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Charm and How to Come By It


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The following is Dubravka Ugrešić’s preface to Damion Searls’s new translation of Marshlands, by André Gide, published earlier this month by New York Review Books.

gide_1893.jpg

André Gide, 1893. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Why a preface?

Prefaces usually offer the reader a guide to the book before them; they say a few words about the book’s author and place the book in its historical or contemporary literary context. In the pre-Internet age this was a job entrusted to literary experts. Today, with the assistance of the Internet, expertise is no longer considered necessary. I confess, I myself am no expert, arbiter, or competent interpreter of André Gide’s work. I am here merely as a literary interloper and I see it as my task to respond to two questions:

  1. How did this little French book come to be translated into English?
  2. Why did I once love this book, do I love it still today, and if I have loved it, why do I think others will?

*

Literature as Seduction

I made the acquaintance of Damion Searls—who has translated Marshlands into English—in 1998 at a literary event in Vienna. Our encounter was fleeting and superficial. Four years later, when he was on a Fulbright, Damion turned up in Amsterdam. This was our chance to spend more time together.

True book lovers—writers, critics, translators, publishers, and readers—can be identified (or at least I identify them!) by the way they allow themselves to be “seduced” by books. If the art of the word, meaning literature, is a form of interhuman communication, then “seduction” is one of the forms this communication takes. Literary seduction doesn’t know or respect age, nor national, ethnic, racial, gender, or cultural boundaries. Yet finding a true friend, a book lover, is a true rarity.

In Isaac Babel’s story “In the Basement,” the narrator is a poor secondary-school student (the young Babel) from the Odessa Jewish ghetto who seeks to enchant Mark Borgman, a young man of his own age, by reciting Shakespeare to him, and in the end Shakespeare’s verses serve as a smoke screen behind which Babel tries, and fails, to hide the penury, brutality, and tragicomedy of his real-life environment, so different from Borgman’s.

Thrilled by the discovery that they share the same passions, book lovers, peacock-like, fan their verbal feathers. It just so happened that I mentioned Marshlands to Damion, and probably said along the way that it is my favorite book, which was certainly not true then, nor is it now. There is no one single favorite book for a bona fide lover of literature.

Be that as it may, I slipped the quote “Tityrus smiled” into Pose for Prose, my first book of stories, as if it were one of those ritual Christmas loafs or cakes with a ducat baked in it for good luck. There is also a line in Lend Me Your Character, a collection of stories, that hints at my romance with Marshlands. Writer–book lovers aim to seduce their readers and listeners with books by other writers, the ones who seduced them as readers. Some among them will hide their literary “affairs” and eradicate all trace, while others will openly flaunt them, and yet others (ah, human frailty!) will fabricate theirs. Many aren’t even aware of their literary “affairs.” The Attic, a short novel by the Yugoslav writer Danilo Kiš, is strikingly reminiscent of Marshlands. Perhaps Kiš succumbed briefly to youthful literary transgressions and fell gloriously victim to literary seduction.

*

The Workers’ Library

There are many details I never would have recalled had I not come back to revisit this novel. I realized, for instance, that I don’t have a copy of the actual book of Marshlands in my Amsterdam home library. Instead, what I found was a tattered photocopy of an age-old Yugoslav edition. The paper of the photocopy is coarse to the touch, you can’t find this grade of paper anymore; the translation is awful, which only contributes to the charm that radiates from the little book; the stamp on the first page of the book shows it was borrowed from the Workers’ Library in Zagreb. The Workers’ Library, I should say, is long gone, as are workers, and workers’ culture, nor is there any of the respect for workers that socialist society so earnestly promoted. Over many of the pages of the Yugoslav edition of Marshlands slinks the faded stamp of the Workers’ Library, which, along with the text of Marshlands and the reader’s sense of playfulness, gives an additional fillip to the read. This is particularly true of the dialogue between the narrator and his friends, which repeats several times and in several versions throughout the book …

“So!” he said. “Hard at work?”

“I am writing Marshlands,” I replied.

“What’s that?”

“A book.”

“Will I like it?”

“No.”

“Too intellectual?”

“Too boring.”

“Why write it then?”

“If I don’t, who will?”

“I see, more personal confessions.”

“Hardly any.”

“Well what’s it about then?”

At the end of the book we find: “Table of the Most Remarkable Sentences in Marshlands.” The list is very modest.

Page 9. “ ‘So!’ he said. ‘Hard at work?’ ”

Page 80. “ ‘Once you take up an idea, you have to carry it through to the end.’ ”

Then follows a page on which space has been left blank. It is meant for the reader. (“Given the prevalence of personal preferences, we leave the job of completing this page to each individual reader.”) And here, in the empty space, denying readers the chance to introduce their own favorite sentence, an unknown librarian stamped the wavery Workers’ Library stamp. And so it was that the anonymous librarian inadvertently added yet another possible interpretation to Marshlands.

Gide’s Marshlands was published in 1895, while Goncharov’s novel Oblomov came out in 1859. (Might this truncated numerical palindrome, 59/95, have brought the two books into some sort of “fateful” link?) Marshlands could be a short French version of the Russian Oblomov. Oblomov is a Russian nobleman, a person who prefers his bed to the challenges of real life. Gide’s narrator in Marshlands is a writer whose qualms about writing persist for an unhealthily long time (“Marshlands is the story of someone who does not understand life, who writhes and worries for having believed in anything except the one thing needful”), leaving the reader to wonder whether this work is a small-scale French take on Oblomov.

Imagine for a moment an American edition of Marcel Proust through which sprints a stamp advertising Coca-Cola, or a Chinese edition of Walt Whitman through which creep the sayings of Mao Zedong. Whatever the case, the detail with the Workers’ Library stamp is not why I have been carrying this tattered photocopy of Marshlands with me my whole life. As I have moved around the world I have left behind many important books. So why did this unsightly photocopy settle down in my Amsterdam library? I don’t know, nor will I ever know.

As far as translator Damion Searls is concerned, apparently he chose as his favorite the sentence “Once you take up an idea, you have to carry it through to the end,” by adding his translation of Marshlands to the long list of his published translations, nearly two decades after our conversation.

*

Canonical and “Wild” Literature

When I was first a student of comparative literature at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science in Zagreb, Marshlands was one of my favorite books. The ducats, the quotes I baked into my early books of prose, make that abundantly clear. Why wasn’t I more prudent? With sharper intellectual acumen? I could have spiked my text with quotes from more respectable writers, like James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, or J. L. Borges. The last of these, Borges, was the fad of my literary generation, mainly among the boys. The boys dashed onto the pitch of the Croatian literature of the day as if they were a soccer team with J. L. Borges as their coach, and dubbed themselves the Croatian Borges Boys, drawing the attention of the literary community. Indeed, they played in one or two lackluster literary championships and then quickly succumbed to the domestic variety of commercial genre literature. At the time (in the seventies), among the various Yugoslav cultural centers, at least as far as literary taste and trends go, the differences were far greater then than they are now, postwar, when the writers’ communities are part of entirely separate, distinct countries. The globalized literary marketplace tends to homogenize literary taste, and in this, by and large, it succeeds.

*

The Belgrade literary world, or at least one small part of it, developed a taste at one time for outlandish characters and narrators, for outsiders, malcontents on the fringes of society, “fools,” “wild people.” The filmmaker Dušan Makavejev dedicated his movie Innocence Unprotected (1968) to Dragoljub Aleksić, a gymnast who made a movie about himself at the beginning of World War II. The narrator of the novel My Family’s Role in the World Revolution (1969), by Bora Ćosić, is a young boy who looks at the world around him with the disconcerting eyes of a child. Milovan Danojlić wrote Kako je Dobrislav protrčao kroz Jugoslaviju (How Dobrislav Ran Across Yugoslavia, 1977) about an amateur writer who travels through Yugoslavia, selling his amateur books. Not only is the novel filled with touching sympathy for “colleagues,” it blurs the lines between “established” and “unestablished” writers. Moma Dimić wrote Šumski građanin (Forest Citizen), a documentary novel about a similar protagonist, a flesh-and-blood person, an outsider, a renegade, a “fool,” while the cult Yugoslav film director Slobodan Šijan made the film How I Was Systematically Destroyed by an Idiot (1983) based on Dimić’s novel. Only at a time such as this could Stanoje Ćebić, a metalworker by training, author of the book Zašto sam postao vo (Why I Became an Ox), become a media star, albeit briefly. Ćebić also appeared in Kolt 15 GAP, a unique documentary about himself.

Today, the atmosphere that existed in the individual cultural circles of those days is difficult to access and all but defies translation, even in the very locations where it ruled. If the “cultural products” of those years haven’t been completely consigned to oblivion as nonrepresentative, at least they have been sidelined to the niche of cultural excess. Reception for “outlandish” protagonists and their authentic voices was not a cynical pastime of the privileged in culture; instead, it was an assault on the canon, on the personalities of the authors who had been enthroned as the “fathers,” the omniscient moral, intellectual, and aesthetic arbiters, the writers of pompous national works with pompous literary heroes, thereby constructing an unwritten literary norm. This was, of course, a blow to the authority of the then-ruling aesthetic values by rendering them ridiculous. So there you have it: Marshlands, the book André Gide himself described as a sotie, resonated with my newly awakened aesthetic receptiveness for the minor, the fringe, the anticanonic, the outsider, and the subversive.

Why am I bothering the reader with obscure data from a literary provincial backwater? But doesn’t Marshlands itself come to the American market from the obscure backwaters of Europe? There isn’t just one reader out there in the world. Among readers there are those intrigued by obscure data. These details expose a hidden dynamic within the national literatures, which is of little interest to those penning national literary histories. These details furthermore disclose the ways books travel through the world literary field. World literature doesn’t always move along the regular routes anointed books travel from point A to point B. World literature also exists thanks in part to the chaos of traffic when one travels to New York via Baghdad, Barcelona (not the one in Spain, but the one in Venezuela!), Singapore, and Kiev … True, there is more traffic today than ever, so books from Barangaroo find their way to New York, yet at the same time the pathways are more “set” in terms of traffic; the mighty literary marketplace plays the role of literary traffic control. This is why, right now in Barcelona, Singapore, Kiev, and New York, readers are reading the same titles, which have been translated into the local languages. This “totalitarian” constellation is being sabotaged by book lovers, bookworms. Led by their passion for books, writers, translators, readers, editors, and the many others who take part in this act of literary sabotage tunnel their way using secret underground passageways, excavate displaced values, dust off forgotten books. Their passion is their mission.

*

Charm and How to Come By It

André Gide is one of the preeminent authors of European Modernism. He was a prolific writer, whose novels (The Immoralist, The Counterfeiters, The Vatican Cellars or Lafcadio’s Adventures, The Pastoral Symphony) and many other texts are firmly built into the canon of French and world literature. And the fact that Gide’s varied opus was honored by the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947 also figures into this.

Yet Marshlands seems to have broken away from Gide’s significant literary opus. Maybe the author himself pushed Marshlands to break away by describing it as a sotie, the old carnival genre, a street-fair farce, a Feast of Fools. We should add that Marshlands is not the only sotie Gide wrote. The brief description that qualifies Marshlands as a satire of Parisian salon literary life at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century is not entirely inaccurate.

But Marshlands is more than that.

It is a book that broke away, in a sense, from the opus of its author. We could easily proclaim Marshlands a genre-bending book and add it to the family of slim satirical novels about artists, which were published later, whether or not they were inspired by Gide. Two of these, for instance, are The Works and Days of Svistonov (1929), by Konstantin Vaginov, and Life and Work of the Composer Foltýn (1939), by Karel Čapek. In all of them dwells Tityrus, who “sits careless in the shade.”

Yet Marshlands is more than that.

I’m guessing that André Gide didn’t stop to think whether Marshlands would outlive him. This is a role he’d intended for his other, more important books. It would be hard to imagine that this slim volume could become Gide’s trademark work. The possibility for this, however, remains open. For, who knows, maybe with Marshlands Gide laid the explosives under his canonic work, so others would do so after his death. (“I like every book to include its own refutation, but hidden. It should not sit atop its idea, afraid to look it in the face. I like it to include what denies it, to self-destruct.”)

Yet Marshlands is so much more than that.

Some books travel, others stay in place. Some end up coated in the dust of oblivion, others are always read and reread, though despite this they remain snared in their time like flies in amber. Then there are the rare breakaway books that abandon their author, home, context, time, books with wanderlust that slip almost illegally across borders, move from place to place, from one random reader to another. What is it in them that makes them so eternally appealing? Wherein lies the secret of their stamina? Why can Marshlands so readily be seen as an exemplar of literary postmodernism? And while we might find some acclaimed contemporary writers easy to place in the nineteenth century, not so much, perhaps, by what they have chosen to write about as by the way they went about the writing, Marshlands is a surprisingly youthful book. If we were to assign another author’s name to it and claim it was the debut novel of one of our contemporaries, few readers would spot the switch.

No, Marshlands is more than that.

What sets Marshlands apart from so many other books is the elusive quality it has, something novels (and people) rarely possess. That quality is charm. Some books seduce us with their importance, others with their pomposity, yet others with their impressive reach, or tense narration, or pertinence. Every author knows, or seems to know, which of these is his or her strength. Readers know, or seem to know, their literary tastes.

So what would literary charm be?

Reading Marshlands again, after so many years, I was reminded of another book that erased its author and his intentions to remain inscribed in the history of literature as a “serious” author. The author is A. A. Milne, and his masterpieces are Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner. Quite possibly, the literary destiny of an exceptional book derives from a mistake. (“No one seems to understand that, having done a thing, what one wants is precisely to do something else.”) Although Milne’s book clearly is written for children, its most numerous and devoted readers are adult book lovers. Hamlet? Raskolnikov? Leopold Bloom? Where on the list of celebrated literary characters can we find Eeyore?! Eeyore, the woeful donkey from Winnie-the-Pooh, is one of my favorite literary figures. Eeyore ends up tailless and homeless. Eeyore is an outcast, a skeptic, a would-be philosopher, a grouch (or a loser, as we’d say today). Eeyore is a serious literary character whose tears touch the readers’ empathy and spark laughter. The narrator of Marshlands is a woeful writer (a loser, as we’d say today) who keeps a diary of his life (or, better said, his absence of a life) and works on his novel, which also happens to have the title Marshlands. The friends who surround him are reminiscent of Milne’s stuffed-animal characters, and the narrator of Marshlands is strikingly reminiscent of Eeyore. (“We are an indefinite mix of laughter and melancholy, like a partly cloudy day. Having cried just once, our laughter is not believed; having joked just once, we are no longer taken seriously.”)

But, nevertheless, isn’t Marshlands more than that?

To be honest, I don’t know. But I do know that now is the time for me to retreat. I realize that by seeking the same sort of literary attention for the character of Raskolnikov as for the characters of the self-named writer in Marshlands and Eeyore in all his plushness, I am undermining the established hierarchy and raising questions about my own literary credibility. In other words, I’m sawing through the branch I’m sitting on. So now it’s up to you, dear reader, to negotiate this for yourself and judge whether or not the literary coordinates I have offered can be of help. Happy reading!

—Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać

 

Dubravka Ugrešić is the author of seven works of fiction, including The Museum of Unconditional Surrender and Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, and six collections of essays. Her most recent book is The Age of Skin: Essays. In 2016 she received the Neustadt International Prize for Literature for her body of work.

Ellen Elias-Bursać translates fiction and nonfiction from the Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian. Her translation of David Albahari’s novel Götz and Meyer was given the 2006 ALTA National Translation Award. Her book Translating Evidence and Interpreting Testimony at a War Crimes Tribunal: Working in a Tug-of-War was given the Mary Zirin Prize in 2015. She is the president of the American Literary Translators Association.

From Marshlands, by André Gide, translated from the French by Damion Searls, published by New York Review Books this month. Copyright © 2021 by Dubravka Ugrešić; translation by Ellen Elias-Bursać.

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