GABRIEL JOSIPOVICI's new book is a novel about a novel that never gets written: its protagonist, Jack Toledano, has been working for years on his magnum opus but has so far failed to produce a publishable line. This paradox is only the first of many ironies in Josipovici's self-consciously literary text.
Although writing is a central theme of the novel - it begins with a discussion of the relative merits of typewriters, wordprocessors and longhand - it purports to be a transcript of the spoken word: a record, to be precise, of what Toledano says to his friend Damien Anderson during the course of their endless walks through the parks and streets of London. Josipovici is so keen to render the arbitrariness and immediacy of speech that he dispenses with the reader-friendly conventions of paragraph breaks, chapter divisions and even inverted commas. His novel thus becomes a fluid entity in which one topic merges unfettered into another.
There is irony here too, since Toledano's procrastination stems from the fact that he can't organise the different strands of his own work into structured compartments. The theme of his unfinished book is language itself, expressed through the symbol of Moor Park, a mansion which has housed, over the years, Jonathan Swift, a lunatic asylum, a wartime code-breaking centre, an institute devoted to the study of Chomsky and talking chimps, and finally a school - 'Moo Pak' as it is spelt by an illiterate pupil.
Toledano's monologue is not, however, limited to the subject of his own book. As we listen to him talking, we discover his disillusion with the modern world. 'What has happened', he asks in rhetorical desperation, 'to cultural life since the war?' He feels that the integrity of the artist has been lost in the age of the TV interview; that knee-jerk political correctness has destroyed the intellectual freedom of the universities; and that Impressionist painting has been spoilt by too many chocolate-box reproductions.
Despite the publisher's description of Moo Pak as 'a palimpsest of themes that have preoccupied Gabriel Josipovici in the past 25 years', it would be a mistake to identify the blocked Toledano too closely with his prolific creator. The two share certain biographical characteristics, but there has to be a distance between them, if only because we are encouraged to respond to Toledano with such mixed feelings.
The text is supposed to represent conversations, but since the ever-obedient Anderson's comments are edited out, Toledano comes across as an enormous ego caught up in his own soliloquy and unwilling to allow his friend to get a word in edgeways. We learn that Toledano's marriage has broken up, but when we discover how much he loves the sight of a woman ironing a shirt, we begin to feel a sneaking sympathy for his wife. He goes on about the value of silence, and yet he can't stop talking. He is warm on the topic of human friendship, and yet the only real relationships in his life seem to be with the dead writers whose names he drops in droves: 'Dante, Stevens, Kafka, Proust. I can walk with them whenever I want . . . they always have the time to accompany me'.
On literary subjects, his views are uneven. Sometimes he treads a thin George Steinerish line between the profound and the pseudy ('The trouble with Nietzsche, which is also the trouble with Benjamin, is that deep down they are so very German'). When he asks himself which two works of English literature he would preserve he chooses Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, but gets the title wrong. Yet he is also capable of the odd brilliant insight, particularly when talking about Swift's 'romantic and thwarted' life. His more gnomic utterances can make you think ('I write in order to escape the imagination, not to indulge it') and his writerly bon mots often ring true ('The adjective is the writer's greatest enemy'). But it is his bleak emotional life, rather than his intellectual prowess, which is ultimately most affecting.
The very depth of Toledano's depression ('I am . . . relieved by the thought that I will soon be dead'), and his eloquence on the subject of his own lonely rootlessness and alienation, means that we can respond to his predicament with humane empathy rather than ironic detachment. While Toledano attacks the 'cynical' post- modern writer for pretending that he has no feelings, Josipovici proves that the use of post-modern literary techniques does not preclude emotional realism. Like the characters in The Waste Land (which he quotes), Toledano is tragic in his isolation. But he is also, like Prufrock, at times, indeed, almost ridiculous.
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