Friday, December 25, 2009
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Milorad Pavic, Unorthodox Novelist, Dies at 80
Milorad Pavic, an internationally prominent Serbian writer whose novels upended the traditional relationship between reader and text, taking the form of dictionaries, crossword puzzles and much else, died on Nov. 30 in Belgrade. He was 80.
Mr. Pavic’s narratives do away with the forced-march, page-after-page strategy to which most readers are accustomed. They are profuse with self-reference, unreliable narration, authorial asides and “Rashomon”-like shifts in point of view. Stories nest within stories like the pieces of a Russian doll.
It's surprising, and always a bit odd, where the years take you. A sabbatical year to work on a book about Freemasonry and the German Novel led me to the German university town of Tübingen, where I met Zarko Radakovic, who became a novelist and translator. The friendship blossomed into joint projects and finally into a couple of books. I have even taught interdisciplinary classes on the crisis in the former Yugoslavia, drawing on things I learned from Zarko and experienced during our travels.
Zarko's work is not adequately described as "postmodern," but it shares some of the traits of recent philosophical movements, including a distrust of straightforward narrative. And now I read that Zarko's fellow countryman Milorad Pavic has died, a novelist who also experimented with literary form.
Just this summer, accompanying Lyn to her family gathering in Breckenridge, Colorado, I found a used-book store and bought a copy of Pavic's "Dictionary of the Khazars: A lexicon novel." I already had a copy of the novel, translated by Christina Pribicevic-Zoric, but it was the "male" version of the novel. This one was the female version.
A couple of months after buying the book, I wrote to Ms. Pribicevic-Zoric and asked if she would translate Zarko's half of our book "Vampires / A Reasonable Dictionary." She declined, but suggested Alice Copple-Tosic, who has now translated the "Vampires" half of our book into English.
And now Milorad Pavic has died. And I've got a manuscript full of diversions, feints, questions, and a basic anti-narrativity for which I'm dying to find a publisher. We'll die ourselves, soon enough. Our words, our sentences, our collaborations ought to find a more permanent place between book covers.
Zarko's opening, along with mine:
One summer at the end of the 20th century, a man in his forties accompanied by a ten-year younger female traveling companion spends a short vacation in the south of a neighboring country. They sleep in a different place every night. They walk through the landscape, wander through city streets, leisurely sit in the gardens of empty houses. They have long meals in half-empty restaurants… One night in a hotel on the seashore, after a late television broadcast of the film Fog, the man calls a friend in his homeland. During the brief conversation, he finds out that seven years after their divorce, his ex-wife has been put into a mental institution…During the night the man talks to his mother on the phone and finds out that another friend has tried to commit suicide and is currently “in a serious state,” “lying” “in a hospital”…On the way home the man runs over a cat and then loses control of the car. When it happens he is listening to Bill Frisell on the radio…Once he gets home the man experiences numerous changes… He “hooks up” with a much younger woman who tries to bite his neck during sex, after which he turns rough…He attends the meetings of a “secret organization”…He does not sleep at night…Walking through town he breaks the window of an apartment where the light is turned on… He decides to change his place of residence... One night he goes to the movies and sees Vampires. It strikes him that this is one of the most important events in his life, which is already quite shaken up. That same evening he makes an important acquaintance; there are exciting adventures; long hours of talking, arguing and fistfights…Absorbed in images from daydreams… Battling with insects… Attacking a gas station … Nocturnal noises in the hotel… Orgies…Pallor… Bleeding gums…The man calls his mother and tells her he is going back to his hometown… After a raid in a restaurant in the center of town, he injects himself with a medicinal serum… He spends some time in a village where a pig is slaughtered at a celebration, he comes up against considerable changes… He meets enemies… He meets friends… Long conversations… A battle for details.
................ and mine:
Let this story begin, perhaps, in 1998 in Belgrade among the well-kept ruins of the Kalemegdan fortress that overlooks the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. A barrel-chested man walks along a path with his two little girls. They lag behind. He shouts at them. They catch up. They turn aside to play among wildflowers. He threatens them. The girls join him momentarily, then disappear among the tall flowers. He roars a command. They return. The youngest girl begins to cry. The older girl takes her hand. The big man steps off the path and rips a bunch of wildflowers from the high grass. He hands them to the crying girl. She stops crying. He shouts again. They walk away, all three of them, holding mismatched hands.
Or let the story begin just after the turn of the century with the younger brother of my friend Christian Gellinek’s grandfather. Otto Gellinek was an Austrian officer, Christian says, a ladies man -- he died of syphilis – and a fencing instructor who liked to show off by walking on his hands. In 1907, disguised as a painter, Gellinek traveled in Bosnia-Herzegovina to sketch fortifications and make notes for a possible war. In 1908, despite Gellinek’s report arguing against a formal annexation, the Austrians invaded the country. Catholic Croats welcomed the invaders, but Muslims and Orthodox Serbs opposed them bitterly. The battle lasted three months and cost the Austrian Army 5,198 casualties. More importantly, it aroused virulent anti-Austrian sentiment among Serbs, manifest most pointedly in the person of the 19-year-old nationalist who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo to set off the First World War.
Translating Peter Handke’s A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia from German into English, I called my old friend and long-time collaborator Žarko Radaković to ask about the phrase: “Do we need a new Gavrilo Princip?”
What kind of principle is this? I asked. Is it a term from business management?
Gavrilo Princip? Žarko laughed. He was the young assassin.
It’s not easy to begin a new story about the old land of the southern Slavs (Yugo = south). After all, what do I know? A foreigner in the country for a few days. A self-styled translator with no command of this language. A potential verbal assassin.
. . . in Shefko’s translation the old man’s words seemed suspicious, smelled of politics and seditious intent. . . . Shefko, who was obviously putting the worst possible construction on the old man’s exalted phrases and who loved to stick his nose into everything and carry tales even when there was nothing in them, and was ever ready to give or to confirm an evil report. (Ivo Andrić, The Bridge Over the Drina)
someone ought to want to read this book; and if that's true, someone ought to publish it.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Not long after reading the news of Claude Levy-Strauss' death yesterday, I came to a passage in Ryszard Kapusciniski's book "The Soccer War" that reminded me of how ideas coincide (for me, not in a Jungian sense, but rather in that sense that grows out of lots and lots of reading coupled with coincidence):
Sunday, September 20, 2009
And those photos were preceded by an earlier one, taken by Zarko's wife Zorica in their apartment in Tuebingen. We're reading identical copies of Peter Handke's novel Repetition, which was the catalyst for our journey into the novel's landscape -- what is now Slovenia, but at that time still part of Yugoslavia.
Three decades have passed since I left the Balkans. The place from which I emigrated at the end of the Seventies was called Yugoslavia. Tito was still in power.
Settled in Germany, I immediately began to preserve my Yugoslavian past: driven by “homesickness” and by the almost animal need to return repeatedly – but never for long.
If I had worries of any kind in the first years of emigration, they usually had to do with the uncertain success of a sports team. Never could I have imagined the destruction that would begin in the early Nineties, for I grew up with the good-natured ignorance that assumed that this country would never fall apart.
Zarko's essay is about the Serbian writer Igor Marojevic, a younger writer who fled the chaos of civil war to live in Barcelona, but returned to Serbia after four years. “Why didn’t you stay in Barcelona?” Zarko asks him. “I was afraid I would forget the language, he said – an answer only a writer can give.”
Those are the words that remain from the conversation with Igo Marojevic in a dark Belgrade café, smoking cigarettes, drinking black coffee, visualizing with no illusions; in a café with a view in the direction of the Danube and Zemun, the place where Marojevic has lived since returning from emigration, the place I have left, because I remain an emigrant.
Because, Zarko might as well have said, because I have forgotten my language. Because I am not a writer.
Although that is implied, with all its tragic implications, it's not true. Zarko lives in his language, the language that used to be Serbo-Croatian and that has become Serbian. He writes in it, book after book: Pogled, Knifer, Emigracija, Tuebingen, Ponavljanje, and Vampiri. He translates into it: a dozen important and sometimes big books by Peter Handke.
And he returns to his country often, although he doesn't stay long. His last visit, with his partner Anne, he explained in a postcard, was for the sake of "Sophie." He meant, of course, his grandaughter. And he meant, I'm certain, for the sake of wisdom, of language, of self.
The Schreibheft issue contains any number of tragically intense stories, stories of emigrants become foreigners. One, by Dragan Aleksic, will have to stand for the rest:
The Heart Full of Rain
When I was a young man, I wrote a book whose hero says at one point: I want to go anywhere, I want to be silent, I don't want anyone to know anything about me. There, far away, I will cry and have only a single wish: to return.
Twenty years later, at a mature age, as an emigrant to America, driven to windy Ohio, I listen in the evenings to my small sons who, before falling asleep, cry for our old house and our city. Later, sleeping, they smile and speak -- in English.
I am silent, with no connection to my fate.
I feel nothing.
I grieve for no thing.
I call nothing into memory.
I am not like the hero of my first novel.
I do not cry.
I do not want to return.
. . . But my heart is full of rain.
(2007, English translation mine, from the German of Mirjana and Klaus Wittmann)
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Sunday, July 26, 2009
Located near Aspen, CO, USA, Conundrum Peak reaches 14,060 feet, however, it is not an "official" CO 14ers since it does not rise the magic 300 feet above the connecting saddle with Castle. Subpeak or not, it is a worthwhile climb in its own right and can easily be done together with Castle Peak.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
There is work for the Humane Society among farmers and other people building long fences and using “barbed wire.” In fact, it would be a noble work if the society could prevail upon the Legislature to pass a law prohibiting the erection of “barbed wire” fences. In this part of the country, and doubtless in other farming districts, a large majority of the fences around farms, pastures, etc., are built of “barbed wire,” which is strong, twisted wire, with sharp-pointed teeth or barbs wove in the wire three or four inches apart. Scarcely a day passes but one can hear of the death or fatal injury of a cow, calf, horse or colt which has run into the fence (which cannot be seen far away), and so cuts its head and body as to result seriously and often fatally, and it is not seldom that valuable blooded stock is caught in the barbs of these terrible fences and cut literally to pieces. The foregoing is brought out by a sickening sight that met the eyes of passengers on the accommodation train between Collins and Loveland, yesterday morning. A herd of milk cows was feeding along the line of the railroad track, and as the train came rolling along a number of the cows started to cross the track. The engineer blew his whistle loud and shrill, and the frightened cows began to run in every direction. One unfortunate ran headlong into a wire fence near the track and jumped head and fore legs through the fence and there hung on the sharp barbs, and as the rear car passed by the passengers saw the brute hanging there on the sharp barbs kicking and bellowing, the piercing instruments sawing and cutting into her body deeper and deeper as she struggled for liberty. If the man who built the fence had a heart, not as hard as stone, and could have seen that terrible butchering, he would have solemnly sworn never again to build a barbed wire fence.
Thursday, July 2, 2009
It's not easy to keep a wire fence taut, but you can tighten it by inserting a lever between two strands of the wire and twisting. A steel come-along helps with the dangly gate.
Friday, June 19, 2009
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Sunday, May 24, 2009
If we're talking about really radical critics (most recently, for instance, Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado), I guess I would agree. But that's not the end of the story. The fact that BYU, my former employer, did not fire me over the 11 years during which I was a more and more outspoken critic, I attribute entirely to the fact that I had tenure. And in my work with the American Association of University Professor over two decades, most of it having to do with challenging administrative decisions that failed to provide due process or to share governance with faculty members, having tenure always put us on more firm footing vis a vis the administrator, serving as a lever in our negotiations, reminding the "administration" that their position at a university is only one of several, and certainly not the most important or essential one.
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Mark Taylor's recent essay in the New York Times raises a dizzying and sometimes ditzy (abolish tenure as well as specialized dissertations???) set of issues. At one point he suggests turning disciplinary graduate and undergraduate programs into interdisciplinary groups:
The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.
Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises.
It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems. As the curriculum is restructured, fields of inquiry and methods of investigation will be transformed.
2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.
Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.
A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.
So far so good. Project-driven collaborative work makes good sense from the undergraduate classroom to the interdisciplinary evaluations that go on each morning in the local hospital. We named our Integrated Studies journal "Intersections" with precisely this in mind: multiple perspectives and approaches converge to create unexpected solutions.
What Mr. Taylor forgets is that perspectives and approaches come from disciplinary training. For his Water project, as he notes, he'll need trained hydrologists, legal experts, political scientists, and so on. Where will these people come from if the Department of Earth Studies and the law school have been abolished?
In our Program in Integrated Studies, we struggle with this conundrum every day. As our senior theses demonstrate again and again (at least the best of them), coming at a single problem from the perspectives of two different disciplines proves very fruitful. But our worst theses also prove that coming at a single problem without good tools learned in disparate disciplines is an exercise in futility.