Zurab Karumidze: დაგნი ანუ სიყვარულის დღესასწაული (Dagny or a Love Feast)
Dagny Juel-Przybyszewska was a Norwegian writer famous for her liaisons with artists. She was a model for Edvard Munch. She had an affair with Strindberg. She was married to the Polish writer Stanisław Przybyszewski (they had a son and a daughter). In 1901, after Przybyszewski had abandoned her for another woman, she travelled to Tbilisi, Georgia, with Władysław Emeryk. (Karumidze later suggests that Emeryk bought Dagny from Przybyszewski.) Three weeks after their arrival, Emeryk shot her in the back of the head and killed her. This book is about that three week period at the end of her life.
However, if you are expecting a conventional account of her last three weeks, you are in for a surprise and, perhaps, a treat, because Karumidze has given us an anarchic romp through Tbilisi of 1901. Also in Tbilisi, at that time, were Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili, a revolutionary hiding under the code-name of Koba (taken from the name of a character in The Patricide, a novel by Alexander Kazbegi), better known to us by his later nickname of Stalin, and George Gurdjieff. Though his father was Greek and his mother Armenian, according to Kurumidze, Gurdjieff spoke excellent Georgian and was in Tbilisi in his search for the cosmic agape or higher consciousness. Karumidze surmises, without any evidence, that Dagny met both Gurdjeff and Stalin. While the novel is nominally about Dagny’s last thee weeks, Karumidze is very much concerned with what he calls shamans – from Sophocles to Jimi Hendrix, from Meister Eckart to Charlie Chaplin – as well as false shamans, which include Hitler and other dictators. Clearly, Gurdjeff is one of these shamans (as are other Georgian characters, particularly Rustaveli, the great Georgian writer, the Russian translation of whose great work was edited by Stalin.) There is considerable discussion of this idea, some of which is clearly tongue-in-cheek. Gurdjeff and Vazha-Pshavela are both present in Tbilisi and are key characters in this novel as they search for cosmic consciousness. Indeed, Vazha-Pshavela is said to know how to distill poetic substance from organic life. He is greatly admired by Stalin.
While there is a certain amount of seriousness (and mock-seriousness) regarding these characters, as we are in Georgia, drinking, fighting and sex are also key and Kurumidze lays it all on. There is a certain amount about Dagny – her flirtations, her marital problems, the men who are attracted to her and her writings (All of Dagny’s plays are about the killing of innocence: you must murder your innocence to discover your real self, which then destroys you out of vengeance.) There are also key events. There is Gurdjeff’s cosmic agape event. There will be a magic lantern show of Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, with a translation by the sister of the British Vice-Consul in Kerch, Crimea, followed by a performance of Bach St John’s Passion. Passion is key here as the poem is described as being about wandering and solitude, rapture and affliction; it is about passion. This is a excellent motto for this book. Not only does this description fit Dagny’s life, Karumidze even quotes from Elizabeth Costello, of all books, with a quote by Coetzee from Francis Bacon where he refers to extreme souls who would speak the ineffable”where words give way beneath your feet like rotting boards”. He then likens her to a decadent Mary Magdalene, washing the feet of the Christ of Modernism with her tears and then wiping them dry with her own hair. Over the top? Absolutely but that is all part of the fun of this book. And, just when we think it cannot get any more over the top, we are introduced to Gornahoor, an extraterrestrial who is watching over Earth, particularly over a young Albert Schweitzer, who is playing Bach, while a young cantor.
Japhetic linguistics, revolutionary terror, higher consciousness, the post-modern novel, The Great Game, art, music (Dagny was a a very competent pianist and Bach is hailed as one of the shamans, though Mozart almost makes it, but not quite), astronomy, eating and drinking (of course), all are passed through Karumidze’s fairly unconventional and mocking view. You may not learn a great deal about Dagny Juel from this book but you will have a wonderful time as Karumidze romps through culture, politics, spirituality and consciousness, and his own country of Georgia. Once again we have to be grateful for the Dalkey Archive Press for making a Georgian work available in English.
If you want to know about Dagny Juel, there was a 1977 film about her called Dagny but only in Polish and Norwegian. There was also a 50 minute documentary about her called Død Madonna (Dead Madonna). You can see excerpts (in Norwegian) here and here. There is also a book about her called Dagny: Dagny Juel Przybyszewska, the Woman and the Myth by Mary Kay Norseng. Her poems were published in English but are now out of print and not easy to obtain.
First published in 2011 by Siesta, Tbilisi (bilingual English/Georgian edition)