Reviews

Sly, funny, poignant Vladislavić

The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories by Ivan Vladislavić, Umuzi, 2011.

Between the figure and the dazzlement remains the absent body of God. What remains is a singular body of absence, which is approached from every side by narration and the perspective of truth. The former describes the shape of the body, and the latter inscribes its excavation. Between what is described and what is inscribed, there is only writing (l’écrit), the interminable graph engraved on the lead of a seal affixed on the site of the retreat.[i]

Ivan Vladislavić joins something of a tradition with the publication of his book The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories. His forebears in this tradition are both novelists and philosophers. Or perhaps one might say that at the point they entertain the “fragment” as a creative possibility, novelists are at their most philosophical and when philosophers consider the absent whole to which the fragment might belong or have belonged, they are at their most novelistic.

In Vladislavić’s case, however, these stories — the ones that “I imagined but could not write, or started to write but could not finish”[ii] — were not embarked upon in order that he might belatedly become a candidate for literary applications of the philosophies of Schlegel, Nietzsche, Benjamin and, more recently, Blanchot, Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe.

Indeed, he notes in his Preface that to call these pieces “fragments” is “tempting” but “misleading”.[iii] On the other hand, he no doubt always has, in the corner of his eye, the work of Beckett, Borges, Kafka, perhaps now, Saramago, and a host of others. So even if he never set out not to finish some things as a deliberate literary impulse (i.e. to be Borgesian and deliberately produce fragments), he has, in gathering these pieces of unfinished, lost or abandoned stories, entered the fray.

What he does do, in this beautifully written and delightfully self-conscious book, is to think about what it might mean not to have written some stories that he seriously intended to write. Paradoxically, this means that thinking about what it means to be a writer, is thinking about what the writer has not written. This has the effect of staking one’s claim as a writer — you are not, surely, a writer until you have abandoned hundreds of stories. In other words, you must have those stories lodged somewhere within you to begin with in order not to write them. Out of hundreds of possibilities, Vladislavić tells us, eleven are chosen, and arranged in a sequence that might, as he asserts, be “indefensible” but that, nonetheless, is exquisitely symmetrical.

At the centre of this symmetrical arrangement — you need an odd number to do this— is the title story “The Loss Library”, about a writer who visits a library that houses unwritten books: books that might have been written if their authors had not died or lost faith, or books that were written but then lost forever. The literary joke at the centre of this story spins into the five stories that are arranged before “The Loss Library” and the five following it, though of course such an observation completely ignores — as does the author, apparently — the chronological order in which these pieces were written, though “written” seems an overstatement: some of them, as Vladislavić points out, were mere jottings of an idea in a notebook.

Vladislavić describes just such an anachronistic dilemma in “Acrobats”, the fourth piece in the book. After he had published his novel The Folly, he tells us, he had imagined that the central character Niewenhuizen “was descended from Gymnaste”, a character in Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, recalled by Lawrence Stern in Tristram Shandy. In his outline for the never-written story “Acrobats”, a man is reading, in a library, these two works and an untitled “slim volume with a plain cover”. As he finishes each book he stacks them on the armrest of his chair. The reader is asked to imagine this stack of books

as an upturned telescope. The eyepiece, if you like, is the book you are reading. If you look through it, as you must be doing if you are following this, you see a book by Rabelais, and through that a book by Sterne, and through that a slim, plain-covered volume.[iv]

Vladislavić’s fantasy is that he had intended all along that the book at the bottom of the stack in the library would be The Folly. This would give Niewenhuizen a “lineage”, and it would also mean that Vladislavić’s “ostensibly postmodern novel stood in a pre-modern tradition”. The only problem is that “the outline for ‘Acrobats’ predated The Folly by three or four years. How could the story possibly refer to a novel that had not yet been written?”[v]

The version of “Acrobats” in The Loss Library — and this is true for all of the eleven pieces, though the title story is a little different from the others — is not the outline of the original story in one of the author’s notebooks. Rather “Acrobats”, which finishes with a note written in December 2009 is, in its present form, a meditation on what happens when one undergoes a self-imposed writer’s apprenticeship in which one “reads the classics”.

A certain result is that one comes to understand that “every writer belongs to one bastard bloodline or another”.[vi] Each of these pieces now unfolds, not only to the reader, but to the writer himself, what it means to be a writer, to “inherit” stories through your reading of other writers, but also, most determinedly sometimes, to reject or rewrite those stories, or to imagine them as, somehow, making an appearance in one’s own story.

Vladislavić’s is an age-old struggle with — and celebration of — influence. He thinks about this most writerly of dilemmas with a mix of self-deprecation and confidence: a fond recognition of his younger self “flinching from an insight into his lack of originality” and, at the same time, a clear knowledge that “long practice” has taught him to stand “on the shoulders of giants”[vii] without, however, imagining that he is ever safe from them.

The collection of pieces in The Loss Library is deliberately bookended by the opening “story”, “The Last Walk”, of the death of the writer Robert Walser — or at least the story of the photograph of that death — and the closing piece, “The Cold Storage Club”. The latter began, we are told, with an idea about a “syndicate of pros, old friends and rivals, [who] buy a defunct meat-processing plant and use its refrigeration rooms to store their books”.[viii]

“The Last Walk” describes Vladislavić’s desire to write about the last days of a writer, perhaps exactly those kinds of days evoked in “The Loss Library” in which writers forget, talk too much about, or lose faith in stories they had intended to write but didn’t. But this piece becomes, quite quickly, a meditation on images, on the odd detail captured quite by chance in photographs of death.

In the Walser photograph and others that the author thinks about, hats in photographs of dead people — hats fallen, worn askance, knocked off — are signs of something deeply poignant in the human condition. In “The Cold Storage Club”, the odd idea for a club of book collectors leads Vladislavić to think about the book as an object loaded with political and emotive significance. Here, as in “The Last Walk”, images — about which Vladislavić has written a great deal in other books — resonate with extraordinary meaning: the memorial to the book burning in Berlin by the “artist of the absent”,[ix] Micha Ullman; the same artist’s homage to a would-be assassin of Hitler; a photograph of a convoy of Albanian refugees shattered by a NATO bomb; Hitler’s memorial to the “casualties of the failed Beer Hall Putsch”;[x] Bruno Wank’s artwork in honour of those who disobeyed the Nazi state.

Each of these works is about the end of something and the absence that is both a result of the death of a thing or person and the only thing left of what might have been possible had they gone on. What if the books had not been burnt in Berlin or Hitler had been assassinated earlier? Ullman’s poignant work Bibliothek — a word that fairly pulses on the page of this book — is an illuminated empty room below the street and it conveys not only the sense of what was lost then but of what, paradoxically, is lost in the future, what, in the age of Kindle and iPad, will never be.

The Loss Library is, mostly, about writing and books. Its author acknowledges his indebtedness to the writers he has read but also marks out his own territory, asserts his authorship of stories that he has written and those he has only thought about. It is a sly, funny, poignant and superbly crafted “slim volume” peopled with characters who, astonishingly, assume shape and form despite their profound absence.


[i] Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Between Story and Truth’ in The Little Magazine 2.4. (Jul–Aug 2001): http://www.littlemag.com/jul-aug01/nancy.html

[ii] The Loss Library, p. 7.

[iii] Ibid., p. 9.

[iv] Ibid., pp, 40–1.

[v] Ibid., p. 43.

[vi] Ibid., p. 45.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid., p. 85.

[ix] Ibid., p. 89.

[x] Ibid., p. 94.

Bronwyn Law-Viljoen is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of the Witwatersrand, the Editor and co-founder of Fourthwall Books, and Editor of Art South Africa magazine. She received her doctorate in literature at New York University as a Fulbright scholar in 2003. She taught writing and literature at New York University, and completed an extended internship at the Aperture Foundation in New York before returning to South Africa to take up the post of Managing Editor at David Krut Publishing. She has contributed to and edited many books on art, design, and architecture in South Africa, including "Fire Walker" (with Oliver Barstow, Fourthwall Books), "William Kentridge Nose", "Dis-Location / Re-Location", "Art and Justice: The Art of the Constitutional Court of South Africa", "TAXI-015 Paul Stopforth", "Handspring Puppet Company", "TAXI-014 Mmakgabo Mmapula Mmankgato", "Helen Sebidi, Light on a Hill: Building the Constitutional Court of South Africa", and "William Kentridge Flute" (all David Krut Publishing). She has written essays on South African art and photography for a number of magazines and journals, including "Art South Africa", "Aperture magazine", "Art on Paper", "Theory, Culture and Society", "Literature and Theology", and "Scrutiny", and has contributed chapters to a number of books both locally and internationally. She has just completed the editing of photographer Pierre Crocquet’s book (Fourthwall Books and Hatje Cantz) and co-curated his exhibition "Pinky Promise" on the sexual abuse of children at the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

Comments

Thanks for this comment – there is no explicit reference to Calvino in The Loss Library. It’s a long time since I have read If on a Winter’s Night, so I can’t be sure of any implicit references.

Jono87 says:

This review makes me want to rush out and get The Loss Library even more, great work!

A small question: Does Vladislavic make any explicit or implicit references to Calvino, particularly If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller?