Card Catalogue (British Literature)
“Meta-textual, self-reflexive, obscurely funny, and playful beyond easy articulation, it’s the perfect book for readers who delight in ‘the materiality of . . . books, their thingness.’”
Card Catalogue is a wonderful, complex book, surreal and bibliophilic in the tradition of Borges, as playfully unstable as the novels of Italo Calvino. It’s a book about books, about books in translation and books across cultures. This lovely metatext, to the extent that it “occurs,” is set in “Bucharest in the last decade of the twentieth century.” Its nameless protagonist is afflicted by “objectless searches around the city’s used bookstalls and stores.” He is a man out of his country, in search of an unnamed revelation.
The protagonist’s search allows all books to fall within his domain. Language is no boundary. This Anglo-Romanian intellectual partakes freely of works in Russian, German, Italian, and French. His adventures are themselves apparently recorded in Romanian and arrive in English only through their own journeys of language.
Author Alistair Ian Blyth is first and foremost a translator. He has worked extensively to bring Romanian literature into English, and as such, he has a marvelous hand for the “flavor” of language, and the wry in-jokes of linguistic shift. His deep knowledge of philosophy plays out on every level.
Card Catalogue is a love letter to European literature and the ongoing task of translation. The protagonist routinely meets with Obmanski (“or Obmanschi, or Obmansky”), a marginal writer and voracious reader whose catalogue of his bibliographic experience forms the meat of the novel. Like Obmanski’s name, no version of the text is ever final. All cross-language translations are approximate, needing clarification, footnotes, and historical explanations. Some novels appear by their commonly rendered titles (as Tolstoy’s War and Peace), but others are subtly altered. Dostoevsky’s novel of Raskolnikov arrives as Crime and Penance rather than the more recognizable Crime and Punishment.
Obmanski’s career of reading is encoded on innumerable index cards. These record recurring images in literature: occurrences of the cockroach through Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov; fictional books-within-books in Gogol, Dumas, and Turgenev. The narrative of searching for books and for readers returns again and again to the notes this odd scholar has left behind. They suggest that any real knowledge of literature is based in trivia. The patterns we recognize, the moments we recall, are deeply arbitrary. A lifetime spent reading yields not a complete view of the universe, but ever more esoteric details.
Yet Card Catalogue is far from pessimistic. It feels like a rummage through a used bookstore or a visit with oddball friends. Loving books and loving reading aren’t modes given to completeness. The true bibliophile delights in randomness and fragments. Obmanski in this sense offers the nameless protagonist real insight into the value of the written word.
The protagonist quickly discovers that Obmanski has been surveilled for years, purposelessly, by a vigilant and imaginative member of the secret police, whose version of Obmanski’s life is as random and fictional as any randomly-discovered page. Even those seeking to record truth fail to do so: “Like hell, fictions are peopled with insubstantial shades. Obmanschi’s shade was forever imprisoned in the fiction of a series of reports stored in an archive that formed a level of hell lower even than that reserved for bad novels.”
Card Catalogue isn’t a book for the casual reader. It’s a book for the obsessive, voracious perpetual student. Its humor comes more easily into focus if its reader has at least a basic knowledge of 19th century Russian literature; it sharpens if that reader has experienced the pursuit of arcane details. Its prose is elegant, carefully layered, and sharply rendered. In this sense, it’s the perfect book for graduate students. Meta-textual, self-reflexive, obscurely funny, and playful beyond easy articulation, it’s the perfect book for readers who delight in “the materiality of . . . books, their thingness.”