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Undinė Radzevičiūtė (b. 1967) graduated from the Vilnius Academy of Arts with a degree in art history, theory, and criticism. She spent 10 years working in various advertising agencies and then began her career as a writer. Radzevičiūtė’s books Strekaza, Frankburgas, Baden Badeno nebus, 180, Žuvys ir drakonai, and Kraujas mėlynas are written in a unique style that separates them from the traditional Lithuanian literary canon. Her critically acclaimed works were included in the annual most creative list of Lithuanian books on four occasions and twice in the annual best book lists; the book Žuvys ir drakonai received the prestigious European Union Prize for Literature and was selected by the Lithuanian PEN Center as one of the best books of the decade in 2015. Foreign publishers have recently taken a great interest in Radzevičiūtė’s books—they are currently being translated into more than 10 European languages. In Austria, Radzevičiūtė’s novel Kraujas mėlynas was selected as the best book of June 2019.

In early February 2020, the Lithuanian Writers’ Union Publishing House released Grožio ir blogio biblioteka, a new novel written by Radzevičiūtė, which transports its readers to Weimar-era Berlin. The narrative tells of an eccentric heir who, engulfed by an immense passion for unique books, wishes to create a one-of-a-kind library and is ready to cross all moral boundaries in the process.

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Undine Radzeviciute A review 02Writing that deals with reconstructing distant time periods is especially popular in contemporary Lithuanian literature. Such literature is usually called “historical.” And it is a logical choice of words: historical periods, in particular, provide narratives and characters with unique undertones, and they motivate and add meaning to the whole plot. On the other hand, in a work of literature, historicity may adopt a variety of forms.

Even though all authors of historical literature rely, to a lesser or greater extent, on factographic material, their relationship with this material and the methods of its interpretation differ. Some authors put absolute trust in their sources and their own ability to “revive” past epochs without a dash of contemporaneity. For example, Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, currently the most popular historical fiction author in Lithuania, says the following about her most recent work Peter‘s Empress: “all of the characters in this book are real historical individuals with complete biographies, so there’s not much for one to imagine here.”[1]

Yet other authors emphasize that they view the portrayed epoch from a present perspective and with the gaze of a modern individual. For that reason, to recreate historical individuals or whole epochs is impossible. Having acknowledged that the dead shall not rise, they then shift the focus to the paradoxical links between the past and the present. Either that, or to the scarcity of such links, which creates an effect of strangeness and distance. Undinė Radzevičiūtė employed this strategy in her novel Blue Blood (2017), which is a story about the Livonian knights.

Another equally popular strategy is to search for answers to today’s questions in the past. On those occasions, the past and the future are in a way treated as equal: the events that transpired several decades or even hundreds of years ago are considered rehearsals for today. However, these rehearsals occurred in much more fascinating surroundings, and the characters wore more lavish costumes, while the distance of time gives the issues and situations a peculiar tone of innocence and naïveté. They can thus be considered as rehearsals and preparations for today. The present transforms into a warning (all that happened in the past may repeat itself again), an object of fascination, or even a fetish as historical costume gives way to a colorful masquerade.

This is why period dress (both original pieces and imitations), interiors, and exteriors are elements especially favored by popular culture. The most read novels in the world are of the historical adventure or love story genres. Cult TV series also make use of the past, from the decadent neo-noir Babylon Berlin to the stylish and culture shift-capturing Mad Men to the cult classic Escrava Isaura, which had its Lithuanian audience chained to their (usually then still monochrome) TV screens at the end of the past century.

Radzevičiūtė, too, chooses to use the past as an exotic fetish and a rehearsal for today in her novel The Library of Beauty and Evil. This book, genre wise, is varied: it utilizes popular literary strategies (detective story, noir); contains many references to literary, photographic, and art texts; and deals with artistic and philosophical inquiries, including questions about good and evil, the individual and society, totalitarianism and global centralization. In other words, it is a stylish postmodern novel set in Weimar-era Berlin and aimed at a wide readership.

The Library of Beauty and Evil distances itself from any pretense of recreating factual historical events and persons, though it has characters both imaginary and real. Radzevičiūtė emphasizes time and again the tension between the “original” and the literary version even with the use of inconsistent writing of historical personal names. Some names undergo Lithuanian transformations, while others do not. For example, the German photographer Karl Blossfeldt becomes a “Lithuanianized” Blossfeldas, The Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels a Jozefas Gebelsas, but the names of director Leni Riefenstahl, writer Günter Grass, and certain other historical persons undergo no transformation.

At the outset, it may appear that the inconsistent writing of names is a mere result of a lack of proofreading. But within the context of the whole book, this mark, whether conscious or accidental, becomes a reference to the specific worldview contained in The Library of Beauty and Evil: the author subtly hints at the idea that the boundary between historical fact and fiction is liminal and ever-changing. Ambiguous in the same manner is the association between the real person and their literary portrayal, and thus between the past and the present—Weimar-era Berlin and today’s Europe.

The Library of Beauty and Evil is set in Berlin during the years 1924–1929, that is, before Hitler’s rise to power. As stated in the book’s summary, “Contemporary Europe is very reminiscent of the Weimar Republic.” The author herself proposes interpreting the book in such a way. In other words, we are offered to find in Weimar-era Berlin the echoes of today’s issues or a warning about the not-too-distant future. So, what are these echoes and warnings? How does Radzevičiūtė portray Berlin in the first half of the twentieth century?

First, the space of the novel is highly aestheticized. Here, Berlin is a city where appearance becomes content. In other words, the absolute unity of content and form, as proposed by the formalists or the aesthete-decadents, is realized here. The form—meaning appearance—does not hide anything, because the form and the various surfaces at once describe and generate meaning. The reader is invited to bask in the sight of the lavish costumes, unique objects, interiors, and exteriors (their refined descriptions, to be more precise). The first sentence is more than enough to illustrate the point:

“‘That’s not a dragonfly, that’s an eagle,’ Lotta said in a cold voice.

She arrived in a brand new, black onyx Avions Voisin with a mascot menacingly raising two of its wings as if they were knives on the front.” (p. 5).

Radzevičiūtė’s writing is exceedingly cinematographic: refined surfaces and separate scenes are described accurately yet concisely. It could be said that the main textual fabric of The Library of Beauty and Evil is made up of the appearances of its characters as well as the dialogues and descriptions of separate scenes. The reader’s imagination is thus stimulated  and restricted at the same time: we are given the possibility to see and hear certain images and to eavesdrop, but avenues for freely digressing from the author’s strategy are rare. Our first “glance” at the tanner Mouse is enough to realize that he will carry out every single order of his superior, even the darkest ones:

[…] Walter dived into a narrow street and rang the door.

The buzzer was silent, but the crooked door opened that very second. A small, hunched, disheveled, blackened person with a pair of gleaming eyes stood in the doorway, ready for anything.

The sleeves of his dark, dirty shirt were rolled up to his elbows, and his pants were pulled up to his chest and fastened with a leather belt.

He held a butcher’s knife in his hand.

When the blackened, hunched person with a knife in his hand saw Walter, a childish grin stretched over his face, baring rotten teeth. (p. 28).

The daily routine of Weimar-era Berlin is portrayed under an equally charmingly decadent but basic light. It is a city wherein God has died, so a city where all is permitted: “God has died again, now for good, and is unable to hear how the whole of Berlin has been joyfully celebrating this death for several years: for no eye from the sky can behold their errors anymore!” (p. 32). Walter Schultz, a bored dandy and heir to a library of rare books amassed by his grandfather Egon, continuously repeats this phrase. He eventually gets the phrase God Is Dead tattooed on his chest in Gothic script and begins to supplement the inherited collection with new exhibits—he begins with books bound in the skin of exotic animals and moves on to those bound in human skin.

Radzevičiūtė ambiguously hints that the statement “God is dead” belongs to Nietzsche. The philosopher’s work Beyond Good and Evil is very important for Walter; he expresses the wish that his skin be used to bind that book after his death. Yet the reading of the statement itself is clearly closer to the Russian tradition, specifically to the worldview of Fyodor Dostoevsky. The latter lacks the idea of an individual as the Übermensch free of any superstition and faith and is by itself quite moralistic. The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, and other novels by Dostoevsky state that in the presence of God’s death, a human being loses moral reference and even abandons rational thought, for if God is no more, all becomes possible and permissible. Like the fatalistic characters of Dostoevsky, Walter is determined to engage in the most radical and morally questionable experiments with the bodies and souls of himself and those around him.

Walter’s native city is equally mad. Corpses floating through the river is a usual sight for the inhabitants of Berlin. Pharmacies selling recreational drugs, teenage prostitutes being bought as if they were candy on a store shelf, pedophilia, and sexual and moral experiments of varying nature are all part of life in Radzevičiūtė’s Weimar-era Berlin. And here’s an echo of today’s issues, more like today’s fears, associated with global centralization: the “Americanization” of Berlin and its seedy underbelly in particular. The households of Berlin’s inhabitants are overrun by mass-produced appliances, while their hearts by mass-produced, purchasable feelings. For instance, all of the underage prostitutes working in the brothels look alike, reminiscent of the stereotypical Sally Bowles, an American girl residing in Weimar-era Berlin as seen in the cult film Cabaret:

Two twin girls with short, straight, black hair stood before Walter. They pranced in their short, slim-fitting dresses and smiled ever so honestly, like little children. […] The bright daytime Berlin was still German, but the Berlin of the dark was already occupied by America. America dictated what the dark Berlin ought to wear, how its hair should be cut, what it should drink, how it should dance, what it should play, and how it should joke in a world where God had died for the second and final time. And, of course, the young miners with gold fever coming from the outskirts of the state introduced themselves using American names and spoke German with a fake American accent. (p. 66).

Another one of  Dostoevsky’s well-known ideas, that “beauty will save the world,” is actualized in the Radzevičiūtė’s world. Of course, it must be said that several notions of beauty exist. To Lotta, beauty is associated with order and harmony (little wonder that she eventually agrees to marry a Nazi soldier), while Walter is more interested in beauty “with a dash of filth,” as indicated by Grass. Destructive beauty in the novel symbolizes uniqueness and the creative freedom to transgress regular and banal norms. Books—normally a mass-produced good—when bound in human skin become unique, artisan pieces. Walter’s obsession is also peculiar: having inherited not only his grandfather’s library but his home as well, including the clothes he wore and the maid he had employed, the young man is overtaken by an aspiration to uniqueness, which should affirm that his own existence is not meaningless, that he himself is not a mere object of mass production.

It is interesting that the idea formulated in Radzevičiūtė’s novel of the book as a unique object, its own form possibly representing or even replacing its contents, correlates with the trends seen in Lithuanian publishing. Foreign publishers are often surprised by the unique and luxurious visual designs of Lithuanian books—they are bound in hard covers and with expensive paper and adorned with illustrations.  The banal truth of the matter is that luxurious final product and extravagant book design do nothing to outweigh a lack of substance.

The same seems to happen to Radzevičiūtė’s novel. Despite the intriguing beginning of The Library of Beauty and Evil, the narrative eventually becomes predictable. The characters undergo no transformations; they remain mere aesthetic templates. Their conversations are of the same nature: the dialogues start off scintillating with irony, but as the story develops, they are reduced to reiterations of the pretentious statements we seem to have already heard or read somewhere before. In other words, The Library of Beauty and Evil shows how easily may decadent beauty, intertextuality, and radical aestheticism become the opposites of themselves—a reiteration.

1. https://www.lrt.lt/naujienos/kultura/12/1087511/naujas-kristinos-sabaliauskaites-sedevras-10-metu-darbo-ir-demesys-istorijos-nutildytai-moteriai

 

 

 

Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

 

 

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