Gabriel Josipovici

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Ray Shankman (review date Winter 1988)

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SOURCE: A review of The Book of God: A Response to the Bible, in Dalhousie Review, Vol. 68, No. 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 531–34.

[In the following review of The Book of God: A Response to the Bible, Shankman asserts that although Josipovici's writing is uneven at times, he is ultimately successful with his arguments regarding Biblical interpretations.]

Gabriel Josipovici, in his book, The Book of God: A Response to the Bible, wants us to learn how to read experientially, to truly read, for as he says in his Preface, The Book of God “is a book in the end as much about the nature of reading as about the Bible” (xiv). The reader of the Bible, if Josipovici is any example, should be brought “more fully to life” compelled to “want to let others share in the experience” (309). Such is Josipovici's mission to the reader:

Our task is to wrestle with this book as Jacob wrestled with the ‘man,’ in pitch blackness, and not for the mere sake of the contest or in order to wrest the book's secret from it, but in order that we may hear it utter its blessing upon us. But that, we must not forget, is what we would expect of our encounter with any great book.


Josipovici takes up the task of book/word/God-wrestling (existential encounter) with some enthusiasm and erudition. His general love of literature, his knowledge of languages and, yes, his astute ability to read perceptively, allow him to offer many insights, related specifically to the parts and pieces of the Bible as they contribute to the overall whole, and to go beyond a literary/experiential reading, into a sensitive analysis of how the two biblical religions, Judaism and Christianity, can be understood.

No doubt Josipovici's own cultural religious conditioning dictates his personal response to the Bible; yet he is one of the few readers who is aware of how tradition, shaped by faulty translation amongst other things, impedes a fresh reading so that, all too often, our eyes, shaped by our ethnocentricity (our religion and our culture), read text literally, assume the point of view of the narration, or generally read what we think we already know. For example, Josipovici betrays his own submission to the power of Paul's persuasive rhetoric by calling him Saint Paul. Yet he resists reading Paul literally and makes it very clear, in the chapter “Epistle to the Hebrews and the Meaning of History,” that Pauline Christianity is based on an altering of history due to an altering of language and that Paul had taken up the cross to proselytize and will shape language and events to suit his intent. And though it is Paul's purpose to convince his reader to value the new covenant over the old, that the Kingdom of God is not of this world, it is Josipovici's purpose to allow the reader to see just how Paul uses language and what, therefore, this implies.

From the start, Christianity was a religion not of a people but of individuals, not of a locality but of all places and times. It was natural therefore, that despite its attempt to retain much of the vocabulary of the Hebrew culture from which it sprang, it would be forced to drain that vocabulary of its original meaning.


Josipovici's observation rings true—that it's difficult to find even the terms with which to talk about narrative and character in the Hebrew Bible “for the very terms we use today are an inheritance from St. Paul” (253). Both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible have to be read in their own context and Josipovici addresses the reading problem of a traditional Christian reader, “are we reading the O.T. in a N.T. way, the Jewish scriptures in a Christian way … ?” (281). Josipovici maintains that we have avoided reading scripture the way it asks to be read.

Throughout The Book of God, Josipovici is intent on showing his readers how to read, how to deal with the various problems the text presents. Always he is aware of how translations shade meaning and advises the reader to compare translations, “to sharpen our awareness of the way the Bible works” (53). He also notes that the ordering of the books of the Hebrew Bible ends in Chronicles II, whereas, Christian ordering has the Hebrew Bible end in Malachi, and that we are influenced to respond one way or another by the way books are ordered: “Even before we start to read we are faced with interpretation. The appearance of a book, the order and arrangement of its parts, the glosses appended to it, are themselves already interpretation” (49). Many factors contribute to the reader's conditioning. The challenge remains for us, as it did for Job, when he saw God with his own eyes, to not follow the ways of “report” (Job, 42). That Josipovici draws our attention to how we are programmed adds dimension to his argument for the Bible's overall unity. For the conditioned reader can only have the experience that tradition says she should have. To see with fresh eyes, or rather, to attempt to see yourself seeing yourself seeing, as Josipovici does, is indeed a perceptual break-through.

In a chapter called “The Need to Utter,” Josipovici draws our attention to God's utterance (speech), how he outers himself (outside). “It is as though God himself had a need to utter. Not just to outer himself by creating the world and its creations (through speech in the first place, of course), but by talking to them once they had been created (165).” Throughout the Bible questions, pleas, exhortations abound. That utterance is so important can be seen also in those moments of sublime silence, where the calm after the storm, the spirit after the voice, indicates both as part of the same creative life-giving phenomenon. As Josipovici says, “The primary function of language, the Hebrew Bible shows, is not to convey information but to enable us to outer ourselves and thus, come fully alive.” (165)

Josipovici is sensitive to the way Hebrew suggests the Bible can be read. Through close analysis of passages and of words, he points out that God identifies himself with the verb haya, to be, and that God is an activity rather than an essence, as our Aristotelian noun-based language suggests. That is God will be what he will be, that God is process and this too determines the way Israelites move through history and generation and how we as readers respond to text. That is, Josipovici says, “the stories will be our ways of discovering and understanding God” (74). As such, the reader takes on the rhythms, reverberations and echoes of a multi-textured language (even in translation) “becoming,” as Josipovici so aptly notes, “part of the story” (152).

Josipovici would agree with Blake's “without contraries is no progression” for without disjunction there is no conjunction (unity). In the Hebrew Bible, unity is synonymous with progression. The movement of life that goes on going on from generation to generation is itself unity. For with conjunctions come disjunctions which are all those anomalies that don't fit logical analysis and which are “the very fabric of this book,” “the unity of disjunction, at the same time as it is an assertion of conjunction” or unity in division at the same time as it asserts unity. Like Berith Milah (circumcision), the cut that unites the Bible's unity (Berith) is best realized through the cut (Milah), the act of reading, where the reader becomes creator in covenant with text, putting it all together, understanding the parts as they contribute to the whole. And this process is itself the total field of meaning.

Josipovici succeeds in convincing this reader that the Bible is a unified book and not a “rag-bag” of isolated stories and fragments. Josipovici makes many connections, not the least of which is how the self-centredness of Samson and the chaos of his world is juxtaposed against the emerging order or unity of David's world, or how the seven days of creation is structurally paralleled by the building of the Tabernacle, or how, in parables, “authority resides in the mode of telling.” This latter connection puts the onus on the reader/listener to see/hear the truth of what is being told. And this is precisely the position we are in as we read the Bible and even as we read Josipovici's The Book of God.

However, Josipovici's “mode of telling” provides an ironic curse to balance the blessings of his many fine perceptions. Despite some very clearly written passages and good word sensitivity, he all too often gets caught up in awkward syntax, wordy phrases and redundancy which impede the very involvement in active reading he would want his readers to experience. But even more bothersome than this, is Josipovici's rhetoric of persuasion. His “we must agree” and “everyone knows” assumes the same response to scripture that he has himself. Thus, the implied bondage of Josipovici's rhetoric goes against the very freedom he would want his readers to have. At times, too, Josipovici becomes a talker instead of a writer and sounds as if he were speaking to a small seminar of students. As such, his chattiness disturbs the sense of what he is talking about.

Despite uneven writing, The Book of God acclaims a reader's “Hineni” (Here I am) to the Bible's call “Where are you?,” and the reader definitely moves forward with Josipovici to experience the meaningful. No doubt Josipovici wants his readers to accept his authority. Certainly his structuring of the contents (15 marvellous chapters), an extensive bibliography and detailed notes all contribute to an overall trust in Josipovici's own special ability to read with intelligent sensitivity.

As his title suggests, The Book of God reflects Josipovici's own encounter, his own spiritual experience. His reading is a labor of love. His reading becomes his writing, becomes his word, his utterance, his outering (verbal expression) and his othering (encounter). As Jacob encounters the angel, Josipovici encounters the word. Both are struck and both, through the struggle, have taken on the responsibility of others. Jacob becomes Israel, Josipovici becomes one with the reader (us). And we too become God-wrestlers. “From the moment that Jacob was left alone … we have lived inside him. As he wrestles in the dark, so do we; as he asks his desperate questions and calls for the blessing, so do we” (308). Quite obviously Josipovici has heard the Bible's blessing and brings us into the range of his hearing and we too are struck, limp, sharing “in the experience,” left alone to prevail.


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Gabriel Josipovici 1940-

(Full name Gabriel David Josipovici) French-born English critic, novelist, playwright, and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Josipovici's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6 and 43.

Josipovici is a highly regarded literary critic and leading experimental fiction writer. Many critics argue that Josipovici most effectively posits his theories in The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction (1971), a controversial work in which he urges readers to “remove the spectacles of habit” when reading unconventional fiction. Like antinovelist and theorist Alain Robbe-Grillet, Josipovici contests the value of the traditional realistic novel, believing that a work of fiction should concentrate on reconstructing rather than imitating the world. Josipovici adheres to this principle in his own fiction, utilizing fragmented dialogue, disjointed narrative, interior monologue, and other experimental techniques to challenge preconceived ideas about the nature of fiction and reality.

Biographical Information

Josipovici was born on October 8, 1940, in Nice, France, where he lived until the end of World War II. His father, Jean, was of Romanian-Jewish descent, and his mother, Sacha Rabinovitch, was the daughter of a Russian-Jewish doctor who had settled in Cairo, Egypt. Josipovici's parents, who had been studying in France when he was born, separated when he was three years old. After the war, his mother decided to leave France and return to her native Egypt. His mother, a poet and translator, wanted to spare her son the hardship of the rigid French school system. Josipovici attended English schools in Egypt until 1956, when he traveled to England to attend Cheltenham College. After he graduated from Cheltenham, Josipovici was too young to be admitted into English universities. He spent one year living in England, exploring London and the English culture, before enrolling at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford. He studied English literature and graduated in 1961 with honors. In 1963, Josipovici married and began teaching English at the University of Sussex in Brighton. He remained in that position for two decades before accepting a position at University College, London. In 1996, he served as the Weidenfeld Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Oxford. Josipovici published his first novel, The Inventory, in 1968 and continued thereafter to divide his time between writing and teaching. His play Evidence of Intimacy won the Sunday Times National Union of Students Festival award in 1970, and Mobius the Stripper, a collection of stories and short plays, won the Somerset Maugham Award for fiction in 1974. In addition to his novels and criticism, Josipovici has published several collections of short stories and has scripted a number of plays for both radio and theater.

Major Works

Josipovici's scholarship in literary theory has consistently informed both his fiction and nonfiction works. During the 1970s, he became known as one of the new deconstructionists, interested in challenging the form of the traditional novel. The Inventory focuses on Joe Hyman, a lawyer who is sent to take an inventory of the belongings of an elderly man who has just died. In the deceased man's apartment, Joe meets several of the man's relatives and acquaintances who interact with Joe as he catalogues the man's possessions. The events in the novel are related mainly through dialogue and the narrative structure is both spiraling and sparse. Josipovici juxtaposes motifs and time schemes, employing repetition and a circuitous structure filled with verbal patterns between Joe and the relatives. Words (1971) contains more traditional exposition, but the bulk of the plot once again unfolds mainly through dialogue. The novel centers around Jo, a woman who writes to Louis, her former lover, to ask permission to visit him and his wife. Louis and his wife live near Southhampton, where Jo will be boarding a ship to meet her husband in San Francisco. Louis's brother and his wife—who are experiencing marital problems—are already staying with Louis at the time, and he very reluctantly agrees to Jo's visit. Through relentless and seemingly pointless chatter, Josipovici epitomizes the strains of modern life and marriage—the feelings of emptiness, ennui, and shallow human relationships. In The World and the Book (1971), a collection of critical essays, Josipovici champions the unorthodox writing styles of T. S. Eliot, Marcel Proust, and Vladimir Nabokov. Mobius the Stripper is a collection of stories and plays that revolve around the concept of perception and the various ways of establishing or ascertaining personal identity. Many of the pieces in the collection focus on presenting two sides of an issue. The story titled “This” is comprised entirely of a dialogue in which one character endlessly questions the other about what he has seen on a walk along the seashore. In the title story, “Mobius the Stripper,” Josipovici experiments with two opposing viewpoints, by dividing the pages of the story in half. The top half presents a straightforward account of a male stripper named Mobius who speaks broken English and views his work very seriously. The bottom half of the pages presents a related account of a writer and his girlfriend, Jenny, who urges the author to leave his typewriter and his job to gather experience in the world, including going to see Mobius perform. Migrations (1977) employs a series of repeated events in its narrative. The plot involves a man in a bare room lying on a bed. He occasionally arises to look out the window at the shops and cafes along the street. He imagines himself walking down the street, waiting for a pub to open, falling down, and lying in a hospital. In each repetition of events, more details are added, which reveal more about the man and his attempts to understand his predicament. In The Echo Chamber (1980), Josipovici employs more traditional elements of conventional fiction. The book parodies the mystery-thriller genre by using many of the conventional features of the thriller, such as the building of suspense and the climatic last page. A man named Peter is welcomed into the home of his Aunt Marion, after leaving the hospital where he was recovering from a breakdown. Marion's house acts as a refuge for a large number of people including Yvonne, one of Marion's daughters, who befriends Peter. Yvonne and Peter begin taking daily walks where she encourages him to remember the cause of his breakdown. Eventually he does remember, but after the revelation, he subsequently foresees an impending disaster in the very near future.

Biblical scholars have credited Josipovici with altering the critical landscape by creating an informed and respectful study of the Bible as a work of literature in The Book of God (1988). In the work, Josipovici attempts to teach readers how to read and interpret the Christian and Hebrew Bibles. He also draws attention to the various problems the biblical texts present, such as the different ordering of the books in the Christian and Hebrew versions, the nuances of translations, and how readers have been programmed by tradition. In his later works of criticism, including Text and Voice (1992) and Touch (1996), Josipovici continues to praise experimental writing styles, encouraging novelists to create new worlds in their novels rather than simply recreating reality. He argues that realism is seen through a lens of common expectations and commonly held conceptions of how the world should be presented. Many of his arguments focus on the idea of resisting the urge to judge fiction against preconceived and artificial standards of writing. Throughout his career, Josipovici has employed several unorthodox literary strategies, which can be seen in the novel Moo Pak (1994), which was written without paragraph breaks, and in the terse and choppy dialogue of In a Hotel Garden (1993). Moo Pak is comprised of the opinions, thoughts, and ramblings of Jack Toledano, as recorded by his walking partner, Damien Anderson, while they traverse the moors, heaths, and parks of London. The title of the book is a child's rendering of Moor Park, the home of Sir William Temple, where Jonathan Swift wrote his satire on religion and learning, A Tale of a Tub. Several critics view Toledano's opinions as verbal reworkings of Josipovici's own cultural criticisms. In a Hotel Garden examines the relationship between Ben and his girlfriend, Sandra, who are on vacation. During the vacation, Ben becomes attracted to a woman named Lily. Ben and Lily increasingly spend time together, and one day partake of a circuitous hike around a mountain. Eventually, Ben and Sandra split up after returning to England from their holiday. This work continues to examine some of Josipovici's favorite subjects, such as freedom and constraint, homelessness, and identity. Throughout his diverse canon, Josipovici continually utilizes recurring themes, including the questioning of reality, a probing of the deficiencies of language to express experience, and a consideration of the nature of memory.

Critical Reception

Critical reaction to Josipovici's work has been mixed throughout his career. Critics have generally agreed that he has raised important and essential questions about the nature of fiction during the modern age. Scholars have concurred that Josipovici's diverse reading habits and thorough background in literature allow him to write competently on a variety of subjects. While some critics have faulted Josipovici for deficiencies in his critical works, such as suspect logic and undeveloped theories, they have still welcomed the challenges that he issues, particularly concerning the nature of language and reality. Of Josipovici's works, The Book of God has garnered the greatest critical attention and praise. Critics have lauded The Book of God—despite some minor flaws—as an exemplary exercise in the way in which the Bible can be read as a unified body of literature, separated from the question of whether it is the inspired word of God. Ray Shankman commended the work, stating “Josipovici succeeds in convincing this reader that the Bible is a unified book and not a ‘rag-bag’of isolated stories and fragments.” However, Shankman objected to the casual rhetoric in the work, asserting that “At times, […] Josipovici becomes a talker instead of a writer and sounds as if he were speaking to a small seminar of students.” Critics have been less appreciative of Josipovici's fiction, with several reviewers disparaging the works as overly abstract and banal. Nonetheless, certain critics have praised his nonlinear narratives and experimental, provocative style. While reviewing Moo Pak, Bryan Cheyette remarked: “The novel sweetly dramatizes the perpetual struggle between the written word—the parklands—and that which can not be known in the dark ‘moors’ of the imagination.”

John Barton (review date 16 February 1989)

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SOURCE: “Bible Stories,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 4, February 16, 1989, p. 23.

[In the following positive review, Barton commends The Book of God as a major step forward in the debate surrounding the classification of the Bible as “literature.”]

Hegel, says Kierkegaard, presents us with history seen in terms of its ends, as a story which we, from our privileged vantage-point, can decipher. But, says Kierkegaard, that leaves out of account precisely what it means to live in the world. It leaves out of account the choices men always have to make without any knowledge of ends, and it leaves out of account the directions not taken, relegating to darkness those who have made the wrong choices or the choices not condoned by history. Ultimately, it leaves out the fact that we each of us have one life and one death, which is ours and no one else's.

The Book of God

Most ways of reading the Bible within the Judaeo-Christian tradition have been, in the sense deplored by Kierkegaard, Hegelian. From the vantage-point offered by a theology which claims to ‘make sense’ of human history, the life of the individual and the divine plan for all created things, believers have turned to the Bible to fill in the detail of this grand design. The Bible has traditionally been assumed to be congruent with the religious system (variously Jewish or Christian) in conjunction with which it has been read. In the last few years literary critics have been engaged on what many of them see as a raid on the treasured possessions of the theologians. They have, they would say, taken the Bible out of this charmed circle and rediscovered its literary power. They have recaptured the sense that it is not the preserve of the religious traditions from which it comes and within which it has usually been read: instead, it belongs to the world of ‘literature.’

Gabriel Josipovici's luminous and gentle book [The Book of God] stands in an oblique relationship to this literary rediscovery of the Bible. Superficially it clearly belongs to the Bible as literature' movement, and shares that movement's characteristic impatience with theologians and all their works—especially with the styles of Biblical criticism which have grown up among scholars whose primary interest in these texts is theological. Those who (like the present reviewer) come from that background are likely to think that he, like the other contributors to works such as The Literary Guide to the Bible, has us out of focus—a point I shall return to. But appearances are deceptive: part of Josipovici's thesis is that most ‘literary’ readings of the Bible are just as much in the grip of a desire to impose order on chaos as any theological hermeneutic has been.

As he sees it, modern literary approaches to the Bible have been anxious to read the Biblical narratives and prophecies as forming coherent wholes. Closure and ‘making sense’ have dominated interpretation. The result can be illuminating, and can restore our faith in the unity and wholeness of portions of the Bible that theologically-motivated critics have too often been ready to dissect, detecting interpolations, inconsistencies, and inconsequentialities where a finer literary perception can rightly see order and pattern. Literary readings are a remedy against the philistinism of traditional ‘historical’ criticism of the Bible, very much as they can be against comparable nit-picking in the study of Homer. Yet, says Josipovici, it is time for literary critics to go a step further. In the end, the Bible is not literature after all, if by ‘literature’ we mean texts marked by closure and well-rounded form. Its untidiness and open-endedness are irreducible. There are characters in the stories who have no narrative function: he instances the boy in the shirt in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:51–2), discussed at length by Frank Kermode in The Genesis of Secrecy, and the man Joseph meets in a field at Shechem while he is searching for his brothers (Genesis 37:12–18). These characters should not be seen as interpolations, or as survivals of some earlier and more coherent tale, as is commonly supposed by historical critics. Nor should they be seen as deeply significant pointers to some deeper meaning, as they are both by the allegorical interpretative tradition of church and synagogue and by modern literary critics. If they are there for any reason, it is to defeat all our interpretative strategies, ancient and modern, historical-critical and literary-aesthetic alike. They are there to remind us that the Bible does not ‘make sense,’ that it resists encapsulation in a formula. In its clear-eyed realism, the Bible recognises ‘the choices men always have to make without any knowledge of ends.’

All this seems to me profoundly true and important. One aspect of recent literary approaches to the Bible which saddens and perturbs so many in the field of traditional ‘Biblical studies’ is that they seem to us so simplistic. Despite the superficial complexity of many ‘literary’ interpretations, deep down they often work with a single, simple dogma: that the text is much less difficult than stupid theologies and Biblical critics since the Enlightenment have thought, All that is needed is a good dose of literary theory and/or properly trained aesthetic judgment for the knots to unravel, the scales to fall from our eyes, and the meaning of the Bible to become as clear as day. We find this irritating, and not only because it seems to undermine the tradition of study in which we have been trained. It is possible, thinkable, that the books of the prophets, for example, are models of clarity and good order, or that the narrative books have not the slightest inconsistency or blemish; that the received Hebrew text of the Old Testament never needs emendation; that the techniques of Hebrew verse or Greek epistolography, once properly understood, will turn out to have no finer representatives than those very Biblical books that critics have so often seen as muddled and obscure. It is thinkable, but we find it hard to believe that it is likely. Most of us continue to believe that it makes sense to dig beneath the surface of the text, to ask questions about its authors, and to see these authors as highly diverse, even incompatible in their intentions. In a very straightforward, unliterary, yet, I believe, convincing way, this is demonstrated in Richard Elliott Friedman's book Who Wrote the Bible? He shows that the critics' questions about date, authorship and original use of the various Biblical books are sometimes answerable and, what is more, worth answering: it is not a matter of complete indifference whether a book comes from one hand or four, whether it was planned as a unity or has become one in transmission.

Josipovici clearly sees the difficulties we have all grappled with, and does not want to explain them away from the lordly heights of a higher literary sensibility. He shows us that there are indeed literary problems in the Bible, but problems to which there is no literary solution. If anything unites the Biblical books and makes it hard to believe that they are merely an accidental collection of early Jewish and Christian documents, it is that in almost all of them there are difficulties of just this kind. The Biblical writers are, for the most part, not trying to tell a story with a punch-line or fairy-tale ending, but are concerned to mirror the brokenness of human life. Of course, as Josipovici himself points out, this requires literary artifice, every bit as much as does closure: ‘realism’ is a function of literary conventions, and writing which refuses to be literature becomes literature as soon as someone reads it. Theologians who protest that the Bible is misunderstood if read ‘merely’ as literature are reminding us of something important about these particular texts. If we wish to avoid the paradox of saying that texts can be ‘not literature,’ we might say that Biblical texts operate with literary conventions much more alien from our own than we commonly realise. However we put it, we have said something which unites the ordinary religious reader of the Bible who feels frustrated by the strange windings and doublings-back of the Biblical story: the historical critic nosing out textual and interpretative cruces, and the literary interpreter looking for the sense of an ending and being disappointed. That is no small achievement.

The most memorable chapters of The Book of God are those in which Josipovici moves away from attacking other critics (whether historical, theological or literary) and seeks to capture the distinctive flavour of the Bible. He considers both the (Protestant) Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, it is the older collection that calls the tune, and it is really Hebrew literary culture that he is analysing.

‘Memory, Genealogy and Repetition’ concentrates on three features of Hebrew narrative usually said to be alien to the modern reader, and therefore liable to be ‘corrected’ or explained away by over-helpful scholars: the need ceaselessly to recall the past—not just the stories of heroes but the past of every person, the past which unites the community; the desire to link past to present by lists of names, lists that bored no one and were rolled with relish around the tongue; and the delight in exact verbal repetition, so puzzling to many modern readers and so self-evident to anyone who shares in the liturgical tradition of either Judaism or Christianity.

‘The need to utter’ reminds us that what matters in the Bible is not to convey a ‘message'—as though the Bible were a book of dogmas or a handbook of useful religious information—but, primarily, simply to speak: ‘only by speaking can one discover what it is one wants to say.’ It is because the Bible's speech is so compendious, and not restricted to the articulation of doctrines to be obeyed or orders to be followed, that it so often fails to answer our questions. To make it our own (whether as religious believers or as literary critics) we have to listen to its characteristic modes of discourse, and forget our desire to get to the point—as if there were one. There is an indiscriminate quality in the Bible's compulsive desire to recount and to recall everything that happens, and not to pass judgment. ‘The Bible does not discriminate … either between classes or between good and bad deeds: the sins and errors of Adam and Jacob and David are as important as the humility and obedience of Abraham and Moses.’ There are, of course, moral judgments in the Bible, but the Bible is not a moral tale, a collection of exempla, for all that Jews and Christians alike have often read so. Nor is it a book of comfort, showing how good will triumph over evil in the end: ‘those who think they are privy to God's word—Joseph, Saul, David … have to learn that this is not the case: no one is privy to it, not even the reader himself. The narrative refuses its comforts to Joseph, to David, to Jesus, and to us.’

This theme is continued in the chapter ‘Dialogue and Distance.’ Like Auerbach before him, Josipovici notes how much of the ‘action’ in the Hebrew Bible is carried by dialogue; he also notes that this can be a device for concealing, or refusing to supply, the ‘meaning’ of the action. We are told what God said, and what this or that character replied. What lies behind the words is seldom revealed. In this chapter Josipovici begins to deal with a general problem in talking about what ‘the Bible’ says or intends: the difference between the Testaments. For him, the Gospels seem to belong in the Old Testament world. Their narrative conventions, their characteristic mood and flavour, he seems to believe, are really Hebrew, even though they are written in Hellenistic Greek. (This point was a favourite one in the theological world in the Fifties and Sixties.) The divide runs between the Gospels and the letters of St. Paul (although these are earlier than the Gospels, and so nearer in time to the Hebrew Scriptures): Paul really does believe in clear-cut meanings, answers, solutions to mysteries whereas the Gospels share the open-endedness of Hebrew narrative. There is a case to be made here, though it is a fragile one for, as Josipovici observes, the Gospels are classic examples of narratives with an ending, and to add them to the Hebrew Scriptures is to transform the older, more non-committal collection into a straightforward comedy, and to dissolve the riddles. ‘In the Gospels meaning is spelled out, the author appends his signature to his book. And this exclusivity of meaning will be taken further in the later books of the NT, until the book of Revelation merely adds the final full stop.’ Yet even here, in the Christian Bible whose articulation is so different from that of the Hebrew Scriptures, tradition has (perhaps despite itself) interposed to prevent the Bible from becoming The Guinness Book of Answers: ‘For one thing, there are four Gospels, not one. This already acts as a brake on the centralisation of meaning. For another … the canonical Gospels, and especially that of Mark, leave us with a strong sense of precisely that distance, that primacy of dialogue, which we saw to be so integral a part of the historical books of the Hebrew scriptures.’

The Book of God is full of such insights, which deserve and need to be pondered by both literary critics and Biblical scholars of the traditional sort. The conflict between the concerns of these two groups has, I believe, been grossly exaggerated, each side painting the other in lurid and exaggerated colours. Of course, there are absurdities on both sides, but there is brilliance too, and a dialogue is essential. Josipovici's book is one of the first which suggests to me that this is beginning in earnest. One misses that note of implacable hostility which mars the otherwise creative and convincing work of Robert Alter.

Principal Works

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The Inventory (novel) 1968

Evidence of Intimacy (play) 1970

Words (novel) 1971

The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction (criticism) 1971

Mobius the Stripper: Stories and Short Plays (short stories and plays) 1974

The Present (novel) 1975

Four Stories (short stories) 1977

The Lessons of Modernism and Other Essays (criticism) 1977

Migrations (novel) 1977

Vergil Dying (play) 1979

The Echo Chamber (novel) 1980

The Air We Breathe (novel) 1981

Writing and the Body (criticism) 1982

The Mirror of Criticism: Selected Reviews, 1977–1982 (criticism) 1983

Conversations in Another Room (novel) 1984

Contre Jour: A Tryptych after Pierre Bonnard (novel) 1986

In the Fertile Land (short stories) 1987

The Book of God: A Response to the Bible (criticism) 1988

The Big Glass (novel) 1991

Text and Voice: Essays, 1981–1991 (criticism) 1992

In a Hotel Garden (novel) 1993

Moo Pak (novel) 1994

Touch (criticism) 1996

On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion (criticism) 1999

Denis Donoghue (review date 31 March 1989)

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SOURCE: “In a Personal Spirit,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 31, 1989, p. 331.

[In the following review, Donoghue offers a positive assessment of The Book of God, calling the work both scholarly and accessible.]

Gabriel Josipovici describes the Bible as “that most complex yet most reticent of books,” and his response to it observes both of the qualities he attributes to it. He will not let go of its complexity till it has blessed his account of it. Nor is he gruff in granting to it the right to be reticent.

In “Religion and Literature” (1935), T. S. Eliot denounced men of letters who go into ecstasies over “the Bible as literature,” the Bible as “the noblest monument of English prose,” and insisted that such men “are merely admiring it as a monument over the grave of Christianity.” The Bible, he maintained, “has had a literary influence upon English literature not because it has been considered as literature, but because it has been considered as the report of the Word of God.” The fact that men of letters discuss it as “literature,” he said, probably indicates “the end of its ‘literary’ influence.” Josipovici quotes this passage from Eliot's essay, and similar ones from writings by C. S. Lewis, James Kugel and James Barr, but he elects, while recognizing that the question of authority is inescapable, to go ahead without resolving it: he proposes to “trust the book itself and see where it will take us.” In that spirit he enters upon a context diversely prepared by such notable interpreters of the Bible as Erich Auerbach, Northrop Frye, John Drury, Harold Fisch, Graham Hughes, Stephen Prickett, Paul Ricoeur, Amos Wilder, Meir Sternberg, Robert Alter and Frank Kermode. I don't know whether or not Josipovici accepts the Bible as the report of the Word of God, but he says nothing that would affront a reader who does. Even if he reads it as literature, he doesn't accept that the phrase “as literature” has limiting force, or that it confines him to a celebration of the sonorousness of biblical prose.

Josipovici raises four main questions about the Bible. Is it a book, or a ragbag? Should we read it as if it contained secrets to be deciphered, or with a quite different expectation? In what respects do the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible differ? What are the assumptions under which a reader of the Bible ought to proceed?

The Book of God is not a detective story, so I feel free to indicate the main direction of Josipovici's answers to these questions without giving the holy show away. The Bible is indeed one book, he thinks; it exhibits “the unity of disjunction, at the same time as it is an assertion of conjunction.” The disjunctions are not dark patches in our understanding: “they are the very fabric of this book.” No, we should not read the Bible as if it held secrets behind the words, waiting to be deciphered. We should read it as stories to be listened to, featuring people we encounter; as “narratives which engage our interest but about which we are not asked to hold particular views.” The main differences between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible arise in a consideration of eschatology:

The Christian Bible leads to the end of time, to the fulfilment of time. When time is fulfilled everything will have been revealed. In Hebrew apocalyptic too there is an urgent desire for this, but by and large the Hebrew Bible chose a different path. It chose to stay not with the fulfilment of man's desires but with the reality of what happens to us in this life. We all long in our daily lives for an end to uncertainty, to the need for decisions and choices, with the concomitant feeling that the choices, we have made may have been the wrong ones. Yet we also know that life will not provide such an end, that we will always be enmeshed in uncertainty. What is extraordinary is that a sacred book should dramatize this, rather than be the one place where we are given what we desire. But that is precisely what the Hebrew Bible does.

The Hebrew Bible merely claims that there is a meaning in history; the New Testament claims to know what the meaning is. Not that the meaning is clear. Indeed, Josipovici backs off from the certitude he ascribes to the Christian Bible. “There is,” he says, “a strong tendency in Christianity, already evident in the New Testament, to search for the single story that will give shape to the world: but that tendency exists in tension with the sense, present in the Gospels as well as in much of the Hebrew Bible, that if there is such a story it is not one we will ever be able to know or tell.” The best analogy for reading the Bible, he finally says, is that of coming to know a friend. “Let us turn to it,” he urges, “not as to an object, but as to a person.” So ends a book he began by acknowledging indebtedness to Martin Buber and to Auerbach's account of figura.

The several chapters of The Book of God deal with these matters: the first words of Genesis, as variously translated by the Authorized Version, Jerome's Latin, the New English Bible, and several modern scholars; the episode of Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 45); the instructions for building the Tabernacle (Exodus 25); the Book of Judges; the question of prose-and-verse, or of formal and informal utterance; the significance of dialogue; Saul and David; Jesus, the different images of him in Mark, Matthew and John; St Paul and the question of subjectivity; the Epistle to the Hebrews, in its bearing on the meaning of history; the man whom Joseph meets in the field at Shechem (Genesis 37).

In each chapter, Josipovici raises a question of interpretation, shows why it matters, disputes with his predecessors and defends his own reading. In the chapter about the man in the field at Shechem, for instance, he glances at the corresponding passage in Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers, before engaging in well-mannered dispute with Frank Kermode, whose reading of the similar episode in Mark 14 forms a vivid chapter in The Genesis of Secrecy (1979).

These several chapters in The Book of God are full of interest, indeed edifying in their selfless concern to enter into the implied spirit of the narration. Josipovici is especially perceptive on the significance of the Sabbath, the rhythm of renewal, St Paul's projection of himself in the likeness of the Prodigal Son, the gruesome character of Judges, the emphasis, in Exodus 25, on the making—the weaving and joining—of the Tabernacle even more than on the thing made. He is also splendidly helpful on the crucial themes which inevitably arise from his reading of particular episodes: considerations of faith, conversion, autobiography, memory, speaking-and-listening, father-and-son, authority, prayer and silence. He would not claim that his account of each of these is decisive: glancing blows he strikes, for the most part. Sometimes he shows how our understanding of a certain motif or a certain capacity is enlivened by thinking of something in Augustine, or in Bunyan, Kierkegaard, Proust, Kafka, Mann or Beckett. But these glances are always tactful; he is never vulgar or intrusive.

The Book of God could only have been written by a scholar, but it is not addressed, in the first instance, to scholars: it is for the common reader. Occasionally, Josipovici makes a quick reference which, I think, will send such a reader to the bigger dictionaries. “Usually in the Bible the parataxis of the syntax is matched by narrative parataxis,” he writes, adding “as we have seen,” as if to make the reader bite his lip and flick back the pages to see what precisely he is deemed to have seen. In The Book of God, as in Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, it is assumed that the reader is familiar with the difference between parataxis and hypotaxis. In fact, I could have done with another chapter in which that distinction, and its bearing on the Hebrew Bible, was clarified even beyond the gratifying clarity provided by Mimesis.

But the complaint is a minor one. For the most part, Josipovici's response to the Bible is not only highly intelligent but considerate. His “personalism” is at every point honourable, thoughtful, decent and exacting in an entirely justified cause. Perhaps it could be argued that the analogy of meeting a person, or coming to know someone, doesn't solve every crux in reading the Bible. It is one thing to acknowledge that even one's most intimate friend is entitled to his or her mystery; and another to come upon a passage in Judges, for instance, and feel outraged or merely stumped. But Josipovici's general approach to the Bible is admirable, and in most of the instances he has studied his interpretation is convincing. Not that he really wants to “convince”; he is persuasive, mainly, to the degree of his candour. If he is stumped, he doesn't pretend that he isn't.

Irving Malin (review date Summer 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of In the Fertile Land, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 9, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 255–56.

[In the following review, Malin explores the existential themes of reality and the past as portrayed in In the Fertile Land.]

This collection of stories [In the Fertile Land]—including a novella entitled Distances—is required reading. It informs us in a brilliant, sad manner that we can never describe—or, better yet, capture—the events which happen to us. We can never get the “truth”; we can only interpret incompletely. We are always plagued by distances.

The first story begins strangely: “Yesterday I talked to my father. He stood in my room with his back to the window, facing the bed, his legs slightly apart, his hands behind his back, in the familiar posture. He has been dead for ten years.” We are plunged into a world in which dead fathers talk to their sons, opposites abound (“apart,” “behind”), “familiar postures” seem “unfamiliar.” The description is ghostly, hallucinatory, perverse.

And the odd descriptions continue. The narrator remembers a game in which “complex and rigid rules” create “terror and exhilaration.” But he then tells us that he cannot really remember the vanished past. He wonders about the relationship of past and present, the meaning of distance, loss, exile: “I suddenly feel that this last part of the game is about to come back to me but it never does. Is it that by becoming conscious of its immanent appearance I had somehow chased it away, or do I perhaps grow conscious of its presence before it has quite emerged precisely in order to prevent it from appearing?” The perplexity is apparent; the question of “presence” is raised and thrown away.

The complex forces of disappearance and appearance, presence and loss, are really only “words.” The narrator tells us he is writing a story, that the “father,” the “game,” the entire scene, are fictions. But the narrator admits that he is also a word. “I” doesn't exist—except in a sentence. Language, it seems, creates presence, but the presence is never “there” or “here.” Reality vanishes as it is described.

I have discussed this story at length because it is representative. Almost every other story contains the same themes and images. Let me quote some other sentences: “Perhaps this time too, he thinks, I will know how I really feel towards him.” In “A Changeable Report” we read: “I have been dead for five years.” “He” gives us this one: “He did not want to write more beautifully, more euphoniously, he wanted only to get at the reality of what happened.”

Josipovici's narrators attempt to frame things and people, but they always realize that they cannot offer precise explanations. They are “mad”; they are “rational.” They are “invisible” and “visible.” They “exist”—but only as words. Therefore, we are “deserted in this fertile land.” We tremble; we shake; we wonder. We look to Josipovici for help, but we recognize that he is somewhere else. And while we tremble, we thank him for making us uncomfortably aware of our existential state, our dreamlike condition, our infertility.

Further Reading

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Boadt, Lawrence. Review of The Book of God: A Response to the Bible, by Gabriel Josipovici. Theological Studies 50, No. 4 (December 1989): 786–787.

Boadt argues that Josipovici is only partially successful in his attempt to reinterpret the Bible in The Book of God.

Cheyette, Bryan. “From Game to Silence.” Times Literary Supplement (13 May 1988): 533.

Cheyette praises the thematic and intellectual issues raised in In the Fertile Land.

Clee, Nicholas. “Walking and Talking.” Times Literary Supplement (23 September 1994): 23.

Clee offers a positive assessment of Moo Pak, noting that Josipovici's previous questions about the adequacy of language are explored further in the novel.

Clifford, Richard. Review of The Book of God: A Response to the Bible, by Gabriel Josipovici. Journal of Religion 71, No. 4 (October 1991): 634.

Clifford offers a positive assessment of The Book of God, calling the work informative and instructional.

Dyer, Geoff. Review of In the Fertile Land, by Gabriel Josipovici. New Statesman (8 January 1988): 32.

Dyer offers a negative assessment of In the Fertile Land, faulting the work for being formulaic and derivative.

Hornsby, Samuel G., Jr. Review of The Book of God: A Response to the Bible, by Gabriel Josipovici. Southern Humanities Review 24, No. 3 (Summer 1990): 282–283.

Hornsby examines the central themes of The Book of God.

Jeffrey, David L. “The Bible as Literature in the 1980s: A Guide for the Perplexed.” University of Toronto Quarterly 59, No. 4 (Summer 1990): 569–580.

Jeffrey compares and contrasts several recent works of Biblical scholarship, including The Book of God.

Read, Piers Paul. “Reconciling the Old with the New.” Spectator (7 January 1989): 23.

Read offers a positive assessment of The Book of God.

Additional coverage of Josipovici's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 37–40; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 8; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 47, 84; Contemporary Novelists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 14; and Literature Resource Center.

Aaron Milavec (review date July 1990)

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SOURCE: A review of The Book of God: A Response to the Bible, in Interpretation, Vol. 44, No. 3, July, 1990, p. 318.

[In the following review, Milavec offers a positive assessment of The Book of God, complimenting the work as an “exemplary text.”]

Josipovici is currently Professor of English at the School of European Studies, University of Sussex. In the preface to his book [The Book of God], he explains that he never mastered the Bible in the way he had mastered Chaucer and Proust, even though he was aware that the Bible contained narratives “far fresher and more ‘modern’ than any of the prize-winning novels rolling off the presses” (p.x). To rectify this deficiency, Josipovici learned Hebrew and Greek and digested nearly a hundred books and articles dealing with biblical studies.

At the beginning of his book, Josipovici raises the related questions of how the Bible constitutes “a sacred book” and how its many books (in terms of topic and style) can have a canonical unity. Then, so as to answer these questions, Josipovici skillfully brings his readers into fresh encounter with the rhetoric and pathos of the biblical narratives themselves. For example, using the story of the patriarch Joseph, Josipovici shows how a fairy tale beginning is artfully used to lure the reader into an identification with a hero who, in the course of the drama, encounters the cruel realities of jealousy and suffering. When a story of this nature is made to work again and again (e.g., as in the stories of Samson, of David, and of Jesus) then, in the end, the reader is ever more inclined to allow his or her own life to become an extension of this series. It is at this “end point” that the fundamental unity and the sacredness of the Bible emerges—not as a creedal proposition or scientific certainty but as the transformation of the reader through encountering the text.

Josipovici's study provides an exemplary text for students who are exploring the Bible as literature. Illusions to classical and current literature abound. But even beyond this, Josipovici offers an informed, sensitive, and balanced legitimation as to how Jews and Christians (and, to a lesser degree, Protestants and Catholics) are routinely led to interpret the same biblical texts quite differently.

Josipovici's book also has much to offer biblical scholars concerned with issues of methodology. Experts will discover that Josipovici is uninformed or misinformed on numerous technical points; yet, he deeply understands the impact of modernism on the Bible and, from a fresh vantage point, offers a trenchant assessment of how and why current methodologies fail precisely because they insulate the reader from that electrifying contact with the Bible whereby it can be known as The Book of God.

Roger Cardinal (review date 8 March 1991)

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SOURCE: “Fractured Glasswork,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 8, 1991, p. 19.

[In the following positive review, Cardinal explains the historical events on which Josipovici built his novel The Big Glass.]

Reminiscing in 1946 about the origins of his masterwork “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even,” (commonly known as “The Large Glass”), Marcel Duchamp acknowledged the inspiration of Raymond Roussel, whose curious play Impressions d'Afrique he had seen performed in 1911. “The Large Glass,” that legendary synthesis of calculation and Dada nonsense, begun in New York in 1915 and “definitively incompleted” in 1923, may thus be supposed to draw at least in part on the principle of transposition d'art. “I felt,” Duchamp recalls, “that as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter.”

Gabriel Josipovici's novel [The Big Glass] turns a neat mirrortrick by carrying “The Large Glass” back into the verbal medium, thereby continuing a practice that dates back to his homage to Pierre Bonnard, the triptych, Contre Jour (1984). The mode of transposition Josipovici favours is distinctive; rather more than a verbal commentary on the visual work, but not quite a fictionalized biography. What he does first is dip freely into the pictorial motifs, critical readings and biographical data associated with the original work of art, using especially the notes Duchamp himself provided in the Green Box of 1934; he then arranges these borrowings within an entirely new frame, displacing the facts of Duchamp's eight years' toil in New York with the story of an artist named Harsnet who initiates his so-called “Big Glass” in a Clapham studio in July 1967.

As though to ensure it will not be taken too literally, Josipovici signals the fictional nature of his text in a manner reminiscent of such earlier experiments as his split-level story “Mobius the Stripper” (recently reprinted in Steps: Selected Fiction and Drama). The Big Glass is a tale jointly told by two narrators. The artist Harsnet kept a personal notebook during the period of fabrication of his “Glass”; an associate, the critic Goldberg, now transcribes this text on an Olivetti portable, fulfilling what he sees to be a “sacred trust.” These narratorial antics throw up irresistible echoes: of Max Brod publishing Kafka's secrets; of Sartre's fictive editors annotating Roquentin's confessions, of the Chinese-box structure of Thomas Bernhard's Gehen, a similar experiment in reported speech. Every now and then Harsnet's voice gives way to that of his amanuensis as the latter interpolates his Goldberg variations in the form of marginal notes or letters to Harsnet, which set up a secondary perspective on events. The ornate textual packaging invites us to spot the shifts of voice, watching for faults or refractions of meaning, collating insights into Harsnet's private self at the same time as we monitor his creative stratagems.

The artist of this portrait emerges as a cold-hearted fellow, who humiliates his bride by hiring a lookalike to show up at the registry office in his stead and inserts insulting remarks about Goldberg in the very document he knows the critic will read. A quirkiness reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's monologues comes across in Harsnet's asides, about mundane incidents in the local launderette, or about his making an inventory of the entire contents of his jacket pocket in 1959. Such trivia offset the high earnestness of his commitment to “The Big Glass.” The novel is the epic tale of this work, seen less as an artefact of glass, metal and scratched silver than as a property of its maker's mind. Harsnet's nightly notations are a spiritual diary, The Big Glass a mirror of his intense aesthetic and metaphysical ponderings.

Harsnet thus equates to that modern type which Jean Starobinski has named the “cerebral hero”; he tenaciously affirms his lucidity, rejects all compromise, strives for an act of radical refusal, some ultimate Dada gesture. Fantasizing about his work as an icon of moral rigour, Harsnet imagines its multiple symbolic impact: the two transparent panes are a “mirror of reality,” then a crystal ball, finally a corrosive challenge that will annihilate all museum art. An aura of fanaticism steals up. Harsnet seems scarcely to sleep in his efforts to sharpen his anti-cultural critique, and the implication is strong that he has in mind to kill himself once his magnum opus has been exhibited.

Josipovici's fiction both mimics and caricatures history when, unpacked at the Museum of Modern Art in Edinburgh, the panes are found to be smashed. The “advent of the unexpected” triggers off an unlikely zest in Harsnet, who welcomes the chance to play again with the broken toy he had affected to disown, and to participate in its last minute leap from the cerebral into the emotional. He is overwhelmed by this final, unplanned symbolism: “Only by being shattered could the glass come alive.

Despite some infelicities, such as the awkward entry into the fiction of such real-life figures as Saul Bellow and John Cage. The Big Glass merits respect for its measured treatment of the theme of creative transcendence, and its moral and aesthetic lessons about the lifting of emotional taboos and the limitations of rigid planning. It remains an open question whether Marcel Duchamp, that ironic iconoclast, would have relished its overtones of redemption; he would probably have enjoyed the book's dour prose, in which cliché is constantly stripped bare by a caustic terseness.

Ruth Pavey (review date 8 March 1991)

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SOURCE: “Life Studies,” in New Statesman & Society, March 8, 1991, p. 38.

[In the following positive review, Pavey offers a positive assessment of The Big Glass, praising its “seamless quality.”]

The Big Glass of Gabriel Josipovici's title is closely related to the artist Marcel Duchamp's “Large Glass, the Bride stripped bare by her Bachelors, even.” That singular work, with the accompanying Green Box of Duchamp's notes, has attracted respect and the word “enigmatic” ever since it was (un)finished in 1923. Josipovici is not seeking to explain it, nor to fictionalise Duchamp's life. He has written a novel, using his rare capacity to be both maker and critic at the same time.

Harsnet the artist and Goldberg the critic are the main characters. Harsnet retains much of Duchamp; he too is working on a “delay in glass,” writing notes to go with it, taking a long time, playing chess, being intimidating. But he is doing it in London in the sixties, and is not Duchamp. He is an invention, but a recognisable one, fitting into the uncrowded, priestly, all-male group for whom the pursuit of a goal excludes everything else. We know about him because Goldberg, a sort of Sancho Panza, is busy typing up Harsnet's notes, while adding a few comments of his own.

The typing is taking place some time later, when Harsnet has already abandoned both the work and his friend. This story is told at a remove, like a room seen through a window. At first glance, the clearest things are Harsnet's commitment, his loathing for compromise, and the almost heroic proportions of his disregard for other people. His former girlfriends are particularly unenviable. Yet though the importance of his work is convincing (a rare thing, in novels about creativity), one is not being asked to join in a genuflection to The Artist.

In fact, far from the inspiration-swept-genius version of artistic activity, we often see Harsnet at a standstill, depressed or indifferent. He makes shopping lists and remembers the launderette. And he does a lot of thinking, an activity not popularly associated with artists. It may be because of the thinking that the 110 pages of The Big Glass run without a break or even an indentation. It gives the work a seamless quality. I lost my place once, started further on, realised by chance, came back to fill in, and felt it was just as good as the normal approach. For most writing that might be an insult, but in this case, not.

To say someone's work is serious runs the risk of implying it is heavy, pompous. The Big Glass is serious, but with a light heart. The scholarship and thought that fill it are there for the connections they make and the light they shed, not for show. Harsnet aligns himself with “those for whom the whole self is at stake.” His work is unquestionably for love.

Gabriel Josipovici has turned to the work of an earlier artist. This ploy, fairly common among contemporary novelists, can prompt the question, are we borrowing from the past because the present is so thin? Such doubts are unnecessary in The Big Glass, but reassert themselves, with Nicholas Salaman's The Grimace. Like Josipovici, Salaman is concerned with artistic obsession, and draws inspiration from the life of an historical character; in this case, the 18th-century sculptor, Franz Messerschmidt. Thereafter, likeness between the two novels fades.

Messerschmidt, alias Froberger, feels driven to sculpt 69 heads, exploring the range of facial expressions. Fantastical events overtake him once he becomes embroiled with Mesmer and his arcane experiments. He lets go a promising career as court sculptor, then gradually parts company with reality. All this might have been more convincing without the constant jollity of tone, and the very knowing 20th-century tinge to the cleverness. With them, it becomes an enjoyable novel that sits awkwardly in its historical setting.

Michael Fishbane (review date Summer 1991)

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SOURCE: A review of The Book of God: A Response to the Bible, in Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 110, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 323–25.

[In the following review, Fishbane places Josipovici's scholarship in the context of Biblical studies, arguing that The Book of God adds much to scholarly Biblical interpretation.]

This new book [The Book of God] by the critic and novelist Gabriel Josipovici signals a turn in the wide-ranging discussion of the “Bible and Literature” and puts a little landscape into what had become a fairly flat topography. It arises for Josipovici out of a personal need to confront the Bible as a form of discourse and to ponder it as a species of literature. Thus at the center of the discussion is the old-new question of whether the Bible is a privileged or special discourse—and if so, how. As an old matter, the case was clear: Scripture was deemed special by virtue of its sacred status or divine origin; accordingly its styles and forms must be read with a special (i.e., sanctioned) hermeneutic that can best elicit the manifold content of an often elliptic Scripture. There is no danger of over-reading here, since everything in the text is fraught with significance. From the Jewish side, one need merely evoke the methods of midrash to make the point; but some authors, like Judah Halevi in The Kuzari (II.70–76) or Moses de Leon in the Zohar (III.152a), unabashedly separated the style of Scripture from all ordinary speech. In fact, de Leon confronted the skeptics of his day with the acknowledgment that, on the face of it, medieval epics and romances were stylistically superior to the Bible. But this text was (he riposted) “much more.” By contrast, modern critics have routinely remained with the plain face of things and have cut Scripture down to (their) human size. Any notion of a “sacred poesy” is cast to the winds, and “literary imagination” and style are the measures of an earth-bound aesthetic. To be sure, this has produced some satisfying readings and a cottage-industry that has filled the gap left by an aging positivism. The Bible is a book like any other.

But is it? Is it even a book by any standard measure? Certainly such venerable titles as ta biblia (“The Books”) or kitvei ha-qodesh (“Sacred Scriptures”) acknowledge the anthological nature of the product. As a literary person, Josipovici takes such issues in stride and presses the question with some urgency. Is the Bible just some “ragbag” (his term, p. xi) with occasional literary gems, or is it a unified whole with overall artistic shape and stylistic rhythms? Granted, Josipovici does introduce the reader both to the shape of the Hebrew Bible from Genesis to Chronicles and to its overall historical frame (though I would urge a greater emphasis on the striking lack of closure of the text, of its palpable messianic opening at the end), and he also provides a fine overview of the shape of the Christian Bible from Genesis to Revelation and its grand romantic closure (in Frye's sense). But Josipovici is not content with holistic overviews, and he tries to put his finger on the stylistic-literary elements which make up the many parts a book. And with this his argument takes off.

A governing metaphor for Josipovici is that the Bible is a work that elicits the readers' response (note the subtitle) in and through its very way with words, so that any poetics of Scripture cannot be given abstractly but must emerge from one's literary experience with it. Accordingly, this study tries to elucidate the specialness of Scripture through its style and through a form of criticism that grinds close to the wheel of its linguistic rhythms. Josipovici thus carries the reader through the narratives (and other genres) so that the literary features of the text are not only palpable but even generate a “response” (see p. 107). Indeed, this cumulative presentation of features parallels the chief stylistic element of the Bible in his view: parataxis. This feature marks its minutiae and main elements alike. Beginning with Genesis, Josipovici emphasizes the particle waw, “and” (pp. 64–68). The paratactic particle links words and episodes, and thus produces the incremental or accumulative aspect of Scripture as a whole. Just this is its “special” rhythm, and hereby the various units, repetitions, and contradictions of Scripture are woven into one texture. The forward, historical movement of the whole thus resists closure and its consolations; indeed, for Josipovici (and here there are striking parallels with remarks of Franz Rosenzweig in his Stern and Die Schrift) this narrative temporality is wholly outside the natural order (and its rhythm) and so refuses the consolations of myth (p. 89). We thus have here a new twist on the old difference between Hebrew and Greek culture, with a primary distinction marked by the openness of biblical narrativity vs. the closure of Greek forms. Indeed, for Josipovici, the lack in the Bible of a framework of perception outside the action forces the reader to accumulate meanings (paratactically and temporally) and to respond to its ongoing futurity and claims. The result, I would say, is a kind of “messianic poetics,” whereby biblical style reinforces the same resistance to false fulfillment that is thematized on the level of content. In a celebrated lecture Buber once celebrated just this temporal voice of Scripture (over against Greek symmetry and its visual forms), and, in his comments on Genesis 3, Buber also argued that the seduction of the serpent was precisely the temptation to view existence from a meta-perspective—“like God”—and thus try to evade the embeddedness of human temporality.

Josipovici repeatedly confirms these observations at the stylistic level, and he also shows how intertextual links between episodes add to the paratactic rhythm of the whole (this being repetition and variation). For him, this rhythm falters most markedly in the book of Judges. It is just here, he argues, that one can see the jagged edges between episodes and an aspect of unnaturalness pointedly present in the violent deaths depicted throughout (p. 113). There is a certain truth to this observation, but is it more of a breakdown of the rhythm than, say, earlier eruptions of sin (e.g., the Golden Calf) or rebellion (in the desert) in the epic narratives? Indeed, one also wishes that Josipovici also would acknowledge the redactional struggle to produce order in the episodes of the judges through cyclical retrievals of order and by an attempt to produce a geographical and tribal inclusiveness to the tales. To be sure, the cyclical closures certainly do not produce anything like a “mythic” consolation—but a sharp irony is nevertheless produced between these patterns and the repeated events of historical desolation. In any event, Josipovici's notion of the breakdown of “the rhythm” suggests that one might also look at the prophetic shout and rebuke as a “disrhythmic” counterpoint to the breakdown of covenantal order.

Josipovici sees the continuation of this “Hebraic” (my usage) style in the NT (and this is a decisive factor in his viewing the whole as a “book”). One aspect of this continuity lies in the paratactic aspect of repetition and innovation so much in evidence in the Synoptics and elsewhere; another aspect is found in the historical narrativity and forward thrust of human biography. But by far the most decisive aspect is that many literary features in the NT (like the miracle stories on the one hand, or the density of the parables on the other) try to elicit a response from their reading public (even as these genres tried to do the same for the “original” audience). The gospels, on this view, betray a decided anxiety to convince and thus require the addressees to become involved with the narrative (p. 215). Versus Kermode's canon of secrecy, where the reader/hearer's task is to ferret out a secret, Josipovici sees the text as eliciting a confrontation with a person and a life; and as against the simple closure of a “fairy tale” life (his phrase, p. 230), the biblical text resists mythic closure. The felt anxiety to communicate an event, which marks the Gospels, is also the stylistic link between them and Paul. Indeed, Josipovici develops the striking point that it is just because of the importance to Paul of his inner encounter with the risen Jesus that he is driven to objectify his experience through narrative (i.e., autobiography is sponsored by the urge to relate and publicize one's spiritual conversion; witness Augustine). Thus Josipovici helps one see that Paul is very much affected by his introspective conscience, and that narrative is the stylistic result (pp. 248, 253). Josipovici thus takes a giant step away from Stendahl's well-known essay on Paul (HTR 56 [1963] 199–215), but it should be noted that Paul builds on an introspective sensibility that had long since been cultivated in Jewish circles (cf. Flusser, HTR 61 [1968] 107–27).

As a whole, then, the Bible is a book insofar as it is a forward moving account of lives (p. 233), and it coheres stylistically insofar as it requires one's assent to or encounter with its ongoing claims. There is no mythic consolation here; but rather, as Josipovici asserts, the challenge is to trust the narrative and its unfolding. To assent here is also to give up the desire to understand “finally”—with final completeness (p. 293). It forces one to have the temerity to stand firm in time and not overly interpret. Indeed, for Josipovici, once one privileges interpretation over narrative (i.e., this means that; this fulfills that) a pleromatic pleasure tyrannizes the open-endedness of biblical style (pp. 275, 294). Such over-interpretations not only thin out the narrative but dilute the thickness of biblical theology as well. Interpretative tyranny and the retrospective imagination of the epigones thus introduce a final if not fatal break of biblical rhythm. Repeated reflection on the past, together with a meta-perspective of historical process (as in apocalyptic) is thus a break with the characteristic style of Scripture and an inclination to mythic consolation (in Josipovici's sense). In its stylistic integrity, the Bible resists such a perspective just because it is so busy reporting the unfolding of life (p. 298). Indeed Josipovici even claims that this busyness with existence means that the Bible is not literature in any conventional sense. But I wonder whether this is not just the supreme fiction of Scripture—that it pretends to no fiction and to no narrative invention. If so, this is but one of its awesome ironies, and one of the ways it draws us into its temporality. We have Josipovici to thank for heightening our awareness of the subject, and for subtly producing in us the parallel need to respond to the text even as we analyze it. Readers will be instructed and delighted by Josipovici's brooding and thoughtful intelligence—and by the rhythm of exploration and honesty of his passage through Scripture.

Barry V. Qualls (review date Winter 1992)

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SOURCE: “Abishag's King,” in Raritan, Vol. 11, No. 3, Winter, 1992, pp. 105–16.

[In the following review, Qualls compares Harold Bloom's The Book of J with Josipovici's The Book of God.]

“To qualify for the Blessing, you need not charm Yahweh, as David and Joseph do, but you must not be dull,” writes Harold Bloom about God's—or the author “J's”—search for those worth attention, worth the gift of “more life.” Those worth the Bible's attention, Gabriel Josipovici proclaims, find life in narrative: “God, in this book [The Book of God] … appears to be pure potential realized in activity … in the unfolding narrative. … To trust in narrative, as the author of Job realized, is to make the same act as to trust in children: it is to give up the impossible desire for understanding.” Being is enough.

I begin with these statements because they seem to me at once to summarize the commonalities of viewpoint in these two otherwise very different studies of the Bible's ways of knowing (not, finally, believing) and to chart in the late twentieth century a telling moment in the evolution of biblical studies (at least outside of theology schools). Both Bloom and Josipovici live, and find their heroes living, in history. Yet their history is finally Romantic, Carlylean: it is the biography of great men—and some great women, particularly Rebecca and Tamar; it is, signally and wonderfully, the telling and retelling of the story of David, and of God's identification with him.

Of the two, Bloom is the more at ease in Zion, the more “boisterously” certain of the ways of God and of the love that God and his author J have for David. Bloom long ago began to wrestle meaning, and J, from “the bevy of Yahwists” and other compilers, and from the (in his eyes) villainous Redactor. Out of “twenty-five hundred years of misreadings” he has produced his “plain sense.” That sense, as headlines in newspapers and on television trumpeted when the book appeared, begins with Bloom's gendering of J as an aristocratic woman (“of Davidic blood”) living at the court of Solomon's son Rehoboam of Judah. The reasons for this identification: her representation of biblical women (who “bear the Blessing better than her male protagonists”), her ironies, and Bloom's intuition of differences between her narratives and the others which challenge it for place and authority.

Yet this argument is by no means the key to the book, neither the source of its wonderful readings of J's texts nor of its boisterous certainties. For Bloom, as he notes early on, “all of our accounts of the Bible are scholarly fictions or religious fantasies.” His aristocratic female J is finally a metaphor for the creation of metonymies for the charismatic David. Though one might want to assert to him that women are not tropes, the real point is that his J is a collection of contradictories, an author whose writing life is focused on producing stories about David even if she may never name him (because her friend the court historian is busy producing what will become 2 Samuel). Bloom's woman writer is at once a “Jewish mother,” creating in Yahweh an “imp” of the perverse and scandalous, and a great lady for whom David, not God, is life. Bloom's J is, then, not at all the revolutionary figure the headlines discovered. The revolution lies not in her gender, although it begins in her love, but in her production of the most material, historical, wondrously visible (and unnamed) god imaginable in the midst of a text prohibiting all images of God.

Some quotations will establish this point, and Bloom's focus:

As with Moses, David's crucial relation is with Yahweh, but Yahweh is in love with David and not with Moses. … Yahweh does not overvalue David, in our judgment or in his own.

David himself is more life, and the promise of more life, into a time without boundaries.

David, whose only limitations are those of our common mortality, is also Yahweh's limit, the unique object of Yahweh's altogether incommensurate love.

When Nietzsche reminds me that the motive for metaphor, for fiction, is the desire to be different, the desire to be elsewhere, I think always of J, for whom the difference, the elsewhere, was David.

She had at the center of her vision not Moses or even Abram, let alone Jacob or Joseph, and certainly not Yahweh, but David. … For her, Yahweh himself matters because he is the God who fell in love with David.

I quote so much in order to make clear that Bloom's book, or J's, is really David's. Its celebrations, its faith (if I dare use that term), all focus on David as J imagined him—imagined him in Joseph, “her David, her best rival to the representation of David by the splendid author of 2 Samuel”; in Jacob, whose struggle for the Blessing prepares the way for David's glory; in Tamar, her “most memorable character” (yet here too, “in centering on Tamar [J] alludes to David, to his personality, career, and legacy”); in Yahweh. Indeed, her “Yahweh moves her at the rare moments when he is Davidic. … J certainly created Yahweh though she did not invent him.”

What is so striking in these Bloomian swerves through the compiled texts is how little interested he is in the difference between the Hebrews' God and the gods of their neighbors, a difference which the Hebrew writers collectively made the sine qua non of Hebrew life. Yahweh's prohibition of representation was so extraordinary as to trouble everyone, from Aaron and the Israelites in the wilderness to those later Jews who found, and wrote, in Jesus the incarnated Word—the Word made flesh. As Owen Barfield noted in Saving the Appearances, the injunction against making images of one's god “is perhaps the unlikeliest thing that ever happened.” For the Hebrews, “Everything proclaims the glory of God, but nothing represents Him. … What is the Old Testament but the tale of their long struggle against that very sin, their repeated relapses and their final victory?”

Bloom celebrates the “uncanny,” “sublime,” and “scandalous” ways J got around this prohibition. He loathes the God of the collective writers (“a kind of heavenly university president”), loathes how they tried to limit J, to diminish her Yahweh. He locates her voice, he hears her ironies, amidst the texts of the scaling-down compilers, and he “boisterously” writes a Davidiad—J's and his. She is a “visionary of incommensurates,” her ironies produced by the clash between material representation and her “antithetical imp of a God.” Thus, in examining Genesis, Bloom constructs a possible original opening from hints in Psalms and Job, an opening which the P author or the Redactor “defrauded” us of knowing in order to begin the scriptures with that normative, “just and orderly” “cosmological fantasy.” For Bloom, J's “earthbound irony” surely produced some “ironic revision of an archaic combat myth, Yahweh's battle with the Dragon and the Deep.”

I wonder. Is this kind of boisterous move not, finally, a desire to make the Hebrews and their writing “like the nations,” like the prose and myths of their neighbors against whom they so determinedly define themselves, create themselves as different? Like Bloom, I have loved David all my life, found his poetry and his murderous lust and his ego sublime and irresistible, the stuff of heroic life. But David's seduction of readers—beginning with J, and continuing—should not blind us to the fact that he creates an Israel gloriously like its neighbors because more powerful politically and economically. He finds his beginnings, after all, in God's despair that his chosen people want to be “like all the nations.” No reader can miss the irony, often repeated, against the first king, Saul. He was chosen because he was “goodlier” than others: that is, “from his shoulders upward he was higher than any of the people” (1 Samuel 9:2). His height becomes a satire on a people's desire to be like their neighbors. Saul's tragedy is that he can not follow God's ways, but chooses his own and his people's. There are few more tragic figures in the Hebrew texts—tragic in the sense of their homelessness, physical and metaphysical (the words have the same meaning in the Hebrew texts)—than Saul once his children and his people and his God have chosen David. Whether it be his desperate pleas at Endor for Samuel to return from the grave; or his tears before David who has spared his life; or the nobility of his death, he is one of the few sublimely existential figures in the Hebrew or Christian scriptures (only Mark's Peter, warming himself by the fire and denying Jesus, approaches him). His faltering rule prepares the way for the chosen David—whom God promises never to desert.

David is glorious: whether in poetry or in dancing, in battle or in misery, he sweeps all before him—including, and especially, readers and his writers. But his gorgeousness should not obscure the fact that he represents what finally made Israel at once grandly superior to its neighbors—a great royal power—and all too like them in ambition. His certainty, even when battling Saul, that “the Lord's anointed,” the King, must never be touched prepares his people to treat their king as their neighbors treated theirs, with awe and reverence (though not as a god; David always recognizes this limit). Solomon's successes and the disasters of his successors make David's specialness problematic, at the least. Bloom's Redactor may have “splintered imaginative literature for the sake of heaven,” but history in the Bible has some comment on David's wonders. After all, “J's vision of human reality as familial rather than royal or priestly” is a vision which marks the very point of David's failures. J may have loved him, she may find Moses dull; she may not be “mocked with impunity” by P and R. But they too have their say—and it tells.

For Bloom and his J, none of this matters. J is at ease in Jerusalem, uninterested in the work of normativizing scribes and priests, so unawed by Yahweh as to be free to make him incommensurate—the word is used repeatedly—with everything until he must become a nation's God. J, uninhibited by a religious imagination, is uncomfortable with Moses, uncomfortable with the passing of the Blessing from grand incommensurate individuals to an entire people. For her, the scaling down necessary when Yahweh is, in a sense, democratized during his appearance before the Hebrews on Sinai produces a “crisis of representation.” J's Yahweh is more glorious when more free. A starting point for “our sense of ego,” J's Yahweh is the model for J's “pioneers of the self: Abram, Rebecca, Jacob, Tamar, and Joseph.” He is in some essential ways “the reality of charisma” that inhabits, and makes glorious, these grandly heroic, because uncannily human, individuals. His absurdities only help us to realize more completely what the Blessing is: an endless quest for “more life in a time without boundaries.”

If Josipovici is neither so explicit a celebrator of David, nor so boisterous in hearing what the textual compilers would suppress, he too cares in Bloomian ways about this quest for Blessing, and about the narratives which are necessary to figure it. Indeed, his God's “potential is only realized (in both meanings of the word) in the unfolding narrative.” Both he and Bloom need modern writers to amplify, to provide similes for, their arguments: Bloom uses Kafka as his modern J, Josipovici uses Proust; both find Shakespeare, Mann, and Kierkegaard strong writers in the great Hebraic tradition (Bloom also includes Freud). Josipovici does not find useful, even valid, Bloom's “Bible within the Bible.” For him, the whole compilation determines who we are, and has been doing so since J or whoever first began to articulate the ways of men and God. Josipovici, needless to say, writes altogether more soberly than Bloom, even as both are united in their detestation of the normative. Bloom's loathing is more inclusive—Jews, Moslems, and Christians have all diminished J. Josipovici finds in the Christians the greatest anxieties about encountering the freedom, the incommensurateness, of Hebrew scriptures. He is less at ease in Zion because he finds the Christian writers too ready to reduce the text to meaning, too determined to interpret, once and for all. Being, existence, life: for them none is ever enough.

This process of making meaning begins, for Josipovici, in the “rhythm of renewal” established in the opening verses of Genesis and in the fairy-tale narratives of character which the text places in wider narrative contexts. For him, the Bible is founded on both the acknowledgment that we all need myths, patterns, to sustain us and on the contextualizing of these patterns within history, within God's reality. “It is in fact those who think they are privy to God's word—Joseph, Saul, David—who have to learn that this is not the case: no one is privy to it, not even the reader himself. The narrative refuses its comforts to Joseph, to David, to Jesus, and to us.” Josipovici emphasizes the importance to the Hebrews of remembering, of storytelling. For him, “the need to utter,” the desire for dialogue with God and one's fellows, is essential to life. “The primary function of language, the Hebrew Bible shows, is not to convey information but to enable us to utter ourselves and thus come fully alive.” Yet the danger in this is idolatry: that we will choose our image of ourselves, our own voice, as enough, and will not “trust dialogue to reveal our own potential,” not see the limitations of language.

The narrative Josipovici develops from this is a narrative of fall. Where Bloom's J falls into the hands of religion-making and protecting scribes, Josipovici's scriptures fall into the interpretative uncertainties produced by a history which gets farther and farther from any material realization of the promises of the covenant. The writings are taken captive by the chaos of history. He contrasts the double narrative of the Joseph stories, with their hero who is yet not the founder of David's line, and the anxieties of the writing prophets, where “Meaning becomes of vital importance; how things are interpreted becomes crucial.” In the Joseph stories, the larger narrative—of the journey beyond Sinai to the city of David—triumphs, unexpectedly, over the fairy tale that is Joseph's life. By the time of the prophets, “the weight of the dialogue has become too great for the nation of Israel”; words are wearing out. Josipovici brilliantly documents the prophets' need of allegory and emblem, and their figuring on their bodies of “the meaning of events that are occurring around them and which the people refuse to acknowledge.” “God and man can no longer speak in the tones and using the expressions of everyday conversation. … Things no longer happen, they always mean.

This change in attitudes towards language—towards what I would call the ability to know God through language—is brought to crisis and promised resolution in the Christian scriptures, especially in Matthew, Luke, and John, and in Paul. (Both Bloom and Josipovici stress how at ease in the contingencies of the Hebraic modes of narration Mark is.) In Josipovici's reading, “Moses showed the people signs; Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel presented themselves to the people as signs. But they were signs of something else. Jesus presents something else as a sign of himself.” This emphasis on one person as fulfilling the scriptures acts to establish meaning, to “seal” interpretation, once and for all. No wonder the author of the Apocalypse threatens with plagues and fire anyone who would add to his words. We may question the sublime imagination that would make Jacob and Rebecca and David God's chosen; yet all the ambiguities provoked by our questions will never be resolved. The Christian writings present not questions, but the answer. The Hebrew “turning” towards the right path becomes for Paul and the Christians a “conversion” to the one way. The Blessing becomes Revelation. The command to Remember becomes the injunction to “See, know, understand.”

The implications of this change are enormous, not least in the formation of Western ideas of the self and representation. God, or the dialogue between a people and their God, is gradually being privatized, removed from life lived in community and history to an “inner self.” The famous moment in 1 Kings 19 where Elijah finds God not in wind or earthquake or fire but in “a still small voice” may be one of the defining moments of Hebrew history. (Josipovici's comments on the relation of this change to autobiography and to the rise of the novel are important and contrast critically with Bloom's hearing in J “the origins of the Protestant will whose heroines dominate British and American fiction.” Bloom's monist J would not care for the dualism Josipovici describes, and fears.) Living and believing are becoming dissociated enterprises. Narrative and interpretation are becoming synonymous.

Josipovici hesitates to damn this process. Yet “we have to ask,” he writes,

what are the gains and losses in reading the Hebrew scriptures figuratively. It is not enough to say that because the Bible is full of patterns we must read it ahistorically, as a set of patterns. It is not enough, because what is at issue in much of the Bible is precisely the nature of patterning, of God's design for the world. … Perhaps we do not need to choose. But we should at least recognize the price of Truth.

Josipovici's “theology of narrative” is profoundly, movingly Hebraic as defined in J, in the court writer of the histories of Saul and David, and in Mark. It is a theology located in Saul's tears and David's silences, in the man in the field whom Joseph encounters when looking for his brothers, and in the man in the loincloth watching Mark's Jesus in Gethsemene. It is a theology expressed when the contingent is accepted, when interpretation ceases before awe and one acknowledges that one's own story is not the only one, or even the main one. Josipovici thus defines the blessing as Bloom does, through its connection with David:

We can not “make sense” of him; we can only repeat his story. … David lives for us much more immediately, much more fully, than figures far better attested to by history: Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler. And he does so because we are made to sense at so many moments the way in which life always runs ahead of meaning.

The “price of Truth”? Life.

The witch that came (the withered hag)
To wash the steps with pail and rag,
Was once the beauty Abishag,
The picture pride of Hollywood.

(“Provide, Provide”)

Robert Frost is, like Bloom's J, not blinded by David's glare, comfortable with both hard ends and fairy tales. Bloom and Josipovici want to be. But at the center of their narratives is a profound distrust of writing when it becomes a commodity available to many, and a deep suspicion of readers (and compilers) who want the meaning of that writing made clear. They fear that these texts will not matter essentially to most readers, will not conquer the normative in their lives. The Bible, Josipovici asserts, “is not ‘literature’ because it has no time for ‘literature’”; it continues to command our attention because it affirms repeatedly “the need to speak meaningfully of what is meaningful.” “The strongest writers,” Bloom declares, “have the knack of overrewarding even a lazy or casual reading, indeed, any reading whatsoever. … Learning to read J ultimately will teach you how much authority has taught you already, and how little authority knows.” But the readers they have too often encountered—the bevy of normative compilers and early Christian authorities determined to make everything mean something—cause them exuberant despair.

Bloom and Josipovici will never be found among a bevy of normativizing scribes. They are so strongly committed to “the primacy of narrative over interpretation” (Josipovici); they so dislike those who would scale down the incommensurate in order to enforce meaning—religious and otherwise; they know that “meaning will never catch up with life” (Josipovici) and that the Blessing means “more life in a time without boundaries” (Bloom); they believe that biblical narrative—that is, Hebrew narrative, and Mark's Gospel—“brings us more fully to life” (Josipovici) because it brought David to (our) life, and thus brings God's desires into representation. The exuberance of their commitments produces brilliant criticism, of a kind which knows no school. Bloom is Bloom, incommensurate. His way of “hearing” (one of his favorite critical acts) J's voice at once amuses and produces readings that seem uncannily “right.” Beyond the hero-worship of David are his discussions of Jacob and Tamar, the one struggling to win the name Israel, the other battling for “the immortality of her own name”; of Abram; of the psychology of Yahweh. And then there is his creation—or invention—of J: the sublimely aristocratic voice of the power of Israel realized in David, and of the perversities of its Yahweh also realized in David. Josipovici takes both Hebrew and Christian scriptures as his text, and finds in them not only that “growing urge to forge a single meaning” which so alarms him but also a “multiplicity of voices” and a relish for the ways these voices turn interpretation against itself and renew the words. His discussions of Joseph and revelation, of speech and dialogue, of the Book of Judges and of the building of the Tabernacle surprise us constantly into new attention to the texts (some of which we rarely read). His contrasts between the four Gospels and the apocryphal gospels give one an invigorated sense of the ways of canon formation and exclusion; they show too his appreciation of the writings of the early Christians even as he articulates misgivings about their certainties.

Yet, I would offer one caveat: In all of this worship of David and of the narrative freedoms he inspires, both Bloom and Josipovici risk making the king and perhaps even his God the “picture pride of Hollywood.” There is a “natural supernaturalism” in their celebration of the heroic and in their preference for narratives which embody these figures that causes them (especially Bloom) to damn or ignore interpretations which these narratives and others provoked their readers to make; after all, no text so consistently commands its readers to fill in the gaps as do these writings. Carlyle's conviction that “Great Men are the inspired (speaking and acting) Texts of that divine Book of Revelation” is, read literally, also Bloom's and Josipovici's—as long as that human being is David or someone with his charisma, his zest for more life. Moses is, not surprisingly, a figure that both authors would prefer not to encounter, perhaps because his actions are so singularly “religious.” Bloom finds him “plod[ding] along in J, loyally trying to make up in zeal what he lacks in zest.” Josipovici sees him at best as a vehicle of God's work, not a figure of triumphant life in the ways David and Saul and Jacob and Tamar are. Both authors are as uneasy with a normative, or democratized, human world as they are with the evolving religions which would represent that world and its God to itself.

Their Yahweh, if not “invented,” is finally “created”—by Bloom's J, by Josipovici's narratives. Tellingly, the characters they prefer—and whom I too love, David above all—are not those characters (like Moses) whom they would call God-intoxicated. But surely the Bible's people are this? Surely they trust—or try to trust—in God and not David? Surely David becomes compellingly human, more than charming, when he must face the fact that God's displeasure differs from a king's? Surely a “theology of narrative” in this book is above all a representation of the quests of God-intoxicated lives? What other context is there in these writings? The Hebrews made no separation between language and art and history and religion: they were one. The Christians made the separation; they insisted that the God-intoxicated would choose God's way, not man's. Ignoring God except as he is represented in the seductive humanity of his Great Men and Women risks making the Bible seem like the Camelot of American nostalgia. Surely neither Bloom nor Josipovici intends this? Frost's “memory of having starred” is not the Bible's Remembrance and Revelation. “Provide, provide.”

Kevin Davey (review date 5 June 1992)

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SOURCE: “Words Heard,” in New Statesman & Society, June 5, 1992, pp. 39–40.

[In the following review, Davey outlines Josipovici's developing views on literary theory in Text and Voice.]

During the 1980s, beacons were lit in universities across the land to warn the studious that a fleet of hostile French deconstructive thinkers was under sail. Numerous Channel ports of the intellect were sealed and appeasers were duly pilloried. But the bulk of this fearful armada arrived anyway, having taken the transatlantic route. A landing was easily effected, and Derida was received into Cambridge. Every discipline has had to define its response.

As a result of his deeply sympathetic engagement with European literary modernism in The World and the Book and The Lessons of Modernism (both published in the 1970s), Gabriel Josipovici was particularly attuned to the source and the strength of the challenge. But over the next decade, in the essays now collected in Text and Voice, he increasingly dissociated his work from the “shallow radicalism” of deconstruction.

His critical preoccupations were nonnegotiable: “the need to listen to the work of art and not impose ourselves upon it; the need to make ancient works come alive for us today; the role of the body in the making and reception of art; the anxiety of modernism; and the writer's need to trust—in time, in language—as he works away in the dark, trying to bring into being something that did not exist before.”

It is ironic, but perhaps inevitable, that ten novels and seven volumes of such generous literary free-thinking resulted in a canon. For Josipovici is interested only in those writers who lack confidence in their own authority and ability to speak about the world, but who do so none the less. By definition, that seems to exclude almost everyone who wrote a novel between 1760 and 1885.

The works of Dante, Homer, Chaucer and the Bible had been written in and of a communal world that, as it had been created by God, could plausibly be expected to have some inherent, transcribable meaning. Not so the works of Defoe. But for a century and a quarter, and with a complacency ridiculed soon after its very birth by Sterne, the well-plotted realist novel mistakenly imagined that it made manifest the full meaning and experience of the modernising world.

Josipovici the reader remains unmoved until the decisive modernist crisis of confidence in the writer's authority takes place. Only then does the determination to go on writing, based on trust in the process, produce significant work by Proust, Kafka, Eliot and Beckett. In Text and Voice, only two contemporary writers quality for membership of this greatly anxious tradition.

First, Josipovici makes the surprisingly generous claim that Muriel Spark's management of our shared linguistic distress makes her “perhaps almost as great as Virginia Woolf, but more ironic, cruel, elusive.” Then, with an unforgettable shock of recognition, he discovers that all his critical concerns were actively present in the writing of Georges Perec's novel Life: A User's Manual.

Although he shares the deconstructionists' Nietzschean bent, this close attention to the writing and reading of novels is finally incompatible with their reduction of works to texts without authors. “An important half truth has here been blown up into the whole truth and as a consequence a new fallacy has been created,” he observes, deploying Proust to see off Roland Barthes.

Confidently overruling Derrida, Josipovici then celebrates the voice of the work: separate from the author, but more than the text, the voice is the tension between what can be said and what really is, the always frustrated attempt at speech adequate to the body.

At this point in their argument, critics often feel compelled to issue instructions on how to read novels properly. But Josipovici's directive on this point is tantamount to professional heresy. “It is only careless, unburdened reading that will yield the right results,” he argues. In contrast, the critical establishment has mistakenly institutionalised Luther's attitude to the Bible. We have been taught to treat books as a means of salvation, truth or knowledge. As a result, we no longer know how to listen, participate or trust in language.

In his longing for the “disappearance of the protestant image of the book,” Josipovici reveals not only his deep antipathy to the academy, but also the Judaic tradition that connects him to Maurice Blanchot and Walter Benjamin, whom he regards as the “two greatest spokesmen for the distinctively modern in modern art.” Perhaps now there are three.

Jim McCue (review date 5 March 1993)

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SOURCE: “Defeatist Dialogues,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 5, 1993, p. 19.

[In the following review, McCue offers a negative assessment of In a Hotel Garden, arguing that Josipovici fails to connect with his readers.]

What feels like a crisis of choice may actually be a needless piece of worrying, and yet the truly important changes in our lives may happen without our caring, or even noticing. The life of feelings, just beyond our grasp, is but a dance around the life of actions.

Some such elusiveness is the subject of Gabriel Josipovici's new novella [In a Hotel Garden]. The writing is calm, polite, reserved—all those things one learns to be as one grows older and puts out of sight the wild feelings that few of us can handle. Here, statement follows statement: these things at least we can be sure of. “Francesca puts the food away methodically, the bread in the bread-bin, the vegetables in the vegetable-rack, the butter and cheese in the fridge, the sugar and marmalade in the cupboard.” With its exaggeratedly perfect fits (“bread in the bread-bin”), this evokes the concentration with which a child puts the triangles and stars in the triangular and star-shaped holes. But fulfilling the task is a distraction from the shapeless question “Should I phone her?”

On holiday in the Dolomites with Sandra, his girlfriend, Ben has met and become intrigued by a Jew called Lily. He tries to decide how strongly he is attracted, and whether he should pursue her. But because they are grown-ups it has all to be done unnaturally, as though a matter of indifference: a cappuccino shared here, a walk there, a non-committal meeting back in London. And the prose reflects these feints. There is no mention of sex, for instance.

Lily and Ben go for a day's strenuous hike around a mountain. Fitter and better prepared, Lily leads the whole way. It is a circuitous kind of conquest but, unlike scaling sexual heights, it is possible without a daring presumption, simply by “putting one foot mechanically in front of the other.” As in Josipovici's Distances, walking allows a stranger to be forward without putting a foot wrong.

Meanwhile, Sandra is complaining more and more about the holiday she and Ben were supposed to be sharing. The day after the walk, she announces that she is going shopping, and the assumption of togetherness falters:

—Do you mind if I don't come with you? he asked her,

—Why should I mind? You do what you like, don't you?

—I mean I'd come tomorrow but today all I want to do is rest.

—Well I rested yesterday, she said. Today I want to go and do some shopping.

The feeling of slight here is painfully at odds with the apparent reasonableness. Under cover of an adult conversation about logistics, Sandra is withdrawing and accusing Ben of lack of consideration. First she snubs his question about feelings—“Do you mind … ?”—and then she flatly echoes him: “today all I want to do …”; “Today I want to go and. …” This is heartless, in pretending that repetition is reciprocation. Now, instead of sharing, they are taking their shares, using the car in turns.

Whingeing Sandra is an unsympathetic cypher; indeed Josipovici is rather bold to ignore her side of the story. On their return to England, she leaves Ben, who is well rid of her. “—I was rather cool actually. … I'm quite pleased with the way I handled it. I stood there for a long time, cup in hand, just surveying the scene.” What might have been expected to be a moment of anguish is reduced to a chore of clearing up her belongings, putting away the past.

Emotion in the book remains elusive, to characters and to author; but after their walk around the mountain, Lily shares some intimations with Ben. She has been to visit a hotel garden in Siena, where as a girl her grandmother had been attracted to another Jew. That attraction came to nothing—the man was not Lily's grandfather—and Lily even fears that she may have visited the wrong garden; yet, somehow, as she in turn wonders whether she should accept a proposal of marriage (to which no answer can be exactly correct), she is suffused with intense feeling: “feeling the place and feeling how it must have been all those years ago and feeling time sort of standing still before starting to flow again.” There seems to be no rack or cupboard for such intuitions. The experience was, says Lily to Ben, “Like a particularly vivid dream that leaves you with a strong feeling afterwards but there seems to be no way from the feeling to any account that will convey why it feels like that.” But literature can mediate between experience and feelings. By stating rather than confronting the difficulties, Josipovici concedes a defeat.

Bryan Cheyette (review date 2 December 1994)

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SOURCE: “Moor Means Worse,” in New Statesman & Society, December 2, 1994, pp. 38–39.

[In the following review, Cheyette offers a generally positive assessment of Moo Pak.]

The title of Gabriel Josipovici's 11th novel [Moo Pak] is a child's rendition of Moor Park, now a secondary school, where Jonathan Swift originally wrote A Tale of a Tub. While in residence at Moor Park, Swift met the eight-year-old Esther Johnson, known as Stella, who eventually became the love of his life. The subsequent history of Moor Park—as a lunatic asylum or an institute for research into primates—is alluded to throughout the novel.

But this work is not about Moor Park in any straightforward sense. The house is used as an extended metaphor for that which combines the unkept or natural world of the “moor” with the cultivated “parks” of the novel's London setting. Josipovici is fascinated by Swift precisely because his writing holds in tension a passionate intensity with a formal coolness. This fundamental struggle is enthrallingly re-enacted in Moo Pak.

Swift's conflicted sensibility feeds into the creative desperation of Jack Toledano. For much of the novel, we simply hear Toledano's cri de coeur. His voice is so rich that the need for a well-crafted plot seems artificial. But, as he grows increasingly melancholy and misanthropic, the many straws at which he clutches give the novel its coherence.

On one level, Toledano is Josipovici in extremis. Both are Sephardi Jews, who came to England from colonial Egypt (via war-time France) and taught literature at university level. It would also be hard to separate, from Josipovici's criticism, Toledano's sparkling readings of, say, Dante or Homer and the Hebrew bible. Yet what Toledano says has the illusory naturalness of the spoken word.

Toledano's pungent, devastating opinions can be thought of as hot-blooded versions of Josipovici's own cultural criticism: on the dire state of modern English culture, the “obscenity” of much writing on the Holocaust, or the manifold iniquities of puritanical Anglo-American academics. Not that this novel is, in any facile way, autobiographical. For one thing, Toledano's voice is mediated throughout by his walking partner as they criss-cross London's parkways. This device gives Toledano free rein to fill the novel with his glorious insights into fiction and his acerbic attacks on contemporary society.

Complaining of his inability to escape from the horrors of the world, he states that “we cannot shut our ears and we cannot open our hearts, we have created things to which our organs have not had a chance to adapt.” Never before has the cliché of “compassion fatigue” been so succinctly dissected.

The novel is replete with such meaty aphorisms and they are an uncomfortable pleasure to read. But at the same time as this Swiftian offensive, Josipovici remains playful and detached. Toledano says: “A piece of fiction which consists of reminiscence or preaching can not stand up.” Unlike Josipovici, who has not fully retired from teaching, Toledano believes that the only way to “fight” is to “retreat into the fortress of ourselves and prepare for a long siege.”

Moo Pak gradually begins to move beyond a siege mentality. It enacts, instead, a series of Swiftian themes based on the history of Moor Park. These, in the end, become the large book that Toledano is supposed to be writing. The novel sweetly dramatises the perpetual struggle between the written word—the parklands—and that which can not be known in the dark “moors” of the imagination. That Toledano, who seems to have an opinion on everything, fails to speak on the one topic that obsesses him is left to the reader to contemplate in silence.

James Hall (review date 18 October 1996)

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SOURCE: “Finger Food,” in New Statesman, Vol. 125, No. 4306, October 18, 1996, pp. 45–46.

[In the following review, Hall offers a negative assessment of Touch, criticizing the work for focusing too heavily on ideas over actuality.]

In an ideal world you would be reading this article with your eyes closed. It would be printed in braille that was sumptuously and variously textured. As you read, the bottom half of your body would be lapped by waves of warm milk, while the top half would be expertly massaged. Alas, the New Statesman is printed in cheap ink on flimsy paper, and this article is one of the least sensuous of things—a book review. One can but dream.

Gabriel Josipovici is a dreamer. In his day job, as a professor at the University of Sussex, he has produced a steady stream of sturdy academic tomes, such as The Lessons of Modernism (1977) and The Book of God (1988). However, on rare days off, he has written novels and stories full of major yearnings. His new work [Touch] straddles autobiographical and scholarly styles.

Josipovici was born in 1940 and he is very much a child of the 1960s. He is obsessed with the mind-body problem, and believes that mind has been in the ascendant for too long. The mind's henchman is sight, and this organ of sense is “free” and “irresponsible.” Following Merleau-Ponty, he stresses that perception of others is “bodily” as well as “visual.” Unless we recognise the claims of touch, and are prepared to experience things effortfully, we will live in a self-imposed state of sensory deprivation.

Josipovici explores the theme of touch in a series of loose ruminations on cinema, literature, art, religion and sport. His book opens with a discussion of the scene in Charlie Chaplin's City Lights where the girl who has been cured of her blindness thanks to the tramp's largesse offers him money without recognising him. She is now happily working in a flower shop, and the tramp's arrival outside the window is an irritation. But as she presses money into his hand, she realises to whom it belongs. For Josipovici this is a primal scene that “does nothing less than give me back a sense of my own body, not as an object but as that which is alive in space and time.”

But does it? For the sense of touch to be activated, every other sense (except for taste) has to be repressed or neutralised. The scene only works because this is a silent film; if it had been a talkie the flower-girl would have recognised the tramp's voice and would have had no need to touch him. So deafness as well as prior blindness is a condition for its enactment. Chaplin's apotheosis of touch panders to an age-old male fantasy—the same fantasy as the one that imagines blind girls make good lovers.

Josipovici is at his best in his discussion of Proust, and here some of the dangers in his argument are addressed. After a scene in which Mlle Vinteuil considers spitting on the portrait of her recently deceased father, Proust claims that her behaviour is not an expression of absolute evil. Indifference, not sadism, is the cardinal sin. Sadism, as Josipovici remarks, represents “a wild strategy to force an apparently indifferent world to touch us, if only for a moment.” Yet it can never succeed, “for it is always we who instigate it and what we need is precisely the opposite: it is for the world to touch us, unawares.”

This is a stimulating but frustrating book. The frustration stems from the fact that Josipovici is more interested in the idea than the act of touching. This becomes clear when he discusses his own sporting achievements. During his childhood in Egypt he was a keen footballer. Because of the hard, dry pitches, it was a game of “touch and skill.” Gabriel was a star player: “There were magical days when I could do no wrong, scoring three or four … it seemed so easy to swerve round the half-backs, cut inside the backs and send the ball high into the net.”

The irony is that good touch in football makes you untouchable. His team, and the opposition, disappear. As so often happens in our body-fixated culture, a crusade to resensitise the world ends up advocating the survival of the fittest.

Roger Cardinal (review date 11 April 1997)

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SOURCE: “Tactile Yearnings,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 11, 1997, p. 24.

[In the following review, Cardinal offers a mixed assessment of Touch, noting the uneven qualities in the essays.]

Gabriel Josipovici once averred that “one writes what one would like to read but cannot find written by anyone else.” An experimental novelist, playwright and literary critic of distinction, he adopts here the relaxed tone of one sitting in an armchair at home. In terms of genre, the two dozen short chapters of Touch are less a well-tempered suite of essays à la Montaigne and more a carnet intime, in which pronouncements on culture or the human condition are strewn amid personal jottings and household trivia. As a guided tour to Josipovici's sensibility, the book remains unemphatic and sometimes a little wan; yet it may be that its absence of stress corresponds to a strategy for teasing out a particular vein of truth, nonchalance being an efficient tool for probing unacknowledged strata of experience. At one point we find the author musing on the way in which stylists like Proust and Kafka needed to “train” themselves, the grinding-out of heaps of unsatisfactory fragments and sketches being a necessary prelude to that final state of grace when they could write exactly as they wanted. Similarly, this book reads as a draft for some major statement as yet unexpressed, its air of casualness masking a covert yearning.

The texts of Touch are strewn with those puncta or telling details which Roland Barthes isolated in Camera Lucida, his book on photography, and which, like tiny protruding barbs, touch us to the quick, exposing emotion while all but eluding definition. Evocations of the scene in Chaplin's City Lights where a blind girl, her sight now restored, recognizes her secret benefactor by the touch of his hand (“The Lesson of the Hand” is Josipovici's solemn chapter heading); or of the four oranges lying unremarked beneath an open window in Van Eyck's “Arnolfini Marriage”; or again of John Tradescant's cabinet of curiosities, with its salamander, flying squirrel, mermaid's hand and robe of the King of Virginia, are interpolated within a predominantly literary mosaic which focuses on set texts half-forgotten like Oedipus at Colonus or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and shuttles from Chaucer to Dante by way of Georges Perec, Stanley Cavell or Oliver Sacks.

Overtly, the book's wayward strands are stitched together by the guiding theme of touch, a sense we too often deprecate in favour of the more dominant or “fashionable” medium of sight. For what we see addresses its signals above all to our stand-offish intellect, whereas what touch engages, more obscurely yet often more persuasively, the subliminal responses of our body: which is to suggest that the dimmer suffusions of tactile apprehension might bring more nourishment to our inner lives than visual data swiftly yet coolly decoded. Josipovici seems to cultivate the tactile mode as a source of leisurely satisfaction, as though the dawning of awareness were a pleasure over and above awareness proper. Discreetly filtering tactile allusion into his writing, he at first feigns to be “groping in the dark” to come to grips with “the subject in hand,” then moves explicitly to the theme of palpability, of certainties within reach. He is adamant that there is still virtue in touching to make sure; for evidence remains conjecture until, like Saint Thomas, we accede to the tactile urge. Echoing, if not always citing, phenomenologists and certain modern theologians or poets of the body, he invokes an “inwardness” with one's physical being as the precondition of intellectual confidence. Certainty of this kind may indeed be next door to faith, and there are signs that the bodily responses which ground Josipovici's discussion carry a further freight of metaphysical insights.

In a negative approach to his theme, Josipovici devotes a chapter to Coleridge, who in his “Dejection: An Ode” famously lamented the depletion of sensory vividness across time, a Romantic failure prefiguring that absence of aura in the modern image which Walter Benjamin was later to bemoan. Along with mirrors, frames and boundaries, such references have become cultural clichés, as we contemplate our millennial condition, captives of the simulacrum and exiles from immediacy.

Elsewhere, such topics as collecting, sport, transgression or body language seem quirkily to challenge pertinence. In one divagation, Josipovici speaks of the “horizons of expectation” created by the conventions of literary form and asserts that “genre depends ultimately on the sense that there is a place for everything and everything in its place.” Given the nature of the text we are reading, we hardly need a reminder of Rabelais and Sterne to grasp the point, which is that books which scorn the beaten track and are “poised at the junction of triumph and despair” are often those which most quicken our sympathy. And to know how to successfully tamper with the rules of genre is, he adds, all a matter of “touch.”

Flirting with impromptu autobiography (undoubtedly under Proust's aegis), Josipovici's text also smuggles in elements of the récit d'enfance. We are told of a childhood collection of prehistoric flints, of a scrupulously kept scrapbook of the 1952 Olympic Games, of deliciously uncritical adolescent visits to the cinema, of sporting exploits on football field and in swimming pool. In later years, Josipovici attended Aikido sessions and nowadays takes his exercise on the South Downs with an Alpine stick. Like celebrity trivia, such peripherals may seem footling, yet are relevant to the author's perfectly serious argument about the bearing of physical facts upon an intellectual's life. His insistent confession to cigarette addiction opens up haunting prospects on loneliness and longing, and may point back to his earlier analysis of Proustian affect in the celebrated episode where Marcel is vouchsafed his mother's kiss but then “recognizes that such wholeness is only a dream of wholeness, something he can reach out for and touch but never actually grasp.”

Much is made of a whimsical moment on his first visit to California, when the author felt he simply had to get to the beach to plunge his hand into the Pacific. The gesture partakes, we infer, of the same instinct which drives a pilgrim across miles of country to the location of a shrine. A linked essay on the medieval cult of relics is the occasion of some thoughts on the necessity of there being a palpable distance to cover before one attains the object of veneration: without distance, it would forfeit all its praesentia, its aura.

At times Josipovici skirts naivety, seemingly about to admonish readers of the TLS for not placing unmeditated physical experience at the top of their cultural agenda. However, the kind of bracing he has in mind for us may be more important at the metaphorical level. One imagines him recoiling from some nightmare of hyper-real artifice as he gives to understand that even reading books can be a way of revitalizing the world, of grasping its authenticity. The wetness of salt water on one's hand may yet bear witness to a hidden order and be more than an idle sensation.

Josipovici cultivates a gracefulness of style, deceptively rambling and associative, now unsure of its direction, now confident of being on track. Whenever the vision falters, we find him fumbling for a few key texts, with Kafka and Proust as indispensable “touchstones.” A motto drawn from a letter of Kafka's is the statement that “nothing is granted to me, everything has to be earned,” a phrase which serves to quicken the pulse of his otherwise unhurried prose; while Proust, the master of enlightened analogy, is clearly the inspiration for his playful similes and comparisons. One guesses that it is the longer-winded Proust who offers Josipovici security in the example of an unwinding idiom which cocoons meaning in spirals of second thoughts, while Kafka stimulates an occasional panicky recourse to terseness.

The volume ends quietly with a subtle meditation on four paintings by Chardin which depict young boys absorbed in such idle pursuits as blowing soap-bubbles or building a house of cards. Josipovici draws us in so close to these intimate little scenes that we experience them physically: the notion of the futile or the fragile modulates into a revelation of magical, timeless cohesion. Perhaps the reader will close this book with the wistful sense that it clinches little and only grazes a vast subject; yet this minimalism is also “tactful,” an unpretentious reminder of the way touch attends upon all our mental transactions.

Steven Jaron (review date Summer 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of Touch, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 3, Summer, 1997, pp. 661–62.

[In the following review, Jaron discusses the experimental nature of the essays in Touch.]

In his last years Roland Barthes became increasingly preoccupied with the desire to write a novel—a desire left unfulfilled at his death. He did speak about it, however, as in a 1978 lecture at the Collège de France. While “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure” (collected posthumously in Le bruissement de la langue) is not a direct expression of that wish—that would be presumptuous, lacking in taste—we nevertheless have the sense that he wanted to compose a “roman utopique” so as to pass to another kind of learning (“savoir”), a new learning which would require an innovative research method.

It was in Proust (thus the title of Barthes's lecture) that Barthes found not his model practitioner—the roman utopique, after all, had not yet been written—but his stimulation. His predecessor had exploited a “certaine indécision des genres,” perceptible in the writings of Nerval and Baudelaire, which led to the creation of his masterpiece. Was it a novel? Was it an essay? “Aucun des deux ou les deux à la fois,” he proposed. In fact A la recherche was a “tierce forme,” a third genre made possible by Proust's working method, by his having written much of it during a period when logic vacillates, a logic of “Décloisonnement,” or departitioning of the genres.

The author of several collections of critical essays on literature and works of fiction, including Migrations, The Air We Breathe, and more recently In the Fertile Land, University of Sussex professor of English Gabriel Josipovici has also published a study of the Jewish and Christian Bibles, The Book of God. Critics have long considered him “an experimentalist,” and that is how he called himself two decades ago. Touch is largely an experimental reflection on artistic creation and the warmth generated, or chill produced, between the created object and its viewer or reader. It might be what Barthes sought in his tierce forme—a third genre, necessarily experimental, nestled between the novel and essay, autobiographical but not self-indulgent. Josipovici himself describes Touch as “a very personal essay.” And that is what it is, a new essay concerning human understanding whose center is the idea of “trust,” “holding and grasping”—trust “like the mother's hand which the child instinctively takes as he sets out for a walk. He does not take the hand to confirm anything or to test anything; he merely takes it because that is what one does at the start of a walk.”

Josipovici's primary interest lies in the artisanal in visual or literary creation. He considers the fate of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction as he moves swiftly through analyses of Chaplin's City Lights, the Bible, and Aeschylus; Coleridge and Donne; Kafka, Proust, and Beckett; and Rembrandt, Chardin, and Van Eyck, while invoking such wide-ranging critical signposts as the historian of the early Christian Church Peter Brown and the critics Walter Benjamin and Stanley Cavell in his pursuit of that essential quality in literary or visual art. The artisan reproduces his lived experience in the object's creation; the viewer or reader in turn senses its aura. We are at once drawn to and at a remove from the work of art. That too sums up the experience of reading Touch, in which the penetrating sensitivity of Josipovici's self-analysis buttresses the high quality of his cultural critique.

Barthes's “Longtemps, je me suis couché” is a subtle study in the origin of Proust's method, which followed the loss of his mother in 1905. Filial loss seems likewise at the origin of Josipovici's book, for his mother Sacha Rabinovitch, herself a reputable poet and translator of Blanchot, died in March 1996. Still, it must be said that Josipovici does not expose his sorrow to the reader. Similar to the privation described by Proust, and later by Barthes. Josipovici's mourning is set tactfully into his essay. But readers who have followed his career will intuit the presence of loss, imminent or actual, informing this work's inception and execution, and they will understand the gravitas behind reflections such as, “Yet if the hand is withdrawn his world collapses. Suddenly the hand, to which he had never given a thought, becomes the most important thing to him. He realises he needs it the moment he has lost it.” It might be, then, that the ultimate subject of this absorbing book is the distance that separates individuals from the work of art, and from one another. It would be an analysis less about touching, holding, or grasping than about letting go.

Michael Wood (review date Summer–Fall 1998)

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SOURCE: “This, Here, Now,” in Kenyon Review, Vol. 20, Nos. 3–4, Summer–Fall, 1998, pp. 191–97.

[In the following review, Wood explains the themes and artistic examples that Josipovici explores in Touch.]

Visiting friends leave the poet for a while and go off for a walk. He imagines them arriving at a place he himself knows well:

The roaring dell, o'erwooded, narrow, deep,
And only speckled by the mid-day sun;
Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock
Flings arching like a bridge;—that branchless ash,
Unsunned and damp, whose few poor yellow leaves
Ne'er tremble in the gale, yet tremble still,
Fanned by the water-fall!


Quoting these lines from Coleridge's “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” Gabriel Josipovici points out very precisely what is happening. It is not, as is usually said, that the poet's imagination in itself denies his imprisonment, and not even that his words take him in spirit to the place he names. It is his writing the words that takes him there, “the movement of the poem under his hand,” as Josipovici finely puts it (12). And the first and last thing we learn from Josipovici's remarkable new book, Touch, is the difference writing makes.

“The desire to write an essay on touch,” Josipovici begins, “has grown steadily on me in the last few years” (1). Spoken in conversation, or written in a letter or a draft, these words would be effaceable, notional. Chosen and allowed to stand as the start of a book, they define directions, commit the writer to an irreversible process; they become the durable physical trace left by a particular hand. “Once I have written down the sentence,” Josipovici says a few lines later, repeating the sentence, “I have entered a new world.” This world is quite literal, a place of words and named things and feelings, but it is also irremediably infiltrated by metaphor.

In the first two pages Josipovici, evoking his project quite directly and simply, uses these metaphors: an unbridgeable gap, the map of an unexplored region, feeling one's way forward, standing still, groping in darkness, open country, bright sun, striding, running, a road to follow. All discreetly appropriate to the subject in hand, of course, but is there a subject in hand? “That is surely the point. I do not have the subject in my hand. I do not hold it. But where then is it? And do I have to try and banish all such metaphors as misleading? (2). Hardly, since metaphors are at times going to be Josipovici's only clue to where he is going. Where or what is “on,” for instance, in this “essay on touch”? If “on” is not synonymous with “about,” how are we to read it? It may well be that successful essays are rarely, if ever, “about” their ostensible subjects, although they do of course touch on them.

Josipovici touches on touch, and in these early pages already has an intuition he will continue to trust throughout the book. Touch is very different from sight, sometimes opposed to it, a way of experiencing the world closely, slowly; and the essay, as it develops, is a rebuke to our dependence on sight, a reminder of the immunity and abstraction this dependence fosters. “Sight is free and sight is irresponsible,” Josipovici writes, comparing the act of looking at the horizon with the act of walking there (9). Following Stanley Cavell he thinks that “the uncanny nature of photography and film has something to do with the way that both of them reinforce the distinction between sight and bodily experience, yet keep that distinction hidden” (9). Novels and plays are less uncanny, but they too often invite us to forget the rest of our bodies, to take our eyes as the chief organ and emblem of our imagination. Writing of the “triple denial of the act of seeing,” which is staged in Oedipus at Colonus (a messenger tells us he saw another man shielding his eyes from the sight of the blind king dying), Josipovici says, in a remarkable phrase, that Sophocles has protected his hero “from the rapacity of our gaze” (55, 57). Rapacious and irresponsible: we certainly need to think again about the way we look.

And yet, in a move which is characteristic of the delicacy and subtlety of this book, Josipovici takes as his chief instance of film at work a case which momentarily denies this claim. In Chaplin's City Lights a blind girl, now cured, discovers, through touch, the identity of the man she has never seen until now, her former benefactor. It is a recognition scene, but without recourse to sight. “What film normally withholds from us,” Josipovici writes, “that scene in City Lights offers us. For if the girl can now see, and is thus no different from the rest of the characters in the film and from the audience in the darkened room, it is nevertheless her past blindness that is in play here.” That is, her past and present knowledge of what a blind person can know. “By depicting, for my sight, for once, that which takes place where sight has no jurisdiction, the scene does nothing less than give me back a sense of my own body, not as an object but as that which is alive in space and time” (8).

“Where sight has no jurisdiction.” Film seems to cancel film, and to cancel or evade other things as well. “That instant is not just one of the most powerful filmic experiences I have ever had, it seems to transcend art altogether” (5). The limitations of art, particularly of art which makes an alliance with reason and progress, are another major theme in Touch. Thinking of Coleridge walking through the landscape of his words, of Chaplin restoring the body to an ordinarily bodiless medium, Josipovici reminds us of a wonderful passage in which Proust distinguishes art from memory, but uses two photographs to do the job. A photograph of the Mona Lisa, Proust says, “retains only the beauty of a masterpiece”; a photograph of the Virgin of Amiens Cathedral “takes on the sadness of a souvenir.” The grounds of the difference lie in the fact that the painting is a transportable work of art, once Italian, now French, and beautifully at home anywhere, while the carved Virgin is at home in only one place, and that place probably not too far, Proust says, from the quarry where she was born. She is the “oldest and most sedentary” inhabitant of the city. “She is not a work of art. She is a beautiful friend we must leave at the melancholy provincial square from which no one has ever succeeded in taking her away” (15). The importance of this distinction for Josipovici is that it takes the notion of touch beyond its immediate meaning without losing contact with that initial field. It's not that we can touch the carving and can't touch the painting—we could touch either, but we are not supposed to—and it's not that the eyes, in this case, play anything other than a major role. It's that the Amiens Virgin is herself a body, as we also are and as the Mona Lisa is not. The Virgin inhabits our time and space, is part of our experience of a unique, immovable, historical edifice, “something we had not been prepared for,” Josipovici writes, “and which we will find nowhere else, not even there, were we to return” (16). “Not even there” is magnificent. Josipovici, a great student of T. S. Eliot, knows that places are not the same when we go back, even quite soon, because we are not the same. There is only ever the moment; or more precisely, the moment in that place, the place in that moment. All the more reason for touching it, if only metaphorically, rather than just filing it as a view.

Proust's “only” (in “only the beauty of a masterpiece”), Josipovici says, “consigns a century of aesthetics to the dustbin. For what Proust is saying here, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, is that in the end aesthetic beauty, the notion of the masterpiece, is completely trivial” (16). I don't think Proust's argument is quite as blunt as this. “Not a work of art,” applied to the Amiens Virgin, means local, not universal, a piece of the unshiftable, untranslatable history of a place and the person who cares about it. In the same way Proust sympathizes, in Contre Sainte-Beuve, with the Duc de Guermantes who groups his books by their bindings rather than their authors, and Proust, following Nerval, regularly celebrates the local and the sentimental, what we might call the history of the heart, as having all kinds of irreplaceable virtues of its own. The only first editions he cares about, he says, are the editions in which he first read a book.

But to say this is not to make the notion of the masterpiece completely trivial. “Only a masterpiece,” in context, means unable to touch me as a relic of my affective life might, but also suggests a reverse compliment. A masterpiece doesn't need to be anything else, and can be amiably demoted without receiving any harm, in a way that our memories can't; and of course it is the sadness of a souvenir that the Amiens photograph represents. Masterpieces are not as intimate as this, but neither are they as sad. Proust is inviting us, I think, to cherish art but not at the expense of affect and memory; and to love even the trivia of our memories, of our old selves, without needing to elevate them into art, or to diminish art for their sake.

But then this is precisely Josipovici's own argument, and in a move which resembles his evocation of film against film he turns now to a traveled painting to show that even a masterpiece can find a way to mark an irreplaceable history. If the death of Marcel's grandmother, in À La Recherche du temps perdu, makes him and us, in Josipovici's words, “understand that we are creatures who exist in time, who were once what we are no more, who once had what we can never have again” (16), then van Eyck's Marriage of the Arnolfini, in London's National Gallery, with its startling “Jan van Eyck was here,” paradoxically puts an immovable moment in the midst of the time travel of art. Johannes de Eyck fuit hic, 1434. “But where is ‘here’?” Josipovici asks. “In the Arnolfini house? On the canvas?” The tense of van Eyck's verb “asks us to ponder on the fact that Jan van Eyck was and is no more. That, along with Jan Arnolfini and his wife, he is long since dead. That the inscription, like the portrait, is only the trace of a life that once existed but does so no more” (26). And yet there is a presence in the painting, not only the presence of the mastery and delight of international art, but something more personal, like one of Proust's first and only editions. There is the elaborate calligraphy of the initial J of Johannes, which denies the past tense and puts van Eyck in touch with us—and perhaps even more important, puts us in touch with him.

Looking at the painting we experience wonder: wonder that such a work could have been made, wonder at the fact that Jan Arnolfini and his wife and Jan van Eyck existed then and left these traces, and wonder too that we exist and are seeing this, here, now.


“This, here, now.” There is a pathos in the very availability of these simple words. As we write or think them, it is always too late, the named object and place and instant are always (just) gone. But Josipovici is suggesting that writing and painting and film can occasionally, against their own imperial abstracting natures, do what Roland Barthes says some photographs do for him: make haunting memorials for the human body, the creature traced in time. In Josipovici's novel In a Hotel Garden (1993), a woman has a sense of “time sort of standing still before starting to flow again” (134). She is in a garden where her grandmother met a man she might have married but didn't, and the younger woman understands that time can offer one of its extraordinary illuminations even in “an ordinary hotel you could book into like any other” (95).

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.


It is as if they could touch their lives, and pursuing this idea in Touch, Josipovici enters surprising territory, lucidly, sequentially explored, and firmly governed by the unfolding of the metaphor of touch, but nevertheless not to be predicted, only to be marveled at on arrival. His quest leads him to a series of meditations on addiction and the body, on Rabelais, on solitude, on medieval pilgrimages (the actual journey rather than the mental allegory), on the theology of relics, on Gawain and the Green Knight, on a photograph of his grandparents on their wedding day, on the concept of touch in tennis and soccer, on work in art, and on Picasso. With his arrival at four wonderful paintings by Chardin, images of boys and young men engaged in trivial or daily pursuits—blowing bubbles, spinning a top, making a house of cards, sharpening a pencil—Josipovici seems to have completed his journey, and in one sense he has. Are these images of how youth wastes its time, as tradition has it? The notion is absurd, Josipovici says.

It is as though Chardin were telling us that everything is in danger of turning into an anecdote or lesson, and therefore of ceasing to be itself. … The point of catching these youths in such intense yet unguarded moments is that for once in the art of the West our viewing time and the time within the painting coincide.


Like the moments in Chaplin and Proust and van Eyck, these are moments of seeing which seem to embody moments of touch. And yet there is one further, essential argument threaded through Josipovici's book, which means he can't entirely conclude, or want to, even with this fine paradox, or indeed with any assertable point.

If distinguishing between sight and touch is the founding gesture of this deeply thoughtful book, distinguishing between touch and grasp is what furthers all its finest flights. “Every insecure child,” Josipovici writes, thinking again of Proust, and particularly of the famous drama of the goodnight kiss in A La Recherche, makes “the mistake of turning touch into grasp, of trying to grip and possess what should only be lightly touched or simply held” (72). What can only be lightly touched or simply held, perhaps, since in the moment of grasping we do not get but lose. In this perspective all children are insecure at times, and we are all children. The lesson of Chardin is that we must give up even Chardin's lesson. Momentarily inhabiting those quiet, painted spaces, we are “not thinking anything, not doing anything purposive, anything that ‘needs doing’”—not even, or hardly, looking at a set of famous paintings. The boy builds his house of cards, and we free him from all allegory. “The hand releases the card as we release the painting that is before us, as Oedipus at Colonus released its protagonist, accepting that we must let it go and yet, for a moment, holding it within the orbit of our attention” (139).

It is because I am so perfectly persuaded by this thought that I want to resist one or two of the arguments that Josipovici offers in other moods. In slight excesses of nostalgia, for instance, as when, prompted by Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars, Josipovici seems to grieve for the waning of the Middle Ages. In that onset of modernity, the world brutally dismissed as gullibility what an earlier, more innocent time had experienced as vital belief.

Where plague, famine, oppressive lords and infant mortality were rife, how important to feel that the world was not totally evil or incomprehensible, that the saints, though dead, were still there to care for you, and that it was still possible to enter into contact with God himself through his Son, whose death and resurrection were celebrated daily in the Mass.


This is beautifully put, and there is manifestly a loss when, with Protestantism, the saints become metaphors and the contact with God in the Eucharist becomes symbolic. But there is also something horrible about the intellectual and institutional corruption which seems to have been an inseparable part of that earlier, magical world. It is not just that “the Reformers' antagonism” to old practices “does have a point,” as Josipovici says. The antagonism was itself a symptom of what was wrong with the old practices, and to say what was nevertheless right with them is to miss a point as well as to make one. If we are ready to understand the spiritual needs of those who believe in relics and the cult of saints, what are we to think of those who abused them, and couldn't have done so without the lively currency of those beliefs?

In a mood which is the reverse of nostalgic, Josipovici describes films and adventure novels as a form of addiction, a childhood habit we fail to outgrow. He then decides this is perhaps “far too solemn, far too censorius” a description: “it may simply be that film is a form that belongs, with the novels of Rider Haggard … to a moment in our life when we are struggling to make the transition from child to adult” (44–45). I think it is true that one can outgrow whole forms as well as particular performances within those forms, and I have largely outgrown theater as Josipovici has outgrown film. But I don't think this has to do with any essential feature of the forms themselves, nor do I think of it as growing up, for the very reasons Josipovici so eloquently sketches elsewhere in his book. Ideally, we should outgrow as little as possible, and the “transition from child to adult,” Josipovici's reading of Chardin suggests, can be made successfully only if we keep making it again and again, giving up “anxious grasp” for “steadying touch” (107), while remaining faithful both to our chances of freedom and to our old anxiety.

“There comes to every writer,” a character says in Josipovici's novel Moo Pak (1994), “at some time in his life, the idea that he will write one work which will finally justify him, one work into which he can pour himself for as long as it takes, a decade perhaps, or two, or the rest of his life …” (89). The man who says this devises a marvelous work, talks about it endlessly, but doesn't write any of it down. We learn of it from the notes of the friend to whom he talked, who says he wanted in any case to write about the man, not the book. There are failures and disappointments here, but they don't lie quite where they seem. That alluring work is an instance of grasp, the notes an instance of touch. The talk was the man, but he lives only in written, unrevoked words, the movement of the novel under the friend's and the novelist's hands.

Works Cited

Josipovici, Gabriel. In a Hotel Garden. Manchester: Carcanet, 1993; New York: New Directions, 1995.

———. Moo Pak. Manchester: Carcanet, 1994.

Frank Kermode (review date 25 February 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2168

SOURCE: “Simple Mysteries,” in Times Literary Supplement, February 25, 2000, pp. 4–5.

[In the following review, Kermode positions Josipovici within the world of modern criticism based on the arguments on literary theory presented in On Trust.]

Gabriel Josipovici's new book [On Trust] is not a simple collection of disparate essays. It has a theme that recurs through his discussions of Genesis, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Kierkegaard, Proust, Kafka, Eliot, Beckett, Wittgenstein and others along the way. Although he attaches great importance to this theme, he must have been conscious of its dangers. His critical observation on A. W. Schlegel might be adapted to question his own procedures: Schlegel has been saying that Christianity, by bringing to consciousness “the intimation that we aspire to a happiness unobtainable here,” has ensured that ours is a poetry of desire and not, like that of the ancients, a poetry of joy. “Schlegel,” says Josipovici, “falls into all the traps of the historian of ideas, projecting a neat scheme on the complexities of history.”

Historiographical dichotomies of this kind can take many forms. One, applauded by Josipovici, is Schiller's distinction between naive and sentimental poetry (“a lucid and profound analysis of the difference between two civilisations”). His own theme is in some ways analogous: modern creative writers must work in an atmosphere of suspicion rather than trust; and having no valid tradition of craft, must search painfully within themselves, must search painfully find their own way. Homer and indeed Shakespeare had no need to brood over le vide papier que sa blancheur défend; they were makers, not thinkers, never dependent on what must be mined within. Craft obviated this torment. But in our “era of suspicion” there is no craft and no trust.

This thesis explains many historical disasters. Plato and St Paul darkened the joy and “lightness” of Homer. Having lost tragedy, we have been left with despair; losing the habit of trust, we are always dealing with suspicion. These generalizations are repeated in various ways and in various contexts, and one remembers how deeply ingrained, in the last century, was the idea of a fall, of a dissociation of sensibility or some variation on it, a nostalgia for a lost world in which thinking was not the enemy of emotion, nor doctrine the enemy of poetry—before suspicion undermined trust. The profession of writer grew less and less like that of Homer or Dante, and more and more like that of Kafka: “nothing is granted to me, everything has to be earned, not only the present and the future, but the past, too.”

As always, the value of such ideas depends on what is made of them in the discussion of particular works. And it is clear enough that they have animated and directed Josipovici's studies. As a writer he would probably say his craftless, suspicion-ridden plight was closer to that of Kafka or his adored Beckett than to the heroes of trust, whose virtues lie deeper in the past which must, as Kafka remarked, be earned.

The modern “masters of suspicion,” as Paul Ricoeur called them, are Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. Undermining the Enlightenment confidence that all men were essentially one, they explored “genealogies, secret histories of morals and social institutions, with the aim of freeing men from bonds to which they did not even know they were subject.” They finally liberated us from a sort of false happiness. Kierkegaard is added to the list of suspicious masters, but earlier writers are blamed for their part in the process: Descartes, Kant, the Romantic poets who offered a premature message of joy that soon turned into despair.

As an example of modern criticism deeply infected by suspicion, Josipovici considers Roland Barthes's assault on the “classic” novel. He scores some hits, but seems uncharacteristically grudging. Polemic is not really his strong suit, and on the matter of rereading, for instance, said by Barthes to be necessary if true reading is to be distinguished from mere consumption, he seems to miss the point by claiming, implausibly, that the first reading of instance, said by Barthes to be necessary if true reading is to be distinguished from mere consumption, he seems to miss the point by claiming, implausibly, that the first reading of Proust is the best one. It may have been so for him, but it isn't for most readers, unless they are so well prepared or so skilled that the first reading is virtually a second. And there are books, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier for instance, which pretty well insist on a second reading.

Still, it is as a good reader, and one suspects, a habitual practitioner of the deuxième lecture, that Josipovici triumphs. On Greek epic and tragedy he takes his cue from the admirable John Jones, who finds it “so appealingly blithe and strange.” He contrasts the lightness of Homer and the tragedians with the heavy reasonableness of Plato—another image of the fall. He himself is at his happiest and lightest on the intricacies of the Hebrew of Genesis, correcting the distortions and approximations of the Authorized Version translators and emphasizing the truth that the original “knows where to stop, not pressing for clarity beyond a certain point.” For example, we are led by translators to believe that it was in retribution for her impudence in scolding David when he danced before the ark that Micah had no child: “Therefore” is used to translate the Hebrew wa. But wa is vague and has other senses, including “and” and “but”; sometimes it merely introduces what comes next; “maybe there's a connection, maybe not.”

The translators, that is, remove mystery from the ambiguous Hebrew text (though it must be said that the AV, as Gerald Hammond has shown, was far more delicate about such matters than the New English Bible). These are the very mysteries Josipovici admires, thinking them true to life. The acceptance of life as both mysterious and simple is the quality he praises in both Greek and Hebrew literature. He is moved that the Greek heroes accept life, misfortune and death, as belonging to the order of simple, natural mystery. They could not be less like St Paul the self-tormentor, the stranger to lightness.

Mystery and ambiguity extend to the representation of what we call character. Is Jacob in Genesis “a heel or a pure-hearted man”? Or can he be both, and if so, how? Is Odysseus a crafty cheat or a godlike hero? Such questions betray an impatience with things as they mysteriously are. Neatly, Josipovici reminds us that “lying and deception have never had the stigma attached to them in the Mediterranean that they have in the Protestant north”; in Greek villages, it seems, fathers still take pride in the lies their sons tell as necessary to the business of protecting the patrimony. And “in the Hebrew Bible, as in pre-Socratic Greek culture, honesty counts for little in the face of such sacramental acts as blessing and cursing.”

The author's own manner has a certain seductive lightness, which makes one feel heavy in daring occasionally to dissent. He ends his discussion of the debate between Shylock and Antonio about Laban's lambs too easily, with the explanation that Antonio is shown not to have really understood Shylock's point. But it would be just as reasonable to say that Shylock, committed to a Judaic interpretation, couldn't follow Antonio's Christian version. And this wouldn't damage the hypothesis of valuable ambiguity.

Then again, too much seems to be made (with too much unambiguous definiteness) of the scene of the ordeal at the beginning of Richard II “by portraying this transformation (from a sacramental ordeal to a royal exercise of arbitrary power) Shakespeare discovered how the death of the old order cleared a space for a secular drama.” Following Peter Brown on the subject of ordeals generally, Josipovici here inadvertently risks affirming a preference for trial by torture over more “enlightened” forms of judicial inquiry. It must have been a good deal easier for the spectators than for the accused to regard an ordeal as a fair trial. And the trust that is falsified in Richard II is not trust in the ordeal but in the sacredness of royalty.

Having done his work on trust, Shakespeare turns to suspicion. In Hamlet, the former gives way to the latter from one generation to the next. The opposites confront one another head-on in Othello, where “a culture of suspicion infects the language of a culture of trust.” Now the whole of Shakespeare seems suspended between these mighty opposites. Some of Josipovici's Shakespearean commentary is acutely perceptive, though how much it owes to the master scheme is doubtful.

His chapter on Romanticism opens with a subtle discussion of Baudelaire's sonnet “Il est amer et doux, pendant les nuits d'hiver” (“so classical, so controlled, and yet spelling out the death of classicism and control”), and then charts the Wordsworthian descent from joy to melancholy, the Romantic self-doubt that is another manifestation of the death of craft; the necessary inward turn, the loneliness of the modern, craft-less writer:

Romanticism, in its first phase, merely put flesh on the bones of Enlightenment ideas and aspirations. … [But] for a small but powerful number of artists and thinkers Enlightenment iconoclasm had destroyed far more than its advocates realised. At the same time they were perfectly well aware that it was impossible to return to the pre-Enlightenment world of hierarchy and tradition, and so could only articulate their despair in the hope that, as Kierkegaard put it, by keeping the wound of the negative open some sort of natural healing might take place.

The writer, thrown on his own resources, has a Wagnerian open wound and has to be his own Parsifal. He must also rewrite the tradition to explain why this dilemma was inevitable.

The generalizations that underlie these speculations are admittedly vast, and sometimes lead the author into surprising excesses, as in his uncharacteristically imperceptive study of “Resolution and Independence.” He is much more at home with Proust, in a fine essay that manages both a well-argued assault on Paul de Man and a defence of Proust's “lightness” and ambiguous depths. With Kafka, we are near the desperate terminus—his stories and parables of the period 1914–20 “constitute the most extensive fictional exploration of the nature and limits of trust known to me”—here, and in Beckett, we find a virtual paralysis of distrust, distrust of the very words that must be found to express it.

Beckett is credited with a discovery that long preceded him: that it was “an error to create a first-person narrator with the clarity and control of a third person.” No doubt in the explanation of how these great men were historically decisive as well as in themselves worthy of awe, some less great must be left out of account. But none of these niggles really matters when most of what is said is so keen and so intelligently expressed. “Must I not begin to trust somewhere?” asked Wittgenstein, and Josipovici agrees with that. He thinks of our time as, in Hölderlin's words, a “dürftiger Zeit,” and concurs with what Wittgenstein in the preface to the Philosophical Investigations calls “der Finsternis dieser Zeit”; but he still thinks it necessary to begin to trust. Despite all he has said to emphasize their anguish, he ends by saying that it is in these great writers that one must seek that beginning.

Thirty or forty years ago, this book would probably have been issued by a non-academic publisher and been quickly and respectfully reviewed. But now it is published by a university press, admittedly an enlightened one, and has been around for some time without attracting notice. Yet Gabriel Josipovici is far from an obscure author. He has long been well known for a series of delicate and original fictions, for his work in radio, and for an impressive range of critical writing. It may seem a little mysterious that a substantial book of his—the fruit of much learning and experience—should be received with such indifference.

One explanation is that academic criticism has now been so professionalized that it is out of touch with the intelligent non-specialist public (and, some say, out of touch with literature). Literary criticism that addressed such a public was normal enough in the 1950s and 60s, when collections of essays enjoyed a fair reception and a fair sale. Indeed, as Helen Gardner once remarked, their popularity resembled that of sermon collections in the previous century, and she predicted, with a measure of accuracy, that they would end up as the sermons did, in the basements of second-hand bookshops. Certainly a time would come when literary editors would leave them undisturbed on their desks until the moment when it seemed reasonable or necessary to get rid of them. Some may think that, all things considered, this is not a tragic situation; but the good go out with the dull. On Trust can be placed firmly among the former.

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Josipovici, G(abriel)