‘Only Joking’ and Inspiring


By Jeff Bursey

Gabriel Josipovici, born in 1940 in France, moved to England in 1956 with his mother. His fiction, drama, books of criticism, and a memoir have been published steadily since 1968, with 2010 alone containing Heart’s Wing and Other Stories, the critical work What Ever Happened to Modernism?, and the book under review. However, Only Joking first appeared in Germany in 2006 under the title Nur ein Scherz (Only a Joke); despite his many publications, a publisher in Josipovici’s homeland could not be found until CB Editions added it to its select list. This slender book, along with the story collection, came out while headlines filled the English press about What Ever Happened to Modernism? A few words on that controversial work seem necessary here to provide some context for Only Joking, and by way of familiarizing a Canadian audience with an independent writer not likely to be nominated for a Booker.

When What Ever Happened to Modernism? came out critics and writers pounced on Josipovici’s well-reasoned remarks about the deficiencies found in the works of Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Philip Roth. The local tempest needn’t be recapitulated here, and indeed, Josipovici’s comments on his fellow writers occupy only a few pages of the book. More serious discussion occurred–though not a great deal of it–concerning Josipovici’s argument that Modernism had not found a lasting place in the homeland of Virginia Woolf and Wyndham Lewis, and the adopted home of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. In Josipovici’s view, Modernism is not a style or period of 20th century literary history, but stretches back in time (taking in Cervantes and Wordsworth, for instance), and is closer to a philosophical position. As he says about Mallarmé, Hofmannstahl, Kafka and Beckett–words that may apply as well to Josipovici–they all feel impelled to write, this being the only way they know to be true to their own natures, yet at the same time they find that in doing so they are being false to the world–imposing a shape on it and giving it a meaning which it doesn’t have–and thus, ultimately, being false to themselves. Their works feel like an interference with the world… lacking proper authority they have strayed into a place where they should not be.

Lack of authority, and the presumed authority of the author, are themes sounded often in this book. We are encouraged by Josipovici to read those writers aware of their ‘falseness’ who proceed with uncertainty and hesitancy, who “drive the contradictions out into the open” while “anxious to escape the arbitrariness of conventional narrative, its ready-made quality.” This contrasts with writers like Anthony Powell or Angus Wilson (and also their readers) who prefer “the smooth chain of sentences” that provide “a sense of security, of comfort even, precisely because it denies the openness, the ‘trembling’ of life itself; the very confidence of the articulation of the narrative gives the lie to our own sense of things being confused, dark, impossible to grasp fully.” For these reasons “they cannot really satisfy us, since they do not speak to our condition, only make us hungry for more.” Josipovici goes on to make many useful and sharp distinctions, such as the difference between “reality” and “the ‘reality-effect,’” which so-called realist novelists, as well as historical novelists, could keep in mind.

In the wake of the stir caused by What Ever Happened to Modernism?, a reader might pick up Only Joking expecting to find it the equivalent of eating something disagreeable yet good for you. This isn’t the case at all. Despite its title (for we’re aware of the irony of that expression, and how seldom it consoles when we’ve been made the butt of a remark), Only Joking is a witty, complex comedy of machinations, mirror figures, sex and love, art, and verbal dexterity. In 2009 Josipovici’s After & Making Mistakes was published: it consists of two novels collected under the same cover, with “Making Mistakes” based on Mozart’s comic opera Cosi fan tutte. For all I know, the same underpinning could be present here. However, there’s enough business with doors, telephones, disguises and cats to qualify Only Joking as a pastiche of British farce. That it expands to become something larger I’ll get to in a moment.
The book begins with this exchange:

When the Baron, as he likes to be called, wants to talk, he always sits in the front. Felix, at the wheel, knows better than to initiate a conversation. He busies himself manoeuvring the large silent car through the congested streets of Henley.
It is not till they are approaching the motorway that the Baron speaks.
–Miss Jenkins was in her usual excellent form, he says.
–I am glad to hear it, sir, Felix says, as he always does when the Baron imparts this item of information after his weekly visit.
–Her memory of my childish misdemeanours was sharper even than usual, the Baron says. I sometimes think she makes up these stories solely in order to make me squirm.
Felix smiles, his eyes on the road.
–To listen to her, the Baron says, you would think I had spent my entire youth in an effort to make life as miserable as possible for those whose company I was forced to keep.
The Baron is silent for so long after this that Felix, his eyes on the road and the rear-view mirror, might have been forgiven for thinking he had gone to sleep.
–And yet she seems to bear me no grudge, the Baron finally resumes, as though he had not paused at all. Quite the reverse, in fact. In her memory my escapades and practical jokes become the signs of a loveable zeal, a charming independence of spirit.
The Baron lapses once more into silence.
–At least, he resumes after a while, that is how she appears to want me to imagine she looks back at my youthful self. At the same time she seems to suggest by her demeanour that this is the view of an overindulgent and slightly senile old lady, and that quite a different interpretation of my behaviour is not only possible but quite likely.
–The question I keep asking myself, the Baron says, is whether she is conscious of this or not, whether she wants me to draw this inference from her manner and remarks or it is only my guilty conscience which makes me do so.

From the start we are in a world where none of the many characters, introduced in swift and clear fashion, present their true face to the world. They often give an initial reason for their behaviour which is true for that time, but later their reasoning will change, and thus their actions. From the reader’s perspective, they’re all unreliable. Is Miss Jenkins inventing terrible behaviour on the part of the Baron? Why would she do that? The Baron likes to be called that, but is he one? His young wife (not his first) is convinced he’ll leave her with nothing once he has a grandchild from his son Giles and his wife Helene, though we never see him thinking this. A character named Rosalia is Rosie when with her friends; her father, Lino, who counts Felix as a friend, is a restaurant owner dabbling in crime, though this is kept a secret from his daughter; and Rosie’s friend Natasha re-invents herself as Isabelle to seduce one man and ends up attracting three, which displeases her sometime-boyfriend Charlie, a con-man and video-artist (a combination with a long pedigree). We are pushed off balance right from the first sentence, and throughout we are never allowed to forget that the figures with names attached are no more solid in their own world than they are real at all; their identities mutate as circumstances require and depending on who is watching. In such a context, even the seemingly functional phrase “Felix, his eyes on the road and the rear-view mirror” sees to imply that he, too, is Janus-faced. To be precise, the characters change in accordance with Josipovici’s requirements; the author is always present, even though there is very little narrative.

Following the above conversation the Baron tells Felix of a friend of his who needs someone tailed, and asks if he knows anyone who could do this task. Felix does. Of course, the tail is for the Baron; the person tailed will be his wife, Elspeth, who he suspects of having a lover; Felix’s friend is Alphonse, also known as Banjo, a self-described “clown”–the wearer of a false face over a real face–of undetermined nationality who is already working for Elspeth against her husband, and who, unknowingly, is a mark in the eyes of Charlie and Natasha. Nothing works out predictably. If you read that one character said “frightening meant killing” (36), you might think that this mean tension would increase. But in the conventional sense very little happens. Indeed, Elspeth chastises Alphonse on how slowly things are proceeding with their plans by saying such things as “I want action,” which is a nice joke. Josipovici is aware that readers of cosy thrillers, which this British farce begins to look like it’s turning into at some point, demand “a sense of security, of comfort even…” typically found in the dull sameness of that genre, and that they would feel frustration with Only Joking. But his regular readers, who may not read very many thrillers, will savour the point.

Generally, action is what constitutes story, and in this sense story is very far removed from what Josipovici chooses to provide here. He gives fragments of several plots that clearly are happening outside what we’re told–if we insist on believing there is an outside to a novel we’re reading–that we’ll never be able to piece together, for while he’s interested in intrigue he’s not terribly keen on suspense. Momentum is provided through the surface layer of dialogue–with its carefully chosen words and splendid silences–and in the depths, where what people do is obscure, at times even to them. In short, story is replaced by style. Josipovici is working at merging together farce and the thriller, two distinct genres that rarely meet, to see what new structure he can create from the debris of those tired forms. This merging keeps intact his own beliefs, expressed clearly in What Ever Happened to Modernism? and elsewhere, that one should avoid the ready-made, and come up with something potentially truer, even if it makes people uncomfortable; and that you can create an entertaining, satisfying novel without the usual techniques such as dialogue tags (beyond the word “says”), internal examination on the part of characters, brand names (the “reality-effects” referred to above), and gloominess. Even the use of the present tense, which often makes readers feel compelled to consume words at a faster pace and to trust more what’s going on, is derided, I’d suggest.

Only Joking is, at the end, both a lark and a view, from a more relaxed perspective, of the same concerns one can find in Gabriel Josipovici’s recent fictions, including Goldberg: Variations (2002) and Everything Passes (2006). His power of invention is remarkable, and his example–of a mind that refuses to go through the motions and simply write another book just like the last–is inspiring.

CB Editions | 158 pages |  £7.99 | paper | ISBN #978-0956107367

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Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey is the author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His latest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that has appeared in various publications.