Wednesday, April 12, 2006

In a Hotel Garden, Gabriel Josipovici

"How deceptively light they are, the truly decisive steps we take in life." - John Banville, The Untouchable

What are the decisive moments in our lives? Do we recognize them when they happen? How do non-events, indecision, paths-not-taken affect the eventual course of our lives?

In Gabriel Josipovici's thought-provoking novel, In a Hotel Garden, a seemingly trivial event is related that haunts the book's central characters. A woman and a man share an idyllic afternoon in a hotel garden in Italy. The man leaves; they correspond for a time. He marries his fiancée; he continues writing, only now the woman no longer responds. Then, the man and his family are killed by the Nazis.

The novel is constructed primarily of conversations, all of which involve Ben—mostly Ben talking to Lily, a woman he’s met at an Italian mountain resort, and Ben talking about Lily to his friends, Rick and Francesca. Lily tells the story of the hotel garden to Ben. The woman in the story is her grandmother.

Ben finds himself repeatedly drawn to Lily, and they engage in several lengthy, bewildering conversations. Lily thought she'd come to Italy to take some time away from her life, to figure things out. She’d gone to Siena, and realized when she got there, when she saw a beautiful, unlikely hotel garden, what the true purpose of her trip has been. To see this garden. She knows, somehow, that this garden is the hotel garden her grandmother told her about.

Why does this garden matter to Lily? The man her grandmother remembers is not Lily's grandfather, he is nobody to her. If her grandmother had married this man, she would never have existed. Her grandmother went on to marry someone else, have children of her own, live her life, die. But she always remembered this hotel garden, and she told Lily about it:
We talked about everything. Nobody disturbed us. It was if we were sealed off from time. And from other people. It was as if I was there with him, talking, and as if at the same time I was at an upstairs window, looking down at us talking. I couldn't hear what we were saying but I could hear our two voices, like two streams, intermingling and flowing together. And then it was time for him to go, and he went.
Lily is haunted by this event, but she does not quite know why. In one sense, perhaps, it's simply that she otherwise might not have been born: this difficult to accept notion that one may not have existed at all. But also it's the fact that any Jews could have met the same fate as those killed in the Holocaust, if only they'd been born in a different time and place.

She says “when something like that happens it makes you think not just about your own past but that of Jews as a whole…What happened to the Jews in the past and then in this century - that’s alive to me. Through him.”

It came to me at the airport, she says. Why it was so important, that garden. It’s as if that day, their whole lives were present to them, their lives before and their lives after. Everything that would happen and not happen and all that would happen and not happen to their descendants. Everything. Enclosed in that garden. Held together by the trees and the wall and the silence. That’s why I had to go there. To feel it for myself.
Ben doesn't understand Lily's story, but he is also affected by it. He doesn't understand why the man who is not her grandfather matters to her (especially after it transpires that Lily decides the garden she visited may not have been the actual garden after all), but he is interested in her, interested that she is working through something, that she is unsure about something. It's an enigma to Ben, but he wants to know what she believes in, what makes her tick, why this event haunts her so. He tells Francesca:
I think it's because she's so concerned about something, he says. That's what I responded to. That she was struggling with something. That's what I responded to. That's what I want to get hold of.
Maybe we respond to those who are searching, who haven't figured it all out. In his conversations with Rick and Francesca, Ben tries to figure out the meaning of what Lily has told him, about the story of the garden and about the current details of her own life (has she or has she not returned to the man she was living with?). Ben spends much of the time trying to decide whether to call Lily or to meet with her again. The choices to do or not to do something--both have implications for our lives.

In a Hotel Garden effectively illuminates the role of choice in our lives, those choices we make for ourselves, as well as those made for us. And it joins that small body of Holocaust literature, along with the fiction of Aharon Appelfeld, that conveys some of the horror that was the Nazi Holocaust by not portraying it. In this case by, in part, throwing into sharp relief the question of the lives not lived.

I struggled with this post. The words would not come to me. I felt like the book elicited a strong response in me, but I kept saying the same thing over and over again. My vocabulary refused to supply the necessary tools. I wanted, I thought, to explore the themes of the book by using events and non-events of my own life, but it all came out wrong, clumsy, inappropriate. So I took it all out. I wanted to tie it in more with the Appelfeld I've read, but it wasn't working--and I found that I'd forgotten far too much about, say, The Age of Wonders, for anything useful to come of going into it. I debated about whether to leave the Banville quote at the top. I like it. It feels right, but then it doesn't. I'm leaving it there. I've decided to release this one as it stands and turn in for the night.

In any event, there is this much better essay about In a Hotel Garden by Lars at ReadySteadyBook. See also his previous post at Spurious.

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