The Return of Gospodinov, the Curator (Part VI, Pgs 179-200)
This week for the Two Month Review of Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow we’re looking at section six, “The Story Buyer,” which greets us with an up-front discussion of Gospodinov’s writing process along with more beautiful prose throughout a series of the darkest and most human stories in this collection yet. During last week’s podcast, Chad and Brian were joined by Angela Rodel, translator of The Physics of Sorrow and general Bulgarian translator extraordinaire. This post will be a little bit short at the outset due to an irritating cold, but will get an expansion by next week to explore some of her insights.
The Nature of Writing
This section provides a moment of soberish reflection from Gospodinov as he discusses the nature of his craft. When we discussed Part IV.—Time Bomb (To be Opened After the End of the World)—I noted a confluence between content and form, as Gospodinov discussed time capsules in great detail. There it became clear that the formal qualities of The Physics of Sorrow mirrored the content of this specific discussion. Without entering the realm of meta commentary, Gospodinov lays many of the stylistic approaches to his work bare. But here in Part V.—The Story Buyer—we’re met with a more blunt author-to-reader discussion on the writing process: particularly the “purchasing” of stories. Formally The Physics of Sorrow is built in a way that allows for drastic shifts in tone, including moments of meta-commentary from Gospodinov.
During “The Story Buyer” Gospodinov explains the nature of this story buying:
In the past I could implant, now I’m forced to buy. I could introduce myself this way, too: I’m a person who buys up the past. [. . .] I go around buying up the past wholesale. Call me what you want, find me a name. Those who own land are called “landholders,” I’m a timeholder, a holder of others’ time, the owner of others’ stories and pasts. I’m an honest buyer, I never try to undercut the price. I only buy up private pasts, the pasts of specific people. Once they tried to sell me the past of a whole nation, but I turned it down[. . .] What’s in it for me? Thanks to an earlier illness and to the purchased stories, I could now move through the corridors of various times. I could have the childhood of everyone I had bought one from, I could possess their wives and their sorrows. I could pile them up in the Noah’s Boxes in that basement.
Here we have a blurring between a blunt address to readers regarding his writing process with an explanation that is still rooted within the metaphysical abilities established within The Physics of Sorrow. It’s clear that writers draw upon a variety of sources for their work—if you can recall Ernest Hemingway’s expanded epigraphy on the many people and places that he chose to exclude from his memoir—but these purchases allow narrator Gospodinov another opportunity to experience the embedding that he’s lost in adulthood. He also connects this process to many of the ideas of The Physics of Sorrow. The relationship between time and light is apparent here as the process of “timeholding” is related to bringing these stories to light through purchasing them. If he didn’t purchase them, they would remain in the darkness of a labyrinth. Additionally, he also draws back to the time capsule curating—the “Noah’s Boxes”—from Part IV.
The harrowing opening with “The Baby Carrier,” which highlights more of Gospodinov’s prosodic strength, ends with specific address from the author himself on his buying process:
I bought this story in late October, near the Greek border. When I offered her money, the woman looked at me in astonishment. She couldn’t figure out what exactly I was paying her for. I’ve got nothing to sell you, she said, plus I’m not gonna have any more kids. I replied that I had just bought her story. I’m not sure she understood. She took the money and turned it over in her hands, as if expecting me to ask for it back, then turned around, took a few steps, squatted down, and burst out sobbing. I thought to myself that only now had she begun to sell her children. When she started telling about them. Without a story, it was all nothing but business.
Telling stories is part of Judgment Day, because it makes people understand. But what the point of understanding is remains unclear. I put these stories in the box, too.
While I’m not sold on the truth of such a purchase actually happening to this degree, the idea behind collecting stories to transpose through prose and disseminate through publishing stands out as an accurate reflection of the writing profession. As I suggested earlier, a successful writing process is far more social than many of the old tropes of writers hunched over typewriters drunk and inspired. I think specifically to the popular image of Hemingway, but as was suggested through the expanded epigraph his work is drawn from the lives of those around him and the places he visited.
Even during the podcast last week, Brian discussed moments where people pitched (questionable) ideas for works to them. These are things they wouldn’t want to ‘buy’ in Gospodinov’s model. But, often enough, writers come across valuable works to ‘purchase’ throughout their lives, and this section layers its stories as a collection of curated purchases, mediated by sobered commentary on the act.
Furthermore, from this excerpt, we see another allusion to the time capsule curating from Part IV. Gospodinov writes, “[telling] stories is part of Judgment Day, because it makes people understand.” The blurring of writer and narrator Gospodinov leads to a complicated and bittersweet writing process. Purchasing and writing these stories allows satisfies this collective Gospodinov who is trying to relive the empathetic embedding that he’s lost with time, but also allows him to prepare the time capsule of The Physics of Sorrow for an impending apocalypse.
This discussion of story buying culminates in “The Story Seller” and “…And his Story,” where Gospodinov meets Salman Rushdie at a wedding. After some brilliant speculation from Gospodinov on the existence of celebrities, he and Rushdie have the following exchange:
I finally managed to get a word in. Writers are never innocent. They’re as thieving as magpies. Still, it’s important who steals from you.
But no, I gave him the story as a gift.
Well, then we’ll wait and see.
If you’d like, I could tell it to you, too.
I am curious. But you do understand that it is already sold.
Didn’t you say it was given as a gift?
Yes, that’s right . . . given, sold. We didn’t sign a contract. If you really like it, you just need to work out with him who’s going to use it. I’ll sell it . . . in exchange for two large Four Roses.
So, for eight roses, I laughed . . . Deal. (That’s how I met the story seller.) And after the first bouquet of roses landed on the table, the story began.
Again, while the bartering and bargaining compromises my full faith in the story, there is still a lot here regarding the writing process. The stories don’t just come from ‘civilians,’ but the sale or trade of them is complicated when another writer is involved. That being said, I appreciate how fair the interaction is portrayed, despite the difference in popular acclaim between the two authors. “…And His Story” then tells this story with a degree of commentary from Gospodinov, almost like he was sitting at his desk, writing it out, going over notes, and criticizing each line as he puts it to the page. But this pair of stories continues to highlight the important social nature of writing.
In retrospect, so much of this piece speaks to the social qualities of the writing process. Despite my focus on the confluence of form and content with the time capsule model, The Physics of Sorrow is a collection of narratives from multiple perspectives—this has been a guiding idea from the outset in the Epigraphy and Prologue. But through this section we get a stronger sense of Gospodinov’s intent with this project. Through the hyper empathy of embedding, or the later financial exchange of buying stories, Gospodinov has made it his goal to collect stories by any means necessary.