Absinthe Literary Review, Book Reviews Spring 2002
B O O K   R E V I E W

Summer/Autumn 2005

Out of Oneself by András Pályi

Out of Oneself
András Pályi
Trans. Imre Goldstein
Twisted Spoon Press, Prague
136 pp., $13.50
(Reviewed by Jason Stuart Ratcliff)

If you could imagine an Eastern European William Faulkner high on powerful aphrodisiacs, a tad less devoted to Joyce and more to clear syntax, Out of Oneself might be something he’d write.

These two novellas, written in a stream-of-consciousness technique that stays true to the form but shuns unclear language, are incredibly well-executed literary eroticism. Eroticism—and by that I do not mean graphic sex per se, but graphic sex that has a tendency to arouse—is a dangerous proposition from any angle. Lay it on too heavy, and you switch genres into trashy romance at best or base pornography at worst. Add to this the general rule that, however big a part sex plays in the narrative, high-art eroticism must find a way to seamlessly blend the erotic with significance in areas other than sex, and you’ve got a challenge on your hands that most writers would be well-advised not to accept.

Pályi accepts the challenge, and comes out with a serious literary contender. Poetic, nearly flawless on the micro-level of language, and put together overall in a way that should make any literary architect jealous, this is a powerful one-two punch.

The first novella, “Beyond,” is narrated by a priest who has committed suicide. Moving along through first-person, second-person and third-person switches, drastic leaps in time, not to mention after-death fantasies and before-death memories (where we are never certain which is which), the ghost of the priest narrates his story. Well, dwells on his story, which is what they say ghosts perpetually do. The circumstances of the priest’s suicide, his ghost’s postmortem meeting (or, perhaps, fantasies of meeting) former acquaintances in séances, and, most importantly, an affair with a lady parishioner, are given to us bit by bit, with a disregard for sequence. We hit on the priest’s life, his memories and regrets, in glancing blows that leap from place to place and time to time. In this one the erotic moments are not quite so overblown as in the second novella, and in my opinion it is the more successful of the pair.

The second story, “At the End of the World”, centers on a group of shoestring-budget filmmakers in Communist-era Eastern Europe, and is mainly about a relationship between an actress and the screenwriter working on-set. Again, as in the first novella, the characters’ pasts are given to us in a way that lets their whole back-story blot into focus bilaterally with the story’s future progress, with a mosaic—yet organic—structure. As the romance develops between the screenwriter, nicknamed Blackeye, and the actress, Ildi, we are given a hint as to what lies in store for them (Ildi narrating here):

You’ve got no choice, once you’ve tasted the demands of your guts you can’t get free again, you are a prisoner, they say it’s death and rebirth, you can’t even breathe; ... Like an insane spiral, the whirlpool of desire, this insatiability, nothing is enough ...

As this sexoholic actress meets her match—that is, as the young screenwriter discovers his own insatiability for her—their movie ends up in shambles, at least Ildi’s life becomes a wreck, and (not to give too much away, but) she suffers a complete nervous breakdown. Such is the end of things when nothing is denied and “nothing is enough.” The sex scenes in this novella flirt dangerously with going in one orgasmic leap from high-art literature to something best published by Harlequin, but it delves into character and lays enough stock in the less-erotic scenes by the end for a full redemption.

For the stream-of-consciousness technique, Pályi pays incredible attention to detail; there’s hardly an untidy phrase in this entire work. Too often stream-of-consciousness writing (and I know from experience) can lead to poor care in wording, with the unfortunate belief sometimes going along with this style that unclear language is a virtue. Pályi is obviously confident and innovative, but not so ambitious as to fill his writing with confusion (or the reader with despair). Highly recommended.

– JSR –