Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The room temperature has dropped suddenly, so I write to warm up, no reason more, no reason less. That's what it has come to in recent weeks. I have begun to admit it, firstly to myself and then to others, to concerned others. I am not writing.

Distractions are so easy. In the new apartment, there are a million things ways not to write. I command pointless trawls of wikipedia, upload definitive blogrolls of those writing on Ballard or Sebald, sign in to new social networking phenomena, write to old friends, update the CSS of my music sites, port writing to new platforms, expunge old email contacts lists... anything not to write whilst at the computer.

Within the flat itself there are also these glorious distractions. Every meal takes twice as long as it might, I pay particular care to washing up everything twice. I organise the books on the shelves by height or colour, or date read. Recycling takes on an autistic, obsessive trait as I develop new means of efficiency, new processes of separation and storage. Things need cleaning, beds need making, clothes need ironing. Who was doing these things before, before when I was working sixteen hours a day? How did I even find time to get dressed? Now I stay awake till four in the morning, waking early to the alarm call of builders sawing, drilling and shouting.

So what I am not doing, is writing. Kis' Hourglass is finished however (being read, not written – I cannot lay claim to ghostwriting the already-published novels of one of the greatest ever Serbo-Yugoslav novelists). It has been an uncomfortable trajectory this book, having begun it before work began to take over my life, then losing it when recommencement seemed on the cards. But, finally, we are through, pushed over the threshold by an engaging conversation with a new Serbian friend last night, who gave me pages of names to research and read in the future.

Certain things will remain with me from Hourglass, even if it did not have the impact of A Tomb For Boris Davidovich. (That is, of course, what happens when you read the third episode of a triptych in isolation from its prior segments). It is a book that exists in the margins, an encampment upon some hostile no-man's-land of possible routes to death. At each turn, the characters are presented with an entirely easy, plausible and tragic way of dying. Think of the five pages the reader is faced with upon reading the question What acquaintances had the two men in common?. A list appears from the fog, five or six pages of solid, unbroken text with each acquaintance listed in a sentence along with the tragedy or act of hope that befell them. Hundreds of names scroll past one's hungry and fearful eyes, each one a life, each one so beautifully formed that they exist already as novels elsewhere, on some other border, in some other incarnation.

For instance, think of

Mr. Ivan Popov, cafe owner, whose wife in a fit of madness had served him an unplucked chicken, from which she removed only the eyes with knitting needle, and who had been so terrified that he had tried to eat the chicken, feathers and all, and choked to death;


Mr. Marton Barabas, a former football coach who had stopped stuttering when his son was born;

or simply

Mr. Osip Nezmecic, scissors grinder, who had become a priest.

Each sentence a darting arrow, each name an echo into some other life. And Kis develops them all and then abandons them all to tragedy, mistake or the performative horror of not knowing. The interrogative style of the narrative that dominates the majority of the book starts off as a game, a teasing out of facts, irrelevant and not, by an unseen interlocutor. But the replies of the interviewee take a different course after some time, as the questions and the answers cease to be about a third person, cease to be about E.S.. The questions begin to be addressed to E.S., begin to be answered by E.S., confirmed now as the main protagonist. So an act of research and narratorial drive begins to be an act of aggression and invasion that we have been party to, that we rely on. Even when E.S. pleads over and over I am tired, the need for a story is relentless and does not let up.

Interesting too, the photographs and how they are examined. At moments, still two-dimensional scenes are narrated, usually in response to a request for a description of a photograph from the interviewer. As the description unfolds, the cinema of Kis' writing begins to unfold and things in the picture, without comment, begin to move, suddenly we can see round corners, beyond the turn in the bay, the expressions of those turning away from the lens. Kis weaves time into space, giving everything a framework that measures up against either the war years or the pitiful, ominous location of Novi Sad.

Now however, I return to wasting my time. Perhaps to my own lists, to a deal of administration and an attempt to provoke some form of movement towards the writing of my own novel. Still, there is much to come and daily I realise what a pitiful attempt to unconsciously mimic its influences it is. But I will finish it, for the sake of finishing and for the sake of the housework, no more of which would be normal to do.

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