The Books of My Numberless Dreams

A second Sunday Salon with Josipovici

Posted on: November 11, 2007

7:03 PM: In the 15th chapter, “Mrs Goldberg”, we finally get a breath of a marriage that isn’t broken, dismal or indifferent. Mr Goldberg is the character I find most “alive” in no small part because of how often he appears. Mrs Goldberg achieves the same verisimilitude because of how personable she seems, how accessible and within reach. Don’t get me wrong, Mr Goldberg is fantastic, and I feel an intense admiration for the way he’s able to express his ideas, but it’s the sort of admiration that places him on the stage and me in the audience. With Mrs Goldberg, her intelligence and ideas are expressed, well, in a way I could imagine myself expressing them; it’s not so obviously rooted in book-learnin’ but very intuitive, as if she were working the idea out as she wrote it. Throughout the chapter I felt as if I were there right by her, at her desk. I could imagine her cheek and hear her breathing, see the table lamp at the desk, and read her journal over her shoulder. My admiration for Josipovici’s skill in creating both kinds of characters peaked here. (Another peak is coming up with the one about Goldberg and his John Donne reading. Have I mentioned it often enough, do you think? Oh, it’s next I just flipped the pages to see. Wee!)

She unknowingly continues a train of thought her husband started in his first night time meeting with Westfield: the difference between mentally composing one’s thoughts and putting them on a page. For Goldberg it was “the difference between embracing a ghost and a person of flesh and blood”. His wife takes that idea but unfolds it in a different way because in her situation Goldberg is absent, while for Goldberg his question supposed that she wasn’t. She started out on her need to write privately, herself the only audience, and continues to her need to write about him in particular. It “brings relief”, she wrote, “Like hugging you.” To write about him brings him into closer contact and has a much more powerful effect than merely imagining him. Hugging does not include sight either. Of course her tactile descriptions are figurative, but I like how for her it superseded the visual. It reminds me of some story of a blind man asked to describe a tree so he touches every part of it, then other people are asked and they only use their eyes — for the life of me I can’t recall which book I got it from. In light of my confusion, I’ll just quote a bit from this lovely chapter.

When you are absent I take to my notebook. It is the only way I know of being with you. It has always been like that. Martha will always be scribbling, Papa used to say. I cannot remember when I discovered the comfort in what writing brings. Why should it be so? Nobody will read it, not even myself. Yet writing things down, bending over the white page, dipping the pen in the ink, pausing, looking up, starting again — all that brings release and appeasement, such as merely closing the eyes and imaging never does.

I just realised what I was trying to get at earlier. This chapter appeals to me so because it’s a view of writing from a non-Writer, explored to a notable extent. Writers (that I’ve read) don’t do this often or when they try, not so convincingly and often their take on it as Writing, an important Art intrudes.

The section ends with an excerpt of Shakespeare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle, which not only reflected the Goldberg’s relationship, but also a larger point Mr Goldberg made to one of his children about the precious value of acknowledging difference and discouraging prejudice.

4:26 PM: I’ve been visiting other Sunday Salon participants. I was pleased to find an amiable introduction to Alice Munroe (just that minor taste piqued my interest more than the hundred hosannas in print and on-line that I’ve read lo, these many years); a thriller adventure book compared to Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (umm, okaaaay); a dubious description of metafiction courtesy of John Gardner; and an important reminder on Remembrance Day about what living vets need from us now.

On a humorous note, laugh yourself silly at a top US intelligence official presenting a national privacy plan based on teenage antics on MySpace and Facebook. (Remember all those dire warnings you read in newspapers and Macleans/Times about how bad it was that young folks were revealing all that private information about themselves? False alarm. I mean if Bush can be confused about how much he loved democracy (Musharraf best president ever!!111) why can’t we fundamentally change the meaning of privacy? Do it for the terrorists.)

2:37 PM: I’ve only read one more chapter, “Sinclair”, which seemed as good a place to pause as any, for the next one pushes us into the next century.

My impressions are a bit jumbled together. This chapter more than most so far fulfils Josipovici’s intention of writing self-contained short short stories, because I formed so many associations to external texts. Sinclair was a poet who hit his stride artistically after falling in love with a married woman. To earn his living he was a private tutor and lived with the family, as was custom; the husband was often abroad. He left after he and his pupil’s mother realised the depth and futility of their emotions.

So began the jumble of associations (undoubtedly fuelled by lack of coffee). A number of Sinclair’s poems are quoted and while the archaic phrases, references and metre reminded me of Ancient Greek poetry, the content made me think of haikus. Sinclair’s anguished romantic circumstance, as reflected in his poems, reminded me of Thornton Wilder’s Catullus in The Ides of March, although his love interest Clodia Pulcher was more callous. The improving effect the heartbreak had on Sinclair’s poetry recalled John McGahern’s The Pornographer, a book I’m reading, in which Maloney, an aspiring poet turned pornography publisher who also experienced heartbreak ,except that I’m pretty sure it had the opposite effect on his work. As time passes Sinclair becomes more mentally unstable and in one of his ravings insisted that “I am no poet”, so my mind raced to Ellis Sharp‘s post on Rimbaud, an influential late 19th century poet who abandoned his artistic pursuits at an early age.

It was all coming out of my eyes and ears. In a less chaotic vein I could see the continuation of a maturity theme that had started earlier on. In “Control” we have another glimpse into Westfield’s “end of childhood”. His father’s severe, callous, unsympathetic handling made him cling especially close to his mother. One day his father planned a trip for the couple, excluding Westfield, which proved a shock to him. He could not believe that his mother would abandon him, so he saw it, with the housekeeper, and felt the betrayal so keenly that he withdrew into his father’s maxim of extreme self-control. Westfield’s conclusions seem childish but the consequences were real enough.

In “The Second Mrs. Westfield” we witness, through a series of letters, the evolution of a young, happy, and relatively heedless young woman into a sombre, disappointed, guarded mother, changed by a miscarriage and two bad marriages. In the first it is her miscarriage that marked, as far as the reader can tell from the few (but obviously not all) letters revealed, a widening gulf between her and her first husband, though there are implications of other events. In the second it’s the birth of her two sons, whom Westfield earlier referred to as the “fool” and the “idiot”. The younger “idiot” was born with a mental disability, and the former seemed to be a normal, rowdy boy, both of whom the mother loved dearly. It is after the birth of the second, when she needed her husband most, that he withdrew into his study.

Sinclair’s doomed romance is a maturing experience, in some ways more typical and certainly not as tormented. It’s interesting then that he becomes closely acquainted with insanity, while Serina manages as she can until she dies in a horse riding incident. And there is Westfield now, suffering from insomnia. Hmmm.

Back to the poetry for a minute. I don’t read much haiku so I wasn’t sure if my comparison of Sinclair’s poetry was poppycock or not. Whenever I thought of any, the ones that came up were what I first read in Chris Abani’s Becoming Abigail. I didn’t remember what they said, precisely, but that novella was, from one angle, about brutal, maturing experiences, which happened over the course of a short life time. Maybe there was something to it. Here’s Sinclair’s verse:

In younger days in the mornings my spirit soared,
I wept at night-fall; now that some years have passed,
Though doubting I begin each day, yet
Always its end is holy and peaceful.

The poetry in Abani’s novella turned out to not be haiku, or even written by a Japanese, to my embarrassment which I decided to reveal here. It was written by Emperor Wu. (I don’t know who did these translations.)

Autumn Wind…I am happy for a moment
And then the old sorrow comes back
I was young only a little while
And now I am growing old

Another:

From the Most Distant Time
The years flow like water
Everything passes away before my eyes

I don’t think I was too far off (besides getting the culture and style wrong, minor details).

12:43 PM: Oh look, another Josipovici reader today! Litlove publishes an excellent post on Josipovici’s Everything Passes, published by Carcanet Press.

I began to read the first few words and felt myself slipping, slipping, as if down a polished chute, those aching blank spaces dragging me across to the next portion of dialogue as if across a dangerous precipice. I had to put it down for a while because it frightened me. And for the same reason I had to pick it up again. When it was finished, I was stunned. It was quite the most extraordinary piece of writing I had encountered in a long time.

Wicked. You see why you have to read him now.

12:08 PM: Good afternoon. I’m lunching with cardboard pizza and a large half and half. Posting for Sunday Salon was delayed today as I attended a Remembrance Day ceremony at the local cenotaph this morning. It reminded me of home because it was the most British-like experience I’ve had here, reminding me that Canada is Commonwealth. The tune chosen for the hymn was distinctly Protestant, and then the band shocked a chuckle out of me by playing “God Save the Queen”.

I have three friends currently in war zones: two in Afghanistan and one in Iraq on his second tour.

I did get chapters 9-12 of Goldberg: Variations in before all that: “Sarah”, “Control”, “Containers” and “The Second Mrs. Westfield”. “Sarah” and “Containers” were two that bemused me on my first reading. I can’t say that they’re significantly clearer this time around, but I’ve picked up on or two things, and am less anxious about their obscurity.

Sarah is the writer Goldberg’s daughter. During a day out enjoying nature she chases a butterfly who ends up flying into her head, through her ear. She tells, her father who calmly suggests that with it she’ll become a great thinker. In “Containers” we’re given a detailed description of a still-life done as a trompe-l’oiel, something I did not learn until a couple chapters later. It proved to be the only stumbling block to my first reading. I remember struggling to keep my eyes open as Josipovici very correctly described the number of the objects, what they looked like, positions relative to each other etc., and generally wondering wtf was the purpose of the damn thing. It wasn’t even three full pages long but I had to vow to simply get it over with and so did not gain a clear image of the painting, despite Josipovici’s efforts.

It is that effort and detail that managed to hold my attention this time. It was as though he was trying to emulate how a patient viewer would have reacted upon seeing the painting. Consequently, I now see why still lifes are of interest to anyone but the artist, who may need to do it for practice. Not only the colours, but the proportions, the shapes not only of the objects themselves, but of the straps that used to hang bottles, jars and containers on hooks, the reflection of the room on a jar, how the position of two books on the lower shelf — one diagonal, the other flat — mirrored the cupboard doors above — one closed shut, the other slightly open — all of that in a still life! And it just came to me that, later on, in the “Challenge” chapter, how Goldberg’s reading of a John Donne poem (which he managed to make into a story, how cool is that?) worked in precisely the same way: the teller’s interpretation revealed things that all seem to be there in the poem, but would never have occurred to me on my own.

Ooo, didn’t I tell you this book was exciting?

4 Responses to "A second Sunday Salon with Josipovici"

You inspired me to try Josipovici, Imani! I am SO glad I did. Now I really need to read Goldberg: Variations because that deft, sifting intelligence at work on representing art to us is precisely what I loved most. Here’s to more of his work!

Not heard of Josipovici until today – but I sure have now! Sounds like a must-read…I like the way you use what you reading as a sort of launch pad to other work. You make all sorts of connections and it feels quite invigorating.

litlove I am doing these posts partly in the hope that my enthusiasm would be catching. And I’m very glad you eventually tried him because your description of your writing experience was very vivid and memorable.

Clare I’m glad it came off that way and I do like it when it happens, although when I know I have to write about it an element of panic creeps in.

Thanks for commenting.

Could not thank you enough for the discussions on your web-site. I know you’d put a lot of time and energy into them and hope you know how considerably I appreciate it. I hope I’ll do the same for someone else one of these days.

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