I will try to write about Moo Pak without descending into one long, uninterrupted stream of block-quotes, but let me tell you, it will be a challenge. Because if there's one word to describe Gabriel Josipovici's critical-essay-cum-novella, it's "quotable." A bit surprising, really, seeing as this story of friendship between two men—Jack Toledano and Damien Anderson, talker and listener, writer/philosophizer and chronicler—takes the form of a single 151-page paragraph, with not a chapter heading or line break to be found. Jack's speech, or his different speeches, pieced together by Damien from memories of over ten years of walks and conversation with Jack, flows with seeming effortlessness from one subject to the next and back again, from Kew Gardens to Hampstead Heath, and the reader is swept along in its wake. (The style, which presents Jack's thoughts as seamlessly integrated with his actions and the sights he sees, reminded me incredibly strongly of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and A Room of One's Own—although, interestingly, Woolf was one author Jack never mentions.) And yet, despite its all-of-a-piece nature, the text has a surprisingly excerpt-able quality about it, to wit:
The trouble with me, he said, is that I have classical aspirations but a romantic temperament. I not only like but believe in the notion of regular daily work, of there being no question without an answer, no problem without a solution. But when it comes to it I cannot work unless I am fired by a belief in what I am doing, and there are many questions to which I have not been able to find the answer, many works I have started with high hopes and then been forced to abandon because I was unable to find the right solutions or even to decide what such solutions might be like if I should find them. But that is what we have to live with, he said, and got up abruptly and we left the lake and plunged once more into the birchwoods.
[On a personal note, I'll just say Oh! how I relate to this passage.]
In their ten-plus years together, the dueling legacies of Classicism and Romanticism is just one of Jack's many subjects; he discourses, too, on the religious remnants in a secular society; on the role of art in life; on the relative eccentricities of literature, music, and visual art; on the lives and work of Kafka, Swift, Proust, Eliot and Eliot, Stravinsky, Wodehouse, Mozart, Klee, Beckett, and many others; on the perceived degeneration ("Americanisation") of modern society; on gardens as symbols of continuity; on what it means to be a Sephardic Jew from Egypt living in England; and, perhaps most intriguingly, on his magnum-opus-in-progress, the epic work he calls, at different times, Animal Languages, or Moor Park.
[Swift's] anger and despair, he said, lay in this contradiction, that he could only speak with ease when he donned a mask and yet he hated the thought of hypocrisy and cowardice and wanted to tear the mask off as soon as it was on. Why I thought of Moor Park as a title, he said, is that, like Animal Languages, it is a contradiction in terms, and I like titles like that. A park is precisely what is not a moor, he said, what has ceased to be moor, nature, and has become park, civilisation. A moor, he said that day in Epping Forest, is nature without boundaries. A park, on the other hand, is precisely the imposition of boundaries, it makes human what was once natural. All books, he said, are moor parks, whether they realise it or not.
There is so much to discuss here, so many different directions in which to go, but I think the above quote expresses one of my favorite elements of Moo Pak, which is Josipovici's treatment of contradiction. I'm a huge fan of the idea that contradiction, even paradox, is a defining trait of the human experience, and that the only thing to do is find a way to accept that fact, even if we can't always celebrate it. Whitman's "I contain multitudes," and all that. But most expressions I've come across of this notion merely say it in words; Moo Pak manages to illustrate it structurally as well. As an example of what I mean: in the first twenty or so pages of the book, I was completely enamored of Jack's voice (as edited by Damien); he seemed smart and wise and interesting, and was talking about so many things that are important to me as well. I was underlining like mad, passages such as:
A decent conversation, he says, should consist of winged words, words that fly out of the mouth of one speaker and land in the chest of the other, but words that are so light that they soon fly on again and disappear for ever. We don't formulate a thought first and then polish it and finally release it, he said. If we did that we would never get to speak at all. We let it fly, he says, and sometimes it draws something valuable in its wake and sometimes nothing.
Then, for the next sixty pages or so, I started to get the sneaking suspicion that Jack might be a bit of a blowhard. He spends an awful lot of time kvetching about The Kids These Days, and how England is nothing like it once was, and how everyone has lost touch with what's important. Readers don't read in the "proper" way anymore (fatally, he implies that there is One Right Way), and the populace worships false gods. He starts to sound like some combination of crotchety Harold Bloom and someone's querulous, passive-aggressive great-aunt:
Forster and Greene were bad enough, he said, but if their art is not up to much at least it has integrity. Today in the majority of cases our writers have substituted self-righteousness for integrity, they flow with the filthy tide and talk of subversion and risk. It is laughable, he said, to hear them talk on television and in newspaper interviews about how they are vilified and silenced and how the authorities deny them a voice.
This kind of talk is sort of ridiculous to me. I don't believe for a minute that Shakespeare, for example, would have failed to take advantage of the modern publicity machine had it been available to him, or that Beckett is necessarily a better writer because he was a recluse. Nor do I believe that the level of greed, cupidity, banality, or selfishness of "the young" or "humankind" is significantly higher or lower now than it ever has been. I was disappointed in old Jack, I must say, and in his author. Why would someone with capacity for such brilliant passages spend so much time on mediocre complaining? Jack seemed more or less a simple mouthpiece for Josipovici, and I wasn't digging what was being trumpeted through him.
Then I started to notice certain details. Certain contradictions, cracks in the joint between Josipovici and Toledano. I didn't begin to catch them until about two-thirds of the way into the book, but then they started piling on. Jack complains, for example, about all his English friends who moan about how much they hate England and fantasize about moving elsewhere; yet later on, he himself goes on about how "London is indeed becoming a most horrible place," and how he has considered moving to the country. Little things. He criticizes those who use other people as an excuse to monologue, and yet the reader's entire experience of Jack himself is as one long mediated monologue via Damien. I began to have hope of more distance between Josipovici and Jack than I had at first realized, hope that Jack was sometimes supposed to seem irritating or less-than-inspired.
Shortly thereafter, Jack himself acknowledges the importance of accepting contradictions, in passages like the one about moor parks above, or like this gorgeous snippet:
But what we have to do, he said as we fled from the Park and the cries of the caged animals and birds, is to live out the contradictions and to see what can be done with them. What I am after, he said as we waited at the bus-stop, is a work which tries to be generous to all contradictions, to place them against each other and let the reader decide. Even that, he said, is the wrong way of putting it. The reader too can only live out those contradictions, cannot adjudicate between them.
Ah, I thought. Maybe I'm starting to get what Josipovici is doing here. I as the reader must put Jack's annoying side next to his inspiring side, what he said last week next to the contradictory argument he made today, and accustom myself to the dissonance. Live through the contradictions, just as Jack himself talks of doing with all the different manifestations of the Moor Park estate in his epic history-in-progress.
But THEN! I don't quite know how to put this (and it's odd that such a plot-less book would have a spoiler), but the last few pages really took this whole dialectic of living through contradictions to a whole new level for me. It's as if Josipovici is saying to the reader "You think you're accommodating contradiction now—just you wait." What are we to make of the final pages, my friends? To what extent to they change our perception of what came before? Do they invalidate the rest of the monologue, or not at all? And what do we do with the fact that, in the last few pages, the usual interjection changes from "he said" (referring to Jack) to "he wrote" (referring to Damien)? Who is the real author here, and what is the real art?
I don't have answers to these questions yet, but I'm very much enjoying thinking about them. Moo Pak (despite the parts of it that contradict this statement) was a beautiful, thought-provoking read.
Moo Pak was June's pick for the Non-Structured group; please consider joining us in July for Kenzaburo Oe's A Personal Matter.