Reading as if there are many tomorrows
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