Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Three books by Danilo Kiš
A four part article: part one, introduction;
part two, The Attic;
part three, Psalm 44;
and part four, The Lute and the Scars.
The articles include links to my New York Journal of Books reviews of Danilo Kiš' books.
Today Dalkey Archive Press is publishing English translations of three books by Yugoslav writer Danilo Kiš who was first introduced to English language readers in the 1970s when Philip Roth included Mr. Kiš’ book of linked short stories A Tomb for Boris Davidovich in the series of books Roth edited, Writers from the Other Europe. The three books published today are Kiš’ first two novellas, The Attic and Psalm 44, written in 1960 when Kiš was 25, and The Lute and the Scars, a posthumous collection of the last short stories he wrote between1980 and1986, the year he was diagnosed with the lung cancer that took his life in 1989. My reviews of the three books appear on New York Journal of Books. Mr. Kiš was born in 1935 in northeast Serbia, a region that was home to a mixture of nationalities and languages, to a Jewish-Hungarian father and an Eastern-Orthodox Christian mother (as an adult he identified as Jewish). The family spent World War Two in Hungary where his father was conscripted into that country’s labor brigades (Jews were not allowed to serve in the regular Hungarian military) and in 1944 was deported to and murdered in Auschwitz. Young Danilo and his mother repatriated to her native Montenegro in 1947 where he excelled in school leading to his university studies in Belgrade in the mid-1950s. The scope of my NYJB reviews does not leave room to quote excerpts of his work, but there are no such constraints here. (To be continued)
(Continued from my previous article) In my New York Journal of Books review I describeThe Attic as “a highly inventive, imaginative, and partly autobiographical account of bohemian life in Belgrade and the Adriatic Coast in the 1950s,” and I recommend it “to readers who enjoy foreign literature in translation and the bildungsroman or coming of age subgenre, as well as to fans of Mr. Kiš’ writing who want to experience his earliest work.” In his debut book Danilo Kiš employs a variety of literary styles including a lyricism he largely abandoned in his mature work. The book begins, "I listened to invisible trains weeping in the night and to crackly leaves latching onto the hard, frozen earth with their fingernails. "Everywhere packs of ravenous, scraggly dogs came out to meet us. They appeared out of dark doorways and squeezed through narrow openings in the fences. They would accompany us mutely in large packs. But from time to time they would raise their somber, sad eyes to look at us. They had some sort of strange respect for our noiseless steps, for our embraces." Mr. Kiš’ alter-ego protagonist is nicknamed Orpheus and his girlfriend is Eurydice. He addresses her in her absence: "It rains so often here that the moonlight is splashing. "Eurydice, put your arms around me! "You aren’t always the same, either, you who appear in the likeness of Eurydice, from out of the words, shadow, and veil. On the outskirts of the city your voice spreads luxuriantly, peacefully across the windows, like dusk, blue. In the moonlight it starts to resonate—like a harp, like… "But in the attic, toward evening, when your breasts are bare, your voice becomes a caress, a miracle, a violet blossom." According to the book’s translator, John K. Cox, The Attic has more humor than any of Mr. Kiš’ subsequent works. For example, when Orpheus and his roommate Igor whose nickname is Billy Wiseass open a tavern Orpheus writes a menu and wine list with satirical names for the dishes and vintages. (To be continued)
(Continued from my previous article) When Danilo Kiš was writing The Attic he took a three to four week break to write Psalm 44 and submit it to a local Jewish writing contest. Mr. Kiš would go on to write other books about the Shoah, but Psalm 44 is the only one set in Auschwitz. In my New York Journal of Books review I write, “In Psalm 44 Mr. Kiš’ postmodern prose embellishes a framework of heroic yet ethically complex characters and a simple plot.” In my review I praise the book for its moral gravity and those ethically complex characters and fault it for its historical inaccuracies. Most of the action of Psalm 44 takes place in the women’s barracks where our heroine Marija, who has secretly given birth to a baby boy, is trying unsuccessfully to get some sleep in the hours before an escape attempt. At age 18 she is already a veteran prisoner and wonders why she is still alive when so many of her fellow prisoners have perished. "…The first was Erzika Ignac. The one…picked right at the beginning, as a human guinea pig. Then Nameless, who played in the orchestra;--but the mechanical hand that would light a red light to warn of rebellion and go into action to sever contact before any misfortune could occur, or at least before the great shock of a dose of high-voltage current arrived, that hand had now compressed the column of women with one powerful sweep and covered it up with a clean white shroud of the type placed on the catafalques of heroes or virgins; Marija was the only one, the only one for a long time now, who stood next to that catafalque like a soldier who by some miracle had remained alive after the explosion of a bomb that fell into the trench where his unit was fighting, and who now stands bare-headed next to the mass grave, with flowers in hand, reading from the marble the names of those who had been his comrades-in-arms and with whom he shared his cigarettes and exchanged in moments of weakness family photographs and memories, and who now in anguish thinks back to all those friends at rest under the marble obelisk, transformed into golden letters, and he wonders how this could be, by dint of what miracle had he missed being part of the formation at that final roll call, for his place was there, in that line, right alongside the first in the row, who was A, and the one behind, who was C, and whose names were now impressed in the marble of the monument. "That’s how she felt now in front of the obelisk of memories: standing with a bouquet of flowers and amazed, hardly believing her eyes." In Mr. Kiš’ mature work he mostly avoided convoluted run-on sentences such as these. His readers will find in Psalm 44 an early stylistic experiment he abandoned in his later work. (To be continued)
(Continued from my previous article) In the six stories and one short essay that compriseThe Lute and the Scars we find a more confident and assured voice than in Danilo Kiš’ first two novellas two decades earlier. In my New York Journal of Books review I recommend the book “to Mr. Kiš’ admirers as well as to all readers of Eastern European literature in translation and of short form fiction.” The first story in the collection, “The Stateless One,” is about a writer. Here is number 4 out of the story’s 26 numbered paragraphs; note the detailed descriptions: "He captured in haste a few observations, a fewBilder: a newspaper vendor slurping her soup from a plate, next to her nostril a wound the size of a coin, a raw open wound; a female midget attempting to climb onto a train; a waiter totting up a bill with his pencil between his little finger and index finger because the rest of his fingers are missing; and a pimply porter with a boil on his neck. And so on." In my NYJB review I praise Mr. Kiš’ conversational tone in “Juric Golec.” In this excerpt the title character’s wife has recently died and he and the narrator have returned to Mr. Golec’s Paris apartment after dining in a restaurant. “For the last twenty years we didn’t live under the same roof. In that length of time I slept with a lot of women; I assume she took lovers as well. How many? I don’t know. But there was nonetheless something that bound us together. Something elemental. Whatever it is that unites a man and a woman forever.” The telephone rang, and he chatted with someone else in German, quietly. Either German or Yiddish. Then he returned to his seat opposite me. “A month before she got sick, we went for a stroll on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. It was a clear day, like this one. At one point she stopped and took my hand. ‘I would like to live a hundred years,’ she said. ‘With you.’ And we kissed. On the lips.” Juric Golec drank a swallow. “A splendid bottom line for an old Jewish couple,” he concluded. After thirty-three years of shared life.” For a more in depth discussion of this book read my review on New York Journal of Books.