Monday, August 09, 2010

Urban Novel

Borislav Pekić’s Urbane Novel by Mihajlo Pantić

“But when did deep emotions care for small considerations?”
Arsenie Negovan

Pekić is comprehensive. And this isn’t only a rhetorical expression. If we look at any of his books – and especially if we examine the author’s whole opus – we will see an aspiration towards comprehensiveness, the need to encompass human existence by literary imagination in many forms and especially in many distinctive ways. And although comprehensiveness could have different forms, since it is like a poetic hymera, like a need that forces language to overcome the boundaries of itself, eo ipso, to be comprehensive, to Pekić it is essentially temporal.

Comprehensiveness in Pekić’s narrative framework means at the same time the past, the present and the future. This could be, although not necessarily, connected with the truth, which comes to us equally from the European and the Serbian epic storytelling tradition: to the individual it’s always the same, no matter in which time he finds himself; and every new story is nothing else but a new not yet experienced modality of that sameness, no matter whether it is as in Pekić’s books about the forgotten and then resurrected myths, about the hell of modern history or the apocalyptic and anti utopian distant future.

Battle Of Anghiari

Borislav Pekić had as a writer, about which I have already written, multiple facets; all of them were confronted with different but equivalent aspects of the world, beginning with the responses to the Bible and the archaic myths (e g The Time of Miracles, The Rise and Fall of Icarus Gubelkian, The Golden Fleece), through the stories about the near past and present (The Defence and the Last Days, The Pilgrimage of Arsenie Negovan , Rabies), to the fantasy placed in the future (Atlantis, 1999).

In spite of everything, one of the fictional, narrative-protean protagonists was the nearest to the writer’s authentic character. It’s not difficult to decipher that it is just that person, whom we could call urbane, a term which embraces categories such as tradition, intellectuality, ethics, tolerance, irony and cynicism.

This statement, which is not at all difficult to prove, will carry us to an interpretably somewhat uncertain ground, to the reading of that part which by its place in the writers opus and in the way in which it has been artistically realised could be considered in many ways indicative of Borislav Pekić, as well as of a particular current of Serbian narrative prose of the new era.

Here immediately is the (hypo) thesis, somewhat explicitly uttered, which one should try to prove without pretence of a final judgement’s definitiveness. Examined in a historic-literary context one could say that the novel The Pilgrimage of Arsenie Negovan (1970) is the first authentic, integral, artistically encompassed urbane novel in Serbian literature.

Whilst in the 19th century, omitting the artistically not very convincing, but initially very important novelistic attempts of Jakov Ignjatović, other than that, we didn't have a novel which could seem in the least urbane; the first part of the 20th century brought a few accomplishments for which one could say that they were by origin and theme eminently urbane, but in one way or the other they were artistically disproportional; we notice above all the abundance of poetically anachronistic conventions, the undifferentiating pictures of the world, but also the insufficient poetic and formal auto reflections.

We could immediately add that under the term urbane we understand not only the thematic dimensions of the work (although on the whole it determines the essence of that term, since the urbane novel necessarily depicts the urbane world), but the homogeneity or the equivalence, which is known from Hegelian and Lukačevskian theoretical thoughts, between the urbane epoch and the novel which is a literary form representing that era.

The novel could only be created in that time and is typically created; in its form the epoch crystallises its own sense (or provocatively, it’s non-sense) and through the writer’s voice, moves over the threshold of self-expression. “The novel is a specific literary form of the urbane period” – says Theodor Adorno.

In its two centuries’ history the Serbian novel has, in accordance with the slower constitution of the urbane cultural model, which is of course the domain of literary sociology’s examination, slowly and with great tardiness achieved the level and method of storytelling, as is usual in the European context.

The Serbian urbane novel remained without a profile thanks to the shortage of significant influence from the very weak and inadequate urbane culture and also on account of the power of the oral-epic type of tradition which determined the framework of 19th century central prose, as well as in the 20th century, which for the poetic evolution of the fictional form was certainly more important.

In his book The Serbian Post-war Novel 1945 – 1970 Predrag Palavestra very cautiously stated that Pekic’s novel The Pilgrimage of Arsenie Negovan is “one of the first authentic city and urbane novels in post-war literature”. This caution is understandable as long as we don’t examine the key ingredients of novels which have before Pekić’s been labelled as “urbane”.

It doesn’t matter that the urbane domain starts to be the key ground in novels, in the absolute majority of literary works from Milutin Uskoković onwards, one could observe that the story is always told from the point-of-view of the leading character coming to the city, his coping with the new environment: this penetrative perspective, this “conquest of the city”, will stay as a very strong tendency of Serbian realistic prose style until the eighties of the 20th century, ending with those writers “of prose’s new style”, precisely until the appearance of the post-modern poetics in which the urbane is taken for granted and not as something which is an adopted or acquired state or fate of existence.

Observing it from that angle, one could see that the novel The Pilgrimage of Arsenie Negovan had also a very important generative importance for the prose that followed. Pursuing the rare impulses, or to put it in a better way, the announcement of the characteristic urbane novels’ storytelling, as seen in the novel, which is today already on the margins, by Dušan Matić and Aleksandar Vučo - The Indifferent Era (1940), or in parts also of The Woman from Sarajevo (1945) by Ivo Andrić, which also talks about a special “philosophy of possession”.

Pekić has with The Pilgrimage of Arsenie Negovan in reality established the national urbane novel as a form which will in essence be representative of Serbian literature, especially when its form becomes normal for other Serbian writers, those contemporaries of the author, e. g. Slobodan Selenić (The Friends from Kosancicev Venac, Fathers and Forefathers), Sveta Lukić (The Water Flowers, Frescoes on the Mansard) or Svetlana Velmar Janković (The Cavern).

Hence only with The Pilgrimage of Arsenie Negovan has Serbian Literature, one could say reached the summit, completely in accordance with the conventions of the European urbane novel, in the thematic and poetical sense. Of course, with one paradox which will conclude our text.

In the described way, knowing that the apodictic critical judgement is always a risky business, since it favours that which is examined at the moment in contrast to all others, it is possible to place Pekić’s novel in a wider literary-historic context.

And this wouldn’t be at all possible without its fulfilling a crucially important condition in the way the selection of a literary work is made, or how it qualifies in a discussion about the major movements and in the context of national literature. Of course, it’s a matter of the achieved aesthetic values.

Pekić’s narrative realises these values in a very complex and layered way, increasingly complex and more layered since his books are, under the already established Alexandria scheme, talking intensely to each other, or in other words they are in a very lively, very active relationship of mutual understanding and realisation, expanding the meanings and deciphering the retained meanings.

In short, that which is only indicated in one book will be resolved in another; an accidental remark in one text will be an important motivating centre point in another one. Searching for comprehensiveness, as his first poetical credo, Pekić has seen his opus as a totality and built it thus; he created a fictional, parallel world in the real one, maybe just with the same analogy as his protagonist Arsenie Negovan who sees his houses as a system on which to establish his vision of the world.

In such an imagined and realised writer’s opus the novel The Pilgrimage of Arsenie Negovan has already an influential place since it has, in the exposition or in a very large episode, started the genealogical history of the family Negovan-Turaški, which will be later very extensively unravelled in the seven volumes of The Golden Fleece and with which Serbian literature, with some delay, will again step into the European context, and get an urbane genealogical saga of the highest artistic order. (We find the first genealogy of the clan Negovan just at the end of The Pilgrimage...)

Naming the novel as a portrait, he undoubtedly places it in the tradition of urbane character-novels; delivering the story in a particular form, as a found and edited manuscript, Borislav Pekić in The Pilgrimage of Arsenie Negovan depicts on one side the grotesque tragic misunderstanding of his hero with the world (which is the timeless mover of every story) and on the other hand opens his saga.

In the light of this saga, with a demand (which was asked for) for a poetically imperative comprehensiveness, looking from the perspective of its ending and not the beginning, The Pilgrimage of Arsenie Negovan is in fact a very extended digression of The Golden Fleece. And, in a true Pekić manner, it is a digression, which asks for something atypical in the typical, a paradox and a twist with a dark humoured effect.

Arsenie Negovan, although in every way a typical Negovan, obsessed with property as his existence – since for the Negovans, to remind ourselves, existence is only possible through ownership, to be, means to have, to possess something means to prove oneself – he repeats to himself all the time, as a refrain, that he isn’t a real Negovan, that he is somewhat in collision with and somewhat above his clan, to which he otherwise in all other respects belongs: blood, class, character, destiny, biography, vices, which isn’t a synonym maybe, but is synonymic.

Pekić develops this searching for nuance from an almost identical starting position whilst he paints the characters in The Golden Fleece, including the extended episode with Arsenie Negovan.

To say that those characters are almost identical means that they are not completely the same and that milimicronic departure from the genetic arch-aspect, this discovery of the individually atypical in the overall typical, una piccola differenza, that difference in the sameness, moves the story because each character carries it in his own way, with his own personal and universal deviations which, as we remember from Greek tragedy, can’t have any different outcome but that tragic or tragicomic, just as is the case of Arsenie Negovan.

Written from only one, meticulously developed narrative perspective, the novel The Pilgrimage of Arsenie Negovan counts upon the protagonist’s restricted perceptive powers as an advantage, since precisely this narrowness, this restriction within a self- enclosed world, separated from the historical period, delivers the effect of a funny-sad paradox, which is maybe the key element of all Borislav Pekić’s writings.

The main character’s long period of “privileged non participation”, and his sudden decision to nevertheless step into the world, creates confusion, but in this permanent confusion the story in Pekic’s novel develops.

Arsenie Negovan writes his testament-report in the last hours of his seventy-seventh year since, after his twenty-seven years of self-imposed isolation, and as he himself admits, “autotrophic way of existence”, he is again confronted with a reality which he can’t understand.

A whole epoch has passed him by, in which urban people of high social standings had collapsed into the abyss, surviving, in his particular case, as an isolated relic of some ancient time. Yet in that ancient time there was order.

The proprietor Negovan has cultivated a love affair with his rental houses during a lifetime; ownership is for him the essence of existence since, as he declares, “houses are like people”.

Getting out of his home at Kosančićev Venac for the first time since the demonstrations in March 1941, during which he had experienced a number of traumas, he will, under some farcical circumstances, step onto the street at the moment of June’s demonstrations in 1968, and he will encounter then absolutely the same feelings of disgrace and embarrassment.

But at the bottom of this bizarre historical analogy, in which that strange creature Arsenie Negovan has found himself as a subject of an evil historical destiny, unable to rationalise, exists a youthful memory, a tragic event from the Russian Revolution at the station of Solovkino in 1919 in which Pekić’s hero, defending his own life acted as an unwilling executor.

With the link of these three dates, and the changing role which Arsenie Negovan plays in the chosen events, lies the novelistic story’s main lever. Pekić has, in his diaries, explained it thus: “Arsenie’s tragic meeting with history at Solovkino, became a grotesque on the 27th March in the year 1941, and would develop into a farce on the 3rd June 1968, as happens with every repetition”.

Arsenie writes his testament as a resume of his life, trying, without success, to understand what, how and why all this had happened, not stopping to wonder in almost each sentence why the world always goes in the direction opposite to sanity, always far removed from the idea of order and harmony. That is why he creates an internal order of his possessions, a harmony of his belongings, in which everything is neatly organised.

He talks about it in leaps, digressing, mixing scenes from different times, which is logical for a character that is seventy-seven years old. “However, in the complete sum of the editorial” - as Petar Pijanović observes – “the multiple pictures of Arsenie’s downfalls are not a chaotic line up, but appear as the logic of an associative range”, occasionally in the near or distant past, sometimes at the particular time in which the story is told: 1919, 1941, 1968.

Between these points which have determined his life, Arsenie Negovan first lives, and then in his testament develops and explains his individual philosophy of possession; a philosophy somewhat uncommon to his genes (here is that small but important difference!) which doesn’t build itself on adoring money but on that which evolves from possession, as a sparkle of divine substance, which is the love for what he has, a passion for possessing property and vice versa possession which the personified property transfers to the individual who possesses, also a surrogate, a type of horrible erotic over-compensation for the unconsumed love towards the non-existent successor.

All this can be clearly seen from the testament: love is declared only by transferring property and that obviously is not authentic love but only a mask for hiding his misfortune and the trauma derived from it.

About the tragic death of his only son Isidor the principal hero doesn’t talk, since he is responsible for it. “I wanted an heir, and not a son”, he says only at the end of the testamentary confession, refusing even then to face responsibility and the terrible consequences of his inverted wish. About this Borislav V. Pekić the editor / corrector / writer informs us extensively in the postscript.

The misunderstanding with the world thus appears only as a more visible reverse side of the misunderstandings with him-self. And the old man’s narrow-mindedness and obsessional description of the outside world, which Arsenie Negovan all the time multiplies in his testament, is nothing but a mask for an annihilated and lost identity, about which only his well-bred manners forbid him to show his normal self in an exposed gloom.

And that is maybe the most important artistic speciality of Pekić’s poetic story about Arsenie Negovan: the hopelessness of the world and the hopelessness of the individual in this world; he speaks about it in a very detached, roundabout, cryptic way, and thus much more suggestively, in a way of persistent refusal to admit despair.

Instead, we see the constant hiding behind the talk about things which possess the main character more then he possesses them, since even when they practically don’t exist, even when they don’t belong to him any more, the houses will still govern Arsenie Negovan’s thoughts.

Thus he has, from a very unusual perspective, by taking the example of an ambiguous, grotesque situation, introduced a vivid literary character, dichotomous and two-dimensional: depicting the external, which is a convention of the traditional novel and showing the core, the hero’s devastated essence.

Ortega y Gasset has in his Meditation on Quixote (and Arsenie is a multifaceted modern replica of Don Quixote, since he, as the famous knight with a sad face lives in his own phantom world and not in the world itself) a thought applicable to Pekić’s novel which will lead us directly to the core.

Ortega y Gasset remarks: “If we look at the development of the novel from its beginning to the present days, we can see that this type has moved from a simple narration, which was only allusive, to the exact presentation. At the beginning the originality of the theme allowed the reader to enjoy only the plain narrative. (…)

Yet the theme by itself very quickly ceases to attract, and what gives pleasure is not so much the fate or the adventure of the characters but their presence. We like to see them directly, to penetrate within, to understand them, to plunge into their world or atmosphere. (…) Autopsy is the imperative of the novel. We should not talk about what a person is: we should see him with our own eyes. (…) I see the most brilliant future of the novel not in inventing a ‘plot’, but in creating interesting characters”.

We can see any number of these attributes in Pekić’s novel: the diminishing importance of the narrative, the autopsy, the intense presence of the interior life of the character, the penetration into his proximity, and thus into his words and thoughts …

This diagnosis could be proven also from another yet complementary theoretical perspective. Adorno, whom I have already quoted, says that the novel “always, in any case from the 18th century, from Fielding’s Tom Jones had its real subject in the conflict between the living man and the ossified relationship”.

This remark with respect to Pekić’s Arsenie Negovan we will correct only a little, in saying that in the novel it’s the relationship between “the ossified man and the living relationship”. Negovan faces the world, which he believes to be wrong.

He is especially distressed by the expansion of the new town, New Belgrade, whose growth he follows with his binoculars from the window of his room during the decades of his strange captivity and this particular town justly depicts the mistaken world so different to the hero’s fantasy about the ideal city.

Not by accident but symbolically, almost axiomatically, Negovan will as a citizen-gentry get into conflict with the new world just at the viaduct of New Belgrade, in 1968, and although he won’t understand the conflict right to the end, since ossified he is not able to understand it, Arsenie will participate with a passion of some higher calling in defending his class’ principals. Which is of course purely grotesque, but in the grotesque the truth is always depicted from a monstrous, sarcastic angle.

When, for example, Arsenie asks his nephew Isidor, who will inherit the estate by his testament, whether “His Majesty” is coming to the unveiling of Belgrade’s monument on the 20th October 1968, which Isidor has designed, we uncover, with a smile, that to be unaware of this moments historic situation, which Arsenie always translates in his own way, doesn’t automatically mean a rejection of the truth. On the contrary, at this given moment, the oblivion towards the plain facts ironically underlines the truth, (“The truth is ironically structured” – says Starobinski) that history always changes into farce, so that in the case of a grotesque change in “his majesty” we know that it is always for the worst and that one shouldn’t name names.

The grotesque misunderstanding doesn’t hide the truth; on the contrary it emphasises it in a strange way. And that’s all that a fictional, but ever so real, confused urbane destiny, just as Pekić has reincarnated in his novel, can tell us.

Her the citizen in a revolution, from the beginning to almost the end of the 20th century, is the losing side, which for a novel is more tempting than the winning variation, simply because, as philosophers say, loss is deeper than gain. And the city – imagined just as it is, completely in the Biblical idea of the town, as a damned, devil’s place – not a perfect city, in a way by its mere existence underlines the unhappiness for those who dwell within it.

That is why the proprietor believes in an architecturally perfect city, which is this landlord’s constant dream and only such a city could allow life without conflicts. The non- ideal city equals non-ideal life.

A geometrically arranged city like New Belgrade, which is extensively depicted with contempt, equates to a sterile life. Thus, in his way, ponders Arsenie Negovan about this and other things: “Our cities are designed for civil war, as if they are made for cutting each other’s throats in the streets: the business centre with its shops and offices, then a protective ring of urban residents, and then the workers’ districts; but they are also encircled by upper-class villas, beyond which the peasants lurk.

“Everyone lives behind everyone else in concentric circles: one lives behind each other, rows of the rich alternate with the rows of the poor; one row of gentry, one row of paupers, and then again a row of gentry, and like that without end, as the strata of a tree, as segments … the segments of poisoned fruit”.

In those already cited and similar intellectual moments of the hero, Pekić’s novel touches the spheres that surmount history and gives us a glimpse into human destiny, in this specific case into the metaphysical mistakes of the bourgeoisie, whose history has cynically helped to actualise its faults through tragedy. To explain and show this by artistic means is the basic creative reason to write The Pilgrimage of Arsenie Negovan.

This falls completely into a more than special literary moment, which we could call a paradox: the first urbane novel among the Serbs has described the dusk of the just constituted middle class. Instead to concern itself at first with the initiation of the class, it has through analogy with the late zenith of the European urbane novel (e. g. Thomas Mann) dealt with its decadence.

That’s why the urbane novel isn’t only a literary equivalent of the bourgeois epoch, but also a form of expression of the permanent, metaphysically rooted crisis of urbane man. That is how in our Pekić and his Arsenie Negovan, to paraphrase a poet, the bourgeoisie’s entire case is finished before it has even begun. The end has, in other words, been recorded at the beginning.

This translation © by Ljiljana Pekić 2006

This novel has been published as Houses of Belgrade, translated from Hodocasce Arsenija Njegovana, English translation © 1978 by Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, Inc. Northwestern University press, 1994.

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