The Attic by Danilo Kiš, and translated by John K. Cox
The Attic by Danilo Kiš, and translated by John K. Cox
The journey of the young writer, from aspiring novelist to published author, is one of the most widely told stories out there. It’s the only story every novelist has in common. The details may vary, as may the difficulty of the path followed, but by definition every one of them has done it.
It’s a story I tend to I find particularly uninteresting, because often it’s literature talking to itself instead of to the world. What could be more insular than novels about writing novels? Steampunk fiction actually, but I risk totally digressing in my second paragraph so let’s pretend I didn’t mention that.
The Attic is a Serbian novella written back in 1962. It’s a first novel about writing a first novel. It’s even called The Attic (the original could just as easily be translated as The Garrett or The Loft), as if to underline the airless subject matter. It has though that one quality which trumps all others, it’s well written.
Orpheus, the narrator, is a young writer living in a mould and cockroach infested garret apartment with a friend he calls Billy Wiseass. These aren’t, of course, their real names.
Orpheus falls in love with a girl he names Eurydice, although it’s fairer to say he falls in love with an idea of a Eurydice that he clothes a girl in.
Back at the time I think I first met her, I was feverishly demanding answers from life, and so I was completely caught up in myself – that is, caught up in the vital issues of existence.
Here are some of the questions to which I was seeking answers:
- the immortality of the soul
- the immortality of sex
- immaculate conception
- the fatherland
- the issue of the organic exchange of matter and
- the issue of nourishment
- life on other planets and
- out in space
- the age of the earth
- the difference between culture and civilization
- the race issue
- apoliticism or engagement
- kindness or heedlessness
- superman or everyman
- idealism or materialism
- Don Quixote or Sancho Panza
- Hamlet or Don Juan
- pessimism or optimism
- death or suicide
and so on and so forth.
These problems and a dozen more like them stood before me like an army of moody and taciturn sphinxes. And so, right when I had reached issue number nine—the issue of nourishment—after having solved the first eight problems in one fashion or another, the last addition to the list turned up: the question of love . . .
Orpheus tells Eurydice of his adventures in the South Seas, though they’re plainly a flight of fancy and it’s doubtful he’s ever left Belgrade. Soon after is an entire chapter which mimics a passage from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (I only know that because of the incredibly helpful foreword, thanks John K Cox). His friend Billy gets a girl pregnant and needs help with cash for an abortion, and Orpheus is keen to help because as he notes with concern a baby would mean “voilà, a new character!“
What’s going on here? It quickly becomes apparent that The Attic isn’t just a novel about writing a first novel – it’s a novel about writing this particular first novel. It’s a literary ourobouros that becomes a kind of metafiction in which the characters are aware that they are characters and the novel is aware of its own artificiality. This isn’t a book which imagines a world, but which then pretends that the created world has some form of objective existence (the standard approach for the vast majority of fiction). Rather this is a book which expressly addresses the act of its own creation (though of course, the novel titled The Attic which is being written inside the novel I read titled The Attic may not be quite the same The Attic, in fact can’t be).
Soon I was giving [English] lessons to the sluts of the port. Never before had I had pupils who were more diligent and compliant. And they paid me regularly. In kind, to be sure. How else? Then I stopped giving lessons to those girls who lived by the Bridge of Sighs, as we referred to them. Every day their madam had brought me coffee with a great deal of sugar and milk, just because once I’d said I liked it.
[They discuss his smoking, which the madam thinks excessive. She refers to "some great disappointment in your past..."]
“No, no” I said. “But I prefer a bitter cigarette to sweet coffee with sugar. It’s simply…”
Then she said suddenly: “Listen, it’s not nice of you to make your café latte sound even sweeter than it is, just so I’ll end up coming across as all the more insipid. You reporters are all the same. It goes without saying that I’m mentioning this in your interest.
If all this sounds arch and pretentious then for a fair part of the book that’s because that’s exactly what it is. The early passages are breathlessly adolescent (check out that list, above). The style is deeply self-indulgent, but then the technique becomes surer, the conceit less overwhelming. What becomes apparent is that The Attic is not merely a novel about writing a novel, but a novel that reflects in its very style and structure the process of becoming a novelist.
It opens up excitable and even amateurish. It veers off into unbounded flights of fantasy. It then faithfully follows the path set down by an earlier great writer. Only after all that does it start to find its own voice, to convince in its own right.
What is all that if not the young author’s path? Learning their craft; learning how to structure so that the text doesn’t just fly off in all directions. In the foreword to Fugue for a Darkening Island, Christopher Priest talked of how he was over-influenced by his then literary heroes, and that’s what’s happening here when the text apes Mann’s text.
At about the half way point I was close to abandoning this book. Actually though, what it’s doing is genuinely clever. You aren’t just told how a novelist learns his trade, you feel it as the novel itself makes mistakes but improves as it progresses. The novel begins to embrace something beyond its own artifice, its own influences, just as within the fiction Orpheus as a writer develops his own craft.
The Attic then isn’t insular at all, even if it often seems so as Kiš plays with words and images like a child let loose in a toy store after closing time. Rather, it is about emerging from that attic of self-referentiality and breaking through to the world beyond the writer, writing about the external and not just the internal.
“So anyway – how are you amusing yourself these days?” asked Osip.
“I am writing The Attic,” I said.
We were walking toward the fortress along the edge of the Danube because Osip had resigned himself to the fact that Marija wasn’t going to show up for their date.
“That’s bound to be some kind of neo-realism,” he said. “Dirty, slobbery children, and laundry strung up in the narrow gaps between the buildings of some suburb, and dockside dives, shit-faced railroad switchmen and, hookers…”
“There’s some of that in it,” I responded. “After all, the title itself suggests as much. But it remains a horribly self-centred book…”
I don’t want to oversell it. It’s clever and it’s fun and most importantly of all it’s well written but it isn’t a weighty tome of sombre European insight. It’s not Thomas Mann (not that he’s particularly sombre now I think about it). Then again, why should it be? It’s a first novel after all.