Interview: Gabriel Josipovici

We meet an academic, dramatist and novelist whose views on Britain’s writing establishment recently ruffled a few fictional feathers.

By David Herman, September 2, 2010
Josipovici: “Why are the writers I most admire dismissed in England?”

Josipovici: “Why are the writers I most admire dismissed in England?”

There could hardly be a more English setting for our meeting: lunch in a country pub in Sussex, near the home where Gabriel Josipovici has lived for almost half-a-century. It is a long way from Vichy France, where Josipovici was born in 1940, "on the last day on which my parents could have escaped from war-torn Europe".

He and his mother, the writer and translator, Sacha Rabinovitch, spent the war years in hiding, then returned to his mother's birthplace, Egypt, in 1945, where he went to the school that Omar Sharif and Edward Said had attended a few years earlier. Then, in 1956, shortly before the Suez crisis, mother and son moved on again, this time to England.

Gabriel Josipovici arrived in Oxford to be interviewed for a place to study English - the most un-English of students, Jewish, twice-displaced, already passionate about the great European writers: "They kept asking me what English novelist I most admired and I kept saying 'Dostoevsky', and they kept saying, 'English novelist, Mr Josipovici', and I kept saying 'Dostoevsky', vaguely aware that something was profoundly wrong but unable, in the heat of the moment, to put my finger on it."

And this is where his marvellous new book, What Ever Happened to Modernism? begins, 50 years ago in Oxford. He came away with a list of names: Anthony Powell, Angus Wilson and Iris Murdoch. "However, when I borrowed their work from the library, I was disappointed to find that they seemed to have nothing whatsoever in common with the writers I had been reading." There was this puzzling gap between the modern masters he was already immersed in, on the one hand, and these genteel 1950s' English novelists on the other.

This gap has been at the heart of Josipovici's work ever since. What makes the classics of Modernism so different from mainstream literature? More puzzlingly, why do we pretend that we understand Modernism, when clearly we do not? And why, 100 years after Kafka's first masterpiece, are we still baffled by it, still yearning for the reassuring realism of McEwan and the Man Booker longlist?

Barnes, Amis and McEwan leave me feeling smaller and meaner

This has recently brought Josipovici into the headlines, to his annoyance but I am sure to the delight of his publishers. "All these years," he says, "I have been writing positively about the artists I like."

In his new book, he goes (briefly) on the attack and criticises some of today's best-known writers. He does not pull his punches. "Reading [Julian] Barnes, like reading so many of the other English writers of his generation, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan… leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. I don't believe them… I don't buy into their view of life." A passing moment in a much larger argument but it was picked up by The Guardian and the media turned it into a literary storm in a teacup, ignoring the larger argument. Newsnight and the London Evening Standard have been chasing him for quotes.

"My gripe isn't with writers," he explains, "but with the general culture. Writers write what they can. It is the way in which the general public and so-called serious papers respond, that upsets me more." How can it be, he asks, that "writers I really admire are given such short shrift in England, are routinely dismissed?"

Since his first book, The World and the Book (1974), Josipovici has been one of the outstanding critics of his generation. He has combined this with a remarkable literary career as a dramatist, novelist and short-story writer (a new book of stories and a new novel are out this autumn).

His new book has all the familiar strengths: the huge range of reading, from Greek tragedy to Proust and Beckett; the effortless moving between literature, music and art; the insistence on reading from "the point of view of the artist".

There is no better introduction to Modernism, or indeed to the central questions about art and literature that dominated the 20th Century. And no one more passionate and erudite, to remind us that the emergence of Modernism was not a single moment in literary history, but something that should engage us every time we pick up a book or look at a painting.

Gabriel Josipovici's 'What Ever Happened to Modernism?' is published today by Yale University Press at £18.99. David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer.

Last updated: 1:13pm, October 12 2010