Goce Smilevski - Conversation With Spinoza
Macedonian author Goce Smilevski's second novel, Conversation With Spinoza (original title: Razgovor so Spinoza) has enough tricks and clever techniques that it runs the real risk, in summary, to seem like something of a post-modern bore. The novel is structered into 'threads', and act as part of a conversation between 'you' – the reader – and Spinoza. There are blank spaces where you are supposed to fill in your name, and the entire story is told twice, with differing emphasis and colouring between the two. Smilevski throws a lot of balls in the air, but happily he manages to keep on juggling right up to the surprisingly sweet end. Here is a novel that uses post-modern tricks, without falling for any of the (massive, yawning) post-modern pitfalls.
Conversation With Spinoza begins with Baruch Spinoza, the great Dutch philosopher, dead in his bed. The narrator of this brief section wonders why he is here, how it came to be that he is a witness to Spinoza's body as it lies in state. The next section, which is very short, is from Spinoza, talking to 'you' (and there is a place for you to put in your name, should you wish), encouraging you to consider the entirety of his life before casting any judgements or making any decisions. And so the story begins.
Spinoza was raised to become a rabbi, but his elder brother's death ensured that he would work for his father in the family store, instead. After his father died – and Spinoza had been excommunicated from the Jewish faith under murky circumstances – Spinoza becomes a lens grinder and publishes his philosophical works, which are astounding both in their complexity and vigour of thought, but also because they are difficult to read and seemingly devoid of personality. And then, at 44, he died. There isn't a great deal else. Smilevski takes this skeletal life and fleshes it out with a number of highly charged emotional and sexual scenes in an attempt to chart Spinoza's withdrawal from life. However, instead of jazzing up a famous philosopher's sex life to make a steamy story, Smilevski instead recounts specific periods of Spinoza's formative years, then has a 'conversation' with Spinoza about the truth, impact and importance of these events. A scene might be recounted from Spinoza's perspective and be fairly mild, but then parts are added in the second person – ie “Can you imagine her, Spinoza? Can you imagine yourself approaching her while her eyes are trying to avoid your pupils? While she is breathing and gasping for air a little, can you imagine yourself beginning to undress her slowly?” Spinoza comments on these asides, or not, but when he does he is directly addressing the reader.
What we have, then, is a fact-filled, almost dry biographical recount of Spinoza's life sprinkled with additions from the reader and peppered with Spinoza's commentary upon the reader's additions. This adds layers to the man's life, and helps to explain his willingness to negate substance and the self in favour of eternity and the infinite. Approaching the halfway point of the novel, we experience Spinoza's death, and then, from the reader, “What you have told me so far is very interesting indeed, Spinoza...However, I would like to hear the story of your life told once again, Spinoza. I would like to hear it told by the man with the weary eyes, the man who is far from being free”.
The story begins again. This time, rather than speed through his early life, excommunication, failed attempts at love, and death, Spinoza focuses on the emotional aspects of his life, detailing the small parts of who he was, who he wanted to be, and why he wasn't able to give in to the finite – the sensual, the self, the erotic. This second half is made much sadder because it reflects on the calm first half and finds it dreadfully wanting. Again, the reader and Spinoza comment, but this time they are more in tune with one another. There is definite sympathy from the reader the second time through, where there was disbelief and skepticism during the first.
Smilevski has created an interesting tangle, and from the explanation above it is clear that he could easily have jumbled the whole thing. The story gels, however, due to the strength of Spinoza both as biographer and commentator, and the reader, who relentlessly gives life, love and emotions their due when Spinoza will not. There are also many passages where Spinoza explains some of his philosophical theories, which add intellectual complexity to an already complex work. These are not lengthy philosophical discussions so much as paragraph explanations, which enlighten without lecturing, and help to create the believability of Spinoza as a philosopher.
In a section titled, Instead of an Epilogue: Why Spinoza?, Smilevski explains his reasons for choosing Spinoza, and for the methods used. It is of particular note that Spinoza himself apparently wrote his Ethics twice, with contemporary (to us) philosopher Gilles Deleuze arguing that some parts are characterised with “all the angers of the heart”. This knowledge adds further weight to Smilevski's choice to tell the tale twice, and in such a manner.
Conversation With Spinoza is a surprisingly charming and easy read for a novel brimming with tricks and double-ups. There is a lot here to like, and though I cannot imagine anyone would truly write their name in the blank spaces provided, the techniques used are overwhelmingly to the advantage of the novel.
Blesok (Author profile)