Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 60, no. 1, spring 2016 SEEJ_60_1
1960s, change rapidly while the character’s inner world remains the same. Her understanding of the exterior world, including her own family, is halting and at times frustrating: “Karlo comes. Through the door. I see him. Mama says he is my brother. He comes from the woods, Karlo does. I know” (11). Sosič uses Ballerina’s interior world to explore themes from an outsider’s point of view. The family dynamics and family secrets are exposed to the reader with complete honesty, as, for example, when Ballerina casually reveals her aunt’s longtime affair with a married man. Simultaneously things remain hidden to both the characters and the reader as the title character is unable to put events and conversations overheard into context, such as why her brother Karlo sleepwalks and cries out for their long deceased uncle: “He’s looking at the ﬁeld in which potatoes and beans are growing, and his lips are moving. Then he says: Feliks! I hear very clearly He says Feliks! A number of times” (39). Major historical events, such as the moon landing, also pass through Ballerina’s world with the same passive comprehension: “Someone says they’re ﬂags, American ﬂags. ‘We’ve landed on the moon!,’ says Tata and turns off the television and turns on the lights on the gondola. Now I see a black box” (54). Even the protagonist’s own history comes across with equal disinterest. Over the course of the work, the narrator reveals that she was not born with her disability, and that she was once capable of speaking and interacting with others. Yet, the narrator reveals these insights in the same detached way as other events. In this manner, Ballerina, Ballerina examines what life and time look like through the eyes of someone who is unaware of their passing. Ballerina, Ballerina is a compelling read as it forces readers to contemplate the overall meaning of what we deem signiﬁcant historical events from the point of view of a narrator who has no concept of their importance. Sosič’s focus on the individual family members’ relationship, however, is perhaps even more central to the work, as he introduces uncomfortable questions that arise about caring for those with disabilities. As readers, we watch Ballerina and her family members steadily age through the course of the work, and we are invited to consider her future and her fate—something she is unable to do for herself. It would be easy to dismiss Sosič’s work as part of the recent trend of young unreliable narrators, namely Emma Donoghue’s Room (2010) and Mark Haddon’s extremely popular The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003), which features a young protagonist with autism. However, by allowing his narrator to age with each of the ﬁfteen chapters, Sosič reveals a grimmer future for these young narrators. At times it does seem as though there are too many unanswered questions that distract from the main ones. One of them is where Ballerina appears to be molested by her young nephews. This scene seems placed there to disarm the reader, but is never mentioned again. Nonetheless, Ballerina, Ballerina is a fascinating work that asks its reader to consider the meaning of consciousness and reality. As a translator, Visenjak Limon captures the halting language that makes up Ballerina’s altered vision of the world. She strikes a ﬁne balance between capturing the child-like qualities of Ballerina’s language without reducing it to being juvenile or mocking. Jill Martiniuk, University of Virginia
Jiří Karásek ze Lvovic. A Gothic Soul. Trans. Kirsten Lodge. Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2015. Illustrations. 141 pp. $21.50 (cloth). Max Nordau, among the most incensed critics of Decadence, found comfort in a singular belief. He posited that the degenerate artists producing such nervously fraught and sexually charged works would simply become extinct of their own accord. Nordau’s certainty that these sickly and sterile representatives of the mal de siècle were incapable of reproducing was not merely the product of his own fears and fancies. The prominent Decadent tropes of morbidity and anx-
Slavic and East European Journal
iety, of strained nerves and spiritual resignation, captured the general imagination and served as both symptom and diagnosis for the modern condition. The most Decadent of all literary heroes, J. K. Huysman’s Des Esseintes (from the programmatically Decadent 1884 novel À rebours), was a recluse unable to leave his gilded cofﬁn of a house. The last of his line, Des Esseintes did indeed reproduce. As Kirsten Lodge’s short but wonderfully informative afterword to her translation of Karásek’s A Gothic Soul details, Des Esseintes exercised oversized inﬂuence on young artists beyond the Decadent boulevards of Paris. As with several of her previous publications, Solitude, Vanity, Night: An Anthology of Czech Decadent Poetry and The Dedalus Book of Russian Decadence, Lodge continues to expand the availability of Slavic Decadent works in English translation while placing them into a broader cultural context. The ﬁnal ten pages of this edition contain Lodge’s afterword and her short biographical note on Karásek. In this brief space, Lodge situates Karásek quite squarely in his time and place. She links him to the broader aesthetic and literary trends of the ﬁn de siècle, to the political and philosophical concerns of late nineteenth-century Prague, to the journal culture of Czech modernism, and to the burgeoning defenders of homosexuality. Karásek emerges as a staunch Decadent, a dandy, and a Bohemian who ably juggled life, art, and politics. These ﬁnal pages function more as a pleasurable digestif that culminates the reader’s encounter with Karásek than an integral element of that experience. Lodge wisely lets the work stand on its own and offers a minimal and unobtrusive scholarly apparatus in this edition. The primary impression this book makes on its reader is aesthetic and not academic. As it should be. A novel published at a complicated time for novels, the alternately terrifying and hopeful liminal year of 1900, A Gothic Soul opens with a preface in which Karásek challenges the conventions of genre and style in which his book participates. The preface anticipates the novel’s unorthodox approaches to narrative style and character development. It embraces the psychological and meditative aspects of its protagonist over plot or explication. Karásek emphasizes the word “soul” in his preface and raises the spiritual and metaphysical implications of this “autobiography” to the forefront of this work. Karásek’s eloquent and conversational tone, beautifully and comfortably rendered by Lodge, easily bleeds from the preface to the body of the novel. In the unnamed third-person protagonist’s meditations on his own life and worldview, we hear distinct echoes of the most canonical of French Decadents: Huysmans and Baudelaire. Odors were in the carpets and the sofa covers, in the scattered pillows, everywhere: odors not of the present, but of the past. A bluish twilight trickled into the chamber, seemingly filled with the dance of whirling dust by the window, above a groove of gleaming metal, spilling in as the curtain permitted, and further playing only in reflections. Deeper in the chamber there were only slumbering blurred colors—the indistinct colorlessness of everything in a single hue. (34) Such rich and sensuous moments are paired with the hero’s contemplation of Prague and late nineteenth-century Czech society. Like many modernists before him, he is both fascinated and repelled by his time and the city in which he lives. “It was a petriﬁed sea of rooftops, blackened pantiles, rooﬁng tiles and bricks, distinguishable in the foreground, indistinct in the distance, and merged into a single ﬁlthy hue at the farthest point” (89). To all of this, he brings to bear his Decadent perspective. He immerses himself and his reader in the paradis artiﬁciels that Jean Pierrot saw as a deﬁning attribute of the Decadent imagination. With A Gothic Soul, Karásek leaves his own stamp, both distinctly Czech and generically Decadent, on the confederacy of degenerates, dandies, and dreamers that populated the ﬁn de siècle. The loveliness of this beautiful book is only enhanced by the thought and care clearly devoted to this edition by Lodge and her colleagues at Twisted Spoon Press. The relatively small dimensions of the book make reading it an intimate experience. The aesthetic pleasure that is integral to experiencing Decadence is conveyed through such details as a particularly evocative early twentieth-century font, striking patterned purple end papers, and a bound-in ribbon bookmark.
However, the most sensuous aspects of the book are the six wood engravings by Sascha Schneider interspersed with the text. The illustrations augment the novel’s mystical and darkly spiritual motifs. Created in the style of Félician Rops and Odilon Redon four years before the novel was published, Schneider’s engravings do not directly represent the text but rather can be used to capture the essence of its atmosphere. They solidify the impression of angst and morbidity that the novel fosters. The complementary Decadent nature of the book’s text, images, and form makes the reader’s encounter with it both profound and pleasurable. Jonathan Stone, Franklin & Marshall College
Bogdan Suceavă. Miruna, a Tale. Trans. Alistair Ian Blyth. Prague: Twisted Spoon Press, 2014. 141 pp. $15.00 (paper). Two young siblings, Trajan and Miruna, go to a mountain village to visit their grandparents. When their mother tells Miruna her grandfather is a giant, she says “[g]iants are in fairy tales,” but Trajan, the narrator, tells us there is “some truth” to what their mother had said, for their grandfather’s overgrown stature and bent-over posture resemble a giant’s (9). Bogdan Suceavă’s Miruna, a Tale begins with this message: fantastical, impossible narratives bring insight to, and extract truth from, the facts of everyday life. Trajan confesses, again on the ﬁrst page, “I cannot claim to have understood [...] at all. Now, after so many years, I realize that back then I comprehended nothing” (9). The verb “understand” is repeated throughout the novel to show readers how varied and elusive truth can be. By thinking back on that time and telling the story to us, Trajan comes to “realize” something about the person he was “back then.” Here the importance of memory and storytelling, the premise of the novel, is ﬁrst introduced. In accordance with oral storytelling, the story unfolds through frame narration. The plot is simple: an aging grandfather (Niculae Berca) spins tales of his town (Evil Vale) and father (Constantine Berca) for his two young grandchildren, just as those tales were passed onto him. Along the way, however, wrinkles and folds of rich context unfurl, including cultural change, from the Romanian War of Independence (1877–1878) to the emergence of trams and typewriters; Romanian history and folklore, with allusions to people, places, and times, poets, fairy tales, and epic heroes (all conveniently collected in the endnotes); along with a snapshot of peasant life in the Carpathians, where peculiar characters charm and delight. Evil Vale remains one of the last places untouched by twentieth-century modernity—a place that seems to predate Western empirical-rational assumptions of what is true. Rather, someone known as Old Woman Fira, an impossibly old soothsayer and speaker-in-tongues, governs the town with rumor and curse. Meanwhile, the priest Father Dimitrie struggles with a congregation that only attends church to admire his singing. The pair’s antics—which begin with Dimitrie’s convincing Fira she must renounce her supernatural activities in order to achieve everlasting life and end with his admittance that “all these years” she has been “one word ahead” of him (94)—represent the conﬂict between institutional and spiritual interpretations of truth. Niculae Berca’s matter-of-fact tone allows the reader to suspend disbelief in response to unconventional truths. He describes a mysterious portal from Romania to Greece with the same tone, neither more nor less embellished, that he uses for factual events. In fact, he reads newspapers aloud as if they had “a whiff of the unreal” (17). Mythologizing interjections—“it is said” (22), “so it is written” (44), “(so the captain told)” (83)—lend further authority to the tales (someone else conﬁrms the narrator’s account) but also draw attention to their status as tales (narratives said, written, or told rather than occurrences seen or heard ﬁrsthand). We become children, like Trajan and Miruna, in our willingness to believe the possibility of anything. This suspension of disbelief, in which we do not assume that something did or did not deﬁn-
Published on Aug 22, 2016
A review of A Gothic Soul in Slavic & East European Journal, vol. 60, no.1, spring 2016, by Jonathan Stone. www.twistedspoon.com/gothic-sou...