What Has to be Said is Unutterable: Contre-Jour by Gabriel Josipovici

Nu a Contre-Jour. Pierre Bonnard. 1908. Oil on Canvas

The artist in Josipovici’s short novel tries to explain the difficult of creating art and painting, “It’s that what has to be said is unutterable. Or else: How can we tell what is the right language?  The proper tongue? That which is licit?”  Art demands a certain silence, when creating it and viewing it.  Josipovici captures the essence of this silence in both the art and the artist himself in this deceptively complex narrative which he subtitles, “A Triptych after Pierre Bonnard.”

The painter, his wife and their daughter each have a section of the book in which they describe their life together, a life that is dominated and overpowered by the artist’s desire to paint.  The first section portrays a grown daughter who is bitter and angry at her parents because she feels rejected by them.  There is no place for her, she feels, in their family and the pets received more attention than she did.  Like Bonnard’s “Nu a Contre-Jour” painting, the most important figure in the book is the artist’s model, his wife.  She meets the artist when she is working as a model and for the next 45 years she becomes his only model.  He draws and paints her incessantly, especially in the bath.  Also similar to Bonnard’s paintings, the bath is a common scene in the book as the wife soothes a severe skin rash by bathing four times a day and the artists sketches her during these baths.

But as the wife’s narrative progresses it becomes apparent that she is suffering from a mental illness and the baths become a compulsion that sooth her physically and mentally.  It’s as if she is trapped in her marriage and in her husband’s paintings.  Her entire life has been reduced to being his model and she gets no respite from the art or from his compulsion to create.  In addition, the wife’s description of their life and her confusion call into question the entire interpretation of the story, especially the first part which involves the daughter.  Like any piece of art, our perception changes the more we interact with it.

Silence is used in many forms throughout the book.  Unanswered letters, telegrams, and telephones.  Passing notes instead of talking.  The wife silently pretends to sleep to avoid interacting with guests.  In the terse and succinct writing, questions are answered by repeating the questions.  And, of course, there are long periods of silence needed by the artist to work.  We realize at the very end, when the painter himself finally speaks, just how much silence has permeated their lives.  On the death of his wife the artist writes a one page letter to a friend expressing in raw, stark language how devastating his wife’s death is for him.  He is filled with grief, loneliness and anxiety.  But why did he keep silent about his true feelings for her when she was alive?

This was my first Josipovici book and its strange and unexpected story has intrigued me and made me eager to explore his writings further, especially his non-fiction.


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22 responses to “What Has to be Said is Unutterable: Contre-Jour by Gabriel Josipovici

  1. I love books about art and artists, so this one is definitely going on the wishlist. Thanks for an enticing review!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Is the artist based on Bonnard?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bonnard’s paintings were certainly an inspiration. But I’m not sure about the artist and his life. There is very little written about this book so I haven’t found any specific mention of that anywhere else either.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Liz

    This sounds wonderful. I love artist-based books and have just started The Narrow Land, which links to Edward Hopper. I have added Contre-Jour to the TBR list. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. alilauren1970

    What a lovely review! I have owned Josipovici’s What Happened to Modernism for many years. I read it over five years ago. I then discovered his fiction a few years ago. I loved After & Making Mistakes (my favorite fiction work of his), Everything Passes, and In a Hotel Garden. I was not blown over by Cemetery in Barnes like others, and I skimmed the latter half of the book. I do own quite a bit of his nonfiction and enjoy dipping into it now and again. He is such an intelligent writer, and he has some interesting essays on Proust, Beckett, religion, and Dante.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. A writer I only know for writing about literature – as a novelist I have the feeling he never really had his day, but perhaps it is yet to come!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Bianca

    A beautiful review, Melissa. The Cemetery in Barnes was my first Josipovici. I loved every word. From there I read Everything Passes and am still haunted by the broken window in that novel. Because I could not decide which Josipovici to read next, I chose Do You Hear Them? by Nathalie Sarraute. After reading your review I immediately ordered Contre-Jour. Sometimes I avoid your blog because I am trying to save money. Oh, well. (smile)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much! I have ordered some of his non-fiction books but can’t decide which novels to try, there are so many! Thanks for the suggestions. And I don’t know how people go on book buying bans, I can never manage that much self control when it comes to books!


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  8. Bianca

    I am reading Contre-Jour now and loving the slow gathering of information, especially about the mother (from the daughter’s point of view). Her lowered head, her frequent baths. The parents just seem to stare, reflectively. The father, an artist, has trained himself to look. But I wonder if he sees those around him?

    What do you recommend as a next read? I am contemplating Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Bianca

    I am enjoying the book very much. I love long reads; fiction is fine. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Bianca

    Ordered Middlemarch. I’ve wanted to read it for years. Thank you for reminding me.

    Liked by 1 person

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