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Book Forum: Literature   |    
Goldberg: Variations
PETER D. KRAMER, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2004;161:2337-2337. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.161.12.2337
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By Gabriel Josipovici. Manchester, U.K., Carcanet Press, 2002, 202 pp., $16.95 (paper).

Experimental fiction has a consistent shortcoming; it appeals to the mind more than the heart. Certainly "new novels" had this failing. They were thin books—most by mid-century French authors—aimed at subverting readers’ expectations. Alain Robbe-Grillet, for example, might describe an object at length, but the eraser or venetian blinds would prove to have scant relationship to the characters’ inner being and no moral import, except the negative one, that the world stands apart from us.

Gabriel Josipovici writes in the tradition of the new novel, but with the improvement that his work can be deeply moving. That Josipovici’s name, and his books, are not better known in the United States is puzzling. He is highly regarded in the United Kingdom for writing that spans the genres—literary essay, social criticism, biography, short fiction, and novel. He has told his own life story indirectly in a biography of his mother, the poet Sasha Rabinovitch (1). Josipovici was born in France and raised there and in Egypt, in a family with Jewish and Muslim roots, but, in the new multicultural fashion, he has been thoroughly British since his college years at Oxford.

Josipovici’s latest book, Goldberg: Variations, plays a novelistic riff on the premise that Bach’s similarly titled work was written to soothe an insomniac patron. In Josipovici’s version, set in rural England in the eighteenth century, a Jewish writer is hired by a country gentleman to compose and recite stories that will ease his troubled nights. The 30 variations represent distinct voices and styles.

We hear first from Samuel Goldberg as he describes his encounter with Tobias Westfield. Then Westfield’s story is recounted in the omniscient third person. Next is a Chekhovian intimate account, in a third person that moves close to the character’s train of thought, introducing and dispensing with Westfield’s first wife. And so on.

Some of the chapters are fully objective, in the manner of the nouvelle roman. One begins with a fragment of description: "A shelf in a shallow recess, above which is a cupboard with two small doors, one of which is partially open, but not enough to allow one to see inside, the other firmly shut." The narrative is pictorial, in exact scientific fashion. Another chapter is historical: "By far the most vivid picture available in Britain of the material equipment and domestic economy of a Neolithic community is to be seen at the celebrated prehistoric village of Skara Brae." Yet another begins, "Here I am, one hand raised in mock salute." The voice is that of a figure in the Paul Klee illustration Wander-Artist (Ein Plakat), which adorns the book jacket of Goldberg: Variations and, as a postcard, inspires the contemporary (fictive) author of the book we are reading. One of the most effective chapters is, in effect, a work of literary analysis—a reading of a John Donne poem devised by Goldberg for the entertainment of King George III. This indirection does not rob the book of action; the narrative contains a novel’s worth of conflict, death, divorce, mental illness, failure, romance, and victory.

What is extraordinary about this bravura performance—Josipovici’s, as well as Goldberg’s—is how compelling it remains throughout. The individual pieces puzzle, inform, and entertain; they are anything but soporific. The plots and voices hang together, creating a meditation on time and mortality, and on the beauties and limitations of language, that rivals and bests, in its emotional effects, any of the overwrought efforts that plague the contemporary scene.

An earlier novel by Josipovici, Moo Pak(2), is built around a commentary on literature and the writer’s life. Its narrator divides authors into wet and dry. Aristophanes is dry, as are Donne, Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen, and Ivy Compton-Burnett. Above all, Josipovici praises the precision of Homer, who dispatches Odysseus’ loyal dog Argos in a single line.

Spareness, as Josipovici demonstrates in his own fiction, can be as profound as fustian. Goldberg: Variations succeeds at every level. It should serve as an accessible introduction to Josipovici’s work, for American readers who favor fiction undiluted by false sentiment.

Josipovici G: A Life. London, London Magazine Editions, 2001
 
Josipovici G: Moo Pak. Manchester, UK, Carcanet, 1994
 
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References

Josipovici G: A Life. London, London Magazine Editions, 2001
 
Josipovici G: Moo Pak. Manchester, UK, Carcanet, 1994
 
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