A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Dubravka Ugresic (please imagine the relevant accent marks on top of the s and the c: this blog refuses to show them) is a novelist and academic, born in the former Yugoslavia, officially Croatian but living in self-imposed exile since the early 1990s.
It is clear from these two collections of essays that Ugresic doesn’t take kindly to being labelled – especially with national labels – but the facts above explain her main preoccupations. In Nobody’s Home she writes about home (or lack thereof), globalisation, identity, exile in its many forms, alienation, ‘Ostalgia’ and the weight of history in former Eastern bloc countries, Europe and its problems with orientation – political, geographical and cultural. (I especially like her thoughts about culture as a ‘sort of spiritual euro’, and how ‘politically correct respect for different cultures and cultural differences is often a mask for closet chauvinism’.) Ugresic begins with entertaining anecdotal pieces about flea-markets and the nature of luggage, and gradually the pieces become longer and more serious, as she weaves history and politics into her personal reminiscences and tales of people she has encountered – most of them uprooted cosmopolitans as she is. She has the knack of reaching macro insights through the micro-narratives, and convincing with her tongue in cheek; indeed, I find she is on much shakier ground when she presents her observations in a more formal manner.
Most of these preoccupations pop up on a smaller scale in Thank You for Not Reading, though here Ugresic writes about being a writer in the global literary marketplace – specifically, about being a writer from a small country, a female writer, and a writer of serious fiction in an age of frivolity. The structure is also remarkably similar to that of Nobody’s Home: (semi-)humorous personal anecdotes make the essays what they are, she begins with musings about Joan Collins, and the pieces get gradually longer and more theoretical. There is no shaky ground here – she certainly knows what she is talking about – but at the same time the mixture of playfulness and the high-brow is a bit more uneasy. Ugresic admits in her foreword that the essays are ‘half fact and half fiction’, and she has adopted a persona to mediate between the light-hearted and the serious. At times this adopted tone sounded too much like what it was – namely, an intellectual being coy about being an intellectual – and I couldn’t help wishing she’d have admitted more often what she really thought:
A writer who aspires to the category of so-called ‘serious’ literature has lost his social sphere; he finds it hard to distinguish the face of his addressee; it seems to him that people do not understand him and he tries to adapt his language in order to be understood. [ . . . ] In the meantime, trivial literature has also mutated and gradually laid claim to the exclusive realm of high literature. Just as high literature played with the strategies of trivial literature, trivial literature decorates itself with the honors of high literature and steals its language.
There are fewer and fewer of those who know how to distinguish the authentic from the false. If they do know, they do not have the will to fight a losing battle. If they do have the will, they are unlikely to get media space for evaluation, because media space is reserved for books which ‘work’ or at least ‘should work’. Besides, the very distinction between ‘authentic’ and ‘false’ has been intellectually uninteresting for a long time. As is the old-fashioned terminology of aesthetic value.
(At this point I put the book down and pondered. I agree with Ugresic on aesthetics, but I cannot help thinking – aren’t all literary works, serious or light, art or entertainment, trivial by nature? The serious-minded seem largely to have fled from ‘literature’ altogether, and taken refuge in ‘fact’. Facts are serious; facts are not to be trifled with; witness the many people who proudly claim to ‘read only non-fiction’. I tend to think that the problem isn’t with the ‘low’ pushing out the ‘high’, but with the serious getting rather too serious for its own good (all fact, no play!) and the trivial losing sight of its standards. Think how many times you’ve heard people say, ‘oh, the book was abominably written, but I enjoyed it’. Don’t say it. The moment you say that, you’ve admitted that the entertaining need not be of high quality, and that is when the battle is lost. Back in the 18th century, when the novel was still young, they had the right idea, I think: even ‘serious’ novelists knew they were engaged in work that was trivial in itself, and this made them all the more eager to prove their worth, without taking themselves too seriously.)
Final Verdict: I enjoyed both books but I can’t quite make up my mind how much I enjoyed them. If the quality of essays is determined by the number of individual ideas and flashes of brilliance per page, then these get top marks: my little reading notebook is now full of quotable passages, relevant page numbers, and thoughts and questions these books raised in my mind. But Ugresic doesn’t really argue anything all the way through; indeed, the moment she comes close to making a point she changes direction or undermines everything she has just said with a verbal wink. Each essay is like a fingerpost, pointing you in several directions all at once, and you cannot reliably pin down even the very subject matter, which is (literally) all over the map. This makes for thought-provoking reading, but I also found it rather exhausting: the essays keep you on your toes and act as a slippery, reflective surface. They give no answers, but rather encourage you to take up a pen and write down your own.
Nor can I make up my mind as to which book I liked best. Thank You for Not Reading is about writers as global citizens and at the mercy of marketing forces; Nobody’s Home is about people in general as global citizens and at the mercy of history, politics, and economics. Choose your preferred angle and you can’t go much wrong with either one. If pressed, I’d say I was initially more interested in Thank You…, but Nobody’s Home made a more lasting impression.
(N.B. I may have made these books sound a bit opaque, but please keep in mind that for the most part they’re quirky and fun to read. It’s only writing this review that made me realise just how elusive they are.)
Dubravka Ugresic, Nobody’s Home (original Croatian title Nikog nema doma, translated by Ellen Elias-Bursac). Telegram Books, 2007, paperback, 277 pp., ISBN: 9781846590191
Dubravka Ugresic, Thank You for Not Reading (original Croatian title Zabranjeno citanje, translated by Celia Hawkesworth). Dalkey Archives, 2007, paperback, 221 pp., ISBN: 1564782980