Death does tend to jog my memory. When the decease of Konwicki, the Polish writer, was announced in the Times, I thought that now would be a good time to read A Minor Apocalypse. Re-read, except for the fact that when I read it, I didn’t finish it. This is because… well, it was too good. There are books that make me envious, and then there are books that overwhelm me. Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow obviously belong in the latter category. But the books in the first category are as rare, and a little more difficult to define. They are usually written in a way that I would like to write, or at least one of the ways, but they seem to have completely filled that way of writing up. Thus, the envy. I can read, say, Delillo and know that I can copy Delillo to an extent – that he is working in a quarter of literature that I recognize and could move in myself. But Konwicki seems to have discovered the perfect way to write the kind of novel that usually is pretty bad – the novel about not being able to write the novel. Of course, I take off my hat to Flaubert and Proust for doing it right, but I am talking about a less monumental version of that odd quest – the quest, so to speak, for sterility.
In Konwicki’s book, this old modernist trope is combined with a new one – one that is both contemporary and not: political suicide. In the sixties and up through the eighties, the idea was basically to kill oneself in protest. Thus, the monks in Vietnam burned themselves, as did some anti-Vietnam war protesters. The IRA prisoners starved themselves to death.
Interesting moment, since it has been succeeded by a more militant form of suicide in which one blows oneself and other people up. The one form of suicide seems, at least, highly refined, whereas the other seems barbarous. However, the suicides in the sixties to eighties period were characterized most of all by ineffectuality. Whereas we don’t know what we will see, looking back at the militant form of suicide. I have a feeling it, too, will be ineffectual, plus bloodier.
Konwicki’s book is set… well, it is part of the play of the book that you don’t know when it is set. The narrator can’t get the real date out of anybody. One imagines it is set around the time of General Jarezelski’s coup, in 1981. I wonder how many people remember that coup outside of Poland? It was one of those earthshaking events that has been buried in the general amnesia devoted to the latter half of the Cold war. The narrator, who is having a Konwicki-like crisis over the whole dignity and value of the novel – who is, in other words, perpetually writing third drafts – is visited by representatives of a self-appointed group of dissidents who tell him that it has been decided that he should set fire to himself to protest the oppressiveness of the regime.
Of course, he doesn’t jump at this chance, but objects. The two men who announce the decision to him point out that he doesn’t really write, but that he still has a certain celebrity. When the narrator objects that there are other more celebrated Polish artists, like a certain filmmaker – obviously Wadja – the two reply that this filmmaker is too celebrated, and is still working. No, a dead end like the narrator is best. There is some woody allen like dialogue here:
“After all, you’ve always been obsessed with death,” shipered Hubert hoarsly. “ I never treated your complex as a literary mannerism. You’re intimate with death, you shouldn’t be afraid of it. You have prepared yourself, and us, for your death most carefully. What were you thinking about before we arrived?”
“You see. It’s at your side. All you have to do is reach out.”
This is an excellent premise for a ramble around Warsaw and around the brain of the narrator. This is, to me, at the center of the novel world – the ramble. From Don Quixote to Leopold Bloom, it is rambling that really gets the novel’s juices going.