on The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories by Ivan Vladislavić (Seagull Books/University of Chicago Press)
One day in 1992, Ivan Vladislavić looked at a photograph of Robert Walser lying dead in the snow. The picture was taken on Christmas day in 1956; Walser was 78. The image suggested a story to Vladislavić: “The writer on his last walk, a solitary Spaziergang through a winter landscape. He is going towards his favourite view, and he means to turn back once he has seen it, but he will die before he gets there. As if they know it, his last words are already on the wing, flocking around his steaming head like birds of passage.”
But he never wrote the story. Each unwritten poem, novel or story resists form for a unique reason – and yet, the ungestated poem is not a vanished one. Born in Pretoria, South Africa in 1957, Vladislavić has been anything but an unproductive writer. He has published five books of prose fiction since 1989, writes continuously on art and architecture, and is a magazine editor. But “there were hundreds of failed stories to choose from” while considering the topics for The Loss Library, his new book of eleven essays and short meditations.
The opening piece, “The Last Walk,” recalls what he initially noticed in the photograph of Walser – and the questions the picture seemed to raise about the circumstances of Walser’s sudden death, apparently by heart attack:
“He lies on his back, facing away from us, his bare head pillowed in the snow and turned to the left. His right hand rests on his chest, his left arm is outflung. Beyond this hand lies his hat, fallen from his head. If he was standing up in this attitude, you would think he had just tossed his hat into the air. But he is not standing up, he is lying there supine, with is head bared and his hat tiled on its brim, and nothing expresses the fact that he is dead more coldly than the space between the two.”
The hat agitates the would-be story writer. Rather than unmooring the writer into the flow of responsive words, the stark poignancy of the hat swells into its own subject. “The Last Walk” goes on to consider the presence of hats among photos of the newly deceased and killed – Serbs executed by German soldiers in 1941, Dorothea Lange’s and Andre Kertesz’s images (by way of fellow essayist Geoff Dyer) of skid row sleepers and a man in an overcoat in a snowy city park. The various perspectives of hats complicate his thoughts. The story could not be written because the branchings and conjunctions of the original material not only led elsewhere but also have greater appeal to a mind like Vladislavić’s. The unformed story spawns an essay with a taste for disclosing the stranger forms of reality.
Vladislavić is Croatian on his father’s side, Irish on his mother’s. He began publishing his stories just as South Africa was wrenching itself into a new republic. “A very fluid situation,” he said in an interview, “in which that large shape of a country begins to melt and shift shape.” As a younger writer, he was deeply influenced by Philip Roth’s editing of the “Writers From the Other Europe” series which introduced Milan Kundera, Bruno Schulz, Danilo Kis and others – writers who not only evoked his East European background, but who like many South African writers had been exiled and wrote in a tersely aloof manner about the harshness of “societies that transform rapidly.” One can hear those influences in Portrait With Keys, his prize-winning nonfiction work, where the disintegration of civil society in Johannesburg is pictured in telling detail and stitched into his memories of those changing streets.
But back to Walser. Now there is a second photograph, invalidating some of the earlier impressions. The hat is not so close to the head after all. There are onlookers. This is how The Loss Library proceeds, taking up the first impulse of a story, reexamining the premise and the materials, revealing the “cause” of the story’s un-presence. There is the story suggested by a British expedition to Komodo in 1926 to hunt dragon lizards – but writing sometimes feels like taking cheap shots: “What could be easier than judging our predecessors for the attitudes we no longer share with them? … The past is a sitting duck. Bringing it home for the pot does a writer no credit.”
There are stories for which the writer has no stamina, there are stories “talked away by their authors. Talking is easier than writing, and that is why so many stories are frittered away in conversation.” In “Dr T,” Vladislavić meditates on how we entrust our “papers” for posterity – and how lugubrious such piles become: “I cannot say that Dr T’s papers are not a burden, yet it has never occurred to me to return them to his heir. That would be a failure more complete than my inability to write his life story.” Some stories hover, helplessly static, between documentation and desire.
The one piece that does not provide the chilly excitement of loss is the title story. Here is a library of all the unwritten books – a Borgesian construction. One gets the point too readily. And yet even here, the “librarian” illuminates another reason for not writing: “These are the books that came to their authors in dreams and were forgotten in the light of day. These are the unwanted gifts.”
The Loss Library is a beautifully made book. Illustrations by Sunandini Bannerjee are tipped into the opening pages of chapters – their distortions, suggestions and incompletions complement the author’s intent and style. There is a sly slightness to the book, an airiness that inspires wonder about the elusive narratives all around us. Perhaps I have misjudged his essay “The Loss Library.” It could be that like the essay’s library visitor, we want most of all to lay our hands on the escapees.
[Published February 21, 2012. 112 pages, 22 plates. $25.00 hardcover]