Course description

Posted: January 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

In storytelling are combined “the lore of faraway places, such as a much-traveled man brings home, with the lore of the past, as it best reveals itself to natives of a place”, Walter Benjamin reflected. How does storytelling change, one is tempted to ask, in an age when faraway places become easily accessible through travel or information technologies, and when hardly anyone lives long enough in a place to absorb whatever might thicken, over time, into a transmissible past?

This course will be a foray into the rich texture of short stories written in the twentieth century, mostly in Eastern and Central Europe. They tell about the disintegration of a life-experience that used to be transmitted orally in a genre that has changed dramatically in form and function over the past centuries. There is, however, much to ponder in them – from the phantom church floating on a river close to the Danube Delta, to abandoned buildings with facades renovated overnight for the Communist propaganda spectacle to unfold in all its mystifying splendor ; from Jewish gangsters in Odessa to a man who wakes up in the morning transformed into an unwholesome bug. There are fascinating objects bearing the aura of the past in a Sarajevo Market, shrines for secrets of a distant war; and captive or exiled minds taking imaginative flight into the fantastic as an escape from oppressive regimes. Finally, modern travelers perambulating like mysterious signs in elliptical stories, footloose immigrants who weave from scraps their version of the American dream. What has been lost, and what has been gained?

The “other Europe” that we will map out in this class has not only lived in the shadow of Western Europe’s greatness, but it was also obliterated for decades by a “red curtain” which, despite having been torn down with velvet or murderous gestures in the late 1980s, still obscures its image. The stories that we shall read go beyond revealing the shared Communist past of Eastern European countries, by bringing to light rich ambiguities of experience, contradictory impulses and utopian spaces. In tension here is, on one hand, an intense desire for the values of Western, late capitalist modernity denied by Communism, and, on the other hand, a return to the past and its legends, myths and folk tales – stories – as an escape from the humiliations of daily life inflicted by oppressive regimes. In other words, both a longing for that which, according to Benjamin, impoverishes our experience and storytelling, and the refuge into the consolation and wisdom of stories.

A detailed discussion of  Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” (“Der Erzähler”) will introduce the subject of storytelling. For a contemporary perspective on the role of stories today, we will listen to Turkish writer Elif Shafak’s talk “The Politics of Fiction.”

The following texts will be on our reading list next:

– Isaac Babel, from The Odessa Stories (1923)

– Veza Canetti, “The Ogre”, in Yellow Street (1932-33), and “New Boy”, in Viennese Short Stories (1933)

– Franz Kafka, “The Metamorphosis” (1915)

– Alexander Wat, “Lucifer Unemployed”, in Lucifer Unemployed (1927)

– Abram Tertz (Andrei Sinyavsky), “Pkhentz”, in Fantastic Stories (1961) and “Note” (from “On Socialist Realism”, p. vii-viii)

– Mircea Eliade, “Youth without Youth”, in Youth without Youth and Other Novellas (1976), and “Examen leprosorum”, in Preuves 14 (April, 1952)

– Milan Kundera, “Words Misunderstood”, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)

– Peter Krištúfek, from The Prompter, in Hemon, ed. Best European Fiction 2010

– Igor Stiks, “At the Sarajevo Market”, in Hemon, ed. Best European Fiction 2010

– Herta Müller, “Nadirs”, in Nadirs (1988)

– Elo Viiding, “Foreign Women”, in Hemon, ed. Best European Fiction 2010

– Aleksandar Hemon, “Good Living”, in Love and Obstacles (2009)

– Ana Blandiana, “The Phantom Church”, in The Phantom Church and Other Stories (1982)

– Andrej Blatnik, from You Do Understand? in Hemon, ed. Best European Fiction 2010


Writing assignments

  • For class discussion (students will sign up for one of each):

– Historical contextualizing report (about 2 pages, for a 10-minute presentation at the beginning of Tuesday class)

– General audience review of short story (1 page, also for Tue)

– Short position paper (2 pages or so, post Wed for Thursday class)

– Response, in the form of a critical engagement with the position paper above (also 2 pages, bring to Thu class)

  • Papers

– Two short critical essays (5-7 pages, prompts to follow) – in-class workshop of paper one (week 6), feedback from peer on paper two and team-workshops with instructor (week 12)

– Final research project (roughly 12 pages) in which students can build on previous work – project proposal due two weeks before end of classes, small-group workshops, followed by  individual conferences with instructor; paper due on the last day of exam period

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