What is Great Literature?
(Written for Pravda by Paul Valéry)

         Fame is a cliché. It does not mean anything on its own. Even though an author can be famous for ten or twenty years, his fame can disappear very fast. There is only one kind of fame that means anything: the fame that the person can achieve posthumously. Hence, it does not matter if a person is not famous during his lifetime.

          Having concluded this, we need to turn to the kind of fame that happened to only a few lucky and chosen people that were already famous during their lifetime. How did they earn their fame, and was it even worth earning?

          Fame is, in fact, accumulated popularity, making it a very unsafe acquisition that should be treated accordingly. For fame depends on an infinite number of imponderables and on constantly changing factors. 

          Nine out of ten people that judge a work of literature to be «great» do not base that judgement on their own beliefs; they don’t judge independently: they follow a few «authorities» whose opinion is considered to be unerring. Hence the criteria according to which a work is considered great is very much uncertain, often even unconscious.

          Shakespeare, whom all of us call «great», was considered to be a second-rate author by his contemporaries! There is a certain fashion in literary criticism that changes as often and as capriciously as does women’s fashion in the Rue de la Paix. This or that literary work is critically rejected regardless of literary traditions, just as a tailor who was lucky enough to be a fashion arbiter decides whether women’s skirts would be short or very long next spring.  

          Therefore fame (in a majority of cases) is just a «certificate of moral behavior». A writer has values and popularity so long as he manages to remain fashionable. 

          This tendency is much more pronounced today than it had been in the past. There used to be a time when one could assert that a writer’s fame would last exactly fifty or eighty years. That was in the past, when tastes and fashions did not change as abruptly as they do today. The whole world is in a feverish hunt for new sensations today! That is the motto of our modern world.

          This brought about certain consequences for the change in literary tastes and the spirit of literary criticism. Our ancestors were luckier in that sense. We paid a rather steep price for our disloyalty to traditions. 

          Each epoch finds new nuances in works of art. This is the reason for an author to become unusually famous many years after his death, having had insignificant recognition during his lifetime. In the last forty years, for example, Racine has achieved fame very different from the one he had had before. 

          Fame does not depend on author’s merits. It is determined more in accordance with certain characteristic aspects of a work. It depends on whether a work contains thoughts that the new generations will find exciting. We cannot know today if many words and thoughts written now and apparently insignificant for the contemporaries will not, say, after several decades — therefore tomorrow —have enormous significance. Deep and great truths are sometimes hidden even in the simplest manners of expression. They are just waiting to be interpreted and suitably appreciated.

          I believe that libraries are cemeteries that engender literary movements. Oftentimes a book that was buried in an old library for decades and whose great mission was overlooked becomes widely read as the harbinger of great ideas and actions. 

          This resurrection of books has its cause in the book itself. The resurrection of such books is brought about by the necessities of the new times, by the investigative human spirit under the changed circumstances. Such a stock could be found in various libraries today: we are completely unaware of it. It becomes clear now why a work, worthless until yesterday, has a great significance today. Scholarship plays an important role in the re-evaluation of the material: it continually strives to assign value to hitherto unrecognized work.

          Fame is then a phenomenon that cannot be defined, but that nevertheless affords immeasurable advantages to those who have achieved it. It is thus not so much about an author’s individual talent as it is about his impact on the contemporary opinion. Fame can be measured by the «passionate empathy» of the readers; in other words, by the degree of passion and enthusiasm that a book is capable of eliciting in its reader. 

          If an author is very famous and popular, he can become a demigod in his lifetime. The public treats him as a celebrity even when it does not read his books, just so long as it has heard that he is a literary eminence.  

          The masses thus, consciously or not, seek the leadership of this renowned author and think that he can solve all the problems in the world. As long as there is an important question about life’s problems, the average reader asks himself: «What does that great author think about this problem? Maybe he could easily overcome the obstacles to the solution?»

          In our modern times when views, traditions, and basic principles change quickly, people call on such prominent authors, hoping that by virtue of their greatness they are the only ones who can answer big and difficult questions of modern life. 

          Thus should one understand literary fame today. The touchstone of all «great» works today is not the work’s talent and excellence, but the influence the work could have on its readers. If an author could write spiritual and moral gospels for his contemporaries, he would become famous in his lifetime. If this gospel is discovered by the emerging generations, the author will become famous and great after his death. A work of literature needs to be distinguished by its style, beauty, skillful representation, form and language as a matter of course. But none of these are as important as its property of being a «gospel». 

          The best literary works of the past are those that the subsequent save as rtf or later generation identified as sacred books. Those are the works of Virgil and Homer, Shakespeare and Racine, Pascal and Montaigne…

          All of them wrote books characterized by this potential to become gospels; they wrote the books of tomorrow. This rule will not have an exception in the future. 

Translated into the English language by Ivana Vuletić

Ivo Tartalja

            According to the indications at our disposal, only a very small number of copies of the pre-war Belgrade daily newspaper, Pravda, published on May 18th, 1936, have been preserved. The other copies of this issue (published in a significant circulation, consisting of both the daily and the evening editions) have met the same fate that the newsprint normally meets. The specially preserved volumes of this newspaper vanished in the ashes of the National Library in 1941, as well as in the other destructions of the war and the post–war periods. However, a single copy suffices to, once the mandatory permission of the management of the Library, required to take rare items from its vaults, has been obtained, examine it and copy a text featured on one of its pages. It most definitely merits being copied.

          On page number twelve, in column «Writers and Books», an essay entitled «The Resurrection of the Book», with a bold subtitle, What is Great Literature?, was published. An inscription is found underneath the title: «Written for Pravda by Paul Valéry». The name of the translator is not mentioned. Therefore, the translation is warranted by the editorial board. Among the members of the editorial board, it is the poets Desimir Blagojević and Rade Drainac, as well as the multitalented and versatile man of letters, Milan Djoković, that may have more directly influenced the orientation and the contents of the column «Writers and Books».

The Question of Motivation

          What possible motive could a famous French poet have had to take up his pen and write a literary essay for the Belgrade daily Pravda? Before he decided to make such an unusual gesture, the author must have been asked by the editorial board to collaborate, if not in a letter, then maybe in person, by Miloje Sokić, who was known to travel to Paris. Having accepted the invitation of the editor, the author of Reflections on the World Today (Regards sur le monde actuel) must have known something about Belgrade and must have felt that he was on the same «wavelength» with the orientation of the newspaper whose name invokes justice (pravda in Serbian means justice).

          By accepting the challenge to become a contributor to the Belgrade daily newspaper, Valéry broached a subject that hovers high above the short-lived, ephemeral sensations. He would write about the dwindling and the resurrection of the literary glory, and the vacillations of the literary taste through history, from the antiquity to his contemporaries. Did he not thus herald the aesthetics of reception, which would capture the attention of the future theoreticians in the decades to come? He would become famous for diverting the attention from «the producer» and «the product» to «the consumer» of the art. Still, to what extent this orientation of his may have played a defining role in the broader circles of critics and studies of philology remains little known.

          The date on which this essay written by Valéry was published was bookended by ominous events, both in Europe and elsewhere. Mussolini overcomes the resistance in Abyssinia and undertakes its annexation to Italy. The incensed leader of the Reich does not hide that he is arming on a grand scale. Political trials take place in Moscow. Spain is the arena of a civil war. The League of Nations lacks the strength to prevent the dismantling of the peace. The author of Reflections on the World Today would note in 1938: «It is noteworthy that, at the present, the dictatorship is as contagious now as the liberty used to be once upon a time».

          It is only later that the most interesting element of this case would be revealed.

The Destiny of the Essay «The Resurrection of the Book»

          About ten years after the death of the poet, a critical edition of the works of Paul Valéry, spanning three thousand five hundred pages, appeared in «The Pleiades Library» («La Bibliothèque de la Pléiade»), published by the Parisian publishing house, Éditions Gallimard. The book, which comprises two volumes, was superbly edited by a reliable expert, Professor Jean Hytier. The editor completed all the previous editions by adding many posthumously published works, and also introduced variants of certain works from different editions and manuscripts, capping it all off by providing comments based on the author’s correspondence and the accessible documents. However, not a single trace of the essay «The Resurrection of the Book» can be found either among the compiled texts, or in the critical apparatus. No reference to this serious essay by Valéry, published in Pravda, has been made either in the bibliography provided at the end of the second volume of «The Pleiades Library» edition, or in a study by Hytier, The Poetics of Paul Valéry (La Poétique de Paul Valéry), published in 1970, in which, due to its subject, it would not have been overlooked.

          The omission made by the perfectly informed, and eminently conscientious daughter of the author, Agathe Rouart–Valéry, in the biographical introduction to «The Pleiades Library» edition, certainly is not less interesting. She follows her father’s movements and actions, thoughts and afterthoughts, lists them for one year after another, month after month, going back to the births of their ancestors from the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, and ending with the death and the funeral of her father.

          For year 1936, which would be of particular importance for the fate of the essay published in Pravda, even the minor activities undertaken by the writer were noted (where he dined, who he talked to, even what he said to his interlocutors). From the month of October of that year, among other events, the assassination of the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Louis Barthou, and the King of Yugoslavia, Alexander, was noted, accompanied by Valéry’s recollection that, five days beforehand, Barthou answered his question regarding the imminent future, «Having taken everything into consideration, do you see it as being sombre?» by saying «I see it as being red». There is no mention of the publishing of the essay written for Pravda.

          A possibility remains, albeit a theoretical one, that Valéry’s essay may have been found somewhere, and «resurrected», within the period from the publishing of the edition by «The Pleiades» and the present day. An inquiry with the reliable experts on the writer’s work ensued. Aleksandra Pavlović, a librarian employed by the Service of Inter Library Loans within the University Library of Belgrade, put her heart and soul into this inquiry. She placed official requests for all available relevant information with the National Library of France in Paris and the Museum of Paul Valéry. The search for any kind of record regarding the publishing of the essay «The Resurrection of the Book» yielded no results. This essay vanished without leaving a trace.

The Authenticity

          Should the loss of an interesting essay by a world renowned writer arouse suspicion in the authenticity of the text? It is a fact that the original text has not been preserved. All that remains from the writer’s words is the thought that the translation manages to convey. A few Gallicisms lead to the conclusion that the text was translated from the French. However, it is not without importance to evaluate how much licence the translator granted himself or herself.

          One cannot exclude the possibility that the translator, accidentally or even on purpose, departed from the framework set by the original, when he or she let the subtitle What is Great Literature? be printed without the use of the inverted commas. The text mentions a «great» work, a «great» writer, a «great» literary work. Here the inverted commas are used systematically, conveying the meaning «the so–called».

          The words written at the very beginning of the text may surprise and confuse the reader. The very first words are: «The glory is a cliché». Taken from typography and preceding the electronic age, the French word cliché designates a photograph engraved on a metallic plate, used in the printing process for making reproductions. Used figuratively, this word designates the stereotypical character of something, even if it be the glory itself. When Bergson told him, during an encounter, that «The philosophers are full of clichés», Valéry did not try to hide his approval. As to the initial definition of glory in this essay, it probably also came about as a response to the challenge presented by his personal situation. Did not the poet, subsequent to his election into the French Academy and similar honours that ensued, in the words of his devoted translator, Kolja Mićević, find himself «At the height of his glory»?

          According to the author of the essay «The Resurrection of the Book», the literary glory, in spite of all its fickleness, has solid references in the authors of some classical works. As examples, he offers Virgil and Homer, Shakespeare and Racine, Pascal and Montaigne. It is indeed the licence to place Homer after Virgil and Montaigne after Pascal on this list that testifies to the specific taste of the author. Before Valéry translated Virgil’s poem on agriculture, The Georgics, in 1942, no one probably would have guessed why someone, in spite of all the historicism of the nineteenth century, would write the name of the Roman poet before the name of Homer.

          Confirmations of the authenticity of Valéry’s message also come from other sources.

          A journalist in the employ of Pravda, Milan Djoković, in his delightful memoirs, The Good Old Belgrade, mentions the custom to gather the carefully chosen, well-respected members of the cultural and scientific communities on the pages of this newspaper at Christmas and at Easter, and lists literary authors from all parts of Yugoslavia, classified according to their aesthetic orientations. It is well worth mentioning that, among the published texts of contributors of Pravda, those whose value and importance have kept increasing during the last decades are indeed numerous.

          If there existed a person capable of stringing together learned and wise variations on the topic of the literary glory, and doing it as it was done in the article published in Pravda, one could not avoid asking the following question: Which editor would risk compromising the long–standing reputation of his newspaper by attributing an essay written by another person to a living author? And even if such a person were, miraculously, deprived of all morals and conscientiousness, it would have been easy to estimate how much smaller the number of readers attracted by the name of the French poet would have been than the number of, for example, female readers interested in the Parisian fashion, or, as the essayist said in a picturesque manner: «Which length of skirts is suggested as appropriate for this spring by the couturiers of Rue de la Paix?».

          In the essay published in Pravda one may perceive certain leitmotifs of Valery’s essayistic writings. However, among these essayistic writings there is not a single one that shows links to «The Resurrection of the Book». Paul Valéry is not one of those writers who have a tendency to repeat themselves, and who do not have the gift of surprising their faithful readers, and even of surprising themselves.
The conclusion that remains is that the author of “The Resurrection of the Book” wrote his essay more or less the way entries are made in a journal (Memory book). They are written with a purpose of a more or less intimate nature, for the place offered on the whiteness of the paper. Only there – and nowhere else. Here an entry often is a quick improvisation, but it also may have the character of a testament.