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The Cost of Creativity in the Work of Gabriel Josipovici

La créativité dans l’œuvre de Gabriel Josipovici
Victoria Best


Cet article explore la préoccupation de Gabriel Josipovici avec la notion de création dans ses œuvres critiques, autobiographiques et fictionnelles, s’attachant à la relation entre la créativité et les liens familiaux, et tout particulièrement à la relation profonde qui s’était tissée entre l’auteur et sa mère.

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  • 1 Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, New Haven (CT)/London: Yale UP, 2 (...)
  • 2 Ibidem, 8.
  • 3 Ibid., 26.
  • 4 Ibid., 77.

1For Gabriel Josipovici, the proof of genuine creativity is that it seems to come at a high cost. Discussing the writing of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Stéphane Mallarmé, all artists whom he reveres, Josipovici speaks of “the pain, anxiety and despair”1 that characterises their relation to writing, and the fact that “they laid their lives on the line.”2 This acute awareness of the high stakes of artistic production lies at the heart of Josipovici’s understanding of the crisis of Modernism. With regard to Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, a text steeped in Modernist preoccupations, Josipovici describes how “the desire, even the need to be creative comes to be seen not as a gift but as a curse. For while the desire to create seems to be the most natural thing in the world, something we are all born with, what is it in a world without sure relation to either tradition or authority but a meaningless self-indulgence?”3 The crisis that Modernist authors suffer arises from the recognition that the old forms are obsolete, unable to provide the sort of embedding of consciousness in the world that reassures and convinces. All they can do is speak from their subjective experience, which itself grows ever more troubled and problematic. None of this reduces the desire of the genuine artist to engage with the world and with artistic creation and to make something meaningful out of it; instead the crisis provoked artists to reach new heights of imaginative power, for “in a sense”, Josipovici proposes, “their life depended on it.”4

  • 5 Gabriel Josipovici, “A Changeable Report”, in Heart’s Wings and Other Stories, Manchest (...)
  • 6 Ibid., 85.

2The crisis of creativity and its human cost becomes the focus of some of Josipovici’s work, although as we may expect, this particular drama unfolds in surprising ways. Its most extreme representation comes in the short story “A Changeable Report”. “I have been dead for five years”, the narrator declares at the start of the narrative. “My hand trembles as I write but it is comforting to have pen and ink and paper on which to write things down. It is as if I had forgotten how to use a pen. […] If I could explain what happened I might find myself alive once more”5. Writing is given the power to resurrect, but the necessary coherent explanation proves somewhat elusive. Our narrator declares that he has been imprisoned through a chain of events that it is impossible, either for him or for us, to follow. Quite who his jailors are, and what they hold against him, remains enigmatic. “They told me I was mad”6, the narrator confides, and given the paranoid and disorganised tone of the narrative, this is a suggestion the reader cannot dismiss.

  • 7 Monika Fludernik, Echoes and Mirrorings: Gabriel Josipovici’s Creative Oeuvre, Frankfur (...)

3But as the reader continues to try to piece together a scenario, so the seemingly random fragments of context begin increasingly to gesture towards William Shakespeare’s dramatic works. There are allusions to King Lear, Twelfth Night, Othello, The Tempest and The Merchant of Venice. “The narrator appears to identify with a series of Shakespearean characters and projects himself into their situations as in a dream”7, writes Monika Fludernik in her analysis of the story. By a process of association, fragments of great tragedy, grief and betrayal succeed one another, but fail to provide any genuine anchor for the narrator’s deteriorating mental state. Creativity is posed as salvation, possible liberation, and some of the greatest acts of creativity are grasped at as points of navigation in a sea of tormented words, but the creation of meaning repeatedly fails:

  • 8 Gabriel Josipovici, “A Changeable Report”, op. cit., 90.

I form the letters as well as I am able, but I cannot read what I have written. It does not seem to be written in any language that I know. The more I look at it, the more incomprehensible it seems to be. As though a spider had walked through the ink and then crawled across the page. As though it had crawled out of my head and on to the paper and there could never be any sense in the marks it had left.8

4In human terms, writing and the life-giving act of meaning creation remain resolutely estranged. Yet in formal terms, the text explodes in intertextual pyrotechnics, as if a scrap heap of the richest, most intense moments across Shakespeare’s oeuvre had been thrown into a crucible, swirled furiously around and allowed to scatter on the page. It is as if creativity itself has run mad.

5A different kind of representation of the emotional cost of creativity can be found in Contre-Jour: A Triptych after Pierre Bonnard. This novel revolves around the absent presence of a painter, who is not Bonnard but who evokes him in both his life circumstances and the details of his art. The final ‘panel’ in this novel is a brief letter from Bonnard of little obvious importance. The work is dominated by two monologues, the first written from the perspective of a daughter in a vain act of apostrophe towards her mother, full of rage, frustrated love, hostility and despair. The issue at stake here is emotional neglect, for the daughter feels shut out of the parental relationship, claiming her mother is too caught up in hopeless competition with art for the father’s attention. In a variation on the primal scene, the daughter describes how one day she accidentally burst into the bathroom to find her mother in the bath and her father painting her, and after this incident a bloodless distancing occurred that is too unspoken, too premature for the daughter to accept.

  • 9 Gabriel Josipovici, Contre-Jour: A Triptych after Pierre Bonnard [1986], Manchester: Carcanet (...)

6The absence of an engaged, significant bond with either parent leaves her damaged and isolated, relating her monologue of extreme distress to her own reflection in the darkened window pane of her room. The paradox of this failure of intimacy is that the daughter remains unable to separate from the mother, enmeshed in her in the imaginary zone. “You gave me life yet robbed me of the possibility of living”9, she reproaches, denied access to her own autonomy and cut off by her wounded feelings from any possible reconciliation.

7Angry as the daughter is with her mother, she nevertheless acknowledges, in her more lucid moments, that it is the thwarted relationship with the painter that lies at the heart of their stunted relationship: “I think perhaps it was he who drove you to become what you did. It was he who forced you to act as you did. Though he seemed so kind, was so kind perhaps, it was his kindness devoid of feeling that drove you to do what you did”. (56) This point of view is reinforced by the second monologue, delivered from the perspective of the mother, Bonnard’s model and eventual wife. The mother repeatedly begs the daughter to come home and open up communication with them again, believing her isolation from the family to be the cause of the painter’s own reclusive and emotionally distanced behaviour. The demands to the daughter for love and understanding are interspersed with reproaches and accusations, and the emotional turmoil is quietly shown once again to stem from the painter’s complete immersion in his art. Bonnard is well known for the many pictures he painted of his wife in the bath, and this monologue suggests that a nervous skin condition, caused by the painter’s appropriative gaze, lay at the root of her obsession with bathing. “It was intolerable to be looked at like that”, she declares, “dispassionately, relentlessly, day after day. It may be that which brought on the rash. The intensity of his gaze. Its impersonality. It was not me he was looking at. I might as well have been dead, a corpse”. (85) Just as mother and daughter remain enmeshed in undecidable love and hostility, so the wife remains paradoxically bound to the painter despite her dissatisfaction with him: “I could not leave him and I could not stay with him”. (ibid.) In this tortured love triangle the daughter looks to the mother for self-affirmation and fails to receive it, the mother looks to her husband for validation beyond the objectification of art and fails to receive it, and only the painter and his painting exist in perfect, hermetic harmony, sealed into a virtual world which extracts the poignantly human from reality whilst bypassing ordinary engagement with it.

8The artistic engagement is represented through the painter’s voice punctuating both monologues, in terms of jottings from his notebook or reported conversations. The passionate love affair with art is described as a kind of secular devotion, a moral code of existence, a fierce conviction of virtuous self-development. “‘It can’t just be pleasure,’ he said. ‘So often there’s no pleasure in it at all. But it has to do with growth, with what the Greeks call energeia. Though that makes it sound too private, too purely selfish.’ ‘Perhaps,’ he said, ‘we need a word like grace. Freed from its religious connotations’”. (65) Although perhaps this is simply a more narcissistically pleasing way of looking at what does often come across as selfish in the monologues by the two women; the growth of the artist comes at the cost of stunted, frustrated relations in real life. In a disquieting irony, the actual work of the painter has become increasingly intimate in focus; the subject most fascinating to the painter is simple domesticity, reduced to the low-level psychodrama of the single room. “The retreat from Moscow or the Last Supper mean nothing to us anymore, but there is more than enough in just one room to keep us occupied for a lifetime. Think of all the different hours of day and night which a room experiences. The silence and darkness of the night. The moment before dawn, before the birds break out into song. The slivers of light in the corners, on the table, touching the fruit in the bowl. […] And then the ultimate mystery, the fact that a room has been constituted as it has by people whose lives are passed in them”. (48) As matter for art, the room holds the painter in hypnotic sway, but what actually happens in these rooms would seem to belie the cosiness, the tenderness of the paintings. Instead the reported dialogue shows the painter closing his wife down repeatedly, refusing to answer her inquiries or to respond to her reproaches. The degree of disengagement is painful, and a clear source of discontent, although this defence is equally shown to be necessary to him if he is to maintain an unbroken concentration on his art.

9As ever, Josipovici’s scenarios add exquisite layers of complication, for the monologue delivered by the mother shows an undeniable deterioration of her mind. The skin condition she suffers from appears to be only the external manifestation of a more intense disorder of the mind. The painter’s self-containment is thus viewed from another internal perspective of the text; a sane election to produce art, when his domestic life is in such disarray, even if, arguably, it is his own consumption in painting that has caused his wife’s breakdown. But here the readers find themselves equally drawn into the game of paradoxes and impossible contradictions that abound in the relationship between painter and wife. It becomes apparent that no daughter has ever resulted from this relationship. The monologue the wife directs towards her is a kind of impassioned hallucination, an act of creativity to rival the painting that borrows her likeness at the expense of her humanity. But what, then, is the reader to make of the opening monologue that ostensibly belongs to this non-existent daughter? Who is speaking here? What truth status can be attributed to this discourse that has been so fundamental to the reader’s comprehension of the narrative situation? There can be no resolution of this contradiction, and the reader is left enmeshed with the text and its refusal to give disclosure and closure.

10In Josipovici’s work, then, creativity takes hostages. At the level of the content, lives are sacrificed to the creation of art, and this can mean waste and ruination, just as that same creation is understood to offer the greatest dignity and sanctification to living that it is possible to attain. Creativity offers its own form of life and vitality, its own power of sustenance and resurrection, but it damages and disorders, too. What emerges from the act of creation is often meaningful in its own right, but unable to confer meaning on its subjects.

11At the level of formal concerns, Josipovici’s art repeatedly reveals its own artifice whilst drawing the reader into the coils of meaning creation. We are obliged to recognise that the space of narrative is a space with special qualities, able to mimic the confines of time and space while existing beyond them, with the potential to confer representational reality on situations that would be impossible in the real. As soon as the reader realises that the narrative is playing tricks, s/he must come to terms with the recognition that art offers a different form of experience to life, that it offers a parallel world as ‘real’ as the real one, yet radically other.

12These preoccupations surrounding the act of creativity also draw on a number of tropes and structures that appear time and again in Josipovici’s work. The first of these is the use of the room, as both prison cell and space of idealised love and security, the place of creativity where the writer or the painter works, and the place of confinement in sickness and suffering, a space in which everything and nothing happens. Solitude or isolation is equally prevalent, and once again coloured with undecidable ambivalence, representing both punishment and intolerable isolation, as well as freedom to think and develop (either oneself or a cherished project). And these various ambiguities centre on a fundamental fascination with union and separation, with what cleaves, in its undecidable double meaning of cutting apart and clinging together. From the interlocking scenarios of Josipovici’s texts to the inability of his characters to be together or apart, what seems to be missing – and desperately, at times – is the presence of a solid third term standing beyond the binary opposition. This is most clearly at work in Contre-Jour, where the mother and daughter both long for the painter to step in and regulate their intolerable bond, and where the mother longs for some person – fantasised here as a daughter – who would be able to step in and separate the painter from his art. And readers of a Josipovici text often long for some substantive perspective or interpretation that could finally release them from their entanglement with the text in its refusal to offer up clear meaning.

  • 10 André Fermigier, Pierre Bonnard, London: Thames and Hudson, 1987, 16.
  • 11 Ibid., 14.
  • 12 Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, op. cit., 187.
  • 13 Ibid., 178.

13We might wonder why Bonnard is evoked as a model for Josipovici’s portrait of the artist at work. In many ways we do not have to look far for the answer, as he embodies many of the concerns and the techniques that Josipovici himself favours. In What Ever Happened to Modernism? Josipovici gives his clearest account of his own artistic preferences and the aesthetic stance that he most values, both wholly bound up with a certain understanding of the Modernist perspective. At the heart of Modernism, he identifies the “disenchantment of the world”, the sense of painful dislocation from reliable schemes of meaning that artists recognised as highly significant and on which shifting sand they based their art. Writing on Bonnard, André Fermigier describes how “There is a strong undertone of melancholy and disenchantment in Bonnard, and for a long time even his landscapes were to float immobile and weightless in a world of decorative unreality”10. Bonnard, like many of the artists Josipovici favours, refused to dissemble the artificial nature of the painting, emphasising its two dimensionality and allowing experimentation with colour to dominate over concerns of representation: “colour always as it exists in itself or in relation to other colours in the composition rather than with any fidelity to received visual impressions of it”11. Hence Josipovici describes admiringly how Bonnard’s work “remain[ed] at the crossroads of figuration and abstraction”12 a balancing act that he rewards with the full weight of his validation, as his fundamental argument is “that only an art which recognises the pitfalls inherent in both realism and abstraction will be really alive”13.

  • 14 André Fermigier, op. cit., 29.
  • 15 Monika Fludernik, op. cit., 11-12.
  • 16 Quoted in Monika Fludernik, op. cit., 12.

14But there are aspects not just of art, but of life, that may have drawn Josipovici into a relation of projected sympathy with the painter. Bonnard was a self-contained character, and a man who dedicated himself wholeheartedly to the pursuit of his art. One gets the sense that art became the lodestar of his life and all else was subsumed to it: “He lived more or less anywhere, according to the chance displacements that the health and rather capricious temperament of his wife imposed on him. The barest hotel room was enough for him, and no matter where he was he camped rather than settled”14. This makes of Bonnard a man in permanent migration, even though he had no real need to be rootless or displaced, and migration, the sense of continual movement without definitive belonging, is another important theme in Josipovici’s work. Fludernik traces this preoccupation back to the real series of migrations that Josipovici experienced: “What Josipovici is saying is that for the cosmopolitan Sephardic Jew there is no real home; each home is one point in a series of homelike places to which one migrates. This kind of migration brings about a loss of moorings and it involves an alienation from one’s surroundings”15. Josipovici came to understand, through the representation of similar experiences in Kafka, Paul Celan and Aharon Appelfeld, that the very lack of rootedness could possess potential advantages for the artist: “Their words speak to me across the centuries and the miles, helping me to understand what I feel about not belonging, having no language, always being on the move; they make me realise these are not things to be denied or overcome, but are part and parcel of what I am, to be lived with and put into the service of that creativity that I recognize as a gift”16. Artists who know how to live in their own kinds of provisionality and temporality, who bivouac on the cliff face of life with only art in their kitbag, are the sort of artists who provide Josipovici with an unusual form of family, an elite club of sympathetic souls.

  • 17 Gabriel Josipovici, Contre-Jour, op. cit., 48-9.
  • 18 Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, op. cit., 81.
  • 19 Gabriel Josipovici, Contre-Jour, op. cit., 111.
  • 20 Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, op. cit., 79.

15Not surprisingly, then, the artist in Contre-Jour is given a number of Josipovici-like traits and pronouncements. When the Bonnard of Contre-Jour declares that “‘You have to find a way through it. A way which will do justice to the passing of time, to the fact that nothing stands still, nothing opens itself to our gaze but always retreats, vanishes, turns into something else. And yet give that fleeting quality a solidity without turning it into a monument’”17, the statement appeals aesthetically to Josipovici’s valorisation of Roland Barthes’ desire to see the “tremblement de l’existence” in art18. This desire is a repudiation of all narrative (in this case, although Josipovici extends the principle across the various forms of art) that organises actions in causal chains, contained and solidified within a specific, lost, moment of time, sealed, as it were, in representational aspic. Life is not experienced this way, and so to produce art that offers such an experience is to be wilfully untrue to life. Yet the good artist recognises that however close art comes to reality, there is always a gap that cannot be bridged; hence the best practice may be to transpose the phenomenological qualities of life into some sort of aesthetic equivalent. Or as the painter expresses it in Contre-Jour: “‘A painting is a little world […] that must be sufficient unto itself. They speak of truth to nature,’ he says, ‘but what of truth to the painting?’”19 This idea is prominent in What Ever Happened to Modernism? We find it in Josipovici’s assertion “That is the key” to the artist Francis Bacon’s belief that the picture “lives on its own like the image one’s trying to trap”. Josipovici glosses: “Bacon does not want to produce an image of what he has before him or in his mind, he wants in some sense to make what he does live a life of its own”20. The supreme demands of this kind of art – uncertain, forever questioning itself, reaching for its effects in virgin territory and thus always unconfident of achieving them – come hand in hand with a certain kind of artist: one who is himself rootless, migratory, at odds often with the world that surrounds him, one who chooses isolation with its attendant risk of mental disorder and who is simultaneously given over to art wholeheartedly, lost in it, merged with it, dedicated to it, to the point of laying his life on the line for it. With such a strong, clear aesthetic at work, we might wonder how Josipovici himself lives his life as an artist, and, given how vexed family relations are in both Contre-Jour and “A Changeable Report”, how that life relates to his immediate family.

  • 21 Gabriel Josipovici, A Life, London: London Magazine Editions/EJPS, 2001, 1.

16In 2001 Josipovici published a memoir of his beloved mother, Sacha Rabinovitch, entitled A Life. As with much in Josipovici’s work, this title is accurate and yet misleading, as the narrative is fundamentally concerned with recounting how this one life is based on a precious, vital duality. Josipovici and his mother shared an uncommon bond and he lived with her until her death at the age of 85. Although Sacha was both a poet and a translator of some repute, the narrative is motivated by the desire to give her more of a voice than she possessed in reality. The book opens with an account of how, invited to say a few words when awarded the Florio Prize for translation at the Italian institute, Sacha was struck dumb with performance anxiety: “I could see her struggling to speak, appalled by the whole occasion”21, a problem that recurred at her first and only poetry recital when “her voice hardly carried beyond the first row”. (2) This reticence has been a significant feature in their intertwined relationships, in which the mother provided a mute but powerful sense of ontological foundation, and the son spoke for both: “I realised the habit I had got into of thinking us almost as one person: she was what had made everything possible, the ground of my being, and I was the spokesman”. (160)

17The scarcity of her words is made more apparent to Josipovici in the months after her death, when he realises that he has very few letters from her, given their proximity for most of their lives, and that there is much about her life that he does not know. Josipovici, like any cherished son, used his mother joyfully as a sounding board without feeling the need for reciprocation (“I was eager to tell her how I felt and she would listen and discuss my response at length, but I never waited to hear how things had struck her in the first place” [227]) meaning that her inner life remained withdrawn from view. When Sacha dies, this suddenly becomes more of a problem than in most familial relationships, given the prime importance of his mother as a witness: “Sacha, by her death, seemed to have taken my life with her as well […] by piecing her life together, I have begun to reconstitute my own”. (203) This loving tribute to Sacha, a detailed reconstruction of her life, is at the same time an act of tender ventriloquism, a necessary, final creative co-option, a posthumous intertwining of voices in order to return to the son the sense of his own lived life that has been taken from him by his mother’s death.

18The story of Sacha’s young life was one of instability and tragedy; she grew up among well-to-do Egyptian Jews, but any early privilege was wiped out by the almost novelistic deaths of her parents: her father went mad and died in a Parisian asylum, her mother succumbed to a typhoid epidemic that almost killed Sacha, too. Instead, she lived to be orphaned at the tender age of ten. Brought up by uncongenial grandparents, she married as soon as she could, a pretentious young man named Jean, a would-be writer who was going to prepare a doctorate in philosophy in the South of France. Sacha moved with him, but the marriage was soon in trouble, with Jean pursuing other women. Then the war began. They were booked on the last boat out of Marseille, only for Sacha to give birth to Gabriel on the day it was to sail. The marriage did not last much longer; Jean ran off to Paris with a good friend of Sacha’s and she discovered that she was pregnant again, abandoned more comprehensively than when her parents had died.

  • 22 Monika Fludernik, Echoes and Mirrorings, op. cit., 23.

19The situation for Jews became much worse when the Italians withdrew from the South of France and only last minute intervention from friends saved them from being rounded up and sent to the death camps. Gabriel and his mother escaped to the Massif Central, where Sacha gave birth to a daughter who lived only ten days. Only the existence of Gabriel kept Sacha from suicide, at this darkest time in her life. She felt that stress and malnutrition had damaged the baby’s chances and two photos of her taken at this time show her with haunted dark eyes and a Mona Lisa smile. Something happened in those troubled wartime days; a bond was forged between mother and child that would prove unbreakable. Reading Anne Karpf’s book about her experiences as the child of a Holocaust survivor, Josipovici makes a reluctant and qualified identification with Karpf’s account of the second generation’s powerful identification with their parents, and their desire to compensate for their losses and sufferings. Josipovici’s decisions were, he says, to some degree “conditioned by the war, by my sense of what Sacha had been through, by my sense of the sacrifices she had later made for me, and by her sense of the miracle of our survival”. (239-240) Elsewhere in an interview with M. Fludernik, he reiterates this point, describing how his mother was the one who was marked and damaged by the war, whereas for his part there was “no anger, resentment or grief, but a sense of how miraculous to have been granted life and the need to repay someone for that by doing what I can do best as best as I can”22.

  • 23 Gabriel Josipovici, A Life, op. cit., 177.

20The primary allusion here is to writing and creative work of the intellect. The young Gabriel was a gifted child, good at sport as well as his lessons, but the books won out and took mother and son to England where an education at Cheltenham College and then Oxford finally secured their future. Josipovici picked up a lecturing post at the University of Sussex and wrote asking for advice about renting accommodation for “myself, four cats, a rabbit… and a mother”23. It caused much hilarity in the university office, but for Josipovici it was a simple truth. Where he went, his mother came too; it was the other thing that he could do best. The years spent at Oxford while his mother tried to make ends meet in unlovely accommodation in London had tested their ability to be apart. Twice in A Life he refers to how “lonely” his mother’s existence must have been, a speculation that clearly causes him much pain, even in the retrospective viewpoint of many decades. Sacha had dedicated her life to her son, and willingly accompanied him to exile in England. She provided the motherland in all its meanings, and he could not bear the thought of her isolated and alone without him.

21It was the start of a period of calm, cultured pursuits, beloved pets and long walks on the Sussex Downs. For all their happiness, mother and son were both troubled from time to time with guilt about their dependence on each other. Girlfriends came and went, but no lasting relationship developed, despite Josipovici’s tendency to “compulsive involvement with women throughout my life, my desire, after barely a week’s acquaintance, to marry them, and my consequent horrified withdrawal as I realised what I was committing myself to”, a process that he believed “may have had more to do with my fear of being left alone after Sacha’s death than with the desire to escape her”. (214) Sacha’s poetry expressed her own anxieties: “Am I a vampire mother feeding/ on your flesh gradually bleeding/ you to death”. (185) Had it been, Josipovici wondered “my weakness or my strength that had led to my making my life with her, whether, by going away a long time before, I would have given her the freedom and strength to move beyond me”. (214) But one fraught period of complicated relationships in Josipovici’s life, coinciding with the death by suicide of a mutual friend, put Sacha back in the dark, suicidal place she had inhabited in France after the death of her second child, and it was this sort of fear, the fear of the son for the fear of the mother, the shared terror of seeing her abandoned and alone, that kept them firmly bound together.

22Much as there were undercurrents of darkness in the ties that bound mother to son, there were many genuine, loving attachments, and a sense of almost uncannily shared tastes. Any sort of biographical interpretation has to be treated with care, of course, and not taken too far. But there are nevertheless powerful influences at work in this relationship that must surely have left their mark on Josipovici’s creativity. Just as the fascination with migration as a theme is clearly a remainder from the real migration that Gabriel and his mother made through France, Egypt and England in his upbringing, so the continuous concern with undecidable states of separation and union must reflect in some way the extension of the mother-child relationship beyond its natural life and into the pleasures and pains of adult existence. The unsatisfactory, entangled relationships of Contre-Jour express a negative vision of merged family members, whilst the union of artist with art is seen as a sort of secular state of grace, and the way the reader is bound into the text in a Josipovici narrative, the inability to separate out from it with the help of clear meaning, represents a middle-ground of radical ambivalence in which curiosity, engagement, pleasure and claustrophobia are all significant elements of the experience. The repeated return to the figure alone in a room may be seen as a further development of these tropes, ambivalently coloured perhaps by the image of his mother lonely in her London rooms while Josipovici was alone in his in Oxford, falling in love with literature. And we may be able to see in the way that Sacha provided her son with a model of perfect empathy and compatibility, the source of some of Josipovici’s interest in his texts with issues of receptivity. Sacha’s natural self-effacement and her pride and pleasure in her son made her the ideal audience for him, and yet perfect reception, after all, might be indistinguishable from silence, and silence can give rise to doubts as Josipovici discovered so poignantly – who is the other who listens so well?

23None of this, however, accounts for the question of artistic suffering, of a life laid upon the line in the pursuit of genuine, significant creativity. But if we take the title of his memoir/biography at face value, if we consider A Life to be one that binds mother and son together in their shared fate, then we may be able to see that, just as Sacha was the ontological foundation upon which Josipovici grounded his perspective and his voice, so she herself becomes the guarantor of experiential crisis. Her early and painful suffering becomes the traumatic ground in which his writing may take root.

24Josipovici wrote one novel based upon an experience of his mother’s. In a Hotel Garden is the story he elaborated from a youthful and unfulfilled attachment of his mother’s with a music student called Giorgio Nathan Rogers. They met on holiday in Italy and it seems there is no doubt that the affair was a serious one, but despite having promised to meet her off the boat in Venice when her family returned to Europe the next year, he never showed up. “He sent her a toy donkey by way of apology, but she took this as adding insult to injury and never replied, though he continued to shower her with letters and apologies”. (64) Josipovici writes that he never knew “whether she approved of my using what had been such an important and painful episode in her life for my own selfish writerly ends. And she never talked to me about Giorgio again”. (38)

25In a Hotel Garden is, however, nothing but respectful towards the memory material it uses and the possible consequences that may ripple down through the generational line. It is essentially the story of Ben, a rootless, indecisive young man, who becomes increasingly obsessed with a Jewish woman he met whilst on holiday in the Dolomites. Unsure whether to pursue the relationship, Ben tries to explain what happened to his suburban friends Rick and Francesca. Rick and Francesca have a settled life of surface contentment with a demanding child and a feckless dog and an air of having long dealt with those troublesome questions of origins, desires and purposes. Rick wants to understand but finds it hard to do so, Francesca simply finds Ben’s endless shilly-shallying a source of irritation and fatigue, and it is against this backdrop of abrasive, uninspired friendship that Josipovici weaves a tale that questions the possibility of profound sympathetic understanding.

26The tale concerns Lily, whom Ben meets when stranded in an Italian hotel with a grumpy and unresponsive girlfriend. Left to his own devices, Ben starts to become interested in Lily and her reticence to tell a story that binds her family history to her travels in Italy. Of primary importance here is the difficulty involved in telling stories, in putting words to experiences, and particularly when those experiences are not one’s own: “I realised as soon as I first mentioned it to you that I didn’t know how to tell it, she said. […] It’s just one of those things that makes no particular sense in itself, she said. It just gathers meaning in time for the people involved”. (105)

27The story when it eventually comes is a close relative to the one that Sacha told to her son. Holidaying with her family, Lily’s grandmother struck up an acquaintance with a young Jewish man. They enjoyed each other’s company, there were possibilities that something more could come of the liaison, but in the end the young man returned home where he had a fiancée. Although he wrote to her grandmother several times, she never replied; perhaps out of modesty and convention, perhaps a little out of pique. Many years later her grandmother found out that he had perished in the Holocaust. Lily’s reluctance to confess this tale to Ben is bound up in the profound effect it has on her, as it seems to speak to a sense of roots and origins and history that she has never before experienced but which now becomes achingly alive. Attempting to put words to this phenomenon is beyond her capacity, but Lily knows what she felt and knows what she is driven to do. She has been trying to find the hotel garden where her grandmother spent a day in delicious and empathetic conversation with the young man, to put herself in her grandmother’s place, as it were, and to merge her personal history with the history out of which she was created. And although she thinks she finds the garden, and has her moment of epiphany there, it is only afterwards that she realises she was mistaken, and that the garden continues to elude her.

28Out of this jumble of longings old and new, and near-misses, old and new, Josipovici weaves a complex tapestry of space and time. Ben’s nascent interest in Lily makes him long to understand her story, and to experience in imagination the sense of placement and belonging Lily feels in a garden that turns out not to be the right one, and a story of a love affair from which she is quite clearly not a direct descendent. When he tries to repeat the story to his friends Rick and Francesca he is met with bewilderment or blank incomprehension. Francesca is inclined to ridicule the whole encounter as idleness and sexual frustration curdling into romantic pretension. But oddly enough, her harsh and uncompassionate judgement throws into relief the genuineness of Lily’s strange quest.

29Francesca is not without kind qualities – we see her patiently dealing with her son’s awkward and taxing moods, but she is in such a different place to Ben and Lily that the story is empty and pointless for her. Once again the notion of being in the same place as a fundamental prerequisite for sympathy is raised. We might need to be in the same geographical space to empathize with an event in a different historical time, or we might need to make the imaginative leap to the same mindset as another person, to understand an enigmatic point of view, but true sympathy demands that we change places, that we move ourselves either physically or mentally into another realm altogether, so that the same perspective might be shared. And the point of doing this, Josipovici seems to suggest, is that this whole awkward business of moving and mental shape-shifting is one of the basic and most admirable building blocks of love. Francesca puts herself in the place of her child, just as Lily puts herself in the place of her grandmother, and Ben tries to inhabit the space that Lily describes to him. And in this way maternal, familial and romantic love are mobilised.

30We might also add that filial love is mobilised, too. Josipovici’s tender acknowledgement of his mother’s empathetic attentiveness to him is nowhere more evident than in his honouring here of empathy and attentiveness themselves. Equally intriguing is the message that Lily takes from her experiences in the hotel garden she finds and their relation to the age-old story she has been told. The important thing, she says, is that in the garden where her grandmother and her beau met “their whole lives were present to them, their lives before and their lives after.” Memories, even incomplete and vague ones, carry a freight of emotional significance that inhabits every vestige of the story in which they are encompassed. We might see that this is a reason why telling those stories becomes such a fraught and difficult operation, with so much at stake. But the semantic weight is potentially even greater than that:

  • 24 Ibid., 136.

– The important thing is that everything came together in a single moment in a single enclosed spot. And if I could really feel it, really understand it, then perhaps I could understand why I was alive and what I had to do.
– And do you?
– Of course not, she says.24

31In many ways this is a perfect encapsulation of Josipovici’s Modernist-informed concerns with the power and the demands of storytelling, with the possibilities engendered by creativity and the huge burden of responsibility it occasions. Nothing less than the meaning of a life may perhaps be deduced from a significant story, in the appropriate coupling of narrative and experience. Only, of course, such an outcome remains essentially at the level of possibility, always hoped for, rarely experienced. We may read this as part and parcel of Josipovici’s humanistic concerns with narrative and with his justification for the necessity of suffering to be bound up with creativity. But we can also see, bearing the biographical dimension in mind, how this may be read as the symbolic acknowledgement of the way that his own life and creative purpose is dependent upon the ontological ground of suffering borne by his mother. How the sense of what he had to do grew out of stories from the past which he himself had not lived, but which held a mysterious power over his existence.

32Creativity, then, in Josipovici’s work, often comes at a high cost. But what his own works and his own engagement with literature tell us is that the creative act itself is intimately bound up with the sense of tremendous potential reward, nothing less than the meaning of life for the individual and his or her sense of worth and valuable endeavour are at stake, even if art’s inevitable failure to satisfactorily or reliably produce such personal fulfilment is never less than guaranteed. It is this tightrope that creativity must negotiate, joyfully, tremulously, delicately, knowingly, if its products are to earn the label of art.

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FERMIGIER André, Pierre Bonnard, London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.

FLUDERNIK Monika, Echoes and Mirrorings: Gabriel Josipovici’s Creative Oeuvre, Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang, 2000.

JOSIPOVICI Gabriel, Contre-Jour: A Triptych after Pierre Bonnard [1986], Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1998.

JOSIPOVICI Gabriel, In a Hotel Garden, Manchester: Carcanet Press: 1993.

JOSIPOVICI Gabriel, A Life, London: London Magazine Editions/EJPS, 2001.

JOSIPOVICI Gabriel, What Ever Happened to Modernism? New Haven (CT) and London: Yale UP, 2010.

JOSIPOVICI Gabriel, “A Changeable Report”, in Heart’s Wings and Other Stories, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010.

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1 Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, New Haven (CT)/London: Yale UP, 2010, 5.

2 Ibidem, 8.

3 Ibid., 26.

4 Ibid., 77.

5 Gabriel Josipovici, “A Changeable Report”, in Heart’s Wings and Other Stories, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010, 84.

6 Ibid., 85.

7 Monika Fludernik, Echoes and Mirrorings: Gabriel Josipovici’s Creative Oeuvre, Frankfurt a. M.: Peter Lang, 2000, 53.

8 Gabriel Josipovici, “A Changeable Report”, op. cit., 90.

9 Gabriel Josipovici, Contre-Jour: A Triptych after Pierre Bonnard [1986], Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1998, 36.

10 André Fermigier, Pierre Bonnard, London: Thames and Hudson, 1987, 16.

11 Ibid., 14.

12 Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, op. cit., 187.

13 Ibid., 178.

14 André Fermigier, op. cit., 29.

15 Monika Fludernik, op. cit., 11-12.

16 Quoted in Monika Fludernik, op. cit., 12.

17 Gabriel Josipovici, Contre-Jour, op. cit., 48-9.

18 Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, op. cit., 81.

19 Gabriel Josipovici, Contre-Jour, op. cit., 111.

20 Gabriel Josipovici, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, op. cit., 79.

21 Gabriel Josipovici, A Life, London: London Magazine Editions/EJPS, 2001, 1.

22 Monika Fludernik, Echoes and Mirrorings, op. cit., 23.

23 Gabriel Josipovici, A Life, op. cit., 177.

24 Ibid., 136.

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Victoria Best, « The Cost of Creativity in the Work of Gabriel Josipovici », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XII-n° 2 | 2014, mis en ligne le 27 mai 2014, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.5810

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Victoria Best

Victoria Best was Lecturer in French at St John’s College, Cambridge for many years. She specialised in literature from the 20th and 21st centuries with a particular interest in the relationship between storytelling and identity. She is now a freelance writer, and blogs regularly at Tales from the Reading Room , .

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