Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence



An excerpt from what I pointed to in an addendum recently:

SIGNIFICANTLY, at around the same time a new aesthetic from further east began to open up—defined by Milan Kundera (visible too in the fiction of Bohumil Hrabal, Danilo Kis, Lajos Grendel). If the novel is a European form, it is more accurately a western European form, and only later central and eastern European (and Russian). It came to central Europe in the second half of the 19th century, and central European novelists impinged only slowly on western consciousness. Neither Franz Kafka (died 1924) nor Robert Musil (d 1942) was widely recognised as a writer of European rank until after 1945. The collected works of Joseph Roth (d 1939), the great elegist of the tottering circus of Austria-Hungary, were not published in German until 1956. (In Britain we began to read Roth only in the mid-1980s). Kundera, first translated into English in 1970 with The Joke, was an exception, and his rapid ascendancy became the key to readers' entry to the aesthetic identity of central Europe—that unity of small nations cyclically kidnapped by "protective powers" and other tyrannies.
Kundera remained a one-man show. Western readers did not become truly familiar with the centre and east of Europe. This fact is important because it is the novelists of central Europe who can, with justice, claim to have found the forms they needed in the 20th century, and to have succeeded more far-reachingly than any of their western counterparts (except perhaps James Joyce) in making visible the modern era. Just as Cervantes' lesson was to have Don Quixote discover that the world did not resemble what he had read about it in books, both Kafka with his cosmos of impasse and Musil with his salutary collection of loose ends indicated how Europe, at the peak of its civilisation, was also at its most untrustworthy and discontinuous. There is surely a 21st-century resonance there. The world did not change forever after 9/11, as many commentators had it. Its fragility had been perfectly set down in the 20th century by other writers from that aesthetic crucible --- Andri´c, Broch, Canetti, Capek, Gombrowicz, Hasek, Hrabal, Kadare, Kertész, Kis, Konwicki, Kosztolányi, Krleza, Milosz, Svevo. What these writers also have in common with us in western Europe is that, though their stories may sound strange, their Europe is our ancestral Europe: a continent of picaresque risk in which the individual is sent out to venture everything, exactly as our fictional forebears were—our Gullivers and Shandys, our Candides and Marquises of O, our Frédéric Moreaus and Arvid Falks—a few centuries ago.

Having read Kafka, Musil, Kundera, Solzhenitsyn, some Milosz, and émigré Jerzy Kosinski some 20-odd years ago, I'd thought I'd read pretty much what 20th century writing there was there worth reading (not counting Nabokov, a case unto himself). But Canetti, Capek, and Stanislaw Lem followed, then within the past few years Yuri Dombrovsky (The Faculty of Useless Knowledge grabbed me by the title), Bruno Schulz, Italo Svevo, Joseph Roth, all excellent ... and within the past few months I've again doubled the list of authors, here in rough order of merit:

Hermann Broch, The Death of Virgil as noted previously -- The Sleepwalkers, now on my TBR shelf, promises to be just as good;
Danilo Kiŝ, garden, ashes (throw parentheses around it to give a Nabokovian tinge) & A Tomb for Boris Davidovich;
Bohumil Hrabal, Closely Watched Trains & Too Loud a Solitude -- I Served the King of England also TBR-shelved;
Vladimir Voinovich, The Fur Hat (The nyrb review of Monumental Propaganda had me looking especially for Private Chonkin, but this turned up instead -- plays into my penchant for academic satire, though Academy means something different here);
Zoran Zivkovic, Hidden Camera;
Jiri Grusa, The Questionnaire (as previously noted);
Dubravka Ugresic, Lend Me Your Character disappointed a bit, but was still well worthwhile;
Witold Gombrowicz, Cosmos & Pornografia: On the former, I've seen better epistomological detective stories, though in the old translation from French & German versions, it reads like Robbe-Grillet filtered through Böll. The latter, on the corruption of youth, with emphasis on the 'of', lacked that -- Most over-rated of the bunch, or perhaps it's de gustibus I missed.
(I also haven't taken to Gorky or Platonov, more likely a question of my dubious taste.)

Higher up the list on merit, but not requiring translation:
Aleksander Hemon, The Question of Bruno Like Nabokov (so they say, and he hated it when that parallel to Conrad was invoked), an émigré succeeding as stylist in an adopted language -- Nowhere Man TBR-shelved. Now there's apparently another contender, Olga Grushin;

The rest of the TBR shelf, Eastern Europe Division:
Mario Brelich, The Work of Betrayal
Ivo Andric, The Bridge on the Drina
Josef Skvorecky, The Engineer of Human Souls
Georgi Gospodinov, Natural Novel
Mati Unt, Things in the Night

Dalkey Archive has been my best resource, though Complete Review devotes an area and CESLIT is back in action. [Addendum 18.1.06 cf the Baltic's answer to antipoedics]

When so much press is being given to the lack of translations in the US, it seems that more is available than ever (though perhaps not proportionately). It also seems to me that Eastern Europe isn't lagging, but is again reinvigorating the novel; whether it's due to pent-up need for expression or to a bookish culture not attenuated by popular Western entertainments, I can't say. Whatever it is, it's worth taking note, and enjoying while it lasts. Which I am.


Anonymous JCD said...

I found The Question of Bruno to be quite good. My undergraduate self was tickled to have gone to the same university in the US that Hemon did--albeit he was only there briefly.

20/1/06 18:04  

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