“What can I do for you?” said a new character as he executed a bow.

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.

The Attic

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

– motherhood

– fatherhood

– the fatherland

– cosmopolitanism

– the issue of the organic exchange of matter and

– the issue of nourishment

– metempsychosis

– 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.

Some other reviews I found interesting can be found here (and that article includes a useful career overview for Kiš) and here. There are also some more quotes here.


Filed under Kiš, Danilo, Novellas, Serbian fiction

12 responses to ““What can I do for you?” said a new character as he executed a bow.

  1. I’d probably have to be in a particular mood to read and enjoy this. I like the quote about the sluts at the port.

  2. Oh, I am a sucker for meta-fiction, so I’m sure I’d like this 🙂

  3. Anthony Martin

    I’ve just finished reading The Attic and came across your review after it was retweeted by Dalkey Archive Press.

    I found this review to be quite accurate. I was especially interested in the idea that this novel structurally represents the “journey of a young author”, from its adolescent beginning to its more polished finish. I remember that, while reading through the latter half, I was asking myself, how did we get here? Why is this all so much more lucid than the nebulous beginning to this novella?. I think your analysis answers those questions rather well.

    Have you read any more Kiš? I just finished the foreword to The Lute and The Scars, a collection of shorts published later in the author’s career.

  4. leroyhunter

    Nice review Max, of the how the structure meshes with the theme. Not sure this is one for me just now, but I liked the quotes.

  5. Guy, it’s very well written as that quote shows. The list too though works in its context, it’s breathy and a bit pretentious and as such rather perfectly captures a certain sort of adolescent conversation. I can see why you would want to be in a certain sort of mood though.

    Tony, you absolutely would actually. I think this would be one you’d find very interesting.

    Anthony, thanks, that was the key insight I felt I had with it, the structure reflecting the author’s own journey. It’s not a technique I’ve seen often, but it’s an interesting one.

    In a very different sort of novel, Heller with Catch-22 has his chapters oscillate in time around a certain point, the incident with Snowden (I won’t say what in case you’ve not read it). Just as Yossarian can’t think about what happened, the novel can’t show it, veering before and after the incident but dashing away each time it gets close to it.

    Also very dissimilar, but using similarly interesting technique, is Nabokov’s Pnin which like this I at first found rather annoying and by the end found genuinely interesting. Pnin plays with being irritating, so that as reader you come to realise that the narrative voice may actually be a voice within the fiction, and not the authorial voice of god one so often takes as written.

    This was my first. I will read more, but I don’t know which yet. The Lute and the Scars is a definite possibility, but there may be others which would make sense first. I need to learn more about him.

  6. Leroy, you need to be in a certain kind of place for it, I think that’s fair. The quotes are key aren’t they? This sort of novel, if it’s not written extremely well (extremely, just well doesn’t cut it) then it’s unbearable.

  7. “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).”

    Wow, I must be really tired, I needed to read this three times to understand it. If I have a hard time understanding the review, I’d better skip the book.
    Thanks for bringing this writer to my attention.

  8. Well I ve had this writer on my radar for a while Max ,I love the Orpheus myth my self and the fact this is based in part on that makes me keen to read it last one I read based on it was Poem strip by Dino Buzzati ,all the best stu

  9. I did mean that para to be a bit difficult Emma, I was trying to illustrate the self-referential nature of the book.

    Stu, you’d love this I’d think. Or if not at you’d at least find it interesting.

  10. Pingback: Los Angeles, give me some of you! | Pechorin's Journal

  11. Your review reminded me of Borges’ The Circular Ruins (http://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/00/pwillen1/lit/cruins.htm) and the Robert Heinlein science-fiction story “By His Bootstraps” (http://www.uky.edu/~mwa229/Bootstraps.pdf) — in the sense of a text keenly aware of – yet always struggling to – break out of its self-referentiality. I must say, this review makes it sound like Kis has managed to pull of an insanely clever – and difficult – literary feat.

  12. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Kis gets more and more intriguing. I recognise some of the metafictional elements you mention in the short stories I’m reading at the moment and he somehow manages to carry it off. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for more of books!

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