Drunk and Sober Reflections on Reading
by Justina Dobush
Translated from the Ukrainian by Yulia Lyubka
What is left with us after we have read a book? Is it a memory without any practical appliance, names and dates, stories you will never become a part of or ideas you will never think of? Books are the infinity of human lives, which crave for being remembered. It is the only possible way to preserve every second and each personality in its incredibility. And how much sense and beauty of literature is in this gathering of all those people together, so that no story was lost, so that everybody could continue living their habitual lives over and over again, squeezed on the pages of some book. And good that they are not aware of it, for none of us can be sure that we are not a product of somebody’s imagination put into the pages of a novel.
I have been trying to understand them for so long and here they are, all in front of me. So small and yet so gigantic at the same time, they stand next to each other. They all pulsate, each having its own heartbeat, arterial blood pressure — the pressure of its inner atmosphere. They glitter with colors, blend into one, scatter and overflow. The first one develops into the following one, and the next one ends in the middle of another. For where there is one human life, hundreds of others begin to live. It does not matter what each of them is about. The author is not of much importance either. But what really matters are all the small letters and words in which all human existence drifts. Only words and nothing else. All in all, we do not exist until the moment somebody outlines us with at least a single word. We are just another species of mammals as long as we are not given a name. The essence of every one of us lies in words only. We will never be able to see ourselves in full for a reason. We are only a reflection in the mirror, screen, or windowpane. We are always just a stain from dirty fingers on the light switches. We are always just a footprint in the mud. We are always just the sound of our own larynx. We are always just a photo of somebody. And there is some sort of inconceivable intrigue in it: you can never see yourself fully. Perhaps, literature manages to reflect us in the best way, it describes us to the full. Only in literature we can draw ourselves or find ourselves exactly the way we need. After all, literature gives us this gracious moment of seeing ourselves and the whole world that cannot fit in our own pupils. It collects all that time which cannot occur on the dials of our clocks. Because one life will never be enough to cognize all people and the whole world, to see all possible scenarios we did not choose. Through literature we write letters to ourselves. We read them to never write back, as if every time we send ourselves some reflection from the future to correct all mistakes, but apparently, we never do that.
We live in books and consider them to be parts of our lives. Every one of them requires particular reading, each work needs a specific type of attention, tempo and intonation. It always seems to me (and not only to me) that something happened to reading itself. It lost its original sense, or we lost some initial component which made this process a true union with words and their meanings. Could it be due to the digital era that changed everything, the industrial revolution, or, perhaps, capitalism? Or have we always been so kind and evil at the same time? I am not talking about the number of books we read (something older people always complain about when trying to outline the younger generation and its stupidity). I am talking about our reviews and reflections on what we read (thanks to social networks we can find a lot of them nowadays). And in these reflections, we either show that our reading and the books are a fetish, or, acting pseudo-intellectuals, we try to offend and cut up each book (even those which have not been written yet). And this second type sometimes seems scary to me and causes a lot of questions.
Have you noticed, how within the course of time a reader turned from an ordinary consumer to the one who laid down the rules? How did we end up demanding from literature to be an accurate product, as if it were some synthetic clothing or cheap IKEA furniture? When did we realize that we could dictate the author how to write, what to write and who to write about? Why did we change? How did the author's death turn into reader's triumph and audacity? Why did we start to perceive literature as business? Could money spoil this sophisticated industry, like everything else they touched? Maybe I have too many questions, but I lack explanations whenever I look for them. So in order not to distort my thoughts, I will write them in questions. Why do Ukrainians believe that contemporary Ukrainian literature is worse than modern American literature, when they did not read a single page and did not do any detailed comparative analysis of any of them? Why do readers believe that the writer wrote a bad book, because he decided to resurrect characters from his previous book in the new one? Why do we read separate paragraphs, and not books in full (as well as the long articles, after all)? Why do we reflect on a separate passage of a book, and do not try to find out the book’s main intention? Why did we stop discussing what this or that very book meant for us? Why are we afraid to admit that a young Ukrainian author impressed us as much as a French classic author of the 19th century? Why are we afraid to talk pathetically about books? Why are we so afraid to praise the authors? Why did we become so critical and skeptical? Why do we read books, if we say that they are not good enough afterwards? Why do we confide in scornful thoughts about literature heard from other people's mouths? Why can't we trust our own mind and our own impressions when reading a book? Why do you need to consider the author's origin and the language he uses? Why do you no longer respect and perceive the book simply for what it is? And what if, according to the reader's behavior, the author could choose the audience and ban the sale of his books to a certain circle of readers? What would you feel if you heard the author saying, "you cannot read my book, you are not worth it"? Does it hurt? How would you feel if the writers forbade you to read their books, because you are not stylish enough? What if you were discriminated for being the Ukrainian reader? Imagine Stephen King prohibiting translation of his book into Serbian, because Serbians are "bastards and Russophiles" for him. Would it be OK? Would it be fair? So why do we think we can treat writers and their books like that?
Let me give you an example which made my disappointment grow to unprecedented proportions. A new book of the living classic author of contemporary Ukrainian literature is about to be published. Yuri Andrukhovych and his publisher announce the release of a brand-new book called "Lovers of Justice”. Ukrainian readers have been waiting for this event for long 7 years. But the problems appear as soon as the announcement is made, because the book itself is actually a collection of short stories, while the author calls it a para-historical novel having been written for as good as 27 years. Ukrainian readers had a chance to read some of its passages, i.e. short stories, earlier. All this information is indicated in the short announcements, numerous predictions and "reviews", which also point out that the stories are about villains, whom, allegedly but not for sure, the author wants to justify.
My first thought about the text was that I did not want to perceive its main characters, its topic and the image of the book in general the way it was presented by the author and his publisher. This image was more likely to interfere with me, so I had to meditate a little and enter the text apart from everything I have known about it so far. This was when all the beauty of this artwork revealed to me. For I did not look at it as at some historical interpretation of the lives of Galicia's best known (or even iconic) criminals, who were convicted and put to death. For me this is a mere image of Galicia’s worst traits. This is some kind of representation of mythical Galicia, this “land of milk and honey”, which is, in fact, the place one wants to flee from, because it is impossible to live there. It is all about endless gossip, hatred, thirst for sensations, and at the same time, the inability to bring matter to the end, the imagined heroism and so on. That is who is a true mistress of Justice. That is who was always left untouched by Justice (probably due to its indulgence, for they are mistresses). It is a lesbian love and that is where the book’s sexuality lies, for only women can work an angle so skillfully and thus take such a masterful revenge on men (for some reason, there are no women among the protagonists). Similarly, Galicia adapts itself to all possible state structures and its inhabitants do not hesitate to sentence to death all those who encroach to disturb balance and ecosystem of the place. Galicia goes down on her lover Justice in order to be able to exist in the cruel world of ever-peripheral and provincial land for the longest possible time.
Yet "Lovers of Justice" is also the world of absurd, because Justice cannot be the same for all (even Plato could not tackle it). So that is how main characters appear in the world of absurd and get doomed by default. For no argument is valid, when Justice took the other side. The question though is not whether convicts are worse scoundrels than Justice herself; the scoundrels here are neither criminals nor Justice, but the observers and witnesses of these processes of punishment and justification. After all, spectators allow Justice to kill and let perpetrators become who they are. Spectators believe that this absurd Justice is some kind of a supreme will and that its main dogmas cannot be questioned, because Justice has a divine origin. None of them has ever asked why scoundrels became scoundrels. Or why these are people who do not perceive any rules of obedience? And the essence of these stories is not to justify the convicts, but to show the duality and ambiguity of Justice and its fans regardless of any specific territory or any certain type of state structure. This absurdity and impossibility of Justice to be fair reveals the true irony of life. For whatever you do, if you do not obey the rules, the sentence will be sustained immediately.
And here is a guaranteed orgasm from the book, even though I have not seen any reader (including professional critics) who managed to dig more deeply into the book. It leads to the conclusion that the two weakest places of the book are the circumstances in which it appeared and its readers. After all, when it comes to a well-known author who has not published a new work for a long while, and whose PR-campaign was conducted on a very high level, readers begin to expect a miracle and, when this miracle comes out, they do not know how to decode it. They took the announcement at face value and consumed the book this way. Or they did not manage to understand it and that is why they picked it to pieces. The third option in the form of somebody’s personal vision and new interpretations was not spotted. Perhaps this is a problem of digital era and the distorted way of reading, the reader's triumph over the author or somebody’s jinx. And I'm not so sorry for the writers as for those readers who did not manage to discover literature for themselves in all its infinite number of alternative realities. And it seems like somebody played a cruel trick with the author who wrote about Justice and her lovers, and who eventually became her new victim, because most readers could not evaluate the book justly.
It seems to me so freaking selfish to demand from the book to always tell you something new and unique, to be absolutely unlike any other piece of literature, to bring claims, because a book can quite rightly blame you for the bigger faults. Basically, if you attribute features you do not possess to the book, if you do not know and do not want to immerse into it, to accept its minuses, it can only testify to the fact that you neither feel literature’s essence at large, nor understand any book in particular. Because literature, like any other world phenomenon, must have its flaws. It can be imperfect, because it is a human creation of its own image. If literature were perfect, then it would be a god. And so it is not. Then it turns out that when we boldly refuse to admit that literature permanently repeats itself, returns to the basics, and at the same time gives birth to so many sideslips, crazy, slimeballs, tyrants and dictators, we love and respect not literature as it is, but the product of our own imagination. We love the things that we made up, we adore ourselves. Although such behavior is quite predictable for a person, but doesn’t literature really deserve to finally be unconditionally loved? To fall in love with its inability to explain our existence, war, fratricide, genocide, suicide, death, injustice of the world, and the world itself in its essence. When we do not accept these sides (though it is our creation — the creation of our species) it turns out that we do not accept ourselves in our true essence. Over and over again.
So how about creating a literary movement against mean readers and reading rules imposed on us by our education system? And what if we released reading from all conventions, letting everyone read what they want, where they want and how they want? And let this movement's manifesto allow us to read a book when we know nothing about its author, let it allow us to disregard any chronology and the most popular works. Let this manifesto claim that there are no literary works or authors mandatory for reading, because only you decide who is worth your personal Nobel Prize in literature. Let this movement turn over the shelves of "recommended top 10 list" in bookstores. Let it deliberately make chaos in commercialized gigantic bookshop networks. Let this movement disrupt literature lessons and lectures in schools and universities. Let this movement’s manifesto contain grammatical errors and typos. To start reading books from middle chapters. To read philosophical works and non-fiction omitting footnotes. To use speed reading for Joyce's "Ulysses". To highlight your favorite pieces of the book with bright pens and markers. To tear out your favorite pages if needed. To keep books in the kitchen and loo. To steal books and present them to somebody for no reason. To make love on books and sniff cocaine from their covers. To wear clothes to match the book cover. To read aloud in public places. To allow yourself to ignore what others say when you read. To punch those who distract you from reading. To publicly say that you like Beigbeder and Paulo Coelho. To be brave enough to confess to writers that you masturbate while reading their books. To derail the round tables of annoying intellectuals who say that "nowadays young people do not read". To stop expecting anything from the writers. To use party literature of the Soviet Union as toilet paper. To defend your right to read literature of the rightists to the left-wingers, and the right to read literature of the left to the rightists. Not to belong to any political movement, except for the movement for free reading. Just imagine how beautiful the world of free reading would be then and, who knows, maybe then we could finally discover some form of the utopia.
I have to admit that I love books more than literature itself. There were so many loves and passions in my life, but I still only go crazy over books. No matter what the books are about, where or who I got them from, no matter if I can read, understand or accept them. They just have to be somewhere near, and this is the only thing that matters. I just have to know about their existence. So I could touch them sometimes and inhale the smell of dust from their yellowed pages. So I could feel the warmth of newly typed words, notice some failure of the printing press, which leaves scars where they do not have to be. So I could run my finger down the binder, hug the book so tightly that it would leave the sign on my chin. So I could cut my fingers to sharp pages of too thin sheets (because the publishing house tried to save on quality paper). So I could be angry with the poor type size, go blind from too white pages, so I could carry books of an "indecent" size in my bag like the Gutenberg's Bible, so I could feel back and neck pain and rejoice when my eyes burn and seem just about to pour out on the pages. So I could own the books, drag home all those abandoned books from the secondhand bookshops, like homeless cats. So I could wait for the new book releases, as if for the next Advent. So I could break into bookstores, knowing exactly where my cherished miracle will stand. So I could spend the last money on them, stoop the soles, slipping from one store to another, looking for something extraordinary. So I could discover my own Atlantis, when the rare book dealers show what seemed to have been lost for ages. And weep from happiness, because you love and you cannot live without each of them. And thank every one of them for their existence. You want to read them all and every day you curse the time for its elusiveness. You begin to believe in reincarnation, which gives a chance to beat the time. You shine with them, and they shine with you. And most of all, you are afraid to lose them and them alone, because you will definitely lose people, for they will not defeat the laws of physics, chemistry, biology and politics. But the books... they should live forever like the atlases holding the sky, like some silent witnesses of our lives, as notary officers, monks in the cells, chroniclers, the All-Wise, who remember all our mistakes and send us signs that we never notice. Just like our children, who will never grow and will not die sooner than us; as our sins, victories, secrets we keep silent about even in the moments of total solitude. We come and go, and they remain on guard for future generations to tell them about our foolishness, our weaknesses and strengths, our fears, dreams, happiness and joy, pain and despair. We go and they stay. We are one thing with different properties. We remain in them and they remain in us. Together we are immortal.
Author photo by Yura Futalo