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In this stellar group of European writers, two worthy of the Nobel

Savor the mastery of ‘The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka,’ ’533 Days,' ‘The White Room’ and ‘The Lure of the Unknown’

(Yale University Press; Cadmus Press; Princeton University Press)
6 min

Here’s a brash overgeneralization: American writers tend to charge at life freestyle, while Europeans approach it with an ironic half smile and perhaps a glance at their libraries. Think Bruce Willis vs. Alan Rickman in “Die Hard.” Yes, I know that’s a dated stereotype, but the bespoke elegance of the four books below — a novel, a diary, a volume of aphorisms and a collection of essays — brought it irresistibly to mind. Moreover, two of the authors merit Nobel Prize consideration — the 73-year-old Zoran Zivkovic and the 88-year-old Cees Nooteboom — and two are early 20th-century masters, Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) and Franz Kafka (1883-1924).

Zoran Zivkovic’s 23rd book, “The White Room” — translated from the Serbian, seemingly flawlessly, by Randall A. Major — begins: “Ivana had gone missing.” Within a few hours, what starts as a missing person’s case — reported to the police by Zivkovic himself — mushrooms into a national, even international security crisis, one that may bring down the entire Internet.

The narrative seductiveness of Zoran Zivkovic

Initially, it would seem that Ivana has simply walked away from her two-year relationship with Zivkovic — until, that is, he receives the first in a series of emails. It contains only a link to a brief video showing Ivana in a jungle clearing. But how could she have traveled to what seems to be Sri Lanka in just a few hours, without her passport? After consulting with computer experts, Senior Inspector Sanja Mrvaljevic informs the worried Zivkovic that “something is wrong with … the link.” In fact, “it’s not a link at all,” but what it is exactly, no one knows.

As the night goes on, more emailed videos add to the mystery. In one, the diabetic Ivana unhesitatingly devours sweet desserts; in another, though completely unmusical, she performs an unknown violin composition like a virtuoso. Eventually Zivkovic perceives a pattern among the videos, but even then its ultimate meaning eludes him.

I’ll stop there. Like Zivkovic’s other novels and stories, “The White Room” is artfully constructed — it observes the classical unities of time, place and action — and enchantingly mysterious. But this is true of all the fiction by this World Fantasy Award winner: In “The Papyrus Trilogy,” for instance, killings in a Belgrade bookstore lead the investigating detective to a sinister secret society. If you’re a fan of Borges, M.C. Escher or Haruki Murakami, you should definitely be reading Zoran Zivkovic, all of whose works are available in handsome editions from Cadmus Press.

In “533 Days” (Yale), the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom describes his daily routines on the Spanish island of Menorca. There, following Candide’s advice, he cultivates his garden but also reads Witold Gombrowicz, Peter Esterhazy, Julien Green and Theodor Adorno, listens to the music of Haydn, Schoenberg and Morton Feldman, recalls his friendship with the novelist Harry Mulisch and reflects on life and literature. Laura Watkinson’s deft English translation never reads like one.

As a fiction writer, Nooteboom may be best known for 1994′s eerie and erotic novella, “The Following Story,” in which a classics scholar falls asleep one night in Amsterdam and magically awakes the next morning in Lisbon. More recently, he’s brought out the highly personal travelogues, “Roads to Santiago,” “Roads to Berlin” and “Venice.” I once enjoyed lunch with this much-traveled cosmopolitan, during which he spoke — in perfect English — about his long sojourn in Japan. In “533 Days,” Nooteboom divides his attention between the horticultural — there’s a lot about cactus — and the cultural, but I like him best when he reflects on writers and writing: “With Borges, as with Kafka, you can always be certain that after just a few lines a thought will come along that you cannot ignore. Something sticks, you have to pause, you have to read it again.”

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Certainly the author of “The Metamorphosis” and “The Castle” always needs to be read again. And again. This is particularly true for the concentrated enigmas of “The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka” (Princeton). In this newly annotated edition, Reiner Stach — who knows more about Kafka’s life than anyone else alive — provides data-rich, facing-page commentary for each gnomic observation. He is assisted, as usual, by his nonpareil translator, Shelley Frisch.

Perhaps the most famous of these aphorisms is also among the shortest, “Ein Kafig ging einen Vogel suchen” — “A cage went in search of a bird.” (Stach points out the faint aural echo of “Kafig” and “Kafka.” Another mini-classic goes, “Im Kampf zwischen Dir und der Welt sekundiere der Welt,” which Frisch renders as “In the battle between yourself and the world, act as second to the world.” As one would want and expect, her translation hews closely to Kafka’s original wording, yet I can’t help but miss the punchy memorability of Edwin and Willa Muir’s looser, earlier version: “In the fight between you and the world, back the world.”

While Stach’s notes are invaluable, they do tend to be strictly factual, built around bibliographical detail and relevant passages from Kafka’s personal writings. In general, his commentary eschews definitive interpretations but leaves the reader better able to ponder such tantalizing pronouncements as this one:

“It is not necessary for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don't even listen; just wait. Don't even wait; be utterly still and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it cannot do otherwise; it will writhe before you in ecstasy.”

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As it happens, spiritual ecstasy, touched with holy dread, fascinated Algernon Blackwood, whose chilling weird tales — he called them “Queer Stories” — include “The Willows” and “The Wendigo.” In many of his longer works, such as “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” or the novel “The Centaur,” the protagonists experience veritable rapture, surrendering themselves to Nature or a pantheistic cosmos. But then Blackwood truly believed in a realm of being outside our normal senses.

In “The Lure of the Unknown: Essays on the Strange” (Swan River Press), Mike Ashley assembles Blackwood’s various articles and talks on numerous spooky and mystical matters. For instance, in “The Psychology of Places,” Blackwood recalls a Canadian guide who once told him, “Never pitch your camp on the edge of anything; put the tent in the wood or out of it, but never on the borderland between the two.” Why? Because the borderland is where the forces of the wood and the forces of the open meet: “It is not a place of rest, but of activity.” This is an essential book for any Blackwood fan.

Michael Dirda reviews books for Style every Thursday.

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