These bold manuscripts
Admitting, in public, that you read and admire the literature of Central Europe brings with it strong reproaches from friends and colleagues: charges of wilful obscurantism, accusations of pretension, general mockery. While it's tempting to blame this on xenophobia, that explanation hardly holds water - if you profess to love the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih or China's Ma Jian, social approbation awaits you. What remains? Guilt, of course - literary guilt, guilt over the unread and unfamiliar. Beyond a few well-established figures - Robert Musil, Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera - the polyglot literature of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire remains a mystery to English readers.
This is not for lack of trying on the part of publishers. The past three decades have seen the birth and death of two first-rate series of books translating and gathering major texts of Central and Eastern European literature: Penguin's Cold-War era Writers from the Other Europe series, which introduced English-speaking audiences to Danilo Ki?, Bohumil Hrabal, Tadeusz Konwicki and others; and a 13-volume series, published by the Central European University under the auspices of Timothy Garton Ash, of major Central European novels, including Deszo Kosztolányi's Skylark and Bolesaw Prus's The Doll, a Balzacian examination of late 19th-century Warsaw.
The CEU series completed its run last year; now, Simon Winder, the publisher of Penguin Press in the United Kingdom and himself a keen-eyed writer on matters of national culture (including the hilarious and disturbing Germania, whose title gestures at once towards the first Roman experience of the lands beyond the Rhine and towards Winder's own mad and brilliant obsession with them) has launched a line of books that will, one hopes, illuminate this obscurity where its predecessors failed: the Central European Classics series. Comprising 10 sturdy, brightly coloured paperbacks (Penguin's typical visual flair being very much in evidence), this new series might not seem, at first, likely to alter the destiny of Central European letters in Anglophone countries. And experience counsels against hoping for much improvement in the name recognition of writers like Bohumil Hrabal, whose Closely Watched Trains and Too Loud a Solitude encapsulate - as much as Robert Musil's masterpiece The Man without Qualities - the bitterly lyrical style of Central European literature. It is a style penetrated to its core by and adapted to deep engagement with philosophical and political concerns, whether overt or sublimated, through put-on ingenuousness or devious irony, a style equally at home in the bedroom and in the empyrean, in memory and in the modern state. But Winder's series is, at the very least, providing writers who lived and died struggling against incomprehension abroad and political repression at home a fighting chance.
How? In several ways. The visual flair is an important one: these books are designed to arrest the eye. And any project of literary renovation would be incomplete without its associative dimension - the attempt to ignite public interest by asserting that, however remote Author X may seem, he belongs in close cousinage with the famous and beloved Author Y. Winder has included some of the better-known (though that's not saying much) Mitteleuropeans: four of the 10 writers in the series already enjoy some renown. Thomas Bernhard is probably the most famous post-war Austrian writer; Czesaw Miosz was a Nobel Laureate; Gregor von Rezzori and EM Cioran cannot be called wholly obscure.
Alongside Bernhard and Miosz, however, Winder has placed writers like the virtually unknown Ota Pavel and Gyula Krúdy (Czech and Hungarian, respectively). This constitutes in itself a statement both of intent and critical judgement, and serves as a public-relations boon to the latter two. Not that either fails, in any objective consideration, to stand on his own literary merits. Pavel's slender, strange work How I Came To Know Fish approaches the horrors of Hitler's Bohemia with a delicacy and singularity of perspective hard to equal, while Krúdy's fabulistic stories of hard-luck cases in pre-1914 Budapest prefigure the grimy, appetitive, and slightly deranged literature of Eastern Bloc nations during the Cold War. But appearing in such close proximity to writers with deeper roots in the collective imagination of the English-speaking peoples can't hurt. (Although it should be noted that Winder has, even with Miosz, not bowed to convention: he's included Miosz's essays rather than his poetry, a body of work for which the author is equally, if not more, renowned in his native Poland.)
Another common strand in Winder's series is the multifarious presence of autobiography. This too, one hopes, will help broaden the series' audience. (If one narrative strategy can be assigned indisputable cross-national appeal, it is precisely autobiography). This is not in any way to imply that the series presents an accommodationist picture of the literary culture it takes as its subject. The autobiographical works included are masterful, difficult exercises in the form, from Ota Pavel's book on fishing and its occult relation to joy and memory, to Josef ?kvoreck's The Cowards - the author's heavily autobiographical debut novel, which is set during the interregnum of the German and Russian occupations, and depicts, through the lens of young Danny Smirecky's slow realisation of his destiny and the dangers besetting him, the condition of an entire generation. Gregor von Rezzori's The Snows of Yesteryear is a complex, five-part memoir of his bizarre childhood in the ethno-social cauldron of the Bukovina in northwest Romania, which reminds us, as most of Rezzori's work does, just how powerfully the violent collisions of political and artistic life that filled the years after the collapse of the Hapsburg dynasty resonate, even today. Notable, too, is György Faludy's My Happy Days in Hell, a harrowing but lyrical account of the author's flight from and return to his native Hungary, where he was welcomed by the state with prison, torture, and starvation.
Such are the considerable fruits of Winder's labors. Whatever their ultimate effect on our collective cultural consciousness, it must be admitted that he has made a commendable effort. Penguin's Central European Classics should be praised both by those who share, to use Winder's own word, his "obsession" with Central European writing and by any reader seriously engaged with contemporary literature. Nonetheless, the question comes of its own accord: will Winder's work, so to speak, take?
There is, of course, no way to know for sure. Can readers be convinced to abandon their suspicion toward what Penguin's original series dubbed the "other" Europe? It is true that Kosztolányi and Rezzori are both currently enjoying something of a vogue, thanks in part to the recent publication, by New York Review Books, of the former's Skylark and the latter's Memoirs of an Anti-Semite and The Snows of Yesteryear (which Winder's series makes available for the first time to UK audiences). But how do these differ from the momentary vogues enjoyed by Jerzy Kozinski, Tadeusz Borowski, Danilo Kis, and other former Slavic flavours of the month? Miosz's reputation seems secure, as does Zbigniew Herbert's, but they are poets (at least in America they are), with a passionate but small following. Milan Kundera, by his own admission, is a French writer. Even Robert Musil, whose masterwork The Man without Qualities appeared in a magisterial new translation in 1996, has in the ensuing 15 years largely vanished from the public consciousness. Kafka, doubtless, will endure - but his endurance is largely due, one fears, to the vast, Freudian misunderstanding of his work promoted by his earliest English-language advocates. So perhaps we shall finish with nothing - at least, nothing in the way of a large-scale resurgence of interest in this sphere of European letters.
But its devotees should be heartened, even if they have to endure the renewed, friendly mockery of their friends, and the array of their baffled stares. Sam Munson is a regular contributor to The Review.
Updated: June 11, 2010 04:00 AM