Form the archives of Illyria newspaper: Our interview with Dr. John K. Cox, professor of Wheeling Jesuit University, on October 2006
Professor Cox, you spoke recently in a conference on Ismail Kadare at the University of Gjirokaster, Albania’s distinguished writer. Was this your first visit to Albania and Gjirokastra? What prompted your decision to participate?
Yes, I spoke at a conference in Gjirokastra and it was my first visit to Albania, although I have traveled and lived extensively in other parts of Central Europe and the Balkans, such as Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Austria. Last winter I received a very kind and generous invitation from Professor Kristaq Kikina, the rector of the University of Gjirokaster, to speak at a conference honoring Mr. Kadare on the occasion of his 70th birthday.
What are your impressions of the visit and of the conference?
The conference was very well organized and well attended. I met scholars not only from Albania but also from Macedonia, Kosova, Greece, and Italy. Professor David Bellos, who is Kadare’s chief translator into English, was a delightful traveling companion. I met publishers, bookstore owners, translators, and also friends of friends. I very much hope to keep these professional and personal contacts alive. Talking formally and informally with so many Kadare scholars gave me a lot of insight into the impact of his works in various regions and also his style of writing and the intricacies of his use of the Albanian language. I had several days in Tirana and was able to explore most, but not all, of the capital city. I enjoyed the national museum, the bookshops, and of course the food. Kruja and Gjirokaster were breathtaking, especially for someone familiar with Kadare’s works. Albanians are extremely hospitable and generous people. I very much enjoyed the social aspect of the visit. Like everyone else I can see the great infrastructure needs that the country has. I hope that responsible and respectful economic development will allow the country to overcome the poverty, environmental problems, and lingering sense of isolation that exist in parts of the country. Not only is Albania a delightful country in terms of landscape and people, but its historical heritage extending back through Ottoman times to the medieval principalities and even the Romans, Greeks, and Illyrians is extremely important for Europe. I hope that castles, amphitheaters, old roads, mosques, and churches can be actively preserved and the museum system expanded. Two of the things that struck me about the physical landscape the most were the omnipresent rivers (with wide, strikingly bright beds of alluvial rock) and amazing castles and fortresses.
You are also writing a book on Kadare? What made you focus on this writer?
Yes, I have a contract with the University of South Carolina Press for a study entitled UNDERSTANDING ISMAIL KADARE. I am just a few weeks away from finishing this book. Having read a lot of Kadare’s works in the 1990s and then taught them with considerable success at our university, I was astonished to realized that there was no book-length study of them in English. Robert Elsie has written well about Kadare’s works in his history of Albanian literature and other places, and many reviewers have praised the works, but I felt it was time for a major study. In addition, since I am a historian (of Balkan intellectual history) and not a literary scholar or critic, I will be able to put more emphasis on the historicity of the works. I very much look forward to my book being part of the increasing general awareness and appreciation for Kadare’s outstanding oeuvre. When the book is out, perhaps ILLYRIA would like another interview to discuss its main theses?
Thank you. Absolutely. It will be our pleasure. When did you hear for the first time about Albania and Kadare and in what circumstances?
I have long known about and studied Albania, because I have been visiting Eastern Europe fairly regularly since 1983. I did my graduate work at Indiana University from 1987-1994, and of course we studied Albanian society and politics (especially of the 19th and 20th centuries) there with excellent professors such as Barbara and Charles Jelavich. I was living in Vienna in 1991-1992 and tried briefly to arrange a trip to Albania at that time, but it didn’t work out. That’s why I was thrilled to be able to go this year. The first Kadare work I acquired was a copy of THE GENERAL OF THE DEAD ARMY, which I bought at a used bookstore in Columbus, OH around 1996. I read that book, and BROKEN APRIL and THE PYRAMID and DORUNTINE and several others, in the summer of 1999. I will always remember that beautiful summer because our daughter, my first child, was born that year, and I was also spending every spare moment on the terrace at the back of our house reading Kadare and drinking very strong coffee. My wife is not only very understanding of my academic pursuits, but she is a great lover of literature, so everything worked out. Now it turns out that my daughter is a huge reader, and is bilingual in German and English, so the literary summer of 1999 is bearing great fruit all around.
How similar and how different is Kadare from other artists whose work became successful in the West despite the Cold War divide?
In terms of depth and enduring fame and relevance, Kadare belongs in the first rank of such writers, along with Danilo Kis, Milan Kundera, and others. Kadare is at the top of the list in at least one key way: I know no other writer who writes with such success in so many thematic areas—-from life under communism, to ruminations on the Ottoman period, to medieval and classical times. He is also obviously a strong and beautiful voice for the people of a neglected corner of Europe. There are many other things I admire about his work, but we will save those for the book! Another unique aspect of his work is his profound treatment of folklore and his search for classical metaphors for contemporary experience. This latter characteristic adds considerably to his stature as a pan-European intellectual.
Which book of Kadare do you favor as his best?
Now this, Mr. Avxhiu, is a very difficult question. But one that I am happy to tackle, indeed! Everyone knows that THE GENERAL OF THE DEAD ARMY catapulted Mr. Kadare to international fame, and after reading it—-and over the years interpreting it in many different ways—-I see very clearly that that book’s fame is well deserved. I should add here that my students adore THE PALACE OF DREAMS, THE CASTLE, and BROKEN APRIL. I am currently teaching SPRING FLOWERS, SPRING FROST in a new course at Wheeling Jesuit University entitled “History through Literature.” But to come back to your question: THE MONSTER, which is yet to find an English translator, is very close to the top of my list. It is a novel that is at once extremely complex and intellectually challenging but also very readable. I have read it in French, and written about it extensively in my book, and it is a very satisfying work. LUL MAZREK took my breath away and etched itself forever in my memory. I believe that everyone interested in twentieth-century history needs to read that sad, sad book. In addition, I have translated, but not yet found a publisher for, a number of Kadare’s short stories on the Ottoman period. Of these, “The Caravan of Veils” (the Albanian title is “The Bearer of Misfortune”) is simply phenomenal. It is not only filled with poignant emotion and one-of-a-kind descriptions, but it has a gripping plot and, most satisfying to a historian like me, contains many of Kadare’s chief thematic concerns. I long to find a publisher for that work in English. “Abolition of the Profession of Curser” is also a marvelous story. I suppose the short answer to your question is that my favorite work of Ismail Kadare would be one of the following: BROKEN APRIL, “The Caravan of Veils,” or THE MONSTER.
Kadare became the recipient of the International Booker Prize leaving behind some of the best writers of the world. On the other hand, despite being a frontrunner for the Nobel Prize, this award has not been given to him yet. In some cases the winners were relatively unknown names. From your opinion how difficult is it to choose among writers? How to choose among a number of great writers and their different great works? To what point can these choices be subjective? What are the values to look for?
I would say that the choice of prizewinners is always subjective, sometimes highly so. That’s the nature of the process. I respect the independent-mindedness of the Swedish Academy and am glad that the bestowal of the Nobel Prize in Literature is not dependent upon, for instance, commercial success. I cannot speak for any committee, but I will say that I believe the appellation of “classic writer” comes when several generations of readers return to the works of one author and still find them valuable, even if in different ways. I also like to praise authors whose works are challenging or thought provoking, sometimes in terms of style but particularly in terms of the use of history and the ability to swim against the grain and promote true humanism in the political sphere. I think that Nobel Prize winners generally do these things, and Mr. Kadare does them too. Ismail Kadare deserves a Nobel Prize. It would not surprise me at all if he receives the award next month, or next year. (Editor’s Note: When this interview was taken Nobel committee had not announced yet its decision for this year).
How important are these awards to the writers’ fame and legacy? Does a writer without a Nobel Prize risk being forgotten? Will a Nobel Prize winner automatically be considered a great writer? What about the International Booker Prize effect? Tolstoy, the famous Russian writer, is often mentioned among others who did not receive a Nobel but has an honored place in the great literature pantheon…
One does not need a Nobel Prize to be great. Last summer’s Man Booker International Prize was an enormous honor, since was the first recipient ever of this new award and the ranks of great global writers are chock-a-block full. That said, many writers have their scholarly reputation, and their fame, sealed simply through public exposure, critical acclaim, and popularity in universities and schools. I in no way believe that writers who do not receive a Nobel are in danger of being forgotten. We would do well to remember that the Prize is only given to authors when they are still living, and since only one a year is given out on this huge planet of ours, the process simply cannot include every deserving person. You mention Tolstoy—-who has forgotten him? Who will forget F. Scott Fitzgerald or Graham Greene? And there are other great living writers who have not won a Nobel, either— -Selman Rushdie and Philip Roth being just two examples.
Who is your favorite writer of all time?
Another very difficult question. Joining Mr. Kadare at the very top of my list are undoubtedly Graham Greene (from England), Joseph Roth (from Austria), and Danilo Kis (from Serbia). Other writers I have read extensively and respected for a long time include: Ivo Andric, William Faulkner (like him, I am a southerner), Toni Morrison, Monika Maron, Juan Goytisolo, Ngugi, Drago Jancar, E.L. Doctorow, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There are three newer contemporary writers whose work I follow with great zeal and whom I recommend to everyone: Charles D’Ambrosio (US), Juli Zeh (Germany), Laura Restrepo (Colombia), Louis de Bernieres (Britain) and Jani Virk (Slovenia). Among poets I return over and over to Dylan Thomas, Edvard Kocbek, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, and Ernst Stadler, who I believe wrote the most beautiful poem ever in any language.
As a professor you remain in contact with the younger generations. There is a sense that the youth is lesser and lesser interested in history and literature. What is your take on this?
Less interested in literature? Fortunately, not. Less interested in history? Maybe. Our consumer culture fosters amnesia. Our political system favors sound bytes over real debate. Most American families are increasingly atomized and so busy that children are not growing up with a sufficient ability to concentrate or love of reading. All that is true. However, that said, our University currently has an all-time high number of history majors and a very challenging curriculum. There are positive trends. I believe people, especially young people, need to unplug and slow down and read, read, read, and then discuss, discuss, and discuss. And travel outside of the United States. Families are the crucible, the Petri dish, the incubator, in which these values are learned. Is Kadare a writer young readers should not miss? Correct. I recommend Ismail Kadare to everyone. Different works of his will appeal to different people.
Finally, you speak a number of foreign languages. Do you have any plan to learn Albanian too?
Yes, I would love the opportunity to learn Albanian. I taught myself some this summer, before and after my trip. Indiana University now offers Albanian instruction sometimes in the summer, and I hope to return there—-my alma mater—-for extensive summer work soon. I plan to stay active in the field of Albanian history, though probably not so much literature, after completion of this book on Kadare’s works. There are many topics in 20th-century Albanian history I would like to examine after learning the language, especially those topics dealing with ideologies such as nationalism and communism and also relations with Albania’s neighbors. (Interviewed by Ruben Avxhiu)
Dr. John K. Cox is a professor of history and department head at North Dakota State University in Fargo. His translations include long and short literary works by Danilo Kiš, Ajla Terzić, Ivan Cankar, Vjenceslav Novak, Ivan Ivanji, Ivo Andrić, Meša Selimović, Ismail Kadare, and Miklós Radnóti, and short nonfiction by Joseph Roth, Stefan Heym, and Erwin Koch. Cox’s historical works include the books The History of Serbia and Slovenia: Evolving Loyalties. He is currently translating the Holocaust memoir of Simon Kemény. John has translated Muharem Bazdulj’s Byron and the Beauty from the Bosnian and Biljana Jovanović’s Dogs & Others from Serbian for Istros Books.