Is this All Fox-y Enough? (Two Month Review: #5.02: FOX by Dubravka Ugresic – Blog Post)
Last week, Chad, Brian, and returning special guest Tom Flynn of Volumes Bookcafe broke down some of the bigger elements of the introductory section of Dubravka Ugresic’s Fox, including the all-important question: is Ugresic’s fox metaphor fox-y enough? We’ll take our own look at some segments of this opening section and decide that for ourselves while getting acquainted with what we see developing in this layered and complex collection.
What is a Fox?
Living up to its reputation, the ‘fox’ in Fox spans a number of uses and interpretations, from age-old Japanese myths regarding fox spirits, to fables, to cultural attitudes, and, what Ugresic is potentially addressing, the fox-y ways of writers. As she weaves story into story we fall upon Russian writer Boris Pilnyak in Japan, who writes: “The fox is the totem of cunning and betrayal; if the spirit of the fox enters a person, then that person’s tribe is accursed.”
Barely a full page into the novel and we encounter our titular creature, mentioned in an aside of an author in an account by an author. Her introduction to what I assumed was a key thematic element surprised me for a bit as I’ve been still coming down from our reviews of Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow and it’s up-front use of Minotaur imagery, and was expecting more from the titular animal’s arrival. But I quickly started to see the shape of the fox develop in a beautifully dark way.
As Ugresic guides us through–in no actual order–Pilnyak’s writing of “A Story About How Stories Come to Be Written,” Tagaki’s voyeuristic piece of his Russian wife, research into the possible actual author and work that inspired Pilnyak’s work, the narrator’s–who I presume is Urgresic–experiences conducting research on Pilnyak, the experiences of the narrator’s mother, and Japanese author Yuriko Miyamoto’s story of Pilnyak’s attempted rape these stories are all woven so tightly and effortlessly that she’s guided us into the relationship between all these layers on a quantum level to a point where it becomes difficult to find where we started, where we end, and what exactly we traversed.
In many ways, it comes back to the fox. In between the story weaving, Ugresic returns to the fox, stating, coldly, that “The fox is the writer’s totem[,]” and she goes into more detail of what this means:
In mythology and folklore the fox’s symbolic semantic field presupposes cunning, betrayal, wile, sycophancy, deceit, mendacity, hypocrisy, duplicity, selfishness, sneakiness, arrogance, avarice, corruption, carnality, vindictiveness, and reclusiveness. In myth and folktale the fox is most often associated with a “lowdown” enterprise. The fox meets frequently with affliction, and is thus consigned to loserdom, its personal attributes preventing contiguity with higher mythological beings. In any symbolic reading, the fox is situated among the lowly mythological kin [. . .] In both western and eastern imaginations the fox is invariably a trickster, a shyster, yet also appears as a demon, a witch, an “evil bride” or—as in Chinese mythology—the animal form of a deceased human soul [. . .] the fox is a master of transformation and the art of illusion, a symbol of the death-dealing female Eros, a female demon.
Beautifully, Ugresic develops this clear understanding of the fox before throwing us into the interwoven mess of writers writing about writers and stories and experiences. In the mess, especially as the narrator goes into details about her mother’s relationship, I forgot how I arrived to that point but had the lingering feeling like there was something I needed to keep an eye on–which was, inevitably, the fox and it’s place in the story. And in returning to the fox, Ugresic gave me the high of that ‘a-ha’ reading moment. “A Story About How Stories Come to Be,” the Pilnyak short story, is a story by a fox (about foxes). Tanizaki’s Naomi–the speculated inspiration to Pilnyak’s work–is a story by a fox. Miyamoto’s Mileposts is a collection by a fox.
Foxes, through Ugresic’s eyes, are those deceitful, voyeuristic scavengers of the world around them and who better to be possessed by the fox spirit (and bring disaster to their tribes) than authors. While Chad’s students may have expressed doubts into the pervasiveness of the fox throughout the work, I believe that Ugresic is laying the foundation for a piece that explores the literary world through individual moments and draws on the fox to address the nature of writing–all through lush prose and insightful research. So, to answer the question: yes, Fox is fox-y enough.
This week, as we read “A Balancing Art,” I’ll be looking more into the formal qualities of Ugresic’s work as she explores Italy, conferences, and impostor syndrome.