Published soon after his entertaining, erudite and briefly controversial polemic Whatever Happened to Modernism?, Gabriel Josipovici's Heart's Wings & Other Stories arrives with a certain amount of cultural baggage. It's tempting to look at it as a kind of answer to his initial question, and as a broadside against a world made "smaller and meaner" by the Amis, Barnes and McEwan generation. To do so, however, would be reductive. While impossible to read in critical isolation – the stories are steeped in literary and artistic history – this collection deserves not to be tainted by dogma and dispute and instead taken on its own merits.
The 25 stories are arranged broadly chronologically, spanning some four decades of literary chicanery. It is a heady mixture of formal invention, defiance of readerly expectation and deft, subtle writing. These are fictions that do not just repay attentive reading and re-reading, but absolutely demand them. Sentence to sentence, line by line, it's rare to feel on safe footing. Stories stop, viewpoints change, an incident happens without any pre-warning. It's an unsettling effect – and one likely to infuriate as much as it may excite.
The opening stories, "Second Person Looking Out" and "Mobius the Stripper", err on the side of the former, and hit rather false notes. Alain Robbe-Grillet hangs over "Second Person..." like an interested onlooker; perhaps amused by the strength of his influence. "Mobius..." – with its two stories running concurrently either side of a horizontal line, giving the reader a myriad of ways to approach the text – comes across like an exercise in style, the pair of narratives never quite living up to the ingenuity of the conceit.
From this standing start, Heart's Wings blossoms into something quite other: still concerned with experimentation, but matching emotion and depth to these strictures. Stories such as "Brothers", "Fuga" and "The Birdcage" are beautifully weighted meditations on selfhood, our interactions with others, edged in stillness, loss and disquiet.
Despite, or perhaps because of, their difficulties – "Fuga" has no punctuation, "Brothers" and "The Birdcage" play fast and loose with characters' perspectives – they refuse to ebb away after reading, with images spooling long after the story's end.
In a collection with many highlights, "Love Across the Borders" and "Tegel" stand out as perfect examples of Josipovici's art. These spare, haunted stories go much further than a reader may expect from such slim page extents. Less surprising is Josipovici's concern with artists and writers (both Donne and Borges are subjects of stories) – and this tendency is rather more solipsistic than successful. But while Heart's Wings is an uneven collection, it remains engaging, thoughtful and oddly moving. Josipovici may come to be best known for his baiting of "prep school boys showing off", as he describes Amis et al, but this collection demonstrates that his fiction is as sharp as his tongue.
Stuart Evers's collection, '10 Stories about Smoking', is published by Picador in MarchReuse content