- Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel in 100,000 Words by Milorad Pavic, translated by Christina Pribicevic-Zoric
Hamish Hamilton, 338 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 241 12658 4
According to Apuleius, Pleasure is the daughter of Cupid and Psyche – of Love and the Soul, that is, a sufficiently elevated pedigree, one would have thought. Yet the British still put up a strong resistance to the idea that pleasurability might be a valid criterion in the response to literature, just as we remain dubious about the value of the ‘decorative’ in the visual arts. When Graham Greene made ‘entertainments’ a separate category from the hard stuff in his production, he rammed home the point: the difference was a moral one, a difference between reading to pass the time pleasurably – that is, trivially – and reading to some purpose.
The ‘great tradition’ does not brook even the possibility of libidinal gratification between the pages as an end in itself, and F.R. Leavis’s ‘eat up your broccoli’ approach to fiction emphasises this junkfood/wholefood dichotomy. If reading a novel – for the 18th-century reader, the most frivolous of diversions – did not, by the middle of the 20th century, make you a better person in some way, then you might as well flush the offending volume down the toilet, which was by far the best place for the undigested excreta of dubious nourishment.
The Yugoslav writer Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars is an exercise in a certain kind of erudite frivolity that does not do you good as such, but offers the cerebral pleasure of the recognition of patterning afforded by formalism, a profusion of language games, some rude mirth. In culinary terms, the book is neither tofuburger nor Big Mack, but a Chinese banquet, a multiplicity of short narratives and prose fragments at which we are invited, not to take our fill, but to snack as freely or as meagrely as we please on a wide variety of small portions of sharply flavoured delicacies, mixing and matching many different taste sensations. In other words, it is not like a novel by Penelope Lively. It will not set you up; nor will it tell you how to live. That is not what it is for.
The mother-type of these feast-like compilations is The Arabian Nights Entertainment – note the word ‘entertainment’. That shambolic anthology of literary fairy-tales linked by an exiguous narrative was originally, and still is, related to the folk-tale of peasant communities and its particular improvisatory yet regulated systems of narrative. The whole of Dictionary of the Khazars is a kind of legendary history, and some of the individual entries have considerable affinities to the folk-tale (‘The Tale of Petkutin and Kalina’ in the section called ‘The Red Book’, for example): but I suspect, not so much the influence of an oral tradition – though that’s still possible in Yugoslavia – as the influence of an aesthetic owing a good deal to Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the FolkTale, first published in Russia in 1928.
Propp’s thesis is that the traditional fairytale is not composed, but built up out of discrete narrative blocks that can be pulled down again and reassembled in different ways to make any number of other stories, or can be used for any number of other stories in combination with other narrative blocks. That is partly why there is no place for, nor possibility of, inwardness in the traditional tale, nor of characterisation in any three-dimensional way. If the European novel of the 19th and 20th centuries is closely related to gossip, to narrative arising out of conflicted character, then the folk-tale survives, in our advanced, industrialised, society, in the anecdote. Gossip would say: ‘You know the daughter of that bloke at the “Dog and Duck”? Well ...’ An anecdote might begin: ‘There was this publican’s daughter, see ...’ In our culture, the folk-tale survives in the saloon bar.
A traditional storyteller does not make things up afresh, except now and then, if the need arises. Instead, he or she selects, according to mood, whim and cultural background, the narrative segments that feel right at the time from a store acquired from a career of listening, and reassembles them in attractive, and sometimes new, ways. And that’s how formalism was born. (Italo Calvino, the most exquisite of contemporary formalists, is also, it should be remembered, editor of the classic collection of Italian fairy-tales.)
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