I haven’t written about Gabriel Josipovici before on this blog but I have read him and felt his influence: he is a champion of Agota Kristof’s work and he himself is championed by critics like Steve Mitchelmore and Mark Thwaite – readers in whose opinions I have faith. More than that, I read Josipovici’s book What Ever Happened to Modernism? and found it impressive: one the one hand, revelatory, but also reassuring (that I wasn’t mad, or stubborn, to like some kinds of books more than others).
Hotel Andromeda is Josipovici’s newest novel and came at just the right time for me. I had recently finished another new book – not yet published so no names – and had been unable to get my head clear of it. I started and abandoned two or three books, which just seemed thin or silly in its shadow. Then I tried Hotel Andromeda and it worked: sharp and bright, like a newly struck currency, it has bags of energy and weight in fewer than 140 pages.
It is also magically light. Most of the novel is in brisk, peppery dialogue with not much distracting detail outside it. “He stands. He looks very tired.” “They walk.” “He shrugs.” “She stops.” Each dialogue is between Helena and another. Helena is a woman living in London, the object of unwanted attentions from her neighbour Tom (“Come and sit on my lap”), and a failing writer. That is her own view: on the one hand she writes to her sister, Alice, who is doing humanitarian work in Chechnya, but Alice doesn’t reply (“Even in my dreams she never replies”). Also, her books, though “much respected”, don’t sell, though she can still be a writer and nothing else, as “our parents left us both enough to get by. You could say I’m cursed with a small private income.” At the beginning of the story, she is trying and failing to write a book about the American artist Joseph Cornell, when her domestic routine is interrupted by the arrival of a Czech journalist and photographer, Ed; he claims that Alice told him that Helena would put him up.
Every few chapters, the dialogue gives way and we get extracts from Helena’s work-in-progress on Cornell. She dislikes much of his work, its “sweetness” and “tweeness”, but is moved by his boxed assemblages – glass-fronted boxes of found objects and scraps of Victoriana – and in particular his Hotel Andromeda series. She thinks them “as true to our time and as resonant as The Waste Land and Duchamp’s Large Glass.” (The latter is the subject of a thrilling analysis by Josipovici in What Ever Happened to Modernism?) It is the conflict and ambiguity of the boxes that appeals to her: the “seediness of the [hotel] notepaper,” “the wonder evoked by the name Andromeda” and “the beautiful bisexual body of the trapeze artist.” Most of all it leads her to the realisation that
I grew up thinking about art as ‘the beautiful’, but I have come to understand that that is not what art is at all. Art is what manages to express that which lies buried so deep inside us that we can never find the sounds or images or words for it and so could never have access to it were it not for others, artists.
This ties in with her sense of the impossibility of writing: of making writing do what she wants it to, which is to evoke what is inside us. Her house guest Ed, the photographer, finds a similar impossibility in reporting on the conflict in Chechnya. “It’s my job to show the world. But I cannot do it. Not really. […] I was there a long time and I understand nothing.” Not the least of Helena’s problems in writing about Cornell is that to make him the centre of a book “would be to distort him. […] He was never at the centre. Always at the side.” Always at the side: that is one way of putting it. Although Helena makes a distinction between Cornell and true “outsider artists” like Adolf Wölfli and Henry Darger (“people in asylums. Or who should have been in asylums”), it’s fair to say that he was outsider enough. He had “no idea of how to live in the world” and developed obsessions with, among others, Lauren Bacall. His “typical diet for one day in 1946 included caramel pudding, a few doughnuts, cocoa, white bread, peanut butter, peach jam, a Milky Way, some chocolate eclairs, a half-dozen sweet buns, a peach pie, a cake with icing, a prune twist.” One contemporary said of him: “I always had the feeling that if I shook him he would pulverize into dust, like old paper.”
Cornell himself struggled, as Helena struggles – as every artist ever has struggled – to achieve the alchemy that transforms life into art. “How,” Helena writes as she quotes from his notebooks, “to hold on to ‘the ceaseless flow and interlacing of original experience’? How to hold on to it and not kill it in the process?” Josipovici himself appears to have managed it, making a fluid, playful and serious book full of delights, from the “demented silence” of a Hans Namuth portrait of Cornell, through Wallace Stevens’ poetry (“Those that are left are the unaccomplished, / The finally human, / Natives of a dwindled sphere”), to Wittgenstein’s reported final, ambiguous words (“Please tell them I’ve had a wonderful life”). It’s all evidence of a mind full of both life and art, and a book that “preaches no sermon, yet, like music, it resonates within us, setting free a whole range of possibilities.”