Review of The Inventory by Gabriel Josipovici

The Inventory by Gabriel Josipovici

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Book Review of The Inventory by Gabriel Josipovici

Towards the end of his discussion of the literary quality of “exactitude”, Italo Calvino turns to the prose-poetry of Francis Ponge. After spending the preceding parts of the essay on the merits of works by Leopardi, Musil, Valéry and others, he laurels the author of Le parti pris des choses (The Voice of Things) with words that capture the gist of the lecture: “I believe that he may be the Lucretius of our time, reconstructing the physical nature of the world by means of the impalpable, powder-fine dust of words.”

Calvino’s notion of exactitude blends easily with the other literary qualities he chose to champion in Six Memos for the Next Millennium. The way he talks about exactitude, quickness, lightness, visibility and multiplicity link up to create an image of the writer as someone who patiently plans and carries out creative stratagems in an effort to control the uncontrollable.

Calvino concludes the lecture by considering the writings of Leonardo da Vinci, a lover and hopeful master of the uncontrollable if there ever was one. In one of his notebooks, Leonardo attempted to write a light-hearted fable about fire, a neat creative stratagem that nevertheless presented some unlooked-for complications:

Leonardo gives us a rapid summary: the fire, offended because the water in the pan is above him, although he is the “higher” element, shoots his flames up and up until the water boils, overflows, and puts him out. Leonardo then elaborates this in three successive drafts, all of them incomplete, written in three parallel columns.

Each time he adds some details, describing how, from a little piece of charcoal, a flame bursts through the gaps in the wood, crackling and swelling. But he soon breaks off, as if becoming aware that there is no limit to the minuteness of detail with which one can tell even the simplest story. Even a tale of wood catching fire in the kitchen fireplace can grow from within until it becomes infinite.

The Inventory (1968), a dialogue novel Gabriel Josipovici wrote in his mid-twenties, was the author’s first substantial attempt to create a fiction out of the facts of the world. The short novel – the reprint in Steps (1990) takes up almost exactly one hundred pages – is very conscious of the fecund interplay that exists between the real and the imaginary.

In the 1986 lecture Reading, Writing and the Study of Literature, Josipovici states that he had a definite starting point in mind before he began to work on the novel. The kernel of the story was that “a solicitor arrives at a house to make an inventory of the possessions of a man who has just died. There he meets the man’s family, and the book is about the relations of these people to each other and especially to the dead man whose possessions lie about, waiting to be inventoried.”

After arriving at a premise he wished to explore, the young Josipovici faced a hard problem: how should he describe the house, the solicitor, the man’s family and possessions? What words was he actually going to use? Through trial and error, he came to realize that description, far from being an essential literary attribute, was a convention among other conventions. What options become available once such a strong convention as description is pushed aside?

“The challenge was what spurred me on and brought me pleasure: the challenge to create a novel using no description but only dialogue and lists of objects. And of course as I slowly made it I found myself growing in understanding of the theme which had set the whole thing off: the relations between subjective fantasy and objective fact, between invention and inventory.”

This master theme finds many shapes in the novel, but none perhaps as distinct and memorable as the following thoughts of the main character:

If you drop a threepenny piece into the Thames from the exact centre of Waterloo Bridge on a clear night you can, if your eyes are good enough, watch it fall right into the water. If your ears are sharp enough you can hear the plip it makes as it enters.

If you’ve got a strong enough imagination you can drop with it through the cold black water, still a little salty even this far up, till it lies small and dull on the muddy bottom. Even then it probably hasn’t finished its journey, for the tide pulls and tugs and who can say where it will end up?

The imagination that invents the coin’s descent and wandering future belongs to the young solicitor Joe Hyman. A brief while after the incident, he’s in a telephone booth telling Susan Hirst, a younger relative of the deceased, about what he has just done.

The general contour of the call – he clinging desperately, she adamantly pushing away – will be familiar to the reader by now. For the course of the novel, the reader has been witnessing the end of this affair, exchange by exchange. In general, the flow of the dialogue has a jauntily propulsive, start-and-stop character that makes for smooth, if at times distressingly patchy, reading:

‘What’s this doing here?’ asked Joe. 

’It’s Oscar’s bowl,’ she said.

’It seems a bit big for that.’

’Sooner or later everything in this flat was converted into either a bed for Oscar to sleep in or a bowl for him to eat out of. Sam always -‘

’I wanted to ask you,’ he said. ‘What did you mean by saying that he disappeared one day?’

’He just disappeared,’ she said. ‘No one knew where he’d gone to.’ ‘But why?’ he said.

’He just did,’ she said.

Like this chat about the house cat that suddenly turns to the topic of Sam’s disappearance, most of the dialogue hands out information in very limited chunks. Misunderstandings and evasions between the characters being the norm, the open questions keep piling up. It is apparent long before the end of The Inventory that Josipovici’s novel is not in the business of providing closure.

The job of the big questions, the opaque gaps, is to generate tension and interest. Why did the dead man, David Hirsh, share an ascetic existence with Sam, a peculiar younger relative? What took place between Susan and the two men? Between Susan and Joe? Indeed, what was up with Sam with his extraordinarily long scarfs and bizarrely timed headstands?

As the short chapters jump from scene to scene, some strange effects begin to surface. For example, the story begins with Joe scratching Susan’s initials over a mirror: “Consider the difference between an S and an H. The one cunning, slippery, giving you nothing to grip, nothing to hold on to; the other solid, serious, standing almost ponderously on heavy legs.”

Now if we skip ahead some 70 pages, we have Susan describing Sam’s peculiarities with the words: “‘There was nothing to grip,’ she said . ‘Nothing to hold on to.'” This echoing effect happens more than once. Not only do the words reappear verbatim in new contexts in the above fashion, but later scenes sometimes replay and build on the material of earlier ones. Entries from the completed inventory of the house are peppered between the brief narrative chapters:

One (1) medicine chest – mirror cracked.

One (1) linen cupboard – see rider 2 (linen).

One (1) bath-mat.

One (1) mop.

One (1) sponge.

One (1) packed ‘Lifebuoy’ soap – unopened.

One (1) framed reproduction of ‘Mona Lisa’.

The inventory entries give clues as to how to picture the flat, but most of the items are forgotten almost as soon as they are read: the items are so mundane and numerous that only the more obviously funny or uncanny items tend to stick to mind. (A final irony is in store for those who try to make sense of the lives of the occupants by studying the inventory.)

In Reading, Writing and the Study of Literature, Josipovici talks about how for centuries realism has been seen as the kingmaker of artistic greatness in the Western tradition.

Most Western masterpieces seek to imitate life, but by careful omission and imaginative remolding they also apply a varnish of coherence and order to the world, without drawing attention to the wonderfully artificial distortions that they rely on.

In fact, the realist mode relies on the concealment of artifice. Josipovici’s polemic point is well taken. No matter the richness of the Western tradition, it is clear that this kind of bullheaded representational illusionism offers a drastically narrow view of the possibilities of art:

Since the Renaissance, Western art has been obsessed by the twin notions of imitation and expression. What Stravinsky and the Marx Brothers [the latter in their fourth-wall-breaking gags, the former in his propless music-theatre pieces] do is remind us that art has always and everywhere, apart from a brief span of time in a tiny corner of the globe, been seen less as the imitation of reality or the expression of profound truths than as a kind of toy.

Evidently, many of representational conventions have survived because they have served as excellent safeguards against the very same troubles Leonardo encountered in crafting the fable about fire. The conventions regarding characterization, description, plot et al. are not generative rules by any means, but they do make it easier to write books that have an air of completeness, however false, about them.

If the writer chooses to ignore or shake up these conventions, however, the risk of incompleteness grows with each new exploratory stab in the dark. But for Josipovici, incompleteness is itself precisely one of the things that the realist novel shuns by assuming that it already is the perfect vehicle for anything one might wish to express.

The Modernists and their precursors such as Sterne and Rabelais saw that the regular and incurious form of the realist novel reinforced a view of life that, for starters, denied the pivotal roles of doubt, ambiguity and failure in human affairs.

In Proust, Kafka and Eliot, Josipovici found writers who not only realized that art is often unable to articulate our experience, but who had also grasped that this understanding had to be worked into the very heart of the writer’s approach.

The analogy of art as a toy mentioned fleetingly above deserves a closer look. The rewarding analogy addresses three important features of cultural artifacts; namely, the interconnected relationships between form-content, part-whole and creator-creation. The same way a hobby-horse is both a stick and a stallion, the materials and the representations created out of those materials are plainly visible in every work of art. In this doubleness lies art’s great freedom:

“If there are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird there are also no doubt thirteen ways of making a mechanical blackbird, and each new way reveals a new aspect of the bird to us.”

Adopting this mechanical viewpoint, we can examine works of art as feats of aesthetic engineering. Every part and process is in view; every step is traceable, at least in outline. This way of looking at the creative process hammers home the point that we can begin with simple parts and end up with constructs of staggering functional complexity. By building toys, that is, by inventing complex cultural artifacts that reshape and extend the inventory of the world, writers and artists put into circulation new things and new ideas.

The last aspect of the analogy is the most psychologically acute, and tries to answer what the presence of art in our everyday lives means to us beyond the artistic experiences they make possible. According to Josipovici, works of art are reminders of the fact that creativity is a natural part of each of us. The greater the work, the more bittersweet the recall. The inventory of the world is there for us in all of its multiplicity and ingeniousness, and what do we do?

Far too often we spurn, or fail to give form to, the ideas we can just about glimpse with our mind’s eye. When we encounter great art, we are once again reminded of the bitter truth that invention and creativity are within our grasp.

But that, seen from a fresh angle, is sweetness itself: if we want to create art, all we need to do is act. If we feel that we have an imagination strong enough to follow the dropped coin down the river, and exact enough to wrestle with the infinite details of wood catching fire, we need only to begin the work.

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