The Goldsmiths Prize is awarded every year to the most innovation fiction in Britain and Ireland. It is for fiction that ‘opens up new possibilities for the novel form’. It is a prize I look forward too and those looking for something different than the usual fare (read the Booker Prize), can always find something interesting on this shortlist, irrespective of who the ultimate winner is. In the last many years, certainly, the books on the Goldsmiths shortlist have been much stronger than the ones on the Booker list.
I had never heard of Gabriel Josipovici’s novel The Cemetery in Barnes until the shortlist was announced. But boy, I am so glad to have read this one because it was brilliant. It will surely cement a place on my Best of the Year for 2018 list.
The Cemetery in Barnes opens quietly enough to deceptively give you the impression that this is going to be a straightforward story…
He had been living in Paris for many years. Longer, he used to say, than he cared to remember.
When my first wife died, he would explain, there no longer seemed to be any reason to stay in England. So he moved to Paris and earned his living by translating.
Our narrator is a translator who is living in Paris alone. We learn that he is a creature of habit and quite successful in his profession.
We also know that his first wife has died. Perhaps that is why he settled in Paris to heal his wounds and busy himself in work?
After the death of his first wife what he needed most was solitude, he said. Not that he wanted to brood on what had happened, he just wanted to be alone. I suppose I took on more work than was strictly necessary, he would say, but I think I needed to feel that when one book was finished there was always another waiting for me, and then another.
But this phase of solitude is not permanent because very quickly it becomes apparent that he married again and has been living with his second wife in a farmhouse in Wales.
So essentially it’s a novel in three parts across three time frames – the translator with his first wife in Putney London, the translator alone in Paris, and then the translator with his second wife in Wales.
The narrator and his second wife often have friends and acquaintances who drop by at their farmhouse.
Because his wife – his second wife – knew how to make them comfortable and welcome, it was a pleasure to sit there in the old converted farmhouse in the mountains, sipping good wine and looking out over the rolling hills and valleys spreading out below them. Most of the time he talked about his life in Paris.
In a way they form a chorus for the story as the couple engages in friendly banter essentially touching on the narrator’s life before he married her, his passion and work (music and translation), and the life they are leading now.
I’m so uneducated, she would say. When I met him I thought a saraband was something you wore round your waist.
You had other qualities, he would say, smiling.
But an appreciation of classical music was not one of them, she would say.
Gradually, some tidbits from each phase of his life are doled out to us.
In London for instance, his first wife was a ‘trainee solicitor and amateur violinist’. They had a routine wherein he would pick her up once her work was over and both would, hand in hand, go strolling in the park or walk through the city streets.
But were they happily married? It would seem so given that the narrator chose to relocate to Paris once she died to blunt his grief. It is also appears so from the conversations between him and his second wife wherein the latter emphasizes on how lonely he was (which the narrator denies) and in a way needed to be rescued from himself.
And then we come across these paragraphs which makes us question the nature of his relationship with his first wife.
He felt at times as if he did not understand her at all. She was there and yet she was not there. He held her and yet he did not hold her. As they walked, hand in hand, he sometimes felt he was walking with a stranger.
And it only gets a bit eerie later…
Occasionally, in Putney, he would wait outside Putney Bridge tube station, but not in his usual place. Hidden behind a newspaper stand he would observe the commuters streaming out of the station, heads bowed, eyes blank with weariness. Then he would see her. She would stand for a moment at the exit, not looking round for him but simply waiting for him to come up to her if he was there.. After a few seconds, when he did not appear, she would start off across the street and disappear under the shadow of the footbridge.
He would give her time to climb the stairs, then slowly follow.
In Paris, the narrator is a man of habits, and a well-defined routine, which he seems to be following to the tee, deviating from it once in a while.
Most of the time he stuck to his routine without a thought: rise, shave, dress, Pantheon, breakfast, work steps, coffee, shopping, lunch, steps, work, tea, steps, supper, steps, music, Pantheon, bath, bed.
He relishes his moments of solitude and finds joy in his work of translation. Indeed, we are given a glimpse into his craft – its pleasures, pitfalls and challenges, be it translating tedious works or beautifully constructed poems (particularly du Bellay’s rhymes).
In Wales, he lives a harmonious existence with his second wife in their spacious farmhouse, possibly envied by their friends and acquaintances although the couple do not have many things in common but have gelled well in their relationship despite this.
That’s the overall story arch. To reveal more would be to spoil the experience.
So let me touch on what makes The Cemetery in Barnes such a wonderful, compelling tale. First, at a mere 100 pages, there is so much that Josipovici packs into the story – the three plots, rumination on the art of translation, references to Orfeo, the French poet du Bellay’s poems, and Monteverdi’s opera – without making it all seem complex and knotty. I must admit that even though the Orfeo and Monteverdi references sailed right above my head, in no way did it diminish the pleasure I derived from this book.
Second, although there are three distinct plots, these do not follow one another in any strict linear fashion. Instead, the three story threads are expertly woven into each other to form one seamless narrative. In other words, there is nothing disorienting about it, which is testament to Josipovici’s storytelling skills.
Third, the prose is elegant and gorgeous. It maintains a quiet undertone throughout with enough hints of something dark simmering under the calm surface. Sentences and episodes are often repeated and retold, like the chorus in a soundtrack (our protagonist loves music, hence the music references above), building up to an effect that is hypnotic and mesmerizing.
But what’s most striking about this novel is how wonderfully ambiguous it is. Lean, spare and quite unsettling, the tension steadily mounts, but you are not really sure what happened or what is about to.
It is a nuanced and layered narrative ripe with many meanings and open to multiple interpretations giving each reader a chance to come up with his/her own take on the novel.