A review of Seth Rogoff’s First, the Raven, A Preface
First, the Raven: A Preface is a small book in terms of physical size, but its conceptual terrain is expansive. Juxtaposed against Seth Rogoff’s novel is the “absolutely epic” book of his protagonists’ translation, Jan Horak’s tome. The character Horak’s great endeavor covers thirty-five years while Rogoff’s novel is staged like a one-act play during a long evening in a bar in Portland, Maine. Ironically, the preponderant literary work lies inside the story of the modestly structured one. In both Rogoff’s and his fictional characters’ worlds, the creative act is the essential.
Examining Rogoff’s little book begins with consideration of the oddity of its title. A preface to what? Why a preface in the title? The genre typically does not contain a preface. The translator character, however, has been working on a preface to the famed novelist character Jan Horak’s work. Preface becomes clue leading into the framed narratives. The raven in the Rogoff title alludes to the Biblical raven, first creature Noah sent out from the arc, as Rogoff character’s Sy Kirschbaum recounts. The raven was sent into the world before the world could begin again, and Rogoff sends out his raven before his book can be appreciated as story, as allegory.
On its surface, Rogoff’s narrative unfolds a love triangle between Sy, Gabe Slatky, and Ida Fields and extends into intimation and exploration of the political, historical, philosophical, and literary landscape of 20th Century Europe, localized in the Czech Republic and Prague.
The translator narrator Sy Kirschbaum begins, “with an arrival,” just as Horak’s literature starts with the 60-page arrival of Jan Horak’s main character Josef, nee Solomon. And almost immediately, Rogoff dislocates his character, again paralleling the displacement of Horak’s character. Like toying with Chinese boxes within boxes or the Russian matryoshka dolls, Rogoff plays with these conceptually recursive and internally repeating elements.
In describing the weighty book Blue, Red, Grey he is translating, Sy says to his temporary, evening companions Elise, and Claire and to his old friend Gabe, “This book isn’t a straightforward thing. It zigzags and spirals...the end of the empire means a total breakdown of order. Everything is up for grabs.” Sy’s description of Horak’s literature serves as architecture for Rogoff’s novel, as well.
Horak’s story has its Jacob—with imbued Biblical and historical allusions—wrestling with his adversary, brother, angel, devil, or God, on the bank of the Jabbok River. Rogoff’s character Sy metaphorically wrestles all night with his adversary Gabe, who could just as easily substitute for angel, brother, or God. Gabe does, after all, create the perfect play in Sy’s estimation. In his first-person narration, Sy reveals, “Gabe was now a star…he suddenly existed in a realm totally out of my reach.”
There are betrayals, however, and Sy and Gabe are locked in perpetual battle: “This is the struggle of the individual as creative actor, the creator of his own spiritual and material reality.”
In talking about the novel, he has laboriously been translating for seventeen years, Sy says to the clearly drunk bar patrons, “Kostel would attempt to translate these images onto canvas, as if this single-minded pursuit would lead directly to reconciliation with God.” Sy is both unreliable narrator and either mocking himself or seemingly lacking in self-awareness. Sy describing Horak’s novel feels as if it is also Rogoff describing his own work: “This is the struggle of the individual as creative actor, the creator of his own spiritual and material reality.” One act describes another inside this multi-framed narrative.
Josef, the Horak protagonist, is allusive in nature, calling up both Biblical references as well as Franz Kafka’s Josef in his unfinished novel The Trial in which the character is put on trial for an undefined crime by repressive forces. To state that Rogoff’s book contains allusions to other novelists and philosophers is understatement. Within Rogoff’s work, distinct echoes of Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Goethe, Samuel Beckett, Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers, multiple passages of the Old Testament in the Bible, Jorge Luis Borges’ “Two Ways to Translate,” Vladimir Nabokov’s Transparent Things, Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, and James Joyce’s Ulysses, and, as others have previously noted, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Eugene O’Neill may be heard.
Like his character Sy, Rogoff implies “the one true Creative act is infinite” and referential. Sy describing Horak’s work weighs as if it is also Rogoff describing his own creative efforts. Irony abounds as Rogoff writes, “Horak is only Horak—nothing else” as the author pulls readers into the labyrinth of other writers’ literature embedded within his own.
For the well-read, Rogoff’s novel is an exciting and enticing perplexity of heady concepts. It is almost impossible not to notice intended parallels between James Joyce’s character Leopold Bloom walking through Dublin, Ireland on a single day in the work Ulysses and Horak’s character Josef Kostel’s “walk…through a topography that becomes mythic for the Czech underground…gazing through time.”
If there is a slight weakness in this otherwise brilliant work, it is Rogoff’s catalogue of Sy’s numerous love affairs without giving adequate texture and detail to allow the women characters to come to life in the way his male characters do.
In lines such as, “it was the general seduction of time and space, blurring them,” Rogoff describes his character Horak’s novel while also offering self-reflexive interpretation of his own. Readers are left with blurred lines, ultimately, standing with Sy in the snow in silence between wakefulness and dreaming.
Rogoff’s novel First, the Raven, A Preface is not a passive endeavor. It requires something substantial of readers. It is an incredible experience.