discovery

MARKETA LAZAROVA BY VLADISLAV VANCURA

Prague. Praha. City of a Hundred Spires. I have left so much of myself there. At a bus stop in I.P. Pavlova with Daria. On the Vltava river with Shazir. With Eliška in Old Town Square. There are traces of me all over the city, like the mucus trail of a snail. Vyšehrad, Karlův most, Riegrovy Sady, Liliová. I have left so much of myself that I am not sure what exactly I have brought home. Except memories and longing. On the day of my return, the most recent return, I had a panic attack in the Václav Havel airport lounge, brought on by the sight of the plane that was to take me away. I felt as though I was being abducted, and I knew that all my captor would leave me with would be memories and longing. And a copy of Marketa Lazarová.

I had not intended to buy a book. The act was a kind of muscle memory. I opened it more than once while I was away, but words were a chore. I was done with reading. I saw it as a form of cowardice, as a way of hiding, rather than, as I have sometimes tried to convince myself in my more positive moments, a way of finding myself. But then I left, came homeand once again I was happy to hide. However, I didn’t pick up Marketa Lazarová straightaway. I read around it, anything but it, for not only did I want to hide from my life in England, I wanted to hide from my memories of Prague also. It has taken nearly three months for me to be able to confront Vladislav Vančura’s novel, to become comfortable with what it represents, for the humdrum to eat away at my anguish.

“What do you want with glory? Life is what’s glorious, or rather, what one creates, and death is loathsome.”

Published in 1931, Marketa Lazarová casts back into the past, to Medieval Bohemia. It focuses on a family of ‘crafty nobles’, the Kozliks, and their feud with the neighbouring Lazar family and their war with the King’s army. The Kozliks are, despite their aristocratic title, criminals, the kind who ‘laugh aloud as they spill blood.’ Indeed, Vančura repeatedly stresses how violent, crude and primitive they are. For example, when Mikolaš is badly beaten by the Lazars, he does not receive sympathy from his own family, but rather disdain for not having defended himself, or at least killed one or two of the enemy in the process of trying to defend himself. Nothing, it seems, is morally impermissible for these people, not even murder and rape.

However, one gets the impression that many of Vančura’s criticisms are ironic, that in fact he admires the Kozlik clan or at least what they represent. First of all, he contrasts them with the Lazars, who, unlike the Kozliks, would rob an unarmed man. Secondly, he invites you to draw comparisons with the king’s soldiers, who he describes as ‘swords for hire, gluttons for pork, rats in the larder.’ They are a band of men ‘whose sins are dressed up as honor and glory,’ with the implication being that it is the Kozlik family who demonstrate true honour, bravery, etc. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he draws regular distinctions between the ‘Herculean times’ of yore and modern society, gently mocking the refined reader’s probable unease over certain elements of the story and chiding you for not fighting and loving as ferociously as men and women had once done.

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You may be wondering at this stage who Marketa Lazarová is and why Vančura thought fit to name his novel after her. The first question is easy to answer, of course; she is Lazar’s seventeen year old daughter, who is abducted by Mikolaš as part of the feud between the two families. However, as to the second question, I am not so sure, for although she plays a major role in the text, she is, for me, not as engaging as some of the other characters, most notably her abductor. When we first meet her she is described as a ‘charming maiden,’ who was promised to God. Therefore, one thinks that she will be the conventional moral/religious heart of the tale. Even more so when Mikolaš forces himself upon her, and Marketa prays for death, believing herself to have been defiled and made impure in the eyes of God.

“Devil take it! Let us dispel once and for all any doubt about her innocence. She is Mikolaš’s slut, who sucks passionately at his shoulder, bruises his throat, writhes in mad desire on the snow. What’s the point, though once a placid virgin, the situation has been different some time already. She has become a more splendid lover than even rumour has it, for the purple robe in which love clothes its mistresses was lined with spurned azure.”

Yet soon the nature of her sin changes, as she begins to enjoy the sex. I have encountered this sort of thing before, in Love in the Time of Cholera for example, and I find it indefensible to suggest that women might enjoy being raped, and may come to love their rapist. However, while I would rather he had found another way to do so, I believe that what the author wanted to do was to make a point about being true to oneself, to one’s nature. One sees this in the Kozliks, of course, who are truly, fully themselves and only themselves, living by, and absolutely committed to, their own moral code [regardless of how it might strike someone else].

Marketa, on the other hand, is in conflict. She is bound by traditional Christian ideals and values, and yet the suggestion is that these do not represent who she is really is. Her journey in the novel is one of self discovery, yes, but it is a journey in reverse, so to speak; she does not travel towards refinement, but rather backwards, as she gets in touch with her sensual, passionate, barbarian side. In this way, it is interesting to compare her to Mikolaš, who begins the novel as a knuckle-dragging criminal and rapist, but who, by the end, has shown that he is capable of great love and compassion. For this reason, I would have named the book after him, but who am I to argue with the author? It is also worth noting that the one character – Kristian – who doesn’t act in accordance with his true nature is afforded the most humiliating fate, that of being cudgelled by his wildcat lover.

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BEYOND SLEEP BY WILLEM FREDERIK HERMANS

It is, it seems, a common human desire to want to be remembered for something, to have made a mark on the world, and yet obviously very few of us achieve it. I have quite a few years ahead of me still, I hope, but I’m under no illusions as to the likelihood that anyone will be building monuments to me in Sheffield city centre or that one day school children will sigh and roll their eyes as their teacher does his or her best to make my great achievements interesting to them. I will be forgotten after my death, there’s little doubt about that; in fact, I’m largely insignificant now, only existing in the minds of a few hundred people, out of billions in the world, the majority of whom wouldn’t even know, nor care, if I fell under a bus tomorrow.

The narrator of Beyond Sleep, Alfred Issendorf, is a Dutch postgraduate Geology student who is on a research trip, heading for the Norwegian wilds in order to make a discovery, in order to do something that will make his name [which, in this instance, involves meteor craters]. Therefore, while it is possible to understand the title of Hermans’ novel as referring to death [which features frequently in the narrative] one might equally, or more appropriately, interpret it to mean ‘beyond death,’ or, in other words, the endurance of the self, via one’s achievements, beyond death. Indeed, Beyond Sleep is full of references to famous, important scientists and explorers, such as Robert Falcon Scott, at the side of whom Alfred feels small or insignificant. In this way Beyond Sleep is concerned with well-worn existentialist themes, such as the individual’s place in the world, whether one’s existence really matters, and so on.

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[Finnmark, in Norway]

The novel begins with Albert trying to obtain some aerial photographs for his trip, and one assumes that the tone of the work is set in these opening exchanges, as the young man is faced with incompetence and absurdity at every turn. It isn’t, I ought to point out, a grand, intense Kafkaesque absurdity, but rather the kind of small-scale ridiculousness that people like you and I [definitely I] come across every day. For example, he believes that a meeting has been arranged with Professor Nummendal, but, when he arrives, the professor appears to have no knowledge of it. Not only that, but, instead of explaining that he doesn’t have the aerial photographs, which are the stated purpose of the visit, he treats the young man to a pointless trip around Oslo in his company. Moreover, all three of the major characters that Alfred is in contact with in the first fifty or so pages are in some way disfigured or have a disability. Nummendal is blind, his porter is too, and Direktor Oftedahl has scars on his face and some problem with his throat.

Yet as the book progresses the strange, subtly surreal atmosphere dissipates somewhat. One of the clearest indications of this is that the other students taking part in the expedition – Arne, Mikkelsen, and Qvigstad – are, for want of a better word, ‘normal’; they do not behave in any way out of the ordinary, they have no odd verbal tics or physical features, and so on. Indeed, once Alfred enters the wilds in Finnmark, Beyond Sleep becomes more a kind of anti-adventure novel, i.e. one which shares some of the elements of a traditional adventure narrative – a man entering unknown territory, searching for something valuable – but which is, for the most part, really rather humdrum, or banal, with leaking tents, bad food, minor disagreements, an injured leg, and philosophical exchanges being about as exciting as things get [although philosophical exchanges do excite me, I must admit] for a good two hundred pages.

On this, Alfred makes an interesting point, which is that these kinds of trips only become glamorous or exciting or significant in retrospect, if an important discovery is made, and that, even when that is the case, the successful explorers and scientists don’t share with the public the boring bits. Furthermore, he is acutely aware that very few people make discoveries that change the world, or even their own small part of the world; very few of us, as alluded to in my introduction, will be remembered for our accomplishments. For Alfred, there is a feeling that if he doesn’t discover anything then his time will have been wasted, that it wont mean anything, that his hardship and hard work will have been for nothing, and that it will seem silly, to others and to himself. He believes that success, interest from the world-at-large, or even from just the academic world, is the only thing that can give the expedition meaning; only success can give it significance. There is, therefore, a palpable atmosphere of futility hanging over the book, in that Hermans gives us a man who predicts that he won’t succeed, yet who knows that the only thing that can give his actions meaning is success; and so, as a result, he approaches his work, his life, with a kind of hang-dog half-heartedness.   

“The Aztecs performed human sacrifices on a nightly basis, to ensure the sun would rise in the morning.  They had done so since time immemorial, the way we wind up our clocks before going to bed.  Not a murmur from anyone, not a soul who dared to suggest it might be worth finding out what would happen if they skipped the ceremony for once.”

As a reading experience Beyond Sleep is pleasant enough; it is easy to navigate and yet it does have some depth. And it is at times very funny. However, I do feel as though it lacks focus. Every time I was confident that I had pinned down where the novel was going and what the point was, it shifted slightly, and became something else. For example, in a previous paragraph I wrote about the banal aspects of these kind of scientific endeavours, and that stuff is certainly there in the text, but, then, towards the end, one of the main characters dies, which isn’t, of course, a banal event, it doesn’t happen all the time when people are involved in this work. Moreover, while initially it is Alfred who appears to be the sensible, and sane, man in a world of fools or weirdos, later he is the paranoid, incapable one, who is essentially ditched by his peers. Perhaps that is Hermans’ point, or one of them anyway, that everybody is a dolt to someone.

In any case, more of an issue is that the overriding theme, that to be great is not a position afforded to many, that there are, to paraphrase Hermans, only a small number of geniuses, is hardly profound, is rather obvious in fact, and doesn’t really warrant a 300 page novel. Ironically, Hermans himself was one of these not-so-greats, or not-quite-greats, and has been largely forgotten, or remains undiscovered, except in his native Holland.

REPETITION BY PETER HANDKE

A little while ago I was having an discussion-slash-argument with a friend at work about whether painting or literature is the greater artform. My friend was convinced that painting is superior, because, I think this was his point, it is in some sense a more primordial, or at least purer, mode of expression. I, however, believe that literature is superior, because we wouldn’t even be able to have the discussion at all without language, that every painting is actually understood, is processed by us, via language; indeed our every thought is filtered through language. In order to ‘understand’ a painting one needs language, one needs to think about it, to discuss it perhaps, maybe even write about it. By simply looking at a painting one may have an emotional response, one may recognize the image[s] as something, but to express this feeling in detail one needs words.

I hadn’t read Repetition at the time of the argument, but Handke spends much of it making a similar point. The central section of the novel almost entirely consists of a young man reading a Slovenian dictionary; Handke uses these passages to explain how the young man discovers the world through language. So, once he discovers the Slovenian word for, say, freshly cut grass, he can then visualize it, he can see and make sense of what Slovenian freshly cut grass is. This may seem inane, or trivial, to some, but I found it not only intellectually engaging, but really quite moving. Being an Austrian with Slovenian heritage, Slovenian is a foreign language to him to a large extent, and he sees in this naming, this being able to put a name to an object or experience, as a way of understanding it. Furthermore, this new knowledge acts as the bread crumbs he follows back to the culture of his father, his ancestors, and, he believes, his true self and birthright.

This is a novel, then, about heritage, about one’s place in the world, about family etc, but most of all it is about us, the human race, and the way we interact with, and make sense of, what is around us. The process of discovery that Filip goes through in Slovenia is a process we all go through. Think about how your mother or father would point at that black and white animal in the picture book or in the field and enlighten you with the single word: cow! There is a wonderful moment in the book when Filip is discussing the wind and how it allows us to identify new things as it moves around the landscape, how it draws our attention to the world around us, things that we ordinarily may miss, how it makes us focus on the world, and how language, words, spring up from this. For example, the way the wind moves the grass, the sound of the wind through the trees, these things, these particular sounds and sights, can, once discovered, be named and subsequently shared. He asks himself do the Slovenians have a word for these things, for the particular way that grass moves when touched by the wind etc? Beautiful.

I am concerned that a lot of my rambling here in this review may not make a great deal of sense, but this book is an esoteric one and so that perhaps cannot be avoided. I felt throughout my reading as though I was trying to catch a fish with hands smeared with vaseline [do the Slovenians have a word for this?]. There is a framing storyline around Handke’s musings and that helps to ground the narrative, to move it along, to give you a modicum of momentum. Filip is on the trail of his long-lost brother, a deserter from the army, who he believes may be in Slovenia, or who he knows at least was there at one stage. The earliest part of the book is the most straightforwardly novelistic, is essentially a Bildungsroman, and there are some lovely passages about his mother and father and his own school-life, but Repetition, even in these sections, is deeply ruminative.

One of the recurring themes of the novel is that life is a fairytale. Handke uses this word, fairytale, regularly and it wasn’t always clear to me what exactly he meant by it. An acquaintance of Filip’s, a teacher, is said to write them, and yet what he writes are single scene, single event, stories that do not contain any darkness [no witches, death, lost children etc], because, and I’m making a stab at this, the world is still a fairytale without them, that the fairytale aspect is in the lightness, that, for example, the beauty of a field or the sun is strange, is bewildering, and potent enough on its own. What I can say with certainty is that Handke’s novel is fairytale-like, there is even a woman who awakens from a spell after a significant number of years. This is his sister, long considered to be an idiot, a woman who at the end of a love affair was said to have lost her mind, but who suddenly after 15 years recovers and becomes active. There are numerous references to apples [which as we know were Snow White’s downfall] and the orchid maintained by Filip’s brother. This brother, it is also worth noting, only has sight in one eye, which is a glimpse of the grotesque.

As for rating this, well, it is nearly impossible for me. This is a profound experience, and you can’t rate something like that. As a novel, as a pleasant reading experience from cover-to-cover, it has its flaws, however. It is difficult, it is tiring even, it is wholly without humour, and it does lack a conventional narrative. Indeed, it is no surprise that W.G. Sebald and William Gass raved about it, because it has the ruminative power of Sebald and the poetic sensibility of Rilke [one of Gass’ great heroes]. So, I’ll call it brilliant, for what it’s worth, which is nothing.