By Vic Bobb, fiction editor
The past half century has seen a remarkable number of talented Serbians contribute to the world’s store of interesting and worthwhile narrative. Justly celebrated as one of the most original among three dozen leading Serbian novelists, Borislav Pekić confronts me with two rather odd difficulties. One of them is practical: his novel The Houses of Belgrade strikes me as a remarkably vigorous and interesting piece of fiction…and yet I am hesitant to recommend it to a general audience, because its slow, odd, extraordinarily low-key style and effects are not to everyone’s taste; a reader who regards the book as very nearly a complete waste of time is not necessarily an irresponsible reader. (If you think that Hidden Camera or My Family’s Role in World Revolution—by, respectively, Zoran Živković and Bora Ćosić—are wastes of time, you’re simply an irresponsible reader. But Pekić…well, there are legitimate reasons to chafe at Pekić’s pacing, focus, and metaphysical flights…even though you’re wrong if you think it’s ultimately not worth the time and energy….)
My second problem is not practical; it’s a matter of philosophy, or aesthetics, or perhaps of something not connected to a definable category. But it’s important. Indeed, the answer to this unanswerable question is central to what I believe about our relation to art. It arises from a Pekić short story called “Megalos Mastoras and His Work, 1347 A.D.” (translated by Stephen M Dickey and Bogdan Rakić), included in a first-rate collection of Serbian short stories called The Prince of Fire (edited by Radmila J Gorup and Nadežda Obradović, translated by a number of folks; published by Pitt in a 1998 paperback). The story’s three central concerns—a platonic vision of the origin of the Truth embodied in a work of art; the question of the identity of the artist, and a consideration of uniqueness—are interesting, but are not my topic and my problem. What I’m kicking around is the question that arises from my response to a couple of what are almost throwaway sentences in the story of plague-era artist Kyr Angelos and his last creation.
My concern originates in my response to what Pekić’s narrator says about wood. We’re introduced to the striking thought that the noises associated with working wood are more than a matter of the physics of friction. “The hylikon, the divine material, defended its original form; wood strove to keep the shape given to it in Genesis.” (23) A short time later, “The woodcarvers’ tools began to draw angry, rebellious sounds from the wood, sounds that had been hidden in it while the tree was still only a seed, from which it had grown quietly and peacefully year after year until it was as tall as God wished, knowing nothing of the great artistry that would kill it.” (24) And, finally, a bit later the visitor looks at the shop, “where the noble wood at times creaked harshly, at others chanted soothingly, depending on the condition it was in, whether it had already submitted to the new form desired by Kyr Angelos, or whether it still lamented its original, divine form.” (26)
Why do I encounter such ideas with delight? Why do I regard this story as worth the reading almost on the basis of those three moments alone? What does my irrational liking or admiration for those lines indicate about what I believe to be the purpose and the function of art?
Because—and here’s why it matters—my pleasure in encountering Pekić’s ingenious and deft reorientation to the fact that wood makes noise when it is worked is not either a pleasure in rediscovering what I already know, or a pleasure in having my vision expanded and altered. I do not believe that the sound of my saw as I transform a pine board into a bookshelf is the cry of Creation being dragged through a reenactment of the Fall. I don’t believe that variations in the sounds from a woodshop reflect the degree to which the wood is satisfied to be being reshaped into an embodiment of the principle of Beauty. My understanding of the theology of our fallen world has not been altered in even a tiny way by what Borislav Pekić has said about the sounds of woodworking. I don’t think that sounds are hidden in wood, whether or not the tree falls and regardless of whether there’s a listener. No opinion that I hold about the nature of the universe is any different now from what it was before I first read this story, these lines from this story.
In other words, the pleasure and approval with which I respond to Pekić’s way of looking at things is not tied to a revolution in the way I see or think; nor is it tied to my having acquired an additional piece of information or level of understanding. When William Manchester offers up his climactic epiphany in Goodbye, Darkness, my understanding is enlarged; I am possessed now of familiarity with a powerful insight about men in combat offered by a deeply thoughtful veteran of combat. When I read “Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”, I have acquired a touchstone against which a world of other intimations-of-mortality can be rubbed when the occasion is right; and I possess also fifteen words by which the whole of that spectacular poem, from the details of its imagery to the overarching whole of its vision, can be summoned up and offered allusively. When I breathe my silent wow! whistle on first seeing Judge Romnicki sitting on his bed and saying Here! in The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman, my vision—a lifetime in the shaping—of what it is to be human, of what being human can be, is enriched, enlarged, enlivened, altered in a tiny and permanent way. Each of those responses to art is characterized by a significant addition to my understanding, my vision, and my sense of what art can be. But there is nothing equivalent that can be applied to my encounter with Pekić’s wonderful formulations about the wood. The idea is new and interesting, but in the end I reject (philosophically, practically, metaphysically) the premise on which the idea is based, and do not change how I think about the world. And yet I regard the sentences as so genuinely valuable and in some way nourishing that I’ve already used up more than a thousand of the world’s store of words just to introduce the topic of how perhaps I might possibly consider maybe talking about the matter….
Well, what about that “new and interesting”? Is it perhaps enough to say simply you have encountered a new way of looking or thinking or saying, and that is itself a reward sufficient to justify your high opinion of the experience of reading the story? In and of itself, that’s not quite enough. True, there is delight in encountering new angles of vision; indeed, when I think back on my first encounters with artists like Faulkner, Nabokov, Calvino, Pynchon, and Hrabal, I recognize that the sheer novelty and freshness of the mind and the angle of vision to which I was being introduced was part of what was so exciting. (The opportunity to go on an unrestrained binge of reading each of them was also a pretty nice part of the process!) But it is also true that I encountered (sort of) “new” ways of looking, thinking, and saying in Twilight, and in the first Harlequin into which I tiptoed [and out from which I fled, screaming] in British Columbia 46 years ago, and in the worst kinds of didactic pulp science fiction I explored until discovering (in sixth grade) by way of L Sprague de Camp and John Wyndham and Fredric Brown that it didn’t have to be that bad, and in…well…never mind. The point is, that pure newness or unexpectedness doesn’t necessarily equate to This Is Worth Reading Again.
But I’m cheating. Because in the end I think that the answer to the question why do I regard those three sentences in Pekić as something special even though they didn’t change how or what I think? actually is tied to an aspect of “new and interesting”. Perhaps the secret is to call it “new and interesting and worthwhile,” so I don’t have to answer embarrassing questions about people with skin that sparkles in sunlight, but of course that begs the question. Is worthwhile new-and-interesting art simply something like Justice Stewart’s porn—“I know it when I see it”? Perhaps. But I remain convinced that there are in fact qualitative differences among the artifacts of the human imagination—that there are in fact “new and interesting” ways of seeing and saying that are actually more worthwhile than other visions. That’s why I have read Too Loud a Solitude six times in the past five years, and will almost certainly read it again next spring, but can all but guarantee that even if I live to be 150, I will never again read The Purple Cloud or Twilight.