I’m a bit behind on my reviews, which is odd for me, as I don’t usually read enough to have trouble writing about everything I read, in one form or another. Part of the problem, though, is that I need to write about Gabriel Josipovici’s extremely short novel Everything Passes, and I find myself at a loss for words. I’m tempted just to link to Litlove’s post on the book and leave it at that — her review does the job wonderfully well and I’m not sure what I can add.
But, I suppose, in addition to linking to Litlove’s post, I can also describe the book a bit. It’s incredibly short — really short story-length rather than novel or even novella-length. It’s 60 pages, but there is so much white space that the text itself is quite short. I read it in maybe half an hour, and that was taking it slowly. I read it twice in the same evening. Added to the book’s brevity is the fact that there is a lot of repetition, which means that Josipovici uses even less space to tell his story than is immediately apparent. The repetition takes the form of a refrain returned to again and again, with some variations:
He stands at the window.
And a voice says: Everything passes. The good and the bad. The joy and the sorrow.
It’s in between repetitions and variations on this passage that Josipovici finds a way to tell his story.
In spite of its brevity, the book gives you a full picture of the main character, Felix’s, life. We know something about his children, his wives, his friends, and his work. Josipovici gives hardly any detail about Felix or his family, but he still creates a sense of fullness, as though we have seen and understood all we need to know about the full sweep of the character’s life. This book shows that you don’t need a lot of nitty-gritty detail to create that sense of completeness and fullness — you can tell a story that feels rich by using broad brushstrokes and letting readers use their imaginations and their emotions to complete it.
It’s no surprise that a book that departs so radically from general expectations of what a novel or a novella is takes up the issue of the purpose and form of fiction directly. Felix has thought much about Rabelais and his fictional innovations. Rabelais, he claims, is the first to realize that the innovations in printing and publication of his time meant that he was no longer writing for an audience he knew, but instead was writing for strangers. Given the growth of mass publication, he couldn’t know his audience personally as Shakespeare might have or as anybody who wrote for a patron might have. This meant he wrote in an entirely different way:
Rabelais invented modern prose fiction. And no one really understood what he was up to for the next four hundred years, except for a few kindred spirits like Cervantes and Sterne. I want to make our culture aware of what he sensed and how he responded to the crisis of his time, which is also the crisis of our time. I want to sweep away the popular image of Rabelais as a writer of bawdy stories and nothing else. I want to make people aware of the issues he faced and so clear the ground for a genuine renewal of fiction writing in our day.
These are Felix’s thoughts, but it seems as though Josipovici is asking his own readers to consider what Rabelais accomplished and how he himself is trying to respond to changing circumstances by creating a new kind of fiction.
Josipovici’s own fiction is quiet and spare — he has pared down a story as far as it can possibly be pared down and yet it still has the power to move and surprise. He shows how a writer, with the help of sympathetic, willing readers, can do so much with so few words.
7 responses to “Everything Passes”
Maybe when I come up to sleep on the lumpy futon, I can borrow this one for the evening?
Aww, bless you. I loved what you had to say about the book and I am so delighted that it spoke to you, too. The ending is what gets me most of all, and yet you can’t discuss it on a blog, can you, and give it all away? I was also astonished by the literary minimalism and how effective that was. As you say, it feels rich because of the broad brushstrokes, not despite them. I still have Goldberg Variations to read, and I’m saving it up.
I really am going to read Josipovici this year. I like the idea of literary minimalism and will have to watch for this book as well (though I want to start with Goldberg Variations). Isn’t it nice starting the year with such a good book?
I think you did just fine on your review! I don’t really know anything about Rabelais but just from what you said about Josipovici I suddenly want to know more, and I want to know more about the impact of the printing press on writers.
Emily — this is the perfect book for the lumpy futon — something you can finish in an evening, easily. You are welcome to borrow it!
Litlove — thank you, and yes, the ending twist was very well done and satisfying. Josipovici writes in such varied ways — I’ve read two novels and parts of a nonfiction book, and none of them have been at all similar, except in the themes they take up about art and writers and readers.
Danielle — Goldberg Variations is a great place to start, and I hope you enjoy it. Josipovici is a great example of an experimental writer who is very accessible. It’s interesting about literary minimalism — I like it too, but I also like literary maximalism a lot as well!
Stefanie — thank you! I don’t know anything about Rabelais either, but I am curious about trying him, particularly as he influenced Cervantes and Sterne, who are two of my most favorite writers ever. And the impact of the printing press and of mass publication is fascinating — it’s one of the things I like about studying the 18C because the “literary marketplace” really took off then and writers responded to it in interesting ways.
The writing, at least the part that you quoted, is more like poetry than straight fiction. I like books that use that spareness. (This sounds so lame. Hopefully you know what I mean!).