4 December 12 | Chad W. Post

As we mentioned back when it was awarded, Dubrakva Ugresic was awarded the Jean Améry Award for Essay Writing this past fall. As it turned out, fellow Open Letter author, Arnon Grunberg,- whose Tirza should be on everyone’s must read list for the spring, gave a speech about Dubravka at the awards ceremony during the Frankfurt Book Fair.

He also wrote this short post about Améry and Ugresis:

Jean Améry (born Hans Mayer) was a completely assimilated Austrian Jew who fled to Belgium in 1938. There he joined the resistance and was captured by the Gestapo. First he was tortured and then he was sent to Auschwitz.

After the war, he wrote under the pen name Jean Améry. His essays describe his wartime experiences and question what it means to be Jewish when this identity is forced upon you. His writings are not as well-known as Primo Levi’s, but nobody has written with as much insight and intelligence about torture as Améry. (I understand that there is some irony in the notion of writing intelligently about torture, but there is some irony in all writing about wartime experiences; the aesthetic demands of literature and the cruelty of war are an uncomfortable combination.) [. . .]

Dubravka Ugrešić is a Croatian writer who lives in Amsterdam. Although she has written a few novels, she is best known for her essays. She observes her surroundings with a keen eye, and she combines irony with engagement. Some people tend to believe that irony is the enemy of engagement, but engagement without irony is fundamentalism.

To give an example of this ironic engagement, take a look at this sentence, typical for Ugrešić : “Intellectuals are… only people who badly want to be needed by someone.”

This is an excuse, or at least an explanation, for the behavior of many an intellectual. But since Ugrešić herself is obviously an intellectual, she reflects on her own position.

Or take this sentence on contemporary literature: “Contemporary, market-oriented literature is realistic, optimistic, cheerful, sexy, explicitly or implicitly didactic, and aimed at a broad reading public. As such, it contributes to retraining and reeducation, in the spirit of the personal triumph of the good person over the bad. As such, it is social-realistic. It is merely less boring than its Soviet-Russian predecessor.”

It might be clear by now why Ugrešić manages to infuriate people, which is a side effect of a good essay. If nobody is infuriated, it probably wasn’t worth reading.

I don’t know much of anything about Jean Amery, but I do know that Dubravka Ugresic is one of the most important writers of current times, and that Karaoke Culture is a fricking masterpiece. Just read this excerpt and I’m sure you’ll agree.

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