Damaged by reading: an interview with Balla

An excerpt from Balla’s novella In the Name of the Father was this week’s Sunday European Fiction at B O D Y and here is an interview conducted by Jitka Rožňová with the writer for the forthcoming issue of Slovakia’s Knižná revue (The Book Review):

To receive so many awards for a single book (In the Name of the Father) is quite a respectable achievement. How do you, as an author, feel about its success?

If it is a respectable achievement it’s certainly not mine but rather the various juries’. I have just written my sort of thing, as I always do. Except that suddenly a number of readers and literary critics took a liking to it. My previous books didn’t prompt anyone to shower me with accolades. But I’m not complaining, the awards have come in quite handy. I suppose a reason for this success might be the patience with which I keep writing up the same thing all over again. It’s really all a single recurrent stream of repeated scepticism, doubt and irony in a subjective mode. Or it might just be the other way around: the awards have recognized a shift or change compared with my previous “poetics”. In the Name of the Father is slightly different, if only in its form: rather than a collection of short stories it might be called a short novella. Or just a longer short story. But who knows if “just” is the right word – in my view it’s definitely not “just” some kind of unfinished stump of a short novel, an attempt that got stuck half way; if it has appealed to people perhaps it does have some value and is really a novel gnawed down to the crucial and essential bone.

What I certainly aim to achieve through all my repeated attempts at writing are texts that are both as precise and as concise as possible. One day it might all boil down to aphorisms. I struggle with my writing like a baker who has been trying all his life to bake a perfect loaf of bread or a perfectly curved croissant and who may feel sometimes that he has actually made some progress in his quest for the platonic ideal of bread or croissant but the consumers can’t taste the difference and the taste of his pastries has long palled on them. By awarding me the prize the literary critics seem to have sent me a message: here’s your award and now enough is enough! After all, as far as I know, the Tatra Banka prize is awarded only once in a lifetime in each particular category. So it seems that I ought to slowly pack it in. I am considering this option. In fact, I have always been considering it.

Does that mean that literary awards or praise don’t have an encouraging or motivating effect on you?

They are a recognition of something that is over. I have published a few things since 1996, although if I could I would get rid of most of it. But my publisher has been keeping the stuff in print in the vague hope of commercial success: he keeps repackaging the books, shifting them from bookshop to bookshop, from the top shelves to the bottom, from the front to the back and vice versa, but for me these books are finished, they now live their own dusty shelf life. My past work may have received recognition but that doesn’t make my future writing any easier.

I’m afraid that everyone – be they a genius or a graphomaniac – is made up of a certain limited dose of invention, talent, a specific worldview shaped by life and experience, which he or she keeps processing, rephrasing, reassembling and polishing, investing it with his or her entire personality, until it becomes the one and only principal statement of his or her life. If that is not the case, all a writer does is produce merchandise: perhaps well-crafted merchandise but merchandise nevertheless. There are these writers who churn out books – producers, merchants. Their writing skills are sufficient for what the market demands. Then there are those who are even more productive and who don’t even know how to write or think, and nothing hampers their high productivity because they don’t bother their heads with philosophizing or, horribile dictu, asking questions that have never interested readers.

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So how do you explain the fact that these books steadily top the bestseller charts in Slovakia?

As I’ve said: they don’t bother the reader by philosophizing or asking questions. People relax while reading their books. I met someone the other day, he was – and I’m not joking – a reader. That was how he referred to himself: I enjoy reading, he said, whenever I feel like having a rest, he added. The populace seems to be exhausted. The populace rests whenever it can, relaxing with a book and then referring to this occupation as “reading”. They spend their time at work thinking hard, solving problems, slaving away, so they deserve to switch off afterwards: and it is in this switched-off state that they reach for a book; and only in this state. And let’s face it, is a Balla, Hlatký, Rehuš, or that embittered guy Cioran what a switched-off reader needs? Or Kafka, Beckett, Virgilio Piñera? And it’s on the pedestals of tired readers that these stacks of commercial writers grow. They grow on tired people, whose entire intellectual potential has been sucked out by their employers. Just imagine how prosperous those employers must be! One might think that at least they, successful employers that they are, would reach for text edifices of a more complex kind – but you’d be wrong! They, too, are tired, drained by all that sucking.  And besides, they might be happy to boot, so why should they feel the need to search for the sources of their non-existent unhappiness in suspicious, low-budget publications?

Coming back to literary awards and your attitude to them, do you feel limited by them and burdened by responsibility?

Of course. Luckily, they don’t occur that often and I’m used to the burden of responsibility, having accepted some degree of responsibility right at the outset, as must anyone who hopes to express themselves through writing at least partially, and not just produce amusing stories for people to carry in their smart handbags or clutched under a manly arm, as the case may be, accompanied by the jingling of keys to a black Audi, as they head for Croatia or another (pre)destination that happens to be trendy at the time.

Your writing is very distinctive and specific, with recurrent themes and motifs such as loneliness, inscrutability, bizarreness, darkness, hopelessness, conflicts in the family… Is pessimism the basic sense underlying your life and writing?

Yes. That’s how it has ended up. Perhaps if I lived someplace else, at some other time, and in some other way, I might have become an optimist. But I doubt it. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with optimism, it’s an attitude that guides people merrily through this vale of tears, helping them to smile even as they are about to undergo intestinal surgery. There’s nothing wrong with that. If someone’s entire life is a misunderstanding but that misunderstanding makes life easier, it’s a sign of sensible, pragmatic auto-hypnotic taste, and there really is no accounting for taste. But I’m cut from a different, significantly more frustrated cloth. Besides – I’ve been seriously damaged by reading. I owe this realization to [writer and literary critic] Valér Mikula, he was the first to point it out. I didn’t have a hard childhood, my youth wasn’t too bad either if I disregard being harassed by socialism – but, as I’ve lately been discovering to my amazement, life under socialism was actually great – yes, some of our most successful politicians regard us as so dim that they can sell us this story! – but that has never prevented me from reading about difficult childhoods, ruined lives, Ukrainian famines, Red Army and Nazi atrocities, anti-Semitic pogroms, the Armenian genocide, the indispensability of self-determined nation states, self-kidnappings and self-investigations, of endless depressions, spine-chilling hallucinations and bureaucratic machinations, and that, too, has contributed to my initial and perhaps also terminal attitude to this “best of all worlds”, as Leibniz has referred to this world. I wonder what got into Leibniz.

Some people say that a literary text only comes alive once it has reached its reader. Are readers important for you as an author?

It is very rare for a literary text to come alive. I am quite happy if I can regard a text as completed. Because I usually keep crossing out and rewriting even finished copies of my published books whenever I happen to come across them. I do the same with books by other authors and I don’t spare the world’s greatest writers either. My library is full of books covered in scribbles. And if a reader claims to like a book of mine – people like that do exist – I don’t believe them and suspect they have ulterior motives. In this sense, it is impossible for a text to come alive and producing it is a torment I would like to rid myself of the way other people try to quit smoking.

But the fact is that you’ve been trying to kick this habit for a very long time, all in vain. Wouldn’t you say that writing has become a necessity for you, something you can’t live without even if you refuse to admit it?

Let’s not start with the worst-case scenario. With a bit of luck and a suitable therapy the compulsion to write might pass. Although for the past few months I’ve been looking for suitable therapy for a mere pain in the foot that prevents me from walking more than 100 metres without grimacing and gritting my teeth. But perhaps a radical change in my way of life might turn out to be the most suitable therapy for both ailments. I have yet to try that.

What keeps you busy these days and what are you looking forward to in the near future?

I’m currently preparing an anthology of contemporary Slovak short stories by authors of the middle and younger generation, including Staviarsky, Gibová, Rankov, Hvorecký and Kompaníková. The collection will be published in Austria. I’m also constantly involved with further translations of my stories into Polish with Jacek Bukowski. And recently I have participated in a number of literary events in Prague, Warsaw, Vienna as well as Bratislava, but I’ve had enough for now. Wherever you go, everyone tries to turn literature into an attractive spectacle but more often than not it ends up as an embarrassingly stiff affair, because reading is an intimate “indoor” activity and that’s how it should stay.

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BALLA was born and lives in Nové Zámky in southern Slovakia. He is acclaimed by critics and readers alike as one of the most interesting contemporary authors, not just in Slovakia but also in Central Europe as a whole. His first collection of short stories, Leptokaria, was published in 1996, and was followed by Outsideria (1997), Gravidita (2000),  Tichý kút (A Quiet Corner, 2001), Unglik (2003), De la Cruz (2005), Cudzí (Strangers, 2008), the novella V mene otca (In the Name of the Father, 2011) and another short story collection, Oko (The Eye, 2012). He has received the Ivan Krasko award and was shortlisted several times for Slovakia’s most prestigious literary prize, the Anasoft litera.

In 2011 In the Name of the Father was voted Book of the Year in a survey by the Slovak daily SME and in 2012 it won the Anasoft litera as well as the Tatra Banka Foundation’s award for literature. His stories have appeared in Polish, Slovene, Hungarian, Czech and English translations. In the Name of the Father is being translated into Dutch.

– translated by Julia Sherwood

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Read the excerpt from Balla’s novella In the Name of the Father here

Photos – 1) Holy Trinity statue in the main square of Nové Zámky, Slovakia/wikimedia commons, 2) Balla

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Categories: Afterwords

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