Gabriel Josipovici: In a Hotel Garden

I consider Gabriel Josipovici one of the best literary critics around (most recently, his brilliant essay on Grimm and Kleist), and as usual, I tried in vain to put his criticism aside when I read this novel. I was half-aware of Josipovici’s orientation and apparati while reading In a Hotel Garden, but in this case it wasn’t such a bad thing.

The back of the book says:

The narrator Ben relates to his friends his enthralling encounter with a Jewish woman in the Dolomite Alps. The tale of her compulsive visit to a hotel garden in Siena–where her grandmother fell in love with a man soon to be a victim of the Holocaust–illuminates Ben’s half-lived life….

With the exception of a factual mistake that is the crux of the book, this is indeed all that happens in this short novel. It’s a summary, not a teaser. The ultimate resolution, such as it is, is that the garden may be the wrong garden after all, and the significance that the other woman, Lily, attaches to it is mistaken, at least in the literal sense. There is no particular elaboration on the subject matter, something I believe Josipovici explicitly intended.

For, knowing Josipovici’s concern with Blanchot and his attention to language as a form of living and dying (as opposed to, say, a representational mechanism), what meaning there is lies in the dialogue. The novel is mostly dialogue, and the chapters delineate conversations between sets of characters. The early chapters, between Ben and his wife and friends, are aggressively and off-puttingly banal: the quotidian routines of holiday and family life. The conversations between Lily and Ben affect a change in style as well as content: the frustrating non-communication of much of the book gives way to a laying-out of the discourse, as the pace of the conversation slows down and the speakers appear to consider their words in a qualitatively different way. I won’t attempt to describe it, for the book’s strength is in achieving this distinction in text alone, and its goal (I believe) is to do so in a way that resists explication.

What is made explicit does not qualify as any sort of eloquent epiphany:

–You said this morning that when you saw the garden through the doors
of the hotel it was like coming home, he said.

–Yes.

–What did you mean?

–As if I’d known it all my life, she said. As if at last everything was going to come clear…As if it was where I came from, she said. As if once I entered that garden I would know who I was.

Such vague simplicities grate, but I came to decide that they were not meant as profundities in themselves, but as indications of a different sort of verbal struggling. Josipovici lashes himself fiercely to the mast of everyday conversation and refuses to build out of it or on top of it, preferring to present such conversation unadorned and elaborate on it purely through small variation and contrast. Like Blanchot, the result still feels to me like a mental schema overlaid onto characters, rather than one emerging through characters. But as an alternative to traditional presentations of dialogue–expository, developmental, and ornamental, for example–I find it productive. I’m not convinced or converted, but I am happy that the novel asked me for a different kind of reading, I asked why, and I was able to find an answer.

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