they eventually reach their aim. Thus, it is revealing that in spite of all his talkativeness and also his gratification with the voices of his admirers, which he imagines hearing again and again, his ideal remains silence. As the narrator says: “Give him the choice and he preferred the beautiful silence”. (72)
45This again reminds one of Beckett, but if silence, with Beckett, often means the liberation from the obsession to proliferate ever new and equally absurd discourses, in Josipovici’s text it connotes the mute contemplation of Truth and thus is tinged by an unspeakable glimpse of the ‘real thing’.
46In both Beckett and Josipovici, however, there is another link in which silence is implicated, namely death. In “Mobius”, as in “He”, death occurs in the form of suicide. For in Mobius’s case his predilection for silence and his search for a discovery of selfhood through self-reduction both converge in the project of suicidal liberation from the thick “layers [of] flesh” (80) which appear to veil his essential self underneath. It is a project which he starts at the end of the upper story. Yet at this point strange “voices” (71 and passim) interfere, which have accompanied him for quite some time and have so far appeared to him as proud proof of his popularity. An earlier specimen of these voices reads as follows:
When I walk I hear them. When I sleep I hear them. When I sit in my room I hear them. Mobius the stripper. The best in the business. I’ve seen many strippers in my time but there’s none to beat Mobius. I first met Mobius. I first saw Mobius. I first heard of Mobius. (71)
47In narratological terms, these voices, which mirror aspects of Mobius’s life, can be characterized as hypodiegetic mises en abyme of storytelling – but at the end of the upper story, for the first time, they are not quoted in a mise-en-abyme way but merely referred to, before the upper story abruptly ends:
His finger tightened on the trigger and the voices were there again. Cocking his head on one side and smiling, Mobius listened to what they had to say. He had time on his hands and to spare. Resting the barrel against his brow and smiling to himself in the mirror as the bulb swung in the breeze over his head, Mobius waited for them to finish. (85)
48Some critics have jumped to the conclusion that the suicidal scenario unfolded here is meant to suggest that Mobius really “kills himself” (Korte, 155) and thus actually becomes silent. Yet this is arguably a misunderstanding, for much points to the fact that the apparently long text which the voices whisper to Mobius is simply what we are offered as the lower story and that therefore silence is not reached. The lower story thus appears to be subordinated to the upper one as a hypodiegetic text. For the lower story conspicuously opens with the same words or at least content which, in the upper story, were attributed to the voices heard by Mobius: “I FIRST HEARD of Mobius the stripper from a girl […]” (64, cf. 71, in the upper text: “I first heard of Mobius. A friend of mine”).
- 17 On writer’s block as device enabling metareferential reflections see Mahler.
49The correspondences between upper and lower story do not stop with these textual echoes. The lower, first-person story focuses on an author-figure, who like Mobius is engaged in a search for his selfhood (and, by the way, permits Josipovici, as in the case of “He” and similar to many postmodernist authors, to integrate plausible, character-related metareferential reflections in a story). And as in “He”, this author-figure suffers from writer’s block – again a frequent postmodernist device, which may also be encountered, for example, in Barth’s “Life Story” from Lost in the Funhouse (1968), McEwan’s “Reflections of a Kept Ape” from In Between the Sheets (1978) or Antonia S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale (2001)17. This motif has a certain appeal, for it is the correlative of a precarious situation in which many postmodernist authors have found themselves: it is characterized by the awareness of an overwhelming literary-historical past in which everything seems already to have been said and written, so that one’s own writing can no longer be original and is flawed by the feeling of “exhaustion” theoretically discussed in Barth’s aforementioned essay (1967/1977).
50According to his friend Jenny – a girl with curiously large feet and an allegedly profound knowledge of the world – the writer’s block of the lower-story protagonist is caused by his unworldliness. Yet in reality it is elicited by his awareness of what the great authors of the past have accomplished. This awareness forms yet another link between the upper and lower stories, for Mobius, too, is aware of the great authors of the past: according to him they were all strippers like himself: “‘You reed Prust,’ he would say, ‘Nitch. Jennet. Those boys’” [Proust, Nietzsche and Genet], “‘See what they say. All the same. They know the truth. Is all a matter of stripping’”. (80) For the lower-story protagonist the great authors of the past are, however, less a helpful means of orientation, as they are for Mobius, than a trigger of uncomfortable feelings of inferiority, an ‘anxiety of influence’ and a threat to the writer’s selfhood and creative originality. What is more, they elicit in him the impression of intertextual dependence and consequently prompt him to distance himself from them:
I felt the little self I once possessed to be dangerously threatened by the size and the assurance of all the great men who had come before me. There they were, solid, smiling, melancholy or grim as the case might be, Virgil and Dante and Descartes and Wordsworth and Joyce, lodged inside me, each telling me the truth – and who could doubt it was the truth, their very lives bore witness to the fact – but was it my truth, that was the question. (68)
51Fortunately for the protagonist, the writer’s block which is triggered by these feelings of threat and insecurity is not permanent. For while on a walk in a park he experiences a decisive, life-changing moment: observing a peacock (a symbol of beauty and thus of the aesthetic as well as, in Christian iconography, of the resurrection of the flesh), he experiences something which recalls a modernist epiphany and leads to his own resurrection as a creative writer: this epiphany is triggered by an association of the bird’s big feet with Jenny’s feet, which elicits the following suspicion in him:
I […] wondered if Jenny knew quite as many people as she said she did. Wondered if perhaps there was only me she knew in the whole of London. Otherwise how to explain her persistence? Unless those feet of hers kept perpetually carrying her back over the ground they had once trodden. Myth. Ritual. An idea. More than an idea. A metaphor for life. ‘It is!’ I shouted, suddenly understanding. ‘It is! It is! A metaphor for life!’ (81)
52For the protagonist his girlfriend thus approaches the condition of a Muse (with her conspicuous feet arguably acquiring the connotation of metrical feet) – thus bespeaking Josipovici’s tendency towards allegory rather than the realistic mimesis of everyday reality. However, the content of what his Muse contributes to making him aware of is not only a revelation about the repetitiveness of life but also a hint at how to produce literature even in an age of postmodernist exhaustion: namely by going “back over the ground [one had] once trodden”, by dealing afresh with the literature of the past as a road to creativity rather than to a crippling writer’s block. Yet there remains the puzzling question of how covering ground which literature has already “trodden” can lead to new creativity and originality (after all, awareness of the past is also the principal reason for the protagonist’s writer’s block!). This question does not receive an explicit answer within the story. All we get is an implicit answer, which emerges when leaving the individual diegetic representations and considering “Mobius the Stripper” as a whole: the text, which seems traditional and unoriginal enough if one reads the two stories separately, reveals an innovative structure when read as a unified whole.
53However, the reader becomes aware of this innovative unity only when focussing on the strange relationship between the two stories. While a first reading of the upper story suggests that its ending refers back to the beginning of the lower text, the perusal of the ending of the lower story paradoxically elicits a reciprocal impression. Admittedly, what resolves the writer’s block, namely the text he is finally able to produce, is as little quoted as the voices which interrupt Mobius’s attempted suicide. The end of the lower story simply reads: “[…] I sat down and began to write”. (85) Like “He” the lower text thus seems to follow the structure of a self-begetting story. However, there is a decisive twist: the product of the newly-found creativity of the author figure is not his own story (the lower text) but appears to be the upper story.
54There are indeed quite a few indications which point in this direction. Among these there is Jenny’s piece of advice that our author should go and see Mobius in his night club in order to acquire some experience of life, as well as the fact that his abortive attempts at beginning a text (which are quoted in the same way in which Mobius’s voices are quoted) are all focused on Mobius. In addition, there are curious textual echoes which interlink both stories not only top-down but also bottom-up: elements of the hypodiegetic writerly attempts quoted on the lower level resurface on the diegetic level of the upper story (cf. lower story : “Mobius sat on his bed and ate one banana after another” and upper story : “[Mobius] sat on the bed and stared at the wall, eating bananas and dozing”). Moreover, fragments of the hypodiegetic writerly attempts also occur as content of the hypodiegetic voices of the upper story: thus the story’s title “Mobius the stripper” is quoted as part of the author-figure’s scribblings (66) and also as the content of what the voices say. (71) These voices thus turn out to be more than just the harmless hallucinations of a strange character called Mobius; rather, like the voices occurring in Muriel Spark’s novel The Comforters (1954, cf. Wolf 1993a [709-711]) they appear to be an author’s voice intruding into his story-world.
- 18 Strangely enough, but perhaps also a revealing indicator of the difficulties even (...)
55Such a metaleptic confusion of narratological levels is in itself already a powerful defamiliarizing feature, which, at least in the 1970s, added an innovative touch to the text. Yet “Mobius” contains something much more defamiliarizing in its overall structure. After what has been said so far, the lower story at first appears to be in a hypodiegetic relationship with reference to the upper one. Yet on reading the lower story, it is also suggested that the same relationship holds true with reference to the upper story. Both lower and upper story thus appear to be paradoxically both diegetic and hypodiegetic with reference to each other at the same time (Fig. 2) creating a structure that is actually a complication of the structure of the self-begetting story (cf. Fig. 1). This is clearly another, even more radical, form of metalepsis; as opposed to the isolated metaleptic elements found in other texts, it perpetuates metalepsis in an endless repetition or regressus ad infinitum and amounts to what Douglas C. Hofstadter termed a “strange loop”, (684 and passim) or more precisely a structure which is adumbrated in the story’s title, namely a Mobius strip18.
Fig. 2: Overall Mobius-strip Structure of “Mobius the Stripper”(with indication of ‘textual echoes’)
56It is this Mobius-strip structure with its anti-teleological, endless and paradoxical circularity which above all serves as an implicit answer to the aforementioned questions as to how one can get access to identity and also how to achieve creative originality by going back to the well-trodden ground of past literature. The latter is a question that not only haunts the fictional author-figure but apparently also Josipovici himself in his endeavour to make
57“something […] enter […] the world which could not have been conceived before it appeared”, as he says in his “note” to Steps. (1990, 7)
58To begin with the second problem: even if the individual stories which make up “Mobius”, and in particular the lower one containing the motif of overcoming writer’s block, may be of a relatively low degree of originality, their combination in the form of a Mobius strip has to my knowledge never been attempted before. It is indeed highly innovative, and as a by-product this innovation may also be said to satisfy an aspiration which is metafictionally formulated by Mobius but may also be attributed to Josipovici himself: “‘you gotta get the audience involved’”. (80) The story structure thus becomes an implicitly metareferential solution to an aesthetic problem (including a reader-response issue), rendering the entire text a metafictional allegory of engaging, original literature in an age of the seeming exhaustion of originality. Thus instead of embracing the negative solution of utter silence, which would amount to the annihilation of an author, writing is still possible – and silence (as a negation of creativity) avoided. This is the first major, metareferential function of this structure.
- 19 Josipovici himself addresses the same problem in The World and the Book (286 f.).
59At the same time, this experimental device may help overcome a general problem of creative freedom also formulated by the lower story’s author figure: “If I can say anything then why say anything?” (81)19 The choice of a Mobius-strip form is not mere proof of an ultimately shallow technical virtuosity but also serves further functions in the entire text as a “metaphor for life” – and in several respects at that. Its vertigo-inducing, rationally incommensurable paradoxicality promotes a general project of Josipovici’s, namely the transcending of our everyday reason and logic by profoundly “question[ing] our assumptions”. (110) This is a variant of Josipovici’s overall epistemological concern with pointing to the limits of our understanding. The Mobius device thus contributes to an unsettling but perhaps ultimately salutary undermining of our “epistemological security” (Josipovici, 1989/1990 ) with respect to, for example, our certainty that we are able to clearly differentiate between (hypodiegetic) fiction and (diegetic) reality. Josipovici regards such unsettling as a crucial task of his own and contemporary fiction at large, and this view is also at the root of his dissatisfaction with realism, which shies away from such questioning. (ibid., 86 f.) As he states in The World and the Book: “[R]eality must be seen as the fact that we are condemned to see through frames”. “[T]he trap of thinking that meaning inheres words, objects or events” is thus best avoided by an instructive “deception of the reader” such as that practiced by Vladimir Nabokov, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jorge Luis Borges:
First they lull us into taking the ‘picture’ for ‘reality’, […] and then suddenly our attention is focused on the spectacles through which we are looking, and we are made to see that what we had taken for ‘reality’ was only the imposition of the frame. (296 f.)
60This is exactly Josipovici’s procedure in “Mobius”: the ‘impossibility’ of the overall structure of these, at first glance, seemingly more or less realist stories, achieved by destroying their probability through a highly paradoxical strange loop, disrupts any aesthetic illusion which might have been produced by reading the individual stories separately – and this destruction of aesthetic illusion is a correlative of a similar destruction of epistemological naivety and illusions.
- 20 Cf. Hofstadter’s statement (1979/1980, 698) that “personal nonexistence” is “the best (...)
61The functions of the metaleptic strange loop in question are, however, neither confined to metareferential questions of, and a solution to, the problem of originality in the age of postmodernism, nor to an epistemological questioning and enlightenment (which we have already encountered in “He”). It is also, and this is a third function, a means of approaching a particular instance of the inscrutable (amounting to yet another illustration of transcendental negativity), more precisely, the liminal phenomenon of death. It is no coincidence that the upper half of the strange loop leads to the threshold of death and thus silence. Yet, as in “He”, death itself is not represented and thus remains at the limit of the text, for it is the inscrutable par excellence. To imagine it would amount, in Josipovici’s terms, to an “imaginative earthquake” (1971, 297), and requires something (also mentioned by Brian McHale ) which for Hofstadter, too, is tantamount to imagining a strange loop: to think as a consciousness of the non-existence of this very consciousness20 – a virtual impossibility. In one respect the strange loop presented in “Mobius the Stripper” may thus, in its inconceivability, be regarded as a correlative of what is not represented on the story level, namely death. The Mobius-strip device would then prefigure the paradox of “failure” and “success” which Josipovici, in the later story “He”, made his author-figure feel with respect to his literary production: it is a failure, since it does not fathom out the reality of death, and a success, since it at least manages to point to what cannot be spoken or actually imagined.
62In another respect, and this is its fourth function and an answer to the first of the two questions mentioned above, the strange loop formed by the structure of “Mobius” is also a means of approaching an issue which is thematized both on the upper-level story (in Mobius’s search for his “essential self” ) and on the lower one (where the author-figure not only tries to overcome writer’s block but also wants to find his “lost self”  or at least to stabilize his “little self” , which he feels is threatened by the overwhelming presence of the great authors of the past). Apparently, this search for identity is in both cases linked with discourse: Mobius’s voices, which tell him about himself, and the author-figure’s creative text are discourses which, owing to the literary form of “Mobius”, never come to an end, for in this strange loop each ending points back to a beginning. If one projects this endlessness onto the question of selfhood, this means that any search for a static essential self is doomed to failure, for the self is not an essence but a process, a process in which active performance (the author-figure’s text production) and passive happenings (Mobius being overwhelmed by the voices) merge. The lower-story writer is on the brink of realizing this processual nature of identity, when his inspiration starts to flow: “[…] it started to come. Perhaps it was only one story, arbitrary, incomplete, but suddenly I knew that it would make its own necessity and in the process give me back my lost self”. (85, my italics)
63It is an effect of such a processual approach to selfhood that it remains inscrutable and resists all fixed meaning and yet is a living presence – just as the strange loop used in “Mobius” cannot be grasped and formulated logically but yet manages, in a characteristic gesture of transcendental negativity, to reveal something. The liminal revelation may even go beyond the text itself, for, as Hofstadter justly remarked, beyond all the tangled hierarchies and strange loops there is always “the Inviolate Level” of the author of such confusion. (689) Indeed, the more startling a text is, the more one is apt to attribute it to an exceptional agency. Whether this effect is actually intended by Josipovici must, however, remain an open question. If one considers the protagonist of “He” as a sort of authorial spokesman, such implicit foregrounding of the author would not appear probable. For this protagonist pointedly refrains from authorial foregrounding, as is manifest in his aforementioned reticence to use a defamiliarizing device, namely second-person narration, as being “too self-conscious” and as something that “would draw the reader’s attention to the work and to its author”. (72) On the other hand, there is, after all, a certain self-conscious virtuosity in applying a Mobius-strip structure to fiction, and this would inevitably highlight the virtuoso behind the device. Perhaps the virtue of such literary virtuosity is that it unfolds while the author always remains outside, beyond his work: he thus becomes a transcendental agency towards which the text can only gesture but which it can never capture, and this would again be in conformity with Josipovici’s transcendental negativity as variously illustrated in this story and other short stories.
64As stated above, one of the recurrent means of realizing Josipovici’s concept of transcendental negativity in the practice of storytelling is reduction. In “He”, reductionism is thematized on the story level (in the protagonist’s attempt to reduce his subjectivity by his writerly efforts to come to terms with his friend’s death), while in “Mobius” it is – among other things – symbolically present on the story level of the upper text in Mobius’s stripping activities. In many other of Josipovici’s stories, reductionism manifests itself also, if not foremost, on the discourse level. The implication of the discourse in light of this tendency contributes to the impression of a radically postmodernist experimentation which his stories give according to some critics (an impression which is, however, not always justified, as we observed in “He”).
- 21 In the following quotations are taken from this reprint.
- 22 As the sex of the interlocutors is never clearly specified, the masculine form coul (...)
65One example of such a radical experimentation with reduction, in which this device is even intensified to a minimalism jeopardizing the ‘concretization’ of the story-world, is the story “The Reconstruction”, first published in 1970 (see Fludernik, 2000 ) and reprinted 1974 in Mobius the Stripper21. In fact, as in Beckett’s late short fiction, only rudimentary story elements may be ‘reconstructed’ when reading this text. The spatial setting is reduced to an unspecified closed room in an English metropolis (presumably London), the characters to two anonymous interlocutors. One of them (if one disregards a curious confusion among the two of them, of which more later) appears to have some authority and is constantly asking questions, thus reminding one of a psychiatrist (cf. Moosmüller ) or someone conducting an inquest; the other character, who apparently suffers from amnesia, answers only hesitantly, using obscure words (including phrases in a foreign, unidentified language, e.g. 110), in a repetitive way or not at all (that is, by silence), is reminiscent of a mental patient, a suspect or accused person. As for the action, it seems to be the task of the interrogator to clarify a mysterious incident in the immediate past but also the biography and personality of the interrogatee. As is gradually revealed, the latter was found by several persons in a “passage” (97 and passim) leading to an underground station and brought to the place of interrogation. What happened (to him22) in the passage is, however, never revealed: did he fall victim to a crime, as his present state, possibly a state of shock, could indicate, or was he implicated in fighting between two other persons (97)? It remains equally unclear what relationship there is between this incident and some scraps of memory of the interrogatee referring to his childhood, which he apparently spent in Romania together with his brothers in a house with a garden, as well as to a seemingly banal (?) scene with a woman serving coffee while the interrogated person stood at a window looking out (a symbolic framed situation). In the end, all attempts at reconstruction on the part of the interrogator fail, and the story concludes in the same way in which it started, namely with a request, again reminiscent of Beckett, to go on talking (“– Don’t stop. Go on. Don’t stop”, 28, cf. 92). Although this is the conclusion of the text, both the micro-cyclicality of this request and the macro-cyclicality of the entire story suggest an endless continuation of inconclusive dialogue. Even if “The Reconstruction” does not contain a strange loop based on the confusion of diegetic and heterodiegetic levels which merge into one another as in “Mobius”, this story, too, thus adopts a structure which unmistakably indicates the elusiveness of fixed meaning.
- 23 Characteristically, repeated admonitions to “describe” are not answered in the represented (...)
- 24 This exploration of limits also includes Josipovici’s experimenting with fiction ap (...)
66Like the interrogator, the reader, too, will in all probability fail to reconstruct the represented story-world in any coherent and meaningful way. The principal reason for this is a peculiarity of the discourse level: the story radicalizes a general tendency of Josipovici’s which can be observed, albeit not to this extreme extent, until his latest but one work of fiction to date, the novel Only Joking (2010) : it is the tendency to reduce stories to dialogue. In “The Reconstruction” even the last remnants of non-dialogic text (such as descriptions23 or clarifying authorial/narratorial utterances) have been deleted. In its exclusively dialogic quality, this story is even more radical than a drama script, for the story’s discourse does not even provide speaker identification by means of speech tags (these are reduced to mere dashes, sometimes even a plurality of them, so that the reader must count them in order to keep track of who is speaking), nor does it give information by means of what one may call stage directions. This text thus constitutes a radical formal exemplification and correlative of Josipovici’s thematic interest in exploring liminal situations, for it is located at the limits of narrative fiction24.
- 25 Most conspicuously in the opening and closing phrases of the second part of Molloy: (...)
67As a consequence of this discursive minimalism and the absence of both description and clarifying narratorial passages, the reading process becomes extremely difficult. This is felt particularly in obscure, ambiguous or contradictory passages of the conversation, where in traditional fiction a narrator would provide clarifications and thus contribute to the general function of a narrative discourse, namely guaranteeing meaningful coherence. A particularly conspicuous contradiction which remains unexplained (cf. Moosmüller ) is the curiously metareferential statement by the interrogatee “I speak these words. They come out of my mouth” (127), which is shortly afterwards denied by the same character: “No words come out of my mouth”. (ibid.) This contradiction is reminiscent of the device of statement and denial, construction and destruction or “denarration” (Richardson), which can also be found in Beckett25. Since no psychological ‘naturalization’ is offered by either author, this device arguably highlights in an implicitly metafictional way the fact that we are not dealing with any consistent transcript of reality but with mere verbal constructs, thus undermining the credibility of the story-world and consequently preventing our immersion into it in a state of aesthetic illusion.
- 26 I myself (like Moosmüller, 154-157) overlooked this device (Wolf, 1993, 146-150). However, (...)
68Yet there are also further radical devices which destroy the credibility of the story. Fludernik has justly emphasized that “The Reconstruction” is a good example of a special variant of Josipivician contradictions, namely the “inversion of interlocutors”, (2000, 127) which she even likens to a “Möbius-strip technique”. (131) In fact, the aforementioned reductionism of clues which would clarify who speaks may easily lead the reader to overlook a strange fact: on several occasions (Fludernik identifies no less than eight similar instances beginning as early as p. 95, the 3rd page of the text) dialogue which, according to the hitherto established speaker roles, should be attributable to the interrogator [A] as opposed to the interrogatee [B] (and vice versa) is surreptitiously inverted without any explanation26. One example also quoted by Fludernik (129) may here suffice to illustrate the point:
[A] –Yes? Go on.
[A] –Go on.
[A] –The bed.
[A] –Lying on the bed.
[A] –One foot on the floor. Leg bent at the knee. One foot on the floor.
[A] –Lying on the bed.
[A] –Sun in my face.
[B] –Yes? Go on. (95, my emphasis)
69If the reader becomes aware of this device, namely that the “Yes? Go on” spoken by [B] at the end of the quoted passage was initially part of the discourse of [A] and that consequently a reversal of roles has taken place, beginning with the passage highlighted in bold, the effect is arguably not only confusion but also a complete loss of confidence in the probability of the entire story. This loss is reinforced by the unsolved puzzle of how the recurrent memory of B, who was presumably illuminated by the light of a “window” and, “Turning from the window“, perceived “her face in the doorway”, (92, 93, my italics) thus a third person, can suddenly become an apparent recollection of A him-/herself: “Sun in my face”. Owing to a lack of narratorial explanation, the inversion of interlocutors and other forms of role instability can have an even more radical effect than the contradiction discussed above: the metareferential effect of laying bare the constructedness and fictionality of the story-world.
- 27 In order not to overcomplicate matters here and in the following, the terms “interr (...)
70As a general effect of these unexplained contractions, the text is not only anti-illusionist but a downright puzzle: for in this seemingly analytical story, instead of a progressive clarification of the various questions raised by the immediate as well as by the remoter past, the text becomes more and more enigmatic. It is revealing in this context that towards the end of the story both the interrogator27 (whoever that is) and reader are induced to question the reality status of the utterances made by the interrogatee (whoever that is):
–Of course, there is the possibility that there was no house. That there were no brothers. That there was no garden. No town with red roofs on the hill.
–That you saw a film. Or read a story. Or otherwise made it up out of bits and pieces. Unconsciously. Or consciously. To fulfil a need. Appease a desire.
–That too is possible. That the lack of such things should have led to your inventing them. (118 f.)
71Since there are hardly limits imposed on the possibilities of interpreting this text, it could like “Mobius” in principle be continued indefinitely – as is also suggested by the cyclical structure binding together the beginning and ending.
- 28 See Josipovici, 1972, 120 ff., and 1989/1990, 88 f.
72This impression of potential endlessness is also corroborated by a device which can repeatedly be encountered in Josipovici’s more radically experimental texts, a device which betrays his having been influenced by the serial or generative structure of the French nouveau roman: “The Reconstruction” conspicuously includes frequent verbatim or varied recurrences of certain phrases which are hardly motivated by the story level, if at all (besides the sequence “Don’t stop. Go on. […] – I”, [92 ff.] these recurrences, which are reminiscent of nouveau roman générateurs, include, for instance, various elements from the aforementioned fragmentary sentence “Turning from the window her face in the doorway I […]” [92 ff.]). Owing to the recurrence of seemingly arbitrary and meaningless verbal elements, the text constantly lays bare its textual materiality, its status as a textual construct consisting of mere words (“words like stones”, as one of the interlocutors once says ) rather than suggesting that it is the mimetic reconstruction of a reality preceding the representation and located outside of it. What is represented is thus revealed as proceeding from, and being determined by, a discursive logic (e.g. the principle of variation) rather than a story logic, let alone a reality behind the story. The text thus becomes a construct or ‘toy’ inviting ‘games’ – both are important concepts for postmodernist aesthetics and Josipovici alike28 –, games which provide an extremely wide projection space for the imagination which by far exceeds what traditional mimetic storytelling can offer.
73Fictionality is thus again laid bare in a conspicuous self-critically metareferential gesture. This metareferential emphasis on fictionality is especially palpable when, towards the end, it is not only the responses of the interrogatee concerning the past that become questionable as to their reality status but also the present situation of the interrogation. There is hardly a more radical way to insist on the fictionality of the entire text than this kind of unreliable narration:
–You say: They found you in the passage by the station. […]
–And if that is not true? Imagined? Invented? Belonging to someone else?
–If there is no passage? No station? No memory? No loss of memory?
–You don’t answer me. Why should you answer? You are not there. Imagined. Invented. Belonging to someone else.
–Not there. Not here. No. (126)
- 29 Cf. also, for instance, “Brothers” and “Steps” (both in In the Fertile Land, 1987).
74In passages like these “The Reconstruction” betrays a typically postmodernist tendency, also discernible in “Mobius” and other texts by Josipovici, namely to destabilize ontological certainties29. In drama, such a metareferential destabilization of the ontological status of characters (as well as the confusion of interlocutors and identities) would hardly be possible, for characters, as a rule, can be seen as real speaking persons on stage. In contrast to this, narrative fiction presents only paper and words. In traditional fiction this textual materiality is taken for granted and concealed so that the reader can forget it, but in Josipovici’s text the status of fictional characters as mere words on paper, their ‘paper character’, is laid bare, and we are insistently made aware of it. In this context it is revealing that the space in which the interrogatee was found is a “passage”; in the light of what has just been said this is less a fictional space of a story-world than a real discourse space, namely a text passage.
75The refusal to provide coherent meaning, the laying bare of the verbal construct status of the story in a game played with traditional forms of narration – all of this points to a major concern of this story, namely to realize and illustrate an anti-mimetic and anti-illusionist aesthetics. However, this negativity with reference to traditional fiction is not emphasized for its own sake but again implicated in an exploration of limits and the (im)possibility of transcending them. Rather than allowing the readers to follow and immerse themselves in a story, they are invited to reflect on the limits of storytelling itself as well as on the fact that all human knowledge, both in fiction and reality, is implicated in frames (cf. Fludernik, 2000 ) – that, as Josipovici said in an already quoted passage, “what we had taken for ‘reality’ was only the imposition of the frame”. (1971, 297) Characteristically, here as in other fiction by Josipovici, framed situations, notably characters looking out of windows (in “Second Person Looking Out”, 1976, the story opening Heart’s Wings, this is even suggested by the title) or characters framed by a “doorway“ as in “The Reconstruction“ are a recurrent motif serving as an epistemological allegory. In fact, as seen in the example of “The Reconstruction”, in Josipovici’s fiction stories frequently do not (principally) aim at permitting the reader to read them as slices of life by reassuringly and unconsciously applying conventional default settings and frames of experience; rather, reality and the possibility of knowing it become the objects of an unsettling epistemological questioning. In this, “The Reconstruction”, like “He” and “Mobius”, reveals itself as a text posing not only metareferential but also general epistemological questions from a sceptical point of view. This is why any traditional reading of this story is as doomed to failure as the abortive attempts of the interrogator to make sense of the uncertain and fragmentary answers offered to him by his or her interlocutor.
76As we can see, “The Reconstruction”, like many other of Josipovici’s works of fiction, thus acquires the quality of a metareferential (metafictional and metalingual) as well as epistemological allegory (with epistemology, as a branch of philosophy and hence knowledge destined to inquire into the conditions and possibilities of knowledge, being in turn based on a metareferential gesture). Once one becomes aware of these meta-dimensions, the interrogator can be read as the representative of a (traditional) reader (or someone wanting to acquire knowledge and certainty by means of a text) and the interrogatee, who is requested to produce a coherent verbal discourse and fails or is unwilling to do so, as the representative of the author (the source of text and the alleged source of knowledge and truth).
- 30 In this the interrogated person resembles the amnesiac protagonist and author-figur (...)
77If one wants to embed this general situation into a more historical, contemporary one, the interrogatee could be said to embody a postmodernist author who, in a state resembling amnesia, that is to say, in the (willing) forgetfulness and denial of traditional ways of storytelling30, finds him- or herself in a situation in which one can no longer tell stories as before. What remains in this postmodernist situation had already been prefigured in the programmatic metafictional title of one of the short stories by the American postmodernist Ronald Sukenick, “The Death of the Novel” (1969). From this allegorical point of view the frequent hesitations of the interrogatee, and his or her apparently unconquerable difficulties with telling stories (or unwillingness to do so) as well as his/her taking refuge in – as one must suspect – mere fictions would acquire a decidedly metafictional meaning. The agony of the interrogatee, who towards the end, after a painful game with meaningless words, moves ever more closely to the point zero of storytelling, namely silence, could thus be seen to mirror the agony of the postmodernist author. It is an author implicated in a worse situation than the fictitious author of both “He” and the lower story in “Mobius”, for “The Reconstruction” does not offer a solution to the problems of discursive production.
78The reversibility of the interrogator-interrogatee relationship, i.e. of reader and author or seeker and dispenser of truth, adds yet a further layer of meaning to this situation: apparently, the reconstruction of both story-worlds and truth is not a one-way but a two-way process with no one being in a privileged situation. This could be read as a negative, even nihilistic position. However, the persistent wish to reconstruct can also be seen as the correlative of the transcendence of mere negativity which is so characteristic of Josipovici’s texts.
79“The Reconstruction” is an extreme text in which there seems to be much more of a merely formal and “rather bloodless metafictional exercise” than in “Mobius” or “He”. It is a text in which ‘transcendental negativity’ appears to refer not only exclusively to storytelling itself: this story, too, addresses one of the great themes from the pool of the inscrutable sensu Iser. For the focus of the many questions uttered in the story is again nothing but the “I”, the identity of, and truth about, a person, a question which appears to haunt Josipovici to the extent of an obsession (“I” is consequently one the most frequently occurring lexemes in the text). And again this “I” only appears on the horizon, as a latent positivity beyond manifest negativity. For the story of the interrogated “I” ultimately remains obscure, and it is revealing that Josipovici posits the aforementioned, Beckett-like sequence of questions and answers at the very end of his text:
–Don’t stop. Go on. Don’t stop. (128)
- 31 On the variant of iconicity which may be seen at work here, namely ‘iconicity of absence’, (...)
80The request to “go on”, to define the “I” further, leads either to the endless recycling of an ever inconclusive text, if one follows the lead of a-teleological circularity present in the story, or, alternatively, to the pointed absence of text after the last full stop of the story, to an iconic correlative of silence31 (which would amount to reaching a negative telos or again to the opposite of a closed, teleologically gratifying ending).
81Where language is absent – at least in fiction – the “I” ceases to exist. This is the negative side, which conforms to linguistic determinism as one of the fundamental tenets of postmodernism and deconstruction. However, there is also another side, hinted at in the question of the protagonist in “He”: “Are we synonymous with […] our language? No”. (74) In the context of Josipovici’s fiction, the suggestion that there is a link between identity and language and at the same time the possibility hinted at that the “I” may exceed the limits of language is not nonsense, but a paradox which in itself is a philosophical if not a theological (in ‘negative theology’) possibility of gesturing to Truth. This is why, generally, paradoxa play such an important role, not only in “The Reconstruction” in the contradictions uttered by the interrogatee and the uncertainties created concerning the simultaneous suggestions of the reality and fictionality of the story-world, but in Josipovici’s fiction at large. Paradoxa hint at a negativity which constantly points to its own transcendence, in short, at the inscrutable which this author persistently approaches by diverse and often experimental narrative means. The result of all of this is not much for anyone seeking graspable, definite and clearly formulated knowledge, yet it is not nothing either. As the protagonist of “He” learns: “to understand our distance from understanding is itself a form of understanding”. (74)
- 32 The inexactness with reference to two stories is due to the fact that the section “Acknowle (...)
82The preceding three interpretations were meant as an introduction to Josipovici’s oeuvre of (short) fiction and were all first published in his formative period, the 1970s, but remained exemplary at least until the early 1990s. Yet, even if it is true that since 1987, “the author has concentrated on the genre of the novel” more than before (Fludernik, “Introduction”, online), Josipovici has still continued to write short stories since then, Heart’s Wings and Other Stories being his latest collection to date (2010, reviewed in TLS by Mark Axelrod) on which I will concentrate in the following. It contains 25 stories, eight to ten of which32 have been published since his previous collection In the Fertile Land (1987). As a conclusion to this essay, a brief overview will be given of his more recent short story production, in which much of what has been said is continued but in which new trends also become apparent.
- 33 Original title: “Can More be Done”.
83What has remained more or less constant in terms of content and themes is, for a start, Josipovici’s commitment to transcendental negativity, silence and the elegiac representation of loss (e.g. in “Christmas” , where silence and the lack of communication between a father and a son loom large, “Heart’s Wings” , which deals with the loss of a mother, or “A Glass of Water” , in which the death of a wife plays an important role). It is, however, remarkable that religious themes and allusions seem to appear more frequently in the more recent stories (as in “Christmas”, “The Hand of God” , and “Donne Undone” ). What is also reminiscent of former short fiction is the exploration of identity as in the biography of a Jew in “A Modern Fairy Tale” (1992), the continuation of allegorical story writing as in “The Plot against the Giant” (2010?), which can be read as a metalingual allegory similar to “The Death of the Word”, and above all metareferentiality. This includes explorations of, for example, the limits of pictorial media (“He Contemplates a Photograph in a Newspaper” [2010?]), the functions of literature (“Heart’s Wings”), the conditions of creativity (“The Hand of God”), or the question of truth as transmitted by language (“Donne Undone”).
84As for formal continuities, one may mention, besides the fact that most of Josipovici’s stories still make difficult reading and frequently require a second perusal to yield their covert meaning (or denial thereof), intermedial references – often in the service of the aforementioned metareferential exploration of other media, but also of the limits of fiction. Such metareferentiality, for instance, applies to “A Glass of Water”, which contains references to the painter Jean Siméon Chardin, or to “He Contemplates…”, which is an ekphrastic illustration of how a photograph can be misinterpreted if one does not include the verbal picture title. Moreover, Josipovici’s more recent stories still betray a continued tendency towards reductionism, be it in the form of short short fiction (as in “He Contemplates […]” and “The Plot Against the Giant”) or in the form of a drama-script-like discourse (as in “Christmas”), although Josipovici now seems to refrain from the radical experimentalism exemplified by “The Reconstruction”.
85Generally speaking – and this leads us to new trends – Josipovici’s more recent short fiction appears to follow a wider tendency in recent (post)postmodern fiction, namely a certain renaissance of traditional storytelling. On a very superficial formal level this is signalled by the increased use of the traditional narrative past tense, which is remarkable when seen against the background of Josipovici’s former predilection for a ‘dramatic’ present tense. On the content level, this return to storytelling may be witnessed, albeit perhaps in ironic form, in “Christmas”, which at least plays with the expectation of eventfulness and then, to one’s relief, dissolves an expected suicide in a banal event (the blood of an allegedly suicidal man dripping through the ceiling turns out to be red paint with which he varnishes a toy model of an ark). In “Love Across the Borders” (2000) eventfulness is completely unironic, since this is the story of a premeditated murder committed by a mother accompanied by her young son on a trip to Geneva across the French-Swiss border. A certain distance from traditional storytelling is nevertheless maintained in the fact that the motivation for the murder remains unclarified (it is an Iserian gap of meaning, a Leerstelle which is, however, not too difficult to fill if one takes the connotations of the title into account, which evokes love and thus renders a murder from motives of jealousy probable).
86The most remarkable new trend in this context, which becomes especially prominent when remembering Josipovici’s predilection for self- or metareferential issues, is the frequency with which heteroreferential content now appears. This applies, on the one hand, to biography (to John Donne in “Donne Undone”) and autobiography of real persons (to Josipovici’s mother Sacha Rabinovich in “Heart’s Wings”). On the other hand, however, this is also true of various references to political events of twentieth-century history: the Holocaust (in “A Modern Fairy Tale” ), the fall of the Berlin Wall (in “Tegel” [after 1989]), and the Balkan wars (In “He Contemplates […]”).
87All of this creates a refreshing mixture of familiar themes, content and discourse features, and new trends. Josipovici’s short stories, even if recently they seem to have drifted a little out of the focus of the author’s main concerns, remain highly worthwhile reading, not least since they testify to an aesthetic inspiration which is remarkably individual. This unmistakable quality of Josipovici’s stories, including his most recent ones, may in itself be regarded as yet another illustration of how, under the auspices of transcendental negativity, individuality and originality may still be possible in our time: these texts bespeak a characteristic individuality which – in spite of what the present essay with its inevitable simplifications may suggest – is not an easily discernible essence nor the effect of a handful of narrative devices taken from a static toolbag, but the product of a subtle variation of narrative means and an ongoing creative performance leading to ever fresh and sometimes surprising solutions. Taken together, these stories are the fruit of an original if not idiosyncratic inspiration which goes far beyond the shallowness of much of postmodernist formal experimentation. It endows these rich texts with a philosophical, epistemological and metareferential depth and continues to render the effort to read them, which for many of them it is still necessary to invest, highly rewarding.