Infinity: The Story of a Moment, Gabriel Josipovici, Carcanet Press, 128pp, £12.95 (paperback)

Infinity: The Story of a Moment, Gabriel Josipovici’s latest novel, describes the life of Tancredo Pavone, a Sicilian nobleman and composer. Born in the early part of the twentieth century, Pavone is loosely based on the Italian composer, Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988). The novel takes the form of an interview with Massimo, Pavone’s assistant and chauffeur. The unnamed interviewer makes the occasional comment about Massimo: ‘He was silent. I waited for him to continue.’ Otherwise, the text is entirely comprised of Massimo’s memories of Pavone, mostly quoting his late master directly and apparently verbatim.

From a privileged background, Pavone quickly eschews the enjoyable but empty existence of a Monte Carlo playboy to devote his life to music. A quest to understand his creativity takes him on journeys to Benin, where he admires ancient masks, and to India and Nepal, where he learns that human life is no more important than that of the smallest creatures.

In the East, he is impressed with the rollers: pilgrims who roll thousands of miles towards their goal, the shrine of a holy man, and on the journey they are preceded by someone who sweeps ants and spiders so that the roller does not crush them to death. Pavone is less impressed by Western culture: ‘We have shops of every kind to satisfy every possible whim and every possible desire, but we have no centre and no core.’ His disappointment with the world is such that he tells Massimo we have to eradicate our desire to make the world a better and more civilised place, while accepting that such a change would never happen.

Resentful of the culture of the celebrity artist and of the media prying intoprivate lives at the expense of art, Pavone tells Massimo how, following a major performance of his music, all that journalists could find to write about was a story from a chambermaid in his hotel, who claimed that he had slept in a cupboard. When he directs his bile towards the declining standards of dry cleaning or beautiful women – ‘They do not know their own mind. They are like moths around the flame’ – the reader gets the impression that nothing escapes his anger. To his credit, he demands high standards of himself, and of his staff, whom he hires and fires apparently at whim.

Pavone is much more than a misanthrope and a curmudgeon, however. His amiable eccentricity and complexity emerge when he talks about music:

Each sound is a sphere, he said. It is a sphere, Massimo, and every sphere has a centre. The centre of the sound is the heart of the sound. One must always strive to reach the heart of the sound, he said. If one can reach that, one is a true musician. Otherwise one is an artisan.

Pavone insists on the difference ‘between a craft and a calling’. In his view, a true artist has to enjoy solitude and build that solitude inside himself in order to create. A real composer has to understand that ‘eternity and the moment are one and the same thing’. He is alert, also, to the dark moments of creativity, the moments of suffering, the moments of failure. As he says, ‘they are part of the whole and must be seen as such’. Being creative became essential once humans progressed beyond the need to hunt for food. Yet he sometimes has the impression he is alone in needing more than the happiness of a materially comfortable life.

Pavone teaches Massimo that human beings need wonder: ‘Without wonder we are ants.’ Perhaps his most intriguing idea comes from his application to the art of the Tantric principle of the retention of the semen:

We must reach as close as we can to the sexual climax, he said, but not allow the accumulated tension to explode, as it does in normal sexual intercourse. It must be recycled, he said, so that we can allow the excitement to circulate, if need be for ever. […] Western music from Mozart to Mahler, he said, is nothing but delayed gratification ending in consummation and exhaustion. That is the music of adolescents, Massimo, he said. It is the music of adolescent masturbators.

At the beginning of the interview Massimo expresses respect and admiration for his late master. He says that Pavone ‘was himself’ and a ‘singular gentleman’, attributes that, Massimo insists, cannot be explained: ‘you would have had to know him’ to understand but he has never met another one like him. The novel ends on a lyrical note with Massimo’s memory of sitting in the car with Pavone during their last outing. The composer’s lips are blue and he says nothing but the beauty of that moment lives on in Massimo’s mind and he tells the interviewer: ‘I suppose when I too am gone it will not be in anybody’s head but that will not matter, as Mr Pavone always said, it is the music that matters. Massimo, not you and me but the music.’ After this, despite promptings by the interviewer, who clearly misses the point and, like a reader of social realism, craves a traditional closure, Massimo repeats that he has nothing more to say.

Yet how do we know that Pavone really said what Massimo says he said? This loyal servant is so protective of his master’s life that he turns down a lucrative position at the Fondazione Tancredo Pavone. Are we to accept, then, that he would speak to an interviewer, presumably from the press, and reveal details from his master’s private life?

Although Josipovici’s text eschews the well-worn postmodernist devices of questioning the presented and undermining the narrator, we cannot miss the irony of an interview about the composer with a person who, by his own admission, knows nothing about music and can therefore talk only about the composer’s life. Has Massimo (and has Pavone?) played a trick on the unnamed interviewer, who has clearly not listened carefully? (‘You cannot imagine, he [Pavone] said, the degree of laziness, venality and mendacity of these journalists.’) The reader, too, has to go back and reread the text.

Those old misanthropes (such as me) who share Pavone’s views will have been nodding in agreement, delighted at hearing such views expressed.

Nevertheless it should be borne in mind that Massimo may have made up some, if not all, of his answers. Remember the author’s choice of the surname: pavone means peacock in Italian. Is that not a warning not to take the composer, or Massimo (or oneself?) too seriously?

Infinity is a multi-layered text that can be read as a satire of our culture. As Pavone points out in one of the many comic moments in the text, the press, constantly photographing the artist’s nose, might just as well carry pictures of the artist’s member. The novel also works on the level of an interview about a famous composer, an artist dissociated from the lives of ordinary people and an individual dislocated from his environment. As the last of these, Pavone is yet another of Josipovici’s eternal exiles, ‘a stranger everywhere on earth’ but at home in his art.

At the core of Infinity is the question of the possibility of art in our world. Josipovici expounded on this in What Ever Happened to Modernism? (reviewed here in February/March 2011). With reference to Hegel, in that critical text he wrote that ‘the Oracles, which pronounced on particular questions, are dumb’: they no longer have a voice in a world in which the social structures that made their existence possible have been replaced by modern capitalists. Max Weber termed this condition the ‘disenchantment of the world’. In Infinity, and in several of his earlier novels, Josipovici wonders whether art, and what kind of art, can remain meaningful under such circumstances. Pavone’s pronouncements on the artist’s need for solitude, and to accept rejection, false starts and dark moments, engage with Weber’s disenchantment. The same goes for Pavone’s thoughts on art, always defining it as he does in negative terms. (The publisher’s blurb aptly compares the novel to Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus.) On the level of form, Infinity’s rejection of the dominant narrative devices of plot and closure, and its use of a single interview, rewardingly explore what the novel can do in our time.

Josipovici does not ‘write by numbers’. Therefore, as the rest of his fiction, this short and exquisitely-styled text is a breath of fresh air among contemporary British novels, which typically offer Schadenfreude or the voyeuristic pleasure of peeping into other people’s lives. Among fellow novelists, a legion of craftspeople, Josipovici has a calling; he is himself; he is a singular gentleman. To paraphrase Massimo, you have to read him to see what I mean.

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