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Review of Infinity by Gabriel Josipovici - Deborah Levy, Jewish Quarterly, Summer 2012

'This is a charming, sexy, modern and scholarly novel - an unusual mix but all the better for it.'

Infinity is a novel about a character we never meet. Instead, we encounter Tancredo Pavone - Italian aristocrat, aesthete and avant garde composer - via the recollections of his endearing chauffeur, Massimo, who is being interviewed about his recently deceased boss. The reader is obliged to rely on Massimo's recollections of both his master's intentions in art and his vivacious opinions about life. Pavone himself is loosely based on the eccentric Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi, born at the start of the twentieth century.

If a novel is structured entirely around a conversation, as Infinity is, it will have to be an extraordinary conversation. Of course it is, because Josipovici is on of the UK's most distinguished and fearless writers. While, initially, the reader may feel disorientated by Massimo's ventriloquising as Pavone, Josipovici's master stroke is to capture the voice of an aristocratic cultured composer through that of an uneducated servant. Pavone's life as witnessed by someone else is a translation and sometimes a mistranslation.

'Life is not important, Massimo, he said. What you make of life is important. And death is important. Just as the most important words in a book are the words of the title, which are written in bigger letters than the rest, so the most important part of life is death, and it is written in bigger letters than the rest of your life.'

Pavone's many glorious opinions are both serious and comic, from the dangers of beautiful women who wash their bodies but not their clothes to the fact that only gorillas, not people, 'have the strength and unhibited energy to challenge the piano as it should be challenged.' Massimo has listened intently to his master's voice. When he recalls Pavone's thoughts about studying composition with Schoenberg in Vienna and his trips to West Africa and Egypt with Daniel Bernstein in 1925, we gradually get the sense that his encounter with Pavone's creative genius has enlarged his own world, made it more mysterious and enchanting. Massimo is also witness to Pavone's experience of the murderous twentieth century; in Pavone's view the Italians are terrified of silence, while in Rome, 'that idiot Mussolini is trying to whip the Italian people into hysteria.'

According to Massimo, composers 'listen to inner and not touter sounds.' But when Pavone visits Nepal he has a revelation about writing music. Here, he hears the sound 'not of singing but chanting', and the notion of infinity, which gives the novel its title, begins to soar at this point: 'To sing is to begin at the beginning and to go on to the end and then to stop.' But 'to chant is to align yourself with rythms of the universe.' After experiencing Nepal, Pavone stops playing at being an artist and instead, 'found a way to return to myself and leave myself beind in my work.'

It is unusual to review a book and want to quote so much of it. This reported conversation is at times too relentlessly interesting and I longed for Massimo to get stung by a bee or punche the voyeuristic interviewer who never declares his own desires and intentions. But this would break the rythm of a stretch of writing that in itself resembles the form of the music Pavone composes. It is a relief to discover that Pavone (who is cultured to a fault) is also very much engaged with the world. He is obsessive about his clothes, likes to eat fish, leaps into bed with pretty women and has a talent for dancing. In fact, he is amazed 'that the poets only knew other poets and the bankers other bankers. We must mingle with all and sundry, Massimo, he said, that is the only way to live.' It is a less lonely way to live, that is for sure. Infinity is a novel about an artist who finds his voice. It is also a meditation on what he has had to reject in order to do so. This is a charming, sexy, modern and scholarly novel - an unusual mix but all the better for it. - JQ

Credit: www.jewishquarterly.org

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