Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The mystery of the Khazars

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A good book is like a journey, for the reader as well as the writer, and some journeys take longer than others: I just made it to the end of one that took me fifteen years to complete. This book is Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars, but before I talk about it here, I need to explain why I find novels like this so fascinating. According to the Norwegian scholar Espen J. Aareseth, there are two kinds of literature: ergodic, which places nontrivial demands on the reader in assembling or traversing the text, and nonergodic, which asks nothing more of the reader than “eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages.” Aarseth defines the former term rather narrowly, but for me, it refers to books that constantly remind you of your process as a reader, often by forcing you to regularly turn pages in both directions. And not surprisingly, such works tend to cast a certain spell over compulsive readers who may not be able to finish them, including me.

As a result, I’ve always been drawn to this sort of story, perhaps because my own fiction is so relentlessly linear. The trouble is that such novels often promise more than they’re finally able to deliver, once all the pieces have been put into place. House of Leaves, for instance, does a terrifying job of hinting at some unspeakable horror lying in wait for readers who can make it all the way through—it’s the only book of the past decade that gave me nightmares—but it ultimately disintegrates before our eyes. Cloud Atlas, as I’ve noted before, is a brilliant piece of writing and imagination, but it finally comes off as a set of nested novelettes with only occasional stabs at larger meaning. Until recently, the only ergodic novel I’d read that really lived up to its promise was Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which does exactly what such a novel ought to do: implicate the reader, inextricably, in the process of its own creation, until it seems less like a book than a place we’ve gone to visit and can never quite escape.

Which brings me to Dictionary of the Khazars. I bought this novel by the Serbian poet Milorad Pavic more than fifteen years ago, intrigued both by its design, which is among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen in a novel, and its unique structure: it’s arranged as a dictionary, or rather three parallel dictionaries, the entries of which can be read in any order, either by following cross-references or simply browsing at random. In the years that followed, I often leafed through the book, to the point where I know certain entries extremely well, but never read more than a third of the material, mostly because it was hard to keep track of how much I had remaining. And while I never forgot it, I don’t think I would have finished it if I hadn’t recently become interested in the historical Khazars themselves, as part of the novel I’m currently trying to write. On a whim, then, along with the more factual sources I was reading, I decided to give Pavic another try, on the off chance he could provide me with some useful ideas.

And what I discovered, much to my astonishment, is that this is one of the few novels of its kind that really lives up to its promise. Dictionary of the Khazars constantly hints at a greater pattern that will be visible to readers who finish the entire book, and amazingly enough, it delivers—when you’ve read the last few pages, the full picture locks into place, and the effect is shattering and unforgettable. The result makes House of Leaves or Cloud Atlas seem half-baked by comparison, and the difference is less one of inspiration than of pure craft: Pavic, who died several years ago, is just as inventive and fanciful as his ergodic peers, but if the book’s individual entries reflect a maddening poetic imagination, its overall structure is ruthlessly logical. (Note that the order of the entries isn’t entirely random: at least one crucial entry and the book’s second appendix aren’t cross-referenced anywhere else, which subtly ensures that the reader will approach them last.) It’s nothing less than one of the best modern novels I’ve read in a long time. And it only took me fifteen years to get here.

Written by nevalalee

August 7, 2012 at 10:23 am

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