Out of touch at the typewriter

Geoff Dyer finds signs of stiffness in a tour of tactile pleasures: Touch by Gabriel Josipovici, Yale University Press, pounds 19.95

Italo Calvino didn't get round to writing about touch in Under the Jaguar Sun, his proposed book on the five senses. Could Gabriel Josipovici's "very personal book" help make good this lack? It felt promising. That a wide range of material - Chaplin, Chardin, Chaucer - could be touched on in relatively few pages (150) suggested that this essay might well display the qualities associated with the master: tactility of ideas, the ability to render the cerebral as sensation, and feeling as thought.

Such hopes do not persist long, but there are some nice touches: an informative history of the pilgrimage as "a journey into the experience of distance itself"; a touching comparison of a photograph of the author's grandparents with Rembrandt's "The Jewish Bride," a section on Chardin that makes one see just how weird are these paintings of extreme temporal suspense.

The most revealing chapter begins with Josipovici considering what it means to have "a good touch" at sport. The terrible thing about tennis, he observes, is the way that errors haunt you - but by dwelling on these missed chances you risk that "dread tightening of the arm" which is a premonition of defeat. This was Borg's great strength: "a point played seemed to be over and forgotten as soon as it was done, leaving him totally free to concentrate on the next one." For his part Josipovici kept playing football "long after [he] should have given up the game" and ended up wrecking his knee. He then took up Aikido where he learned that the ideal state is the Borg-like one in which "you are both utterly relaxed and utterly concentrated." To Western minds this might appear contradictory but Josipovici is adamant that this is exactly how one feels when swimming, running or "writing well."

And with that - precisely because he is so right - he hobbles himself. For Josipovici's distinguishing characteristic as a writer is that he so uptight. Looking at that photo of his grandparents, he notes their "slight stiffness" before the camera, but they are supple as yogi compared with their grandson. His prose is not stiff, it's petrified. Even in his more relaxed moments he lacks what he terms "kinetic melody." Compared with Camus's lyrical evocations of swimming in Algeria, Josipovici's meditation on the pleasure of doing so in Egypt is chlorinated, wheezing. His account of walking on the South Downs ("when there is only a mild breeze blowing, when there is springy turf under foot") is similarly stifling.

There is a pompous edge, too, to much of of the commentary, signalled by his fondness for the all-knowing "of course" ("Morandi of course is the great exception"). Part of the reason for this is that Josipovici is an academic, and the pipe-smoke staleness of the lecture hall is never far away. It is amazing that so much time in so short a book is spent holding forth to students. Genius, he observes at one point, is "nothing more than the ability to push an insight to its limits and not be deflected either by laziness or conventional wisdom." That's as maybe, but Josipovici's insights are far too limited and are not pushed anything like far enough to qualify.

In a way common among devotees of ossified experimentalism, he is also deeply conventional. He is one of those writers for whom the act of writing reaches an apotheosis of purity only when he types out the sentence, "I am writing." On this occasion - after a bit of verbal foreplay in the Prologue - he holds out until the penultimate chapter before succumbing to what might be termed the petite mort de l'ecriture: "Over my notebook I sit hunched up. Over my typewriter, a little more upright. My hand moves over the page. My fingers hit the keys. I am writing." Aah! In the context of a book about touch, what can one say except that it is numb and numbing?

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