The Jewish Chronicle
Translating from death into life and back
The Cemetery in Barnes
Reviewed by David Herman
IT IS 50 years since Gabriel Josipovici wrote his first novel (not counting an earlier children’s novel). Since then, he has published almost 20 novels, a dozen works of criticism and several books of short stories. What is perhaps most striking is how quickly he found his voice as a writer and how consistent this voice has been over all these years.
But there is something very striking about his new novel, The Cemetery in Barnes. From the very first page, there is a preoccupation with death and cemeteries, along with a sense of mystery.
We find out almost immediately that the central character’s first wife is dead. He is now living in Paris, working as a translator, and living a life of quiet routine. Every day is the same.
But, as the novel unfolds, disturbing questions start to emerge. Is this life of routine fending off something black, a kind of darkness? “I felt sometimes that if I let go for a single moment,” says the protagonist, “the darkness would invade me and I might never emerge again.”
What has this to do with the death of his first wife, his fantasies of drowning, and a powerful sense of regret? He is obsessed with a French book of sonnets:
He seems contented
Gabriel Josipovici but, increasingly, we are led to wonder if he is deeply sad, perhaps angry, even violent. Maybe something worse. The novel moves between three places — Paris, where it begins; southwest London, around Putney, Barnes and the river; and Wales, a house in the Black Mountains, with a view over the valleys. The narrative moves back and forward in time. Words and images are constantly repeated. Words like “routine” and “solitude”; images of cemeteries, drowning and a web of literary and musical references, above all, to Du Bellay and Monteverdi’s Orfeo. The translator moves between solitude and the relationships with his two wives. “However close we are to another human being,” he says, significantly, “we always know, deep down, that we are alone.” These two movements: between solitude and relationships, and between someone working silently in a room and being constantly on the move, are central to Josipovici’s fiction as they are to his criticism.
They are at the heart of his achievement as one of the most interesting writers off our time.
We are led to wonder if he is deeply sad, perhaps angry, or violent
David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer