The most convincing literary pessimists are superior stylists. They smooth their nihilistic impulses into pleasing shapes. Despair is largely inimical to art, while melancholy—its pensive, perfumed cousin—makes of the void something paradoxically seductive. I think of Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I with its horizon of bats and comets, its alchemical implements and carpenter’s tools laid in disarray. This extends, perhaps extends especially, to literary art. If the negative radiance of Giacomo Leopardi or Fernando Pessoa arises from a certain nihilism—that existence is evil, say, or without meaning—that message is nonetheless palliated by the intrinsic beauty of their craft. This is a kind of strategic enticement. If we are to follow the pessimistic artist into his annihilating vision, a little poetry goes a long way.
The Croatian novelist Daša Drndić, who died of lung cancer last June, gives her readers no such poetry. She would have us take our medicine straight. “Les belles lettres is a heavily outdated term,” Drndić told me in a 2017 Paris Review interview, “therefore today a concept with hardly any weight. Art should shock, hurt, offend, intrigue, be a merciless critic of the merciless times we are not only witnessing but whose victims we have become.” Her novels, several of which have been translated into English by Celia Hawkesworth, orbit the criminal violence of European authoritarianism. An archival impulse animates much of the work. Trieste—the best-known of her books—features a forty-four-page list of some nine thousand Jews who were killed in Italy between 1943 and 1945. (The names, stacked four-wide across each page, are tragic in how little they ask of us.) Whatever she rescues from obscurity—photographs, courtroom testimony, case files, maps, scraps of song—achieves an uncanny wavering quality, as if already at home in the immaterial. Like those of W. G. Sebald, to whom she has been favorably compared, Drndić’s fictions creak beneath the weight of their own reclamation. They are load-bearing structures whose formal wonder is how such a painfully burdened edifice could remain standing upright in the first place.
In her final novel, EEG, published posthumously in English this April, the protagonist, Andreas Ban, is a writer and clinical psychologist reprised from Drndić’s earlier work Belladonna. Ban is aged, ailing, whip smart, comically brusque, and almost Bernhardian in his inexhaustible enmity. His screed-like digressions leap across decades and continents, alight on war criminals and ex-patients, rummage through national and personal histories, and rage (often quite funnily) against what he sees as the gross indecency of our times. He is like sentient amber, compulsively fixated on what has been caught in the hardening resin of his memory. As might be expected from its title, the novel enacts something like a scan of Ban’s brain function. It unfolds in a series of loosely connected micro-histories, which, taken together, delineate their cantankerous author’s obsessions.
These invariably intersect with the twentieth century’s archive of atrocities. Ban’s own records—patient files, family documents, a lifetime’s ephemera—serve as staging grounds for deeper inquiries into the horrors of Europe’s recent past. Ban’s research into the disappearance of his uncle’s one-time fiancée Frida Landsberg, for instance, gives Drndić room to explore the occupation of Latvia. Fascism’s disparate machinations blend with Ban’s paranoia. He becomes convinced that the father of a woman he once loved, Arvids Mazais, a “long dead Bavarian-Latvian with Hitler’s medal in the bottom of a cardboard box,” directly participated in Frida’s killing. Such leaps are not conspiracy theories so much as attempts to make meaning. Ban’s associative ramblings are a form of disguised longing. He reconstructs his skeletons from a boneyard heap of indistinguishable fragments.
In another lengthy section, Drndić juxtaposes two very different formal rigors—chess and genocide—in a pocket history of Europe’s grandmasters of chess. We are told how a generation of eccentric geniuses leaped from windows, suffered heart attacks, threw themselves beneath trains, and dropped dead during international competitions. “There’s nothing abnormal about the fact that chess players are abnormal,” Nabokov, who wrote the wonderful chess novel The Defense, once said in an interview. But chess players were also seen as potential subversives. “Chess is imagination,” Ban reminds us, “the negation of rules, the negation of directives, it is art, challenge and autonomy.” Chess champions were murdered by the Nazis in appalling numbers. Drndić here blurs the boundaries between play and reality, the strategies of the game and those employed for slaughter. Chess was an elegant contest nested within a larger and far deadlier one: “Reality was so noisy (and bloody) that it suppressed the imagination,” Ban says, “reality imposed its own game, mercilessly and cruelly.”
The materiality of the past—its shocking, sickening thingness—suffuses Drndić’s fictions. Every dusty record, every banal household object, represents an intricate network of unknown relations capable of arousing melancholy or horror. The inadequacy of memory is perhaps her great subject. “I now name people fanatically,” Ban says, “too weightily for literature, that is, unnecessarily, obsessively, because I see more and more clearly that this, their name, is perhaps the last cobweb thread that separates them from general, universal chaos, from the cauldron of turbid, stale mash.”
The question of literary aesthetics is a thorny one for Drndić. Throughout EEG we find hectoring asides on bourgeois literature’s “unwritten laws.” Take Ban’s dismissal of well-rounded characters: “Am I ‘rounded,’ existentially and publicly? Who is ever and anywhere rounded, and is it necessary to be ‘complete’ and rounded in order to exist—to live—in a complete and rounded way? Unbelievable idiocies.” Or the illogic of orderly literature: “All of that exists, the disorder, the fragmentation, the din, in reality and in dreams, but in literature and in life, the public and the market want order, harmony … simplicity, so that the little gray cells empty tidily and painlessly.” Or the tedium of continuity: “A life of continuity, how tedious. How monotonous, monochrome. A tepid, limp flow in one direction. Like literary continuity.” Drndić’s prose—hard, sneering, and aggressively, exhilaratingly ugly—contorts itself to avoid the exigencies of beauty. Moral urgency dispossesses style.
The highest distinction of pessimistic fiction is that it undermines its own project. As we do from the desolate, God-baiting novels of Hardy, the gaunt dramas of Beckett, or the post-national horror of late Bolaño, we emerge from Drndić’s writing feeling both vanquished and invigorated. Such formidable intelligence and Homeric intention cannot help but thrill and exalt. Drndić ends her final novel with a quote from Kierkegaard, the philosopher of angst and despair: “My misery is my castle which is set, like an eagle’s nest, among the clouds on top of the mountain. No one can conquer it. From it I fly down into reality and snatch my prey.”
Dustin Illingworth is a writer based in Southern California.