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More Discovery Than Communication

I’ve been reading even more than usual lately. There are quite a few books rotating in the stack… short stories by Julio Cortazar and Alexander Kluge, Lydia Davis’ recent translation of Proust’s Swann’s Way, Michal Govin’s novel Snapshots (which I’ll write about here shortly), Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise, Walter Benjamin’s Archive and Denis Donoghue’s Speaking of Beauty. (I think from now on I ought to call this practice multibooking.) But the book I am currently taken with is Gabriel Josipovici’s The World and the Book: A Study of Modern Fiction (Stanford University Press, 1971). The original connection between Josipovici and W.G. Sebald was Josipovici’s prophetic review of his book The Emigrants. But the more I read Josipovici the more I see new ways to look at writers like Sebald.

Josipovici writes: “The failure [of Romanticism] made it clear to the moderns that art is not the expression of inner feelings but the creation of a structure that will allow us to understand what it means to perceive, and will thus, in a sense, give us back the world.” Modernism is epistemological in nature, demanding, among other things, to know how we know things, why do we trust that we know something, and how do we share this knowledge with others? I can think of no better example of this than the photography of Edward Weston, who placed the world before our eyes, stripped of all symbolism, ornament, and narrative, and forced us to look again without the habits of the past.

edward-weston-pepper-30.jpg Edward Weston, Pepper No. 30, 1930.

“Art is more discovery than communication.” Josipovici favors art “that makes the spectator work,” art which aims “to recreate within the willing listener or spectator the liberating experience of the artist himself as he makes the object.” And: “all the great modern writers have struggled with: Why write at all?” These ideas resonated with me as a partial explanation for the energy that I receive from reading Sebald (among others) even though the ostensible subject ought to be relentlessly depressing. In a way, the world was simply a tool that Sebald used to discover himself – and even though he depicts a world of endlessly cruelty and destruction, the very process of discovery managed to give the world back to him (and us) in all of its wonderment. And for Sebald, one imagines, this process of recuperation probably helped mitigate the ever-impending sense of melancholy.

Josipovici writes criticism, novels, stories, and plays. Mark Thwaite’s excellent interview with him over at ReadySteadyBook is a good introduction. Josipovici’s own website is full of information about his work.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi Terry,

    Josipovici is something of an obsession with me / — I’m so glad you’ve picked up on his work.

    His Singer on the Shore ( is one of the finest collection of essays you could ever hope to find …

    I can’t imagine that those readers who are moved by Sebald’s books would not equally thrill to Josipovici’s very different work.


    January 14, 2008
  2. Great to hear from you, Mark. I’ve just started reading ReadySteadyBook regularly. You helped introduce me to Josipovici. I’ve just added your blog to my blogroll.

    January 14, 2008
  3. SD #

    I’m sure you already know that I agree w/ your assessment of Sebald in light of Josipovici: “even though he depicts a world of endlessly cruelty and destruction, the very process of discovery managed to give the world back to him (and us) in all of its wonderment.” Finely put!

    And thanks for including me & my family in your top-10 wish list of 2008! We’re #9, but I’ll take it!

    January 16, 2008
  4. I first came across Josipovici via an introduction he wrote to a book I read last year, The Retreat by Aharon Appelfeld.In connection with the themes of the book he reflects that the main characters, Jews in Europe just before the war, imagine that “time and history will simply go away if we do not think about them” and later comments on how the quietness of Appelfeld’s writing just will not let you go, far more effective than disturbing accounts of atrocities and now I see links with Sebald all over again.Must seek out some Josipovici too, thanks for joining up the thinking Terry and Mark.Whoever suggests the blogosphere is a banal dumbing down has never visited here:-)

    January 17, 2008
  5. Hi Terry,

    Very good of you to add me to your blogroll — next time I update the ReadySteadyBook roll I’ll make sure I add you.

    For now — the CMS is handier! — I’ve added you to the roll on The Book Depository blog, Editor’s Corner. And I’ve also added you to my blog aggregator BritLitBlogs:

    January 18, 2008

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