Saturday 15 June 2019

Contre-Jour by Gabriel Josipovici     {Reviewed by THOMAS}
The background in a painting of Pierre Bonnard often assumes more importance than the foreground, overwhelming the subject with the force of greater light and colour. Bonnard’s work, according to critic Roberta Smith, is remarkable for “the heat of mixed emotions, rubbed into smoothness, shrouded in chromatic veils and intensified by unexpected spatial conundrums and by elusive, uneasy figures.” Gabriel Josipovici’s subtle, disconcerting and remarkable novel, Contre-Jour: A triptych after Pierre Bonnard, is written in a similar way, against the light, a work of obsessive background that at once conceals and reveals its subject. The first and longest of the three sections of the novel is addressed bitterly by a young woman to her estranged mother, lamenting that she was forced to leave the family house, pushed out of the all-consuming relationship between her mother and her father, an artist who obsessively works to turn life into art, making him a passive but controlling observer, sketching and painting everything around him and draining them of autonomy and meaning. “‘Nothing stands still, nothing opens itself to our gaze but always retreats, vanishes, turns into something else,’” the daughter reads in her father’s notebook. The daughter returns again and again to the moment when she realised her exclusion from her parents’ relationship, when, as a child, she came into the bathroom where her mother was lying in the bath and noticed her father in the corner sketching, excluding her by his gaze. “Though your eyes are open,” she accuses her mother, “ and you must have seen me, you did not react to my presence. But perhaps you didn’t see me. Perhaps it is only in my memory that your eyes are open.” In one moment, which was no different perhaps from many other moments (incidentally, Bonnard repeatedly painted his wife Marthe de Méligny in the bath after they moved from Paris to the south of France in 1939 and before her death in 1942), in a moment that was merely an iteration of an obsessively repeated super-moment, the daughter realises that “it was not possible for the three of us to be together.” Could this moment, so like so many other moments, have been different? “Should a word have been said then, by me, by you, by him, which, unsaid, made all speech between us impossible ever after?” The gaze that binds her parents into the relationship from which art is produced, the relationship that excludes all else, is the gaze that nullifies the daughter. “And do you know what that made me feel? Not just that I was not wanted, but that I did not exist, I had never existed and I would never exist.” The words come “as if I had nothing to do with the words I speak to you. As if there were not spoken by me but to me or at me or in me. In my head. In my mouth. Wherever it is that words resound. In some space or place where words resound.” The daughter realises that the gaze simultaneously sustains and nullifies its object, her mother, and that the mother’s complicity in the obsessively visual relationship was a way of destroying both herself and monopolising her husband. “When you turned your face to the wall and cried he sat there in the corner sketching.” Obsession defers depression. “What you wanted, I think, as time went by, was to disappear entirely, to efface yourself from his presence. There was something that was killing you in his even-handed depiction of everything around him.” The second section of the novel is addressed by the mother to the daughter, whom she blames for their estrangement, and with whom she has many times attempted contact. “I have written you letters and posted them at the corner of the street. Why do you never reply?” The mother is stricken by the impossibility of a relationship with her daughter, impossibility within herself as much as in the daughter or the situation: “Where does it come from, this love one is supposed to give?” In the same way that the father has written in his notebook, of his art, “I want my people to be bathed in time as the impressionists bathed them in light,” the novel shows its characters overwhelmed by the temporal medium in which everything takes place, and the characters are depicted not so much against light (contre-jour) as against time (contre-temps). “You wake up and things have changed but you know that things have been changing for a long time,” the mother says. Despite the capturing of moments (“When he is not sketching me I wonder if I am really there.”), or perhaps because of this, time is always the overwhelming, unresolvable problem. “‘How to paint what happens when nothing happens?’ he used to say. I knew what he meant,” the mother says. “Nothing happens and nothing happens and nothing happens and all of a sudden there is a whole life gone and you realise that all those nothings were in fact everything.” The mother tells of a visit to her daughter’s apartment, which went so improbably well that we begin to suspect what is eventually manifestly the truth: the daughter does not exist and has never existed. The daughter is the delusional creation of the ‘mother’, but a creation that cannot receive or return love. “Oh my daughter. Whom I never had. For whom I longed. … If I had had you all the world would have been different. Even if things had been bad between us. It would have been different if I had had a daughter. Not this great emptiness. This great silence.” Reality, without the daughter, is intolerable, and, towards the end, we learn of the reason for the move from Paris to the countryside, and for the seemingly obsessive attention given by the artist to his subject: “Why could we not go on living in a fourth floor flat? Because of the animals? No. Because I tried to jump out of the window.” The daughter, the voice of the daughter, the daughter who exists only as a voice, the voice of the entire first section of the novel (the voice who said, “I had never existed and I would never exist. … I have nothing to do with the words I speak to you. As if there were not spoken by me but to me or at me or in me. In my head. In my mouth. Wherever it is that words resound,” &c), is a product entirely of the ‘mother’s’ mind, just as it is, in turn, a product, along with the ‘mother’s’ voice, of the author’s mind (and, by extension, of the reader’s mind). If the daughter exists, to the extent that she exists, and it cannot be said that she does not exist, in the way that all fiction exists, for the saddest of reasons in the mother’s mind, what does this tell us about the author’s mind (and, by extension, the reader’s mind)? What does this tell us about the mental operations that, when not overwhelming our sanity, we call fiction? The third and last section of the novel is a very short, sad and straightforward letter from the artist informing a friend of his wife’s death. It constitutes the only ‘objective’ element in the novel. 

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