Steffie Cvek in the Jaws of Life

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Dubravka Ugresic

With International Woman’s Day approaching, it seems an opportune time to read “a representative piece of women’s writing”, as Dubravka Ugresic playfully refers to her novella Steffie Cvek in the Jaws of Life. Ugresic begins by drawing comparisons between the type-writer and the sewing machine and goes on to structure her novella through the extended metaphor of creating a garment. Each chapter refers to a stage in the tailoring process – for example pleating, hemming and pinning – and is also marked with various lines symbolising further actions like cutting, gathering or smocking. Though my knowledge of sewing is extremely limited, it is clear that some thought has gone into this. For example each chapter is prefaced by a short piece of domestic advice, and each of these is marked out to be cut as they are not necessary to the story. More amusingly, other sections are marked to be stretched (“The text may be resized in any direction in case of unfulfilled expectations”) or to be taken in (“The text may be taken in as required with critical darts”). The subtitles also seem apt – the chapter entitled ‘Steffie meets some men’ is linked to “concealed button fastenings”, and, while I can’t quiet explain why this is appropriate, it is.

Ugresic’s humorous approach to ‘women’s writing’ can be seen from the prologue, ‘Designing the Garment’, where under the heading ‘Material’, she prints a series of letters addressed to an agony aunt, finally alighting on Steffie’s letter as the raw material for her fabric / fabrication:

“I am twenty five years old and a typist by profession. I live with my aunt. I don’t think I’m very attractive, but some people tell me I am. I’m different from everybody my age: they’re all married or have boyfriends, and I have no-one. I’m lonely and sad and don’t know what to do.”

In the first chapter Steffie is overcome by despair when shelling peas (you don’t have to take my word for it, each chapter title provides a neat summary). When she seeks the advice of her friends, they offer the same solution:

“…a guy’s the most important thing in a girl’s life.”

Although Mariana tells her that “there are a million ways to catch a guy”, it turns out that there are only three: clothes (Steffie falls asleep while reading a fashion magazine); figure (Steffie diets but loses no weight at all); and make up (her aunt tells her a story about a woman who used match ends to line her eyes and blinded herself – though, to be fair, this is one of the few women who survive her aunt’s stories). Despite this lack of success, Steffie does meet some men – a truck driver, a he-man, and an intellectual. All are inadequate in various amusing ways (perhaps it’s because I am a man that this was my favourite chapter), and Steffie attempts to free herself from the need for male company by embracing culture, acquiring a pet, and learning a foreign language.

The novella has a wonderful lightness of tone that belies its serious examination of sexual politics and, in particular, the way in which women can attempt to define themselves through men. Ugresic uses the tricks of post-modernism with an enchanting joie de vivre, not only intervening herself in the story more than once (“Poor Steffie Cvek! One slap in the face after another!”), but providing us with a series of endings, including one chapter where her mother, her aunt and two other women discuss how the story would have continued, and a final section of what Alasdair Gray calls ‘critic fuel’, discussing her intentions and inspirations.

Ugresic has suffered in English from being unable to retain a single publisher, though this seems to be largely because she is too interesting, restlessly searching for new ways to write. This would strike me as a very good place to begin to become acquainted with her.

Danger rating: despite my lowest ever mark at school being for sewing, I was able to escape with all my fingers intact. Steffie Cvek in the Jaws of Life is translated by Celia Hawkesworth and published by Dalkey Archive Press in a volume with some equally entertaining short stories, Lend Me Your Character.

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