Making Light of Death

Ambling through a park this morning I overheard someone employ the phrase ‘making light of death’. My thoughts turned, with inevitable haste, to Koira Jupczek’s excellent novel, Death Charts, one of the funniest books about suicide you’ll ever read (including Victor Pawski’s Two Thousand Tractors).

Jupczek’s novel is set in a private school somewhere in central Europe, the pupils and alumni of which are renowned for ending their lives in mysterious and amusing ways. The whole novel, of course, makes light of death, but it also features a character who aims to literally make light of death. Kisirov, a talented Russian student, is working on a contraption which will ‘turn his death rattle into energy: enough, he hopes, to power a small lightbulb’.

Common Knowledge

‘It is common knowledge, but it bears repeating. No one alive will ever be remotely qualified to talk about death. What we need is someone with real experience. What we get is a series of pointless stabs in the dark. It’s like asking an embryo to teach you to ride an elephant’ (Koira Jupczek)

Death is the Envelope…

‘Death is the envelope that seals the letter of life. You live when alive, but your “life” comes into force only when you are dead. Death is the last brush-mark; the one that makes the painting what it is. Without this last mark, the work is but a mess of untidy lines: random strokes of swirling, glutinous paint. Death lets your life really live. Death should not, therefore, be treated lightly.’ (Koira Jupczek)

I Think (We’re in Trouble)

Yesterday I posed a question: why did Koira Jupczek make me think of Jens Klofferson (other than the fact that, as I have just this moment noticed, their names both involve the letters ‘J’ and ‘K’)?

The answer lies in one of Klofferson’s famously tiny tales, which goes a little something like this:

‘You’ve heard of people thinking themselves out of holes?’
Max wasn’t sure he had – so he nodded.
‘Well,’ she said: ‘Daddy thinks himself into holes’

(Holes by Jens Klofferson, translated by Piers Röelberg)

An unconscious plot summary of Jupczek’s new(ish) novel, Sad Professor?

So it would seem…

The Doors of Pineappleception (Part Eight)

[Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six and Seven]

There were several texts, but we started with Koira Jupczek’s Death Charts – one of my favourite contemporary European novels. We sat down in a café and Yile passed the book over to me. I opened it eagerly, like a hungry child unwrapping a chocolate bar. This was a good sign: oh that all literature might be approached like this – as if it were the most precious, delicious object in the world! Words are not turgid: they are not dusty, nor dull, staid nor sullen. So why do so many people open books whilst wearing such sad faces? One should open a book with the expectation of being thrilled to within an inch of your life; in the knowledge that what you hold in your hands is a whole new country of words: virgin soil awaiting an eager conqueror. Go forth into novels like a soldier rushes into battle, like a turtle scoops into the ocean, like a bat flies into the night. Don’t let the words come to you: you go to them.

At first, of course, I found it hard to concentrate on any one word, on any one sentence – on any one page. The pineapple juice had driven me into a state of sensual over-excitement. I wanted to read every word at once: to consume the novel in one big bite, as if it were a doughnut. I learned, at length, to control this appetite – the skill that every juice-drinker must master, as soon as possible. For great as it is to want to throw oneself into a book right off, one has to accept that some things are beyond the powers of the reader. Excited states of mind, in this sense, represent somewhat of a tease. They promise great things, giving the host the feeling that anything can be achieved, at any point in time, by anyone. At the same time they make it hard for this host to do anything: he/she ends up crippled by freedom: shaken to a blurry statue.

Tame the beast, however, and you will reap the rewards. When I did at last get around to devoting my overactive attention to a whole page of the book, I must confess that it was, all in all, a most enlightening experience. It is, again, most difficult to put into words, but I felt almost as if the story was lifting itself off the pages as I read. My eyes moved along the formal black and white print, marching across the usual lines; but what I felt was something far beyond this. Each word was like a blast of colour, or a small explosion of sound. The text was not text. It surrounded me. I was at the centre of a noisy rainbow of words; a sweet tornado of literary ideas and images. Jupczek’s prose came to glorious, multi-coloured, multi-dimensional life. I was engulfed. I was absorbed into the book – and the book into me. I was lost, so very beautifully lost.

How long did it last? Not long enough – and yet too long. Such things cannot go on forever. There is far too much to take in. The experience is, for all its advantages, an overwhelming one. More is crammed in a minute than normal existence can cram into an hour. This is both a good and a bad thing. It takes up less time, in itself, but it requires just as much time, if not more, for recovery and reflection. And these things, especially the latter, it most certainly needs. The moment is not enough on its own. The moment must be able to teach us something; it must allow us to take something back with us when we return to reality; to the world of ordinary perception.

[Part Nine]

Closet Bourgeois

Last night at The Crippled Bee conversation turned to the subject of Fjona Uu’s ever-dwindling Marxist sympathies.
‘Only a fool would be surprised,’ said the man with the moustache: ‘it’s quite clear that she always harboured a secret love for the bourgeoisie. Look at that man she married. Isn’t he an earl?’
No one quite knew for sure, though there has never been any doubt of James Lapperton’s elevated social status. One look at him is enough to know that he was Lord of Prefects at Harrowton on the Hill.
‘And don’t cough up any of that stuff about breaking down the system from within. Uu has always been a bona fide bourgeois. Even before she met the Lapperton fellow she was writing stories about romance in English public schools. Now tell me, is that a natural subject for an Icelandic Marxist?’
We all agreed that it was not – and the man with the moustache ordered another brandy.

The story he was referring to was, I think, Nothing Ness – a rather charming little tale about two rich and witless teenagers who decide to fall in love and live mildly happily ever after until the day they’re run over by a rogue tank on the high street of a minor Southern city. Here’s how it opens:

When asked what she was doing, or what she wanted to do, Vanessa as a child was accustomed to saying ‘nothing’, for which she soon earned herself the nickname ‘Nothing Ness’, which was to follow her, like some sad lamb, through three schools and beyond.

In order to spice up her soporific existence, ‘Nothing Ness’ engineers an infatuation with someone called Stuart, who pretends in turn to love her back. Both characters are presented throughout as spiritually empty; vapid and humourless. Despite this, it’s hard not to like them, in their way – wherein lies Uu’s problem. She lingers tenderly on details which, when she set out, were meant to bare teeth. Her humanity overtakes her. She falls into her own trap.

More could be said about this story. For now, however, I would like to draw your attention to another female European writer who has, for no good reason, developed an obsession with that peculiar institution they call the English public school. I refer, of course, to the brilliant Czech novelist Koira Jupczek, whose Death Charts, though set in Central Europe, clearly owes a lot to the tradition of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and the like. Again, not the most obvious path to amble down when you hail from the Czech Republic. And yet Death Charts channels the spirit of the bourgeois boarding school to great effect, allowing its much-derided charms to seep through the hard skin of the writer’s sharp satire.

As far as I know, Jupczek is not married to a polo-playing, pipe-smoking earl – nor has she ever professed herself a Marxist. This link between her work and Uu’s is, however, an intriguing one, which merits further investigation.