Yurii Andrukhovych, "Leksykon miast intymnych. Swobodny podręcznik do geopoetyki i kosmopolityki" (Lexicon of intimate cities. A loose handbook on geopoetry and cosmopolitics)
Translated by Katarzyna Kotyńska
Czarne, Wołowiec 2014
Magdalena Rittenhouse, "Nowy Jork. Od Mannahatty do Ground Zero" (New York. From Mannahatta to Ground Zero)
Czarne, Wołowiec 2013
New York as a travel destination, a cultural and civilisational phantasm, but also the place of immigrant bitterness is one of the toposes of modern Eastern and Central European literature. It has been exploited by writers as diverse as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Joseph Brodsky, Leopold Tyrmand, and Janusz Głowacki. It also emerges in the latest books by Yurii Andrukhovych and Magdalena Rittenhouse.
The chapter on New York, a memory of a walk with Volodia, known as Long, a friend from student days and painter of great talent, is one of the longest – and saddest – in Yurii Andrukhovych’sLeksykon miast intymnych. Swobodny podręcznik do geopoetyki i kosmopolityki. The passage starts on the corner of 80th Street and Broadway, where a shop named Zabar’s is situated at number 2245 (when Andrukhovych walked in New York, it was famous mostly for the sales of caviar, yet its history stretches back to pre-Second World War times; and the shop boasts to have been the place where New Yorkers could first learn what brie is and what gnocchi look like), then back to the panoramic terrace of the Empire State Building, and further down, by the classic Flatiron skyscraper, right down to very port buildings.
What emerges from the digressions-based narrative on Volodia is the typical fate of one of the “members of the intelligentsia who left”: from the primary school in Cherkassy, via the euphoric participation in a Young Pioneers camp, early loss of faith in communism, youthful reading of Edgar Allan Poe, studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Lviv, where he was quickly hailed a genius, to the disillusionment in the United States. Like thousands of other artists, Long got lost among the crowds of New York’s bohemians; instead of a career in the best galleries, all that was left was alcohol, odd jobs beneath his measure, and finally death in the water due to an overdose on alcohol.
Two other cities play a special role in Andrukhovych’s biography: Moscow and Lviv. It was here that he obtained his literary education. He has always had an ambivalent attitude to Moscow: in his works the city is both the imperial capital and an oneiric space. In turn, Lviv is the city that is full of traces of Ukraine’s ties to Western culture. The narrator of theLeksykon, by the way, is an untiring peripatetic. In Moscow, where he studied literature for two years, his frenetic walks led him from the dormitory of the Literary Institute to the Central Telegraph and the nearby shopping malls, to the catacombs of the metro, and to the European collection in Pushkin Museum.
While the stay in Moscow resulted inMoscoviada, a novel in the Bulgakovian spirit, Lviv emerges as a city carrying the germ of unwritten novels, for exampleCyrk Wagabondo, and of an untitled narrative on wandering and getting lost among the city’s mists. In the private universe of the Ukrainian writer, this is the city of cities, the “always” city: “if I have my Dublin, it is Lviv.”
Many cities made their way into the guide at moments of breakthroughs: Krakow during the election of 1989, Moscow at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, during the Perestroika carnival, when the Arbat “was a parade of pluralisms and potentials for protest. It was a parade along the few hundred metres of freedom – of the word, of the gesture, of entrepreneurship. It breathed anarchy, free business, and blasphemy. It smelled sweetly of shish kebab smoke and photocopied second circulation.”
The “geopoetic quality” of Andrukhovych’s prose found in the title is manifested primarily in the chapters devoted to Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe. Lviv became a part of the Soviet Empire on a whim of Stalin; it is close from here to Haisyn, Vinnyts’ka oblast, a city where Andrukhovych served in the training corps of the motorised fusiliers, and Chernivtsi, the hometown of Paul Celan, today monocultural and somewhat musty. The other side, the “West”, claimed Krakow, the city smelling of incense and “the very apogee of the Middle Ages”.
In his guide, Andrukhovych created one hundred and eleven lyrical impressions on cities, arranged in alphabetic order. TheLeksykon, much likeHopscotch, can be read in many ways, which reflects the inconsistency of the world: “this world is saturated with strange geographic aberrations and metamorphosis.” Andrukhovych’s cities are as distant mentally and culturally as Novi Sad with its bombed bridge and Bayreuth, Istanbul with a cistern that leaks water and the bourgeois Charlottenburg in Berlin (with the local bourgeoisie being, let’s note, enthusiastic readers of Karl Marx).
Similarly, for Magdalena Rittenhouse, a stroll is the fundamental way of getting to know the city. Even the most avid fans of New York and addictive readers of fringe guides to the like of Ellen Williams and Steve Radlauer’sThe Historic Shops & Restaurants of New Yorkwill find plenty of hardly known facts and gossip from the city’s history inNowy Jork. Od Mannahatty do Ground Zero. Who for example knows that the Brooklyn Bridge was designed by a philosopher, one of the favourite students of Hegel? Who knows the fascinating story of the – still open – Eldridge Street Synagogue, in the centre of Chinatown? Rittenhouse also takes delight in walking in the footsteps of a reading New Yorker: from Strand bookshop via New York Public Library to the place whereThe New Yorkeris published. Like Andrukhovych’s handbook, her book on New York eludes the category of “travel literature” due to its formal complexity. What is perhaps most interesting here is a look at the metropolis from the periphery, and from the perspective of the outsider. We experience here something like an ironic commentary on the famous drawing by the Romanian-born Saul Steinberg,View of the World from the 9th Alley, mentioned by Rittenhouse.
The centauric nature of both the texts, and the Machiavellian form of semi-guide and semi tale-of-alien-lands, is difficult to classify and may seem post-modern, yet in fact, it has been known since times immemorial. Similar works include the descriptions by Marco Polo, the Italian travels of Addison and Goethe, and the Levantine peregrinations of Nerval and Słowacki. It has been practised by all the major contemporary travel writers. Bruce Chatwin incessantly escaped into the domain of fiction, in the course earning himself plenty of trouble with the people he met on his pilgrimages, who did not recognise themselves in the portraits he created. InThe Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald described an English “pilgrimage” on foot, leading in meanders to the land of personal and collective memories. Similarly William Dalrymple, Paul Bowles, and Sven Lindqvist – though each in his own manner – reformulated the travelogue genre towards auto-fiction.
Another space shared by the books of Andrukhovych and Rittenhouse is intimacy, a return towards the within, mentioned in the title of theLexicon. The subject of the reflection is not only the exotic world but also the wandering subject; what emerges from both the texts is autobiographical essays drawn in a subtle line. The Ground Tour emerges here as not only a literary project, but as a life project too.
Translated from the Polish by Piotr Krasnowolski