Introduction

The stories we love create us. This is even truer for writers, whose words exist in relation to their literary lineage. Like Nabokov, I can’t fathom the value of writing something that hasn’t actually “happened” or existed in some shape or another. One can despise metaphysics but still acknowledge that incredible stories become events in our lives. They become things that happened to us. I remember the places (airport bars, park benches, a tree in the yard, etc.) I sat when first meeting each of these stories. I cannot separate the reading from the being-alive in that moment. To drag this logic to its appropriate end, the selected fictions persist asevents in my life, things which took place, worlds that continued to exist long after the reading ended. They remain my tutors, my interlocutors, my imagined subjects, my partners in the crime of imagining. Everything I know about writing comes from having lived in them.

‘The Austrian State Prize for Literature’ by Thomas Bernhard, translated by Carol Brown Janeway

First published posthumously, in accordance with the author’s arrangement, My Prizescompiles various rants, speeches, financial lamentations, and indictments of various literary prizes Bernhard received. I did it for the money, he says again and again, glaring at the reader (who may be a writer) — and you, too, will do anything for the money, the platform, the stage, the power.

Fury, indignation, and humiliation are the chords Bernhard strikes repeatedly in ‘The Austrian State Prize for Literature,’ a story formatted in his characteristic breathlessness— the endless paragraph lacking quotation marks. Playing on Austria’s small-nation complex, he rages against newspapers for talking up his win “as if it were the Big Prize while it was the to-me-humiliating Small Prize.” Embodying the incoherence of post-Nazi Austria, Bernhard speaks for the nation against the nation with the wrecking-ball of his mouth: 

“Yes, I said, every year new assholes are selected for the Senate that calls itself a Cultural Senate and is an indestructible evil and a perverse absurdity in our country. It’s a collection of the biggest washouts and bastards, I always said. … the Small State Prize is a so-called Nurturing of Talent and so many people have already won it … and now I’m one of them, I said, for I’ve been given the Small State Prize as a punishment.”

Nothing is left standing as Bernhard razes the cultural landscape. He mocks the official ceremony, the stupidity of the cultural elite gathered to award one another social status, the conventions of politeness wherein “the sheep were applauding the God that fed them,” the notion of honor, a “dirty trick” played by the state that hides its crimes behind the nouveau-illusion of meritocracy. “No prizes are an honor,” Bernhard insists in his self-masticating sentences, in the pitiless self-cannibalism and the nausea of the vomited clauses  which are then used to grow the next sentence.

In the partner-piece, ‘Speech on the Occasion of the Awarding of the Austrian State Prize,’ Bernhard tells the audience: “What we think is secondhand, what we experience is chaotic, what we are is unclear.” This torment where the 21st century writer must begin.

I am fond of Bernhard; I am lulled by his scalpel-tongue. Taped to the back of a bedroom shelf, a line from ”Austrian State Prize…’: “Now you’ve made yourself one of them.” — A reminder that we write about the world we live in, and the present conveniences will be the future’s indictments against us.

First published in Meine Preise, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2009. First published in English translation in My Prizes: An Accounting, Knopf, 2010/Notting Hill Editions, 2011; also collected in A Memoir: Gathering Evidence, Random House Second International Vintage Edition, 2011

‘The Revenge’ by Diane Williams

I’m interested in the distance between accidents and intention. A thoughtless act occurs without actual consideration, but an urge is something more derivative: it is intentional, sought, desirous, unclumsy. The urge drives the human to do something that changes the story’s texture. Diane Williams knows this. ‘Revenge’ is composed of ten brief sentences, the first of which is bracingly banal: “She sat in the chair and looked out a window to think sad thoughts and to weep.” Cliché is a tourniquet in Williams’ hands. Idiom is used to disorient and obfuscate—to make humans less intelligible to each other through repetition of platitudes and received wisdom— superlatives are dizzyingly stacked: “Everything she saw out the window was either richly gleaming or glittering, owing to a supernatural effect.”

There is something neo-Kierkegaardian in the way Williams scandalizes the entire color spectrum in order to defamiliarize a scene. One is conscious of how colors do things to verbs, or act upon verbs in uncanny ways. Black obfuscates. White starches and over-irons; it envisions; it entitles angels and light and epiphanic acts. Red scandalizes; it vexes and manifests; it scalds just as surely as scarlet scolds and crimson crushes and red food coloring blushes. Alas, now I’m thinking of “Yellower” and how one assumes the subject is connected to the title only to find, while reading, that superlatives gain their own momentum, acquire their own speed and valence in the mind. Everything is bigger, sicker, messier—and so nothing is actual.

Many of Williams’ stories play these language games that look back at the language and reveal how we misuse it. In an interviewWilliams described infidelity as “an inescapable subject”: “The fantasy of security is difficult to relinquish, as are the notions of invincibility and recklessness.”

Ending a sentence with the same article that opens the following sentence is anathema in writing workshops, but notice how gorgeously Williams accomplishes it in ‘Revenge’:

“Her mind was not changing. Her mind had not changed in years. Somebody’s headlights were blinding her. Her idea of  a pilgrimage or promenade excited her.”

Enormous and tiny, ‘Revenge’ demolishes the interior monologue by destabilizing it. The repetition strategy wrecks the speaker. I love Williams for her profanation of expectation. I love her mockery of rationality. I love the thumbscrew she makes of the familiar by employing uncanny juxtapositions. One must read her exemplary brutality, her relentless brilliance.

Published in The Collected Stories of Diane Williams, Soho Press, 2018

‘Mary Magdalene; or Salvation’ by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Dori Katz in collaboration with the author

Collected in Fires, a series of dramatic monologues retelling ancient Greek stories or myths, Marguerite Yourcenar’s ‘Mary Magdalene; or Salvation’ came to her while studying St. John the Evangelist’s fiancée, as depicted in The Golden Legend (a.k.a. Legenda sanctorum: Readings of the Saints), an illuminated hagiographical manuscript authored by Jacobus de Varagine around 1260 C.E.

The problem with passion is greed: it desires too much. It craves the epiphanic, the heroic, the eternal. Like a god, the hero lavishes the salvific on his admirers. Rescue is the stallion’s white horse, but the price of salvation is possession. Yourcenar’s iconography of ancient thought-crimes is interspersed with italicized, lyrical notes that depict a personal fire in the author’s life. Each note resembles a Station of the Cross. Each is marked with a small torch at the top, as if to suggest that the author’s personal confessions occupy an illuminated space: “Burned with more fires… a hot whip lashes my back. I rediscovered the true meaning of the poetic metaphors. I wake up each night with my own blood ablaze.”

Mary Magdalene is the scripture’s most captivating character. Kneeling to wash a man’s feet with her hair is eros stripped bare; the act partakes of ecstasy’s shamelessness. Yourcenar uses hagiographic form for ‘Mary Magdalene; or Salvation’ to paint eros as the insatiable desire to be consumed by an unknowable Otherness. In first-person, Mary tells us how she rejected the Roman centurion’s proposition after falling in love with Saint John the Evangelist. “Loving his innocence was my first sin,” Mary admits. They become a couple. Temptation divides them when John is lured away by “the Ravishing One,” the man named Christ, the “Seducer who makes renunciation as sweet as sin.” Ultimately, John’s impotence damns the consummation of their marriage. It seems that unrevolutionary carnal love has nothing on God’s kinky neon.

John is gone. Mary is ostracized. She sleeps with the Roman centurion (among others). Eventually, she finds this man named Christ, John’s passion. “Placed in front of the Passion, I forgot love,” Mary says. “I accepted purity, like a worse perversion.” Conceptualizing purity as perversion in the Aristotelian sense, as a destruction of the mean, Yourcenar suggests salvation fails to redeem. What draws Mary to the Savior is their shared lack of fidelity: “Like me, he agreed to the terrible lot of belonging to all,” Mary says of Christ. “All we ever do is change enslavements: at the exact moment the devils left me, I became possessed by God.” Belonging to Him is the ultimate ecstasy. But the Passion doesn’t alter eternity. The crucifixion only teaches men that they can “get rid of God.”

After witnessing the resurrection, Mary finally understands “the full meaning of God’s atrocity”: the bride of Christ must share her husband with the entire world. Despite this abandonment, Mary regrets nothing. The Lord did not save her from her crimes, her sins, her death—it is “through them that one is saved.” The wrong we have done liberates us. Suffering continues. Salvation is freedom from loving John. As for the Messiah, Mary says, “He saved me from happiness.”

First published in French in Feux, 1936. Published in translation in Fires, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1981

‘Nadirs’ by Herta Müller, translated by Sieglinde Lug

When reading Romanian-born German writer Herta Müller, I am eleven again—a child crouched on the floor, listening to Romanian whispers behind closed doors. Müller won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature for her stark depiction of life under the Romanian communist regime. In rejecting emotional self-reflexivity and therapy-soaked discourse, Müller created a harrowing oeuvre that objectifies humans and anoints objects to carry the affective register of subjectivity. The narration is blank, immature, concretized. A self-erasing child-like voice records the world, drawing attention to how humans use language to describe it. Plots are sparse. Juxtaposition drives events in circles, in pauses, in seasons. Small details depict the abyss between life as it is lived, or performed, under a totalitarian system, and language, which must be continuously translated.

This refusal to offer plot, or to link actions to consequences, is symptomatic of trauma. To speak of one’s feelings was unacceptable in Ceausescu’s Romania. Your feelings simply did not matter. Your self, as separate from the national, did not exist. Your safety was a joke. Nationalist communism made life unlivable for ethnic and religious minorities. The double-alienation demands a sort of literary aphasia, a counterpoint to the continuous disputations over language. The unspeakable infects various silences while the speaker shuffles back and forth between what an object is called in the village, and what it is called in the official language (often equated with the city). Proximity to the official makes the city seem more developed and progressive than the village. (Village vs. the city asserts an ongoing tension in Müller’s work.)

It is easier for an acorn to soliloquy than for a person to speak clearly when the dictator plants his eyes everywhere. Müller’s novella-length story, ‘Nadirs,’ ordains ordinary objects to describe a Swabian village haunted by violence and war. Even loss is communicated through things. “I saw mother lying naked and frozen in Russia, with scraped legs and green lips from the turnips,” she writes, revealing how the mother’s memories of camps in Siberia are carried by the child in images and objects, in the lowlands of the bogs and village marshes whose frogs are “croaking from all the living and the dead of this village.”

The frogs, like the dead, are inescapable: “Everybody brought a frog along with them when they immigrated.” The frog follows the villagers. Each carries a frog in their throat when they leave. Müller uses a non-mammalian creature to posit this colonizing silence—a strategy she repeats with landscapes, trees, glasses, tables—the solid is a vehicle for the unspeakable. Describing the storm outside, nature enables the speaker to communicate her feelings: “At night the trees outside were lashing at each other. I saw them through the walls. Grandmother’s house had become like a house of glass.” The characters are helpless. Thunder (or fear) closes the blinds. Telephone wires argue, trees lash out at each other, even the boxes are tormented by Grandmother’s silence. No one arm-wrestles ghosts in unnamed cenotaphs like Müller. No one’s plums rot more profusely in my head.

First published in Niederungen, Kriterion, 1982. Published in translation in Nadirs, University of Nebraska Press, 1999

‘Innocence’ by Harold Brodkey

Harold Brodkey’s barococo ‘Innocence’ portrays a college girlfriend, Orra, as seen by her lover, Wiley. Both the narrator and his object of desire emerge in parts, in pieces, in pleasures sought. The first-person speaker deifies Orra: she is the monument, the mystery, the god, and the court. “Any attempted act confers vulnerability since only she could judge it,” Wiley explains. Pleasure and pleasing reveal their kinship, since Wiley’s desire to pleasure Orra is inseparable from his hunger to please her. The seamless swerve from interior monologue to omniscient description is Brodkey’s high-wire act.

The meticulous inventory of sexual sighs, moans, and tremblings seduces the reader into the scene: we look back and forth between their faces, trying to interpret their expressions. Like Wiley, we are mired in the tension of sexual pleasure Brodkey accomplishes this simultaneity by sexing-up the syntax, using paragraph-length sentences punctuated by nothing except semicolons; drawing slow trains of commas ruptured by interjections across the page; employing diction that shifts from the sensitive to the obscene and then back. The frantic lens narrows and widens, enacting the disorienting effect of earnest sexual encounter.

‘Innocence’ deploys the semicolon as texturizing agent in the paragraph. Like flour and oil, semicolons thicken the mix and build stickiness when stacked; they intensify the list with their rich, gooey stitch. Proust would not exist without his semicolon suave— that distinct baroque swerve of accretive syntax—nor would sex in Brodkey. His semicolons implicate us in the lustrous tangling and indulgent all-at-once-ness of sex.

As a low-status punctuation mark, more ornamental than necessary, the semicolon asserts itself aesthetically, like a gold earring or a faux mink coat. This cloying extravagance is amenable to risking kitsch. The semicolon is the acrobat of the line – it gushes, and then withdraws, leaving us to feel the world changed by its effusion. Brodkey uses it to establish rhythm that builds towards sexual climax, and then shortens his syntax to designate withdrawal. What Wiley wants evolves from simple sexual pleasure to self-discovery: “It was the feeling she aroused in me, a feeling that was, to be honest, made up of tenderness and concern and a kind of mere affection, a brotherliness as if she were my brother, not different from me at all.”

As Wiley identifies with Orra, she becomes his counterpart, his sibling, his co-innocent. The seducer is replaced by the astonished child, as the sex goes on, there is “an increasing failure … of one kind of sophistication—of worldly sophistication—and by the increase in me of another kind, of a childish sophistication, a growth of innocence: Orra said, or exclaimed, in half-harried, half-amazed voice, in a hugely admiring, gratuitous way, as she clutched at me in approval, “Wiley, I never had feelings like these before!”

A coming-of-age story, ‘Innocence’ centers the chasing of mutual orgasm, and the discovery of a self driven entirely by the desire to give them pleasure. Loyalty grows from this carnal communion — intimacy is disinhibited, shameless, and guilty of nothing apart from trying to crawl inside the Other.

Collected in Stories in an Almost Classical Mode,Vintage Books, 1989. Available online here

‘The Republic of Dreams’ by Bruno Schulz, translated by Madeline G. Levine

Selecting a story by Schulz is like drawing a thread from a tapestry and holding one’s breath. Born in 1892 in Drohobych, a town in Austrian Galicia currently located in Ukraine, Bruno Schulz wrote in Polish, and conversed in German. As a Jewish male in a land where language and political borders didn’t coincide, Schultz interposes the fantastic and the nostalgic in order to immortalize a world that never existed. Perhaps it is a world which could only exist in the mind of a child. 

‘The Republic of Dreams’ tracks a son’s drive with his father from Warsaw to their smaller village of origin. Alternately narrated by the son, and then by the plural pronoun, the “We” of father-son, the story invents its placement, or creates this surreal origin for the speaker. “Here on the streets of Warsaw, in these tumultuous days, fiery and intoxicating, I am transported in thought to the distant city of my dreams…” Schulz begins, before launching into an aerial view of the surrounding landscape, narrowing in on a thing that “lies—like a cat in sunshine—this chosen region, this singular province, this city unique in all the world. It is futile to speak of this to the uninitiated!” This city belongs to them, to the father and the son.  In “our city,” says the speaker, “nothing happens in vain.” Unlike the urban cities who expand logically “into economics” and develop “into statistical figures,” their city retains its mysteries, its unreasons, its surreality.

Schulz tantalizes the reader this cyclical world of the Polish small-town where everything speaks: each sunset discloses its warnings, each table predicts the conversations to come, each curtain records the words of humans. “Here, every minute something is resolved in exemplary fashion and for all time. Here, all matters happen only once and irrevocably. That is why there is such gravity, a deep accent of sorrow in what takes place here.” The father, a fabric merchant with a wild imagination and a penchant for esoterics, eventually loses his mind. Schulz portrays him with an extraordinary tenderness, a soft spot for his implacability, which feels as elusive and foolish as hope. The metaphysical wilderness is the “fatherland” Schulz offers the reader—an inescapable, frenzied mysterium of life in a city that is “under the sign of the weed, of wild, passionate, fantastical vegetation shooting out cheap, shoddy greenery, poisonous, virulent, and parasitic.”

I started by acknowledging the difficulty of choosing a single story by Schulz. The reason for this involves the entanglement of his narratives, and the role played by Time. For Schulz, time is a character capable of abandoning the body in order to articulate its own steps across a room. Duration is both empty and overfilled: for example, there is a 13th false month which appears to account for unexplainable happenings (a month possibly related to Jewish mysticism or the father’s esoteric interests). Or maybe the 13th month exists in order to account for everything that occurs outside time–everything that recurs and returns. Schultz doesn’t  resolve this for us. This refusal to define the symbolic lends a metaphysical texture to his writing, as does the narrative’s relationship to time. Time is watched, supervised, attended, divided, and rigorously narrated. It is “threadbare “but also “regurgitated, “. Each story reveals itself in relation to time (Rivka Galchen details this in the book’s introduction). Each season, for Schultz, is another story. Nothing is separable or without implication. Schulz’s characters (often drawn from his own family life) read the world in signs and parables.

This relationship between naming, associating, and invoking lies at the heart of my favorite writing. And I suspect kids are better at hearing it, since kids have fewer stakes in saying the correct or accurate thing. The child’s mind takes what exists and builds from the unlikely into the marvelous. The gonads of a male eel are a looped, frilly organ located inside the animal. This is easier for a child to imagine because a child doesn’t have a theory about where gonads should be located. All is still possible. Maturity narrows the world of possibility to the material; it banishes the metaphysical.

Schulz died young, murdered by an SS officer on the street. One dreams of his work continuing, of another book being discovered in a cinnamon shop, under a mud puddle, somewhere, anywhere in the 13th month of what exists.

Collected in Bruno Schulz: Collected Stories, Northwestern University Press, 2018.

‘The Connection’ by Daniil Kharms, translated by Matvei Yankelevich

Comrade of bleak ontologies, Russian writer Daniil Kharms played with chance, formulas, Philokalias, commercial language, ideologism—anything to spite the implied reasonability that the Enlightenment brought to letters. Written in 1937, ‘The Connection’ opens in a direct address to the reader: “Philosopher!” What follows is a brief, numerated list of disparate events which Kharms connects against common sense and logic.  The plot is nonexistent, apart from the challenge to the philosopher.

In Kharmsland, shadows are divided from their owners to roam the streets and theorize the actual. Every word matters because every significance will be sliced apart from it. Certain translators capture his absurdism better than others. My preferred translations of Kharms pay tribute to his mixed dictions, and to the spirit of his absurdism rather than literalism.

“1. I am writing to you in answer to your letter which you are about to write to me in answer to my letter which I wrote to you.

2. A violinist bought a magnet and was carrying it home. Along the way, hoods jumped him and knocked his cap off his head. The wind picked up the cap and carried it down the street.”

The magic occurs at the level of the syntax, in the margins, in the kinked links that bloom from juxtaposition. No one antagonizes reality through juxtaposition like Kharms. “It’s so nice to know of what has passed, so pleasant to believe in that which has been proven,” Kharms tells us in ‘Hyma.’ And so precious to believe in time, or evidence.

Collected in Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms, The Overlook Press, 2009. Available online here. Also available in an illustrated version with John Freedman’s translation here

‘The Index’ by J. G. Ballard

J. G. Ballard conceptualizes the book index as an autobiography in ‘The Index’. A brief prefatory note from an editor designates the index as all that remains of a autobiography by “Physician and philosopher, man of action and patron of the arts, sometime claimant to the English throne and founder of a new religion, Henry Rhodes Hamilton.” Immediately, the mystery of Hamilton’s person draws us into reading the index creatively, and engaging it narratively. Ultimately, Hamilton is who you make him, depending on how you connect references as disparate as:

“Berenson, Bernard, conversations with HRH, 134; offer of adoption, 145; loan of
Dürer etching, 146; law-suits against HRH, 173-85
Bergman, Ingrid, 197, 234, 267
Ecclesiastes, Book of, 87
Eckhart, Meister, 265
Hiroshima, HRH observes atomic cloud, 258
Hitler, Adolf, invites HRH to Berchtesgaden, 166; divulges Russia invasion plans, 172; impresses HRH, 179; disappoints HRH, 181”

A play on paranoia and conspiracy, this is Ballard at his disruptive best, challenging post-Enlightenment notions of individual selfhood by forcing us to define a person entirely by his quoted relations to others.

Published in The Paris Review, 1991 and available to subscribers here. Collected in The Complete Short Stories of J. G. Ballard: Volume 2, Fourth Estate, 2014

‘Last Letter to a Niece’ by Gerald Murnane

‘Last Letter to a Niece’ is included as the final “short fiction” in Gerald Murnane’s Stream System, a collection of his short stories. But it is also published in Murnane’s Last Letter to a Reader, a collection of essays addressed to the reader, each one surveying a book he authored. The landscape is the mind of the author. Murnane maintains two archives: the Chronological Archive, which documents his life as a whole, and the Literary Archive, which is devoted to everything he has written for publication.

Adapted “from one of the seven pages about the life and the writing of Kelemen Mikes in the Oxford History of Hungarian Literature,” Murnane’s last letter crawls inside the history of another putative author in order to invent itself. To me, it is a model of the epistolary fiction form. As the uncle writes this letter, it becomes clear he has never even seen his niece—he is speaking to what he imagines of her—he is, for lack of a better term, creating her as he writes: “I am interested in the appearance and deportment of young women in this, the everyday visible world, for the good reason that the female personages in books, like all other such personages together with the places they inhabit, are quite invisible.” The speaker is selfish: the letter addressed to someone else is actually about the writer’s cannibalizing mind which digests each detail.

When the uncle tells the niece, “In your mind at this very moment are characters, costumes, interiors of houses, landscapes and skies, all of them faithful images of their counterparts in descriptive passages in books you have read and remembered,” he is speaking of himself. The writer, speaking of the power of literature in others’ lives, may always be speaking of himself, of his own power. The desire to “make a true reader” of the niece implies that such a niece would exist in order to become a character in the letter where readers watch him invent her.

Murnane’s epistolary feels closer to a dramatic soliloquy, allowing the speaker to say what the writer knows, namely, “I would seek in books what most others sought among living persons.” Brutality can be intimate; erasure can be tender; humiliation can be creative, Murnane implies. Think of me, rather, as a man who can love only the subjects of sentences in texts reporting to be other than factual,” Murnane writes. Think of me as someone who invents myself in order to draw closer to the person I have created to wander across the page.

Published in Stream System: The Collected Short Stories of Gerald Murnane, Giramondo/Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2018, and And Other Stories, 2020. Also collected in Last Letter to a Reader, Giramondo, 2021/And Other Stories, 2022.

‘The Moon Monologue’ by Sheila Heti

A sliver of story. A morsel of moon-mania. Sheila Heti begins in the first person: “Nobody ever accused me of being bright, which I am glad for.” Immediately, the question hinges on the swing of the title— is this the moon giving a monologue, or is this one of those monologues to the lunar issued by a moonstruck poet ? Heti speaks to the moon the way she speaks to a cockroach, namely, with intense interest and curiosity. Her stories thread eeriness by connecting the real to impossible. A pleasure to get lost in Heti’s forests.  

Published in The Middle Stories, McSweeney’s Books, 2012

‘The Pure Number’ by Marguerite Duras, translated by Mark Polizotti

The boundary between fiction and essay in Marguerite Duras is quite slender. ‘The Pure Number’ destroys me in ways I’d rather not explain or describe.

First published as ‘Le Nombre Pur’ in Écrire, Gallimard, 1993. First published in translation in Writing, University of Minnesota Press, 2011

‘Red Stamps with Lenin’s Picture’ by Danilo Kiš, translated by Michael Henry Heim

Yugoslavian writer Danilo Kiš used documentary forms to challenge the truth of official papers and sacred texts. I love him for this. ‘Red Stamps with Lenin’s Picture’ is classic Kišean obfuscation in that every word suffers from its elusive nature, and conspiracies wait to bloom between events and signs. Subtitled “Song of Songs, 8:6,” the story doesn’t actually include the text of the epigraph. Instead, Kiš alludes to it. Allusion is central to what he called  his “metaphysical fiction.”

Structured as an epistolary addressed to the biographer of Yiddish poet Mendel Osipovitch, the speaker tells the lecturer that she is writing in response to a question he posed to the audience at a recent lecture, namely: “What has become of Mendel Osipovitch’s correspondence?”

According to the speaker, the person who holds the key to this mystery was sitting at the public lecture, among those “who, in fact come only to forget, for a moment, their own loneliness, filled, as it is, with thoughts of death, or simply to see another human being.” Alone, the speaker is surrounded by her memories, and her memories “are people, like a huge graveyard.” (Like his speaker, Kiš remains on intimate terms with the dead. Fragments of dialogue can be traced back to things the author said in essays or interviews.)

The letter-writer sanctifies objects by mentioning them— a kid glove, a black velvet ribbon, the bones of old poems—a lush orchestration of details connecting Catallus to “variations on the theme of bedbugs.” One reads Kiš for the devastating cadence of his sentences: “I remember the description of a tree, a simile, in which the crickets beneath a hotel window in the Crimea chirp like wristwatches being wound, the etymology of the name, of a city, the interpretation of a nightmare.”

One senses his kinship with Lev Shestov in the deployment of metaphysical estrangement, as when “the two events merged into a single image.” The poet is prophet in Kiš; the speaker admits this when she says “since poets speak as prophets, the poem about cannibalist stars became prophetic: our lives, sir, commingled cannibalistically.” There is a love affair that the speaker needs to disclose, an epistolary beneath the willows of red Lenin stamps. Unlike the “arch-materialist Diderot” who urged lovers to be buried side-by-side, the speaker won’t rest at the side of her beloved forever. She will not be “carried away by such fantasies.” And yet:

“The past lives on in us; we cannot blot it out. Since dreams are an image of the other world and proof of its existence, we shall meet in dreams: she kneels by the stove, feeding it with damp wood, or calls to me in a horse voice. I wake up and switch on the light. Pain and remorse slowly turn into the melancholy joy of memories.”

After lambasting the literalism of literary critics, the story ends in a provocative irresolution. But the story doesn’t ever really end for Kiš. See, the book includes a section of end-notes, a piece titled ‘Postscript’ in which Kiš is the speaker who describes ‘Red Stamps’ as “pure fiction,” despite its extensive use of quotations. With no separation between references, ‘Postscript’ flows from one tale to the next exegetically, resembling apocryphal appendage, or an interpretive lens. The authors’ words are italicized, and the quotations are the stable, unitalicized text. For example:

“‘When a writer calls his work a romance,’ Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, ‘it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material.’ Needless to say, the statement applies perfectly to the short story as well.”

If Kiš doesn’t provide a citation for this Hawthorne quote. (Perhaps Hawthorne only says this for the postscript?) Quotation turns the official statements into part of the fiction Kiš tells. As for ‘Red Stamps,’ Kiš referencing the “arch-materialist Diderot,” the author informs the reader that this character derives “doubtless from the following letter which i discovered thanks to Madame Elisabeth de Fontenay”:

“People who have loved each other in life, and asked to be buried, side-by-side or not, perhaps, so mad, as is generally supposed. Perhaps their ashes press together, commingle, and unite… What do I know? Perhaps they have not lost all feeling, all memory of their original state; perhaps a remnant of warmth and life continues to smolder in them. Oh, Sophie, if I might still hope to touch you, feel you, unite with you, merge with you, when we are no more, if there were a law of affinity between our elements, if we were destined to form a single being, if in the train of centuries, I were meant to become one with you, if the molecules of your moldering leather had the power to sister and move about, and go in search of your molecules, dispersed in nature! Leave me this wild fancy; it is so dear to me, it would insure me an eternity in you and with you.”

This letter, of course, is uncited. It is also the final paragraph of the p. s., the last statement in Kiš’s unforgettable book.

First published in Enciklopedija mrtvih, 1983. First published in translation in The Encyclopedia of the Dead, FSG/Faber, 1989. New editions from Northwestern University Press, 1997 and Penguin Modern Classics, 2015, in a new translation.

Postscript

The grave of pianist-composer Glenn Gould is inscribed with the opening notes of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Gould elected to spend eternity marked by the music he performed rather than music he composed, or the books he wrote. I mention this because there is something of music to fiction, and something of performance to the ability to pull it off, making all the parts work together. For the fictionist is both the composer and the conductor. They invent the world and select which instruments to include. But they must also ensure each instrument performs its role as part of the orchestra—so there is the fine-tuning of each instrument, and there is the piece, and both align in a way that captivates the audience. Fiction’s instruments (i.e. characters, landscapes, objects, etc.) score the music, but fiction’s techniques (syntax, diction, narrative strategy, etc.) serve as tempo-markings or indications of how the piece should be performed. The writer is its maestro. The music—the story—must be everything that is the case.