Gabriel Josipovici is a pre-eminent British novelist, short story writer, critic, literary theorist, playwright, and a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement. Georgia’s exclusive interview for BookBlast® celebrates the publication this week of his latest novel, The Cemetery in Barnes, (Carcanet).
You were born during World War Two in Occupied France, what are your memories of that time?
I was born in Nice but we escaped to La Bourboule and Le Mont Dore in the Massif Central during the war. They were spa resorts for people suffering from lung problems, and so were full of hotels – La Bourboule was for children and Le Mont Dore for adults.
My parents had arrived in France newly-married from Egypt. My father had done his studies in French and wanted to go to a French university so he got a place at the University of Aix-Marseille. They lived in Aix while he did his doctorate, and then bought a house in Vence. Somehow they failed to take on board all that was happening. War started and I was born in Nice in October 1940, on the last day they could have got out back to Egypt as they had tickets for a ship. Nice was not the zone libre, but it was under tutelage of the Italians who were good to their Jews.
My father went off to Paris with somebody else so my mother moved with me to a pension, or bed and breakfast. The Italians protected their Jews, so many came into that SE corner from Alsace and elsewhere in France because even though immigration laws were decreed from above, they were not implemented on the ground. In September 1943 when Italy fell, it was great for the allies, but a disaster for the Jews in Nice since the Nazis immediately put a blockade around the area and started to pick them up. On the day they arrived, my mother thought that it’d be safer to be outside so she pushed me in my pram along the Promenade des Anglais. Suddenly somebody grabbed her arm – Ida Bourdet had been a neighbour in Vence. She was the wife of the Resistance fighter Claude Bourdet who also edited Combat (with Camus later during the Algerian crisis). She was Russian and a cousin of the playwright Arthur Adamov. “Are you alone?” Ida asked my mother who explained the situation. Ida immediately said, “You can’t stay here, it’s dangerous.” She was getting forged papers for friends going to the Massif Central the next day, and said she’d do the same for us, and put us on the train with them.
Nice was the biggest rafle, or round up, in the West: few survived. When my mother returned to our pension from the Promenade des Anglais to get our things, the Nazis had stopped a few pensions up because their trucks were full. They would be back. “They were just boys,” my mother later told me. “Barely out of their teens.”
How did you survive and not get caught?
The Massif Central was safe from the Nazis as it was outside the war zone and not really accessible – they’d do forays because of the maquis up in the mountains and forests, but only half-heartedly. There was food as it was agricultural so the coupons could be implemented for a child. The train was not stopped and searched. My mother later told me she had left me with Ida Bourdet’s friends, and gone to another carriage, since she felt that if the Nazis had come on board and questioned her she did not know if she’d be able to lie and say she was not Jewish, even if it meant being taken off and leaving me with strangers. It was an existential moment for her I felt. Even she was puzzled by her stance as she recounted it to me, and not in the least proud.
She went to see the Mayor of La Bourboule and told him who we were and showed her papers. He said he’d do what he could for her and her two-year-old son, and he was as good as his word. The reprisals right at the end of the war were horrific: many often genuine collaborators – but sometimes not – were killed, and there were a lot of revenge killings. The mayor who was a decent man was one of the first people to be shot. I recently read Caroline Moorehead’s book Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France about the massif central during this period with great interest. I had not realised that there were whole villages – a bit further south from where we were – who protected their Jews.
What prompted the move to Cairo, and what was it like in the fifties?
My mother’s sister and her children were all in Egypt, and there were other relatives. As the war came to an end, my aunt helped my mother to get tickets from Marseille somehow, and we took a troop ship from Toulon.
I did my schooling in Cairo and had a happy childhood. Much of it was spent outdoors. We children cycled everywhere.There were sports and little culture other than American musicals and cowboy films. It was only later when I was sixteen that I went to exhibitions, or concerts.
Maadi was the little town south of Cairo where my aunt was living and where we settled. The small dusty roads are now all tarmac. It was a happy and carefree existence, though my Arabic was basic; it was enough to have fun with Egyptian friends in the sports club. I felt it was an alien language and culture though I did not feel particularly Jewish either, and I did not feel French or Egyptian. I was not born there like Martine Halban, it was a kind of hiatus in my life. I had no affinity with the country, and have to accept hat I have no native country or language. That’s probably a good thing, as I have nothing to be nostalgic about.
Your mother, Sacha Rabinovitch, was a remarkable woman. How did she fend for you both as a single mother?
My mother’s family had been quite wealthy: her great grandfather had come from Ferrara as a doctor and had risen to become the doctor of the Khedive. He married into a rich Egyptian Jewish family, but their wealth dwindled. By the time she came back to Egypt all that was left of the family fortune were two houses in Boulaq. This was a run down area of Cairo and the two sisters sold them. My aunt had a new house built, and my mother bought herself a house in Maadi which she would later sell in order to get to Europe.
In Maadi she worked at the Astra milk shop from 5-8.30 a.m., got me to school, and then worked at Victoria College where she looked after the boarders between the end of school and evening time. She’d see the bursar every month and he would hand her a cheque which covered my school fees, which she would promptly hand back.
What sorts of books were in your family home? What did you read at home as a child?
Unlike most French-speaking families in Egypt, English was my mother’s first language as she had an English nanny. She sent me to a lycée at first since I only spoke French, but there was too much homework and no play, so she sent me to the English school instead as there was plenty of play and little work. Later, as an adolescent, I used to go to the British Council library in Cairo and moved on from Biggles to Joseph Conrad. My uncle was the librarian at the local sporting and social club. I remember him arriving one day and saying he’d read this remarkable novel, Molloy, written in French by an Irishman called Samuel Beckett. My aunt urged me to read Keats’s letters.
How did it feel to arrive and settle in England?
We left for England a few months before the Suez war. It had been clear to my mother for some time that we had no future in Egypt. I had done all my schooling in English so England was the obvious choice. My mother made enquiries about possible scholarships as she could not afford to pay for my university education. It turned out that the only way was for me to get my A levels in England and a State Scholarship. I could not go to a non-fee-paying school in England in the public sector if I was not living there. So my mother took the gamble, and my headmaster in Egypt found me a place as a day boy for a year at Cheltenham College, starting in October 1956. Fortunately I managed to get the State Scholarship and a place at St Edmund Hall in Oxford. After that we knew we would be all right.
Teaching literature and writing are very different. Was writing an extension of being a university lecturer, or did you want to be a writer from the start?
I’ve been writing for as far back as I remember. In Oxford I published stories in the university literary papers. One day, out of the blue, Gillon Aitken, who was then working at Chapman & Hall, wrote to say he had read my stories and liked them and would I come up and see him. We had lunch, but of course he wanted a novel not stories, so nothing happened. But I went on writing. And as I wanted to be free to write in my own way I needed to get a job. All I knew about was English literature so I looked around for an academic job.
I was lucky in that all the new universities of the sixties were just starting and in those days you could get a job for life at twenty two. The universities were moving from being stuffy places to being liberal and open – now it is has all changed and it is all business and money oriented, so it was a wonderful window. I got interviews for York and Sussex, disliked York and loved Sussex, and the feeling was obviously reciprocated as they offered me a job. It was heaven. Imagine being free to teach what you liked from Homer to Alain Robbe-Grillet.
At Teddy Hall I became friends with the music scholar, the budding composer Gordon Crosse, who took me along to meetings of the Contemporary Music Club. Maxwell Davies, Birtwhistle, Lutyens . . . suddenly I discovered radical young and not so young composers talking my kind of language as I was reading Kafka, Blanchot, Borges. It was 1959 and I was finding my way.
I started teaching at Sussex University and stopped writing. I’d become too self-conscious. Three years in, I had a term’s sabbatical, and knew this was the do or die moment. If I couldn’t write the novel I felt obscurely inside me I would have to leave teaching, much as I loved it. I woke up every morning and began to pound at the typewriter. I had no idea what I was going to do – there’s nothing like a good dose of fear to mobilise you; sheer panic pushes you past self-consciousness. Yet there were problems. If I followed my instincts I could write something short, but that was no longer enough. I wanted the pleasure of getting down something long. Yet if I planned it all and worked at getting the shape, then I lost interest in it. So I was caught in a double bind and I did not know how to get out of it.
That summer, before my term’s sabbatical, my beloved cat died and I wrote a children’s book, Mr Isosceles the King, over which he presided, for a colleague’s children. Freed of the burden of producing a masterpiece, without the great masters sitting on my back, I just kept writing and one day the book was done. I decided to do the same with the novel. I knew what rhythm I wanted and where I wanted to end up and I simply kept writing, discovering as I went. I finally got the novel done and showed it to my mother. I had no idea if it worked or not. She was enthusiastic.
I sent it to Gillon Aitken – six years after our meeting – only to receive a letter informing me that the firm of Chapman & Hall had been taken over by Eyre & Spottiswoode, and that they would very much like to see what I had written. Because they published Patrick White I assumed they were a decent firm so I sent them my manuscript. They invited me to lunch to discuss it and there told me they liked it, but it was too short, and would I agree to publish it along with some stories. I was very arrogant. I told them that it had to breathe on its own. Since they were the first people I had sent the book to, and they had almost taken it, I was sure another publisher would take it – but, alas, the rejections came thick and fast. I felt an idiot.
How important were, and are, editors? Did you have much encouragement in those early days?
Gwenda David was a scout for Viking. She was a tiny little Jewish lady married to a tiny little Jewish man – Eric Mosbacher – who translated many books. She loved my novel, but the New York office refused it as it was “too fragile for the American market.” She mentioned it to Raleigh Trevelyan who took it on, and Christine Brooke-Rose was very encouraging. And so my first novel, The Inventory, came out in 1968. Raleigh and Gwenda took me out to lunch. The novel was well reviewed, Raleigh sent it to Harold Pinter who wrote back saying he loved it and thought it’d make a good radio play and to send it to his friend Martin Esslin. He commissioned me to do an original script so I began to write radio plays. My second novel The Present (1975) was adapted for BBC radio.
Who were your early formative influences as a writer?
At Oxford I had been to a lecture of Lord David Cecil on “British writing today.” He praised Anthony Powell and Iris Murdoch very highly, so I read them but they did nothing for me. On the other hand when Robbe-Grillet came to the Maison Française it blew me away, and I began to read Marguerite Duras and Claude Simon. They were all very different, but were exciting. Along with them I discovered I liked Muriel Spark and Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett but that was about it. The sense of all of them gave me was that if you feel strongly enough about something you can find your way to write it.
I read Proust in 1957, in my gap year between school and university. I learnt from him that there is no such thing as failure, You can turn every failure into success. Most people are like Swann in À la recherche du temps perdu – whom Proust admires but whose limitations he is all to well aware of. In the end Swann is not willing to stay with his angst or his failure in love. He dismisses Odette as not being his type, but Proust would never do that. He wanted to understand why their love had failed, just as he wanted to understand why as a budding writer he was unable to write though he so desperately wanted to. To find all that in a book gave me the sense that despite all setbacks, internal and external, I simply had to keep going. Great artists are like that – they give you the confidence to follow your instincts.
In my early days I was very close to musicians, composers, and then painters came into my life. With both groups I felt much freer and more at ease than I ever do with novelists. Contre Jour: A Triptych After Pierre Bonnard was a chance thing. I heard a talk on the radio about a Paris exhibition that featured many of his nudes in the bath. The speaker explained the one reason there were so many of them was that Bonnard’s wife was a compulsive washer. I dropped everything. I don’t know why. I went to Paris and had a look at that exhibition. I had dismissed Bonnard as being very beautiful like Renoir and a bit obvious, but I realised that he was not like that at all, but was very strange. The book came very quickly, almost as if I was copying it down and was not even writing it or inventing – it was all there.
To what extent is being a critic essential training for a would-be writer?
Writing about other writers, you explore what they want to do, and you reflect on what you are doing. I want to understand it for myself.
Which other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer, or are you solitaire?
I find talking to painters or composers more fulfilling as I’ve said. I became friends with Jonathan Harvey who was professor of music at Sussex University. We collaborated on radio projects and we would talk about the same sorts of things even if we were in different fields. I had this affinity with certain painters too. I do not know many writers although I’m very fond of Rosalind Belben, but I hardly see her though we do stay in touch.
I admired the late Aharon Appelfeld and got to know him. I’ve just written a little memoir of him in the wake of his death earlier this year, which PN Review will be publishing. And Muriel Spark, late in her life, became a good friend, and was very supportive. Otherwise I’ve never met writers who are doing the kind of thing I’d like to do, unlike composers. Or I’d rather to talk to historians.
It has been a great pleasure meeting a younger writer in English, the Scottish author of The Big Music, Kirsty Gunn, who thinks along some of the same lines I do. We have done a number of public events together and it’s always been a joy, she’s so intelligent and articulate and deep.
Why do the literary establishment dislike Experimentalism?
The English have no real feel for it and tend to follow standard tropes for writing fiction. Experimenting is a matter of finding the right form for what you have to say. The dislike is also a form of anti-intellectualism; a form of anti-Europeanism.
My collection of stories and plays, Mobius the Stripper, won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1975. It was a travelling scholarship to encourage English writers to travel abroad, and had been given to Doris Lessing and Naipaul in Maugham’s lifetime, but after he died, with the Arts Council administering it and Antonia Fraser as the chair person, the criterion was enforced that the person awarded the prize had to be born with a British passport. So the Prize was withdrawn. Gollancz, my then publisher, had put the book up for it and hadn’t read the small print.
My first three books were fairly straightforward and then I wrote a book called Migrations and everyone turned against me, there was a feeling of fear. They hated it the same way they hated the book I wrote about Modernism in 2010. One critic more or less said, “Mr Josipovici does not like us so why does he stay here, he should go back to where he came from.” It showed an anxiety about being attacked at some deep level. One should talk about what one loves as a critic, and I usually do, but here I devoted a few pages to what I found depressing about the current British literary scene and everyone picked on that. A piece came out in The Guardian concentrating on the negative bits, which made headline news. The papers, the radio and even television all rang up to get my views on this or that current writer. I told them I was keen to talk about the issues, not the personalities, so they dropped the story.
Do you write every day?
I have to sit down at my desk and give myself to writing for a couple of hours, or longer if it is going well. I like to give myself a chance to get on with it. I do eight or ten drafts, and go through from the beginning making corrections here and there. I wish I could write very carefully and slowly and have a chapter after three months; then you know you have something solid, but I do not write like that. I don’t enjoy writing this way and I wish I could do it differently, but that’s how it is. Once I have a sense and a rhythm, an end and a shape, I get going and it works out, or sometimes it peters out, so I try several times, but I put it to one side and come back to it seven or eight years later, and then I see my way through, or I don’t.
You have great versatility as a writer, having created stage and radio plays, short stories, fiction, novellas, non fiction and well respected literary criticism: is there one particular form you favour over the others?
I was very taken with the way in which painters and composers explore different media and how the media sometimes leads them in directions they had not expected to be led in. I started writing radio plays and wanted to do stage plays and had commissions. One was a stage play called Flow for Edinburgh, for The Actors’ Company, (Ian McKellan, Caroline Blakiston, Edward Petherbridge et al) which was big in the early 1970s. They wanted a half hour play for a lunchtime performance; a virtuoso piece for five actors using very few props. It pushed me in a direction I would never have gone towards otherwise. The piece was interlocked and very tight. Two thirds of the way through the rehearsal, one of the cast kept on forgetting his lines, so we had to do it with lecterns, which lost some of the excitement. I hope for a reprise one day. My plays were never going to be big West End theatre successes. But I was not political either, which is what those small companies wanted. Nor was I like those theatre people Brenton or Stoppard or Mamet who lived and breathed theatre. I suppose I was more like Beckett and if some of those early plays had taken off, who knows? But if you write a novel and a publisher does not take it there are fifteen other publishers you can try. With a play your options are more limited. I did a lot with BBC radio drama under Martin Esslin, but he retired, and they put out to grass all the old guard who’d been producers. Everything changed in the 1990s.
Which is more important, style or voice?
You have to find the voice. You have to find something towards which the story is going, a shape and rhythm, then maybe the setting can change radically. Reading Virginia Woolf’s A Writers Diary, I can see how the way of getting towards what one is trying to do is explored; she had an instinct for where she wanted to go as she wrote. A novel is a nebulous thing. Feeling I can go either with an exciting formal idea or an exciting aspect of life never works – there has to be both – something I need to say and a way of saying it.
Goldberg: Variations is an unusual book for me. I’d read somewhere about the supposed genesis of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” which he wrote for a German harpsichordist to play to a German Prince to send him to sleep. So I transposed the narrative to literary England and wrote a slightly tongue-in-cheek short story, setting it vaguely around 1800. I sent it to London Magazine who took it. Soon after I heard Judith Weir on the radio talking about the importance of Bach for modern composers so I sent it to her, which was a big mistake. She wrote back saying she loved it, but where are the other twenty nine (there are thirty variations). I said, “I’m not a historical novelist,” but she had sown the seed. So there was a terrible temptation to keep going and write those other twenty nine, and yet I couldn’t do it. But once planted the idea wouldn’t let me go. I had to find a way of doing it.
I was in Berlin in the late nineties. Cycling around the city and sitting in its parks and bars, I began to feel my way back into it. I liked the idea of thirty quite independent stories which were somehow more than the sum of the parts. So it got done. But at the end, the thirty variations completed, I asked myself what is my aria? I thought that Bach can write an aria, but I can’t, maybe all a modern writer can do is variations. A late painting of Klee’s, The Travelling Showman, had begun to play a more and more important role in the book, and I suddenly thought: my aria is the Klee painting, I’ll ask the publishers to put it on the front and back, book-ending it like Bach’s aria.
How well are your books received in Europe?
My work was first translated into German and was well received, but sales were lukewarm, even though my publisher was keen on my writing. We had a happy five or six years together and then he went bankrupt. Other publishers followed, including Suhrkamp, who tried to market my book like a new Thomas Bernhard which was a big mistake. My agent still tries to find new publishers for me, but to no avail.
Meanwhile a French publisher – Pascal Arnaud at Quidam – came along, very keen to do all my work. He operates on a shoestring and gets grants to publish translations. But my translator Bernard Hoepffner died last year so who knows what the future holds for my work being translated.
Odd books have been translated here and there into Italian or Croatian or Spanish or Catalan or Arabic – I have become resigned to it all. If it happens, it happens, life’s too short to worry about it.
What is your view of writing courses?
There’s a wonderful Philip Larkin story about this told by Douglas Dunn who went to Hull as writer in residence. Larkin took him out for a drink and said, “There’s a lot of poetry going on around here Douglas, stamp it out!” I like that.
Writing courses are terrible since they are formulaic, they teach students “how to do it”. But you only really do it if you have to struggle to find your own voice. These courses are hugely popular and lucrative. Those who offer them are the equivalent of snake oil salesmen. What they offer is a fulfilment of your dreams, “You will be able to write what you want to write,” they say, “and perhaps there will be a career in it, and you will make money and be successful at the end of it all.” So these courses are hugely over-subscribed, even the most traditional universities like Liverpool have opened themselves up to it.
My partner, Tamar, teaches creative writing to sixth formers and I can now see its benefits at that level. Doing a literature A level, say, the students are faced with a lot of books which they have to read, few of which grab them, so they are inattentive and work as little as possible. But if you can get them to think about how good people are writing, and if you steer them in the right direction, I can see that has a purpose and a value. It should be called “creative reading”.
Your views on success and failure, and how important it is for an author to experience both?
Both are a danger to a creative career. Failure can lead to a writer drying up and putting their work in a drawer, feeling depressed. Success can lead you to rewrite the successful book for the rest of your life.
Your views on book publishing?
I have had so many mainstream publishers – Methuen, Gollancz, Michael Joseph – who have taken me on, saying “we are interested in you, not just in this book,” and then the book has not sold as expected and that is that.
As book publishers have gobbled each other up, there are just two or three big companies at the top, but now there are so many small presses it is encouraging. I was lucky with Michael Schmidt taking me on at Carcanet as he was expanding in the eighties, bringing out Natalia Ginzburg, the South American Clarice Lispector, and all sorts of different writers. He had started Carcanet in his kitchen when he was at Oxford and then he started PN review and it all grew from there. He wanted me to edit a new cultural and fiction journal with Christine Brooke-Rose and Stuart Hood which didn’t happen. That’s how we first got together. Now he’s been my publisher for over thirty years, which in the present climate is quite astonishing.
Yale have published five books of mine including What Ever Happened to Modernism?, The Book of God, and Hamlet: Fold on Fold. I have been lucky there too.
Literary journals: do you have favourites?
I used to read the Times Literary Supplement because I like the variety and I discovered Aharon Appelfeld through a little short TLS review. I prefer their shorter pieces to the long pieces in the London Review of Books or the New York Review of Books which I will buy if there is something or someone I particularly want to read. I get PN Review, Carcanet’s in-house magazine as it keeps me informed about poetry and there are some fine articles, often quite surprising. We are in a fairly impoverished period for very good, well written literature and literary journals.
What are your views about the internet, social media and technology?
It is all helpful in terms of being discovered and it reduces anxiety about being reviewed as they offer alternatives. I don’t know about Social Media.
Which people, living or dead, would you invite to a party?
I’m not sure they’d get on but it’d be interesting to bring together Sophocles, Dante and Wallace Stevens.
What is your motto?
John Berryman says in one of his poems, “Write as short as you can, in order, of what matters.” I like that. Another remark I have always in mind is something Stravinsky said, “If Beethoven had had Mozart’s lyric gifts, he would never have developed his rhythmic capacities to the degree he did.” So you must always find the strengths of your weaknesses; if you are weak in some things then somehow that means that there must be other stronger areas that balance it out.
Josipovici’s novels Moo Pak (1994) and The Cemetery in Barnes (2018) are like extended monologues: one is about not managing to write a book and solitude, while the other is about translation, marriages and domesticity; one features walks through London, and the other Paris; one has at its centre Moor Park, a mansion which has housed, over the years, Jonathan Swift, a lunatic asylum, a wartime code-breaking centre, an institute devoted to the study of Chomsky and talking chimps, and a school hence ‘Moo Pak’ as it is referred to by an illiterate pupil; and the other has at its centre famous cemeteries such as Père Lachaise or hidden ones like Putney. The two novels seem to mirror each other.
Much of Josipovici’s fiction has a decidedly European undertow of angst and reverie. Flâner – strolling – through London or Paris is a typically continental pastime. As Victor Hugo put it, “Errer est humain, flâner est parisien,” to err is human, to stroll is Parisian. Thomas Bernhard wrote a whole story – Walking – based on this activity. In certain novels by Patrick Modiano (published by Maclehose Press), his musings and reflections are very much in that vein too.
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