:: Article

Crushed by the Giants

By Anna Aslanyan.


Gabriel Josipovici, Heart’s Wings & Other Stories, Carcanet 2010

Some people write because they cannot help it. This urge is sometimes able to produce books the world literature would have been poorer without, but it is unlikely to suffice on its own – writers need at least one extra thing to succeed. That necessary ingredient is almost impossible to pin down: for some it may be their insight, for others their style, a few lucky bastards get away with sheer drive. Sometimes this trait is called talent, which, according to one man of letters, “is like lust: hard to hide, harder still to simulate.” So much for objectivity.

Written over many years and collected in Heart’s Wings, Gabriel Josipovici’s stories suggest that their author is a compulsive type. Alas, this is the only inference they provide, except, perhaps, that he also has a wide knowledge of European literature. This is to be expected from the academic whose recent work of criticism, What Ever Happened to Modernism?, has been the subject of much debate in the press. He knows his Kafka from his Borges, which is clear to anyone who has ever read either; in fact, one starts suspecting he knows them too well to be a good storyteller. The literary greats seem to bear down on their scholar, leaving him no room to express himself with any discernible degree of originality. But then again, it may just be that missing element, whatever name one chooses for it. That which we call a rose…

There are professional hazards galore in Josipovici’s stories, from writer’s block to dissatisfaction to the use of personal pronouns. The latter seem to be especially ominous in the author’s view: should his character, struggling over a piece about a dead friend, opt for “the clanging objectivity of the ‘he'” or “the hortatory ‘you’,” which, despite “prising up the lid of his consciousness,” is ultimately deemed as “far too self-conscious and literary a device.” The story, aptly entitled He, finishes with the realisation that the eventual text “was only another failure,” but “also the nearest he would ever come to success in this particular enterprise.” This statement, in spite of its apparent humility, is, in fact, subtle self-praise: for who is to say if a fresh page is, indeed, better than anything one has ever done? Of course, this is only a character talking; likewise, in The Hand of God, it is only another character whose “ambitions were not to win prestigious prizes but to write to the best of his ability and perhaps to prove himself worthy of his great heroes, Kleist and Kafka.” The author is, presumably, above the battle, looking upon his creations sagely. On the other hand, when the dying Borges in The Two Lönnrots reflects on the nature of fiction, surmising that “description is always lame” and “the rules of realism are too lax to be a challenge to the true writer,” we can easily guess whom he speaks for.

Literary monuments keep appearing in the book in alarming numbers. The narrator of Mobius the Stripper tells of his recurrent nightmare: “I was in my shorts, playing rugger in the mud against the giants.” The star team included “Proust, languid and bemonocled,” “Joyce, small and fiery,” “Dostoevsky, manic and bearded,” “Chaucer, going like a terrier,” and such like. This is the best story in the book (if you can get over the rugby disaster), emotional and comic; however, the question remains: was it necessary to write it in this fancy way, dividing each page in half, placing one narrative strand above the other? This comes across as an unjustified folly, an unnecessary distraction, and an old trick to boot. The same can be said about some other quirks of Josipovici’s style and imagery. Does Fuga really have to imitate the stream of consciousness immortalised by Molly Bloom’s monologue? Are those forking paths in Second Person Looking Out designed to lead us back to Borges’ garden, where they take their origin? “Even seventeen stones with string tied round them and fastened in a triple know do not necessarily imply an eighteenth,” we are told in the same story, which leaves us exactly where we were before we started reading it, none the richer for its recycled wisdom.

Other literary games the reader is constantly invited to join in can be mildly entertaining, but only as a high-brow version of Sudoku, and fail to lift the stories a notch above the overall level. Reading A Changeable Report, you soon grow bored of trying to figure out what Shakespeare might stumble upon next in his ravings. Having mentioned Thisbe, he is bound to jump to Romeo and Juliet, or is it A Midsummer Night’s Dream he has in mind? It gets heavier in Donne Undone, whose very title promises a wordplay, and when it comes it lives up to your worst expectations. Indeed, do we need to be told that A Hymn to God the Father is “the poem in which More and Donne had played hide-and-seek through the lines” if it is quoted verbatim straight after this passage? We are not, after all, Eng. Lit. undergraduates, too lazy to consult Wiki for help with their essay, who have to listen to their teacher’s explanations followed by his own variations on the same theme: “God had not Donne, only Donne had Donne – more and more Donne.” Why all this pyrotechnics in a story about the great poet’s last sermon?

There are plenty of involved allusions and extended metaphors in the book. Some are easy to get, especially in the light of Josipovici’s view of contemporary British literature recently made public. In the Fertile Land, for instance, is a short parable whose meaning is more or less clear from the beginning. “Here […] all is growth, abundance. […] And when we speak the words flow in torrents, another aspect of general fertility,” starts this meditation of Buddhist proportions. In the end, the reader is rewarded with the predictable conclusion: “perhaps I am actually in the desert already, […] a place where everyone talks but where no one speaks of what concerns him most.” Josipovici does tend to be aphoristic: we often shrug at phrases like “to understand our distance from understanding is also a form of understanding.” Stating the obvious can sometimes serve a purpose, but not when it is done with such a patronising frequency as in these stories.

Going back to the compulsive nature of writing, the above thoughts didn’t really have to be put to paper. The only reason to write them down was to see if I could set my personal tastes aside and maintain a modicum of impartiality towards a work of fiction. Reader, I failed “in this particular enterprise.” Reviewing is, of course, subjective business, otherwise why even pick up a book; still, some objectivity is in order. Does Josipovici know how to write? Technically speaking, yes; and anyway, there seems to be little he can do about it, so write he does. Has he got anything original to say? Not that is immediately obvious from the stories in Heart’s Wings. Is the book worth reading? Possibly, but not if you want to find out what ever happened to modernism.


Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 10th, 2010.