A Very Short Novel, without Chapters, about Writing and Darkness
Where does all the writing come from? Is it divine inspiration, a bolt of lightning that reveals a whole new work in a single glimpse, or a unique gift granted by demonic forces to penetrate the darkness and see beyond it? Two fundamental principles of the most noble of all arts are in the permanent collision, surrounded by the contagious environment of the authors’ vanity, envy, malice.
“Ultimately, we’re not sure who the book’s title refers to: we could be reading the novelist’s work, or the narrator’s, or someone else’s entirely (and an ingenious textual feature serves to further complicate everything) […] Zivkovic suggests that the complex relationship between writer and reader can indeed get knotty to the point that a novel might as well have literally no one as its author.”
“This is Zivkovic at his funniest, a glorious satire on the pompous myopia of establishment novelists and their naturalistic art; but it is also an acute interrogation of the altogether dissimilar inspirational wellsprings of literary realism and of SF, the one too facilely direct, based in observation of the obvious and readily illuminated, the other dark, uncertain, challenging. The oneiric resolution of the SF writer’s tics and dilemmas is a surrealist tour de force.”
- Stubovi Kulture (Serbian, 1998)
- Polaris (Serbian, 2001)
- Polaris (English, 2002)
- Prime Books (English, US, 2003, hardcover, as a part of The Book / The Writer omnibus)
- Prime Books (English, US, 2003, softcover, as a part of The Book / The Writer omnibus)
- Laguna (Serbian, 2004, as a part of Knjiga / Pisac omnibus)
- 451 Editores (Spanish, 2007, as a part of The Book / The Writer omnibus)
- PS Publishing (English, UK, 2009, as a part of The Writer / The Book / The Reader omnibus)
- Zavod (Serbian and English, 2009, as a part of the Romani / Novels omnibus)
- Paideia (Serbian, 2009)
- Cadmus Press (English, Japan, 2017)
An excerpt, translated from the Serbian by Alice Copple-Tosic:
I switched on the computer.
First I pulled down the Venetian blind, of course. That was part of my morning ritual, and on sunny days like this one it has a practical function. Nevertheless, I also pull it down on cloudy days, superstitiously aiming for a continuity of ambience. My study looks to the east, and my desk faces a large window, so that, without the blind, I would have to squint and scowl until noon to see anything on the screen. This way there’s no squinting, but on cloudy days, for the sake of continuity of ambience, I strain my eyes in unnecessary semidarkness.
Not that I pull it all the way down. I leave a gap of about fifteen centimeters above the windowsill, so that sunshine reaches the area where it is definitely welcome: an eight-sided glass vessel, set in the window. That vessel, formerly a small aquarium, has been converted to serve as a flowerpot for a group of miniature cactuses, the kind with very small pink and white flowers. Light also slants through the narrow slits between the horizontal plastic bars, creating shimmering arabesques in the dusky air of the room. Even if I sat with my back to the window, I think I would keep the blind down at such times of day just to enjoy the transient play of bright and dark stripes on objects in the room. The peculiar impression of unreality thus created, one which (for reasons unknown to me) I find very stimulating, is enhanced by dust motes floating in the air, caught by diagonal beams of light. I know that some writers are not at all influenced by their immediate surroundings. For me, the ambient mood is almost everything.
The trouble, however, is that an appropriate ambience, while surely indispensable, is not sufficient for success in my work. If my environment alone mattered, I would have finished the book I am working on long ago. The environment being faultless, the book got stuck nevertheless—and near the end, at that. When I began to write it, I had the impression, without clearly knowing why, that the thing would be a novel. However, matters took a different turn: episodes succeeded each other, but with so few connecting points that, as the writing progressed, there appeared before me something which would be (at best) a collection of loosely linked stories. Definitely not a novel.
I do not, of course, have anything against collections of stories, nor do I consider them intrinsically less valuable than novels, yet there started to creep over me a feeling, if not of disappointment, then definitely of expectations imperfectly fulfilled. Yet I did not despair of turning it around: what I had written could still grow from a conglomerate into an amalgam, but for this to happen, one more chapter was needed, the closing one, which would grab those only seemingly heterogeneous episodes and weave them into a whole. Only my intuition told me, and only in whisper, that such a chapter was at all possible; but intuitions do not write, and that final chapter, required but by no means guaranteed, stubbornly refused to materialize.
I deliberately ascribe to that chapter the quality of volition, the ability to decide, quite independently of my wishes, whether it will or will not come into existence. I do this without any desire to undermine the proud authority over their own words to which certain other writers lay claim. Only in my own name do I speak, and solely on the basis of my personal experience of writing. In my case, the act of writing can hardly be called “creative”; I am, at best, perhaps an intermediary…
When I sit at the keyboard, I experience only the vague tension of a go-between who expects to be used, certainly no sense of divine inspiration, least of all a godly trance in which I might see the entirety of the work in a single, all-encompassing vision, and then just sit down to perform the necessary technical chores, to type it up. Nothing like that with me; rather the opposite.
At the outset, I face a wall of darkness. I have no idea what I will write about, what will pop up on the screen. And then, especially if the environment is perfect, sentences begin to well up spontaneously from that darkness, while I watch with growing impatience to see how the thing will come out. If there is any recognizable stimulus prompting me to go on, it is this reader-like curiosity.
When I am reading some exciting or otherwise interesting work, written by one of my colleagues of the keyboard, the same curiosity drives me to fly through the pages; but when I write, there is an unfortunate physical limitation which prevents me from satisfying that curiosity anything as fast as I want to. It is this: I type with only one finger—my right index finger—which, after decades of over-exploitation and maltreatment, has become markedly larger and more gnarled than its fellows.
Although I manage quite a respectable speed for one finger, the swiftness with which it flies from key to key is far from sufficient to cope with my impatience. Yet when I tried to use the fruits of modern technology and replace the keyboard with a dictaphone, so that I might improve my speed enormously by just saying out loud those sentences which spontaneously arise from the darkness—then nothing at all emerged. The silence was total, as unrelieved as it was mysterious.