Borscht isn't the only cultural masterpiece to come from Eastern Europe!

Borscht isn’t the only cultural masterpiece to come from Eastern Europe!

In this EventHop, Borscht-y Betsy has a cathartic experience while enjoying the finer things in life, i.e. Eastern European music and literature at the Italian Academy this week.

When I stepped into the Italian Academy on Tuesday evening for an event called “Music & Literature Presents Dubravka Ugrešić and Victoria Polevá”, I had no idea what to expect. There would be music, I guessed. And probably literature. Eastern Europeans would somehow be involved. Who they were and what they would be doing – of that, I was less sure.

I looked around at the beautiful room, distinguished by enormous red curtains, ornate gold ceilings, and no less than six chandeliers. The space was quickly filling up with people, most of whom appeared to be older – but there were definitely a couple of students in the crowd. Okay, so, clearly, there had to be something pretty interesting going on here, if the audience was so significant.

For more clarification, I read through my program: a sheet of thick, official-looking paper, covered on both sides. As I had guessed from the event’s title, it definitely included both music and literature. The program featured short biographies of each presenter: Taylor Davis-Van Atta (a publisher and editor), Deborah Eisenberg (a professor of creative writing at Columbia), Valeria Luiselli (a novelist and essayist), Alan Timberlake (a professor of Slavic Languages at Columbia), and, last but certainly not least, the renowned writer Dubravka Ugrešić. The musicians all had rather impressive backgrounds, ranging from Juilliard to the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. At this point, I still had no idea what kind of music these people would be playing, but I knew it would sound great. The literature, I imagined, was probably impressive, too.

Taylor Davis-Van Atta, who introduced the event, gave me more insight. He talked a bit about his magazine, Music & Literature, which, each year, publishes an edition compiling work from numerous international writers and critics. Tuesday’s event was in celebration of the launch of this year’s edition, the sixth. Each edition is centered around the work of three particular artists; this year, those artists are Dubravka Ugrešić, Victoria Polevá, and Alejandra Pizarnik. Of those three, only Ugrešić was able to be present at the event, but all three were included in the presentation.

The first artist to be celebrated at the event was Ugrešić herself. Ugrešić is a writer of fiction and essays. She is originally from Croatia, but was attacked politically and socially, labeled a “witch”, and eventually exiled in 1993 due to her anti-war, anti-nationalist writing. She currently lives in the Netherlands, but her writing has impacted people throughout Europe and in the U.S.

Two of Ugrešić’s short stories were read at the event, both of which appear in the most recent edition of Music & Literature. The first, which was read by Prof. Eisenberg, was based off of a story by Boris Pilnyak. It centered on a woman who falls in and out of love with a green-eyed, copper-haired man who, in personality and demeanor, greatly resembles a fox. At one point, this lover describes in detail a trip to Leningrad that he supposedly took with the narrator, only for the narrator to argue that such a trip never existed. (Proof of that trip later appears in her apartment, much to her bemusement). The story ends: “This is a story that is trying to tell a story, and that story is trying to tell a story about how stories come to be written.”

The second short story, read by Ugrešić herself, focused on a romance between a young Croatian immigrant (who doesn’t speak English) and an American girl (who doesn’t speak Croatian). The immigrant is so desperate to express how much he loves his sweetheart, he memorizes the menu from a local confectionaries and lists off as many pastries as he can think of to her: “You are my chocolate eclair … my almond cookie … my truffle … my marzipan …” The girl, for her part, cannot manage to pronounce his name correctly.

Ugrešić said that she’d wanted both stories of hers that were read at the event to be stories about love, because “I want you to believe that I only write stories about love.” She also answered a couple of questions from the audience.

The next featured artist was Victoria Polevá, a Ukrainian composer. Davis-Van Atta introduced her with an anecdote about his interview with her for the magazine. He explained how he asked her about her “creative crisis,” an abrupt shift in the type of music she wrote, and read her response. Polevá had answered that her current profession as an avant-garde composer was “too successful,” and she wanted to write music that more directly sought out the truth.

Two of Polevá’s recent compositions were performed on Tuesday night. The first was a duet between a soprano (Kristin Gornstein) and a cellist (Hannah Collins), and the second included those same two musicians, along with two violinists, a violist, a bassist, and a pianist. Both pieces were, in many ways, nothing like any music I had heard before. The music largely consisted of long, slow tones in vibrato, many of them incredibly quiet. The cello in particular was played more softly than I had previously known it was possible to play the cello.

But what struck me about Polevá’s music was not the music itself, but the skill of the musicians playing it. It must have taken an incredible amount of control to play those long tones in such a wide dynamic range without allowing intonation to slide. And Kristin Gornstein, the soprano, was particularly impressive; she stood in center stage and sang with her head held high, giving me the impression of a general surveying an army of soldiers ready to die for their country. (When I found out later that she was an award-winning opera singer, I wasn’t surprised in the least.)

The last featured artist at the event was Alejandra Pizarnik. In between Polevá’s two pieces, writer Valeria Luiselli read a couple of excerpts from her journals. The excerpts dealt with the difficulties of not knowing what to do with oneself and the pain of life, love, and embarrassment – all surprisingly relatable. My favorite line was: “Only the impossible and distant can make me fall in love.”

It’s difficult to qualify an event like this one, simply because all of its many parts don’t quite fit together into a cohesive whole. How do you put writing as cynical and funny as Ugrešić’s next to music as raw as Polevá’s, next to writing as painfully true as Pizarnik’s? After pondering this question for a few hours, I realized that you can’t, really. All you can do is look at the work of each artist in turn, see what their work brings out in the other artists, and thank them for what they say about humanity. Because although the three artists were all completely different, nobody creates art in a vacuum. Like the title of one of Polevá’s pieces tells us, no man is an island.

And if you want to hear more from Dubravka Ugrešić, the accused witch who knows more names of pastries than I previously knew existed, you’re in luck: the Harriman Institute is hosting a two-day conference next week centered around her writing. The conference will take place next Thursday and Friday from 10am to 4pm, on the 15th floor of the International Affairs building.

Beautiful Borscht via Shutterstock