Annotated Michal Ajvaz Bibliography Now Online

[posted by Greg]

We just wanted to draw attention here to an annotated bibliography (of sorts) of the Czech writer Michal Ajvaz that we recently published in our literary supplement, irreal (re)views. Ajvaz has appeared several times — and in various contexts — in our journal, and we felt that such a bibliography was necessary to help show the depth and scope of his writing and thinking as little of it has been translated into English.


That Which Is or Isn’t a Pipe

[posted by Greg]

Recently, in our literary supplement irreal (re)views, we published my translation of Michal Ajvaz’s essay “An essay about that which isn’t a pipe.” [review18.htm] At the risk of making this blog read like one of Ajvaz’s recent novels (where the narrative structure tends to be a story within a story within a story within a story), this is a translation of an Ajvaz essay that discusses a Michal Foucault essay which discusses Rene Magritte’s drawing “This is not a pipe.” Furthermore, my inspiration for translating Ajvaz’s essay was that I myself wrote an essay some number of years ago which also discussed Foucault’s discussion of Magritte’s drawing (titled “This could be a pipe: Foucault, irrealism and Ceci n’est pas une pipe”[review5.htm]) and I thought that Ajvaz’s essay would make an interesting contrast with my piece.

The contrast between Ajvaz’s essay and mine can especially be seen in the fact that I almost entirely focus on the first third of Foucault’s essay while Ajvaz focuses almost entirely on the final 2/3 of it. The reason for this difference isn’t hard to fathom: I pretty much reject the ontology with which Foucault interprets Magritte’s drawing (i.e., that the power of the drawing lies in the fact that the inscription “This is not a pipe” attached to a drawing of a pipe highlights a complete divide between language and external reality; I, on the other hand, argue that it is the very real, if ambiguous, relation between the word and the object “pipe” that allows the negative assertion of the inscription to challenge our sense of the real) and therefore don’t get past the part of the essay where Foucault lays out this ontology; Ajvaz, on the other hand, accepts Foucault’s ontology without comment and so focuses his attention on what we should make of the drawing in light of it (and here he has some disagreement with Foucault).

But of course a blog isn’t really the place for a discussion of the ontology of the irreal. Suffice it to say for now that the translation is online for anyone that might be interested.

A Note Regarding The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz

There is much to be written regarding Michal Ajvaz’s recently translated novel, The Golden Age, published in 2010 by Dalkey Archive Press. In this post, I will limit myself to the interesting question of its lineage. Though reviewers have likened The Golden Age to the work of Franz Kafka, Jonathan Swift and Jorge Luis Borges, I think the first two are more incidental to it. Yes, there is a scene that takes place in Prague which is decidedly fantastical, but there is little else of Kafka in the work. And it is true that the main storyline takes place on a mysterious island that has been traveled to by the protagonist and so reminds of us of Gulliver’s Travels. But Ajvaz’s rather lengthy novel has a singular focus on the society that inhabits the aforementioned island, which differentiates it from Swift’s tale, in which Gulliver travels to many different islands. Furthermore, whereas the societies on the islands in Swift’s work are depicted using the best traditions of satirical comedy, e.g., taking to absurd lengths many recognizable conventions of human society, the notable aspect of the depiction of the civilization on the unnamed island in Ajvaz’s work is the degree to which the author works to make it not resemble any conventions of human society.

And this is when I find myself turning to the last name on the list, Jorge Luis Borges, especially the story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” And I have in mind here primarily “Tlon”: in this story, Borges describes a world that, even in the context of the story, is fictitious even if it is also seemingly real, and which does not abide by the usual rules of language, culture, and social dynamics. In addition, “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” has multiple stories within the story, so much so that the reader becomes confused as to what the actual storyline is. All of these things can also be said of The Golden Age. But here, once again, the matter of length is important. For Borges’ story is all of twelve pages long, while Ajvaz’s novel is fully 322 pages long. To sustain such a non-existing/existing, non-substantial/substantial world, founded on ideas and language as much as it is on any physical reality, is a considerable achievement for Ajvaz.

It also raises in my mind the question of whether one of Ajvaz’s many projects is to elaborate on and extend the work of some of the more fantastical writers working in an idealistic mode, exemplified by Borges. I am also thinking in this regard of Ajvaz’s work 55 měst (55 Cities), which is “a catalogue of settlements which Marco Polo related to Kublai Khan, compiled in honor of Calvino,” a work clearly inspired by, and building upon the foundation of, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. (I translated a small portion of this work, which appeared in Issue 31 of The Cafe Irreal).

This is not to suggest that Ajvaz’s work is derivative — indeed, the adjective I would use to describe his brilliant novel Druhé město (The Other City) would be “Ajvazian”, so unique is it — but it does suggest that he considers himself to be working within a broader tradition of which Borges and Calvino are key figures, much as we would consider irrealism to be a part of the “Kafkan” tradition. I will certainly be contemplating this possibility as I read more of Ajvaz’s work, both his fiction and his critical work (including a book length essay on Borges). However, it will be slower going for me as the rest of his work hasn’t yet been translated into English, and I will therefore be reading it in Czech. Next up for me will be a critical essay that Ajvaz wrote about Foucault’s essay on Magritte’s painting, Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe), a logical enough choice as I too wrote an essay about Foucault’s essay.


In Praise of Kaela
(an additional note in regard to The Golden Age)

And what is the second thing I will be saying about this work? Even somebody who has read Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age might wonder, assuming it had been a while since they’d read the work, who or what is the “Kaela” that I am praising in the title of this postscript? Kaela, as it happens, is the narrator’s girlfriend, the woman with whom he has a relationship while he is staying on the island and the reason I’m praising her (or, especially, Ajvaz’s treatment of her) is that we know virtually nothing about her. Not what she looks like, not who her parents are, not what she did for a living (not that it’s clear that the Islanders exactly ever do anything “for a living”). Indeed, even the few times we learn how she reacts to what the narrator says or does, this reaction is not unique to her, but serves to indicate to us the reactions of the islanders in general. It is apparent in reading this work that Ajvaz knows full well that when writing a didactic work (and for all its richness, this is a very didactic work) one does not muddy it up with cliched concerns about “fully developing” the characters. Indeed, I can’t help thinking in this regard of seeing a brief feature about Ajvaz on Czech television in which he is asked about which contemporary authors he reads, and he responded that he is largely focused on the various aspects of his own work (which presumably includes, e.g., as he wrote a book length essay about him, close readings of Borges) and so doesn’t read much of his contempories. Perhaps, then, this is why he hasn’t been infected by the contagion of gratiuitous characterization in works of fantastic fiction. Or, more likely, he is simply immune to the contagion.

Two things, besides my reading of The Golden Age, have helped bring this issue to mind. The first was a recent visit by a (now) retired professor of English who, with one comment, inspired me to write a paper that helped me to clarify the issue of characterization in fantastic literature. The second was the fact that, while sorting through some papers, I just came across an excellent essay that long ago influenced me in this matter of characterization: Joanna Russ’s “Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction” (Science Fiction Studies 2:112-119, July 1975). In it, Russ states that science fiction, like much medieval literature (and, I would argue, virtually all fantastic fiction), is essentially a form of didactic fiction. “That despite superficial similarities to naturalistic (or other) modern fiction, the protagonists of science fiction are always collective, never individual persons (although individuals often appear as exemplary or representative figures)…I would like to propose that contemporary literary criticism (not having been developed to handle such material) is not the ideal tool for dealing with fiction that is explicitly, deliberately, and baldly didactic. (Modern criticism appears to experience the same difficulty in handling the 18th century contes [which can be considered] as among the ancestors of science fiction.”

The Other City by Michal Ajvaz; The Return of Kral Majales; and the Prague of My Imagination

[posted by Alice]

In November of 1993 Greg and I arrived in Prague for the first time. As Louis Armand tells us in his introduction to the anthology The Return of Kral Majales, by that point Prague was home to a lively community of English-speaking writers and had already been proclaimed the “Left Bank of the nineties.”  Also in 1993, Michal Ajvaz published The Other City in Czech.

Flash forward from November of 1993 to November of 2010: Although an English translation of Ajvaz’ exceptional novel has been available since 2009, it wasn’t until this month that I actually read it. I also just finished reading Greg’s essay about the Kral Majales anthology, a volume that contains work by many writers who lived in Prague between 1990 and 2010 (including Greg and me). I decided to write a post about these readings and the memories they evoked.

[To be honest, I wasn’t thinking very clearly on my first trip to Prague because of jet lag and fatigue, and we were only in the Czech Republic for six weeks and in Prague for two before we had to leave because of my father’s illness, and it took a lot of energy just to make ourselves understood because we possessed maybe 200 words of Czech between us, and when we were hungry we found our way through crumbling cobblestone streets and down into musty basements of stone buildings to eat pizza with catsup and drink muddy coffee and breathe vast amounts of cigarette smoke, and when we emerged and had walked through streets filled with slushy snow till we were exhausted, we would find our way back in the coal-scented darkness to accommodations that were sometimes stiflingly warm, and I lay in bed and read Kafka’s collected stories and thought them brilliant and wanted to write fiction but wasn’t at all convinced that Prague was the place to do that. In the meantime, Greg found enough that was attractive and intriguing to convince him that he would return.]

In The Other City Ajvaz says, “… the snow lying everywhere is almost already the beginning of the unreal. It too urges us to leave: we are bound to find in it footprints of chimerical beings, footsteps that will lead us to secret lairs in the depths of the city.” (page 13) And of course when we returned to Prague in January of 1995 there was again snow on the ground, and Greg was ready to teach English and to become a translator and to engage in a richly complex writing project. Less engaged, less convinced, I focused on imagination.

[As Greg describes in more detail in his essay, we began to go to movies in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, to go to galleries to see whimsical and sometimes fiercely original art, to look at old buildings with distinct personas (though these buildings still exist, they are now renovated, sandblasted, painted and plastered into pretentious monuments that remind me of Disneyland), and we explored a city with so many hidden corners that it seemed to disassemble and reassemble itself before our eyes to defy being known, and in public places we found a deep chill that the coal-fired heat couldn’t touch (though the apartment in which we stayed was cozy warm), and I learned the complex route from the tram stop to our place (past the brewery, over the tracks, up the hill, up the steep steps, up another hill, around the bend, past the barking dogs, and so on), and I learned to speak a little Czech; to find vegetarian possibilities in a pork-and-dumpling land; and to miss my home as a special and idealized place I rarely appreciated when I was in it.]

We returned to Prague each year after that and stayed as long as we could. We encountered many of the spaces Armand describes as meeting places for expats: Beef Stew readings at Radost, Alchemy, The Globe Bookstore. But the strangeness of the city was what seeped into my bones and the Czech imagination influenced me more than the English speakers around me ever really did. It was while we were in Prague in 1997 that we first came up with the idea of publishing an online journal that would feature a hard-to-define type of writing, which we call irrealism. We sometimes refer to it as Kafkan (we used to call it Kafkaesque as John Gardner does, but we learned that people associate the term Kafkaesque with faceless bureaucracy and dehumanizing police states, and though such things can be found in irreal literature, it’s not inevitable), and we spent many hours trying to see Kafka’s city as he once did.

We were also very influenced by Czech literature, which is filled with whimsy and absurdism and fantasy, and that brings me to the fact that The Other City by Michal Ajvaz is a very irreal novel. The main reason I say this is that the meanings contained in the work point in many, often irreconcilable directions (in Shimon Sandbank’s parlance, they are “so many pointers to an unknown meaning”).  The Other City begins like an allegory: the velvet-bound book with its secret alphabet opens the way to a world of the imagination that includes lectures at 2:00 a.m. and underground churches. But the references also point to notions of death, the unconscious mind, the mysteries of life and sexuality, and the search for meaning and patterns that might result in art. This novel is a feast for the imagination, alternating as it does between a moderately straightforward (though always irreal) narrative style and stream-of-consciousness, surreal, automatic-writing sorts of monologues, the first of which is delivered by a black fish.  And yet there is a way in which the green marble streetcars and combination skyscraper-cruise ship on the Vltava found in this novel call to mind the real city, the Prague I knew back in the 1990s, a place of such intense complex imagination that anything seemed possible.

[In the summer of 2009 when I was last in Prague, there was no snow in which to find the footprints of chimerical beings, of course, but we lived near Petrin Hill, which features prominently in The Other City, and it’s still a microcosm of those hidden corners and magic moments we once seemed to find everywhere, and I walked up that hill almost every day because I wanted to see the birds and trees, but I also was reminded that Prague is still full of the unexpected – on Petrin there’s a gallery of imaginative art and an underground exhibit, and a number of small and unusual buildings (a wooden church, a pink chapel, and at the top a replica of the Eiffel Tower — and when I walked up Petrin I felt secure in the company of the remarkable number of statues to be found there (though I also enjoyed the Japanese and Italian tourists, the students, the staid ladies with their little dogs), and the night we went up to the astronomical observatory at the top of the hill and then rode slowly back down in the funicular railway gazing at the lights of the city below us that looked so lovely and yet promised something more than an ordinary city should, I renewed my connection with the other city, and I think it would be a very good idea to read Ajvaz’ book again next time I’m in Prague.]