Peter Karvaš – Xerox of a Document about One Half of (the Art of) Life
The author of Peter Karvaš' letter in Xerox of a Document about One Half of (the Art of) Life forgets, or perhaps never intended, to sign his work. Indeed, the letter ends with an ellipse, the last of many, and carries with it an exhortation to love, and to please, truly, listen to Shostakovich' Ninth Symphony (He really means the Seventh, but never mind that). The writer at any rate has a story to tell, but he never seems to get around to it, though he constantly reminds himself he will.
The letter is addressed to the “most respected and honored Maestro”, and seems to be in response to a previously letter, which put forth the question as to why the current writer's literary work was so vehemently savaged by the young critics of the day. This letter is the defence, and though it isn't much of a defence as such, it in instead manages to comment quite eloquently on reasonably contemporary Eastern European and Russian composers, the nature of Fate, the corruption of dictatorships and censorship, and the use of parody and satire in literature.
To wit, a taste:
But whatever it is, whatever name we give it, this force, this confluence of circumstances, this erstwhile Fate, so chipper and cheerful, still goes on pretending that it's entirely innocent, that it isn't hurting anyone, isn't forcing people to confront so many unsolvable riddle, so many awful secrets, and all the rest of the obvious – yet so cleverly untraceable! - evidence as to its own omnipotence, its own boundless ingenuity. I say again, Fate (or whatever it is) is a great comedian, offering us so many little wonderful jibes at our own expense, with never a second thought for the suffering men and women who are the butt of its cruel wit. Fate is the great satirist, you see. The original.
For example, it is impossible to criticise one own political and societal circumstances openly during a dictatorship, when censorship it at work. This is when the apocrypha form becomes especially useful as a means of getting one's messages across only to those intelligent and well-educated readers who are likely to understand it. This is why so many satirical comedies in those days took place in ancient times or in far-off or non-existent places (though, sadly, the very fact that the powers that be didn't “get” the joke also had terrible consequences – for instance, twenty years of police-enforced silence for some of the authors, myself included). For better or for worse, parody, unfortunately, remains incomprehensible to a great many people – is often destined to be misunderstood or not understood at all. (and then occasionally to be brutally punished.) [...]
The author tells us he will try “henceforth to relate my story in a logical, causal, so-called sensible order,” though this style of writing never truly appears. There's a distinct impression that this letter, to the Maestro (apparently the “greatest living personality in the world of art criticism and theory”), is perhaps his only opportunity to really let it all out, and so he does. There's an eagerness of expression, a sense of excitement and willingness to 'get it all out', in case this is his last opportunity. Writing about Shostakovich, he wonders if the man's capacity for great art increased or decreased during the constant terror of approaching death so relevant during the Second World War in Germany and Russia, as the bombs were falling and the men were fighting. He wonders, perhaps, because the writer now is older, and the nearness of death is tangible. Xerox of a Document about One Half of (the Art of) Life was in fact published a year after the author's death at the age of seventy-nine.
And let's extend that a moment. Without knowing whether the letter is to be a true representation of Karvaš, a partially fictional recreation, or a completely fictional letter, it is certainly the case that Karvaš spent some time in prison for his political and aesthetic views, and that he was forced, like so many writers from that geographic and historic part of the world, to obfuscate the true message of his literature through the use of parody, satire, and oblique criticism. Karvaš writes, then, from experience.
His comments concerning satire and parody are particularly salient today (any today; it matters little which today it happens to be). The use of these literary techniques has its fullest opportunity for understanding when the reader themselves know who is being parodied and why. Take Alexander Zinoviev's The Yawning Heights, a book which remains a highlight of Soviet-era satire. It is, however, very difficult to follow all of the characters and their goings-on, because their names have been shifted. Some are obvious – Stalin is referred to as a the man with the huge moustache. Others, much less so. A Russian reader of the period would have understood the satire, and indeed they did, for Zinoviev was exiled for what he had written. A Russian today would have less connection with the work, and a non-Russian – well. Satire is difficult to keep relevant when it's targets are specific and pointed.
But Karvaš' satire in this piece is on a broader scale; rather than pointing fingers, it tars with a very wide brush the whole corrupt hierarchy of dictatorships on the one hand, and the erratic, infantile and cliquey “culture” surrounding literature and the arts. His words hurt because they are universal, but the intelligence and persuasiveness of his argument is such that this letter goes beyond the simply humorous.
I shall confess a secret: I am automatically predisposed to any author who mentions either Romain Rolland or Dimitri Shostakovich. I admire Rolland as an author, and am awed at Shostakovich's compositions. Karvaš, to my delight, mentions both, and his feelings for them are clear and strong. But enough of that – the story holds up well even without these mentions, and it packs a surprising punch for being only 6 pages in length. Is the letter 'really' from Karvaš? Who cares. The message is the message, and not the messenger. Fiction, non-fiction, an enticing blend; it's effective and it works, a creative, exuberant, engaged, intelligent, committed, angry, outspoken narrative voice willing and able to say what needs to be said.
||Xerox of a Document about One Half of (the Art of) Life
Original Title: Xerox dokumentu o jednej polohe (umenia) života taken from Zrada múz (Betrayal of the Muses)
||The Dalkey Archive Press
Other stories from the The Review of Contemporary Fiction Vol. XXX, #2 Slovak Fiction issue include:
---Hochel, Braňo - My Best Story
---Johanides, Ján - Berlin in the Afternoon, at a Quarter to Winter
---Juráňová, Jana - Clips
---Kompaníková, Monika - Slávko
---Kovalyk, Uršuľa - Mrs. Agnes's Bathroom
---Rankov, Pavol - The Period in Which We Live
---Šimko, Dušan - Excursion to Dubrovnik
Also of interest:
---Other titles under review from The Dalkey Archive Press
---Index of short stories under review