Sunday, September 7, 2014

"The Seismologist of a Chaotic History"

Drago Jančar, Joyce's Pupil

There is no literature I enjoy more than Eastern European--for its melancholy, for its hard-won irony, for its historical consciousness, for its inattention to the glib conventions of American writing--are there Slovenian MFA programs? I'm giddy when I see diacritical marks above vowels in names I cannot dream of pronouncing. I scour the most obscure and dusty shelves of our few remaining bookstores for novels by Romanian or Polish or Czech writers; I can't imagine wasting time on a NYT's bestseller when there are books by László Krasznahorkai I have yet to read. The moment I open Norman Manea's The Black Envelope I imagine cloudy skies and drably attired, pale-faced, chain-smoking, chess-playing Romanians scurrying through freezing rain to attend subversive political meetings. No blue skies, no Hamptons or Martha's Vineyard (please, spare me the details of what New York intellectuals are up to on this poison-ivy infested island!), no phony angst recounted by the neurotic denizens of Brooklyn--no more! America has a literature of sorts, but little history (what we've had we've forgotten), no civil life, no politics, and certainly no politically-obsessed novelists. Which is why I relish the hours spent with a book like Joyce's Pupil, a fine example of the kind of writing I most admire--stories of desperation set in claustrophobic cities in periods of political turmoil or in the memory--the ever-haunting memory of the turmoil that seeminly began with the election of Charles V as the first Hapsburg Emperor half a millennium ago.

Krasznahorkai: "There are no masks."

 Now I'm sitting in sunshine, but would leave in an instant for a place like this: "The wind stirs the tops of the poplars, clumps of white acacias toss in the breeze, somewhere up river it is raining, while here a dull and foggy light can be seen through the clouds. Organ music emanating from the church of St. Egidio rolls over the cobblestones [cobblestones!], and it bounces off the houses whose empty facades look like inside-out city walls; the powerful sounds chase each other and swirl around the Gothic building." Each of the twelve stories in Joyce's Pupil is set in either literal or metaphorical twilight; nothing much transpires, no one has an epiphany. The title story reprises a disappointing life whose one luminous moment was born in a cryptic comment of James Joyce--the point being that we never understand the truth of our lives until it is too late. There's a bit of Chekhov in a few of the stories ("Death at Mary of the Snows" and "A Tale About Eyes"), cross sections of lives we would have trouble imagining for their unique circumstances, and yet the narrative economy is such that the lives open to us like the lowering clouds of Ljubljana. There are Marxists in these stories, and secret agents, and men and women on the run from their past, professors and writers, political hacks and poor souls. As with my other preferred East European writers, the aura of menace saturates not only the landscapes and the city streets but has been internalized to such an extent that even an innocent moment is rotten with fear and sadness ("The Look of An Angel").  History lies across Jančar's stories in the way dampness pervades the tales of Dubliners, the most east European of west European story collections--but then Ireland's history is not unlike that of Slovenia. In Jančar, as in Joyce, the great curse of living is that no character forgets; but--what do they remember?

Joyce's Pupil is published by Brandon Books of Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland and available on Half-Price Books here

George Ovitt 9/7/14

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