The first time I heard of Ana Šomlo was when she and I appeared in the same literary magazine, “Pismo”. I had just returned from my studies in the States and was trying to get to know the literary scene in Serbia and figure out whether there was a place for me here. My father recommended that I got in touch with Raša Livada, an imaginative and amazingly well-read Serbian poet (who, sadly, passed away several years ago) and an editor of one of the best Serbian literary magazines for modern prose and poetry in translation.
So, I sent him a few prose poems by Russell Edson, translated into Serbian, and Raša Livada took a chance on me and published them. Then I sent him a translated story by Barry Hannah and he like that as well. Soon we started collaborating on a larger project where I translated about 70 pages of modern Irish stories and in one of those editions of “Pismo” where my contributions appeared, I also saw Ana Šomlo’s name on the cover, next to a title about Hebrew poetry in translation. However, I think that title was as far as I got with Ana that time.
A few years later I accidentally saw her name again, this time next to the title: My World of Books. I took a small peek inside the covers and got a very nice feeling from the little I read in there. I bought the book and had such a wonderful experience reading it, that I re-read it again a few weeks ago – and I hardly ever read the same book twice.
My World of Books is a passionate, curious, rich diary of a woman who lives for literature. She was born in Yugoslavia, but she is Jewish and moved to Jerusalem at some point to spend her time between Serbia and Israel, writing, translating, reading and promoting Hebrew literature. She has a way of getting the reader interested in writers one has never heard of before and topics one never thought would interest him/her. She writes about how a book is the first thing her hand touches in the morning, even before she opens her eyes, and how a book she’s reading often leads her to another, and another. I love that curiosity – how she always wants to learn more about a book and its author, how she consults dictionaries and encyclopedias to grasp every possible meaning of what’s written.
That is what I lack in my reading and writing, that profound interest and effort to get everything out of a book. I feel like I am superficial in my habit to do everything quickly, to skip things that require effort to be understood (for example, I am currently reading Rabelais’ “Gargantua and Pantagruel” and I am skipping all writings in Latin, even though there are sometimes whole passages with dialogues in Latin… and though I am truly enjoying the book, I feel like I am a phony, whereas Ana Šomlo is what I call an old generation of patient, serious readers.)
Per Ana’s recommendation, I’ll surely be reading Amos Oz, Orly Castel-Bloom, Nina Berberova, Zeruya Shalev, Aleksandar Gatalica, Haim Be’er, Sami Michael, etc.
Amos Oz has been on my list for a long time, but I still haven’t gotten around to reading him. However, I already know I’ll like his books. Being Jewish, Ana Šomlo is perhaps more than many other people interested in the issue of nationality and national state, and while on the subject, she quotes Amos Oz saying something that is beautiful and that I wish everyone thought the same:
“I will fight again if someone tries to steal my life, or the life of a man next to me. I will fight if anyone tries to make me a slave. But I will never fight for the “rights of my ancestors” or for additional territory, or for resources, or for the misleading concept of ‘national interest’.”
Thanks to Ana Šomlo, I have more confidence in my own blog and the way I write about books. She showed me it is alright to digress, to linger on my own impressions and feelings about what’s written, rather than analyze and explain, like literary critics do. Reading is one sort of a pleasurable journey, but writing a diary about what’s read is another way of experiencing and prolonging the relationship with dear books and authors. And reading Ana’s reading experiences is a real treat.
At the end I’d like to share with you Ana’s very inspirational questionnaire, and I urge you to try to answer these questions as well – they are fun and some of them not easy to answer at all. 😉
1. What are you currently reading?
2. Who is your favorite writer?
3. Name a literary character you think is the most successful (in the sense that the author did an excellent job creating him).
4. Which book was the most difficult to read?
5. The most subtle/tender?
6. Can a work of literature give comfort?
7. The saddest book you’ve read?
8. Which writer or book is overrated?
9. How about underrated?
10. Name a fiction character you’d like to make love to.
11. Which character from the world of literature do you hate?
12. Which character do you identify with the most?
13. Is there a book you always return to?
14. Which book would you like to see as a film?
15. Which contemporary writer do you appreciate the most?
16. Which author (dead or alive) would you like to have had a chance to have lunch/coffee/tea with?
Feel free to write in the comments if any of these questions inspire you.