By Zsófia Bán
Translated from the Hungarian by Jim Tucker
Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2019
270 pages. $15.95 paperback
Try, if you can, to think of the literary potential of classroom worksheets. Consider how lectures and soliloquies are common forms, and textbooks are like novels with a lot of exposition. Think of the dramatic potential of confusion and wondering. Argue for or against: The meeting place between the educational and the fantastical is in absurdity.
This is what Zsófia Bán is playing with in Night School: A Reader for Grownups. Fashioned as a fanciful curriculum, each chapter (each story?) of this so-called primer moves the reader through a different subject: geography, music, religion, French, mathematics, and so on, including a number of mash-ups, such as English / home economics and chemistry / physical education. Then comes a chatty, surreal, concise narrative that turns the subjects on their heads. Small black-and-white photos line the margins, making for odd juxtapositions, and instructional commands occasionally interject the text. (“Traduisez!”) Nearly every section concludes with an emphatic assignment:
WRITE AN ESSAY on your favorite holiday entitled: ‘Why I love Christmas’!
Or, in the “Teacher’s Edition / Russian” section, the assignment that follows the personal narrative of Laika, the Soviet dog sent into space in 1957:
Oleg Gazenko, Laika’s trainer, said this in 1998:
‘With the passage of time, I come to regret it all more and more. We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the dog’s death.’
Calculate the value of more and more. Draw a diagram!
Calculate the value of enough.
Finally, write a short essay entitled ‘What is My Message for Oleg?’
Choose your words carefully!
Bán writes in Hungarian, her second language (Brazilian Portuguese is her first). She teaches American Studies in Budapest, and so is a professor who writes fiction and essays. These influences enthusiastically blend together in Night School. Despite using a structure that suggests an objective chronicle, Bán’s book is heavy with idioms and slang — “He sure can pick ’em.” “We sat in silence. Held our traps.” — to the point that one wonders how the translation sits next to the original. Amidst a certain amount of exposition, there are brief dialogues, emails, and decidedly subjective internal monologues. The pages bloom with exclamation points and allusions. What is literal becomes strange, like a joke explained.
Familiar figures pass through, including Gustave Falubert, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Manet’s Olympia. Real stories — facts, even — are evoked. But then, they are wildly re-imagined in Bán’s own trickster terms. Beethoven’s only opera, for example, is rendered in the form of a blog. Frida Kahlo’s famed double portrait, The Two Fridas, is personified in a classroom setting as if the two Fridas were sixth-grade schoolgirls, identical twins with the same name: “You might say it’s not particularly good being a new kid. Everyone is constantly sizing you up, particularly if there are two of you, and even more particularly if the two of you are one.”
Night School is fun and smart, but it often veers too far as a gimmick — a thought exercise that can’t transcend itself. The jumble of references and wordplay, at length, comes across as exuberant indecisiveness. The prose seems to be tripping over its own feet in its eagerness push every button in the room.
What saves the book, after all, is the lightness of language and the glimpses of the heart and heat of what it means to live at the tail end of history. Just when the whole project seems too porous, as if allusions could substitute for depth, enough humor, intellect, and generous insight comes through to hold it together. Toward the end of a vignette that follows a quartet of characters as they play a lustful game of ping-pong, there comes this line: “All that remains is sorrow perching on their shoulders like a great black bird.” Disarmed at the sudden turn in tone, it took my breath away. It wasn’t the only time.
The way to read Night School is to let yourself relax into curiosity without any particular object. Let surprise substitute for the suspense you’d expect in an ordinary work of fiction. Let freewheeling feelings stand in for the facts you’d find in an encyclopedia. Consider the assignments, the commands, and the quick-turn changes in tone as a cheerful call-and-response invitation to the reader.
Apparently, in an earlier edition of the book, the small margin photos were meant to be cut out and pasted into blank spaces laid out for them on the back of the dust jacket. In the Open Letter edition, blank spaces mingle in the margins amidst the photos, and are presumably intended for the same purpose. Why? Who cares. This is a book that doesn’t just want to engage you; it wants you to participate as a co-creator. Learn by doing.
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