“All fiction is the factual refracted”

Almost by accident, I picked the perfect book to entice me back into regularly blogging. I had a very early train ride this morning (to go listen in on a translator friend’s lecture on translating “time” (tenses) from French into Japanese – which was excellent for a nerdy language type like me), and as I raced out the door, I grabbed Ivan Vladislavić’s little book, The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories* (Seagull Books, 2014, and which includes a series of excellent illustrations by Sunandini Banerjee). Forty-five minutes later and I almost stayed on the train and missed my friend’s lecture. This tiny little book is very hard to put down and I’ve kept it with me all day, finishing it a few hours ago in a café beside my daughter’s drawing class.

The collection is comprised of ten essays, divided into two brackets of five that embrace the book’s centerpiece: the titular short story, “The Loss Library.”

This very short fiction describes a man guided by a mysterious librarian through the shelves of The Loss Library – a museum arrangement of books that were never written (arranged by the author’s type of death), books that were destroyed, books that were forgotten, and so on. I won’t go into details because it would spoil this wonderfully imaginative story for anyone who hasn’t yet read it. It also breaks Vladislavić’s collection so perfectly in half.

The rest of the book’s essays each take one of the author’s unfinished ideas and describe it, annotate it, discuss the research that went into it, as well as muse upon why the idea was never completed. The result is a series of complex and touching reflections upon writerly and readerly inspiration, upon those mysterious synergies of thought and observation that result in the creation or non-creation of art. The essays reach both inward toward and outward from the writer, braiding memory and literature and happenstance. The effect is meditative, thoughtful, and sometimes humorous. My overall feeling is the delight of seeing how an incomplete idea can become fertile ground for a different kind of art and reflection altogether.

I would be hard pressed to choose a favorite from this slim volume – each essay adds something unique to Vladislavić’s evolving perspective. But a single line won’t let me go – I read it this morning about 25 minutes into my train ride, and I was still thinking about it as the sun set outside the window of that small, overheated café:

All fiction is the factual refracted.

The line comes from the essay entitled “Mrs B”, about Vladislavić’s unfinished idea to write something about Mrs. Burden, the wife of the American naturalist W. Douglas Burden. That essay is about so much more than just the transposition of event or fact into fiction – it touches on a variety of issues related to colonialism, on narrative inspiration and the way a character develops or not out of the writer’s mind – but this single idea, and the choice of the word “refracted” has stopped me; in it I can see angles of light, variations of focus, broken perspectives and the multiplying possibilities of deflection. It’s genius and I’ll be considering it for some time to come.

I’ve not read any of Vladislavić’s fiction but am now very intrigued to see what I make of it…

4 Comments

  1. So glad you enjoyed this book. You now have a sense of what you will find in Vladislavić’s fiction. This was my first Seagull book which I bought after reading Anthony Brown’s post about it. I was already a Vladislavić fan at the time but this book sealed my Seagull love. In the hardcover edition the illustrations are glued in plates!
    I still have plenty of unread Vladislavić on my shelves (like a well-stocked pantry I like to have yet-unread work by favourites on stand-by) but I would heartily recommend The Folly, his first novel, as a perfect place to begin. Double Negative, perhaps his most important novel, is also essential. He manages to tackle serious subjects or themes with a hand that is at once light and deliciously detailed. I can’t wait to hear what you think!

    1. If his fiction is anything like this book, I’ll love it. I will look for The Folly and Double Negative right away (or put them for Christmas books). I’m trying to think of what writer he reminder me of, but cannot right away… it will come to me later, perhaps after trying his fiction. And the illustrations were tipped into this paperback – it was gorgeous.

  2. I loved the sound of this when I read your post, and then remembered that I had indeed read and reviewed “The Folly”, which Joe mentions, back in 2015. It’s intriguing, unsettling, probably allegorical and not at all what I was expecting – but I loved it, and I may well have to add this one to my wishlist…

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