A Balance of Plot and Place (Two Month Review: #5.03-5.04: FOX by Dubravka Ugresic – Blog Post)
Last week, Chad and Brian were joined by Ellen Elias-Bursác, one of the Fox translators, for an incredible discussion on the second half of “A Balancing Art.” Ellen was enamored with the dynamics between the Widow and Ugresic’s narrator, the former finding success managing the works of her late husband and the latter finding resistance as she uses her own voice. Ugresic explores the politics of women in writing through their interactions and further establishes the theme of the fox as the Widow doubts the narrator’s ability to betray–a quality she sees in the fox. Through these narratives and thematic reveals there are also formal qualities developing that I’m going to look at in this post.
Part I, “A Story about How Stories Come to Be Written,” opens with a historical and philosophical dive into a series of stories interrelated through real and fictional figures and events regarding the creation a particular story and stories that sprout off from it. Ultimately, this opening creates a formal model for the rest of the chapter, as Ugresic complicates the stories from the opening through the narrator’s doctorate research, the stories of her mother aligned against the wife, and the stories of the children and partners of all the authors involved. As the section closed each addition that Ugresic made built upon that initial weaving of stories in both content and form. Into the second section of Dubravka Ugresic’s Fox a rhythm of formality coalesces.
In “Literature and Geography,” the opening section of Part II, the narrator sits and talks with a man on a train about his favorite books which all happen to be thriller novels that take place in what he describes as ‘exotic locations’ comprised of South Asian and East Asian locations. He argues that good thrillers can’t take place in nature, for a reason I haven’t been able to construct yet (help me out here folks). The narrator then begins a meta discussion with the reader on the relationship between location, topography, geography and plot:
But I was skeptical as to how meaningful topography (and geography) could be for a plot as it unfolds; how essential is it to the story? How much do the two elements—plot and topography—work in tandem and how much are they at odds? Will any link between them occur to the readers only later, in their interpretation? I wondered then what role chance plays in all this, and whether an “urban scenography” helps the story or hurts it. Because if the plot locality is a “strong place” (one that is, at the same time, a cultural text) while the event is “weak,” our entire literary effort could end up as some sort of fictionalized travel guide. If, on the other hand, the event is “strong” and the place “weak,” the reader might rightfully wonder what point there was to insisting on the topography. I hadn’t given this much thought before. Now, when these two things, the event and the place where the event occurs, are bouncing and colliding in front of my nose like balls in the hands of a slipshod juggler, I am thinking about it. I feel sure they are essentially irreconcilable, that between them—between my place and my events—there rules a thematic and stylistic incompatibility. Linking a fictional literary text and its geography is most often “artistically” risky. One is tempted to do so by the hope—supported by nothing—that these “partners” will conform to one another and join in a harmonious marriage, like orange juice and the ice cube.
But as this section ends and “The Hotel” begins Ugresic changes her style to mirror the thematic model established in the opening of “Literature and Geography.” While she previously focused on weaving stories within stories and establishing a tight relationship between the creation of literature and personal experience–which she still does through borrowing the Widow’s stories–this new approach highlights an obsession with the layouts and histories of the places she visits and her narrator’s relationship to it as established through the conversation with the man on the train and the series of thoughts afterwards. Her narrator is obsessed with architecture and physical history of space as she traverses the Grand Hotel Santa Lucia, or Pompeii, or the Gran Caffe Gambrinus. Further building this momentum from the opening section, the conference that she attends addresses the intersection of place, politics, and individual narratives in regards to the immigrant populations that are being expelled from one place and being rejected by another and through the frequency by which sections in this chapter are named after places.
In many ways, Ugresic answered the rhetorical questions posed by the narrator following the conversation on the train. The topography (and geography) became essential to the story through the narrator’s obsession with it. We readers respect the beauty, history, and layout because she indulged herself in it so much. At the most rudimentary, plot and topography worked in tandem at times as her decision to visit Naples–a whim at first–presented the narrator with an opportunity to meet and meld with the Widow. As highlighted by Ellen during last week’s podcast, some of the most insightful and intense moments of this section are their interactions at the conference and throughout Naples and if the narrator decided not go to Naples she would have never crossed paths with the Widow. Plot and place are (possibly) at odds because these places don’t immediately lend anything to what happens to the narrator–the plot and topography worked because Ugresic made it work. For example, Pompeii’s history never overshadowed the narrator’s wit nor Ugresic’s prose, but neither overshadowed its historical importance. The relationship between plot and topography created an opportunity for Ugresic to shift her stylistic frame and explore different ideas in different ways.