A perfect hat-trick, as any football fan knows, is one goal scored with the left foot, one with the right, and a header. In 2010, Gabriel Josipovici produced a writer’s hat-trick: a book of short stories, a book of criticism and a novel, all highly acclaimed. He even found time to edit the selected essays of an old colleague from his days at the University of Sussex where he taught for over 30 years. These are tremendously productive years for Josipovici, one of the outstanding critics and writers of his generation.
Now he has produced another novel, Infinity, a short, joyous read. It is the story of Tancredo Pavone, a highly eccentric avant-garde composer, as told by his former manservant, Massimo — Sancho Panza to Pavone’s Don Quixote. Massimo describes his former employer as “a singular gentleman”. That is an understatement. Pavone is a real character. When he studied composition in Vienna in the 1930s, he always sent his suits and shirts to London to be dry-cleaned.
A Sicilian nobleman, born in 1905, he has lived through the 20th century, travelling the world from Monte Carlo to West Africa and Nepal.He is hugely opinionated about music. He is not interested in Wagner and “all those other limping Germans with their obsessions with mountains and lakes.” Schoenberg “set music back a hundred years, with his excessive Jewish anxiety.” Berio “is both lazy and self-satisfied.”
Josipovici has always been interested in composers. His first book was dedicated to Peter Maxwell Davies and this one is to Jonathan Harvey. Some of his best essays explore the great modernist composers, including Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Stockhausen.
There are a number of other familiar Josipovici themes here, echoing long-time preoccupations. Pavone, like so many of his best creations, is a solitary individual, never happier than when he is in his study, composing.
Increasingly, the novel turns into a discourse about what it means to be an artist, what is creativity, what is distinctive about the modern. Pavone pours forth ideas and is so engaging and full of life that, by the end, you feel you have been in the company of a truly extraordinary man. Or, rather, two extraordinary men, because there is something enormously engaging, too, about Massimo — his loyalty and modesty. What seems to be a novel about music and modernism, becomes a novel about human relationships and life itself.