GROWING UP, MY SISTER and I spent Tuesday nights at an art studio across town. The air conditioner sputtered, and we learned how to draw a wine bottle, flowers, our hands. Was it my mother’s idea, or had we wanted to go? She can't remember, and neither can we. Soon my sister lost interest, preferring to volunteer at a veterinary clinic, but I stayed with it, graduating to pen and ink, watercolor, and then oil paint. Hard as I tried, however, what I did on the page never seemed to match up to the things I saw at night, when I'd stare at my curtains, and see, in the darkened folds, the outline of a face or a bird or a ship. I still remember that ache, the mounting feeling that tomorrow would be the day I'd put pen to paper and recreate those lines and curves, and the dread that again I wouldn’t.
Decades later, while living in Beirut next to the mess in Syria, instead of writing very well about any of it (which still seems impossible) I was reading two books by the Croatian novelist and essayist Josip Novakovich. In dozens of stories written over a decorated and peripatetic 30 years, Novakovich has often argued that we do not have the skill to make the things on earth as beautiful as our dreams, that the world is hopelessly and permanently flawed. In his first collection, Apricots From Chernobyl, Novakovich's thoughts and hopes turned to the highest, most complicated ideal: God, the ultimate dream, and the writer's ultimate disappointment. In this first book, largely a product of Novakovich’s youth, he is first and foremost a son of a religious man, one who went to America and attended divinity school. Having fled his native Yugoslavia, Novakovich had to cope from a distance with his country breaking apart, to learn over a scratchy phone line that his sister was nearly blown up by a rocket, that many of his friends were either murdered or murderers, that nothing would ever be the same. After a while he gave up on God, or at least the idea that God could ever exist in this world, outside of ourselves; God and beauty, the stories suggest, exist only in our heads.
One morning in Beirut, I was tired, having woken up early to get my kid ready for school. It was sometimes hard to be excited about waking up. I sat in my child's bedroom, the sun barely up, the birds squawking, a tiny voice demanding milk, thinking about how hard it was to write. It felt like I'd have to wait another day or a week or a month or an eternity to inch any closer to the light.
Half hungover from two glasses of wine, I dropped my daughter off at school and (instead of writing) sat on the couch reading more of this man who had given up on religion, who seemed to be disappointed in everything, including himself.
And yet the work was so damn good! His writing made me feel outside of myself. It created in my head — perhaps for just a moment, but a genuine moment — a world as vivid and real as anything I'd ever imagined. I held the book, envious, finding I could not stop. If someone had written this, maybe there was hope. There was the story of being mugged in Brooklyn. The pain of crossing borders — a stress I shared too — and an epic portrayal of cats. I took the book to bed, reading for another 45 minutes.
I finished it, only to begin reading Novakovich’s latest, Shopping for a Better Country. Yugoslavia still haunts the writer, but in this collection, there's more grappling with an older man's problems — death and dy...read more