translated by Jim Tucker
Zsófia Ban’s Night School: A Reader for Adults uses a textbook format to build an encyclopedia of life—subject by subject, from self-help to geography to chemistry to French. With subtle irony, Ban’s collection of “lectures” guides readers through the importance and uses of the power of Nohoo (or “know-how”), tells of the travels of young Flaubert to Egypt with his friend Maxime, and includes a missive from Laika the dog minutes before being blasted off into space, never to be seen again. A wildly clever book that makes our all-too-familiar world appear simultaneously foreign and untamed, and brings together lust, taboos, and the absurd in order to teach us the art of living.
Content warnings for short references to child abuse and sexual abuse.
I picked up this book because I love the premise – an encyclopedia of life, a reader for grownups, built up through 21 short stories. Textbook-esque questions and observations are strewn throughout, and while some are funny or just weird others are poignant and made me think.
WHAT is the meaning of allegro, ma non troppo? AND HOW DO WE KNOW when allegro is too troppo?
CALCULATE how many angels can fit on the head of a pin if each angel is approximately 45mm and faithless.
WRITE AN ESSAY on this topic: If you had the choice, which of your favorite authors would you choose not to meet?
The stories fall into several loose types. Several look at the history of Eastern Europe (Bán is Hungarian) with a dystopian bent. Some are character studies, or an experimental narrative idea that’s spun out. Others examine an aspect of a famous person’s life – how the wickedly wonderful subject of Manet’s Olympia got the artist to do the painting in the first place. Laika the dog’s thoughts before she is blasted into space, never to return. (“This recording is for you, Soviet children, so you can write its message on a sky full of meteors and stardust: THESE PEOPLE ARE ALL GALACTIC LIARS.”)
My favorite is an examination of Newton that is free-wheeling and hard to describe. I both laughed and stared into the middle distance, lost in thought. What if instead of watching an apple fall he saw a boulder careening down a mountainside? Or simply threw a ball into the air hundreds of times to watch it rise, slow, hang for an inexplicable moment, then drop? Neither of these is as romantic as an apple falling, and the latter is hard work. Would we have the same thoughts about Newton if he came up with his theory about gravity in one of these other ways?
Other little bits struck a chord, like how people make unthinking exclamations in their native language. When I was in study abroad all of my classmates were multi-lingual, and we would joke that the best way to figure out someone’s mother tongue is to punch them and see what language they swear at you in. (Not recommended, obvs.)
I didn’t understand everything Bán was getting at, but I don’t think that’s the point. Some stories are a wash of images with a thread of plot, and I enjoyed drawing connections and going where she led me. That being said, some things I were over my head. For example, one story is an email correspondence among characters from Dangerous Liaisons. I haven’t read the book and was so lost that I ended up moving on to the next piece.
Overall, though, I loved spending time with this collection. It’s odd, subversively feminist, and made me look at certain aspects of life in a new light. I took forever to get through the book because I only read one story at a time, often on a long stretch of my commute, and let it rattle around my head for a day or two. Perfect for any fan of weird and wonderful short stories.
Thanks to Open Letter and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.