Gently breaking out of notional boxes
Gabriel Josipovici’s qualities of thought and craft put him near the top among writers of his generation. His range and productivity in novel and essay are vast, and he is fortunate to have a publisher who understands the importance of the slight and the experimental within a finished oeuvre. Beethoven was about the late quartets as much as the great symphonies.
Counterpoint, fugue — patterning devices which young artists struggle to master — come to the aid of ageing genius. Artist Joseph Cornell, whose career is woven through Josipovici’s new fiction, grew increasingly adept at fusing disparate elements into harmony — the transcendental dreams escaping the sordid entrapment of “real” life — and one of the intricate boxes he created later in life gives Josipovici his title.
This book is compact — a “blest nouvelle” to use Henry James’s term — but built upon big themes. Cornell is the subject of a study by protagonist Helena, but she struggles over how to approach him: as biographer or as art-critic? Stymied by this dilemma, she wanders from top to bottom of her north-London house pretending she is not searching for advice. At the top is sagacious old Ruth, who has observed Helena’s struggles for years; in the basement is journalist Tom, who charmingly persists against repeated rejection in offering her love. Enter Ed, a Czech photographer who knew Helena’ said-worker-sister in Chechnya. He appears at Helena’s door with nowhere to stay and remains past his welcome. I n the meantime, he is able to help her break out of her own “box”, both professional and existential. A vital part of the pattern, Ed’s descriptions of tragic Grozny afford
Josipovici an oblique opportunity to suggest ways in which whole peoples might escape the political “boxes” that entrap them; or, if not quite that, at least to comprehend the sordid reality of them.
Hotel Andromeda has its own kind of unbearable lightness of being. It is as easy to read as it was perhaps tortuous to construct. Helena’s dilemma counterpoints her septuagenarian author’s artistic strategy, and some readers may find moments when pastiche seems to mask longing for a more straightforward narrative. But such olden style would not have suited Josipovici’s essentially modernist matter, and he knows it. His approach enables not only harmonic fusion of his own disparate thematic concerns, but might also solve Helena’s writerly problem.
One ends by imagining with pleasure her unwritten book on Joseph Cornell.
Gabriel Josipovici: modernist