When I took up Borislav Pekić’s Houses, I was unaware that I’d be continuing the exploration of a theme found in the book I’d read immediately before it (Against the Grain/A Rebours)– namely, willful withdrawal from the outside world. Unlike the protagonist of that earlier read, Arsénie Negovan doesn’t purposefully set out to seal himself off from a public he’s decided is despicably, irremediably beneath him. Rather, the Belgrade real estate mogul, unwittingly caught up in a demonstration, winds up injured just as World War II is really getting underway– and as his convalescence proceeds and he comes to the unbearable realization that his beloved houses are just as prone to destruction as anything else, Negovan just doesn’t feel like going out anymore, or having any news of the outside world brought in.
And so, twenty-seven years pass, with his wife and lawyer and everyone else seeking to protect his frail heart by keeping reality away from him. Save his binocular-bound observation of the goings-on outside his window, Negovan knows nothing of the changes that have taken place, is kept in the dark even about the state’s appropriation of his buildings, each of which has been christened with a woman’s name suiting its personality.
There are clear differences, of course, between A Rebours‘ Des Esseintes and Houses‘ Negovan; in terms of particular actions taken and feelings about his surroundings, the latter believes, through (false) reports generated for him, that he continues to participate in and to benefit the world, albeit from within his isolation. And most strikingly, Negovan also gets up to assert himself, forces himself out into the world to insist that one of his buildings not be torn down (in none other than the fateful year of 1968). It’s not, then, that the realtor/commissioner of buildings has lost his love for the world and the people and things in it, as is very generally the case with Des Esseintes.
But the separate ways in which Huysmans and Pekić have their two protagonists reminisce about their respective pasts– maybe I’ll call it each author’s method of storytelling, something that includes but goes beyond style– is where the real differences between these two projects are felt. The former has his weary aesthete bring to mind personal experiences that do little but serve to illustrate what a bad boy he thinks he’s been, and hence, to reinforce the sense that all this woe is nothing but a weird celebration of “me, me, me.” Pekić, on the other hand, skillfully weaves Negovan’s memories in with huge societal changes and hardships, massive shifts of communal moods, and the ways in which all of these transformations affect others’ lives, not only his or his buildings’, whether Negovan personally approves of them or not.
And whereas it seems as if Huysmans is more or less allowing Des Esseintes to speak for him, Pekić presents Negovan with authorial love, but not of the sort that’s blind to his character’s naïveté, failed understanding, self-centered blindness, or disgraceful behavior. Maybe part of my love of Houses, as opposed to my definite dislike of A Rebours, comes down to Pekić’s apparent grasp and use of what I almost want to call empathy: as opposed to Huysmans’ celebration of a cold and egotistical weirdo, the Serbian author’s ability to present readers with a character we’ll embrace even with his faults, while not excusing him for them. And in Negovan, we have a person devoted to a singular obsession, which, although we’ll probably find weird, comes close enough to showing up a general, relatable human tendency to fixate on our own inexplicable loves; to cause a noticeable or even great deal of damage in our pursuit of them; and, thanks to our passion, to completely lose sight of the bigger picture staring us squarely in our dazed eyes.
Huysmans and Pekić weren’t at all undertaking the same project– but the paths of their respective heroes are similar enough to justify a comparative step back. And even better: as I declared in the last post, after A Rebours, whatever I read next could only be an improvement. I’ll officially declare that luck and good fortune were on my side, offering me not only a marked improvement over Huysmans’ novel, but an exponentially fantastic upgrade to boot.