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Prophets of the Modern

 

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The Cemetery in Barnes
By Gabriel Josipovici
(Carcanet Press, 2018)

He could not be content with counterfeit,
With masquerade of thought, with hapless words
That must belie the racking masquerade,
With fictive flourishes that preordained
His passion’s permit, hang of coat, degree
Of buttons, measure of his salt. Such trash
Might help the blind, not him, serenely sly.
It irked beyond his patience.

—“The Comedian as the Letter C,” Wallace Stevens

Born in Nice to, as he describes them, “Russo-Italian, Romano-Levantine parents,” Gabriel Josipovici spent his formative years in Egypt. After reading English at Oxford, he had a thirty-year career teaching European Studies at the University of Sussex. In that time he also wrote dozens of breathtaking novels and a handful of first-rate books of criticism. Despite his prolific career, Josipovici remains almost unknown on this side of the Atlantic.

Josipovici has always been an artist and a teacher in equal measure. Perhaps his most liberating lesson, which also informs his fiction, is where modernism actually begins. Often contradictory definitions of modernism tend to group around the mid- to late nineteenth century as a start date and usually end with the explosion of the atom bomb. Not so, Josipovici explains, because modernism, more than a trend or fashion, is a particular orientation toward a world all but severed from the transcendent. According to Josipovici:

Modernism needs to be understood in a completely different way, as the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities, and therefore as something that will, from now on, always be with us. Seen in this way, modernism, I would suggest, becomes a response by artists to that “disenchantment of the world” to which cultural historians have long been drawing our attention.

Pinpointing exactly when this disenchantment occurred is a complex, almost impossible task. Josipovici suggests that the Marburg debate between Luther and Zwingli over the substantial presence of Christ in the Sacrament might be a milestone of creeping secularization. Luther, despite being such a firebrand in certain matters, was a solid denizen of the old world, in which God worked directly upon reality turning the bread and wine of the Eucharist literally into the flesh and blood of Christ. Zwingli found the notion laughable. By Josipovici’s definition, Zwingli was a modernist, at least in spirit. Luther was not.

In literature the earliest expressions of the modernist impulse come from Cervantes and Rabelais, whose awareness of the absence of cosmic authority force their writing into comical self-referentiality. Unable to assume a transcendent purpose, their books go in search of reasons for existing. In music, perhaps Monteverdi was first, as Thomas Mann also noticed. In Doktor Faustus, his reworking of one of the central myths of modernism, Mann has his character Zeitblom say that “Monteverdi, whose music … favoured the echo-effect, sometimes to the point of being a mannerism. The echo, the giving back of the human voice as nature-sound, and the revelation of it as nature sound, is essentially a lament: Nature’s melancholy ‘Alas!’ in view of man, her effort to utter his solitary state.”

Modernism, in this sense, is a lament for life carried out in an un-unified world, bereft of bedrock coherence, in which man himself becomes source of all meaning in a kind of banal and infinite refraction. With that lament comes the double vision of art as too weak to unify our cracked reality with the luminous world beyond, while remaining our only possible connection to such a world.

Throughout Josipovici’s fiction, this lament is stretched, dissected, seduced, distended, and exposed to the light of various emotions. His latest novel, The Cemetery in Barnes, which was shortlisted for the University of London’s Goldsmiths Prize for innovative fiction, works within the same grammar while remaining a unique achievement. It might be Josipovici’s most emotionally taut novel to date. It’s also a singularly modernist achievement, making itself a luminous symbol of our human state rather than burrowing into a pseudo-naturalistic narrative. The Cemetery in Barnes presents rather than represents.

The plot, as in many modernist novels, is necessarily simple. An Englishman, rather bookish and aloof but also sensitive and kind, moves to Paris after his first wife accidentally drowns. There he translates for a living, goes on long walks, and explores the city cemeteries. He remarries a lively and loving woman who brings him back into the world. They eventually move to a remote farmhouse in Wales. Perhaps. “Perhaps. It is his favorite word,” his second wife says. And as the story unfolds, not chronologically but according to the coherence of the novel’s unique logic, we come to realize that perhaps none of this happened. Perhaps all of it did. Perhaps the narrator’s first wife didn’t actually die. Perhaps he never married her. Perhaps he himself died in a fire in Wales. Perhaps he’s been dead through the entire course of the story. A ghost. Perhaps undead, like Gracchus the Hunter. “Sometimes, as he walked through the Parisian streets,” writes Josipovici, “he would suddenly be seized with the feeling that he was not there, that all this was still in the future or else in the distant past. He would examine his feeling with detachment, as though it belonged to someone else, and walked on.” Or, as the narrator says to his second wife:

One sprouts so many selves, he would say and look at her and smile. One is a murderer. One is a suicide. One lives in Paris. One in Bombay. One in New York.
One, one, one, she would echo, mocking him.

This exchange is expressive of the often painful but occasionally breathtaking sense of contingency we experience in a world where meaning has been flattened. Objects and people regularly slip their form while remaining fixed in a kind of horizontal solitude.

It’s fitting that Monteverdi’s Orfeo reverberates throughout the novel. Drawing from Mann, The Cemetery in Barnes rushes forward in a triple helix of echoes. Three places: London, Paris, Wales. Three states of relation for the narrator: first wife, single, second wife. A soft dialectic responding sensitively to events as they unfold not so much through time but across it. Josipovici writes that

Orfeo . . . dealt with the death of social and heavenly harmony and with the birth of the solo voice, lamenting its own emergence and the end of the millennia of choric chant. It heralds the public acknowledgement of the demise of plainsong and all it stood for, he said, the community of Christian souls affirming the common faith through communal chanting, and of the birth of the individual, isolated, lost, inconsolable, yet able in despair to sing in a way that had never been heard before and that brought tears to the eyes of the listeners and made them feel they were in touch with their deepest selves. Such song, he said, heralds the birth of the bel canto and of the dying diva’s lament. In Orpheus, he said, the soulful crooner finds his voice and after him the pop star.

It is the highest achievement of The Cemetery in Barnes not to express this pathos as its subject but rather to allow it to give the novel its very form.

The modernism Gabriel Josipovici advocates and works within represents a sort of artistic middle (perhaps narrow) way through the nihilistic loss of the contemporary world. One extreme that his writing studiously avoids is, again, rote representation, or the notion that words correspond perfectly with numinous reality. In this mode of thinking, art is a trap set to capture the world and give it back to itself completely unaltered. Anyone with even a trace of a religious sensibility should intuit the dangers of such a path. As Josipovici says of contemporary writers still laboring in the vein of nineteenth-century “naturalism,” they confuse the reality-effect for reality. The end result is usually a doubling down on grittiness, as if exchanging love for lust or a whisper for a curse in the novel allows some fuller entry into the depths of life. In fact, it’s a kind of self-deception.

At the other end of the spectrum, modernism seeks to avoid the jouissance of pure abstraction, a language game that denies the existence of transcendent truth altogether. In writing we find examples of this extreme in the “everything is text” games of postmodernism. In visual art we find it in abstractionism. As clichéd as it might be to point out, this really amounts to a kind of nihilism dressed up in garish academic lingo. And morally defunct as a complete denial of transcendent truth might be, it also makes for boring art. None of Beckett’s “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better” for them, because there simply isn’t anything to try for. And so the artistic results seem hollow, slack, and predictably meaningless.

Speaking to the critic David Sylvester about why his style of painting is superior to mere illustration, the painter Francis Bacon said:

I suppose because it has a life completely its own. It lives on its own like the image one’s trying to trap; it lives on its own and therefore transfers the essence of the image more poignantly. So that the artist may be able to open up or rather, should I say, unlock the valves of feeling and therefore return the onlooker to life more violently.

And then speaking again on the weaknesses of abstraction:

I believe that art is recording; I think it’s reporting. And I think that in abstract art, as there’s no report, there’s nothing other than the aesthetic of the painter and his few sensations. There’s never any tension in it.

These two extremes are the shoals through which Josipovici weaves The Cemetery in Barnes. On one hand, avoiding the illusion of perfectly capturing reality, he senses the transcendent obliquely, much the way a blind man moves through the world by the use of a cane. We make contact, through the narrator and his memories (or false memories), with a numinous mystery that returns us to “life more violently.”

Yet we also avoid the pure abstraction of play. We sense that Josipovici is asking important questions, tilting at the existential conundrums that make us human. We are meant to understand that love, loss, and memory are real human experiences, not simply linguistic constructs, and that grappling with these issues is important. What is fully present is the tension of great art, the feeling that things which truly matter are on the line. As Josipovici writes, “We must never forget, he would say to their guests in the converted farmhouse in the hills above Abergavenny, that Shakespeare is a part of life as much as starving children in Africa or the atrocities of Pol Pot.”

Josipovici calls modernism “a tradition of those who have no tradition.” Perhaps he overstates a bit, since what it seems he means, as illustrated through both his criticism and fiction, is that modernism is a lament for the disenchantment of the world balanced against an oblique rendering—a hint or whisper—of where the transcendent might be hiding. It’s a self-conscious tradition, which means it is a living tradition. Or as he writes in The Cemetery in Barnes: “By staging this drama of loss . . . Monteverdi discovers depths of feeling and expression in both music and the voice that no one before him had known existed. But there is no hiding that it is, nonetheless, a loss.” The passage is, of course, a perfect rendering of the modernist double vision, of the joy in expressing loss. Such a joy hints that perhaps there is hope yet, that the loss can be redeemed or isn’t permanent after all. Again, as Josipovici writes:

I thought that when my first wife died my life had come to an end, he would say.
Nothing comes to an end. You never leave anything behind. It always catches up with you.
Perhaps.

No perhaps. It never comes to an end. Not until the end comes. That is the truth of modernism. ♦

Scott Beauchamp is a writer in Maine. His work has previously appeared in the Paris Review Daily, American Affairs, Bookforum, and the Dublin Review of Books. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books.


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