Gabriel Josipovici: “I abhor art of any kind that follows agendas”

Gabriel Josipovici on his Goldsmiths-shortlised novel The Cemetery in Barnes, agendas in fiction, and whether literary prizes are a force for good.

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Gabriel Josipovici started publishing fiction just over fifty years ago, when Michael Joseph – an imprint nowadays associated with comedians’ memoirs – brought out The Inventory. It was the first of a series of novels, almost twenty in all, which, along with his short stories and plays for radio and the stage, have made Josipvoci a highly respected British writer, though one whose work, comparable in its sinister abstracted flair to that of Pinter and Muriel Spark – both of whom admired him – has received scant popular encouragement. (While The Inventory never made it into paperback, his later books have originated in that form.)

A discriminating critic, with a rare command of the European canon, Josipovici taught for many years at the University of Sussex, where he is now Emeritus Professor, and has contributed essays to Encounter, the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, among other publications – writing assembled in such collections as The World and the Book, The Lessons of Modernism, and most recently The Teller and the Tale.

Josipovici’s latest book, the piquant and haunting novel The Cemetery in Barnes, has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction–the first recognition of this kind for his prose fiction since 1975, when the collection of stories and short plays, Mobius the Stripper, was the temporary recipient of the Somerset Maugham Award. (Josipovici’s lack of a British passport at birth rendered him ineligible.)

Tell me about a piece of art, literature or music that was important to you in the writing of your latest novel, The Cemetery in Barnes.

Well, obviously Monteverdi’s Orfeo, the first and in some ways greatest opera ever written and, crucially for my novel, a profound exploration of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, loss and the impossibility of retrieval.

You have written a series of critical books that to different degrees established the agenda for your own writing, most directly What Ever Happened to Modernism? How does consciousness of your traditions and aims figure in the writing process?

There is no agenda in anything I write. I abhor art of any kind that follows agendas. I wrote fiction long before I wrote criticism and published my first novel, The Inventory, in 1968, three years before my first critical book. My criticism has always been an attempt to understand why certain books and artists move me, and also to open up to an English readership the traditions I have found helpful to me in my writing of fiction. This is, it seems to me, what artists have always done: looked for support in the past for their own endeavours which are inevitably mired in the fog and confusion of the immediate present, and tried to alert readers to what they themselves were up to by showing them what the past writers they love were up to – Eliot’s championship of Donne is a case in point, but one might also think of the many remarks of Stravinsky and Picasso about earlier and (to the West) alien traditions, such as those of African or Mughal art.

Would it be fair to say that one of the central distinctions for you between works of modernism and books you consider less interesting is not only a sensibility but also the kind of things it can do without, such as description?

Duchamp once said that it was demeaning to expect an artist to fill in the background – and it’s easy to see that once he understood that it was, for him, he was on his way to becoming the artist he was destined to be.

The Goldsmiths Prize was set up to reward fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”– what can an “innovative” approach offer the reader (and writer) that a more conventional novel might not? Do you think that books in this broad category are, for example, better-equipped to address questions of transcendence, mortality, and despair?

These are such difficult issues to pin down, aren’t they? My dear friend John Mepham, a biochemist turned philosopher turned literary critic, who died tragically young, put it as well as I’ve ever seen it put in a beautiful essay he wrote in 1976 on To The Lighthouse. “The orderliness of fiction,” he says, “involves not only an internal orderliness but also an orderliness of its telling. For a story to be told there must be, implicitly or explicitly, a teller of it, a narrator or a narrative voice, the voice of one who knows… But what if we lack this sense of epistemological security? What if our experience seems fragmented, partial, incomplete, disordered? Then writing might be a way not of representing but of creating order.” That, he sees, was always Virginia Woolf’s dilemma and the way of her art. And what he says about her I can identify with totally.

Why do we need the Goldsmiths Prize?

Do we need any prizes? Art is not a race, with a winner, a runner-up, and many losers. To the degree that they encourage people to think of it that way all prizes are invidious and do a disservice to art. On the other hand these days, when reviews, especially of any book that is at all different from what literary editors and reviewers expect, are few and far between, a prize which encourages that and the courageous small presses who publish it can only be a good thing. And, I may add, one that fits in with the liberal and open ethos of Goldsmiths since its inception under the guidance of Richard Hoggart.

What past British or Irish novel deserves a retrospective Goldsmiths Prize? Why?

There are too many to mention, from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to Ivy Compton Burnett’s A House and Its Head to Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat to Rosalind Belben’s Dreaming of Dead People and Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music. Tiens, as the French say – all women! (Well, we might add Beckett’s Watt and Golding’s Pincher Martin.)

The winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, in association with the New Statesman, will be announced on 14 November. “The Cemetary in Barnes” is published by Carcanet.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.