- 1 Gabriel Josipovici, The Mirror of Criticism: Selected Reviews, 1977-1982, Brighton, Sussex: H (...)
- 2 Gabriel Josipovici, Migrations, Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester Press, 1977.
1Five years after the publication of his fourth novel, Gabriel Josipovici set himself the task of providing an account of his work as a writer in the brief text with the self-explanatory title “Getting it right: True Confessions of an Experimentalist”1. Josipovici begins with a summary of the general approach to his work, notably after his 1977 novel, Migrations2, which definitely ascribed him the recurrent – often derogatory – label of experimentalist. Among others, he cites a particularly relevant review for the present investigation:
- 3 Gabriel Josipovici, The Mirror of Criticism: Selected Reviews, 1977-1982, op. cit., 173.
Mr. Josipovici may be trying to create a literary equivalent of abstract painting […]. Or he may be seeking an equivalent for music […]. But don’t let me put you off: Britain is short enough of experimental writers without my dissuading readers from the few there are.3
2One cannot help but notice how these words implicitly correlate the intermedial dimension of Josipovici’s writing to the so-called experimental character of his work, which ultimately refers to the formal innovation permeating much of his fiction. I am not interested in assessing the arguable validity of this label, but rather wish to address these two defining features of Josipovici’s writing – the concern with narrative experimentation and the allusion to other arts in his texts – and focus on how and why they eventually relate to each other in the larger context of his oeuvre.
- 4 Gabriel Josipovici, In the Fertile Land, Manchester/New York: Carcanet Press, 1987.
- 5 Dominique Pernot, “Biblical, Modern and Postmodern Winding and Unwinding in Gabriel Josipovic (...)
- 6 Monika Fludernik, Echoes and Mirrorings: Gabriel Josipovici’s Creative Oeuvre, Frankfurt a.M. (...)
3Published in 1987, In the Fertile Land4 contains eighteen short stories where the full range of Josipovici’s concerns and modes of expression can be found, displaying to a large extent the double emphasis on experimentation and intermediality mentioned above: while “Steps” is seen as a “Möbius strip type” of story5, following notable examples in his early fiction (such as “Mobius the Stripper”, Migrations and The Echo Chamber), “Children’s Voices” can easily be taken as an example of what Monika Fludernik defined as “radical dialogue texts”6 ; at the same time, a significant number of stories are inspired by individual artists or works from other media, namely Pablo Picasso, Otto Dix, Paul Klee and Igor Stravinsky.
4This may seem to suggest that the collection is made up of two independent types of stories, but in reality a great deal of the pieces integrate both these features of Josipovici’s writing. An example of this is “Absence and Echo”, a text purely in dialogue which revolves around Johannes Vermeer’s A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal. This is also the case with “Second Person Looking Out”, a tripartite story written in first, third and second person, where the seemingly coreferential protagonists of each section try to find their way in and out of a house with sliding doors and windows. Despite not being explicitly stated in the story (unlike “Absence and Echo”, for instance, where a reference to Vermeer’s painting is included in the subtitle of the story), Josipovici discusses – as he often does – the circumstances which surrounded the writing of this story in particular, admitting his debt to the remarks of the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen on Japanese architecture:
- 7 Gabriel Josipovici, “When I Begin I Have Already Begun”, in Subha Mukherji (ed.), Thinking on (...)
He [Stockhausen] grew fascinated by the Japanese use of sliding doors and windows, which had the effect, he said in the interview, of blurring the threshold between inside and outside, an effect heightened in many of the temples by the winding and labyrinthine paths which led to them, so that as one approached one felt oneself to be sometimes almost on top of them and then, seconds later, as far away as ever.
For reasons I did not understand, these remarks of Stockhausen’s excited me, and led, eventually, to my writing a little story called “Second Person Looking Out”.7
5The different sense of time and space which had earlier enticed Stockhausen is then appropriated by Josipovici, who bases the narrative structure of his story precisely on this interplay between the inner and the outer dimension. As this suggests, the intermedial reference to the German composer comes hand in hand with the formal experimentation in the text, for Josipovici, as he himself admits, “was looking for ways of escaping from the beginning, middle and end form which seemed to be the only way to write narrative, as it seemed to be the only way to compose music”8.
- 9 Gabriel Josipovici, “Music and Literary Form”, Contemporary Music Review, vol. 5, 1989, (...)
6The reference to Stockhausen, and indeed to music in general, is not unprecedented in Josipovici’s critical work; he wrote specifically about the role of music and musicians in his work in the essay “Music and Literary Form”9 and – besides Stockhausen – the names of Arnold Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Pierre Boulez, to name but a few, are recurrent in several of his longer works. In his widely acclaimed Lessons of Modernism (1977), for example, Josipovici dedicates one whole section to the relation of words to music, devoting one chapter to argue for the importance of Stockhausen’s Inori (1973-74). Josipovici is therefore aware of the critical relevance of the issues and techniques which underlie the works of these musicians, so it comes as no surprise that he eventually explores them whenever they seem to provide the most appropriate formal solution to his own aesthetic dilemmas.
7As mentioned, “Second Person Looking Out” follows in narrative mode Stockhausen’s conceptual reflection on how Japanese architecture enabled a new approach to temporality and spatiality. However, what I propose instead in this essay is to consider and discuss the four-page story “Brothers” in the context of the composer’s musical techniques themselves. As such, I shall first start by looking at how the story can be read as an example of musicalized fiction, relating its structure to the formula composition used by Stockhausen in some of his most notable works, particularly Mantra (1970) and Inori, both addressed in Josipovici’s Lessons of Modernism. Furthermore, I will examine how that musical structure presupposes a violation of narrative levels, which ultimately acts as a metafictional strategy. Following this, I shall finally refer to the importance of In the Fertile Land in the context of Josipovici’s work, notably for its recurrent and varied use of the so-called experimental and intermedial features.
- 10 Jonathan Cott, Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer, London: Robson Books, 1974, (...)
- 11 Günter Peters, “‘…How Creation Is Composed’: Spirituality in the Music of Karlheinz Sto (...)
8In the last chapter of Lessons of Modernism Josipovici discusses the compositional procedures of both Mantra and Inori and thus quotes at some length Stockhausen’s own words on the underlying structure of the latter piece. The composer describes the core idea behind his formula composition, first used in Mantra and which, in simple terms, consists of creating a whole musical piece from one single and primal melodic structure. This structure – the formula – is then repeated for the longer duration of the piece (in Inori, for instance, the approximately one minute long formula is then projected onto a duration of about seventy minutes). As Stockhausen emphatically argues, there is no variation involved as that found in classical composers, for no single note is ever added: “this formula is repeated all the time in different degrees of expansion and contraction. It’s not varied, only expanded. This procedure differs from those in traditional music where you develop a theme or add or leave something out: it’s expanded in duration – in time – in space”10. These compositions are thus based on a principle of projection of the formula, involving on the one hand a continual repetition of the same primal melodic structure, which merely superimposes itself in expanded or contracted form, and on the other hand a constant mirroring of that same structure. In Mantra we witness the use of two voices which reflect one other, inverted in mirror-like fashion, while in Inori the presence of the mime, who performs gestures in absolute synchronization with the orchestra, brings about a fully composed “bodily music”11 on the basis of a chromatic scale of gestures which the composer “notated in the same way as the parts for the orchestral musicians” (Stockhausen, Inori).
- 12 Werner Wolf, The Musicalization of Fiction: A Study in the Theory and History of Interm (...)
9Bearing this in mind, if we are to consider a reading of “Brothers” centred on a structural analogy to Stockhausen’s formula composition, there should be a correspondence to the same principle of projection of one primal form in Josipovici’s story. Following Werner Wolf’s comprehensive typological systematization of musico-literary intermediality, itself indebted to Steven Scher’s classical typology, the musicalization of “Brothers” thus rests on the level of imitation, for music emerges as a formal model affecting the text structure itself.12
- 13 Ibid., 83.
- 14 Gabriel Josipovici, The Inventory, London: Michael Joseph, 1968.
- 15 Gabriel Josipovici, Goldberg: Variations, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002.
- 16 Gabriel Josipovici, After and Making Mistakes, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2009.
10Admittedly, as Wolf rightly suggests, the claim that Josipovici’s story constitutes a musicalized text ought not to be made lightly, not least since no textual evidence exists to support this view. There are, however, significant circumstantial elements which can make this particular possibility a more plausible one. Firstly, what Wolf calls the cultural and biographical evidence13 : the fact that Josipovici has commented extensively not only on music in general, but also on a number of musical works and musicians in particular (Stockhausen included), clearly bears witness to his critical interest in aesthetic issues related to music. Moreover, there is a considerable amount of works linked to a potential musicalization of fiction, as well as numerous specific references by the author pointing to his debt to musical works or figures: The Inventory14 (1968) to Stravinsky, Migrations (1977) to Harrison Birtwistle, Goldberg: Variations15 (2002) to J. S. Bach, Making Mistakes16 (2009) to Wolfgang A. Mozart, to give but a few examples taken from some of his novels. Finally, one last piece of evidence which, in spite of its still being contextual, refers in part directly to Stockhausen. In Lessons of Modernism, Josipovici addresses the question of what he calls intermedial borrowings, concluding as follows:
- 17 Gabriel Josipovici, The Lessons of Modernism and Other Essays, Houndmills, Basingstoke/London (...)
[T]he point I wish to make is clear: artists, in whatever medium, now look to other arts to provide them with structural models rather than with stories, sights or sounds for them to imitate or embelish. Unfortunately, in England at any rate, composers have proved better readers than writers are listeners. We await the playwright or novelist who will take his cue from Stockhausen’s Mantra or Harrison Birtwistle’s marvellous The Triumph of Time.17
11Two points can be made from these words: on the one hand, they reinforce the idea that Josipovici is particularly aware of the possibility of adopting musical structures and techniques as a means to exploring them on a formal level in narrative, thus in line with the typology of musicalization suggested for “Brothers”; on the other hand, in the context of that awareness, he makes an explicit reference not only to the music of Stockhausen in general, but rather to the particular piece in which he first made use of his formula composition technique. What is more, the fact that further on Josipovici devotes an entire chapter to discuss the relevance of the compositional procedures of Inori (also a formula composition), clearly demonstrates how dear this technique was to his own critical and aesthetic concerns. It is certainly true that these are merely contextual evidence, but one which, put together, provides reasonable plausibility for us to consider looking at how Stockhausen’s formula composition may have been appropriated into narrative form in Josipovici’s work.
- 18 Gabriel Josipovici, “How to Make a Square Move”, PN Review, vol. 30, n°6, 2011, 35.
12“Brothers” is a four-page-long text, narrated in the first-person, which tells the story of two brothers, one who had moved away to the country, turning his back on his marriage, his children and his job, and the other who comes to visit him, driving his way through the snow so as to convince him to return. The story begins in a typical Josipovician setting, an empty room with only a table and a chair in the middle, where the country brother – the narrator – is sitting as he describes the arrival of his brother, who climbs the stairs up to the room and places himself next to the window; after this short sequence of events, the narrator finally sums up their equally brief exchange of words, where his brother tries to make him give up his withdrawal from society and go back with him. The primary level of the story is thus found in this first scene and is structured into the following narrative formula: “two brothers, one hiding away in the country, the other driving down from London to persuade him to return”18. What the reader finds in the remainder of the text, as we shall see, is nothing but a continual projection – in the double sense of repetition and mirroring – of this basic narrative formula.
- 19 Karlheinz Stockhausen, “Liner Notes”, Mantra, LP, DGG, 1972.
- 20 Jonathan Cott, op. cit., 220-227.
- 21 Karlheinz Stockhausen, op. cit.
- 22 Robin Maconie, The Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, ix.
13If we consider Stockhausen’s Mantra, for instance, the composition is based on a thirteen-note formula in two voices, the first piano presenting “the upper thirteen pitches of the mantra in succession, and the second pianist the lower thirteen pitches, the mantra-mirror”19. The formula is divided into four parts, separated by pauses of different lengths. The upper voice of the formula consists of a twelve-tone row plus a return to the starting pitch, while the lower voice presents in turn an inversion of the same melody in permutated form. Each of the thirteen notes has a particular characteristic and dynamics, and each note determines a large cycle of the piece20. This intricate construction is further advanced with the use of the so-called ‘ring modulation’ (which means that besides the piano, the antique cymbals and the wood blocks, each player works with a ring modulator that reproduces the modulated sound and the played sound simultaneously), a technical process which “makes possible a new system of harmonic relationships”21. As such, while the piece is entirely built upon a simple continual projection of one single formula, the web of melodic and intervallic relationships – drawn in full by the composer – lends the composition a highly layered, dense and complex structure. Mantra thus perfectly illustrates what Robin Maconie quite rightly defined, apropos Stockhausen’s formula compositions, as those “complex self-similar structures whose every dimension, from the whole to the smallest particle, is configured to the same formula”22.
14This self-similar quality, which conveys at once a sense of simplicity and intricacy, also characterises the text. As mentioned, just like Stockhausen’s musical pieces, Josipovici’s story derives in its entirety from one narrative formula. However, as the brief description of Mantra testifies, the result is not necessarily a simple one. The repetition of the formula in the text involves a play with fictional levels which thus also creates a layered and complex narrative structure.
15Let us then look in detail how the musical structure of formula compositions is converted into the narrative mode. The primary level of the story is found in the first scene, which describes the arrival of the town brother and the subsequent conversation between the two siblings. The cycle of projection of the formula which then follows in the remainder of the story rests on an embedding of narrative levels, which can be clearly identified already on the first page:
- 23 Gabriel Josipovici, In the Fertile Land, op. cit., 27.
It upsets him that I do not respond to this. I tell him about the snow. I tell him how I wake up thinking I am lying in the snow, a black figure on the white hillside, and I have just been dreaming that I am in my clean and empty room at the top of the house and have received of all things a visit from my brother. I am lying in the snow and yet I can still feel myself in the room, deep in conversation with my brother.23
- 24 Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, New York: Basic Bo (...)
16The reference here to a new spatial setting by the narrator signals simultaneously the ending of that initial scene and the beginning of a new projection of the narrative formula. The two spaces recede into one another, creating a sort of circular narrative structure, a strange loop phenomenon, to use Douglas R. Hofstadter’s highly influential terminology24 : as he is discussing with his brother in his room, the narrator tells him about how he daydreams of lying in the snow where he dreams of sitting in his empty room as his brother approaches. The two scenarios thus move into one another, for the daydream exists within the conversation which itself occurs within the dream that takes place as the narrator is lying on the snow (i.e. the daydream). At play is therefore an infinite recession of fictional levels that relies on an embedded narrative structure. What is more, it is precisely this structure which makes possible a continual projection of the same formula in the text; Stockhausen’s musical composition as the formal model to the text is thus enacted by an erosion of determinable story levels which dissolve into one another.
17Bearing in mind this narrative framework, let us now consider how the projection of the formula takes form in the story. As the above quote from the text suggests, the narrator is once again in conversation with his brother, even if from this point on it is impossible for the reader to determine the fictional level on which that conversation takes place. At a first moment, the narrative formula is repeated as the narrator projects his own decision on to his brother, suggesting that the latter has really come for his advice after realizing how trapped he himself feels in his own bourgeois life:
- 25 Gabriel Josipovici, In the Fertile Land, op. cit., 28.
He tells me it is entirely on his own initiative that he has come, that he drove down in the early hours, when all of London was still asleep, and kept on driving until he reached me. Now he has come to take me back. I am not sure that this is what he has really come for. I wonder if it is not to talk about himself, to ask my advice, to tell me that he needs my help in order to escape from the life that has trapped him.25
18On a second moment, the formula is repeated in mirror form, for suddenly it is the town brother who imagines the narrator waiting for him:
I am sitting in my quiet room in the dusk, and I hear the tread of my brother’s footsteps on the stairs. I wait for him to enter. He pushes the door open a little and it creaks as he does so, then he is inside the room and we are talking as we have always talked. I ask him if he is not subject to such fantasies. He turns his back to me and looks out of the window. He wants me to cease this nonsense. He wants me to return to my family, my home, my job. He wants me to stay here, is proud of me for doing what I have done. So it has always been between us. He drives his little car along the motorway with the snow piled up on either side and in his mind’s eye he can see me sitting in the dusk at my table in the middle of the empty room.26
19Finally, the formula is repeated in the nature of an absolute blurring of fictional levels, as the narrator (the man lying in the snow) imagines he is the town brother:
As he drives he is lying out on the hillside, his body is growing cold. A dog has seen the prostrate form and barks in a fury of anxiety. I have died in peace, he thinks, my brother at least did not try to pester me, did not attempt to pull me back. He did not drive down in his little car and try to persuade me to return.27
- 28 Gabriel Josipovici, The Lessons of Modernism and Other Essays, op. cit., 200.
20This embedded narrative structure thus subjects the formula to a play of repetitions, mirrorings and inversions which provide the text the same sense of self-similarity as the one which characterises Stockhausen’s compositions. The process of projecting the formula in its various forms is, however complex in its effect, clearly discernible and available to the reader. The formula is presented at the start of the text and, while remaining unchanged, is then worked upon on the narrative level ; the result is therefore a work which, though not developing in terms of story elements, becomes increasingly denser while it operates apparently only on the surface of the text. What Josipovici said about Inori could then also be used to describe his own story: this formula composition ultimately “leads to an extraordinary focusing upon surface”.28
- 29 Ibid., 199.
- 30 Ibid., 198.
- 31 Gabriel Josipovici, The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction, Basingstoke/London: Ma (...)
- 32 Gabriel Josipovici, The Singer on the Shore: Essays 1991-2004, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 20 (...)
21This focus on surface is essential for us to understand not only the relevance of Stockhausen’s formula compositions to “Brothers,” but also how the story can be seen as a self-reflexive text. In his reflection on Inori in The Lessons of Modernism, Josipovici tells us that “[t]he marvelous feeling of release provided by the piece”29 stems precisely from the emphasis on surface which the process of formula composition entails. For it precludes, Josipovici suggests, any “condition of false transcendence”30, that is to say, any notion of art as a privileged means to feed information about the world, as a “passport to some higher realm of existence”31. On the contrary, as the process of projecting the formula operates upon the surface, formula compositions (musical and/or narrative) seem rather to relate to a view of art very much dear to Josipovici, that of art as toy, an art where “all the evidence is before you: the wood, the stick, the sticking-plaster holding it all together” and where “every step taken by the artist is out in the open32” ; the formula-based structure of Josipovici’s short story serves then to call attention to its own condition as an artifact, as a construction. In this sense, as it foregrounds its own structural premises, the text incorporates a profoundly metafictional dimension, stressing as it does the fictionality of fiction, a pervading concern in Josipovici’s work.
22Admittedly, considering what we have just discussed, this metafictional dimension cannot be dissociated from the two recurrent features of Josipovici’s writing: narrative experimentation and intermediality; these elements – working together or on their own – have a clear self-reflexive function as they run against the grain of traditional storytelling and thus draw attention to themselves as constructs. In the particular case of the short story “Brothers” they are in fact intertwined: the experimental character of the narrative (the disruption of fictional levels) stemming from the formal exploration of the intermedial source (formula compositions).
- 33 Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction, London, New York: Routledge, 1987, 119.
23In any case, this story is not an isolated example in the collection In the Fertile Land; there we find a great variety of texts which also make use – in more or less different ways – of similar narrative strategies and intermedial devices. In “Fuga”, for instance, we find a narrative structure based on the musical technique of the fugue; “The Bird Cage” alludes to a picture by Picasso and “In the Fertile Land” alludes to Klee; in “Absence and Echo”, a story entirely in dialogue, the interlocutors discuss the expression of the girl depicted in Vermeer’s A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal; “That Which is Hidden” tells the story of a man obsessed with constructing boxes within boxes, highly reminiscent of the work of Joseph Cornell; “Second Person Looking Out” is a tripartite labyrinthine story written in first, third and second person loosely based on remarks by Stockhausen on Japanese architecture; “Children’s Voices” is a radical dialogue text; and finally “Steps”, “A Changeable Report” and “He” are metaleptic stories, that is to say, texts where a “violation of the hierarchy of narrative levels”33 occurs. This is obviously a simplistic overview of the collection, but one which still provides enough insight into the character of Josipovici’s collection.
- 34 Walter Benjamin, “The Cultural History of Toys”, in Michael W. Jennings (ed.) et al., S (...)
24As a mosaic of stories that include in abundant and varied form those two features, which relentlessly resurface in his shorter and longer fictional work, In the Fertile Land constitutes therefore not only a privileged showcase of Josipovici’s wide-ranging ingenuity as a writer, but also – and subsequently – of the sharpness of his aesthetic views. The so-called experimental and intermedial character of the stories which make up the collection is an extension of the concern with the creative process itself and reflects a notion of art aware of its own status and limits as an artifact. In this sense, narrative strategies and intermedial devices are the wood, the stick and the sticking-plaster of the stories, which, as they stress their own condition as mere toys, keep reminding the reader that they ought not to be confused with real life and the real world. As such, as In the Fertile Land embodies Josipovici’s notion of art as toy, the words of Walter Benjamin echo as a fit conclusion, one which reasserts the act of playing as the vital function of art: “the more appealing toys are, in the ordinary sense of the term, the further they are from genuine playthings; the more they are based on imitation, the further away they lead us from the real, living play”.34