Saturday, February 15, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Dagny or A Love Feast. By Zurab Karumidze (

( Dagny or A Love Feast (2011) is a dualistic compilation of fantasy and mythologized love, of the facts that are known entwined with conjecture and speculation: part history and part fiction.
A hundred and ten years ago in June 1901 after holidaying in Tbilisi for three weeks, a beautiful aristocratic Norwegian woman, Dagny Juel Przybyszewska, dies in her hotel room. It was just after lunch; she was fully clothed; a bullet entered the back of her head; she was 33 years old. That we know. We know little about the true events of that day, or indeed of Dagny herself. Her fellow Norwegian and artist, Edward Munch, who painted Scream, said of Dagny, “You had to experience her to be able to describe her.” Those that did describe her called her “the Queen of Berlin bohemia” in the 1890s.

Tbilisi, a hundred years ago, was in Russia (now Georgia), a cosmopolitan place – “a sort of small, modest Tower of Babel.” Dagny arrives by train from Berlin with her five-year-old son, Zenon (leaving her daughter behind), her ex-lover and French-Polish poet, Wincent Brzozowski, and her current companion, Wladyslaw Emeryk, a wealthy Polish businessman. Her husband Stanislaw (Stach), a talented Polish writer, whom she had left a year earlier, would join them in Tbilisi. Surely this combination of men in her life – son, ex-husband, ex-lover, and current lover, could not be a good omen.

The story of Dagny and what happened that fateful day is interspersed with another story, that of the Love Feast – the Agape, a half-religious, half-artistic event. Here the author “explores” literature, arts, and politics from a heady mixture of Shamanistic Art, Gnosticism, the linguistics of the Georgian language, Bach’s Art of the Fugue, magic, eroticism and culture – in an effort to determine the definition of love and death – “Love is as strong as Death.” Introducing real people of the day (such as a young Joseph Stalin who lives in Gori, near Tbilisi, and the Georgian poets Shota Rustaveli and Vazha-Pshavela) and fictitious characters, Karumidze shifts from themes to theories in his love feast, his “evolving involution of Love.”

The “novel” (for it is not a conventional novel) is sometimes colloquial – as if the author is sitting next to the reader explaining his thoughts and moods – and sometimes academic with footnotes on his sources and further readings. Readers may prefer one style over the other, although the average reader may be distracted and confused by the clash of narratives and stories. I would have preferred a more detailed investigation of Dagny in a fictional style, even with supposition and surmises, for a more fluid, suspenseful tale.

Also, the book cover I have (2011) is not as enticing as the 2014 edition in which a picture of Dagny appears in a painting by Konrad Krzyżanowski.

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