Karaoke Culture by Dubravka UgresicUgresics few essays on former-Yugoslav literature in its context are engrossing, but too much of the other material here was mediocre. These werent the sort of pieces that, based on the authors formidable reputation, Id variously looked forward to reading, or assumed to be intimidating.
In the past few weeks Ive run into or read several discussions about contemporary essayists, so its little surprise to me that I started reading one - a recommendation received a while ago, which Id prematurely passed on to another friend before actually reading her work myself. (A bad habit of mine.) Within the first few pages, I realised that these days, I have very specific requirements for an essayist Im going to like. And not an awful lot of writers are going to fill those.
The internet is stuffed with polemic. Perhaps I now feel no need for published books that add to the cacophony of rants, unless theyre exceptionally well-written, say something one doesnt see every day, and which I more or less agree with.
Things I want from a [professional] essayist.
- Time taken to marshal referenced evidence and carefully construct arguments and think in a way that participants in an online bunfight dont have the time and wherewithal to do.
- The ability to see both sides. The other day I randomly opened Susan Sontags Regarding the Pain of Others; there was just over a page about Georges Bataille keeping a photograph on his desk of a Chinese person being tortured; the writing was perfectly pitched, never losing sight of the horror or of intellectual freedom (with a hint of discomfort that did not detract from the essential detachment, but which gave the impression that if one said drily, ...though I dont think hes someone Id have wanted to be close to, shed agree).
- An understanding of complexity and the coexistence of conditions which do not fit one-note polarised arguments - its more important than ever now to have this, yet it is being lost as too many public intellectuals, even older ones, allow themselves to be swept up in shrill arguments on Twitter and trends in internet politics (too many younger ones come out of that scene in the first place). We need people who can stand above and aside from all that.
- Wisdom, not hysteria: someone who has processed and thought through and come to terms with and integrated difficult events. Or at the very least understands that this is the best destination and tries for it.
- An awareness of opinions as products of personal experience in themselves and others.
- Excellent writing and wit: phrases that encapsulate something perfectly in a way I never could have. Makes my brain fizz. For this, I love Will Selfs non-fiction pieces as much as the average Guardian below-the-line commenter hates them.
I suspect I have an imaginary template for an ideal essayist or ideal book of essays - the hope that there is a non-fiction equivalent of Darkmans by Nicola Barker, which, when I read it in 2007, felt like someone had put just about every theme and type of character Id want to put in a novel, in one, and then added a bunch of extra magic I never would have been able to. I could put my feet up, secure in the knowledge that it had been said. (The character of Rachel Briefman in Siri Hustvedts 2014 novel The Blazing World has also become a beacon to me re. many of my views on current Western feminism. Not only has someone finally said it, someone with the audience and the credentials, but via a character whos calm and wise about exactly the same things that at times make me angry, which helps in a whole lot of ways.) Anyway, Im not much of a fiction writer and Ive known that for most of my adult life: its essays, more than any other cultural product, that give my gyp in the coulda been a contender chip on my shoulder.
Oh, and great essayists can make something entirely coherent and seamless, hardly ever having to resort publicly to bullet points and jumpy chapter-by-chapter summaries to half-order their thoughts. This is the bit where a half-decent piece of writing turns messy.
Not only because I didnt read Karaoke Culture in the order its printed.
2)Buy the Jellyfish that Stung You
Cool and striking title at least - it refers to an enterprising little tyke in an Adriatic seaside resort, who was trying to sell jars of jellyfish to tourists as souvenirs. This section features a lot of short, newspaper-column style pieces of just the sort I dont want to read in essay collections. Havent been able to find out if they were first written for a particular publication. Most contain several points that I wanted a lot of elaboration on. Many of them skip around and lack focus. Its a bit mean-spirited at times (a statement its impossible to make without being so oneself...). I wouldnt, in print, compare the appearance of the best hairdresser Id found in years to a walrus, even in an affectionate way, and expect her to have anything to do with me ever again. And I dont doubt that there are some gold-digging Filipinas in Hong Kong, but there must be a slightly more compassionate way of writing about them than whats here. My ear the Chauvinist, My Eye the Misanthrope went a little way to bringing some self-awareness to it (I especially like the second phrase and want to adopt & slightly modify it; it has potential to create a Buddhist-style detachment from instinctual/kneejerk aesthetic judgements) - but there wasnt as much as insight as one might hope, and it didnt carry over to the other pieces. Still, there were a few brain-fizz moments, and interesting insights about Croatia.
Most of them negative, though - she rarely has a good word to say about the place. One of its chief offences appears to be lionising criminals. In the last few months, Ive binge-watched a lot of Scandinavian detective series. Former Yugoslavia is where you get your dodgy bouncer types, big stupid hench-lumps of muscle. I was hoping to hear another side to the region to counter the accumulating stereotype. But it turns out Ugresic is the wrong writer for that, just like youre not going to get very far by asking someone whos never recovered from an awful time growing up in Essex, bullied by tackily-dressed louts, to debunk TOWIE.
An essay by one of the translators about his study and travel experiences, and a minor hommage to Ugresic ... theres nothing really wrong with it, but I wasnt quite sure why it was there. *shrug*
3) Without Anaesthesia
Named after an Andrzej Wajda film: when talking to Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, she used it to describe her experience of fleeing Yugoslavia, and it turned out the main character was based on him. Oops.
She does this kind of confessional-with-a-point, and with a cultural angle, not just blurting everything like some. There are 3 longer essays here; the first two are still somewhat bitty, though the second eventually hits a stride on the subject of Radovan Karadzic and his legacy - at time of writing hed just been captured.
A Question of Perspective, the third, is one of the most memorable in the book. Old wounds are opened when Ugresic routinely opens a newspaper website and is ambushed by an interview with an aged Croatian professor, with a headline mentioning her. She tells how, at the beginning of the former-Yugoslav wars she was discredited and ostracised by colleagues for anti-nationalism and anti-war opinions, and how the media vilified her and a number of other Croatian female intellectuals, including Slavenka Drakulic, as enemies of Croatia, witches, lovers of Serbs and other trumped-up charges. She moved to Amsterdam in 1992 to escape this. A notable remark from a former colleague states, but we protected you - you werent killed. Which gives some small indication of what it was like: if you were mean to someone who disagreed with you, but not violent, that in the tenor of the times felt pretty decent. The events happened fifteen years before she wrote the piece, but shes still very shaken; she isnt at a point where shes able to consider that sort of idea, only record the quote. I would hazard a guess that she hasnt done therapy about this or didnt find anything good... She examines the witch idea not through detached, brief, historical examples; you can feel the unresolved trauma in the discourse more than ever as she goes into great detail about witchhunts against old women and children in contemporary rural Africa and India, the punishments and tortures meted out to the accused, and then uses these as metaphors for what she and the other writers experienced.
I routinely nap whilst reading, but very rarely [recall a] dream about the current book: this essay, though, had been vivid and I was either her or someone like her, utterly exhausted by all these detractors and bleak, empty university corridors and rooms, dazed, sweating - perhaps it had stuck because I thought I might have started a row online by saying the wrong thing.
4) The Cookie that Made a Frenchman Famous
Prousts Madeleine, yah?
Of these four, the two middle essays are absolutely excellent, both about Croatian and former-Yugoslav literature, using it as ways to explore the history and culture of the region. The tight structure and coherence also throw into even greater relief A Question of Perspective; how different the discourse is on her most comfortable territory. Topics in these two great pieces include various communist and post-communist era perspectives on the place politics of in art and literature and a drily witty survey of turn of the (19th-20th) century Croatian novels about young outsider-artist chaps. That was the time under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the cool places to go for art and study were Vienna and Prague ... When reading about another place and time, I love that sound of hinges and cogs as the world changes shape and acquires a new centre.
1) Karaoke Culture
A long piece divided into ten parts: karaoke as a metaphor for the here comes everybody participatory culture of the internet. The author, whos pretty much addicted to the internet, considers the internet destructive of culture, and comes round to it a bit near the end, which is something weve seen in countless pieces. This was written five years ago, and inevitably some of the content and perspectives are outdated already. On the central topic, there isnt anything new here - and Im not sure there would have been in 2010 either. Despite my general sympathy with the topic, I didnt find much to agree with in its treatment here. (I think it was better when everyone didnt think they had a voice, and you had to pass the test of getting a job on a paper, in the same way as those on the centre and left in Britain have for decades agreed that capital punishment should not be subject to a single-issue referendum. There are plenty of things on which you cant trust the mob... more concerned about politics than Wattpad here... And I wish that the social internet was unchanged in sites and usage levels from 2007, and that there were no smartphones. Though I suppose I have a grudging gratefulness that, rather like the principle of the universal welfare state, internet posting activity is not only for those of us whose options of better things to do are limited.)
For all its length, theres so much this essay seems to miss out; it doesnt address points with much focus: its more of a ramble exploring related topics that interest the author - and many of them are interesting.
There are a few notable weaknesses. A lack of appreciation and understanding of kitsch, for one (again I invoke Sontag and the heartwarming sincerity that can lie behind kitsch and camp). And, as throughout the volume, a lack of exploration of the meanings and intent behind Yugo-nostalgia (and Communist-era vintage trends in Eastern Europe generally). For the author herself it seems obvious why, as it was before that happened - but what about to all those people who supported the various nationalists in the war? A short scene in a Zygmunt Miloszewski mystery seemed more eloquent, if a little enigmatic, on some peoples motivations: a young guy is dressed just like someone in a 1970s East German youth film, to the private derision of the older detective (not knowing its deliberate and subculturally fashionable); this vintage enthusiast works in the archive that keeps records of the former secret police, and is very keen on rooting out those ex-totalitarian enforcers who still walk around unpunished and gaming the system.
Its on other aspects, and on factual details of her home region that Ugresic is most eloquent and interesting here. An exhibition of gifts that members of the public sent to Tito. A Bulgarian Pop Idol contestant who went viral after mangling Mariah Carey. The popularity of Gobelin cross-stitch. A destructive rural equivalent of Poundbury built by a Serbian film director with connections that make him the local equivalent of a Russian oligarch. (It drew all the visitors away from a genuine nearby historic village and its inhabitants who made a living selling folk crafts to tourists.) Kudos to Ugresic for being able to criticise Kusturica and say that his fame as a director is justifiable - not a nice bloke, yet still a good artist. This volume could do with more such nods to the idea of even-handedness - I was so often left feeling that I wanted another perspective on the local subjects discussed here. I picked up this book unprepared, and expecting someone different, someone the author isnt. What is it to be disappointed in, to give a middling review to, this embattled writer - merely because of personal expectations?
Side Show: You Should Be Loved (Voice)
You Should Be Loved
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