The following exchange is based on a conversation recorded in Amsterdam on 31 October 2014 that was expanded via email. The audio recording was transcribed by Chloe Elder. This interview is included in Music & Literature no. 6 alongside new fiction and artwork by Dubravka Ugrešić.

 

DM: What comes immediately to mind when you consider your childhood? What still impresses you about that period of life?

DU: I think that childhood is a pretty mysterious phase. We remember ourselves poorly as kids, adopting instead the memories of others about us—mostly our parents’. Our childhood is like a collective text exposed to various interpretations, determined by all sorts of unreliable interpreters. Perhaps things will change in the future, given the profusion of recording devices. Who could guess what Marcel Proust would say about it if he lived today?

I remember three key aspects of my childhood: let me refer to them as “heart,” “sight,” and “place.”

The “heart” stands for a zone of emotions. It seems that children are much more sensitive in this respect than adults. When I was a girl I felt vulnerable, as though I lacked a protective layer of skin. Many things felt painful. The affection of my parents couldn’t protect me from the conviction that the world was a harmful place. I was quite unhappy as an adolescent because I couldn’t find a compelling reason to grow up: maturity seemed unserious and vulgar. And at that point, there weren’t many reasons to remain a child either. Children can be quite cruel.

Seeing was the most exciting part of those years. That’s what I mean by “sight”: vision, perspective, the things you capture with your eyes. I could look at something for hours and never get bored or tired. I was able to notice the tiniest detail in a thick forest of surrounding landscape. And the proportions! The world of childhood was huge and exciting, even if only because I was small. I remember revisiting the place where we first lived: what a disappointment…the dangerous jungle with a stream behind our house, where the frightful Water Man once resided, was now just a bunch of bushes. The scene hadn’t changed, but I had.

 

  Ugrešić  at 5 years old and 6 years old. Courtesy of  Dubravka Ugrešić.

Ugrešić at 5 years old and 6 years old. Courtesy of Dubravka Ugrešić.

DM: And what of “place”? Describe your life in Kutina.

DU: We lived in a little house. My father ran a factory, which was an almost inseparable part of our family life, because the workers would often come to our house to meet with my father. We lived in model family houses, which were built as an example of what a socialist worker’s home should look like. There were five or six small houses with vegetable gardens in the back and small flower gardens in the front. Our neighbors were workers, and they would accompany us on outings, celebrations, vacations on the Adriatic coast (at so-called “socialist workers’ resorts”). Life was a sort of collective paradise, where, at least at the beginning, images of everyday life matched the images in my first socialist primer, which consisted of workers, peasants, and the “intelligentsia” building their “bright future” together.

 

DM: What was the first moment of rupture in that paradise? This was after all during the fifties, in the thick of the Cold War. When did those pressures first intervene? 

DU: I think that children are not conscious of such things. They don’t have tools to understand them. However, as a small child I became aware of what it means to be “other,” of “otherness.” When the little girls in my street learned, from their mothers, that my mother was Bulgarian, they teased me for being “Bulgarian.” Mind you, the only thing children want is to be like other children. I was mobbed and teased by other kids for this difference. The nightmare of my early childhood ended when I entered a school and befriended a little girl whose father was Italian.

We first visited my Bulgarian grandparents—they lived in Varna, by the Black Sea—when I was seven years old. This was immediately after diplomatic relations between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia were restored. My mother and I traveled to Varna and stayed there for two months. I was completely unfamiliar with that strange new family constellation, but I learned Bulgarian with ease. My mother hadn’t seen her parents for ten years because of Informbiro, which excluded Yugoslavia from the Eastern Bloc established by the Soviets. Being a Bulgarian in Yugoslavia in 1948 was equivalent to being a Serb in Croatia—or a Croat in Serbia, or a Bosnian in either Serbia or Croatia—in 1991. As a child, I couldn’t understand any of that stuff.  However, I do recall an exchange with a boy my age from our first stay in Bulgaria. He said: “That Tito of yours is a capitalist pig.” And I replied: “That Stalin of yours is a pig.”

 

DM: Yet weren’t there a few advantages to growing up in Yugoslavia after the split from Stalin? It was culturally more open, no?

DU: This period of Yugoslav “McCarthyism” brought some goodies, and these were Hollywood films. The first postwar American movie shown in Yugoslav cinemas was Bathing Beauty with Esther Williams. From then—1953—on, we became the beneficiaries of “Americanization,” which is to say ideological and financial support for Yugoslavia after its exclusion from the communist bloc. Americanization arrived in pleasant packages: in food aid, first of all (American UNRRA powder milk, “Truman’s eggs,” and cheddar cheese). And then Hollywood. My mother liked these films and knew their actors and actresses by heart; she was also a devoted reader of American literature. So I got my first shot of Americana quite early.

 

DM: Since you mention literature, let’s discuss your beginnings as a writer. 

DU: I began as a children’s writer. During the late seventies, the standards of literature for children in Yugoslavia were exceptionally high. Belgrade poet Dušan Radović set the highest aesthetic bar with this kind of writing. Then other young and talented writers followed his example. Their enthusiasm influenced people involved in television as well as publishers and artists. Suddenly great books for children started to appear alongside intelligent, even experimental, magazines and radio programs. All in all, I was absolutely enchanted by these new tendencies in children’s literature and I wanted to be a part of it. That seemed to me a better and more authentic choice then imitating Borges, which is what the majority of writers of my generation were doing at the time. 

 

DM: In your essay on Susan Sontag, you introduce the importance of “literary apprenticeship.” Could you discuss this notion at greater length?

DU: One has to earn the right to write, the right to “a voice.” I propagated an old-fashioned apprenticeship. I was a passionate reader from an early age. I studied comparative literature. I wrote about other writers. I translated them, too, from Russian to Croatian. I assembled anthologies. I edited, selected, and collected works of classical writers (Chekhov and Gogol, for example). I edited scholarly editions. I did a bit of literary history, criticism, and theory. I rediscovered some forgotten Russian writers (such as Leonid Dobychin and Konstantin Vaginov) and wrote about them. I think that the notion of a literary work ethic is extremely important, especially today when practically anybody can write, produce, and distribute his or her own work. This work ethic presupposes knowledge and a deep respect toward—and compassion for—your ancestors and contemporaries, toward your trade. It also assumes a deep awareness of what one is doing, why one is doing what one is doing, what the sense of the work is, what it brings to the cultural context, what it brings to the reader, and so on and so forth.

 

DM: And these preparations eventually led to your debut?

DU: My first book, which appeared in 1978 under the title Pose for Prose, was a literary attempt to answer at least some of those questions. At the center of this volume was a novella titled Love Story. Although it could be read as a kind of romance, Love Story was a literary manifesto. It begins with an epigraph taken from an interview of Gabriel García Márquez in which he said: “I write in order to be loved.” The narrator is a young woman. She wants to win the heart of a certain young man, the self-proclaimed literary critic Bublik. 

Bublik claims that contemporary literature is dead. Our young woman offers him a few of her fictions, works that “reanimate” dead literature, hoping to thereby seduce him. She’s a postmodern Scheherazade, but her stories fail to win her Bublik. The couple meets again ten years later. This time he offers her a story, and the game of seduction continues. Love Story is a funny and benign novella, the work of a beginner. Today I am glad that I started my writing career with this kind of literary self-positioning. True, I now see it as self-positioning…I wasn’t so sure about it back then. But even at this early stage I was bracing myself for a couple of things which would await me in my career as a writer. 

 

  Ugrešić  in 1968. Courtesy of  Dubravka Ugrešić .

Ugrešić in 1968. Courtesy of Dubravka Ugrešić.

DM: Namely?

DU: For instance, the fact that I would always be an outsider in a national, but also in any bigger, literary game. Above all because I am a woman: a woman writer working in a small language and coming from a part of the world where literature and culture were never priorities. Do I complain because of such major handicaps? Perhaps. But as an outsider I was free to shape my own literary taste, to pick my own literary traditions, to build my own system of literary values. I was free to disregard expectations, and fully aware that I would not be at the center of things or quickly canonized. So there was nothing to worry about.

In any case, the narrator of Love Story wants to seduce Bublik. And here we came to a major point of literature: literature as seduction. 


DM: Could you please elaborate?

DU: Yes, literature as mental, aesthetic, linguistic, emotional, intellectual, and sensual seduction. In that sense, Scheherazade is an ideal author, not solely because of her skill as a storyteller (although that too!), but for the risk that hovers above this activity. There are so many writers in this world who never ever question their trade. Fewer are prepared to confront all the dangers—and all the consequences—of their work. I experienced writing as a dangerous or double-edged activity. I was awarded the biggest prizes for literature in the former Yugoslavia (the NIN prize for fiction, for example), but only a few years later—at a time of nationalism and war—I was expelled from my cultural community and ostracized because of my writing. Instead of conforming to a changed situation, which is what the majority of people did, I took a risk. Then bore the consequences. I left my country. 


DM: It sounds like you’re proud of that.

DU: No; I am sad because of it. I learned a lesson I would have rather avoided, namely that the majority of writers, intellectuals, artists, and thinkers will conform to any situation—whether it is war, dictatorship, communism, fascism, extermination of the “Other,” et cetera. However, going against the mainstream is not an aesthetic category. Risk is a moral category, which shapes our attitude toward our vocation as well as our ideological, political, aesthetical, and ethical choices.


DM: You spoke of postmodernism in your description of Love Story. It’s interesting that the modernist techniques deployed in your recent fiction appear in the early work too. Is this something you adopted from the avant-garde writers in Russia? From more contemporary trends in the West? Or perhaps some combination of the two?

DU: It was a combination.


DM: Then you weren’t so isolated from literary developments in Western Europe and the United States.

DU: No, no, there was a lot of that material available in translation. Besides, people were visiting Yugoslavia: writers, philosophers (well-known summer philosophical seminars on Korčula), theater (Dubrovnik, Belgrade), and film makers. We got all the Barthelme and Barthes, as far as postmodernism is concerned. As I may sound a bit too enthusiastic here, I’ll quote a Russian acquaintance of mine who tried to pursuade me to visit Moscow: “Oh, you must come and visit us. We have plenty of postmodernism: the shortage is of soap!”


DM: To what extent did the war change your approach to writing? On the one hand the answer seems obvious: Berlin and Amsterdam became settings for your fiction, and the experience of exile a principal theme. And yet I was struck while rereading Lend Me Your Character, since the stories featured in that volume are remarkably consistent, despite having been published originally between 1981 and 2005.

DU: The war did not change my approach toward literature. I have always cared more about how things are written than what is being written about. But the war changed me. It brought with it new themes, preoccupations, and thoughts. And of course: exile, a changed life, a deeper knowledge of human nature, fresh stimulations. These were powerful experiences. However, I had no desire to convert them into a memoir or autobiography.

I would never judge the quality of a literary text by inspecting whether the writer’s experience was real or false; the text itself betrays the author. A careful reader only feels comfortable in the text when the author feels comfortable in there too: it’s a secret communication between them.


DM: In The Museum of Unconditional Surrender you observed the following about the reconstruction of experience through autobiography:

Both the album and the autobiography are by their nature amateur activities, doomed from the outset to failure and second-ratedness. That is, the very act of arranging pictures in an album is dictated by our unconscious desire to show life in all its variety, and as a consequence life is reduced to a series of dead fragments. Autobiography has similar problems in the technology of remembering; it is concerned with what once was, and the trouble is that what was once is being recorded by someone who is now.

You’ve already explained why you channeled these new experiences into fiction, instead of memoir or autobiography. Yet at least half the books you’ve published in English are collections of essays, and even the novels themselves borrow often from essayistic strategies and tone. What attracts you to this particular form of writing? Were you steeped in a particular culture of essay writing, for example a Central European one?

  Ugrešić  in 1988. Courtesy of  Dubravka Ugrešić .

Ugrešić in 1988. Courtesy of Dubravka Ugrešić.

DU: The choice of an essay came naturally to me at one point in my life. I stepped into it like into an old comfortable shoe. In that respect, the strategy of “fictionalizing” an essay and of “essayizing” fiction also came naturally. That impulse was there from the very beginning, I would say. Besides, stepping outside his “domain” is an act of artistic freedom: that’s why some excellent writers (first recognized as fiction writers and poets) also became first-rate essayists. Joseph Brodsky, Danilo Kiš, and Milan Kundera come to mind.

The choice to write essays came with a radical change of my life: the outburst of nationalism (i.e. fascism, at this particular time and place) in former Yugoslavia, with the fall of the SFRY, the war, and subsequent exile. The essay was, at least for me, the most appropriate form to protest against human conformism, lies, killings, national and ethnic homogenization of the society (e.g. fascization of society), against trivialization and standardization of culture, and so on and so forth. I turned to the essay at a crucial moment, when things desperately (at least from my point of view!) needed to be explained, when I lost my familiar addressee and my familiar cultural environment. 

 

DM: Are we talking about 1991?

DU: Yes, in 1991 (officially, though, it started earlier) my cultural environment split into six new cultural environments (with the same pattern of cultural behavior based on ethnic hatred and exclusion and denial of a common Yugoslav cultural past). This was the year when the authorities took away my Yugoslav passport, gave me a Croatian one in return, and from then on everybody expected me to behave as a “Croatian writer.” This was not just a simple administrative change but a terror, a demand that all Croatian citizens change their thinking and behavior. The whole country resembled a madhouse where lies became truth, right became wrong, and people were forced to either adapt to the situation or to leave. Most of them adapted to the new rules, many individuals even enjoyed and profited from the situation. I could not adapt. As a writer, I changed not only my address but my addressee too. Add to this an important detail. I didn’t move from London to New York: I came from a country that, for most of my new neighbors, was virtually non-existent. It might as well have been Atlantis. I had an urge to explain my status. The essay proved to be the most comfortable way. After more than twenty years living in exile my status is still an “abnormal” one. I am still “dislocated” (living in Netherlands and writing in BCS: Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian), but have gotten accustomed to it. I have learned how to enjoy the disadvantages of my position. Besides, the situation in Croatia, Serbia, and the rest is no better: nationalism continues to reign, things have regressed into nineteenth-century ways of thinking, the purpose of culture is viewed as a means of building national self-esteem, and so on and so forth. That is why I have passionately propagated the notion of transnational literature, which could be a new cultural platform, a literary territory for those writers who refuse to belong to their national literatures, or to belong to their national literatures only. I think that establishing a theoretical ground for transnational literature and opening other options than national culture and literature is an extremely important cultural job.

 

DM: The essay also seems well suited for the work of cultural critique that you’ve practiced since your departure from Zagreb.

DU: The best definition of the essay came from Theodor Adorno, who said that heresy is at its essence and core. However, we have to be careful with all these notions today: the notion of heresy included. In our contemporary society—which is highly homogenized by the global marketplace—intellectual and artistic heresy is like oxygen. Globalized culture sucks that oxygen from our mental landscape. The global marketplace pretends that it offers us a diversity of products but in fact sells us the powerful substitute of the holy ONE. Today, we get one “subversive” philosopher, one “subversive” artist, and one subversive “writer”: the global market can’t bear more than one! In other words, we get one Coca-Cola, but we believe that by consuming it we consume the whole world. Celebs are our modern prophets, whether they sell the photos of their impressive posteriors, like Kim Kardashian, or their seductive theories, like Slavoj Žižek, or millions of their books, like Haruki Murakami. I don’t have anything against Kim Kardashian or, God forbid, against the great Slavoj Žižek, or my fellow writer Haruki Murakami, but the holy ONE policy (created, ultimately, by consumers themselves) is a quite obvious sign of a society homogenizing its tastes and needs. That’s why many cultural “species” (forms, patterns, genres, practices, ideas, and cultural spaces) are disappearing. The global market standardizes our tastes, our intellectual and cultural needs. In the result, we all read one book, one Bible, one Koran, we all follow one “prophet”; we all wait in long lines to buy a new book by one writer, or in line to see the exhibition of one artist. There is a market pressure to love Him, to buy Him, and as we live in a religious world, we like to establish our modern “prophets” (in visual art, the entertainment industry, literature, film, etc.). And then we like them and respect them because everybody else likes and respects them…

 

DM: Joseph Brodsky was a remarkable essayist: Less than One and On Grief and Reason were a kind of university for me. When did you first come across his work? I imagine the two of you must have met.

  Drawing by Joseph Brodsky, taken from a letter to   Ugrešić   dated January 2, 1995. Courtesy of Dubravka   Ugrešić.

Drawing by Joseph Brodsky, taken from a letter to Ugrešić dated January 2, 1995. Courtesy of Dubravka Ugrešić.

DU: I agree: Less than One and On Grief and Reason are two powerful collections. I like Brodsky’s essays even when he himself is irritated with the subject of his essay, when he is obviously capriciously judgmental or otherwise overly sentimental. Why? Because the text is always him. He exposes himself to the point of self-hurt, and yet maintains a distance. It’s a rare quality of the essayistic text.

I was a poor reader of his poetry at first. I met him, via mutual friends, in 1989, when I taught one semester at Wesleyan University. We saw each other afterwards on several occasions, for instance at the great conference on the fall of the Wall organized by Rutgers University, in 1991. He seemed to me a modest and insecure person, though others sometimes interpreted his insecurity as arrogance.

I remember a detail. In 1989, while teaching at Wesleyan, I lived in Middletown. My little household was a modest improvisation. It lacked many things. I didn’t bother, I was supposed to stay for just a couple of months. One day I got a little present from Brodsky, a device for listening to CDs: a Discman! Brodsky, I guess, figured that music is the best furniture. And he was right; I learned that a couple of years later when I found myself in exile.

 

DM: What music have you furnished your homes with?

DU: Classical music. Vivaldi, Vivaldi, and Vivaldi. Corny evergreens. Ethno-music: Macedonian, Balkan blues. Occasionally opera, for a mood boost.

 

DM: I’ve just been reading the most recent installment of Reiner Stach’s Kafka biography. The author devotes significant attention to the social shocks of transformative technology that made themselves felt at the turn of the century, and have remained with us ever since. How have you fared at keeping up with our own age? (We had our first conversation over Skype several years back, so you’re obviously not hunkered down in some cave.) You’ve written movingly about the detrimental effects of these developments on reading, but I’d like to take another approach to this issue: what do you find of interest among recent changes, above all as a novelist and essayist?

DU: I learned how to type professionally when I was sixteen, which was quite unusual at my time. Soon I had a typewriter. I also bought a computer quite early. True, I didn’t manage to learn more than I needed for work, but I became a diligent consumer of computer technology. My biography (like anybody’s biography today!) could be told just through the technical stuff we are all surrounded with (“And then I switched from a typewriter to an electrical typewriter, from desktop computer to a Mac Notebook, from a Mac Notebook to this or that…”). I have a storage cellar full of the technical devices used, and sometimes even didn’t manage to use, during a period of some twenty-five years. My first notebook is in there. It still works, only I don’t know how to use it anymore. (It doesn’t have icons.) I have a collection of printers, tiny ones for traveling, and big ones. Everything still works. Add to that TVs, fax machines, phone secretaries, musical stuff, recorders, etc.

The technology we use changes our language, not only in terms of new slang, but its length as well: language becomes reduced. In Slavic languages, for instance, which, compared to English, have always sounded slow, the influence of TV shows, videos, YouTube, internet, mailing, texting, instant messages, and tweeting on language has been huge. Young people might consume a lot of written material on daily basis, but the quality of reading is different. And here’s the paradox: some very popular writers, whose books are marked as so-called serious literature today, are producing novels that resemble those from the eighteenth century! Their content belongs to our modern time, but their writing technique is terribly outdated. Strange, isn’t it? All in all, we already live in digital civilization; the changes are serious, tectonic, and dramatic. Recently, I found some letters written by my friends, some time between 1991 and 1994. These letters are long, extremely emotional, deep, full of content. I am still in contact with some of those people, but, even though we all now have technical gadgets, we hardly exchange a couple of words per year. It’s a horrifying silence. It has happened already to my generation. Today, it is difficult to send a letter. I don’t want to preach, I just want to say that I cried when I read those letters. I certainly feel that the whole culture of communication has vanished, and I refuse to conform to some other forms of communication, the “social media”… Mind you, literature is a form of communication too.

 

DM: A communication into and out of the present. I don’t think it would be a leap to claim that your texts are written for many of the Russian authors that you’ve referenced in your prose (Daniil Kharms, Yuri Olesha, Petrov and Ilf, etc.). The following question isn’t fair because a novelist is a novelist, not a sibyl. That said: how do you imagine your future readers? Can you? It seems to me that authors of the past could still assume, or hope for, a future audience. Your recent essays are pessimistic about these prospects, for reasons including the changes in language mentioned above.

DU: I like to quote other writers: it’s a form of saying “thank you” to those who made your day or days, or who are part of your permanent library, your cultural baggage. I especially like to do that with the writers who are unjustly forgotten or simply unread. That’s the case with Olesha and Ilf and Petrov; Daniil Kharms is another story. I think that today, for instance, he doesn’t need help: his audience is growing. It is difficult to quote Joyce or Virginia Woolf because they are over-quoted. It’s also a way of doing justice, even if it’s a small, even unnoticeable one. It’s a modernist approach to literature: keeping in touch with your ancestors. My ancestors were writers, philosophers, filmmakers, and painters. My little niece will have her ancestors. She recently quoted the wisest of Smurfs, who apparently said: “We are just little blue dots in the world.” I liked that one; I might steal this item from her cultural baggage.

I imagine my future readers as weird young people who could be compared with today’s passionate fans of silent movies. There are not many such people, but they do exist. Things come back, as it happened with opera, for instance. Opera is in, again. We never know what will happen in the future. I might one day gain readers among Croats, Bosnians, and Serbs, for instance. Or have a couple of fans in India. The “business of literature” is ultimately not about an author’s vanity, but about communication. Both individuals, the author and her reader, long for that particular, creative, inventive realm of communication called literature.

We should remember here at least two titles, which have imagined the future of books unforgettably. One of them is a monument in the literary landscape, the novel Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal (masterfully translated by Michael Henry Heim). It’s the best book about books that I know of. The second one is Ray Bradbury’s intelligent and novelistic critique of television, Fahrenheit 451, which could be easily updated for our time… Instead of ancient, heavy, and immobile TV sets, we got new, light, and mobile electronic toys.

 

DM: One assurance for the continued survival of Too Loud a Solitude in English is Michael Henry Heim’s extraordinary version. Heim translated several of your books, but was also a fellow Slavist and friend. How did you get to know him?

DU: I met Michael in Zagreb, where he was a guest for a series of literary talks. This was a long time ago, before the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Later, we met on many occasions. I was Michael’s and Priscilla’s guest at their home in Los Angeles on several occasions. Thanks to Michael, I got to teach a creative writing course for three months at UCLA. I was lucky to know him. He was a wonderful person, translator, and educator. There was so much goodness in him! Our collaboration over the years was quite extensive.

The relationship between translator and writer is extremely interesting, especially when it comes to translations from smaller languages. If I belonged to a bigger literature, were I an American or English writer, for example, I probably wouldn’t be unhappy about not seeing my work appear in lesser-used languages. But for someone who writes in a small language and who comes from a cultural environment polluted by nationalism and other forms of exclusion (gender exclusion, for instance), to have one’s work translated into a foreign language and evaluated by readers abroad is a matter of survival. It feels like oxygen: a writer starts to breathe!

 

DM: What is the ideal relationship between an author and her translator?

DU: I don’t believe in the “strictly professional” relationship between an author and her translator. Ideally, their interactions should resemble a special, platonic love affair: it should be passionate, gentle, and humane. When a translator’s good, she knows her writer better than just about anyone else. This is certainly true of my translators, who know how I breathe and think. That deeper familiarity makes the two parties dependent on one another. It might be comparable to the dependency between a patient and her psychotherapist. A therapist might take a fee from his patient, a patient might pay for the therapist’s services, but this camouflaged professionalism that doesn’t exclude love, dependency, fear of being abandoned, jealousy, and deep compassion. Both parties work equally hard at the same thing: a literary text. Translators are co-writers. The stakes are very high. I have been in that role on several occasions; I haven’t translated much, just a few things from Russian to Croatian, but I know how difficult the translator’s task is. And because I have that knowledge, I respect, like, and love my translators much more than those writers who do not have any experience translating. I owe my translators—it’s such a deep feeling, like I owe them my life.

 

DM: The discovery of Kafka seems to have been vital to many of your contemporaries in Central Europe. Where and when did you first discover his work?

DU: In the small place where I grew up, there was a library with only one employee, Margita. She was not a trained librarian, I don’t think, because she acted quite strangely. She gave me Kafka’s The Metamorphosis when I was a little girl, claiming: “You must read this. It’s a book about a guy who becomes an insect!” I read Kafka in high school and again as a freshman in comparative literature. I remembered Margita much, much later, when I wanted to find out what “morphs” are. I watched an American TV show for teenagers and there, in some high school, in literature class, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis made an appearance to introduce a popular “morphing theme.” It’s time for me to read Kafka again. He has been a cult writer for a long time: a modernist cult, a postmodernist cult, a cult of literary theory, even a cult of popular culture. He’s been read and reread zillions of times. It will be nice to see whether the magic still works!

 

 A copy of Michael Henry Heim's English translation of Bohumil Hrabal's  Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age  signed, in French, by Hrabal "à Madame  Dubravka,  cordialement, Berlin 15.11.96." Courtesy of  Dubravka Ugrešić .

A copy of Michael Henry Heim's English translation of Bohumil Hrabal's Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age signed, in French, by Hrabal "à Madame Dubravka, cordialement, Berlin 15.11.96." Courtesy of Dubravka Ugrešić.

DM: My apologies for concluding the interview in this fashion, but you’re a native of the Balkans and so I can’t help wondering: what’s the most flattering toast you’ve ever received?

DU: I don’t know how flattering it was, but it was definitely the most unusual one! A long time ago, I visited Tbilisi, Georgia. Georgians are the masters of the extravagant toast. There are people called tamadas, toast-givers. A tamada is in charge of maintaining elevated spirits during the meal. After we drank to our homelands, to our parents and children, to our past, present, and future, the tamada suggested a toast in my honor. And he said: “I am drinking this glass to your death!” Everybody at the table suddenly became silent. “May you,” he boomed, “die at the age of 135 at the hands of your jealous lover!” As you see, we are again in the realm of literature. A good tamada is a good writer. And sometimes a good writer makes a good tamada—like Bohumil Hrabal, for instance, who, until his last moment, wrote to the joys of life. His prose can be read as a toast to the glories of living.

 

Dubravka Ugrešić is the author of several works of fiction and essay collections. She went into exile from Croatia after being labeled a witch for her anti-nationalistic stance during the Yugoslav war. She now resides in the Netherlands.

Daniel Medin, Co-editor of Music & Literature, is an associate professor of comparative literature and English at the American University of Paris.