Friday, December 25, 2009

Life is Tenuous

Several weeks premature, I was, nine days later, still only 5 lb 1/2 oz, as my young mother's careful accounting showed. Then there was a jump of 1 1/2 oz, and by the 31st I was approaching 6 pounds.

I just found this scrap of almost translucent paper, folded and faded, proof of the tenuousness of early life, and proof that however complicated life grows, including relationships with parents and children, there's a physical, historical family base that undergirds and/or undermines it all.

Sixty years later, I'm trying to stay under 200 pounds, happy with each oz that slips away, still relying on family, still struggling with family, still grateful for family.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Serbo-Croat Novelist Dies

Milorad Pavic, Unorthodox Novelist, Dies at 80

Published: December 19, 2009

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.

Ivo Eterovic/Alfred A. Knopf

Milorad Pavic

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)

Caveat lector.


someone ought to want to read this book; and if that's true, someone ought to publish it.