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The Imps of His Age

Joshua Cohen
In a harrowing, witty novel by Miroslav Krleža, written in Yugoslavia on the eve of World War II, a mediocre lawyer succumbs to the impetus to speak against all reason. 
A watercolor of a cafe at night, with shadowy people milling about

Wikimedia Commons

Josip Račić: Café on the Boulevard, 1908

In Poe’s “The Imp of the Perverse” (1845), a man pulls off a perfect crime—to be precise, he pulls off a perfect murder, which he considers so masterful that it can’t go unreported. He develops the need to tell someone about it—to tell anyone or everyone—and, driven by this need, finds himself dashing to the cops to make a full confession. In the century after Poe’s story, the phrase “the imp of the perverse” came to mean the urge to do exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time, the impulse (sorry) to self-sabotage and self-destruction.

Poe’s imp puts a stop to his tale, but the impetus (sorry again) to speak against all reason—contra all common sense and advisement—is what starts so many examples of what I’m going to call, because I can’t help myself, Imp Fiction. This genre I just made up out of the perverse inversion of Poe’s poetics includes fiction whose plot is set in motion by an outburst—usually a remark attributed to one of its characters or delivered by its narrator within quotations. In other words, Imp Fic, or, in a word, Impfic, occurs when a guy (yes, typically a guy, used to speaking and being listened to) says something he doesn’t have to and perhaps really shouldn’t and proceeds to suffer the consequences—often through his remark being, by his own account, misinterpreted, even willfully misinterpreted.

Two great Impfics come to mind from my own tradition: Saul Bellow’s “Him with His Foot in His Mouth” (1982), in which a single insult spontaneously delivered by a male professor to a female colleague echoes through their subsequent careers, and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000), in which a Black professor passing as Jewish makes a quip about absent students that’s racially construed and unravels his existence. It’s telling that Impfics from recent American literature are set at colleges and universities, especially in their humanities departments, the primary precincts for speech-policing in this country.

If Impfic, like all fiction, must be judged on its aesthetics, its aesthetics must be judged as inextricable from its politics. The greater the consequences of speaking up, the greater the power of speech, which is why Impfic’s true heyday was the Soviet twentieth century, when it comprised much of the best literature of dissidence. Soviet Impfic, a genre predicated on subversion of appropriate speech, was necessarily published underground, in books that circulated in samizdat if not merely in manuscript between the drawers, illegalized, seized, banned, and often destroyed along with their creators. Perhaps the most classic example of Soviet Impfic is The Joke (1967), a novel that announces its ambitions in its title, which might also have been intended as a type of preemptive defense.

The novel debut of the Czechoslovak author Milan Kundera, who back in his student days in the 1950s found himself expelled from the Communist Party, The Joke could not be more straight-faced in its setup: a man named Ludvík has a crush on a woman named Markéta and they strike up a flirtatious correspondence—rather, Ludvík flirts and Markéta treats his entreaties as opportunities for ideological engagement. Sent to an indoctrination course by the Party she serves, Markéta writes to Ludvík praising the course’s discussions, the group calisthenics and group singing, and, as she puts it, the general group-thinky “healthy atmosphere.” Ludvík responds with a postcard that reads in full: “Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” His entire life after he posts that card constitutes The Joke’s dark punchline: he’s booted from school, loses the ability to work, and is sent for hard labor and reeducation, a proleptic plot that foreshadows how Kundera himself was eventually forced to find refuge in France and stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship.

Among the contenders for the earliest and most purely entertaining work of modern Impfic is Miroslav Krleža’s On the Edge of Reason—a book that could only have been written and published at the edge of unreason, which is to say, on the eve of World War II in Yugoslavia. A moderately successful and moderately influential and moderate-in-pretty-much-every-way lawyer from Zagreb is our hero and narrator. Along with his wife and a bevy of notables and functionaries, he is attending a dinner—a drunken symposium—at the vineyard estate of a Director-General.

Amid slurps of intoxicating grape, the Director recounts an evening at the close of what was not yet called World War I when bandits, presumably gone AWOL from the Imperial Army, attempted to break into his cellars and steal his wine, a theft he prevented by shooting them dead. Defending his private property (which would later be nationalized), the Director picked up a carbine and killed four of them: “Two were instantly shot in the head on the spot, the one near the vine arbor got two bullets in his left lung, and the last one, who fell near the fence, bled to death after the artery in his neck had been hit,” in the reportorial translation of Zora Depolo.

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As the Director reminisces, the reader gets the sense—and the narrator confirms the sense—that this isn’t the first time he’s rehashed his “exploit,” and yet something about this occasion is different. Perhaps what’s different is that the Director’s glory-days story has now come wrapped and beribboned within the containing story of a novel, or else it’s that at some point in the stroll down memory lane another guest arrives at the party: a guest unnamed, unmentioned, incorporeal.

Call him, if you will, the Imp, who wells up within the narrator and spurs him, our moderate everyman, into externalizing his interior monologue by saying: “It was all a crime, a bloody thing, moral insanity”—a tripartite phrase that appears in the novel in quotation marks, because like any effective spell or benediction or prayer for the dead, it’s a phrase that’s pronounced aloud. 

By pure chance, this naïve phrase in my soliloquy coincided with a pause between two sentences uttered by the Director-General—dead silence. And because of that dead silence, special significance was attached to every individual word I said. […]

The Director-General—his belly protruding, with pouting lips, with horizontal wrinkles on his low stiff forehead, and with a burning match in his right hand—watched everything from under his pince-nez while lighting his third Havana. He then stopped for a while to inhale through his cigar and, holding it half lit in his hand between the left index and middle finger, leaned toward me and, expressing sudden surprise as if wondering what I had in mind, asked me what was bloody and what crime was in question.

“Everything: your wine, the four dead men you described as mad dogs. You see, you’ve been telling us about this all evening. Well, that’s it…”

“How do you mean? I don’t get you,” said the Director-General, still expecting me to explain what I had muttered from behind my teeth so as to enable him to breathe two or three times at peace through his Havana before the match was extinguished in his hand.

“How do you mean—morally insane? What crime? What is bloody about it?”

“Well, you have been telling us about it, boasting of having shot four men. Anybody can shoot a man if the opportunity arises. But only individual persons prone to crime can boast of murder. That is what I mean by a morally insane situation.”

“Then you approve of the burglary? If that’s so, I regret not having shot you too, as the fifth.”

And so begins—and so continues—the famous spiral, the infamous plummet. Refusing to recant and apologize, refusing to use his overindulgence in the Director’s booze as an excuse, our hero’s tale becomes a tallying of losses: like an attorney handling a bankruptcy, his own, he notes the loss of his wife, his employment, his reputation, his status, and eventually his freedom.…

Krleža’s account of this fall from grace is tantamount to a fantasy of his counterexistence: this is what the author’s own fate might’ve been had he been not Yugoslav but Czechoslovak or Polish, and certainly if he’d been Russian or Ukrainian or a Muslim from one of the -stans or anywhere a Jew. Like his narrator, Krleža (1893–1981) was a throwback of sorts, a Jesuit-educated child whose mind was formed by the cosmopolitanism of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which turned to dust—to royalist dust and then to Titoism—right at the start of his long career (his first major publications came around the final year of the Dual Monarchy, 1918). But unlike the “top-hatted man,” the homo cylindriacus who babbles throughout this book, Krleža was both a serious Marxist and a serious artist, an innovator of the language once known as Serbo-Croatian and now just plain Croatian. Above all, he was an expert in how to survive: how to survive the Eastern front as a soldier in the Imperial Army; how to survive being expelled by the Communist Party in 1939 due, officially at least, to his opposition to the doctrines of Socialist Realism and his refusal to support the purges; how to survive the Nazification of Croatia, the Serbian Chetniks, and Tito, at last to become a leading bureaucrat at the Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts, the head of the Yugoslav Institute for Lexicography, and the president of the Yugoslav Union of Writers—all while publishing approximately fifty volumes of fiction, poetry, plays, and memoirs.

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His was a laureled career in the only censorious, sometimes-Moscow-aligned-and-sometimes-not country where, if you had certain connections and ethnic protections, you could let your inmost imp speak. It was a mark of Krleža’s humanism that he understood this privilege as a responsibility to give voice to the imps of others—especially to those of his brother-writers being persecuted further east. The year On the Edge of Reason was published, 1938, was the final year of the Stalinist show trials and the year that Osip Mandelstam perished in the Gulag for the crime of writing a half-humorous poem that, basically, called the mustachioed Georgian who ran the USSR dumb and clumsy and fat.

A man of conviction, a man of pride, Krleža had the luck to express the imps of his age without compromising either his principles or his colleagues. He protected those he could, and in his official capacities neither issued nor consented to any denouncements. In sum, his career, and his integrity, were damn near miraculous—they would still constitute a miracle in contemporary America—and his imp didn’t hesitate to acknowledge as much, not through boasting or bragging or rubbing noses in the liberties taken, but through this brief, harrowing, charmingly witty book, a masterly novel whose preeminent folly is that it “dare[s] to oppose human folly.”


A version of this essay appears as the introduction to a reissue of Miroslav Krleža’s On the Edge of Reason, published today by New Directions

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