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Lucifer Unemployed by Aleksander Wat
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Lucifer Unemployed (1927)

by Aleksander Wat

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Wat published this book of short stories in 1927. The Great War (not yet World War I) was over. Nazism had not yet started, and Stalin hadn't reached his murderous heights. Wat, according to his fascinating memoir, My Century, was a futurist and a dadaist, movements which, as far as I can tell, rejected traditional forms in an attempt to reflect the changes in the post-war world and distaste for bourgeois conceptions of art. In these stories, ideas play the central role, along with playfulness and satire, not character or plot.

For example, the title story, which is the last story in the volume, takes the idea that the devil has been put out of business by the modern world, and poor unemployed Lucifer goes around talking to people in various lines of work who illustrate for him why the devil is no longer needed. In the first story, "The Eternally Wandering Jew," Jews take over the Catholic church and start these new Catholics go on to oppress the now ex-Catholics in the same way the church and society formerly oppressed Jews. In "Kings in Exile," the former crowned heads of Europe are exiled to a remote island, where they attempt to recreate the world as they had known, and end up regressing through the stages of civilization. In one of my favorite stories, "The History of the Last Revolution in England," a soccer ball intrudes on a fight between the revolutionaries and the military, and they end up setting themselves up as soccer teams instead. In several of the stories, such as "Has Anyone Seen Pigeon Street?," Wat turns the idea of reality on its head -- with a trick at the end.

In some ways the stories are prescient. Although the worst horrors of the 20th century, horrors that ended up enveloping Wat, were yet to happen, a reader (or maybe only a reader now, who knows what happened next), can feel something ominous hanging over some of the stories. They can be playful, but they are serious, and they don't embrace the modernity they represent.

Wat musing on history and the future:

"Does it always have to be true in human history that the simple, safe, small, insignificant, worthless things excite more passion, kindle more courage, animosity, and heroism; arouse more interest and encourage greater effort than than the dangerous, harmful, great, dignified, deadly things? So be it -- we will say with great solemnity. If that is how things really are, we should be happy, for there are so many harmful and explosive and annihilating things that one should wish that humanity should devote as little attention to them as possible." From "The History of the Last Revolution in England," p. 37.

A quote I appreciated as an editor:

" 'Here I am to offer you my collaboration,' he said to the editor. 'I know all the secrets of creation, and I will reveal things to you no one else knows.'

'Why, that's impossible,' the editor replied. 'We know everything already. To know everything is our raison d'ȇtre. As it is, we have more contributors than subscribers. Maybe some other time.'"
From "Lucifer Unemployed," p. 95.

Wat the poet making fun of poets and language:

"Poets and snobs congregated here: poets and snobbery go together as nicely as a thrown rock and ripples in water. This is the place where the wisemen who sucked wisdom out of the pacifier of words got together. What a shame! What a shame that for so long we have lacked a nurse of revelation! Words are tubercular, syphilitic, and preserve in their countless tissues swarming colonies of ambiguous microbes. By means of the same words some pave the way for European Buddhism, others propagate Orthodoxy and Catholicism. The latter are blood brothers to the inventors of deadly dynamite, all of course in the name of pacifism. And even if one finds healthy words in some out-of-the-way place, words securely fastened to the earth, even then poets would unchain them and punch them into the empty, vacant sky. What a shame! What a shame! And it's not as if they were mad dogs. They were only the colored bubbles of words." From "Lucifer Unemployed," pp. 105-106

I had mixed feelings about this book. I admired Wat's language, his wit, and his ideas, but I found it hard to get into the stories themselves.
9 vote rebeccanyc | May 31, 2013 |
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Aleksander Watprimary authorall editionscalculated
Milosz, CzeslawForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vallee, LillianTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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