A Serbian Rip Van Winkle: On Borislav Pekić's Houses

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First published in 1970, Borislav Pekić's Houses will be reissued by NYRB Classics in April. We present the introduction to the new edition, by Barry Schwabsky, author of The Perpetual Guest, below. 


(Via Flickr)

The essence of the novel, if one dare speak of such a thing, lies in the disparity between a protagonist’s understanding of his situation (and, at least implicitly, himself) and the way things truly are — between illusion and reality: Don Quixote. The eighteenth century articulated this disparity through the novel of education; the nineteenth century through the novel of disillusion. The inherent kinship between the two becomes clear in the very title of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. By the mid-twentieth century, however, that disparity took a quite different form in what could be called the novel of mania, in which the protagonist clings so strongly to his illusion that he never sees through it. La Jalousie and Lolita are only among the first to come to mind.

Substitute apartment buildings for nymphets — as strange as that may sound — and you might get something like Houses, the remarkable work by Borislav Pekić which has previously been published in English as The Houses of Belgrade and whose Serbian title would be rendered as The Pilgrimage of Arsénie Negovan. It’s easy to see why the original title never made the passage into English: It’s odd to think of Arsénie’s life as a pilgrimage, since he does not willingly go in search of anything, preferring to stay home, immured with his illusions. The book was the second novel by Pekić, one of the leading Yugoslavian writers of his generation, and no doubt one of the most imaginative and versatile, loath to repeat himself in either form or subject matter: Houses was preceded by The Time of Miracles, a parodic historical novel about Christ and his disciples allegorizing what Pekić would call “Communist Messianism,” while among its successors, still unavailable in English, are works set in a Heathrow Airport overrun by an epidemic of rabies, on the lost continent of Atlantis, and in a postapocalyptic Siberia in which the last human survives in a world of robots. Also untranslated is The Golden Fleece, a seven-novel cycle chronicling the history of the Negovan family over the centuries. Pekić was also active as a screenwriter and playwright.

Withdrawing from the world with nearly as much gusto as Cervantes’s hero plunged into it, Arsénie Negovan is a man whose mind has been unsettled, not by books, but by real estate — by houses. A prosperous bourgeois landlord, a rentier, he should have no illusions about how to succeed in his profession — certainly not by being sentimental about architecture. And, making his first real estate purchases in 1924, Arsénie has entered the market when speculation was rampant. Belgrade between the world wars was undergoing breakneck expansion. As the architectural historian Ljiljana Blagojević explains,

in those years the city was transformed from a provincial Balkan center into what could be seen as a modern European capital of the 1930s. Its population and the city’s built-up area almost quadrupled, with the population increasing by an average of more than 10,000 people per year. . . .With no legal provisions for separate ownership of individual flats, landlords ruled over the feverishly growing rental property market.


Arsénie has profited from these developments, and handsomely, but he does not consider himself a profiteer. In his own eyes, he is a special kind, a higher kind, of developer and landlord — not the sort who buys buildings just to squeeze as much rent as possible from his tenants, then demolishes them so they can be replaced with new ones better calculated to extract the most value. He deplores such men who are, he says, “so alienated from their own possessions that, since no direct or personal link binds them, they can no longer possess at all in the popular sense of the word.” He wants to preserve and beautify his houses, constantly deepening his bond with them. He has toward his property what might be called a romantic rather than an “abstract and anonymous,” realistic, and economically rational attitude: “I never allowed myself to sink to the mere taking of profits with the same coldly calculating approach as do the present-day owners” of most housing — though he often shows himself as canny a profit taker as any of them. According to Arsénie, a landlord should not merely possess his buildings; he should equally be possessed by them: a mutuality, even a sort of mystic marriage, “a spiritual [relationship] of the purest kind.” No wonder that Arsénie gives all his buildings women’s names—Sophia, Eugénie, Irina, Xenia, Eudoxia . . . And more than just names: he sees in them “faces . . . varied, personal, unexpected,” and intuits their personalities — for instance, “the uninhibited, not to say lascivious, Theodora.” Among the favorites in his harem is “the lovely Greek Simonida with her fine, dark countenance, her milky complexion beneath deep blue eyelids, and her fullblooded lips pierced by a bronze chain, African style.” One thinks of the seductively feminine names of the cities that Marco Polo would describe to Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, published two years after Pekić’s novel.

The entire novel takes place — at least at one level — in the house to which Arsénie has retreated, indeed in the room where he writes. He lives on Kosančić Crescent, the preferred address for several generations of Belgrade’s haute bourgeoisie. His window looks out over the Sava River, on the other side of which rises the New Town that was developed after World War II. Here Arsénie sits, refusing newspapers or radio, peering out through his various pairs of binoculars, and writing, on the backs of tax forms and receipts, what is at once his last will and testament and a curiously ruminative memoir of a life marked by his one great passion — his houses — and three great traumas. The traumas: First, in 1919, in the Russian city of Voronezh — we never learn what he was doing there — when Arsénie witnessed a riot in which respectable people like himself, denounced as bourgeois counterrevolutionaries, were dragged out of their houses and viciously beaten. Second, on March 27, 1941, another riot, sparked by protests against the alliance with Germany signed two days earlier. (The result would be the overthrow that day of the standing government, shortly followed by the city’s bombing and invasion by German troops.) Arsénie, though he disdains the Germans, would never have gotten caught up in a demonstration (at first passively, then trying to make a speech explaining his crackpot theory of property ownership) had he not been attempting to make his way to the auction of a house he’d become obsessed with possessing (and being possessed by).

It was after this second disaster that Arsénie resolved never to leave his apartment again, running his real estate empire from a distance through reports from his wife and his lawyer and the monthly rent rolls, not to mention his trusty binoculars. Only in June 1968, after twenty-seven years indoors, does he finally resolve to venture out and inspect his properties. He has finally become suspicious that the documents he’s been shown might have been misleading him. The foray, his reentry into history, leads not to his enlightenment but to the third great trauma and then to his death.

Arsénie’s reminiscences seem to drift by free association from one time frame to another. Memory is interwoven with memory; at times it can be hard to keep track of whether he is talking about 1968 or 1941. Only gradually does it become clear how masterfully Pekić has built up his portrait of Arsénie and his world, brushstroke by brushstroke, conveying just enough information to advance not the story but the reader’s comprehension. Arsénie is perpetually congratulating himself on his perspicacity, but he never comprehends the real reason for the changes he’s observed in the cityscape over the years, or why his wife and his housekeeper have been deluding him about the state of his real estate holdings: He is now the resident of a Communist country, and all of his buildings have long since been expropriated. Those characterless but efficient structures going up across the river are the innovation not of capitalist rent-gougers but of state planning officials. He’s lived a life of delusion for twenty-seven years — or longer than that, if one considers that his imaginary romance with his buildings had already long since ensconced him within a fantasy life that (just as much as the ordinary rentier’s calculating attitude) had alienated him from genuine human relations. Inwardly, he accepts responsibility for the destruction of a house — “it was I who had killed Niké” — though it was in fact ruined in a bombing raid, yet he refuses any responsibility for the people whose lives he has damaged: an old woman who commits suicide after being evicted for nonpayment of rent; his cousin Constantine, a builder, who died after a fall from a scaffolding following a quarrel between them; and finally the student demonstrator Arsénie confronts in the course of his final outing.

Must we condemn Arsénie? Should we pity him? Ethics and aesthetics may be at odds here, for Arsénie is a narrator of rare energy and, yes, charm. He may have kept faith with his sense of himself only by ignoring the world in which he’s been living, but how much he’s noticed, how many sights and sounds and smells he’s saved up in memory or imagination and spread out like treasures before us as he tells his story! And once he’s re-entered the world after his twenty-seven-year absence, with what fine-grained perceptiveness he takes in all that he continues to misinterpret! Consider the extraordinary scene in which, in his final walk through Belgrade, Arsénie seeks out a certain Martinović, the man who back in 1941 had purchased at auction the house that he, Arsénie, had so desired:

The room looked like a refuge in which the Martinovići, burnt-out survivors, had hidden the remains of their devastated possessions: canvas shades through which a greenish dusty light barely settled on the faded, threadbare surface of an office sofa; a table covered with a worn oilcloth; a triple Altdeutsch dresser, which creaked at every step; battered walls from which ribs of wallpaper hung down like dried tobacco leaves; and finally — there in the corner of the room, probably once the kitchen — a Moorish folding screen which in the pale glimmer from the window looked like ice overgrown with wild flowers and briars. I sensed too the bitter smell of stale medicines, musty leather, unaired eiderdowns, decaying clothes, parchmentized documents, and other petty reminders of decay: in a word, the intangible scent of misfortune.


And of course Arsénie is right — the Martinović family has suffered an immense reversal, though not for the reasons he assumes. They’ve been ruined not by speculation — “a gambler’s mad rush for easy profits, made on the bitter green baize of the roulette wheel of the stock exchange, in the lackeylike service of the god Mammon” — but rather by the reversal of fortune brought on by political revolution. Unlike Arsénie’s, their home has never been a haven from the encroachments of history. Yet while Arsénie cannot understand what he’s describing, he conveys the scene with an almost hallucinatory vividness. As for Mrs. Martinović, perhaps it is not so strange that she takes Arsénie for a police agent. Who else has been so nosy about her husband’s confiscated property? This Serbian Rip Van Winkle is bound to be as misconstrued as he misconstrues everyone and everything around him. And yes, we readers can believe that we understand the encounter we’ve just read about as none of the actors in it can — the delicious irony — but we should also take it as a warning that many of our own sure understandings might be just as misguided.

Arsénie, that spoiled eccentric, is a grotesque, but one with whom it is easy to identify, at least for those of us who recognize that our illusions die hard. It takes more than one trauma — in this case even three are not quite enough — to overcome the self-confirming bias of belief. Pekić considered Communism to be one of those delusions, yet from a Marxist viewpoint, his novel can be considered a study of bourgeois self-deception.

Few novels have so brilliantly represented the isolation of the individual while at the same time conjuring, almost entirely through indirection, the historical forces (capital, war, revolution) that form him and against which he reacts. Jorge Luis Borges once reflected of his beloved Quixote that, “for both the dreamer and the dreamed” — that is, for both Cervantes and his protagonist — the tale “had been the clash of two worlds: the unreal world of romances and the common everyday world of the seventeenth century.” However, he continued, “they never suspected that the years would at last smooth away the discord, never suspected that in the eye of the future” the everyday reality of seventeenth-century Spain would be swallowed up by the kingdom of myth, “would be no less poetic than the adventures of Sindbad or the vast geographies of Ariosto.” The anti-Communist Pekić, by contrast, writing in 1970, undoubtedly dreamed of a day when the “common everyday world” of postwar Yugoslavia, the implicit frame for Arsénie’s tale, would have passed into the realm of mere legend, but he could never have suspected how quickly this would happen — or how quickly the very name of Yugoslavia would vanish from the map. Yet in a sense, the novel anticipates the abrupt transition that was to come two decades later, for the Communist era in his country takes place entirely outside the novel; it functions a bit like a strange dream one has had, whose mood imposes its character on one’s morning even though it’s impossible to recall.

Arsénie’s story touches on its author’s at a curious tangent: At the tender age of eleven, Pekić took part in the anti-German protest of March 27, 1941 — the very one that precipitated Arsénie’s retreat from the world. The resulting arrest was only the future writer’s first. More serious consequences followed the next arrest, in 1948, by the new regime: five years in prison, during which time he contracted tuberculosis. After reading of how Pekić resorted to toilet paper to keep his diary in prison, one might see differently Arsénie’s use, in his self-imposed prison, of the backs of old rent bills to record his memories. After his release, Pekić found success as a writer, but in 1971 he emigrated to London. With the end of Communism, he returned to Belgrade and helped form the new Serbian center-left Democratic Party in 1990. As with Arsénie, however, there was to be one more demonstration: an anti-Milošević rally in 1991, at which he was assaulted by security forces. No more than liberation from the Germans did liberation from Communism lead, in Pekić’s lifetime, to the democracy he’d desired. But he already knew that Arsénie was deluded in imagining “the explosive return to their God-given place of things violently overturned.” He died the following year, in London, of cancer.

The Perpetual Guest is out now.

Houses is out on April 5th

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