Review | The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici

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“After all, everyone has fantasies. In the one life there are many lives. Alternative lives. Some are lived and others imagined. That is the absurdity of biographies, he would say, of novels. They never take account of the alternative lives casting their shadows over us as we move slowly, as though in a dream, from birth to maturity to death.”

The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici is a multifaceted novel that manages to be lavish with its prose despite being succinct with its word count. It has recently been longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize 2019 for the best fiction published by a small publisher in addition to having been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize 2018 for experimental, boundary-pushing fiction. Josipovici himself is a champion of contemporary modernism who has been published in the very pages of the in The London Magazine since the 1970s. The path of his remarkable life has seen him live in several disparate countries — from France, to Egypt, to England — which is perhaps what makes him so adept at writing from the perspective of different locations and moments in time. Josipovici announced at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August last year, “I’m interested in how we live through time, that is why I write novels rather than poetry.” (source). It is with this observation in mind that The Cemetery in Barnes can best be understood; as a story that simultaneously occurs in multiple places at once, breaking free of the physical limitations imposed upon the human experience.

The story is told using a modernist framework; three plots across three locations are interwoven in a heteroglossic narrative that cuts back and forth over a number of years. This story belongs to that of an unnamed translator, a man of simple pleasures who implements a therapeutic and monotonous routine to escape the burden of his perturbed past. He lived in London, Paris, and has settled in the hills of Abergavenny, Wales (the three locations from which he narrates), and while every aspect of his life is in perfect harmonic order, he is unable to escape the unruly ache caused by the death of his first wife. This concoction of grief, regret and scrupulosity are met with many attempts to find absolution: he remarries, emigrates across seas, and throws himself into the comforting order of work and routine. The plot is purposefully ambiguous throughout; it never reveals too much, and never shares trivial information such as the names or backstories of secondary characters. Rather, the delight of this novel is found in the divulged details of the translator’s daily repetitions.

“He kept a supply of specially imported Ceylon Orange Pekoe long-leaf tea in a little wooden box with a red dragon stamped upon it and was very precise about heating the pot, giving the leaves a chance to expand in the warmth of its belly and, once the boiling water had been poured in, about the amount of time he let it stand.”

This descriptive realism contrasts with the overarching incertitude of its modernist narrative, allowing the reader to slowly unearth the biggest mysteries of the man’s life through the smallest details. Every time the translator loses himself in a passage of description, he teases a little more information about his marriage, his remarriage, his love and his loss. While ultimately the novel is tinged with melancholy, the reader, like the translator, becomes comforted by these rituals in a way that is almost hypnotic. Likewise, when Gabriel Josipovici read the opening excerpt at the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist readings in October last year, it was as though a pendulum of serenity had swung across the room. That month had felt particularly rough, with Brexit negotiations taking up every headline, threatening international relations, and a worldwide surge in natural disasters. The mood was that of both urgency and exhaustion — the zeitgeist that Olivia Laing managed to capture perfectly with her gloriously frantic reading of Crudo — yet, when Josipovici unfolded his tale, his gentle pace and verbal illustration of the translator’s repetitive life established a sense of comfort. The translator, a character with no name, evanescent in the sands of time, became at once familiar; his world became soothing when the world outside of the lecture hall was not.

“You see, he would say, I’m a creature of habit. I belong to an older generation.”

This lulling quality remains true especially upon a second or third reading, much like how the translator channels his anxieties by listening to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo on repeat and obsessing over the sonnets of Joachim du Bellay (despite his hopeless attempts at translating them into English). He enjoys long, leisurely walks in London and Paris, taking the reader with him as he strolls through spots such as the old flea market in Porte de Clingancourt, the riverbank near Hammersmith Bridge, and the Cemetery in Barnes itself. These recurrent indulgences in music, poetry and walking produce the rich, rhythmic repetition that serves as the novel’s form.

The Cemetery in Barnes may not be a novel with a happy beginning, middle or end, nor a novel too heavily reliant upon plot much at all — it does not need to be. Rather, the ability of Josipovici’s prose to create the contradictory atmosphere of tranquillity suffused with eerie dread is what makes it a truly exceptional work.

Words by Vanessa Wheeler.

For more on The Cemetery in Barnes, visit Carcanet.


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