Read­ing as if there are many to­mor­rows

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - Car­canet, £14.99 Re­viewed by Amanda Hop­kin­son Gabriel Josipovici

GABRIEL JOSIPOVICI has said be­fore that “the only way to read is in the knowl­edge that there is an in­fi­nite amount of time stretch­ing ahead”. Lim­it­less time should not im­ply lan­guor in the reader but sharp­ened at­ten­tion, per­mit­ting height­ened ap­pre­ci­a­tion.

In this se­lec­tion of 28 re­views and es­says drawn from the last quar­ter­century, the role of the reader is every­where present, most ex­plic­itly in Read­ing Kafka To­day. Josipovici is in­ter­ested not only in how we read but in how a book is reread; how, var­i­ously, Dante, Proust, Paster­nak Eliot, Beck­ett and The Leg­ends of the Jews are in­ter­preted and clas­si­fied over time. As noted in his pref­ace, “three strands run through it: Jewish cul­ture and ex­pe­ri­ence; mod­ernism and its dis­con­tents; and my own writ­ing”. To date, his “own writ­ing” in­cludes 22 nov­els, three vol­umes of short sto­ries, two plays, one bi­og­ra­phy (of his mother, poet and trans­la­tor Sacha Rabi­nowitz), and 22 vol­umes of non-fic­tion.

A fo­cus on his­tor­i­cal con­text con­trasts with the ded­i­cated reader pe­rus­ing a book across in­fi­nite time. There is much fas­ci­nat­ing de­tail in the ob­ser­va­tion of “Jewish cul­ture and ex­pe­ri­ence” through oth­ers’ eyes, in art as in literature. Study­ing Loren­zetti’s Last Sup­per, Josipovici notes first one and then an­other ser­vant with a tal­lit, and muses on pos­si­ble in­ter­pre­ta­tions.

He rereads the (now) largely un­read Paul Claudel, and en­coun­ters at­ti­tudes that would not be out of place in an Ay­a­tol­lah or St Au­gus­tine, be­fore de­scrib­ing el­e­ments in Claudel’s ex­ege­ses of the Old Tes­ta­ment medieval in out­look.

Medieval works fea­ture at least as fre­quently as mod­ernism, a spe­cial­ism more usu­ally as­so­ci­ated with Josipovici. Al-An­dalus/An­dalu­cia is praised as a land where Jewish cus­toms are cel­e­brated and dis­courses and verses ex­changed be­tween Jew, Mus­lim and Chris­tian. He re­flects on par­al­lel rites of pas­sage, and quotes del­i­cately pas­sion­ate love po­ems drawn from the pi­o­neer­ing work of Peter Cole and Ad­ina Hoff­man in re­cov­er­ing those com­posed in Ara­bic, He­brew and Ladino, and by at least one woman. There is much to im­press, in Cole’s trans­la­tion from Ibn Ezra’s He­brew, of “A fawn sought in Spain… Formed like the moon — his height adds to his splen­dour/ his curly hair is crim­son/against his cheeks of pearl’. And some­thing to amuse, in Hoff­man’s re­cov­ery of Rabbi Sch­lechter’s man­gled Yid­dish, writ­ten home from Cairo to his wife in Ox­ford. Shar­ing the fate of an­cient doc­u­ments devoured by in­sects at the Ben Izra syn­a­gogue, he be­wails: “Ich full of spots bin.”

Ger­man is writ large in two sem­i­nal chap­ters on the Broth­ers Grimm, in their dras­tic re­vi­sions of the as­sem­bled folk tales, and in later com­men­taries and trans­la­tions, par­tic­u­larly those of the re­doubtable ex­pert, Joyce Crick.

Here, too, de­spite the lack of a Jewish pres­ence in the fairy tales, Josipovici finds “the trans­for­ma­tion of a stark and ‘un­ex­plained’ tale into some­thing that makes moral, psy­cho­log­i­cal and nar­ra­tive sense” and bears com­par­i­son with “the trans­for­ma­tion of bib­li­cal nar­ra­tives into midrash”.

Josipovici trawls high and low, through the most rar­i­fied and rub­bished sources, elic­it­ing sur­prises and delights. All are, in their mul­ti­far­i­ous ways, telling tales re­lated by a mas­ter.

Amanda Hop­kin­son is a lec­turer, trans­la­tor, writer and re­viewer

Josipovici: read­ing and reread­ing

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