A Quantum Spiral by Another Name (Part VII, Pgs 201-236)
Last week, Chad and Brian were joined by Rachel S. Cordasco of Speculative Fiction in Translation as they discussed Part VII, “Global Autumn,” of Georgi Gospodinov’s Physics of Sorrow. This section hits us from too many angles, from the relatable hilarity of having a phobia of being asked “how are you?” to trying to address what brings an author to write. Through this post we’ll try to connect this section to the longer spiral that Gospodinov is drawing out as we slowly approach its end.
Redefining: Last Lengths of the Spiral
As we approach the end of the piece we meet a singularity of ideas as elements we’ve encountered start to collapse upon themselves. Collapse shouldn’t read as a pejorative but as the experience of a reader approaching the end of a world that an author has built for them. The collapse exists solely in our experience as readers as the hot white expanse of the final blank pages is soon upon us. But while all novels—at least the good ones that try to end—come to an end, The Physics of Sorrow, with it’s unique form and approach to its content, makes the fact that it will end significant.
If my obsession with spirals has illuminated anything its that Gospodinov has created a form in The Physics of Sorrow that allows it to continue as long as there are pages to carry it. As long as light shines upon ideas, people, cities, and the transformation of these elements over time The Physics of Sorrow is a constant longing for an empty expanse. With each page, each story, and each section, we learn more and more on the complexity of this work as Gospodinov drags us from across realities and redefines the ideas that we’ve become accustomed to with each leap. And even so close to the end, there’s still more to learn about the universes we’ve inhabited and the rules that guide them.
Alleys, Corridors, Cities, Labyrinths
This section, as the spiral dictates, expresses another re-imagining of a previously established idea and provides further insight into the rules of The Physics of Sorrow. “Labyrinth and Choice” guides us through this. At its simplest, it describes narrator Gospodinov traversing the heart of Paris, and as he loses his place and starts to panic and regret every decision he makes he works towards the ideological core of the labyrinth in this work.
The time when I stood between two streets, wondering which one to go down. Both of them would have led me to the place I was looking for. Incidentally, there was nothing particularly unusual about the streets in and of themselves. The problem was, as always, no matter which one I chose, I would lose the other one.
What follows is Gospodinov’s attempt to experience both paths, but, as he’s already speculated about choosing one path, as one attempts to navigate both there will always be one collection of decisions untouched. He directly addresses the impossibility of this through the science of quantum physics, writing, “I could only have been satisfied in that quantum physics experiment that shows how a particle also acts like a wave, passing through two openings at once.”
The spiral of this work is formed by Gospodinov—again either narrator or author—attempting to have gone down multiple paths. Of course, this still means that there are numerous paths that we, as readers, cannot experience, as his decision to go down one path locks us away from experiencing another. With that futility considered, as we read through The Physics of Sorrow and continually encounter new approaches, interpretations, and constructions of the same ideas, Gospodinov has almost given us the closest to a quantum experience that we as readers can through a novel. That process is almost laid out here:
I headed down one of them, the street to the right, but I was thinking about the other one the whole time. And with every step, I kept repeating to myself that I had made the wrong choice. I hadn’t gone even a third of the way before I stopped decisively (oh, that decisive gesture of indecisiveness) and turned down an alley toward the other street. Of course, hesitation seized me with the first couple steps and again after a few meters, I practically ran down the next alley to the first street. And then again, seized by hesitation—back to the other one, then back to the first. To this day I don’t know whether with that zigzag I gained both streets or lost them both.
But while the narrator may have lost access to one path, the author and reader haven’t. Through each encounter with a repeated idea, we’re gaining yet another path each time. The form of this novel, that originally came to me as a spiral as I read through reinterpretations of the same idea, now feels like a span of spirals across dimensions—each arc being drawn from various quantum paths into one spiral with a clear start and end through its physical form in a book.
With this in mind, we see how author Gospodinov layers our encounters with his constants—the minotaurs, myth, loss, and abandonment, and, in this case, even labyrinths—yet varies them as we experience multiple paths. With this stylistic strategy he’s given us a quantum building of his own work.
In particular this piece redefines the labyrinth.
The most oppressive thing about the labyrinth is that you are constantly being forced to choose. It isn’t the lack of an exit, but the abundance of “exits” that is so disorienting. Of course, the city is the most obvious labyrinth.
We’re left to unravel our sense of cities and labyrinths that Gospodinov constructed for us in previous stories—in previous sections—as he’s given us yet another quantum path to explore. We’ve encountered numerous cities throughout this work, as a whole, and now, with only one section left, we have yet another way to approach them. And labyrinths aren’t the only idea in this section revisited in this quantum way.
The Doctor’s Humorous Diagnosis
Throughout The Physics of Sorrow we’ve encountered moments where Gospodinov attempts to understand the nature of his afflictions. His family recognized the physical manifestation of his embedding, with his body stiffening and his eyes resting lazily on objects in the room. He’s even gone to medical professionals, finally receiving a diagnosis for his condition—a name both the narrator and I can no longer accurately recall. As the narrator aged, his closeness with the condition that almost single-handedly defined our experience with the book diminished as well. With the timely death of this element—which if drawn out for too long could have survived as a gimmick in a weaker piece—we’re left with the natural reading experience dictated by Gospodinov, as either author or narrator.
This section provides another moment with doctors and diagnoses. With this instance in “Advice from the Nineteenth Century” Gospodinov has been diagnosed with stagnant bile.
Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy, my friend the doctor said.
Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t there some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet? I ask.
There’s never been as much melancholy as there is today, the doctor said with a throaty laugh. They just don’t advertise it. It’s not marketable, melancholy doesn’t sell [. . .]
Greek medicine—which experienced a resurgence of popularity across Europe in later centuries—had a “humor” based approach to health. The four humors—blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm—determined the physical and emotional wellbeing of an individual and shifted between stagnancy, excitement, abundance, scarcity, and so on. In this case, the doctor’s diagnosis of stagnant bile and melancholy likely reflects a problem with Gospodinov’s black bile. But while issues with black bile can lead to melancholy—and The Physics of Sorrow easily contains a deep sadness that Gospodinov negotiates—yellow bile is responsible for more manic, or choleric, behaviors.
While Gospodinov may be consumed by melancholy to a degree, a build-up of yellow bile accounts for this work being in front of us at this point. The effort to build a time capsule, to create lists, to buy stories from strangers, and similar behaviors reflect a tenacity within himself to not allow the darkness of the world to wash over him, but rather gets him up at the right time of the day to slip on waders and dredge.
But getting back to the point, I’ll recommend something to you that you’ll say is straight out of the nineteenth century: travel, stir up your blood, give your eyes new sights, go south[.]
And Gospodinov has taken this advice to heart throughout this work. Travelling takes many forms for Gospodinov as traverses a geographic world while buying up stories and recording his own experiences in thoughtful narratives like “Howl” in this section. But he also explores an ideological globe as he combs through philosophies throughout space and time and gleans conclusions—read ‘remedies’—to what ails him and the world at large. Through this, we see yet another balance between the humours: narrator Gospodinov with both an energy to explore and record the world but who also affected by its contents—just not enough to be fully consumed.
And this section is like many others that developed a psychological profile for narrator Gospodinov. Early on we learned of embedding as a purely magical ability, only to have a psychological and neurological capacity developed to understand it. And as he aged, and his ability to embed was compromised, he found new ways to satisfy this cornerstone of himself through collecting stories. And now, as the spiral continues to wind, we’re provided with yet another way to understand narrator Gospodinov—we’re provided with yet another path to go down.
Lists of the Apocalypse
And even in the light—or rather the darkness of the end, the lists that Gospodinov has constructed gain a new understanding with another approach. We’ve seen lists throughout the piece, from erotic experiences in Communist Bulgaria to collections of consumed children in myth, but they gained an additional importance through the “Time Bomb [. . .]” section of The Physics of Sorrow where they served as condensed inventories in the event of annihilation.
If you recall, I noted a confluence of form and content in the blog post for that particular section as the The Physics of Sorrow, which contained fragments of larger things, took the form of a time capsule which sought to protect the contents of one time for another. As we learned of narrator Gospodinov’s time growing up with a threat of nuclear annihilation, seeing The Physics of Sorrow as a time capsule seemed practically rooted in the idea that Gospodinov, both as narrator and author, was attempting to collect and save things for a physical sense of a destruction wrought from something like nuclear war. Thusly, the lists throughout the piece possessed an additional importance. And with yet another approach in this section, their importance continues to grow.
In “Lists and Oblivion” we come to understand annihilation by different terms.
I rush to write everything down, to gather it up in my notebook, just as they rush to bring in the lambs before the thunderstorm whips up. My memory for names and faces is fading ever more quickly. That’s the most likely explanation. That’s how my father’s illness was at the end. Somebody with a big eraser came and started rubbing everything out, moving backward. First, you forget what happened yesterday, the most distant, out-of-the-way stuff is the last to go. In this sense, you always die in your childhood.
I’m writing this section with my heart racing as I go over this short narrative again. Gospodinov started us with this idea. “There is only childhood and death,” and now the epigraphy reaches far from those early pages for our narrator’s father, and narrator Gospodinov fears that this will also be his fate. As an isolated experience, this collapse as the pages run thin is very well upon us. In an expanded sense, the apocalypse that these lists are constructed and saved for is not entirely physical, but also mythic: erasure in an experiential sense. He continues:
My worst nightmare is that one day I will be standing just like that at some airport, the planes will land and take off, but I won’t be able to remember where I’m going. And worse yet, I’ll have forgotten the place I should return to. And there won’t be anyone to recognize me and bring me back home.
And with this speculation these lists serve as guideposts for the post-apocalyptic Gospodinov—now a time capsule to let him return to places and times lost to dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Gospodinov, the Reader
I had a longer section written for this blog post that I scrapped—foolishly, in retrospect—regarding the detail in the subjective accounts in both “Global Autumn”—this full section of the book—and throughout the novel as a whole. It addressed, hastily, the relationship between narrator Gospodinov and the nature of his very personal narratives. While his ability to embed started to diminish, I started to feel like the short, heavily detailed narratives—like “Howl” in this section—provided a window for a reader to embed in the memories of the narrator.
I quickly scrapped the idea because it felt too obvious: readers perform a similar embedding through the act of reading the experiences of others, which is further aided by a writer’s skill. But I was still marked with in interest due to the detail of these pieces and their ability to draw on multiple time periods and multiple philosophical tracks—the conflation of these elements guiding an individual to a very specific time with ideological, phenomenological, and geographic queues. Following the discussion of lists with narrator Gospodinov, my heart is wrenched by these implications, and I’m left wondering: in the time capsule of The Physics of Sorrow, are these hyper-subjective moments here for Gospodinov to return to following the possibility of annihilation?
Whatever the answer, the end is near.