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This review is taken from PN Review 8, Volume 5 Number 4, July - September 1979.A TEST OF STRENGTH
In 1963, the year after Resnais' film L'année dernière à Marienbad, Alain Robbe-Grillet, the writer of the screenplay, published an essay on "Temps et description dans le récit d'aujourd'hui". Here, writing of the interest of the nouveaux romanciers in a certain kind of cinema, he stated: "Ils ne conçoivent pas le cinéma comme un moyen d'expression, mais de recherche." Later in the same essay he writes: "I1 ne s'agit plus alors de la nature des images, mais de leur composition." Not expression, but research: not images as they appear ready-made, but as they may be structured by the artist. In the nouveau roman space and time sabotage one another; descriptions are therefore subject to abrupt modifications, and all events take place in an indeterminate present which works against any idea of continuity.
The same ideas and considerations strongly underlie these four stories. In the first of them, "Contiguities", a series of short dialogues and insights numbered 1-40 performs a kind of dance round a study of human relationships about which it is hard to be specific. True, specific events occur-a woman tears up photographs and scatters the fragments over a river; we learn of a man's morning routines, and understand that in his relationship with the woman he has taken the place of another person, whose point of view is also present in the story. Words and statements are repeated or varied almost musically-sometimes more information is added, sometimes the information is set in a new context and given a new weight. There is a discernible pattern of experience, but any attempt to impose a precise definition may lead to defeat.
The second story, "Death of the word", shows a man trying to shake off the memory of his dead father. It turns out that the father did not exist, or not in the way in which he has been described to the reader. But there is much more here than a bare outline can suggest. Where the dislocations of the first story seem playful, these are purposive. The point is tellingly made that to be overcome the past must first be invented, then recognized as an invention. Too late the protagonist discovers that what he has destroyed was, after all, a necessary fiction. Here the point of the story and the theories which inform the writing are admirably in concert: something worthwhile is said both about what it is like to be a son, to have a past, and about the part played by words in bolstering or undermining that past.
"He" involves another death: the suicide of Robin, the narrator's friend. In the attempt to come to terms with this event, guilt and grief are seen as self-indulgent. After the funeral the narrator decides that he needs to ritualize his friend's death in an elegy. His failure to do so enables Josipovici to purvey his own ideas on writing and art. Art expresses the partial and confused, but in so doing enables partiality and confusion to be understood for what they are.
"Through the gradual extinction of the mythical self to which we cling so blindly, of `I' and `you' and 'he', of anger and guilt and sorrow, we arrive not at a lifeless husk but at its radiant opposite . . .". Noble though such sentiments may be (and they are reminiscent of Robbe-Grillet in his best final-paragraph-of-essay form), they do not prevent this story from being too obviously a vehicle for theory.
"Second person looking out" is set close to Marienbad in conception. It consists of three sections (told in the 1st, 3rd and 2nd person respectively). A man is walking towards a country house in the company of a guide. He is also walking away from it. He is also inside the house, looking out through windows which are moved to show a different view once someone has looked out through them. He is also a part of those changing views. Here there are strong echoes of the sudden changes of costume and position which characterized Resnais' film, and the story achieves something of the same resonance, the same quality of dream-logic.
To what extent these stories may be found challenging, teasing or merely laborious, might seem to depend on the reader's willingness to surrender his traditional right to ask, Who? When? Where? How? Yet Josipovici is surely relying heavily on those very questions being present, on the reader's inability to suspend his belief in a coherent fictional world. Preaching is, after all, only really fun in the presence of the unconverted. As the blocked writer of another Josipovici story, "Mobius the stripper", says, "If I can say anything then why say anything?" The assumed conservatism of the reader may prove to be the New Novelist's best defence against sterility and despair; like the dead father in "Death of the word", a necessary fiction.
None of this detracts from the skill and the honest intelligence evident in these stories. It is surely to the good that someone is exploring the conventions, and the sheer theatricality, of our responses to fiction, even if it may in the end be as much a test of strength as a proof of weakness.
This review is taken from PN Review 8, Volume 5 Number 4, July - September 1979.