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The Attic

Born in Yugoslavia in 1935, writer Danilo Kiš wrote The Attic (1962) when he was in his mid-twenties. I read it on a whim, knowing nothing about Kiš other than he’s considered an important 20th century European novelist. This, his first novel, is a bildungsroman. Narrator Orpheus with friend Billy Wiseass are “feverishly demanding answers from life” and exploring the “vital issues of existence,” such as those listed toward the beginning of the book: “the immortality of the soul,” “the immortality of sex,” “cosmopolitanism,” “the issue of nourishment,” “metempsychosis,” “life on other planets,” “the difference between culture and civilization” and so forth. The narrator tells us: “These problems and a dozen more like them stood before me like an army of moody and taciturn sphinxes.” The twenty-something goes on to say, “the last addition to the list turned up: the question of love.”

The narrator does little more than broach those topics while giving a humorous but sketchy account of his bohemian lifestyle and friends. He meets a woman, who he names “Eurydice,” and reveals he “sang her into existence,” and as the book continues it becomes apparent this is a novel about writing a novel. In other words, The Attic is the novel Orpheus is writing, and as he writes it he creates what we read; that is, we’re let into the world that is Kiš’s creation as it's “being” created. Later on, Orpheus refers to his novel as a “framework” but seems unsure, asking, “A framework for what?” This is significant considering it’s Kiš’s first novel and the “framework” he “is creating” for The Attic would, as a matter of course for any author, be revisited and elements reused in producing later works.

The book is a very interesting read. The narrative, though, is disjointed and scrappy in places, making it hard to follow, and I figure a seasoned Kiš would've fleshed out the ideas better. It's a mix of prose, journal entries, letters, languages, poems, and lists, giving the whole book an experimental feel (but also consistently holding one's attention). His writing, in this novel, is frequently poetic and the imagery unique, and I want to read his short story collection A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (1976) at some point to see how his writing later developed.


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