Life-Writing Lunch: Mark Thompson on ‘Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kis’

The final OCLW event of the year saw its audience captivated by Mark Thompson’s talk about the life and work of Yugoslavian author Danilo Kiš and the problems he faced writing his critically acclaimed biography Birth Certificate: The Story of Danilo Kiš.

Kiš is an author who is little known in the Anglophone world, so Thompson began by giving the audience an insight into the man himself and the driving forces behind his work.  He was born in 1935 in a small town in Northern Yugoslavia, his mother a member of the Eastern Orthodox faith from Montenegro, and his father a Hungarian Jew.  Kiš described himself as an ‘ethnografic rarity’ which was very important to him, he saw it as his destiny.  His first language was the now ostensibly extinct Serbo-Croatian.  He was raised in Vojvodena and baptised into the Orthodox Church, along with his sister.  It was seen as a safety measure, as his parents could already see the way in which things were moving in Europe.

When war broke out the family were living in Novi Sad, a city on the banks of the River Danube.  They stayed in the city until January 1942 when a pogrom was carried out by Hungarian troops. Kiš’ father was rounded up but was given a reprieve. Consequently the family moved to his father’s home village in Hungary as it was felt it would be safer, which it was, until the deportation of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.  Kiš father was taken on one of the last trains to Auschwitz.  As a result of cultural relaxation in 1954, Kiš was part of the first year to study a new degree in World Literature that looked at works from the Bible to Kafka.  It was intended to be anti-nationalist and discreetly anti-communist and had a significant effect on Kiš’s future life.

Kiš was to spend long periods of time in France, teaching students to understand Serbo-Croatian, living a bohemian existence, although this philosophy did not apply to his writing.  This continued until the 1970s when he suffered two crises, professional and personal.  After the publication of A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, he was troubled by plagiarism accusations and found himself being coerced by the police into leaving the country.  His marriage also broke down during this time and so he emigrated to Paris in 1979 to live with his mistress, a former student of his.  He died from lung cancer in 1989 at the age of 54, the same age at which his father was deported to Auschwitz.

Thompson described Kiš as a modernist author who could not write in his surrounding literary tradition.  He was not interested in celebrating Yugoslav national culture, that of folk tales told to generations.  He was influenced by Kafka, Proust and above all Joyce, Kiš drew heavily on Ulysses when writing about his own father.  He believed in ‘art for my sake, art to find out who I am’ and used his work to recreated his identity through fictional explorations.  By the 1960s the distance from his childhood freed him from constraint and allowed him to write Hourglass, a novel about his father.  Thompson likened Kiš to Orwell and Camus.  He incarnated certain values, such as individualism and a refusal to bow down to institutional dominance and ideology.

In the final part of his presentation, Thompson described the difficulties he faced when writing his biography.  Firstly he encountered the issue that biography in South Eastern Europe means something very different.  As a discipline it is much weaker and it has the potential to be very dangerous.  Other key Yugoslavian literary figures had rather shady wartime pasts that they were eager to keep hidden.  This made Kiš family and friends wary of what Thompson was trying to do.  Sometimes people were trusting, but often they were not.  The form the biography would take presented a problem, as Thompson felt he could not use a linear narrative and this was a form that Kiš himself distrusted and would never have used.  Thompson also lacked what he described as the ‘dense tissue of information’ that is the backbone of many literary biographies.  Finally, in the 90s, Kiš became iconic to Serbian intellectuals who hated what was happening to their country.  Many were looking for positive examples of their culture and used him as proof that Serbian culture could produce something universal.  So how do you write about a saint?  The key was provided by a Montenegrin journalist who knew Kiš best in the last years of his life.  He pointed out that Kiš was not a liberal hero in the grain of Vaclav Havel, but simply an impassioned and often desperate artist, who gained his cosmopolitanism from hard fought experience.

The discussion painted Kiš as an émigré author who remained outside of the already established group in Paris, uninterested in being a part of the culture and lifestyle. He was not interested in promoting non-literary views, although he thought the worst about the Communist regime.  Thompson described him as politically naïve, Kiš lent his support to a Serbian poet who would become a great supporter of the Milosevic regime.  In conclusion Thompson showed Kiš as man of conflicting aspects, with many conflicting statements surrounding him proving to be true.




Hermione Lee: ‘Penelope Fitzgerald – The Whole Story?’

Hermione Lee opened her talk about Penelope Fitzgerald with the epigraph from her recent biography: ‘If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching’.  Lee began Penelope Fitzgerald’s story by reflecting on her accomplished career.  Late in life, Fitzgerald was the unlikely winner of the 1979 Booker Prize for her novel Offshore.  At the time of her death in 2000, she had published three biographies and nine novels, been nominated twice more for the Booker Prize, and earned widespread admiration for her unique, controlled style.  Over the next hour, Lee held the audience spellbound as she led them in search of the life that made this gifted, insightful, and intensely private novelist.

Lee’s talk, like the biography, followed the chronology of Fitzgerald’s life.  Researching this life cannot have been an easy task: Penelope kept many secrets.  She cultivated a public persona as a grandmotherly figure to protect her privacy.  Her literary career is a story of patience and endurance, ‘an old writer who never got to be a young writer’ as Lee said.

Fitzgerald was born Penelope Knox to an accomplished family; she won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford and was so successful in her exams that her papers were purportedly bound in vellum (Lee admits this story may be apocryphal).  She married her husband, Desmond Fitzgerald, in 1942, and wrote for the BBC during the war.  On Desmond’s return, the two settled in Hampstead and had three children.  Desmond worked as a lawyer, and together the two started an ambitious literary magazine called World Review.  The stage seemed set, Lee said, for a comfortable, literary life.

That life was unfortunately not to be.  The young couple was over-extended financially.  Desmond developed a drinking problem and began forging checks; he was eventually found out and disbarred.  After that, the Fitzgeralds lived in true poverty.  Penelope moved the family to Suffolk, where she worked in a bookshop, and then to a houseboat in Clapham, which sank.  Lee recounted a poignant story of Penelope’s children coming home to find a cat clinging to the mast, and Penelope’s books stained yellow with Thames water.   Penelope took up teaching to make ends meet.  She did not publish a novel until after her husband’s early death in 1976.

These experiences affected Penelope deeply.  From the religious Knox family, she inherited a fascination for the clash between reason and the vagaries of human emotion.  The extremities she faced in adulthood drew her to the poor, the downtrodden, to those born defeated, and it lent her writing a feel for dark comedy and for acute sadness. As Lee put it, ‘she knew the worst that people can do to one another, and to themselves’.  But her life also supplied the subject matter for her early novels: her time in the Suffolk bookshop became The Bookshop, while her stint at the BBC found use in Human Voices.

Fitzgerald’s later novels move away from her own life experiences, but they retain the characteristics that make her early novels compelling—the exploration of reason and emotion in spare, austere prose.  In them, she developed a style Lee characterised as ‘reticent’ and ‘full of silences’, qualities which mask passionate conviction.  Fitzgerald researched her historical novels intensely, even re-learning German for her last novel The Blue Flower, but her careful choice of detail masks the range and depth of her research.  In their understated control, Lee felt, the novels achieve something profound and original.

Lee admitted that she felt great responsibility to her subject in writing this biography, the first ever written on Fitzgerald, not least because many living people still remember Penelope fondly.  With this, as with other biographies, Lee concluded, the biographer has a duty to get the story as right as possible, but acknowledge that no biography is ever complete.  We can follow Penelope Fitzgerald’s life, trace connections between it and her work, but ultimately we are ever in search of the whole story.

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