On beginning to read any of Gabriel Josipovici’s fiction, there is a multiple awareness, based on past experience, of aspects that lie ahead: tension felt as one is led through the material; a vertiginous aspect to the experience; renewed enjoyment in the language; and the re-enforced knowledge that whatever surety we possess on the edge of the first page will be turned inside out, undermined, transformed, and left more in the air by the last page. Small wonder, then, that in the “self-impoverished narrowness of mainstream British so-called ‘literary’ literature, its obsession with Amises and McEwans, its deliberate ignorance of so much else,” as Jenny Turner put it in her review of Tom McCarthy’s C (2011) for the London Review of Books, there is little discussion of Josipovici. In 2010 alone, he put out Heart’s Wing and Other Stories, Only Joking (a comic novel), and the critical work What Ever Happened to Modernism?, which earned him some notoriety (yet he isn’t noticed by, for example, Booker Prize judges).
Infinity: The Story of a Moment from the start raises questions unresolved at the end. A former manservant, Massimo, of a dead Sicilian composer named Tancredo Pavone, is interviewed by an unnamed person about the life of the seemingly misunderstood, principled aristocrat whose compositions slowly garnered interest over time. (A note at the back of the book states that the life and writings of a real composer, Giacinto Scelsi, have been used, loosely, in creating the character.) We aren’t told the purpose of the interview, though we know that, as the composer died of natural causes, there’s nothing criminal in this regard. (Massimo’s contact with another employee of Pavone, Miss Mauss, the nature of which goes unstated, does seem to edge near the criminal: “Nothing was ever proved, I said,” in his words.) The interviewer alternates between encouragement, exasperation, and unseemly prying.
He was silent.
After a while I said: Go on.
– Yes, sir, he said. How would you like me to go on?
– In any way you wish, I said.
– Yes, sir, he said, but he did not go on.
– Did he often speak about his wife? I finally asked.
That type of exchange is a feature of the book until, at some point, Pavone’s servant no longer needs prompting. Massimo’s retelling of his master’s thought and life takes in Pavone’s early successes in Monte Carlo and London, his musical study in Vienna, life and friendships in Paris, and time in Swiss sanatoria. What marks him most are the trips to West Africa (1926) and, above all, India and Nepal (1949), where his encounter with Buddhist chanting and trumpets change his conceptions of sound and music. Arabella, Pavone’s wife, left him for the third and last time when the second World War ended, and once recovered and living in Rome, he concentrated on forgetting everything learned from his time as a student of Scheler, himself a student of Schoenberg. Incorporating what he’s learned from his travels, Pavone starts writing pieces for the piano, quartets, and voices (without words) that cause commotions in the audience. Six Sixty-Six is the
same note struck in the same way on the piano six hundred and sixty-six times. It was beautiful, Massimo, he said, Its beauty was an otherworldly beauty. It would either drive you mad or draw you into another dimension, When it was performed…the audience rioted, and walked out. Cage said to me: This is a piece I would like to have written if only I had thought of it.
As is usual in Josipovici’s work, there is a wit present that, due to Pavone’s nature, comes out in putdowns (“And then listen to the music of a dedicated mountain-goer like Mahler and you see what a disaster for music mountains have been. That music neither sings nor dances, it crawls on its belly and imagines it is rising to the stars.”), maxims (“Sound is immutable and...