Sunday, July 26, 2009
Tuesday to Thursday, 21-23 July, 2009 Bratislava, Slovakia
We arrived in Bratislava, Slovakia on the late side, after having made several connections along the way, all of which, amazingly, were on time. We were there not so much for our research, but rather for a meeting of the Ancient and Honourable Society for the Prevention of Sense, to be held at one of Kevin’s most illustrious discoveries: an establishment called the Nonsense Restaurant and Bar. Kevin will discuss this in more detail in his entry to follow. After taking a cab costing approximately three times the appropriate price, we were welcomed to the old town district by a raucous klezmer band (click below for a small video clip).
The old town district of Bratislava is a concentrated hive of the eighteenth century rococo buildings common to these old European districts, with some broader avenues lined with cafes, small medieval alleys snaking off, and hidden courtyards containing venues of uncertain repute. Cilck below for a short tour of the main square.
Our self-serve, Ikea-snapshot apartment was right in the middle of everything.
In the morning, our first task was to visit the Bibiana: International House of Art for Children, which was just a stone’s throw from our apartment. Kevin had had no luck in contacting Slovakian scholars via email, so this would be our last desperate attempt to find nonsense (that is, nonsense not self-generated) while in Slovakia. We first went to the museum part of the Bibiana, and after talking to two people, were led outside and around to another part of the building, to their library, where we were greeted by Jana Michalová and Hana Ondrejičková, who listened to our slightly embarrassed appeal, without any sort of forewarning, for nonsense. I shall summarize it thusly: “Citizens of Slovakia! We bring good tidings! Now, bring us your nonsense!” Jana and Hana seemed a bit overwhelmed by the task, and although Jana immediately lunged for their stacks, a nonsensical spark in her eye and finger to her lip, they decided that it would be better if we came back in a couple of hours. This we did, after having a lovely lunch pilsner. When we returned, we found books spread out over tables and couches; retiring to their library room, we dove in. During our two hour lunch, they had arranged a stunning selection of literary and folk nonsense, which they proceeded to present to us verbally and on photocopies, authors such as Štefan Moravčik (and his Our Dog Has a Chicken’s Head), Daniel Hevier (and his work, “Maoeoeoeuááááá,” which seems to speak for itself), Boris Droppa (Beetroots On a Bicycle) and Milan Ferko (whose work, Šalabingo, sounds promisingly effervescent). They also made phone calls to some experts on Slovakian nonsense, who were not available at the moment, and provided us with some excellent leads on further knowledgeable folk to contact. Lastly, Jana provided us with most excellent performances of nonsensical Slovak folk rhymes. Click here to download the audio file!
One interesting fact mentioned by Jana and Hana, and something that helps to explain not only their easy ability to zero in on nonsense literature, but also the deep Slovak understanding of nonsense, is that apparently in Slovak, the literal word for nonsense, “nezmysel,” is not used for the literary genre. Rather, they use the English, “nonsense,” thereby creating convenient and, importantly, separate categories. Such a distinction is one of the real hurdles to the perception of literary nonsense in English, as most people are not aware of the difference between word and classification of genre, and, understandably, get them mixed up. Such confusion has existed in the English tradition from the seventeenth century at least, but a particularly well-documented moment occurred at the end of the nineteenth century, during the new-found popularity of nonsense in England and the United States sparked by Lear and Carroll. In one of Lord Alfred Douglas’s volumes, many of his texts are merely inconsequential, thereby confusing the dictionary definition with the emerging children’s genre. Of course, he also wrote in the Preface to this volume, “Writing nonsense rhymes has no effect one way or the other on one’s ability or desire to write poetry. It simply has nothing to do with it at all,” so his authority concerning nonsense is dubious at best. This inevitable confusion in English continues, and probably will as long as we use the word “nonsense” as a part of the genre’s name. It is around this very issue that Kevin and I recently wrote an article that will appear in the volume Keywords in Children’s Literature, edited by the gracious and honorable Phil Nel and Lissa Paul, to be published by the New York University Press some time soon.
Incidentally, a couple of days later in Brno, Czech Republic, Kevin and I learned that the distinction made by Slovaks was also true with Czechs. We also wonder if the English word being used betrays some debt to the English tradition of Lear and Carroll that has spread far and wide, or if it might be traced to Christian Morgenstern’s reluctant use of the word. The latter possibility may have even more weight owing to the close connection between this region of Europe and Germany.
Kevin and I were overwhelmed by Jana and Hana’s generosity. We waltzed into their office unannounced, asking for the most unlikely of things, and they proceeded to drop everything and give us far more than we could have asked for. We walked out of their office and Slovakia in amazement, with an armful of potential nonsense, a list of promising contacts, and a most spirited recording. The next morning, I crept out of our apartment early to pick up one orange and one yellow gerbera daisy (the most cheerful of all flowers), which we dropped off for them as we left the old town district.