||Note From The Editor
by Diana Kuprel
[The spirit of exclusiveness] is the most pernicious in an association of people: whenever exclusiveness arises, justice disappears, and where there is no justice, there cannot be morality; without morality, there are no morals. The spirit of exclusiveness is the main obstacle at every step of civilization.... It is still the greatest barrier to unity, to the unification of nations. Throughout the history of mankind, the spirit of exclusiveness regarding land, birth, defence, religion, and trade has done humanity the greatest harm. (Stanislaw Staszic)
One weekend back in November 1987, I fled the rigours of Polish language training for foreigners and took an overnight train from Cracow north to Gdansk. As it was still very early, I decided to walk to my uncle’s along the Baltic seaside boulevard. Just as I was passing by the marina—the sunrise starting to stain the clouds a blood-red—I glanced up to see the silhouettes of hundreds of birds poised on the leaf-bare branches of linden trees. Suddenly, in chorus, they lifted their wings and took flight, blackening the sky...
I brought up this incident during a conversation with Christopher Merrill after reading the Kosovo chapter of his superb book, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars, wherein he relates the ominous sight of thousands of blackbirds (reincarnated Serbian soldiers, according to legend) circling the white spires of Pristina. His trenchant reply: We must pay attention when nature responds to what is going on in our soul.
Kosovo, Merrill reminds us in his review of a battery of recent books on the subject, is the fourth war in the decade-long dissolution of Yugoslavia. A former war correspondent, he believes the current situation over there does not bode well for a peaceful entry into the new millennium. Just this January, the Serbian paramilitary leader, Arkan (Zeljko Raznjatovic), under indictment by the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, was murdered. And in December, Slobodan Milosevic’s military occupied the airport in Montenegro, one of the two remaining republics in Yugoslavia. Merrill said that as far back as 1992, colleagues had warned him that when Milosevic, who dreamed of a “grand Serbia”, was done with his shenanigans in the former Yugoslavia, Serb would turn against Serb. “Now, it appears possible, if not likely, that this will happen: Montenegrins are Serbs—the ‘pure Serbs’—but an increasing number view themselves as Montenegrins. And they want out. The mountainous republic of Montenegro, the home of Serbian nationalism, has a long tradition of fearsome warriors. So if Milosevic were to try to start another war there, it would be really bloody.”
The mass human exodus, the ethnic cleansing, the razed villages—this cataclysmic vision of a land is echoed in the profile of Eqrem Basha. For the past decade, the Albanian poet has used his pen in the defence of Albanian national identity and in the attempt to find a peaceful solution to the “problem” of independence for Kosovo.
“All biographers are forgers.”
“If only I could invent as presumptuously as life.”
“The popularity of biographies:
a self-defensive reflex against the advancing anonymity of the world.”
The (auto)biographical instinct is resurfacing—with a vengeance, it seems. A consolation for end-of-millennium angst? Exposé-exhibitionist impulse in overdrive? Or a genuine, thoughtful desire to interrogate and translate the lives of others? Forgeries or forgings? The reader decides with the current crop of books reviewed here: biographies of Lord Byron, Jonathan Swift, Mrs. Nabokov, and Dr. Leonora King; memoirs by Wayne Johnston, Paul Levinson, Clara Thomas, Michael Korda, and Ellen Stafford; and David Young’s deconstructive staging of Glenn Gould. (Note: Fans of Gould will want to pick up The Art of Glenn Gould, a just-released collection of interviews, CBC scripts, and other essays, articles, lectures, and liner notes edited by John P.L. Roberts and published by Malcolm Lester Books.) Meanwhile, Thomas Salumets engages in a little narrativizing of his own with his profile of the 1999 Nobel Prizewinner for Literature, Günter Grass, the controversial German writer.
We also feature an interview with An Unsuitable Boy’s Vikram Seth and reviews of his latest novel and recent works by George Elliot Clarke, Drew Hayden Taylor, and Derek McCormack.
Definitely worth a read, especially for those in the publishing business, is Ved Mehta’s Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing (Overlook, 414 pages, no price listed, ISBN: 0979518766). Mehta, who was born in British India and educated in the United States and India, wrote this humourous, engaging memoir as part of his autobiographical series, Continents of Exile. As he lays bare the inner workings of the illustrious magazine—the battles between publisher and editor, the alternately antagonistic/paternalistic relationship between staff writer and editor—he draws a portrait of the gentleman behind the words of others who, for thirty-five years and with consummate integrity, compassion, and acumen, guided the magazine and influenced such writing talents as Edmund Wilson, Donald Bartheleme, John Updike, and J.D. Salinger. (I do admit to more than a twinge of envy as Mehta detailed the staffing and resources that Mr. Shawn had at his disposal.) Mehta does not leave himself, an at times petulant, aspiring staff writer, out of the warts-and-all exposé—to deliciously funny, if occasionally irritating and self-indulgent, effect.
Another memoir that deserves a mention is Herta Müller’s Nadirs (translated by Sieglinde Lug, University of Nebraska Press, 122 pages, US $13 paper, ISBN: 0803282540). Müller, who now lives in Hamburg, relates her childhood in Banat, the German-language region of Romania. The nightmarish quality of this autobiography recalls Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird in its inflamed poeticization of the brutality of sexuality and life in a Romanian village, and the effect that communist repression has on the psyche of a growing girl.
And speaking of repression... “And so, what is left us? A box of lead type, and that is not much..., but it is all that man has so far devised as a weapon in defence of human dignity” (from Miroslav Krleza’s Banquet in Blitva). John Berger has pulled out the lead type in his latest work of fiction, King: A Street Story (Pantheon, 189 pages, $31 cloth, ISBN: 0375405560). The novel is narrated from the perspective of a homeless dog—or is he a dog? In the slippages of awareness, King leads us into a roadside wasteland of smashed trucks, old boilers, and broken washing machines called St. Valéry, where a group of homeless people is trying to carve out an existence. We enter into their lives and their inventions, their hearts and their rancour, their agonies, their triumphs, and their desires—until the apocalyptic climax. The novel offers starkly poetic snippets of consciousness that slowly build, straining and constraining, until they implode. The elegance of the prose complements the intimacy of the perspective to create a compassionate meditation on the homeless, and a searing indictment of our treatment of our fellow human being. Truly one of the most compelling novels I’ve read in a very long time.
Now, while I don’t have any dog stories of my own, Czeslaw Milosz does and it goes like this. “I went on a journey in order to acquaint myself with my province, in a two-horse wagon with a lot of fodder and a tin bucket rattling in the back... I have been thinking not only of the people who lived there once but also of the generations of dogs accompanying them in their everyday bustle, and one night—I don’t know where it came from—in a pre-dawn sleep, that funny and tender phrase composed itself: a road-side dog.” Road-side Dog (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 208 pages, $35 cloth, ISBN: 0374251290) is the title of Milosz’s latest book to be translated into English. This small, handsome volume is really a collection of topics—anecdotes, poetry, synthetic reflections—worthy of in-depth treatment. Literary figures, philosophy, culture, falling in love, marriage, aging... as mortality begins to weigh heavily, the author generously makes a gift—or rather rental—of the fruits of his broad-ranging thoughts to others. Who needs five-hundred pages? The effect is to entice the reader’s mind and spirit to explore the possibilities that issue from what is herein contained. “Our species should have disappeared a long time ago, and it is still alive, incredibly resistant. That you and I happen to be part of it should be enough to give us pause for meditation.” And you do, Sz. Pan Milosz, you do.