Interlitq: When did you start writing?
GJ: I feel as if I’ve been writing all my life. Monika Fludernik, when she was writing her book on my work, came to see me to look through my files, and dug up a story I had published in the school magazine in Egypt, where I grew up, when I was fourteen. It was about a road waiting for an old road-mender who came every day but who will never come again because he’s died. I didn’t really know what I was doing there but I was amazed, reading it all those years later – I had quite forgotten about it– at how odd it was and yet how close it was in a way to much of my later work – and it’s better than anything I produced till I was in my early twenties. It showed me that our ‘voice’, that special thing that is unique to one, what Proust called the ‘secret signature’ of an artist is formed very early and not really shaped by even the most traumatic events that take place later in life. But I think I became a real writer, suddenly had a sense of what it took and what I might be able to do rather than writing in a fog of feeling, when I wrote the first page of my first novel, The Inventory, at 26.
Interlitq: What happened then?
GJ: I’ve written about it before as a moment of breakthrough, rather like the one Stravinsky describes (I think it occurred as he was writing Petrushka) as suddenly discovering he had an extra joint on his fingers. For some time I had felt the need to write something longer, something that would keep me occupied for more than the intense few weeks I took to write short stories, but I just couldn’t do it. If I plotted the book carefully I felt I had no desire to write it out, and if I didn’t but just trusted to my instinct, it petered out after a few pages. Then for some reason the word ‘inventory’ suddenly floated into my mind and I felt my heart beating faster. The reason for my excitement, I realised, when I analysed it, was that word seemed to contain within it two opposing tendencies: inward, into the realm of the imagination, and outward, into the realm of facts and objects. A little dictionary checking showed me that in fact ‘to invent’ and ‘an inventory’ come from different Latin roots, invenire and inventarium, but that didn’t matter. The word had conjured up something that excited me, and the rudiments of a situation had formed in my mind: a man has died and the family have asked a solicitor in to make an inventory of his possessions. As this takes place the different members of the family recount their memories of the man, or the memories they think they have of him, triggered by this object or that.
I knew too how I wanted to start: with the solicitor arriving at the house. I had a clear picture of the house in my head and of the street it was in, but as soon as I began to describe it I came to a halt. Every form of description I tried felt alien, false, the kinds of things one began novels with, not the kind of thing I wanted. I could hear all sorts of tones there, from Dickens to Raymond Chandler, but that was the problem: they were other people’s tones. And I couldn’t decide whether to describe the street and house in one line, one paragraph, one page, or one chapter. I fell back in weariness and disgust. If this was what writing novels was about I wanted nothing to do with it. It was a waste of my time and my time was my life. And yet I desperately wanted to write that novel.
And suddenly it came to me: what if I dispensed with description, with scene-setting, altogether and plunged into what I wanted to do, which was to get the characters talking?
At once the book became a challenge and a source of feverish excitement: would I be able to convey enough information to the reader entirely through dialogue and the inventory lists I had compiled? I would have a damn could try.
And so The Inventory got written.
Interlitq: You used to write stage and radio plays. Why did you stop?
GJ: After my first two novels had been published a theatre was built in the new university where I had gone to teach, at Sussex, and the students asked me to write several plays for them. The challenge was very exciting. I wrote a monologue for Nick Woodeson, who later rose to become a distinguished actor, one of those Pinter regularly turned to, and two plays for a group of students. Then I worked very intensely on a collaboration with the Australian composer, Peter Sculthorpe, who had come to the university as a visiting professor while he was trying to get into an opera commissioned for the opening of the Sydney Opera House. Our collaboration came to nothing, but as a result of our discussions and my immersion in things Australian I wrote a play, Dreams of Mrs Fraser, which was premiered at the Royal Court, Upstairs. Then for a while I wrote for the little theatres, which were starting to proliferate in Britain in the early seventies. Unfortunately they soon started to concentrate on more overtly political kinds of drama, and I found that my plays fell between all stools: too ‘avant-garde’ for the conventional stages but not political enough for the little theatres. Later, and for several years, I teamed up with a Brighton-based company, and wrote a number of lunch-time pieces for them, but they eventually disbanded and commissions dried up. I find that while I will always write fiction, which I do on my own in my own time, and which, thank God, I have always found publishers for, though at times I despaired of doing so, with the theatre you have to have a specific commission, to know what kind of company and space you are writing for, even though you always hope that if the work is good enough it will find other homes elsewhere after a first outing.
Fortunately even though work in the theatre dried up I was starting to write quite a lot for radio. I had always loved the idea of radio drama and in the radio drama team at the BBC, headed by the redoubtable Martin Esslin, I found I had people who believed in me and were prepared to commission work with absolutely no strings attached. And in Guy Vaesen, my first producer, I found someone quietly efficient and in total sympathy with my aims. The result was a series of very happy collaborations, from Playback in 1973 to the mid-eighties. When Guy retired I teamed up with another fine producer, John Theocharis and together we worked on a number of productions, two of which were BBC entries for the Italia Prize, AG, a mad and highly irreverent reworking of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and Mr.Vee, an attempt to find an audial equivalent for the play of mirrors in Velazquez’s Las Meninas. Many of them were also translated into German, for Germany has a rich tradition of the hörspiel. But by the nineties the BBC had begun to change, The Third Programme had become Radio 3, a mainly musical station, and had lost its glittering array of distinguished producers, while in Germany too the effects of reunification were felt even in the rarefied world of the hörspiel, and there was a severe reduction in their transmission of foreign plays. I greatly miss those intense two or three days of working with dedicated actors and producers of the highest calibre, but it looks as if the days of really innovative radio drama are gone for good.
Interlitq: You’ve written a number of novels and stories with artists or works of art at their centre. Why?
GJ: A question I’ve often asked myself. Early on I wrote several stories about specific works of art. One of my very first, which I don’t think I ever published, was about Picasso’s tiny painting of enormous women running along a beach – later made into an enormous backdrop for Satie’s Parade. I was fascinated by the sense of the women as vast, superhuman, and the tiny size of the canvas, and driven to explore that fascination in a work of fiction, trying to enter the picture, as it were. And a bit later the same thing happened with my encounter with Vermeer’s Lady at the Harpsichord in the National Gallery: I wanted to find a fictional equivalent to the play of mirrors and windows there, and the still and distant figure of the woman – something that would do justice to the silence in that painting. And also when I saw Otto Dix’s terrible little painting, A Mirrored Room in Brussells, which depicts a fat German officer with a naked lady on his lap in a crazy kaleidoscope of reflections, and is really a nightmare vision of the First World War. In all these works the form of the painting and the scene depicted gave me both a form and a subject to work with. Then in the seventies and eighties I wrote a novel about Monnet and one about Bonnard, and, just when I thought I must really stop doing that, I found myself writing one about Duchamp. But ‘about’ is the wrong word. Again, the artist’s life and strivings had to move me to try and understand them, while the work too called out to me to seek fictional equivalences. And in all of them I have transposed the French artist into an English one and changed the names and the setting. The last thing I wanted to write was a blockbuster of the type of The Agony and the Ecstasy or those biopics about van Gogh, all madness and ears cut off – or even tracts like Tracey Chevalier’s best-selling novel about Vermeer. I wanted to bring out a sense of the mysteriousness of the art in question. And I set myself the challenge of saying much of what I wanted to say and yet entering the voice and world of the artist in question. Otherwise, what was the point? And I suppose artists are the saints of today – concerned primarily with the task in life they feel has been entrusted to them, and not with making money or even seeking fame, so this is my version of the medieval saints’ lives. It’s also the case that to live the artistic life today is in some ways utterly ridiculous and easily tips over into self-delusion. So a modern ‘artist’s life’ might have to take the form of a modern Don Quixote, that questioning of the dedicated life, whether of the Knight Errant or of a Saint Teresa. I certainly feel my novel ‘about’ the eccentric but wonderful Italian avant-garde composer, Giacinto Scelsi, Infinity, ended up as a book of that sort, a sort of late modernist riposte to the solemnity of Mann’s Doctor Faustus.
Interlitq: What writers have been important to you?
GJ: As a young man I devoured Proust, Kafka and Thomas Mann, and I have gone on reading and re-reading the first two ever since. I think Proust taught me that if you hit a brick wall in your work perhaps the way forward is to incorporate both the wall and the hitting into the work. In other words, there is no such thing as failure. In a way the whole of A la recherché is about failure – failure in art, failure in love, failure in life. Yet it is also about triumph – triumph in art and in life at least, love one can do nothing about. Kafka taught me that I was not alone in my sense of not having a past I could use, not having a tradition to fall back on, not even having a language. Yet out of all those negatives he made luminous art. That is a huge comfort to an insecure adolescent starting to write. And Thomas Mann taught me that my sense of isolation, of not having a tradition, while partly the product of specific circumstances, was also part of a larger transformation in culture which began in the Renaissance, found its voice in Romanticism, and finally understood itself with Modernism. Later of course I read many wonderful twentieth century writers – Eliot, Stevens, Beckett, Borges, Queneau, the early Robbe-Grillet, Duras, Simon, Appelfeld, Perec, Bernhard, the early Golding, Spark. They are like bright lights in a dark sky and I cherish their works. They showed me that good art could still be produced today if one had the confidence to go ones way – and there are as many ways, of course, as there are writers. But as well as the writers it was composers and painters who gave me both pleasure and the confidence to go on in my way: Stravinsky, Varese, Stockhausen, Berio, Ligeti, the early Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle, and, my favourite living composer, Gyorgy Kurtag; Picasso, Bonnard, the early Bacon, the early Hockney. And of course there are the artists of the past – but I won’t go on with lists.
Interlitq: Any living British writers?
GJ: I’ve always admired the work of Rosalind Belben, a truly original writer, who has gone her own way all her life in the face of absurd neglect. Dreaming of Dead People (1979) and Our Horses in Egypt (2007) are like nothing else in fiction (and quite different from each other) and should be required reading on every creative writing course. And recently I have come to admire the work of both Deborah Levy and Kirsty Gunn. Levy’s Swimming Home has rightly brought her to the attention of a wider public, but I am shocked at the poor reception Gunn’s extraordinary novel, The Big Music, received.
Interlitq: Which work of yours is your favourite?
GJ: I never re-read my works, I’d be embarrassed to, But in memory I’m fond of some short stories – ‘In the Fertile Land’, ‘Second Person Looking Out’ ‘That Which is Hidden is That Which is Shown…’, ‘He Looks at a Photograph…’, ‘Heart’s Wings’. And of the novels I have a soft spot for Contre-Jour and Now and think Infinity perhaps got close to what I was trying to do. But it’s a strange thing, isn’t it, one works for years at something, it consumes ones life and thought, but once it’s done it’s as if it had never been – except for that occasional warm glow at the memory.
Interlitq: What now?
GJ: I’ve written a lot of fiction in the past fifteen years – Only Joking, After, Making Mistakes, Everything Passes, Infinity, Hotel Andromeda. I felt after writing Hotel Andromeda that I needed to stand back a bit and take stock. But obviously I can’t keep still, and out of the blue, almost, a book on Hamlet emerged, which Yale are publishing next Spring, while Carcanet are bringing out a volume of essays in the Autumn. When I’ve seen them through the press I think I will try to feel my way into fiction again.
Gabriel Josipovici is an English novelist, playwright and critic. He was born in France in 1940 to Russo-Italian, Romano-Levantine Jewish parents, and lived in Egypt from 1945 to 1956, when he came to England. He read English at St.Edmund Hall, Oxford, from 1958 to 1961 and in 1963 was appointed as Lecturer in English in the School of European Studies at the newly formed University of Sussex, where he taught for 35 years. He is the author of eighteen novels, four books of short stories, eight critical books, numerous plays for stage and radio, and a memoir of his mother, the poet and translator Sacha Rabinovitch. His plays have been performed in Great Britain, Germany, the USA, and on radio.