Thursday, April 20, 2006

Context, etc

Sunday before last, I wandered up to Atomic Books to browse, kill time. I like Atomic. Its chief virtue, of course, is that it's only five or six blocks from my house. It's known, I guess, for its interesting and bizarre selection of (radical and otherwise) magazines, graphic novels, and bizarre porn, as well as a decent, tiny stock of radical literature. And it also carries a small selection of fiction, mostly leaning in the direction of niches: some science fiction, some fantasy, a lot of Bukowski, a lot of Murakami, local authors, McSweeney's books, other small presses. It can be relied on to have the latest books from such authors as David Mitchell, Jonathan Lethem, and Paul Auster. But I like to go mainly because it carries a lot of Dalkey Archive books. I don't know how many it sells, but it always seems to have a fair supply of the latest ones.

I love the Dalkey Archive and the Center for Book Culture. I know I'm not alone in this. But I love that it exists, I love its mission, I love the look and feel of the books, and I've enjoyed reading them. Before the lit blogs became a regular part of my online reading, I used to pore over the index in the back of Dalkey books for books and authors to check out. (Well, ok, I still do that.) I think the first Dalkey book I read was Harry Mathews' strange, excellent novel The Journalist. When the local (not very good) chain Bibelot was closing some years ago, I loaded up on fire-sale books, including the wonderful Dalkey books Aberration of Starlight by Gilbert Sorrentino and Springer's Progress by David Markson (not to mention three books of essays by William H. Gass and a hardcover of Vollmann's The Royal Family for super-cheap). Around the same time, I became aware of Stanley Elkin. I knew he was someone I was going to have to read, but all of his books appeared to be out of print, and I was only able to find remaindered copies of a few of the old, seriously ugly Avon paperbacks. But Dalkey came to the rescue, bringing pretty much all of them back into print, and now he's one of my favorites; I'm especially partial to The Franchiser and The Magic Kingdom. In the process, Dalkey became easily my favorite publisher. I also managed to be able to take partial advantage of its awesome big sale by splitting it with a friend, loading up on Sorrentino, Elkin, Mathews, and a bunch of interesting translated titles in the process.

So, anyway, already with a massive supply of books-yet-to-read and with the wedding looming (and so sort of not allowed to buy a ton of books), at Atomic last week I wrote down a short list of titles to remember:

Tom Harris and Hobson's Island, both by Stefan Themerson
The Planetarium, by Nathalie Sarraute
Things in the Night, by Mati Unt
The Enamoured Knight, by Douglas Glover
Natural Novel, by Georgi Gosposdinov

I haven't heard much about any of these. I note that Scott has read the Unt, an Estonian writer, and that it was also described by Associate Director Chad Post in this nice interview at Ready SteadyBook as "one of the best original titles we've ever published". Also, I recall Bud's post from last year about The Enamoured Knight (given that it's a study of Don Quixote, I should probably read it first). But that's about it so far.

On the way out, I noticed sticking out of the free periodicals rack the current issue of CONTEXT, the cover story of which happens to be an interesting profile of Mati Unt, who died last year. I had no idea the print edition of CONTEXT was free, or that Atomic carried it (although, I suppose I might have guessed the latter, given that they also carry the Review of Contemporary Fiction, along with the various Dalkey titles). I was particularly interested in this piece by Dubravka Ugresic, 'The New Eastern European Intellectual: "A Culture of Lies"'. Here's a sample, wherein it looks like the "new Eastern European Intellectuals" are mastering the tricks of the trade:

Our intellectual-in-transition lost his common cultural space with the collapse of Yugoslavia. Even for those who had never experienced this space as shared, the potential audience was noticeably diminished. If he was to hold his head above water, he had to change with the times. He had to embrace his ethnicity as his one and only identity; he had to get a new passport and a new language; and he had to move from the larger, common state to a smaller one. He had to agree to a radical break with the Yugoslav cultural legacy, particularly if he was a Croat. He had to embrace historical revisionism and make his peace with the notion that he had been living in a “totalitarian communist regime,” in a “time of darkness,” in “Tito’s Yugo-Serbian dictatorship,” although he had never really experienced that regime as “totalitarian,” nor particularly “communist,” nor even all that “dark.” Furthermore, our intellectual was now called upon to demonize his country after the fact: to spit, in other words, on the dead—on his own biography. He almost envied the Russians, Hungarians, and Czechs who had not only had communism but could point to countless proofs that it had dealt them a bad hand: their history of dissidents and political emigration, the intelligentsia that had been relegated to the underground for years, the pile of books that have been written on the subject. The post-Yugoslav intellectual, on the other hand, didn’t have nearly enough evidence to make the same case, that he had been shortchanged. He developed false memory syndrome, transformed himself into a “victim of communism.” Since everyone else had become victims too, no one asked for proof. Now he had to master a new rhetoric, swallow the host, embrace Catholicism or Orthodoxy, depending on his background. And if he didn’t swallow the host, he had to pretend to respect the priests, at the very least. Because they, the priests, were opening exhibitions, blessing schoolbags, university buildings, libraries, hospitals, and CAT scanners. The priests nearly stole his “bread and butter,” even writing introductory essays for books that had nothing to do with their spiritual merchandise.

Our intellectual had to embrace a new idea, that fascism and communism were one and the same. He had to deny the antifascist legacy in which he’d been raised. He had to close his eyes to the incidents of book burning, particularly in Croatia; to the destruction of monuments, graves, and statues—even those that had been raised to his literary predecessors, such as Ivo Andric and Vladimir Nazor. The first was a Croat, who declared himself a Yugoslav, wrote books about Bosnia and lived in Belgrade; while the second was a poet, and had been a partisan alongside Tito. But things didn’t stop here. Only a few years later the intellectual had to change his rhetoric again, because of entering the European Union. Quickly he mastered the new, European code of decorum. He found a hook in language. He started to use the phrase “Yes, but . . .” with striking frequency. “Yes” was his claim to having a firm position about a question. “But” was his cloaked defiance. His “Yes” was directed to one interlocutor, his “But” opening the possibility of revision, and his cooperation with another.

Currently, our intellectual is growing accustomed to the notion that life is packed with paradoxes. The most important new idea, however, is that young states need culture. To be the intellectual representative of a young state is to be guaranteed an income. Our intellectual has mastered the tricks of survival. He has learned first and foremost how to take the pulse of his own herd.

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