Many European writers craft what's called a "feuilleton," a short--maybe a thousand words--essay on a theme, often appearing in newspapers. While no information is given about the origin of these stories, only their late-90s dates, and that the collection was "originally published in Dutch", Ugresic has certainly assembled what the subtitle of her collection indicates. I cannot tell if these essays were written in her native language or in Dutch, which adds to the slight confusion I felt when dealing with these nearly thirty appetizers. If taken in small portions, she offers her thoughts efficiently.
Contrasting the plight of the literary writer with the best-selling, commodified celebrity, she gives a series of elegies or curses at what looms as the funeral of the book for the educated reader. Now, she's preaching to the converted surely, given that the fine Dalkey Archive, a doughty holdout against the Oprah book clubs and Ivana Trump-driven marketplace, publishes her own efforts. But, over the course of only 220 pages, her critique wears so thin that she sounds griping rather than analyzing.
She does warn that the "professor of literature" scolding tone does creep into these essays; I respond, though at a far more proletarian institution than the ones she teaches at: yes, "it takes one to know one." I sympathize with her position, and support it, but the limitations of the 1000-word limit that straightjackets her into repetition and frequent lack of development keeps this anthology (the fiction, by the way, is negligible in amount compared to the essays) from wholly succeeding as a study of the decline of literary fiction and belles-lettres.
Not that her comparisons lack hard-earned insight. Socialist realism and the optimism of self-help books, whether peddled in big-box retailers, on talk shows, or the glossy magazines, makes for an original thesis. She speaks movingly of exile and the manufactured status that this is supposed to confer upon the exile from the former Communist bloc. Juxtaposing Tito-era "houses of culture" in every village with the peddling of books as nostrums on TV, or women, smoking, and the sacrifices they make for the male-dominated literary elite illustrate her knack for not only clever but informative anecdotes from her own life in Yugoslavia. This element, as a Croatian who chose to flee her country once it attained independence, and once it co-opted so many of its intellectuals and fellow authors, makes for sobering reading about the seductive power that continues, after the Stalinist and Tito eras, to recruit willing propagandists who, as in the former times, subvert yet support the regime.
So, this collection makes me want to read more of Ugresic. But, a warning--unless taken in small doses, you may find this brief but too ponderous assortment of essays too much for one or two sittings. She's confident, understandably aggrieved and rather bitter, and for better and worse, this is who you contend with while hearing her insistent and rather petulant voice in TYFNR.