Monday, November 09, 2009

The writer's true problem: Everything Passes

Over the Summer I was asked to contribute to a symposium on Gabriel Josipovici's novel Everything Passes and its relation to contemporary English-language literary fiction (a relation of distance). For various reasons the symposium never happened, so I'm posting my short essay below. It should be read with this context in mind. For another view, please see Stephen Mitchelmore's contribution at This Space.

How is Everything Passes different? It looks and feels almost like a poetry chapbook. It's very short--a mere 60 pages--and the writing is sparse; there is much repetition and lots of white space. Events are barely narrated, with specific details, images, sounds, repeated. A man standing at a window. Footsteps, snatches of conversation. What's going on? Slowly a narrative of sorts can be pieced together, but we can never be quite sure of it; it remains just around the corner (perhaps on the next page? but no). The writing is suggestive, not journalistic; the events are elusive, just briefly coming into focus. The repetition has the effect of slowing the reading, a necessary slowing-down, for it would be very easy to speed through this book, missing much.

Then, all of a sudden we're reading casual literary criticism about Rabelais. The text speeds up with the speaker's excitement in the topic. What's all this about? What does the noisy, ribald, bursting-at-the-seams Rabelais have to do with this quiet, restrained narrative? The man standing at the window is a writer and a critic, a teacher perhaps, a mentor certainly. His ideas are the sorts of ideas one would find in Josipovici's own criticism. It is this literary criticism, enjoyable and thrilling on its own terms, that I think is the key to this book. What is he saying?
--Rabelais, he says, is the first writer of the age of print. Just as Luther is the last writer of the manuscript age. Of course, he said, without print Luther would have remained a simple heretical monk. Print, he says, scooping up the froth in his cup, made Luther the power he became, but essentially he was a preacher, not a writer. He knew his audience and wrote for it. Rabelais, he says, sucking his spoon, understood what this new miracle of print meant for the writer. It meant you had gained the world and lost your audience. You no longer knew who was reading you or why. You no longer knew who you were writing for or even why you were writing. Rabelais, he says, raged at this and laughed at it and relished it, all at the same time.
He wants to "tell people about [Rabelais's] modernity. About what he means or should mean to all of us, now." He wants "to make our culture aware of what he sensed and how he responded to the crisis of his time, which is also the crisis of our time." He wants to "clear the ground for a genuine renewal of fiction writing in our day." Rabelais is also "the first author in history to find the idea of authority ridiculous." And yet, in the speaker's personal life, the glimpses we get are of one who insists on his own authority. This irony is perhaps the tragedy of his life; some of that which he insists on in art he cannot live. Though, consistent with his thesis, he is not forthcoming about what he himself needs or wants.

In Everything Passes, there is little "fine writing", though it is obvious that words have been chosen with care. What is the difference? What so often passes for literary fiction is very story-driven, even plot-driven, for all the periodic complaints from some about the alleged plotlessness of literary books. As such, the finely wrought sentences in such books end up being merely journalism, albeit journalism about fictional characters (or fictionalized people). The form of the novel is taken for granted (though different historical examples may be recombined as the author so chooses) as if the novel was simply there to be filled up with whatever story the author wants, as if this were a perfectly justified endeavor. In Everything Passes, the form is consistent with its content, with whatever it is there to say. The invocation of Rabelais (and, by extension, the lineage of writers including Cervantes and Sterne) is to a purpose. And since Everything Passes itself seems to look nothing like those rollicking books of the past, the connection must be much deeper. It has to do with what the writer can do, what the writer ought to do, now that he or she cannot know who will read. When he says that the writer "had gained the world and lost [his or her] audience"--this is not a facile statement implying simply that the audience is irrelevant (it does not refer to audience expectations, as built up by centuries of writers ignoring this problem), and that therefore anything goes, the writer can do whatever he or she wants. It means the writer no longer has any natural audience, though in theory anyone could be reading. And yet the need for the writer to be responsible remains. This is part of the writer's true problem. Everything Passes is both in part about this problem, and an example of one writer's solution to it.


NigelBeale said...

"And yet the need for the writer to be responsible remains."

Responsible to what?

Jeff said...

Richard, for another view of the same book, you might be interested in this review of mine:

I enjoyed your post. Always good to read others on this under-the-radar writer.

Richard said...

Hi Jeff. Thanks for the comment. I just read your review. Very nice. Thanks for providing the link. Since I see that you are familiar with other works by Josipovici, you may be interested in seeing what else I've written about him and his writing. If you click on his label at the bottom of this post, you'll see I have written numerous such posts. Thanks again.

Jeff said...

Richard, hello. I read your reviews - very good, and it's hard to be concise about his short novels (they're more like poetry that way). Thanks for your comment on mine. Here are two others, if you're interested:


You might also be interested in looking for a blog site called Tales from the Reading Room, written by "Litlove," who writes quite frequently on Josipovici's work. I think you'd appreciate that site. Regards.

dan visel said...

Belatedly, another one of these, from me - what happened to the symposium?