The world from the viewpoint of Milorad Pavic

“I always think of my reader. I offer him a choice – millions of possible paths for reading. And, the more the book he has read differs from the one I have written, the better I have dealt with my task.” In his Dictionary of the Khazars, Serbian author Milorad Pavic invites this kind of active reading and interpretation. In email correspondence with Ilmars Slapins, Pavic explains how he has been writing for some 200 years, why he has come to despise all pens, and how he sees the world.

Dictionary of the Khazars, the world famous novel by Milorad Pavic, has been translated into more than twenty-two languages (the Russian version alone has been published at least a dozen of times and there are eight different editions in English) and has had the most bizarre fate; it has seen everything from being banned to being given the status of cult fiction. The legends which are part of the text have grown together with other legends surrounding the fate of the book itself, its translators, publishers, and readers. Translators have striven to stay within the limits of 100 000 words indicated on the front page and cut the novel short in different places. The Latvian version was interrupted in an even more dramatic manner – translator Vinifreds Kraucis didn’t complete it, passing away a few dozens of pages before the end of the book. Poet Uldis Berzins was finally persuaded to finish the translation, but the break in the text can still be felt very acutely. And yet it doesn’t really change a thing because of the peculiar nature of the book; the novel consists of separate fragments of text which look as if they had been snatched from between the cogwheels of history.

In summer, when the Latvian translation was only half finished, we tried to contact the author and make an appointment to meet. Pavic took his time and answered quite reluctantly; he said he was too old to give interviews in person; email correspondence should suffice. And that’s how this virtual and, in keeping with the author’s taste, appropriately interactive conversation began, producing but a few of the possible answers to a few of the possible questions.

Ilmars Slapins: You had been writing for some fifteen years prior to Dictionary of the Khazars, is that right? And yet it’s this particular book which has become the work of your lifetime. Does the fact that it’s the best selling automatically mean that it’s also the best?

Milorad Pavic: I had been writing for some 200 years before Dictionary of the Khazars. One of my forefathers published a volume of poetry in 1768, and since then we have been a family of authors through generations. Dictionary of the Khazars was my first published novel, and you have to remember that these days the novel is the king of literary genres; my collections of stories and poetry couldn’t possibly compete with Dictionary or any other of Pavic’s novels.

IS: How many times do you normally rewrite a book before it’s published? And how many times would you like to do so after it’s published?

MP: I write and rewrite my pieces eight to ten times. First in bed, in the dark of the night, in my imagination. Second by hand, and after that several times on a word processor. I don’t like ballpoint pens since they sometimes fail to work, especially when you try to write lying on your back. In this position the contents of the pen shift in the opposite direction and the point remains dry. An acquaintance of mine recently told me that special ballpoints for astronauts had been invented; they allegedly work in any position. I haven’t come across one of those, however. I’ve somehow lost my affection for fountain pens as well. I used to write in black ink whenever possible but these days one just can’t find quality ink anywhere, least of all black. Ink seems to have become so thin. Besides, fountain pens tend to explode in your pocket when you travel by air. It’s almost as if you have been shot in the heart with a bullet which turns blood into ink. In the best stationer’s shops where they sell all the terribly expensive pens assistants usually advise to buy a special metallic case to protect from such explosions. But good ink is nowhere to be found. I’ve encountered it just once, when I saw the Paris diary of artist Luba Popovic and immediately recognized good ink. I asked him where he had bought it; he just laughed and said that he made ink himself. Therefore the only thing left are pencils. They won’t fail you and fade in a couple of years like it sometimes happens with ballpoint pens. I write with a pencil and, as often as not, do it in bed. That’s how the first version of a manuscript comes about. Then I move the whole thing to a computer and the work goes on there. Once the book is published, I sometimes make minor corrections for the second edition, and that’s it. After that I forget the book completely. Nowadays I prefer not to read my own books at all; I’m only trying to figure out which one is going to be the last one I’ll read in my lifetime.

IS: How do you feel knowing that the reader will always perceive your book differently from you? People may like it better than you do – or perhaps less. Do you tend to think about your reader?

MP: Yes, I always think of my reader. I offer him a choice – millions of possible paths for reading. And, the more the book he has read differs from the one I have written, the better I have dealt with my task. Today I perceive myself less as the author of Dictionary of the Khazars than I did yesterday and less still than the time I was actually writing the novel. Besides, if you want to write a new book you have to get rid of the previous one. That’s why I’m becoming less and less the author of my books, and the day will come when I completely stop being one; I’ll be much more distant from my own work than any of my readers. I find it wonderful and it cheers me no end.

IS: You have published a couple of poetry volumes. Have you stopped writing poetry? Why?

MP: The first reviews of Dictionary of the Khazars said, among other things, that it was actually a book of poetry. And those reviewers were right. I’m publishing a selection of the lyrical parts of the book in the near future under the title of Poems by Princess Ateh. I’ve somehow stopped feeling the difference between genres. I use poetry in my prose when I feel it fits in.

IS: What is the main difference between poems and novels – both writing and reading them? What sort of role does the length of the text play? Are longer texts easier to misunderstand or is it the other way round? Is it actually so important to understand the text you are reading?

MP: You’re asking too many questions. The difference between a long and a short text is simply that there are more sentences in a long text of prose, and they all form some sort of interrelation. In a long novel you have to arrange your text into two columns, in a short story – into a single one. You can move into a novel as if it were a house and stay for ten days, a month, several months.

IS: Your books have been translated all over the world. Have you detected any geographical or national differences in the way they are treated? Are you a European author? Does European thought differ in any way from, say, American or Oriental thought?

MP: These days the reputation (or so-called “fame”) of an author keeps migrating from one part of the world to another. At least that’s the way it has worked out in my case. I was a forbidden writer in the Soviet Union while in western Europe, the US, South America, and the Far East, my work was included into school manuals. When civil war broke out in my country, like all Serbian authors I became a forbidden writer in America, whereas in the new Russia they translated everything I had written by that time and my plays were staged everywhere from the Moscow MHAT Theatre to Siberia. As a writer I hail from the territory of the former Byzantine civilization, but I receive letters from my readers from all over the world.

IS: What kind of books are you currently reading? Do you also read the press, the latest news?

MP: I read lady writers with great pleasure; I do that in bed – starting with the brilliant authoress and my wife Jasmin Mihajlovic. At the moment she’s my top choice. But I do read Harry Potter and other novels by women with great pleasure. And I also like to watch the sports news on television; it’s the ultimate reality show.

IS: Can you describe the world from Milorad Pavic’s viewpoint?

MP: There’s more beauty than love.

Published 5 April 2006
Original in Latvian
First published by Rigas Laiks 2/2006 (Latvian version)

Contributed by Rigas Laiks © Ilmars Slapins, Milorad Pavic/Rigas Laiks Eurozine

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