This blog has moved to Please make a note, and I look forward to seeing you there.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Pavic on "reversible" and "nonreversible" art

"Long ago I came to understand that the arts are "reversible and nonreversible." Some arts are reversible and enable the recipient to approach the work from various sides, or even to go around it and have a good look at it, changing the spot of the perspective, and the direction of his looking at it according to his own preference, as is the case with architecture, sculpture, or painting. Other, nonreversible arts, such as music and literature, look like one-way roads on which everything moves from the beginning to the end, from birth to death. I have always wished to make literature, whish is a nonreversible art, a reversible one. Therefore, my novels have no end in the classical meaning of the word."

This is perhaps the key paragraph in Pavic's aesthetic. And it is far reaching. He sees the end of the 20th-century and the beginning of the 21st as not the end of the novel but the end of reading as we have known it. In a way, he preceded the computer, yet anticipated it. I believe it was Lance Olsen who said that Dictionary of the Khazars was the first book of the 21st century.

But if a book has no definite end, don't we have some sort of anarchy? Doesn't every reader approach it in a different way? Yes and no.

Think of a sculpture. Yes, every viewer's walk around a sculpture is unique, but that does not mean that there is not some sense of a whole that remains fairly consistent. The philosopher Edmund Husserl famously pointed out that when we didn't see a side of a box, we knew it was there, and that this knowledge seemed to precede some sort of empirical learning. It is just how we are.

If this sense transfers to Pavic's reversible novels, they will hold together, just in a different manner from nonreversible ones. They will hold together as a concatenation of events rather than a string of events. Neither is more "true" than the other.

What's more, let's face it, with nonreversible literary novels we often remember stuff that has little to do with their nonreversible quality. We remember a line. An image. A character's name or face or description. What's more, we remember a world or many worlds created by the author, worlds that, to a degree, hung together, and not solely because of a linear plot. In fact, in literary fiction the plot is often the least important part.

Not true with a mystery or a horror novel. A lot of science fiction is more about the building of a world than a linear plot, but a plot often shows up there as well.

Reading Pavic novels feels like doing a puzzle where there is no last piece. And its a delightful frustration.


  1. Non-linear literature is breaking the known formats and it's resemblant of one another new technology - the internet.

    I think that this is why it's so intriguing and accepted by today's generations.

  2. I liked your sculpture metaphor.

    I agree, works of art should be reversible, multifaceted...