This novel is not what it appears to be. The pretty language and calm, depressed reminiscing give no idea of the grotesque violence that will end the story. Out of context, it seems pointless, but no, there is a reason to it. Krleza just waits a very long time to tip his hand.
Six years after The Return of Philip Latinowicz, Miroslav Krleza wrote On the Edge of Reason. Reason is an excursion into the tyranny of society that anticipates Camus’s The Fall: its style is lean and forcefully direct, and until the end, when it turns into a Communist polemic, it is a balanced indictment of the forces of justice in high society, and the tacit complicity of refined culture with the unseen brutality that feeds it. The Return of Philip Latinowicz is written in a drastically different style. The political and ethical content disappears, replaced by an obsessive, measured chronicling that owes much to Proust. The styles appear incompatible, not just contrary but totally independent. The answer is that Krleza is working against the style of Return even as he writes in it; the book undermines its seeming pretenses. Adopting Proust’s methods and talents, Krleza eventually uses them to mount an assault on him.
Philip is a morose, sedentary painter who returns to his provincial hometown in Croatia to search for inspiration. There is little that is actively bothering him, but there is nothing to suggest joy or involvement. The first third of the book is little more than a detailed chronicling of Philip’s senses as he wanders through the town. There are undercurrents of misery, nostalgia, and disgust, but they remain shadowed by the immanence of the description.
The detachment persists in the middle third, which is a series of detached childhood and adolescent memories with no clear direction to them. One acquaintance is followed for a while, then dropped, and another is picked up and dealt with. The lack of emphasis or acuity in the narration gives the writing a gauzy quality. It resembles Krleza’s contemporary Bruno Schulz, but while Schulz embraced a child’s view of illogical cause and effect, Krleza strips the rationality out of the text. The descriptions of childhood cruelty and classism don’t have any reaction at all associated with them, so the effect is disinterest, not pathos.
The ironic component is that a more “objective” description of the events, without Philip’s distancing tactics of attending to the smallest physical sensation, would be more traditionally provocative and more empathy-provoking. Even in translation, the style in The Return of Philip Latinowicz evokes Proust, but the goals are opposing. Proust wants to recreate the past as present through his writing; Philip is trying to remove himself from it. He thinks, in one of the rare moments that he lapses into generalization:
His idea of the infenalization of reality. This idea, doubtless a diabolical and unhealthy conception, was that in life phenomena have in fact no internal logical or rational connection! That life’s manifestations unfold and develop one beside another, simultaneously: with the sort of infernal simultaneity of the visions of Hieronymus Bosch, or Bruegel…The tall, grimy steeples with dragon’s heads, whitened waterspouts and marble behinds; and the fat Carolina; the English horses, bon jour, Monsieur, the voice of a caged jay,–and everything melting like the chocolate wrapped in silver paper, everything dragging along like Joe Podravec’s coach, everything foolish and swamplike as Pannonia itself!
It’s not a new sentiment, but it’s one that is difficult to pull off in fiction that has basic demands of narrative and interest. It’s even more difficult when the author (Krleza) does not agree with it. The first two thirds of the book are a beautifully written depiction of an attitude that Krleza finds poisonous, and a great attack on apolitical modernists from the inside. I don’t know to what extent Krleza uses Philip’s style in his other work, other than that it is totally absent from On the Edge of Reason, but his disapproval of its intent and its effects makes his mastery of it rather anomalous.
It’s in the last third that the book both falls apart and explains itself. Some of the earlier characters show up and play parts in a little psycho-drama. Philip casually gets involved with Bobocka, the wife of the miserable businessman Balocanski, and strings her along without realizing it (he comes to believe she’s manipulating him). A Greek named Kyriales shows up to assault Philip and anyone in range with Cioran-like nihilism. All of this ends very badly. The shock of the violent ending doesn’t sit well with Philip’s detached observations, Kyriales’ pompous meanderings, or even the melodrama of the love triangle, but that’s the point.
Krleza was a dedicated Communist, and his aim is to strip away the harmlessness and the intimate nature of philosophically-tinged bourgeois novel and replace them with brutality, which he considers to be more honest. In his speech and manner, Kyriales is a caricature of Naphta, from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, full of piss and vinegar, spewing Hobbesian and Malthusian arguments to shut out all comers. Mann treated Naphta’s views with respect; I don’t think that Krleza does. They both meet the same suicidal fate, but in The Return of Philip Latinowicz, it seems more pointless than fitting, a waste of a good brain. Likwise with Bobocka and Balocanski and Philip himself, whose defects originate in an unwillingness to confront the basic artificiality of their existences. In this respect, it is closer to Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight than to any so-called “novel of ideas.”
Krleza ends the book with blood on the floor and all that has gone before torn up and dismantled. It is shamefully satisfying, especially to those who are tired of the much-vaunted life of the mind, but deeply disturbing.