The Books of My Numberless Dreams

A third Sunday Salon with Josipovici

Posted on: November 18, 2007

6:13 PM:  The chapters on Gerald and his now estranged wife are somewhat detached from the overall narrative for me. When I read one and reflect on what came before, I rarely remember to make any connections to his story unless there’s a Paul Klee reference; except that only ever occurs in his chapters. It doesn’t help that I have feel no connection to the Wander-artist at all. I dutifully googled the painting again, though, and flipped back to reread Gerald’s reaction and commentary on the painting, to see if I could manage to feel anything, see anything beyond the smoky haze that typically lay between me and the screen. Nope, still there. The only thing that made it through was his description of the figure’s “left hand hanging sadly down”; oh yes, I see that!

Do you even know who Gerald is? I don’t think I wrote about the Unterlinden — oh there, I mentioned it briefly in last week’s “last note”. I do have some firm thoughts on him though, so solid that I wonder if I included them among the muddle of other posts. Anyway, one thing that struck me about Gerald was that his difficulty in completing his work — yes, another writer here — reminded me of how Josipovici described his experience of writing Goldberg: Variations to Michael Signorelli in an interview. Josipovici also admires Klee. That combined with the fact that Gerald’s chapters are set in the present (Goldberg was first published in 2002) allowed me to think that he might be the most obvious, direct fragments of Josipovici in the story, which was fun to consider. It’s more playful and intriguing than other ways of doing the same thing, although good writers can make me enjoy just about anything. (I recently acquired Diary of a Bad Year, so clearly that element didn’t dissuade.)

Well Edith, Gerald’s wife, has left him. In the height of impertinence she did it at the Unterlinden Museum, the venue at which he had so carefully planned to inform her of his troublesome novel (is it a novel? not sure) imminent completion. I thought it was highly impertinent of him to plan to make such a comparatively bland announcement in front of a Grünewald. (Who could care about anyone’s ol’ not-even-really-done-yet novel in front of such an awesome art work? Honestly.) On top of all that, he can’t finish his draft now, his concentration’s all gone to shit, poor thing. He is generous enough to conclude that despite Edith’s insensitive timing, it was not a premeditated move.

His banal writer’s self-absorption works hand in hand with his children’s banal psychoanalysis of his situation. It’s all quite funny actually when he reacts in maidenly horror at his son’s uncouth “American” swearing.

— Fuck it Dad, he said. Get angry. Get mad. But don’t give me the politeness shit, right?

[..]

— Dad, he said. Talk like a human being, will you? And don’t hang up on me like that.

I put the phone down again, then took it off the hook. What have I done to deserve such children? Full of American street jargon and cod psychology.

He fares no better with his daughter who deduces that his bewilderment in the face of Edith’s departure is the reason she left in the first place. One can’t help comparing it, or indeed any other marital and familial relationship in this book, with Goldberg’s imperfect but more reasonable relationships.

An even more absurd moment is his conversation with Leila Haverkampf, the wife of the man who Gerald suspects his wife ran off with. (As likely as anything else he can think of.) In an echo of Sarah’s (Goldberg’s daughter) dream, Leila calls Gerald to tell him that one day, walking in the meadows near her house, a blue and green butterfly flew into her air. That’s all.

In the next chapter, “Sleep”, Westfield finally…falls asleep. The chapter is predominantly a dialogue in which, at one point, the exchanges decrease to only a few words and the column becomes much thinner. The increased blank space around the words imply, for me, the deep darkness Goldberg and Westfield are sitting in.

Goldberg returned for his nightly reading but, as usual, things do not go according to plan. Westfield comments on the indefinite source of music compared to the implied speaker behind words and eventually lead to the despair that harmless, constant, carefree thinking can bring. Goldberg denies absolutes, suggesting that Westfield should not place himself too firmly in any kind of personality type, and later on, that his writing, he himself does not have the cure to Westfield’s insomnia. He only observes that

— …your life has always been governed by a kind of anxiety and that in order to overcome that anxiety you have constantly rushed forward in both thought and deed, instead of allowing each moment its full value.

— Go on, he [Westfield] said quietly, since I had come to a stop.

— Each moment, for you, I said, has only been a bridge between one thing and another. You call that thinking. I would prefer to call it anxiety.

It’s a different take on what Ballantyne said earlier, better because Goldberg did not give it from an arrogant distance; he had the imagination to see things from Westfield’s perspective.

4:55 PM: I did my usual round of Salon reading. Litlove towers over all, once again, and only her second time out, with a wonderful post on Rilke and inspiration. Over the past week Jacob Russell has done his best to carry on a conversation with James Tata about his series on formalist and realist fiction (per Tata’s definitions) and their place in the publishing industry. (Links to Tata’s posts are in Russell’s — Tata does not allow direct linking to his posts for some reason.) Odar put up the latest instalment in the Bookworms Carnival, and Bill Parsons posted his review of Umbert Eco’s latest novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

3:42 PM: Two chapters later.”Order” and to a lesser extent “In the Carriage (3)”, Josipovici brings into relief the novel’s themes with a stronger hand than usual; or I’m getting better at detecting; or it’s a natural development since I’m nearing the end of the book.

Tobias Westfield talks with his friend Ballantyne in an effort to share anxiety about the current state of his life, generally.

Tobias Westfield was not afraid of death, he was only afraid of unfinished business. He wanted to set his house in order but he did not know how to begin. Even worse, he did not even know what might constitute order, what might constitute a beginning.

An immediate link is made with Goldberg’s variations in the previous chapter on a similar matter. However, Westfield is less clear on his goals, on the parameters within which he should view his life, even on what that sort of life should be. Unlike the characters in Goldberg’s stories he can make no definitive action in pursuit or in rejection of some imagined ideal as it pertains to his life. And he is not even sure if this order he desires is the right thing anyway. Ballantyne chides him for his maudlin attitude.

–The trouble with you, Ballantyne said, is that you have always had a hunger for stories. The life cut tragically short is a story, and the life satisfactorily completed is a story, as is the life of the insomniac who is lulled to sleep with sweet music. You have never been willing to face the fact that life is not a story, that the poets and novelists and playwrights have been lying to us since the dawn of creation and pandering to our fears and desires.

Ballantyne believes, even if is not quite up to following, that such long term planning, such conventional viewing of life’s process, such a need for control is infantile, is a regression to a person’s most basic instincts and reactions. Such a “big picture” of our circumstances is erroneous, regret and constant reflection is futile.

Westfield’s concerns here predominantly recall the second chapter, the first major one on his background up to his older age. In a moment that was probably, chronologically, not too distant from now, but placed near the novel’s beginning, Westfield links memory with immortality, judging it as the best way most people achieve it, in the memories of those they knew. In “Order” he considers it to argue for a living man’s purpose; we would not be born with the capacity for memory, to make long-term plans, to assert order over one’s circumstances if we were only here to take things as they come and make no fuss.

His though later that night as he lies awake in bed become increasingly pessimistic as he reaches a horrible, “cold” conclusion. This is, of course, about the second time he’s suffered from insomnia. When it returned he wondered whether this meant that he had not really changed or progressed, that there was something fundamentally wrong with him, since his youth, that he could not correct or overcome. Now he sees this relapse as never-ending, as something that, even if it goes away, will inevitably return. He is not even that hopeful, as the promising thought that he will feel slightly better in the morning is followed hard by the conclusion that he will not be “better” at all, that it was not even an “easing” but a “respite”. The final conclusion, then, is that he is locked into this monotonous, muted existence where not even suicide is an option, until his death to which he will “weakly submit”. What of his beloved writers, why did they not warn him? If he is not the first to feel like this then they must all be liars, and words were “a sham and a deceit”. Writing is a refuge, but not a consolatory, expressive or comforting one: it’s a cowardly hole made worse by its disastrous effect on others.

“In the Carriage” is another dialogue, but not between Goldberg and Hammond. Instead we take a peek inside Goldberg’s head as he recalls one of his written pieces. In it we have a judge in his forties and his young protegé who start on the topic of the fugue which turns out to be the judge’s metaphor for marriage. He does his best to bully the younger man into accepting that marriage is a perfect fugue, a flight between the pursuer and the pursued, which eventually transforms into a dance of perfect harmony in which endless repetition becomes “a freedom of will”. It must be read to be believed.

Ironically his pronouncements encourage the reader to think of Westfield’s history and how his life turned out to be nothing of the sort. Marriage for him did not make “words like first and last lose all their meaning”, nor was it satisfying for either parties involved, not even for Westfield’s first wife, Maria. His second marriage to Serena resembled a hell much more than heaven, and the “arbitrariness” of choice did not mysteriously vanish to make room for necessity and lifelong contentment. The judge even holds the threat of insomnia as a real consequence of prolonged bachelorhood.

It’s true that the judge feels confident enough about his advice because he believes his young man to be precisely like him, as he was in his youth, but one can’t take such a preposterous claim seriously. It reads as though Josipovici were poking fun at the idea of much vaunted “age-old wisdom”, although the youth is not given the role of sage. Neither has the answers really, which is the point, and we take on Westfield’s role in listening to both sides, finding much that seems right, but just as much that seems far off the mark.

Another interesting thing to note is that the references to and images of death, like a living tomb, or Westfield (in “Order”) feeling “insubstantial, a being without shape or form, occupying no space”, always bring Donne’s “Nocturne” to the form. Goldberg’s assertion that Donne’s fine imagery never leaves the reader’s mind is bared out by the novel’s continual development of the themes that were already established before “The Challenge”. Me likey.

11:16 AM: *yawn* Good morning, early risers, and welcome to another day of Goldberg: Variations commentary. Lately I’ve been obsessed with this anime; its characters buzzed in my head all weekend, but I’ll try to get past it and provide coherent commentary. For previous Sunday Salon fare select the category in the sidebar drop down menu.

This morning I read the chapter I’ve been het up about for some weeks. In “The Challenge” everyone’s favourite storyteller, Samuel Goldberg, attended the King’s Court after politely ignoring several pointed from his son who was a poet in service to the King. After the King holds an innocent but possibly pointed, brief conversation with Goldberg about his birthplace (Mannheim) and how often he returns there in German, he sets the writer a task to improvise.

— I have a topic here, the King said…[a] little topic here…which I thought might amuse you….A man who had enough wanted everything, said the King. As a result he was left with nothing. Treat this not as a morality but as a tragedy.

When I mused about this chapter at the end I realised that fairy tales, myths, those traditional modes of story telling that include requisite characteristics like the three princesses, the two rival brothers, the deathbed request and so on. It all begins with the classic start of the writer before the King summons to tell a story. (It just occurred to me that for a writer Goldberg engages in a lot of oral composition, improvised and relayed on the spot, which I don’t think was a popular form anymore in the 19th century. I’ll have to think about that some more.)

Back to the court. I remember being dazzled by Goldberg’s feat in fulfilling the King’s order with a close reading of a John Donne poem. It was like drinking champagne. I’m still impressed but I paid a bit more attention to the details this time around, because I now also remember that after the Donne analysis (which the King liked even if he did doze off a bit) he sent the King a package in apology for what he thought was a dismal performance. In it was encloses seven very short stories (most no longer than one paragraph) and an eighth longer (but not by much) about Jonathan Swift. I didn’t think them quite so awesome at all, with only the last coming anywhere close to the court performance, so I’m sure my mind wandered a bit.

The upside to Goldberg’s feelings of failure is that we’re given two readings of A Nocturnal Upon S. Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day that reach opposite conclusions. (There are Donne wallpapers at that link — try them out!) In addition to teasing out the poem’s imagery and metaphor, examining its alchemical terminology, he explains how in the course of the poem we learn of Donne’s metaphysical darkness at having lost his love because his feelings for her were too strong.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring ;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.

In the second reading Goldberg withdraws his conclusion that the ending is tragic, but states that it becomes “in Dante’s sense”, a comedy in which Lucy turns the “deep midnight” into something positive and the poet ultimately commits to doing the same. Besides that Goldberg does not think that Donne made clear that he had wanted too much, or admitted that he had enough in the first place.

This twist plays out in the later stories in different ways: the nameless man given the name “Judas” by later historians is portrayed as a tragic hero who surpassed the other disciples in loyalty but who could not deal with what he thought (and everyone else opined) was the consequences of his actions. For the plainest, youngest daughter who manages to capture a handsome prince and everything else one could ask for, none of this enough and, weary of her husband’s “preachings” to be grateful for what she has, dumps him. In the story of the two brothers, their father dies leaving them with enough money to do what they wish. One becomes a business man the other an artist, both “moderately successful”. This is not enough for the business man who murders his sibling and attempts to make it look like a suicide. However, “forensic evidence” leads the authorities to the right conclusion and he gets the death penalty. There’s also a modified tale borrowed from The Iliad.

In each, Goldberg does manage to avoid making any of these morality tales, though I was tempted to do so because of their traditional forms, a few suspiciously resembling parables. An intriguing echo from a former story is the fictionalised Jonathan Swift who, unlike Mrs Goldberg, uses his writing as a refuge to both remember and avoid his loved one, Stella. As her funeral commences he is not at the church but in his room “writing down what he wished to be remembered of her and of his strange relationship with her. What he had sought all his life to avoid, the suffering entailed in parting from a loved on, had come to him in the end, and he had not even the satisfaction of recalling a life lived together to mitigate his suffering.”

3 Responses to "A third Sunday Salon with Josipovici"

Imani – thank you, and you are just way too kind! I just have to get hold of Goldberg: Variations, which you are writing about so wonderfully. I’m trying to figure out what I think of Everything Passes and I’m finding it very hard indeed to get my thoughts straight. Josipovici is such a challenging writer!

Imani, thanks for spreading the word about the Carnival!

litlove it was the same for me with Goldberg. SS was a godsend, really, as it gave me a format in which I felt I could tackle the novel. Doing a regular review wasn’t going to do it for me.

He really is challenging! I’ve searched ReadySteadyBook for other reviews of his books so I can get an idea of what I should read next.

Myrthe you’re welcome.🙂

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