The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Sunday Salon with Gabriel Josipovici

Posted on: November 4, 2007

6:07 PM: I can’t do it, I can’t do it. I’m on the second page and I can’t do it. The problem with Stephen King — at least with this story, I read and enjoyed his novels when I was a teenager, the last when I was 17, and am afraid to reread them now — is that his effect of sounding like an average joe is too realistic. His prose reads like an average joe with ok English, but not much else, is writing the story. (It was probably a bad idea to read Josipovici before him too. Sorry King.) But look, look at this!

My father was dying of pancreatic cancer. I think you can tell a lot about people by listening to how they speak about that sort of situation (and the fact that I describe cancer as “that sort of situation” probably tells you something about your narrator, who spent his life teaching English to boys and girls whose most serious health problems were acne and sports injuries). (Ed: Jaaaaaaaaaysus. That sentence put my teeth on edge. I seriously considered stopping here.)

Ralph said, “He’s nearly finished his journey.”

My sister-in-law Trudy said, “He’s rife with it.” At first I thought she said “He’s ripe with it,” which struck me as jarringly poet. (Ed: Guffaw. I’m sure it did. Am I suppose to be laughing at him here? Maybe. I’m not going to read the rest in order to find out.) I knew it couldn’t be right, not from her, but I wanted it to be right. (Ed: Isn’t this sort of clumsy? Is that what King wanted? Maybe.)

Ruth said, “He’s down for the count.”

I didn’t say, “And may he stay down,” but I thought it. Because he suffered. (Ed: Me too. I’m out, King wins.)

6:02 PM: I’m trying to read the Stephen King story in the latest Paris Review. Pray for me, if you’re religious. I’m not doing well (and it’s partly my fault, probably). Also, what’s the big idea with having a whole damn interview with Kleinzahler and only printing one, a single, one degge degge poem of his in the entire issue! Edward Hirsch had two! Which weren’t bad but hello?

4:22 PM: Success! We have one confirmed book buy in comments. Mission complete, I’m off to finish the Halloween candy and veg out in front of the tv.

Just kidding. I may take a break with Beowulf, a book of which I’ve become much more appreciative after reading this book‘s introduction. But that’s another post.

3:12 PM: Let’s look at the writing style, or what I can make of it so far at the end of chapter 7. Each chapter works as a (sometimes very short) short story, as the author intended, a couple of which worked so well as stand-a-lones that for a moment I wasn’t quite sure why they were there. (Josipovici never fails to rescue me.)

It’s a historical novel which, according to a Josipovici interview linked above, is set at the turn of the 19th century, not the 18th as it says on the back, unless he changed it in subsequent drafts. (Shame, HarperCollins.) You know how much I love historical novels that don’t read like one and Goldberg: V does this quite well. There are so few of the typical trappings that I often forget I’m supposed to be anywhere around the year 1800. The dialogue is the same as the narrative bits…and hard for me to describe for some reason. The English reads so perfectly, it feels perfect and very correct, but not stiff; it moves with a natural flow, a rhythm that tempts one to read it aloud. He doesn’t make any attempt at archaic phrasing or diction in the dialogue. But this does not mean that the setting is unnecessary.

It changes to suit characters too, I think. The chapters that star Goldberg or James Ballantyne, Mr. Westfield’s close friend, feel differently than the ones with Westfield, his elder son George (“a fool”) and Maria, Westfield’s first wife. That was the one in which the change was most noticeable, one that may have been influenced by Pope’s translation of The Iliad. At the beginning we see Maria as a child, enjoying her father’s reading of the epic. The account has a light, silly, almost sitcom-like tone, with the “Twinkle-toed Thetis” and “Bandy-legs” Vulcan (Hephaestos, please and thank you Pope, no Romans here); the short sample I had of Pope’s translation does look a tad light beside Lattimore’s.

Chapter 5, “The Sand”, is almost encyclopaedic as Josipovici describes in sufficient detail a Neolithic settlement in Orkney. We learn a bit about the life people led there, how a huge storm drove the people out and covered the entire area under sand, and how it had been preserved then rediscovered when another huge storm centuries later revealed it. I was surprised, the first time I read it, to find such writing in a novel> Nothing happened in the chapter for heaven’s sake, and it was interesting I guess, but why was it here?

I don’t think I picked up the first time around that the most obvious link was to Ballantyne’s chapter (7) where he and his brother both go through their storms and James, at least, made two important discoveries, although he was only fully aware of one (as far as I can tell). I could even work out connections to chapter 4 in which Goldberg and Hammond, Westfield’s carriage driver (is that the word?) who have a discussion about a “wild boy” that was discovered, and whether he can be properly trained for “civilised” society. Echoes and more echoes.

Sorry this took so long, but once I started in on Lattimore’s take on Thetis meeting with Hephaestos I had to read right through to the end of book 18. I love that description of Achilles’ shield (and G: V does make reference to it).

1:02 PM: If I continue with these updates chapter-by-chapter, as I had originally intended, I’ll never get back to the book. Instead I’ll leave you with the latest from Pakistan, in which Musharraf borrows a lot of USA govt. rhetoric, (I’m not just referring to the Lincoln speech quotes), and James Frey, who has written another book I would not even lift from the shelf.

11:55 AM: That first edit took me an awfully long time to write, considering. Well, I never denied that I could be a bit slow. As my reading of Goldberg: Variations will no doubt prove in comparison to, say, that Bookforum review, which I still haven’t read because I was afraid it’s superiority would petrify my brain, leaving it unable to even tempt my fingers to share its public thoughts.

So I briefly referred to the “enervating” effects of a truly “new story” which I felt, as a I wrote it, an ineffective word for what Westfield was trying to describe.

A new story, a story which is really new and really a story, will give the person who reads or hears it the sense that the world has become alive again for him…the world will start to breathe for him where before it had seemed as if made of ice or rock. And it is only in the arms of that which breathes that we can fall asleep, for only then are we confident that we will ourselves wake up alive.

The inspired creative act, and it has to be an action whether it’s recorded or orally shared, is seen as a living being, as something that is of the world, that recreates it, and in some sense, helps to create, or at least sustain us and reassures us that we exist. Which brings a certain measure of peace.

Louise Glück’s Hades in “A Myth of Devotion” expressed a similar sentiment in explaining why he kidnapped Persephone.

Doesn’t everyone want to feel in the night
the beloved body, compass, polestar,
to hear the quiet breathing that says
I am alive, that means also
you are alive, because you hear me,
you are here with me.

There he was speaking of a person, but it directly relates to Westfield’s point too. Some time later Westfield posed to Goldberg a philosophical question: If financial matters were of no importance, and if the night were the only time he could write, would he chose to spend it in bed with his wife or use it for writing? After careful consideration Goldberg says that if it were only one night he would choose his wife, but if this were a permanent change, it would become more difficult because being with his wife and being able to write whenever he wished were what made his life worth living. Westfield asks whether he could not just mentally compose while he slept with his wife, but Goldberg states that “the difference between composing in your head and on paper was like that between embracing a ghost and a person of flesh and blood.”

Westfield, as a self-described “thinker”, believes that philosophers only embrace ghosts and have lost the connection to “the living body”. Earlier, he asserted that philosophers think and writers don’t. In Westfield’s opinion, philosophers do not come up with anything truly new or inspired, at least not in his age. In chapter two where parts of his past is revealed, we learn that in his youth he thought that they were only 7 original ideas, which have subsequently been altered in different ways. Whenever tempted to actually write his theory out, he resisted, and destroyed whatever scribblings produced when he gave in to the urge. He did not want to “rob them of life and resonance”. Right after that paragraph, which was in fact several years later when he was older, the first period of insomnia started. The arrangement tempts me to think that his odd restraint then had something to do with it. His close grip on his ghosts.

There is lots more to consider. I wonder if this was a good idea after all. My love of blab + richly conceived novel = ridiculously long posts.

11:15 AM: Well, it is Sunday, November 4th 2006 at the ungodly hour of before-two-in-the-afternoon and I have been reading, intermittently, from the cannot-bare-to-even-think-about hour of 8:00 AM. (What possessed me. Oh, Sunday Salon.) I’ve had tea and cookies, a 20 minute walk in the park, and I still feel wobbly in front of the computer.

Rereading Goldberg: Variations is worth it though, as I expected. I’m paying more attention now, making notes, often long ones at the end of a chapter, and am finding things I can put together to write about, I think. Maybe this will be my final answer on the book, rather than a more conventional kinda-sorta “review”, which I was striving for. I am hoping this will convince at least one person to pick the book up. I consider it to be one of the best novels I’ve readthis year, and no doubt one or two Booker judges would find it unrecognisable as a “novel”.

I’m at the end of chapter five, “The Sand”, which is a relatively short, general description of a Neolithic settlement in Orkney, on the western coast of the “mainland” island. But how did I get here?

At the beginning of the novel we — have you ever wondered why I use that pronoun when I write about books, as if you were reading it there with me? Anyway — are in the 18th century and a Jewish writer, Mr. Goldberg, has arrived at a Mr. Westfield’s estate, for the purpose of reading Westfield to sleep every night. He will be housed and fed, in addition to monetary compensation for the task.

But why does Westfield need a bedtime reader? He suffers from insomnia, and after a harpist’s failed attempt at playing an appropriate lullaby, he hired a writer. On the first night Goldberg does not read much, they both talk instead of memory’s importance and purpose, of a truly “new” story’s enervating effects which, counterintuitevly, allows one to be restful, of how important creating is for an artist. Westfield requests that for the next night, Goldberg will create a new story to tell. Dawn comes, the birds sing, and Goldberg goes to bed.

Unfortunately, for the rest of the day, Goldberg finds it impossible to come up with a story on demand in so short a time. Pertinent reminders that he and his family need the funds to pay the physician and fix the roof only make it worse. Now, all this time, the chapter has been written as though Goldberg were addressing someone, his wife, and at this point Goldberg writes, “Alas, I no longer even tried to fulfil my obligations to my employer, but instead I wrote to you.” Then he imagines what the night’s meeting with Westfield will be like. But as it turns out, if you buy this version, the entire first chapter was Mr. Westfield’s bedtime story. Since Goldberg could not come up with a story just so, he turned his failure into a story (or, rather, the possibility of his failure, since he’s carried out his task, in some sense). He even tells him about the letter to his wife. He sees this decision as a

way…to cease to search for themes or for subjects and to start from the actual position in which I find myself. If that happens to be a labyrinth from which there seems to be no exit, that will become my theme. If it is the frustrating search for a subject which refuses to emerge, then that will be my theme.

Wasn’t that clever? I was delighted, anyway, and enjoyed the new dimensions it gave to the opening, and to the novel’s future prospects. Oh, I do love this book. I could go on, but I’ll post this and another update right after, so I can get something up on the page.


5 Responses to "Sunday Salon with Gabriel Josipovici"

This sounds really good – I love books that play around with the reader, involving them so they have to co-operate. I see you have SHRIEK by Jeff VanderMeer as one of your ‘present absorptions’ – that does a similar thing in a way, doesn’t it? The writing of the work is, in some way, as important as the work itself.

Okay, OKAY! I’ve ordered the book from Amazon.

Clare D It is excellent Clare D, cannot recommend it enough. I’m not very far into Shriek but I suppose that the dual points of view do ask a lot more from the reader than a regular narrative. I hadn’t made the connection.

Dorothy Ha! Knew I’d get you. 😉

[…] Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations. After reading Imani’s posts on this book, I couldn’t resist. I own Josipovici’s The Book of God, which I read parts […]

When all is said and done, the only thing you’ll have left is your character. -Vince Gill

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