Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Disquiet on the Drina

Ivo Andrić’s The Bridge on the Drina stands as a monument over the turbulent flow of Bosnian, Balkan, and world history. Antinomic, not necessarily bivalent but necessarily ambivalent, it chronicles the incursions of distant influences, starting with the bridge itself, on a community divided by religious heritage into mutual otherness. The bridge, a 16th century bequest of Mehmed Pasha (local boy made good), becomes, especially the kapia (gate) suspended between river and sky at its enlarged center, the center of the predominantly but not exclusively Turkic and Serbian community, each of which invests it with their own myths. Andrić performs an impressive balancing act (likened to dancing across the bridge's parapet, twice) between these perspectives (fearful and hopeful) against the encroachments of modernity and the Austrians (Schwabes), buttressed by a structure of symmetries that open the novel to ambiguous interpretations: for example, the intertwined fates of the bridge with Mehmed Pasha and caretaker Alihodja Mutevelić, or the forced departures of the former and of Nicola Glasicanin, after but not caused by his falling out with a childhood friend revisiting from university. This elaborates larger events, as vanities of nationalism collide with inexorable historical dialectic, and as distance, as community, collapses, as one decrepit empire supplants another, as Time erodes despite the acceleration of events (while the text contrarily expands with time's passage). But Andrić seems to have anticipated that his book would also become a ground for interpretive infusion; the permanent dedicatory inscription on the bridge is supplemented with more transitory imperial notices of royal deaths and changes in political administration, while the local schoolmaster writes his own chronicle of the town, abbreviated by the unimportance of events in relation to his own self-regard. Ending with the beginning of WWI, written during WWII, it was reappropriated in the 90's as Yugoslavia fragmented, and even now the post-mortems continue, again reappropriately:

"Living in the shadow of the bridge", Marina Antić
"No Man's Land: The Intersection of Balkan Space and Identity", Ana-Marija Petrunic

Meanwhile, the work stands, however undermined, like the bridge itself.


How I Read Certain of My Books

New Year's Readings, so far (so good and getting better - see addendum):

Peter Dale, One Another interleaves man & woman in sonnet sequence. A few work well, but the overarching scheme loses power, or traction; I was attracted to it by another sonnet sequence by another (or perhaps not the same; how many equinonymous serial sonneteers can there be?) Peter Dale, a translation recasting of Shakespeare in mock Elizabethan mode and of Belli into Strine (i.e. Aussie slang), a la Belli, posted long ago to the NYT bookforum and no longer online (but worthy of print).

Witold Gombrowicz, Pornografia disappointed, as noted previously.

Julio Cortázar, Cronopios and Famas: Some inspired nonsense; I wanted more!

The Poetic Edda, Lee Hollander trans., earliest record of Nordic myth, fragmentary but shiny; I'd been reminded lately that not only Borges but Nabokov points thereto.

Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise provided ample thought-fodder on Modern fashions and their postmodern analogues, along with a record of his own development(-stunting). Still relevant decades later.

Josef Skvorecky, The Engineer of Human Souls, and Bohumir Hrabal, I Served the King of England, treat of the same period in Czech history from differing perspectives (including different takes on Lidice's last male survivor reporting to Gestapo/SS HQ), the former from exile and among exiles, the latter exiled internally. Though style and mode of composition also differ, the core perspective remains Czech, humor tinged with melancholy (or is it the other way round?), and leaves little to choose between two very good novels.

Hrabal's serviam led me to take a flyer on two other servant narratives, Robert Pinget's The Inquisitory (which stands and waits on the TBR shelf) and Anna Maria Ortese's The Iguana, which languished for two decades before being rediscovered in Italy, and another two decades before I happened upon it -- in some respects it reads like Roussel rewriting The Tempest -- no sooner had I finished it than I lent it (along with Manganelli, also via McPherson Press) to my next-door neighbor in return for his loan of Roussel's How I Wrote Certain of My Books, current reading fortuitously timed with the American release of a new impression of New Impressions of Africa (and with a visit to the Surrealist chess exhibition at the Noguchi Museum, which curiously contextualizes the permanent exhibition there).

Addendum 27.1.06

The trajectory of January reading continues upward.

The title essay of Roussel's How I Wrote Certain of my Books comprises only 25pp (with another 15pp or so of notes); most of the rest excerpts other available writings (as well as Zo's illustrations for New Impressions of Africa), but the final section, Documents to Serve as an Outline, is by itself worth the price of admission. Contrary to his own estimation, Roussel's prose improved over time, though the sample of writing for the stage, The Dust of Suns, shows him no more suited to that medium than, say, Henry James. Odd that he should be so much more proficient at describing spectacle than showing it (except insofar as his instructions to Zo make for a text in their own right, perhaps anticipating the graphic novel?).

But Hemon's Nowhere Man is January's stand-out reading. I've heard too many new authors compared to Nabokov not to heavily discount the hype, but here the comparison in justified. It's not merely a felicity of style, making every word count in each sentence or paragraph (evident as well in the stories of A Question of Bruno, where the prot-agonist Josef Pronek is first introduced); it's a tight but deft weave throughout the novel (much harder to sustain at this length), as well as the able incorporation of Nabokovian allusive and meta-narrative techniques, lightly applied, to a less remarkable émigré setting than Nabokov dealt with, and thus all the more remarkable in making the ordinary extraordinary (reversing the trope that war imposes: another version of Pronek quotes Semezdin Mehmedinović's Sarajevo Blues: "When a shell falls, books act like a net, trapping the shrapnel within them."). Nowhere Man succeeds in both widening and narrowing its scope as it progresses; it probably exhausts what can be done with Pronek as character (there are a few extra bits [pdf] Hemon left out, I think appropriately [funny that Nan Talese is 'in the news' regarding another protean character, may he frey in rehab]). Hemon also leaves out the intramural religious conflicts that I expect to better understand on reading Andrić to finish out the month.



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.


Regula Falsi

around and about the ambit of
a maze of fellow wanderers
each both barrier and passageway
depending upon the approach
shifting not in time but with it
in flux both now and in memory
all paths centripetal to oneself
a center inferred from circumference
not equidistant nonetheless
proximity no measure of traversal
meandering like a celtic knot
a process of successive approximation
ever nearing but never gaining
bringing one only within tolerance