BOOK REVIEW / A journey through Dante and out the other side: 'Text and Voice: Essays 1981-1991' - Gabriel Josipovici: Carcanet, 25 pounds

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The Independent Online
'THERE IS a question which continues to puzzle me . . .' So begins Gabriel Josipovici's latest collection of essays. This opening typifies his literary criticism: bold enough to admit difficulties, and honest enough to avoid theorising.

This collection is an intellectual pleasure, a busy gathering of essays which interpret and introduce writers to each other. Text and Voice follows in the tradition of his excellent The World and the Book. The criticism is broad-based and multilingual, both clear-headed and messy enough to be convincing. The range is a delight. Ten years ago, even five, such writing was unfashionable in the academy. Josipovici shuns the specialisation and the retreat into theory which in the Eighties became the sine qua non of university English studies. He has a breadth which outflank the limitations of his profession. This book should speed the current move away from theory towards the history of ideas.

In the course of the 12 essays, Josipovici calls easily on Homer, Sophocles, Dante, the Bible, Kirkegaard, Proust and the Talmud. To read him can be a frustration, a discovery or a quickening of the mind, but never boredom. The mind moves quirkily. The argument relies on omnivorous quotation, deft repetitions and bold assertions. The second essay, absurdly titled 'Dante as Modernist', opens with this teaser: 'There are two and only two kinds of modern artist: the one who feels that certain things can no longer be done, and the one who has never known such feelings.' Just as one is grappling with this, trying to think of Valery or Klee or Eisenstein, the essay plunges into the closing cantos of Dante's Inferno. It emerges from the other side of hell into Beckett's wonderful 'Dante and the Lobster.'

Josipovici rarely leads up to anything. After blinding his subjects in the glare of assertion, he comes at them obliquely out of the shadows. There is a much-needed essay on Maurice Blanchot, the French critic and novelist, who is 'with Walter Benjamin, the finest literary critic of the century.' After Blanchot, Kafka, then Mallarme, then Heidegger: all to remind us that it is an extraordinary thing for people to be writing books, 'an activity which can never be assimilated to the making of beds or tables.'

The French cultural critic, Roland Barthes, haunts the essays, partly because of his easy applicability to everything and partly because of Josipovici's admiration for the scope and novelty of Barthes's work. He explains him well: 'characters are bundles of tics with names stuck on them like labels.' Two further essays worry at Proust and praise Georges Perec's 1978 Life: A User's Manual ('it will take us many years to catch up with it.'). Everywhere the intelligence is quick and profound.

But the final four pieces in the collection, the 1980-81 Northcliffe Lectures entitled 'Writing and the Body' are a disappointment by Josipovici's standards. The first sets out from the notion that reading and writing are inherently unnatural activities; the second from the capaciousness of Shakespeare, his ability to absorb dissent; the third from what goes unsaid in Proust and Woolf; and the fourth from a few of Kafka's final scribbled notes. Kafka's own phrase suits them: 'a lake doesn't flow into anything, you know.'

Reading these final essays is like being driven into countless culs-de-sac in the hope of reaching a motorway; and yet one learns from this frustration, from the unconnectedness of Josipovici's enterprise. He loves to quote endings and beginnings, points of embarkation from the everyday into the fictional world. The epilogue from The Tempest closes the collection. He discusses how we feel while applauding in the theatre, suspended between constraint and freedom. After this bravura display of familiarity, one wants more guidance from Josipovici. As he says, 'I have attempted to get as close as possible to a certain truth which it seemed important to try and articulate, but I have had, ultimately, to content myself with what may well be seen as a series of tallish stories.' For such an intelligent and dedicated humanist, nothing seems natural or continuous with anything else. He should write about Montaigne.