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On the Edge of Reason by Miroslav Krleža
A Novel of Folly and Humanity
By Miroslav Krleža, translated from Croatian by Zora Depolo, with a contribution by Joshua Cohen.
192 pages. New Directions. $16.95.
The flights and relocations experienced by the narrator of Miroslav Krleža’s 1938 novel On the Edge of Reason are many, but to every setting he brings his power of careful observation and judgment. His commentary on his surroundings is most remarkable when he visits Rome, “that Palatine residence of high imperial dignitaries of divine origin,” which has become “a city of tedious moonlight and operettas intended for the foreigners who meander through that ancient cemetery of Europe.” For Rome is not an eternal city but the place where it is clearest that “everything was transient, would disappear and vanish irrevocably, sink in time like the shadows of the pigeons’ wings on the windowpane.” It is as if he were “observing modern times in retrospect, watching them in the light of the barbaric centuries that are approaching.” But what causes him greatest despair is what he sees in the present: the Vatican has been overrun by “barbarians” who are defined by their “outlooks on life” which are variously represented through the symbols worn on their clothing, the “tricolors, fascios, swastikas, stars, globes, lilies, crosses.” The narrator goes on:
Our times systematically ridicule everything that is human in a human being. According to a higher plan, our times destroy human impulses in the individual. And where are all these people traveling to, with their enamel symbols in their buttonholes? Why are they divided into classes and sub-classes according to their “outlooks on life”? What are they looking for here at the Sistine Chapel?
On the Edge of Reason is clearly a novel that refuses to have an “outlook on life.”
“But wait!” someone reading this review will shout: aren’t all those descriptions of Rome, and the barbarians who have descended upon the city, merely another “outlook on life”?
This is not the best question to ask of the novel, for a mediocre mind will answer this question by saying that On the Edge of Reason can be classified as a novel with an “unreliable narrator.” Pah! Only someone with an “outlook on life” could suggest such a rancid cliche. A serious mind will understand, however, that the narrator is not contradicting himself when he rails against outlooks on life. He had himself spent his “whole, humble, insignificant life” with an outlook on life, and now he is obsessed with where it brought him: it made him a “top-hatted folly” perched “at the head of some man-established institution.” Reflecting on his past, inauthentic life, the narrator imagines himself saying, “Every word I have uttered up to this day has been right and proper in my highly learned dissertations [...] I am a man who, on principle, has lived my orderly and honorable life within my income, without debts, without moral, civil, or other stain, without political suspicion.”
The narrator's top-hatted folly is a product of his conformity, and the folly ceases when he starts to speak “according to human logic.” Only then can his words – and thereby his life – amount to something more than an outlook on life. This brings us to a second and more pertinent question: what is human logic and what does it lead us to? The entire novel is spent in answering this question.
The narrative begins with the narrator, a successful lawyer in a provincial Croatian city, attending a soirée of the local elite. He and other prominent persons are gathered around the city’s leading industrialist, who is bragging about the night he killed four men while defending his property in the chaos of 1918. It is clear that the vagrants he shot posed no threat to his life, but he boasts about the murders as if it was a great war story. The narrator, without fully realizing what he is doing, comments, “it was all a crime, a bloody thing, moral insanity.” The industrialist, and the other party guests, are shocked, but the narrator, when confronted, does not recant his words; instead, with a newly found courage and confidence that he had lacked all his life, the narrator insists that the industrialist had committed a crime.
The narrator is a lawyer, but it is clear that by “crime” he is not talking in the legal sense, but in the ethical, essential sense. This crime stems from “moral insanity,” by which the narrator means a lack of human logic; the elite members of society he has surrounded himself with are unable “to think along the lines of any logic that does not bring about some kind of profit.” But with those few words of truth spoken off-handedly at a party, the narrator makes a great rupture away from the moral insanity of elite society and adopts, or perhaps returns to, human logic.
At this point, the actual unreliable narrator of On the Edge of Reason appears: rumor, which soon convinces the town that the narrator attempted to murder the industrialist. Even as confidants approach him privately and warn him of the danger he is in, the narrator remains firm in the principles of human logic. More and more scandal surrounds him, and soon, the narrator’s friends abandon him, his wife leaves him, he loses his job as a lawyer, he moves to a hotel of ill-repute, and he is brought to trial. These indignities and calumny do not break him; he continues to live and celebrate his pure life. At one point, the police come to his hotel room, and he gets out of bed and greets them “completely naked, and as innocent as Adam.” He had been in bed with a notorious woman, Jadviga Jesenka, a woman who also lives according to human logic; “I am sleeping as a hotel guest in my own bed, involved in promiscuity, if you don’t mind,” the narrator tells the police. Promiscuity and innocence, polar opposites in the conformist world, are, as the narrator discovers, actually complementary.
I will say once again that when we read On the Edge of Reason, we must not ourselves adopt an “outlook on life,” and especially not one that would classify this novel as an example of modernism. Modernism! That absurd piece of academic language that grabs from the twentieth century an odd assortment or unrelated artworks and then covers them with some philosophical mystification. Those who call On the Edge of Reason modernist are probably just engaging in intellectual lassitude; unfortunately, some will go farther and assume that because On the Edge of Reason is modernist, then we must not take the narrator seriously, that his thoughts are just the frenzy and madness spoken in a meaningless, futile universe. As I have made clear, the narrator of On the Edge of Reason in fact understands the universe and its moral obligations very well. He may live in a “confused, chaotic, and unsettled world” where most people choose to “sail with a compass, however cheap it may be,” but he chooses to sail “according to the stars.”
More importantly, though the novel takes place inside his head, the narrator does much more than just think – he observes, he speaks with others, and he acts decisively. He presents a model of how to live. The knowledge the narrator gains of the word does not bring him happiness or contentment, it does not even give him much reassurance when facing the privations of the world, but with this knowledge fused to his personal temper he can recognize not just truth but beauty:
Man can hide himself, escape, disappear, unburden himself when listening to music. He can dissolve in the sound waves of a voice, sink and submerge in the bitter and dark amplitude of a cello, the oscillations of a flute. The velvet of the rest, a rain of mild sounds, the vibrations of the veils of music, the thundering of the waterfall, carry us along and we finish in the abyss, in starry, stormy, dark-brown depths…
In her essay “The Spirit of the Kakanian Province,” Dubravka Ugrešić briefly summarizes modern Croatian literature. The late 19th and early 20th century Croatian novels that Ugrešić writes about are hard to distinguish from one another. They all feature similar characters, similar plots, with three or four themes they all obsess over. A bright young Croatian man goes off to some major European city for education (usually Vienna), becomes enamored with European culture, but on his return to Croatia feels spiritually stunted. He is then entangled in some local scandal, and commits suicide. “A naïve reader might conclude that Croats in the late 19th and early twentieth century used the sea for nothing but drowning,” Ugrešić writes. “Fortunately, tourism developed in the meanwhile.”
Then Ugrešić turns to Miroslav Krleža:
Miroslav Krleža de-provincialized Croatian literature, imposing exacting literary standards. These standards were rarely later attained by Krleža's literary progeny, which is one of the answers to the question of why the canonical Krleža is still a despised writer in Croatia today. In an ideal literary republic, all other Croatian writers, including those mentioned above, would be nothing but a footnote—to Miroslav Krleža.
Ugrešić is right, though perhaps she does not go far enough. Just as all writers should follow Krleža’s literary standards, all readers should follow his narrator’s moral standards. I was considering ending this review by saying that of course not all of us will have the courage to live like the narrator of On the Edge of Reason or some other blah blah blah conclusion that makes it clear to the reader “No, you don’t actually have to change your life, it’s just a polite suggestion, if you feel like it.” I will not back down: I think we are all obliged to live according to “human logic.” To stand upon the edge of reason means putting yourself between conformity and madness. There is nowhere else to live.