Novi Heder 2021 001 1

To Live for Literature down to Your Very Last Strand of DNA

Jasmina Mihajlović


I have been asked by the “Heritage of Rača” foundation to write a text about the life and work of my husband - Milorad Pavić. I knew it was not going to be easy, given that only or already nine months have gone by since my husband died (one full reverse ”pregnancy”), but I didn’t think it was going to be so hard. The pain you feel for a loved one is normal, they say; there are entire physical and physiological amplitudes of sadness, but this text lay heavy on my heart because of something else. First of all, how do I write in the past tense about someone who just yesterday was my physical reality? How do I reconcile the essential schizophrenia between private and public? How do I stay objective, yet subjective?

Despite being professionally engaged in the work, biography, and bio-bibliography of Milorad Pavić for over a quarter of a century, I feel like I now know nothing about him. He was my husband, my lover, my writer and that’s enough me to fear I cannot be impartial after his death.

At first I thought I could write something like a supplement to his biography, provide details of the last years of Pavić’s life, which were very hard for both of us because of the perfidious underground actions of the Serbian literary scene, because of illness, misfortunes, controversies, and then I found out I suffer from auto-censorship. However, as a biographical and autobiographical theme has always played the main role in my books of fiction, I was astounded to learn how the post mortem condition of your beloved can cause such an essential non-freedom of speech. It’s not that I’m afraid of the judgement of public opinion, or restricted by any kind of ideological consequences. No! I am restricted by my own emotions!

So it’s best to write about how Milorad Pavić wrote, created, what his literary workshop looked like, which part was craft, and which the finger of God.

Pavić wrote by hand, and to take notes he used notebooks without lines or squares. They were mostly small so as to fit in his pocket, with nicely designed covers. Only the “notes” for the ”Dictionary of the Khazars” were written in large notebooks that looked like thick books. They were bound by a bookbinder in a roughly woven fabric resembling coarse cloth.

The notes are varied. Either an idea, or a sentence, or instructions for the structure of a book, sometimes a layout or a drawing. They are rarely a continuous piece of writing several pages long. These notes would always start with a dash, and when they were implemented, he would add a vertical line and that ”plus” would confirm that the thought had found its place in the final manuscript.

Apart from his notebooks, other writers’ books that he read are all full of his handwritten sentences. Some refer to the book itself, but most are related to what he was writing at the time. The books served as an inspiration, a stimulus. Given that he was a passionate reader all his life, I can safely say that our entire library is actually the manuscript legacy of Milorad Pavić.

I have to reflect on Pavić as a reader as well. He was completely obsessed with reading. When I close my eyes I almost cannot imagine him without a book in his hands. Apart from our enviable library at home, apart from books that we received almost every day one way or another, he used to buy books in bookstores, but even more frequently he would stop by street vendors selling old books, have a look and almost always buy one or two.

He was horrified if he saw a book still in its plastic wrapping, unopened. He used to say that that book was stillborn if it wasn’t read, if there was nothing jotted down in it, even just the owner’s trivial shopping list, a coffee stain or the outline of the bottom of a glass. And just as I was “hygienically” horrified of battered books, he truly loved them. And he hoarded them.

It seems incredible that Pavić, a great advocate of the electronic book, was someone who equally enjoyed archives (he used to tell me that the manuscripts and books smelled of biscuits), the scent of new books fresh off the press, as much as the sparkle of electronic screens, modern technologies.

Any book he was reading, beside notes, would also be full of folded corners, and he didn’t bother underlining parts that he liked in pencil; he would use his fingernail instead. Our books are full of ”invisible ink”, notches made by his nail. He used to read several books at the same time and almost never left a book unfinished, however much it annoyed him. When I remarked that modern times do not tolerate wasting energy, he would answer that he was a professional, and not an amateur reader. He would often get upset when it seemed to him that a writer was going to ”mess up” the plot, the ending or something like that. Since we had a ritual of reading out loud, when he would read to me in the evening or directly translate a book, he used to add sentences of his own, feigning ignorance. Sometimes it took me an entire “paragraph” to figure out that he was ad hoc adding his own ideas to somebody else’s book.

He used to write with a pencil, because ball-point and fountain pens won't write if you use them lying down. He preferred flat, so called stonemason lead pencils, which left a thick, greasy mark. To me they looked like the crayons of Arabian women. Black, lithe, passionate. When the “Dictionary of the Khazars” was published in France, Pierre Belfond, his publisher and global copyright agent at the time, bought him an expensive golden fountain pen. During the return flight to Belgrade, the ink reservoir exploded from the pressure, ruined his jacket and he never used a fountain pen again. He used to say that goose quills were much safer.

Milorad Pavić was the kind of the writer who never had an “official” pen with him in the outside world. He always forgot it at home and worried greatly when he found himself in a situation, which happened all the time, because people were constantly stopping him for his autograph, where he didn’t have a pen. Like a dutiful wife, I fitted all his jacket pockets with fine pens, but nothing helped. He would lose them at once. 

As for his writing, he would enter the notes from his notebooks and the margins of the aforementioned books into his computer. He would gradually construct his novel, story, play, whatever he was working on at the time. He often wrote at night. When he got caught up in a creative trance, which was all the time, he would work to the point of total exhaustion. He wouldn’t hear of preserving his health at the expense of his writing. He often resembled someone he couldn’t “come off” writing. A literary addict, Milorad Pavić was certainly someone who lived for literature down to his last strand of DNA.

In many statements, interviews, Pavić often sincerely wondered which would be the last book that he would read. Now, sadly, I can give him the answer. That book would be (was) the ”Bosnian Chronicle” by Ivo Andrić. Reread for the umpteenth time.

Half of Pavić's preparation for writing a book consisted of collecting material, hard work, studying history, using various handbooks, maps, atlases, church calendars, Vuk’s ”Dictionary”, the Bible, internet sites, pictorial monographs, journeys to the scene of the event, listening to the language of the market, conversations in cafés, and it would all gently and very slowly fit together. The other half, the one the public knows almost nothing about, and which is a gift from God, are Milorad’s dreams. He dreamt a lot, frequently, very intensely. He always took a nap in the afternoon, so as to get, as he used to say, two days in one, and then he would dream. Soon after he fell asleep his body would start to twitch, they were almost convulsions (neurologists would know which phase of sleep that is). Then he would wake up with a start and each time he would tell me: ”Ah, I fell asleep and had a strange dream”. Then he would spend half an hour describing unbelievable perfectly rounded scenes, the dreaming of which lasted maybe a minute or two! I never did understand that temporal disproportion.

Most of those dreams would later be incorporated into the text he was writing, with very few corrections of style or craftsmanship. Because those dreams were, in themselves, already perfectly stylized. His dreams were entire synopses, something that would have taken a huge effort in his waking hours. But, Milorad Pavić’s writing was far from being a product of the inexhaustible abyss of the unconscious. In his waking hours he was a workaholic, someone who approached writing with almost military discipline and responsibility bordering on the statesmanlike, rather than the artistic.

When he would grandly announce that he had finished writing a certain book, that would actually mean that he would put another year’s worth of hard work and effort into the manuscript. And even when he handed the book over  to the printer, his work on the manuscript did not end there. Pavić's publishers were alarmed by their writer, because they knew he would make changes to the very last minute: to the layout, to repeated editions, endlessly. He truly took care of his every book right up to its complete finish. He worked with the technical editor, proofreader, translator… He would go through each translation of his every book which was to be translated into English, French, Russian or German, as many times as the translator would request. On the other hand, when author’s copies arrived from countries like Armenia, Japan, Korea, Israel or China, we were sometimes unable to determine which book it even was, unless there was some piece of information written in the Latin script.

He often used to tell me that there was one date crucial for his literary career. And not figuratively; there was one very specific day. One page of the manuscript of the ”Dictionary of the Khazars” has this written on it: ”Lexicon novel – entries, names and events, places. When you read the lexicon you get the whole of the novel.“ Then the following note: ”8. XII 79, evening. From now on I am no longer working on studies of literature.”

I should add that the ”Dictionary of the Khazars” was published in 1984.

A huge amount of time was spent in business correspondence with numerous publishers from all over the world, with translators, Slavists and readers.  Fame does not just drop into your lap, and a lot of really hard work goes into it, which cannot be stopped even if you wanted to. It’s a kind of perpetuum mobile which doesn’t permit relaxing, negligence, bohemian lifestyles or arrogance. A person must bear the responsibility of his own success. Many times I lamented that literature and literature-related business would consume our personal life. I am not a person so addictedly in love with literature. I am in love with love. But, I must confess that Pavić was not afraid to show his love, his emotional side both in and outside of books, which is very rare in the patriarchal region of the Balkans. To so openly love everything you truly love is an extraordinary freedom in everyone’s life.

Just as he used to passionately plow pages in books with his fingernail, a tangible trace of the force with which he created still remains in front of his desk. The parquetry around his chair has long since lost its varnish. It has all been worn down, scraped off, to the very texture of the wood. When we renovated our apartment several years ago, we intentionally left that surface as it was, gnawed bare from writing.

(Translated by Stefan Arbutina)