Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow was recently short-listed for the Best Translated Book Award, but the first of his novels to appear in English was Natural Novel over ten years ago in 2005 (translated by Zornitsa Hristova), having originally appeared in Bulgaria in 1999. Reading reviews of The Physics of Sorrow only reminded me what a strange and unsettling novel Natural Novel had been, and the suggestion by Mytwostotinki that June be Bulgarian Literature Month seemed the perfect excuse to dig it out and read it again.
The novel is a series of fifty short chapters which occasionally coincide in terms of plot or topic. An Editor’s note (presented as the third chapter rather than an introduction) explains that the ‘novel’ was found in a notebook “stashed in a self-made envelope” addressed to the editor:
“A certain man was trying to talk about his failed marriage and the novel (I don’t know why exactly I decided it was a novel) was based on the impossibility of relating this failure. In fact the novel itself could hardly be summarised.”
The writer is called Georgi Gospodiniv – and so is the editor. When the editor finds the writer he is homeless, having saved only an old wicker chair from his previous existence (we later hear the story of the chair’s purchase). By the time the editor has arrange for the novel’s publication he has lost track of the writer:
“I told myself maybe it all turned out okay. The man pulled himself together, maybe the publication in my newspaper got him out of his chair and off to work somewhere, maybe he even started writing again… Finally I took out the publishing contact and did the last thing I could do for my namesake. I signed it.”
The rest of the novel, we assume, is made up of the contents of the notebooks. Some chapters tell the story of the narrator’s wife leaving him, having fallen pregnant to another man (echoing the confused ‘parentage’ of the novel). In other chapters he ruminates on the kind of novel he would like to write, if, indeed, a novel can be written anymore:
“How can a novel even be possible these days when we no longer have a sense of the tragic? How can even the idea of a novel be possible when the sublime is gone and all we have is everyday life?”
A natural novel is one which coalesces naturally from its beginnings – at one point Gospodinov uses the beginnings of other famous novels as his starting point for this process. However, Gospodinov is not only using the word ‘natural’ in the sense of growing naturally, but also in reference to natural functions, hence a scattered selection of chapters on the toilet ( I was pleased to see that Trainspotting got as mention), which leads later to a natural history of flies, which in turn returns us to the novel:
“The fragmentation used by some novelists as a literary device is in fact borrowed from the fly’s eyes.”
Gospodinov has a lively intelligence and a restless imagination. When his apartment is broken into, he immediately creates a story of a woman who refuses to allow burglars to take her television as she is watching a soap. Other short stories appear throughout, and at one point another narrative, Notes of a Naturalist, is inserted. He also has a sharp sense of humour: a series of chapters entitled A List of Pleasures in the 19—s ends in the 1980s with, “I can’t remember any pleasures.”
However, overall, the novel never seemed in danger of becoming more than the sum of its parts, or indeed, the sum of its parts. It lack the cumulative power of, for example, David Markson’s This is Not a Novel. Despite the recurrent divorce proceedings, the reader’s emotional investment is slim, and though there are flashes of humour, wry smiles rather than tearful laughter is more likely: I would certainly dispute the claim displayed on the back cover that it is “insanely funny and moving.” On the other hand, it demonstrates a writer prepared to take risks, and for every chapter which misfires there is another where every word hits the mark.