Gabriel Josipovici: A Hundred Days

TT Journal, Vol.1, ISSUE 1, 3rd November 2020

When, on 20 March, I learned that lockdown was imminent I decided this was too great an opportunity to pass by: a bracket round our lives, no cars, no building works, and for those of us lucky enough to have (as we did) good country walking on our doorstep and the good fortune to be retired on a pension, bliss. Clouded of course with dread, for our loved ones and ourselves.

I decided that for a hundred days I would keep a daily diary, and every day after the diary I would write a short memory or thought, one a day. I decided I would use the alphabet to trigger these, and hoped I would find enough items to fill the hundred days. As it turned out I managed 86 entries over 97 days, one or two taking up  two days and once or twice not feeling well enough to produce much. By the time I had completed the hundredth diary entry the Government had announced that the lockdown would be relaxed a week hence, on 4 July. I conceived it as a sort of reckoning as I approached my eightieth birthday, or perhaps a self-portrait at eighty. What follows is one of the ‘thoughts’.

The English Language

When I was starting to write and finding that everything I put down was stale and bore no relation to what I wanted, yet had no idea what it was I wanted, one of the things I blamed was the language. I had come to English at the age of six and though I had then learned it rapidly, as one does at that age, it was in a country where the main language was not English and where the only English people I knew were my teachers. Yet here I was, saddled with the language, unable to write in any other. I looked with envy at painters and composers who worked with an international language and never needed to concern themselves with such things.

Even today I lament the fact that I am not inward with the language as, say, Muriel Spark was or Rosalind is, born and bred as they were in the British Isles. But as I forged a style for myself I began to see that if not being inward with the language was a handicap it was perhaps not a fatal one. I came across Stravinsky’s remark that ‘Had Beethoven had Mozart’s lyric gifts he would never have developed his rhythmic capacities to the extent he did’, and I kept that as a mantra to recite whenever I felt the disadvantages of not being a native speaker weighing me down. After all, coming at language as an outsider might have its advantages, as Beckett and Nabokov showed. I was no Beckett or Nabokov, but I was me, and I would have to find how I could work comfortably with what I had.

I was no Beckett or Nabokov, but they had a native language to bounce off, Irish English and Russian. And Beckett at least, after deliberately deciding to renounce his native language for his adopted one, remained happy to write in the two languages for the rest of his life. But what was my native language? Not French, which I spoke predominantly with my mother from the moment I learned to speak till we imperceptibly switched to English in my sixth or seventh year. I did not feel French and I did not and never have considered French ‘my’ language. Not Arabic, which was an alien language I had to learn at my English school in Egypt, quite rightly of course, but I knew I was not Egyptian and never learned it properly anyway. And obviously not English. But recently I have begun to question whether there really is such a thing as a native language. There is no doubt that the language spoken by mothers and grandmothers tends to have a special place in most people’s sense of language. Kafka’s famous diary entry on how the German word Mütter cannot, for him, represent his (Jewish)  sense of mother is well known and a powerful testimony to the abiding presence of a native language. But long before Kafka Dante had also written passionately about this in his plea for Italian to be given as much respect as Latin was in his day. Without that native language, he writes wittily, my parents, meeting, would not have been able to speak and so to fall in love and marry and I would never have been born. And in the Commedia he makes a powerful case for the importance of the language of mamma and babbo, as he puts it. But there too he analyses how dangerous is the human tendency to look backwards and to assert some primal innocence. We must acknowledge where we came from, he says, but acknowledge too that this must be both integrated into our being and eventually transcended. If you are an artist working with language you must hone a new language, turning neither to Latin, the language of Authority, nor to childish babble, which does not know the full potential of language, but to that which you have yet to make. The Commedia is of course both an exploration of this issue in all its dimensions and an example of what he means.

The only writer I know who seems to have had precisely my problem of not being inward with any language is Derrida. In The Monolingualism of the Other, one of his most autobiographical pieces, he informs us that as an Algerian Jew he could not identify with French, the language of the colonialist, or Arabic, the language of the native majority, or even Hebrew, a language his family had lost touch with long before. But then, he points out, we none of us ‘have’ a language in the sense that we have a body, we speak a language. It is something we use, not something we possess. This makes sense to me and helps free me from mourning the absence of something which does not exist.

It doesn’t quite answer the question of what Kafka, Nabokov and Dante felt as a gift and Beckett as a curse. But I discovered over the years that it was not so much the English language I was not inward with as English culture, whatever that vague word might mean. Just as I did not feel ‘street-wise’, so I did not feel ‘English-wise’ or Scottish or Irish-wise. I could feel it when I came across it but I did not have it. And this is a big disadvantage. On the other hand the lack of something, as Stravinsky noted, only makes me more aware of how having such street wisdom too often stops English writers from writing much of interest. Of interest to me, at any rate. And explains to me why I warm to writers like Pinter and Spark, where inwardness with the language and culture is used rather than accepted by writers who do not feel themselves to be quite English. And this is true of Stoppard too, with Jewish parents and an immigrant background, and of younger writers like Deborah Levy, brought up in South Africa, and Kirsty Gunn, brought up in New Zealand, both of course growing up with English, but not with England.

In a recent TLS the Liverpudlian poet Nicholas Murray takes issue with Ian McMillan, himself a poet from Barnsley and a regular Radio 3 presenter of cultural programmes, who had lamented the absence from the BBC of newsreaders with local accents. ‘Even if one concedes the richness and vitality of regional speech,’ writes Murray, ‘and the fact that it has no need to justify itself to anyone, I still hesitate a little over McMillan’s call for more northern accents. First of all a radio voice needs to be just that: a voice that the stippled microphone takes a fancy to – rich, clearly audible, musical, resonant, pleasant on the ear. It doesn’t matter that a Scottish Radio 3 presenter rhymes Brahms with ‘rams’ rather than ‘arms’ if the voice is doing its job with silky panache. I confess a sneaking preference for the traditional Radio 3 voices, the immaculate precision (not haughtily patrician like Lawrence’s Oxford condescenders) of Penny Gore or Donald McLeod, as opposed to the recent flowering of Northern announcers on Radio 3 and other stations, which McMillan has doubtless noted.’

Murray’s point is the same as Derrida’s, though less polemically delivered: to fetishise the local origins of the voice is to substitute some mythical notion of identity (which can never be fully satisfied since all languages, including all dialects, have to sacrifice some modicum of uniqueness and individuality for comprehensibility) for the truth that it all depends on what is done with the voice.

In the end the writer has to do the best he or she can with what they have and leave it to others to decide if it’s any good.

Born in Nice to Russo-Italian, Romano-Levantine parents, Gabriel Josipovici lived in Egypt until he came to the UK in 1956. He taught at the University of Sussex at Brighton from 1963 until 1998, where he is now Research Professor in the Graduate School of Humanities. He was formerly Weidenfeld Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Oxford. Josipovici has published over a dozen novels, three volumes of short stories and a number of critical books. Carcanet Press have published his work since his novel Contre Jour in 1986. His plays have been performed throughout Britain and on radio in France and Germany, and his work has been translated into the major European languages and Arabic.

Images from are from a walk with Gabriel Josipovici, in 2015, by Tereza Stehlikova