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The Cemetery Lover

Josipovici Barnes

You see? his wife—his second wife—would say when he came to this point in the story. At heart he is a romantic.
Perhaps I am, he would say.­
Perhaps, she would mock him. Perhaps. It is his favorite word.
What would we do without it?
We would live our lives more happily, she would respond.
More happily perhaps, he would come back at her, but more humanly? More richly?

Gabriel Josipovici. The Cemetery in Barnes. Carcanet Press, 2018. Fair warning! This post contains plot spoilers, although I doubt that knowing what happens will lessen anyone’s appreciation for this elegantly written novel.

By the time you reach the fourth page of Gabriel Josipovici’s newest novel, The Cemetery in Barnes, you might begin to think there has been an editing problem. On one page the main character lives in London, then in an apartment in Paris, while on the next page he lives in an old farmhouse in the Black Mountains in Wales. Throughout the novel time and place and wives seem to change between one paragraph and the next. Some sentences are repeated, then full paragraphs are repeated, sometimes with minor variations.

As it turns out, these repetitions and the deliberate muddling of place, time, and sequence are reflections of the absolute precision with which Josipovici writes. No word, no sentence is wasted, even if the same sentence is repeated pages later. He uses repetition to fold time back on itself, reminding the reader of the previous instances in which a certain phrase was used.

The main character in The Cemetery in Barnes is a professional translator, a man whose life is comprised of habits, which include wearing a jacket and tie when he sits down to work in the privacy of his own home. He deeply admires the music and literature of the 16th and 17th centuries: Ronsard, Shakespeare, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and the aptly titled Regrets of Joachim du Bellay. He relaxes by taking walks and has a fancy for cemeteries – Cimitière du Montparnasse, Père Lachaise, Old Barnes Cemetery in Putney. Some of his walks are so carefully plotted that you can trace them on Google Maps.

There are, in fact, two wives (though nothing in this novel is really assured). The translator and his first wife—a “trainee solicitor and amateur violinist”—live in London. After her death (to which we will return in a moment), he lives alone in a walk-up flat in Paris, with the Pantheon (another cemetery) visible from his window. When he remarries, he and his second wife live in a restored farmhouse in Wales. People comment on “the uncanny resemblance between his two wives,” which is “all the more remarkable because, apart from the [flaming red] hair, they did not physically resemble each other at all.” The translator and his wives remain nameless. “They never called each other by name. For her he was always he and for him she was always she” (Such a wonderful sentence!)

The translator occasionally has “fantasies of drowning.” We see this fantasy play itself out in the possible death of the first wife. On three separate occasions the first wife will fall into the Thames as the couple walk along a towpath. In the first variation, a gust of wind blows away her hat. She lunges after it and falls into the river, but manages to survive. In the second variation, it is the river bank that gives way, causing her to fall into the river. Once again she survives, but this time an ominous cough develops. (74) In the third variation, we find the narrator being questioned in the local police station about the drowning of his wife. After she apparently fell in, it seems he simply sat down on a bench and waited. It is suggested that he might have been in shock or perhaps he was convinced that her strength as a swimmer would save her. Or perhaps it was not an accident. To add to the reader’s confusion, there is an episode later on in which Josipovici suggests that maybe there was no “first wife” at all, that the translator might have projected an entire marriage upon a strange and attractive woman that he briefly and harmlessly (or so it seems) stalks along the same towpath one day. It is also possible that all of these variations are simply fantasies.

Everyone has fantasies. In the one life there are many lives. Alternative lives. Some are lived and others imagined. That is the absurdity of biographies, he would say, of novels. They never take account of the alternative lives casting their shadows over us as we move slowly, as though in a dream, from birth to maturity to death.

The fate of the translator’s second marriage mirrors his first marriage. Over the course of some twenty pages (the book is only 101 pages long) we are given four variations on the theme of their Welsh farmhouse going up in flames. In the final version, two badly charred bodies are pulled from the ashes. One is that of his wife, the other just might be the neighbor who kept flirting with her. Did history repeat itself?

Like a nautilus, the plot of The Cemetery in Barnes spirals around itself, hiding its inner, central core. What are we to believe? One explanation that Josipovici offers is that his translator is living multiple lives simultaneously. This, of course, echoes Stephen Hawking’s theory of the multiverse, in which multiple parallel universes coexist. Josipovici has dealt with this kind of fictional impossibility before, most notably in his early story “Mobius the Stripper,” in which two connected stories are told simultaneously, one across the top of each page, the other across the bottom of each page. On the final page, the bottom story returns the reader back to the first page and into the beginning of the top story, thus creating a story that loops endlessly around itself.

Another theory that Josipovici tantalizingly offers is that neither wife really exists. His translator deeply admires du Bellay’s ability to talk to “absent friends” through his poetry.” “You have to have another to talk to,” the translator says,  “even when you are alone.” “We live in the forests of our dreams and our desires.” In the book’s final sentence, he is at his flat in Paris. Single.

One thing that is clear in this novel—as in all of Josipovici’s fictions—is that he is addressing the very question and puzzle of our existence through a fiction that is formally rigorous and yet universal, pursuing a path that is utterly different from the approach taken by most traditional novels.

Sometimes, he said, the tediousness and unreality of the novels he was translating were too much for him. At such times it took a monumental effort to keep going…There were moments, he would say, as I sat translating those identical cardboard novels with their identical cardboard plots, when I felt as if I was choking to death…I would stare at the page and it just wouldn’t make sense any more . . .

As long as each sentence could be seen in isolation, as a specific challenge, a unique problem, the task was not only tolerable, it was positively pleasurable. The trouble started when he began, against his will, to focus on the style and subject-matter of the novel before him.

The same characters, he would say. The same plots. (15) (16-17)

Josipovici’s solution is to present life as a maze, a mobius loop, a multiverse, leaving the reader to either flounder or flourish. Anything but a cardboard novel.

“One sprouts so many lives, he would say . . . One is a murderer. One  a suicide. One lives in Paris. One in Bombay. One in New York.”





6 Comments Post a comment
  1. This is another overlap for us, Terry. I have a copy of this waiting my attention, hopefully before too long!

    August 20, 2018
  2. Joseph, we think alike and seem to have similar taste in books more often than not. This is my favorite book of fiction of Josipovici’s – out of the 5 I have read.

    August 20, 2018
  3. This book sounds fascinating. It reminds me of the book I’m currently reading and which you might also enjoy: Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk, which won this year’s Man Booker International Prize. ( Quite Sebaldian in tone and mood, it is interleaved with intriguing maps instead of photographs..

    August 27, 2018
    • I’ve been wondering about this book. Thanks for the recommendation!

      August 27, 2018
      • I must admit I’ve grown ambivalent about Tokarczuk: I’ve read her earlier books and found them engaging, from Prawiek i Inne Czasy (tr. Primeval and Other Times) to the most recent, Księgi Jakubowe (The Books of Jacob, I think a translation is in progress) which is an ambitious saga retracing the history of a Jewish community from the time of a self-professed messiah, Jacob Frank in the 18th c. — here Tokarczuk reaches to a moment in Polish history that is akin to the legendary convivencia in Spain, defined by a form of cultural/ethnic tolerance that, retrospectively, we feel a nostalgia for, but which, as Tokarczuk shows, was much more complex. Perhaps I’m slightly unjust to say that I find Tokarczuk at her best in a sort of magical-realism mode: she has an instinctive knack for finding the marvelous in the everyday and revealing the invisible/imaginative underside of quotidian gestures, situations… This is why the tone of her books is often that of a myth-maker, or of allegory. John Self, with due irony, quoted on Twitter a review from The Millions which calls Tokarczuk “a more cerebral Sebald”: that’s really taking it too far. Sebald seems to have supplanted Kafka as a go-to comparison… Bieguni (Flights) is an enjoyable book, not undeserving of Man Booker, full of brilliant observations and insights. (And, throughout her writing, especially in the Polish context, one must appreciate Tokarczuk’s politics which has earned her heaps of hate mail and even death threats in the past from some of the fascist elements in Poland…) However, as I read the book, around the time it won the Nike Award in Poland, there was something that irked me about it, although I couldn’t quite put my finger on it: some of the observations felt as if they were just plucked from the air, appealing but as if not always thought through; these were little things, odd pinpricks, like the narrator’s desire to straighten out Arabic script like pulling a thread of looped embroidery (and I remember thinking of René Char who likened writing to the sinuous trace left in the sand by a snake, and elsewhere associating the uncoiled serpent with death). I’d be curious to hear your impressions of the book — overall I like Tokarczuk a lot, hence my suspicion I’m not entirely fair and should best give the book another go…
        In other recent releases: you might be interested in the annotated edition of J.H. Prynne’s The Oval Window (with photographs by the author) from Bloodaxe, and Diana Khoi Nguyen’s “Ghost Of” from Omnidawn (a book of visual poetry, exploring family history [immigration from Saigon to LA, and the death of the author’s brother] that draws on the Japanese technique of gyotaku, and plays with photographic cutouts, replacing them with words, constantly redefining text as image and vice versa).

        August 29, 2018
  4. Ela, Thanks, as always!, for the thoughtful comment and the book suggestions.

    August 31, 2018

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