Gabriel Josipovici Josipovici, Gabriel - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)...

(The entire section is 129 words.)

Ray Shankman (review date Winter 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 1758 words.)

John Barton (review date 16 February 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2343 words.)

Denis Donoghue (review date 31 March 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1516 words.)

Irving Malin (review date Summer 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 521 words.)

Aaron Milavec (review date July 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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”...

(The entire section is 457 words.)

Roger Cardinal (review date 8 March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 885 words.)

Ruth Pavey (review date 8 March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 643 words.)

Michael Fishbane (review date Summer 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1806 words.)

Barry V. Qualls (review date Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4070 words.)

Kevin Davey (review date 5 June 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 749 words.)

Jim McCue (review date 5 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 810 words.)

Bryan Cheyette (review date 2 December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 604 words.)

James Hall (review date 18 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 722 words.)

Roger Cardinal (review date 11 April 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1411 words.)

Steven Jaron (review date Summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 785 words.)

Michael Wood (review date Summer–Fall 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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!


(The entire section is 3260 words.)

Frank Kermode (review date 25 February 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2168 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 299 words.)