Taking Offense: A Re-Examination of a Negative Review
When a Bulgarian book is published in the US, this is an event. An event – not so much because it is of great consequence or marks a conquest, but because it happens rarely. A blank space on the US edition of the European cultural map, in the last few years Bulgaria has been striving to fill the gap with a number of novels, whose translations have been supported by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and published by Open Letter. The most recent offspring of this joint venture is Albena Stambolova’s Everything Happens As It Does.
Stambolova’s first novel originally appeared twelve years ago. A literary event in too literal a sense, it was welcomed by the literary circles and remained unnoticed by the wider reading public. Scandalously alienated from the local context, the novel stood as a white crow among the books of the period, as if holding a golden share of contemporary Bulgarian literature, rather than its controlling interest. As if the novel itself impersonated its protagonist Maria, untouchable yet holding the power to affect others, while ignoring the rules and breaking the codes in favor of a deeper or a different truth.
It should be noted that contemporary Bulgarian fiction is predominantly confessional and memoir-oriented. Virginia Zaharieva, whose 9 Rabbits recently appeared both in the UK (Istros Books) and in the US (Black Balloon Publishing), Georgy Gospodinov, a supernova at home and abroad, published here by the Dalkey Archive Press, Alek Popov (Istros), Theodora Dimova and others – have all capitalized on personal sharing. The effect is realistic, psychologically saturated narratives, reinforced by thick social ropes. Albena Stambolova’s novel does not seem to know or care about such a normative idiom. Her book satisfies native readers who are ready to put aside their all too local horizon, not least because of their familiarity with certain western narrative models, French in the first place -- Camus, Duras, Butor, Sarraute, Simon, the early Perec -- but also Italian -- Buzzati, Moravia, Calvino.
Stambolova’s degree zero writing relies on a neutral style stripped of psychological and social descriptions. Her initial claim that all stories are love stories seems to be barely -- or, perhaps, defiantly -- supported by a narrative that abstains from naming feelings at all. Readers are invited to get rid of expectations such as the notion that a novel always implies full-blooded exuberance. Performatively replicating its main characters, the book hates to pose, impose or inveigle, it invites and guides but also demands work; not necessarily the effort of decoding, but rather that of empathy, of giving, of yielding and trust, of following and responding. The difficulties such a strategy might pose come from the book’s reluctance to give in to interpretation. The readers would either credit it with trust, or they would opt out of its game. The book’s interpretive resistance also implies that the critic has to look for adequate language, for an alternative, descriptive approach, rather than an analytical one, and read the novel as an accomplice rather than a mere observer. If one lets oneself be carried by the tide of the book, chances are, one would reach the other bank of the river: an adventure worth undertaking.
These preliminary remarks were provoked by John Wilmes's review of the book for Bookslut. Wilmes sweeps away Stambolova’s novel as another example of Dreadful Minimalism (his capitalization). He sees the characters as being entangled in the web of narrative non-conflict fatalism conveyed to us in the title. Wilmes criticizes Stambolova for lack of energy in failing to make the novel’s universe less didactic, or her puppet characters more fleshy and veritable, as well as for some general “lack of zest, panache, bluster, warmth and life”. He dismisses the book’s “anti-style” as betraying an author who is afraid to take a risk, be it the risk of entertaining or of showing the color of her humanity, her true, weird and shaggy self -- instead of her learned craft, her borrowed morals or ideology.
It is strange to object that fish is fish, i.e. that it smells and tastes like fish. The fact that one feels like having energy-packed and ragged pork does not mean that there is something fishy about fish. Critical ethics requires responding to art works on their own terms and within their own logic; in this case, it would require providing a reading of the book instead of pining for other books’ rubicund realism. Isn’t it blatantly naive to keep believing that realism as a linguistic art form has to do with natural, spontaneous and “true” state of affairs, presented in an unlearned, non-crafted and non-borrowed manner? Art is artificial and to keep an eye -- our eye -- on this fact is the art’s way of being authentic and true.
But there is something more. One wonders if John Wilmes would exhibit so much loathing for knowledge and craft if his was a review of a French or a German novel. He is possibly disappointed that a novel coming from Bulgaria does not replay some default Balkan exoticism. He obviously covets the body, its lower part, flesh, blood, sex, madness in a work that is too cerebral, too unbearably overproduced to qualify for properly Bulgarian or genuinely Balkan.
A fair response would take under consideration what the book gets rid of, why it sacrifices certain things and what it does with the remaining devices. Written in a period called the Transition (somewhat of a euphemism for a time of enormous social, political, economic and criminal turmoil), the book deliberately ignores the mundane aspects of life. Relying on characters rather than on the plot, in a somewhat Brechtian way, the narrative prevents psychological identification. The discourse is clean, calm, cold and controlled; its enunciation is ascetic, diligently deprived of epithets, metaphors, and other emotive imagery. Such purity might leave the wrong impression of simplicity or sterility. Wilmes’s review slips in both directions. For him, such asceticism betrays fear rather than self-confidence – a rigid but hardly a rigorous viewpoint. To be sure, the very act of waiving certain instruments does not prove efficiency, nor is it an achievement in itself. Such a cloth-stripping, bridge-burning approach should justify itself as being productive and meaningful.
The novel harkens to the genre of the fairy tale, where, ever since Propp, we have come to expect characters to be reduced to mere functions of the plot. Things happen to characters for no obvious reason, but magic put things back into place in the end, thus implying a moral. By applying the Deus ex Machina principle, a fairy tale is necessarily allegorical, but cramming narratives into morals is hardly easy, as the proliferation of readings on any single tale would prove.
Stambolova’s characters also get together and split for reasons that are beyond their control and beyond the exigencies of the conventional realistic idiom. Both the plot and the characters are in the grips of a superior power, presumably that of the author, the ultimate Deus ex Machina in a conte philosophique such as this one.
In Stambolova’s novel, however, the fairy tale principle of distribution of power is more elaborate. The characters are functions of the plot, but they control the act of narration. Every short chapter articulates the perceptual viewpoint of a single character. By a kaleidoscopic rotation of perceptions the narrative evolves, culminates and eventually comes to an end. There is no dialogue or interpersonal conflict presented from the outside. The omniscient narrator has free access to every single mind, yet has no personal voice; its only function is to articulate, to voice those perceptions. In effect, the narrator is a function of the narration, the narration articulates the characters, the characters are controlled by the plot, and the plot depends on a Deus ex Machina principle that ostensibly carries through the author’s message. Thus, paradoxically, the omniscient narrator should be both the most powerful and the most dependent figure here. I shall come back to this point, after shedding some light on the characters.
At first, almost all protagonists appear to be special, extraordinary, unique. The fact that the exceptional characters outnumber the more conventional ones does not come as a surprise in a fairy tale. All characters overcome their functional reductionism by becoming aware of the self-deceptive inauthenticity of their public roles. While they possess social status and roles, and skillfully wear their masks, we are persuaded that these attributes are not essential, that the characters are hideing more authentic faces below. In the end, all characters overcome their common error -- that of remaining faithful to their personalities, i.e. to their thoughts and beliefs rather than to their destiny, to their mission, which is at odds with their illusionary purposes.
What surprises, however, is the fact that all characters, even the most mysterious ones, fall into patterns. Both Maria and Boris refuse to adhere to stereotypes of normal human behavior. They would rather control the others and the plot than vice/versa. They do what they want and the others adjust. The death of these two mysterious characters is meant to bring relief and emancipation to their loved ones. Both Maria and Boris drop from the social order and are doomed to die. Ultimately, however, their waywardness also reduces them to a pattern. One would expect that the mystery would be kept to the end and at least Maria would remain perceptually accessible only from without. As for Boris, he is practically abandoned after the beginning of the novel, only to be seen mingling with the others moments before he leaves, obviously heading to his death. However, before her death, the narrator penetrates Maria’s mind, while her alter ego, Margarita, reaches the invisible inner Boris through his ability to tell stories, fairy tales. It turns out that both characters are not that untouchable.
The second pattern is the one of the losers. Philip and his son Valentine are a bit too normal, i.e. reflexive characters involved in vain attempts to understand others and themselves. They make mistakes and fail, but eventually both endure insights and repentance and humbly accept life’s authority. They, who had abandoned their own kids, now choose to take care of the children of others. The initial impression is that these characters are punished because of their vain rationality. Yet, what the book actually achieves is to loosen the radicalism of the ascetics, while compromising the resoluteness of the rationalists. Ultimately, both groups abandon their rigidity and come to terms with each other.
There is another group that also endures a metamorphosis. The technocrats hide themselves behind shells of exact and efficient expertise. Due to the incorporation of the pattern of the Christmas miracle, they also experience revelations, which change them. Fanny, Mister V. and Madame crack their shells and accept alternative forms of life, suggested or brought about by others.
Thus, the descriptive mystics, the analytic losers and the transfigured technocrats appear to come together in their shared acceptance of the miracle of life, which summons people in an unpredictable manner. Here is also the Proteus figure of the mediator between the three worlds, Margarita, who emerges as an autistic piano genius, grows to be a caring sister, and ends up as a link between her emancipated family and the family of the newborn technocrats. All the characters experience a kind of Christmas epiphany whose miracle does not last, yet provides them with an insight about dying or living together.
When a novel evolves as a Deus ex Machina fairy tale, i.e. as an extended fable with a moral, chances are it works as an allegory with a message. The author herself is eloquent about the concept of the book. She claims that both her characters and her story resist interpretation, as if “things happen and are then rationalized in two parallel worlds”. There is a contention in favor of description over analysis and Maria, the protagonist, is its main proponent. Stambolova sees the carnivalesque experience of Christmas Eve as “a turning point, which turns the characters into their opposites”, as “they communicate with a certain dark, unknown part of themselves that makes them act in an unknown hitherto manner: as if everyone’s unconscious is exorcised and demystified and ceases to be beyond their conscious reach.” Therefore, “in the second part, the characters already know what is to love and to be free, as the young grow up by facing their fears and overcoming them. Real life commences beyond fairy tales and at that point the novel ends.”
Albena Stambolova’s approach to her own book puts together the fairy tale and the psychoanalytic aspect of her narrative, visible particularly in the fact that the characters’ desire is an alienated agency, as it is in mythology. My reading follows the author’s prescriptions but reaches a different conclusion.
According to Stambolova, this is a book about the revelation provoked by two events: Christmas Eve and the Mother’s death. The characters experience a metamorphosis, allowing them to face aspects of their personalities that they had not experienced before. There is a lawyer who rediscovers his wife and TV shows; there is a snow princess that gets involved with the family of a baby orphaned after the mother’s death; there are personal integrities restored and faces regained, etc. Yet an epiphanic reading of the book inevitably lands in a predicament.
The novel’s unfolding follows the fairy tale model of calm diegesis, of dispassionate epic description. The characters’ inner life is depicted without judgement, which does not preclude punishment. Yet one would expect that when an epiphany takes place, the narration would reflect it. However, in Everything Happens As It Does there is no change whatsoever in the manner of telling. The same unconditional parataxis, persistently deprived of emotional decoration, the same monotonous decorum continues up to the end of the novel. Furthermore, the narrator seems to have lost her access to the inner worlds of her characters; in effect, the narration leans towards a more objective observation of the characters’ transformations, but neither the tone nor their actions sustain such a suspicion. On the contrary: the protagonists prove to possess elasticity that brings them back to their pre-Christmas condition. We are told that Philip has overcome his daemons, that Valentine prepares the baby’s food and that all are less afraid of life. But we don’t see them more enlightened, more insightful. They succumb to Maria’s wisdom and instead of grasping reality in an inevitably violent interpretation, they yield to the immensity and imminence of life. The actual revelation, then, is that there is nothing to be revealed beyond the necessity to respond to a life that is always about to come yet bruised by the past. This carefully enacted anticlimax of the book’s finale contains the genuine message of this novel, whose epiphanic solace proves ephemeral and vain.
At the end of the day, all characters – non-conformists, conformists and self-destructive losers -- not only come together, but start resembling each other, not by dint of some revelation, but because of a natural process of assimilation and sympathy, because communication puts them on the same level and domesticates them. The three groups of characters come together, mingle and find themselves entangled, but not in a transformative way. The real power of the book comes from the way it performs its triple climax of carnivalesque overturn, transgression and revelation as a trinity of failures. The discursive serenity and the wise imperturbability revoke the romantic wish for epiphany, revelation, and insight. This has nothing to do with disruption or debunking, with subversion or dismantling; this is not a deconstruction in the masculine manner. A hitherto surreptitious feminine perspective unveils itself: it simply brings to an end the contradictory aspect of the fairy tale by revealing its crucial disturbing paradox: that its narration dissolves its fairy aspect, that miracles and magic always abate in weddings -- this is the fairy tale’s, the romance’s and comedy’s version of tragedy’s closing removal of the bodies.