BOOK REVIEW / James II goes to Siena: 'In a Hotel Garden' - Gabriel Josipovici: Carcanet, 12.95 pounds

Michael Dibdin
Saturday 22 October 2011 21:48

BEN AND SANDRA, a young couple, and Lily, a woman travelling alone, meet at a hotel in the Italian alps. Sandra is ill and grumpy, and Ben is increasingly drawn to the company of Lily, whose conversation is by turns reticent and rhetorical, allusive and elusive. They go for a marathon mountain walk together, they drink coffee on the terrace of the hotel. Gradually Lily reveals the reason for her visit to Italy: a pilgrimage to a hotel garden in Siena where her grandmother fleetingly met a young man who was subsequently killed, with his entire family, by the Nazis. Back in London, Ben and Sandra break up, but when he tries to renew his holiday relationship with Lily he is rebuffed.

Thus baldly abstracted, Gabriel Josipovici's new novel might almost be by Anita Brookner. To call it a novel at all is a bit thick, or rather thin. It is in fact 'the dear, the blessed nouvelle', and the presiding genius that of Henry James. Josipovici makes no secret of this: Ben's holiday reading is The Ambassadors, while the generating anecdote is clearly modelled on Daisy Miller and the explicit symbolism on 'The Figure in the Carpet'.

The carpet in question is the mosaic paving of Siena cathedral; the figure that of Absalom, who 'gloried in his hair and so was hanged by his hair'. The anecdote is twisted over on itself to form an existenial Mobius strip - the two hotels, the two meetings, are also one - while Ben is another Strether, hapless and well-meaning, an ambassador from the Gentiles to the dazzling, dangerous world of Jewry.

None of this can convey the qualities of Gabriel Josipovici's writing. The form of In a Hotel Garden layers Ben's narrative-with-commentary in London with flashback scenes from the alpine hotel containing Lily's narrative-

with-commentary about her visit to Siena. In both, the story is told almost entirely in dialogue. The effect is subtle, rapid and often very funny - the portrait of Ben's friends, with their bouncy dogs, sassy brats and impenetrable common sense, is as acute as a Posy Simmonds cartoon. But the humour is neither condescending nor gratuitous: Lily is stimulated by Ben's close-miked questioning just as he is seduced by her spacious acoustic resonant with ghosts and echoes, but the gulf between them remains unbridgeable.

Given the author's reputation as an unrepentant intellectuel de choc, it seems particularly perverse of Carcanet to bill this limpid, engrossing tale as 'the strangest and most enigmatic of Josipovici's many strange, enigmatic novels'. Rest assured that you do not need a degree in post-modernist hermeneutics to read In a Hotel Garden. Its enigmas are those of life itself, and Josipovici sets them before us with clarity, tact and compassion.

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