As if spinning a prayer wheel, this year’s Best European Fiction anthology once again gets rolling via a discussion of A. The Decay of Literary Culture, B. America’s Culpability In This, and C. The Scourge Of Consumerism (cf. B and A, in turn). “Back in 1984, when I visited America for the first time,” Slovenian novelist/playwright/essayist Drago Jancar writes in his preface, “on my very first day I noticed to my surprise that, try as I might, I wasn’t going to find a section labeled Culture in any of the newspapers.” Instead, “exhibits, plays, even literary readings were all listed under Entertainment.” America’s priapic obsession with being entertained has infected Europe, Jancar goes on to say, a development that is especially unfortunate in places like the Former Yugoslavia where, once safe from capitalism’s ineluctable decline into consumerism, people actually used to care deeply for words like culture and literature.
It’s true that the Americanization of everywhere hasn’t exactly turned out great for everyone, writers especially. “In Eastern Europe there is no shortage of disappointment in this brave new world,” notes Jancar.
Many writers who once thought that democracy and the new, relaxed atmosphere it lent society would validate the deep longing for freedom that was present in their works and that once brought them renown, now look upon the general apathy of their societies in despair.
Others…who were convinced that their literature spoke from out of the depths of the nation’s spirit and expressed an authentic genius loci, look at the literary kitsch everywhere around them in disgust.
As for the writers “who joined in on the easy minting of generic entertainment” born fully formed from the thigh of capitalism, they have discovered “that democracy is … a very majoritarian affair, well-suited to mediocrity,” and “bigger sales figures.”
The shift Jancar is talking about, from Yugoslavia to the countries that now make up the areas of the Former Yugoslavia, from a communist system to a capitalistic one, from a collective literary tradition to an assemblage of minor traditions, has, no doubt, engendered many of the problems he points to. But, though serious writing does, indeed, run counter to the impulses that consumerism promulgates, I’d hesitate to say the endpoint of this opposition is the death of serious writing. More often, great literature is the force that presses up against vapidity. Not to overthrow it, mind you, but to transform and trouble it. Jancar’s formulation (consumerism up; great literature down) misses this, I think, by offering a binary that is accurate without being true. Rather than being troubled over the marginalization of great literature, one might wonder why the margin seems to be the natural place for it.
Drowning recently inside of CNN.com (where, as a matter of self-preservation, I no longer even read the articles: just the comments that follow them) I came across a remark written by a Paul R in response to a piece on the importance of the amazon.com bestseller list: “Sorry, New York Times,” wrote Paul R, gleefully, “but I guess your Bestseller List is irrelevant now.”
Obviously, Paul R was not sorry: he was happy. But why?
To begin with, Paul R doesn’t believe there is any such thing as great literature. In his mind, the New York Times exists in a landscape where elitists make decisions about what he, Paul R, is supposed to read. He wants a bottom up system, not a top down one. Democracy, not elitism; the consumer model of culture. In a perfect Paul-R-world, nobody knows better than Paul R.
Paul R represents a set of ideas that, rather curiously, has numerous followers but no actual defenders. It’s impossible, that is, to imagine a thoughtful argument against literature, even though we live in a society that makes its creation (almost) impossible. But that near impossibility is, again, the point.
As if in response to Jancar’s preface, Paul R’s howling against the internet void suggests a question: Is it possible to have a cultured society when the notion of a genius loci is antithetical to everything that culture thinks it wants to stand for? The short answer is: No. Devoid of individuals of genius (excepting, of course, celebrities) opinion becomes a very, very important word in cultures like these. It’s not hard to see how the elevation of opinion into ontological gold might kill off a citizenry’s interest in great literature. The longer answer is: Yes.
The Best European Fiction 2014, despite the Marketing 101-sound of its title, is meant to be a curative for the economic imperative that has killed or is killing literature. Pace Jancar:
The question becomes less amusing if we look around and consider the environment that literature actually inhabits today…the erosion of well-defined aesthetic criteria and a flood of literary commercialization that demands and rewards superficiality, easy reads, and bestsellerdom. Even in the eyes of a growing number of publishers’ manuscript readers, these qualities have apparently replaced elitism, challenge, and the tedium of Great and Profound literature.
These stories, Jancar asserts, are less about plot than style, more about contemplation than quickness, on the side of seriousness, and averse to the trite. There are twenty-seven stories in this year’s collection, with writings in translation from a diverse range of countries: Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, France, Moldova, Iceland, Slovakia, and Liechtenstein.
European might as well be a byword for varied, which isn’t a critique of the choices. No one, one hopes, expects to get more (or less) than a kaleidoscopic view of what is being written on the European continent today in a single anthology.
The histories of Bosnia & Herzegovina, in Elvis Hadzic’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Zec,” Croatia in Olja Savicevic Ivancevic’s “Adios Cowboy,” Belarus in Vladimir Kozlov’s “Politics,” Montenegro in Lena Ruth Stefanovic’s “The New Testament,” and Moldova in Ioan Manascurta’s “How I Was Going to Die on the Battlefield” all receive literary investigation, while stories like “Fear of Ankles,” by Katya Atanasova from Bulgaria, and “The Pool,” by Slovenian Vesna Lemaic, eschew history in favor of more surreal terrains. Eric Chevillard’s “Hippopotamus,” from France, provides a vision of a consumerist wandering in Mali as a tourist-writer, while Estonian writer Emily Tode’s “Interpretation” shows us Western Europe’s abundance, as viewed by a figure from a former Soviet Republic. “The Man in the Yellow Parka,” by French Belgian writer Thierry Horguelin, is the standout story in the collection.
Reminiscent of Jose Saramago’s The Double, Horguelin’s fabulist tale puts us in a TV world only to make its apparent banality fantastic, as the narrator becomes interested in a background character — dressed in a yellow parka — in the impossibly bad-sounding 1980s American series Simple Cops:
That the same extra, in the same loud jacket, had ambled through two episodes of a single series was already unusual. Was the production really that broke? But when I saw him again the next week, I really thought I was losing it. Still, there he was, sitting on a bench in the background of a public square, bringing a bottle in a brown paper bag to his lips. What did it mean?
Here one has to go back to the idea of great literature existing (or not) inside of a consumer society. The story itself is after all about that most dilapidated realm of the consumer world, late night TV. What unfolds is a remarkable exploration of the creeping strangeness that is piled up just on the edge of our daily lives, especially those portions taken up by flickering screens. More to the point, Horguelin is engaging exactly with the kind of consumerist schlock that Jancar critiques as the end of great literature. Of course, in this case, it’s the exact opposite that occurs. Which prompts the question: Mightn’t one flip the usual hyperboles and point not only to great literature’s capacity for transcending and transforming consumer culture, but also to those places where consumerism and great literature keep each other moving, the way opposing magnetic forces propel bullet trains?
Another tale of great strangeness, Lithuanian Kerkus Kuncius’s “Belovezh,” which takes its name from the Belovezhskaya Forrest in Belarus (Byelavyezhskaya Pushcha), where the Belovezh Accord was signed, effectively dissolving the Soviet Union, centers on a forest ranger named Kalina Baluta. After some improprieties between himself and a snared deer, the story concludes:
Once again full of energy, Kalina Baluta returned to his wife, and she was bawling. And our sensitive forest ranger had no reason to suspect that today, with just barely a year between himself and retirement, the largest country in the world, the USSR, had been erased from the map thanks to a few careless signatures in Belovezh.
Bosnian Elvis Hadzic’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Zec,” which is explicitly dedicated to “the victims of the Srebrenica massacre,” presents this remarkably overlooked blight on the twentieth century with a heroic mixture of emotion and reserve. One is reminded, by Hadzic’s story, of a purpose once ascribed to literature — to speak for those who cannot speak — once articulated so well by someone who is no doubt dear to Hadzic, Danilo Kis, and which clearly has a diminishing return in the sort of economic imperatives Jancar ascribes to the brave new (literary) world.
One possible implication of The Best European Fiction series is not only that Europe is going the way of America, but that the stories in it already represent the kind of writing that isn’t possible in America anymore. Absurd, of course. Blake Butler, Bob Shacoccis, Amelia Gray, Sergio de la Pava, William Gass, David Foster Wallace, or, indeed, Eliot, Stevens, Pound, and Faulkner. The list goes on, as lists do, but the case could easily be made that if American literature is to be accused of anything, it’s an obsession with being difficult. Great. Serious. Not because of its consumerism, nor in spite of it, just unavoidably so, right alongside it.
None of this has ever been a question of bestseller lists. Great literature has always been around, always will be around, not in spite of its selective readership, but because of it. This point is made near the end of The Best European Fiction 2014, in Swiss writer Christoph Simon’s “Fairy Tales From the World of Publishing.” It offers a parable about two poets splitting their last reader in half. It’s a story that is well worth reading, especially if only very few people end up reading it. It’s the perfect concoction for our times: a literary vision whose truth depends on the fact that hardly anyone will read it.