One of my very favorite authors died on Nov 30 at age 80. The New York Times is just reporting it now. This seems significant somehow; after releasing his best-selling debut novel, Pavic faded from view more and more. Update: nice obit in the Guardian.
From Pavic's website:
"I have not killed anyone. But they have killed me. Long before my death. It would have been better for my books had their author been a Turk or a German. I was the best known writer of the most hated nation in the world - the Serbian nation....
I think God graced me with infinite favor by granting me the joy of writing, and punished me in equal measure, precisely because of that joy perhaps."
I read "A Dictionary of the Khazars" in high school. I vividly recall buying it with my Sbarro paycheck and devouring it like honey from the comb. The book was written in the form of a dictionary with Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sections. It came in a male and female edition, which differed by one paragraph.
The excellent translation is by Christina Pribicevic-Zoric:
ATEH (from "The Red Book, Christian Sources on the Khazar Question")
the Khazar princess whose role in the polemic concerning the Khazars' conversion was decisive. Her name is taken to be the term for the Khazars' four states of consciousness. At night she wore a single letter on each eyelid, inscribed as are those put on the eyelids of horses before a race. The letters came from the proscribed Khazar alphabet, in which each letter kills as soon as it is read. They were written by blind men, and the ladies-in-waiting shut their eyes when they attended to the princess in the morning, before her bath. Thus, she was protected from her enemies while she slept. This, for the Khazars, was the time when a person is most vulnerable. Ateh was a beautiful and pious woman, and the letters suited her perfectly. Seven kinds of salt stood on her table at all times, and she would always dip her fingers in a different salt before taking each piece of fish. This was the way she prayed.
Pavic was the real deal. He didn't write in game forms because he wanted to be tricky or cool or the "bad boy" of the literary scene. He wrote that way because he had to: it was the form that his material demanded.
I used to make my writing students read this (vaguely Engrish) essay about how he wanted to make writing a "reversible art," able to be viewed from many directions like sculpture or architecture. He wanted novels to be like houses, places you could spend time in. He believed in making the reader collaborate in the process of art-making, because, "There are many more gifted readers than there are gifted writers."
My brother shared my love of Pavic, and together we read his next three books, Landscape Painted With Tea, written in the form of a crossword puzzle (hardcover art was much better, but I can't find it online):
The Inner Side of the Wind, in which the book may be read front to back for Hero's side of the story, or flipped over and read back to front for Leander's, the two stories meeting in the middle:
and Last Love in Constantinople, written in the form of a tarot deck, and designed to be read in whatever order the cards (Major Arcana only) are cast:
The books seemed to become less successful, darker, and more diffuse as time went on. I don't know whether this is due to Pavic's move further and further "out" in the direction of reversibility or to other pressures. I hope he knew how much he gave to the world through his unflinching commitment to truth and his search for the future of the novel.The ending of Dictionary of the Khazars made me cry. Pavic seemed to be speaking directly to me when he said:
Let that lovely woman with the quick eyes and the languid hair who, in reading this dictionary and running through her fear as through a room, feels lonely, do the following. On the first Wednesday of the month, with the dictionary under her arm, let her go to the tea shop in the main square of town. Waiting for her there will be a young man who, like her, has just been overcome with a feeling of loneliness, wasting time by reading the same book. Let them sit down for a coffee together and compare the masculine and feminine exemplars of their books...the book will fit together as a whole, like a game of dominoes, and they will need it no longer. Then let them give the lexicographer a good scolding, but let them be quick about it in the name of what comes next, for what comes next is their affair alone, and it is worth more than any reading.
I see how they lay their dinner out on top of the mailbox in the street and how they eat, embraced, sitting on their bicycles.