Photo by Milos Petrovic

We open our upcoming series of literary interviews with our conversation with Jelena Vukicevic, a professor of literature and a former bookseller. Jelena holds a BA in world literature and literary theory, and an MA in cultural studies and is part and parcel of our local cultural scene. She lives in Belgrade and is a contributor to numerous local magazines, as well as the founder of Visibaba.

  • Why do you think that it’s important to study literature nowadays?

    Today, as maybe at any other time, it is important to study literature because by doing so you gain insight into so many new worlds, characters, ideas, what you could have imagined and everything you never dreamed you would be able to achieve because one book leads to another, inspires further research, provides us with knowledge, and it seems that there is no end, whether this might be to our joy or to our sorrow.

I’m not entirely sure what we all have in mind when enrolling in studying literarture, whether we want to stay in academia or get out of the box, but there is no doubt that you will gain a broad humanistic education, and in the words of my friend, poet and professor of medieval literature: it is above all else – general knowledge, and general knowledge is most often truth itself.

  • You used to work as a bookseller. What was your role in the bookstore, and what did you enjoy most about it?

On a daily basis, the role of a bookstore, to a certain extent, requires all the odd jobs that you, as customers, do not even see. I look forward mostly to the arrival of book packages, new titles, so I can rummage through them and enjoy myself. There is also the element of meeting people who come to visit, who want your recommendations. Occasionally, the conversation starts with them sharing their mood, or discussing their most recent reads. Such conversations are a gem, and I will be grateful for these (let us call them) exchanges for the rest of my life. You learn a lot about yourself, others, their reading or non-reading habits, patience and above all – of their love of books, because they themselves choose to be in the bookstore,to take the time to browse, and they end up either leaving with a book or just getting inspired by the titles they’ve come across.

  • What was the most unusual book that you sold while working there? 

    I always look forward to being able to sell a book that is close to my own reading sensibility. Firstly, this would mean poetry, theoretical philosophical titles. If I had to choose one book it would be the extensively researched edition published by the  publishing house Akademska knjiga based in Novi Sad, titled: Orgasm and the West: A History of Pleasure from the 16th Century to the Present (2016).
  • If you could work at any bookshop in the world, which one would it be? 

My first thought upon reading this question was – Iceland, because about ten years ago I applied for a similar job there, but ended up not going. I would definitely start from Iceland, across Russia, Greece, Italy; I could not single out one city, state or village. Teleport me anywhere! (laughter)

Iceland, I guess, because when I first read Borges’s verse (Nostalgia for the Present):

At that very instant:

Oh, what I would not give for the joy

of being at your side in Iceland

inside the great unmoving daytime

and of sharing this now

the way one shares music

or the taste of fruit.

At that very instant

the man was at her side in Iceland.

– it soaked into my pores for all eternity; I could imagine, touch that “unmoving” daytime, and the title also contains the word “nostalgia”, which has haunted me since childhood – because I tried unsuccessfully to find out from my parents what nostalgia was, and ultimately, this leads me to Svetlana Boym’s brilliant study, The Future of Nostalgia.

Photo by Dunja Djolovic

And yes, digressions, I love them, don’t blame me, but Iceland, and space, infinity, freedom, and the opportunity to experience people growing up in such landscapes, and the the art that they create, write or consume makes me think of a time when I toured Poland, the Czech Republic, and listened to one of Iceland’s much-loved bands, Sigur Rós. A complete out-of-body experience, the band and all of us, under the open sky… I feel that Iceland was the closest thing to my heart then.

And there is always that curiosity about discoveries and new knowledge, because the first fairy tales and picture books I read were from the then USSR, published by the Children’s Newspaper publishing house from Gornji Milanovac, containing The Little Sparrow by Maksim Gorky with illustrations by Yevgeny Charushin, and I remember that for days I would repeat that name, admire it, and also wonder how something could be drawn so beautifully. Or, Forest Floors by Mikhail Mikhailovich Prishvin, and its circulation of 10 thousand copies – I can’t even imagine that today! I fell hopelessly in love with Russia, which continued later with learning the language and fortunately I had wonderful teachers, both in primary and secondary school; birch trees, Siberia, the snow, poetry, the darkness, and again, as with Iceland, the expanses, melancholy, the effort, the will to live. And how can I not mention the land of Chekhov, beloved Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, I could go on for days…

Greece. I am currently watching the Durrells; because of The Alexandria Quartet, because of the sea, because of Catullus, Ovid, and again the sea, the sea, the sea. Just imagine a library in a Greek village, rocks, music, cheese, wine, and song, and at every point the eyes are filled with the sea – what more could you want than life itself! I will say the same for Italy, which I have been discovering little by little over the years. And this is how we can map the world, even arrive to the drawing of all the non-maps (laughter), as well as of the map of Jelena’s possible and impossible travels to be undertaken throughout her life.

  • If you could meet over coffee with any author, who would it be and why?

    Petar Kočić, my first love, whom I am grateful to – this will sound silly – but, after reading his story “Through the Storm“, I came home and told my parents that I wanted to study literature, immediately, if possible, in the 7th grade! And when I visited his hometown a couple of years ago, while travelling through the area, all that I had read became clearer. I was able to evoke all of the impressions from the first reading, because it was difficult for me to explain to little Jelena, what had made her so sad and upset, for it was only a story written on a piece of paper, in a book as if it was not real, but it somehow became the most realistic thing around you; the cow, the storm, the grandfather and the boy. Grandmother Rosa was my Petar Kočić, and vice versa. She spoke, and I read his works. And again, I was hundreds of miles away from nature, the river Ibar, the mountains and childhood plants, however, it seemed somehow that the expanses where he grew up were the same, or as if I had appropriated them over time. 

Perhaps, I envision us walking together, not talking, just sitting by the river when he was a boy, or approaching the end of life, and the days he spent in “The Doctor’s Tower”, in the street Kneza Miloša 103.

  • Did you ever think about organizing a Bookshop event and which author would be your dream guest?

    As I am currently obsessed with Anne Carson and her poetry, it would definitely be her. However, Ana Akhmatova as well; as key segment of this answer and of this day. I dream of meeting certain contemporaries, so, may these encounters happen.
  • You run a wonderful project which combines the written and the visual. How did you come up with the idea for that?

    The wish to start such a project, the literary and photo editorial “Visibaba” (Snowdrop), happened in high school when I first read Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We. I was fascinated before reading and choosing both the subtitle and the title; and I thought that one day I would like to “create” photographs based on all the subtitles, the title, and everything I had read, experienced, learned, became aware of, and all the inspirations that were born from reading. I still keep those bullet points: in the form of notes. As we are of limited time and seeing, curiosity and the passion for new knowledge and interpretations were able to confuse me quite thoroughly,whereas studies of literature were a logical consequence. In the case of photography, as well as of my other loves: anthropology, religious studies, biology, film and theatre directing, I would make up along the way for not opting to make them a part of my vocation , I promised myself.

Photo by Dunja Djolovic
  • You read various genres – do you have a favourite?

    Let me say, poetry! It is what brings me most joy. Discovering new poetic voices, going back to the ones I discovered as a girl… What I have read has only really sorted itself and become discernible now, but there is always room for new meanings, communiques, cracks and turns.
  • If you were to edit an anthology, what would be the idea behind the collection?

    I also like poems about travel, so something along these lines, an imagology-based and travel-based poetry anthology.
  • And our final question for this feature – do you agree with the idea proposed by many authors who claim that the process of reading can enhance empathy?

Definitely! Just open Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet!

Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within yourself the possibility of shaping and forming as a particularly happy and pure way of living; train yourself to it – but take whatever comes with great trust, and if only it comes out of your own will, out of some need of your inmost being, take it upon yourself and hate nothing.

As part of the interview, we’ve also asked Jelena Vukicevic to choose books she considers worthy of praise, which have not been in the public eye. She wholeheartedly recommends the following eight titles:

  1. Nox by Anne Carson

Anne Carson, as inexplicable as always, she is the genius who’s able to make poetry out of anything. What I really admire about her is that she does not perceive a book merely as a text, but as an artefact. Nox is my favourite. She wrote a sort of a mourning account dedicated to her brother in a notebook, while translating and interpreting Catullus’s elegy for his own brother. This notebook was then reproduced in utmost detail, including all of the tea stains. Nox is the Latin word for night; however, it also makes us think of box. And, each of her books is completely different from the previous one.

  • A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes

Barns’s book is a story in which he plays a postmodernist game with interpretations of world history in his own retelling. For instance, in the first story, he offers his own account of Noah’s ark from the viewpoint of a woodworm in the ark’s board. Hilarious.

  • The White Hotel by D. M. Thomas

This is a story about Freud, his patient Anna, the massacre of the Jews in Babji Yar, is very fluid genre-wise, and is, nevertheless, ingenious.

  • The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

A story about “Visceral Realists”, poets in Mexico City, who embark on a mad search for their poetic muse, role model, etc. ; but that is completely irrelevant, the book is a 100 miles per hour ride from the first to the last page, introducing countless characters…

  • The Erl-King by Michel Tournier

Tournier is a great love of mine, and The Earl-King is a story about Abel Tiffauges, an ogre who protected children in a Nazi castle, a Nayi boarding-school, and it is filled with repetitive motifs, versions of myths – a true gem.

  • Sonnenschein by Daša Drndič

Daša Drndić is Daša, impossible to re-tell, the voice of pointed documentary reporting on every type of crime, seemingly asexual, but essentially her writing is uncompromising for women. Sonnenschein deals with the abduction of children from their parents in World War II in the area around Gorizia and Trieste, alongside numerous other stories about similar atrocities. It is a blend of Kiš, Bernhard and Zebald all in one.

  • Doba mjedi by Slobodan Šnajder

Šnajder’s novel is one of the best books from the former Yugoslavia that has been published in the last twenty years or so. It is a story about his father, a Volksdeutscher who was recruited from Slavonia to SS units in Poland – Picaresque, Schweik-like, and about his mother who was in the partisans. Emphasis is placed more on the father, but there is no unwelcome sentence in the book concerning the other party.

  • Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald

Zebald, Austerlitz, a personal favourite, nothing and everything happens to him. He uses photographs, documents, essays, stories about seemingly ordinary things, and beneath everything, there lies something monstrous, the Holocaust, a German’s confrontation with the guilt of his forefathers; The book is pure genius.

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Sanja Gligorić