Author Features / Features / Fiction

The Not Non-Fiction of Magdalena Tulli

by Nicki Leone


On it he wrought in all their beauty two cities of mortal men.
The Iliad, line 490

Like many creation myths, Dreams and Stones begins with a tree:

The tree of the world, like every other tree, at the beginning of the season of vegetation puts out tiny delicate golden leaves which with time acquire a dark hue and a silvery sheen. Then they become yellow and red as if they were burning in a live flame and when they have burned their last they go brown and fall to earth ragged and full of holes, akin to pieces of paper turned to ash or rusted-through tin cans.

Like many creation stories, Dreams and Stones begins with a machine:

…it is not the power of germinating seeds and not the pressure of juices circulating between the roots and crown that give the world life, but that it is set in motion by motors, gears, and cogs, devices that keep the sun and stars rotating, pull the clouds across the horizon and drive water along the bed of the river.

When Magdalena Tulli’s book was first published in Poland in 1995 it garnered widespread critical acclaim and enthusiastic reader response, as well as the Kościelski Foundation Prize (the highest literary award in the country). It also engendered not a few arguments, for while everyone agreed that Dreams and Stones was a fine book, an important book, a ground-breaking book, no one seemed to agree on just what kind of book it was.

The author herself, who might be expected to know, insists that it is a novel. But if so, it is a novel without characters, plot, or clear narrative. Her English translator, Bill Johnston, who might be expected to have an informed opinion, feels his opinion is informed enough to correct Tulli on her own work. He calls Dreams and Stones a “prose-poem”—a deliberately ambiguous and perhaps even self-contradictory phrase.

Others have suggested that the book is “anti-prose,” if such a term can be used for writing composed of clean, complete, grammatically correct sentences. A “meditation” is sometimes suggested, although that is more a description of the reading of it than the writing. “Postmodern” is another designation, used with a kind of desperation by critics who are nevertheless conscious that Dreams and Stones, although eschewing conventional narrative structure, still undeniably tells a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Perhaps the best summation comes from a profile of Tulli on the website of The Polish Book Institute—a project of the Polish Ministry of Culture for the promotion Polish literature: Dreams and Stones, they say, “is not non-fiction.”

Dreams and Stones, then, is a “not non-fiction” story of a city—indeed, of all cities—which exist as fruit born upon the tree of the world. Like all fruit the city ripens to a perfect moment, whereupon it continues to ripen until it becomes soft and decaying, and eventually drops to the ground to ferment and disintegrate, releasing the seed inside that will become a tree which will bear more fruit. It is also the story of a city as a machine that continually breaks and repairs and breaks and repairs again, as though life is something that is pulled and pushed along by the turning of cogs. These two metaphors, the tree and the machine, are so entangled with each other in Tulli’s work they are hardly distinguishable. Far from being competing conceptions of the world, they are more a question of perspective: sometimes we look at a thing and think of how it is like a tree. Sometimes we look at it and see the machine. Sometimes the tree seems like a machine; sometimes the machine grows like a tree. Dreams and Stones might be called an extended exploration into how trees are machines, and machines are trees. Or of how we are both.

We tend to think of creation stories as tales of beginnings, how we came to be what we are. They exist in the distant and untouchable past, a memory that has lost its distinction and details over the ages. But myths do not really operate this way. Nor, for that matter, do stories. They are not “past” but exist in a kind of eternal present—they are always being told because we are always telling them, always reading them. Thus, when Eve bites into the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, we are not hearing a story of how we were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, we are hearing a story of why we don’t live in it now.

The genius in Magdalena Tulli’s work is her conscious awareness that we are doomed to live in this eternal present that is the province of fiction. Our sense of the future is dreamy. Our sense of the past is, as Faulkner so famously pointed out, not past. Even though Dreams and Stones describes the life cycle of a city from its idealized inception on drafting paper to its eventual death among a tangle of ruins, refuse, and flood, the idea that things have a beginning and an end is something of a pretense. It is all beginning and ending simultaneously, all the time. Tulli is exquisitely aware of the malleability of our sense of time:

Every night, to the rhythm of tomorrow’s newspapers revolving on the drums of the rotary presses, the cities of yesterday are rolled up and then vanish. In the morning no trace of them remains. When the new day is over the city will be thoroughly and utterly used up; nothing will be left of it besides the nouns, verbs, adjectives, affirmative and negative sentences drifting everywhere. Yesterday’s chair, hat and teapot are already beyond the reach of today’s hand, immaterial and unusable. And those who went to bed yesterday evening exist today in the same immaterial way as yesterday’s teapots.

Eventually, life seems to move faster and faster for the inhabitants of the city, until it seems to have little to do with the ticking of clocks or the motion of the hands on their watches, and the people seem to be perpetually rising to go to work, or sitting down to pour tea, with little to distinguish one day’s tea from the next.

This idea, that the past is as present as the present, and the present is as insubstantial as the past, would almost be Zen, except that the goal of the Zen practitioner is surely to free oneself of this world of illusion, whereas the inhabitants of the city are forever trapped in an ephemeral existence. Or, as Tulli puts it elsewhere, “Every glance is accompanied by an awareness of loss.”

Magdalena Tulli was born in Warsaw on October 20, 1955 to a Polish-Jewish mother, but she spent much of her childhood in Italy before finally returning to Poland to live as an adult. Her Italian background is considered significant—she has translated Italo Calvino and Marcel Proust into Polish—but in truth Tulli is a writer who, more than many in this information age, is content to allow her work, rather than her backstory, to represent her. Perhaps, being supremely aware of the transience of life, she feels no need to underscore it with a Twitter account.

The result for her readers (who tend to be the sort to look for the story behind the story) is an inclination to fix on the few glimpses we are granted. Knowing that Tulli has translated Calvino and Proust, we see the influence of both in her work—compelled to build bridges between them with the few materials we have to hand. We listen to her ruminations on the personal experience of time, and think of Proust and memory. We read her description of the city of Dreams and Stones: “…symmetrically arranged square shapes linked harmoniously to a great central rosette…the palace erected in the center of the rosette was filled with marble and mirrors…” and can’t help but think of Calvino’s city of Moriana, “…its alabaster gates transparent in the sunlight, its coral columns supporting pediments encrusted with serpentine, its villas all of glass.” Likewise, we hear in her discourse on the philosophical advantages of planning a city in the shape of a star, where inhabitants can see the whole all at once and never be faced with the necessity of choosing an uncertain path, the echoes of the builders of the city of Thekla—whose city blueprint is the night sky filled with stars. Surely, we think, the cities of Calvino are to be found among Tulli’s dreams and stones.

But it might be more accurate to say that Tulli’s writing invites us, almost siren-like, to forge such connections among our own memories and experiences. One reader will see in her elaborately detailed edifices the reflection of Borges; another will find, in the way her scenes dissolve into one another, an echo of Kafka. The first time I read Dreams and Stones all I could think of was Hephaestus forging his shield of the world for Achilles. It is a truism that the reader always finds the book he is looking for in any given text… but this is perhaps especially true of Tulli, who writes as though words are a kind of mirror to reflect the face of the reader.


He made on it the great strength of the Ocean River
which ran around the uttermost rim of the shield’s strong structure.
Iliad, lines 606-607

Is there nothing solid, then, in Tulli’s work? Nothing permanent or lasting? Bill Johnston says of Dreams and Stones that “It’s a novel about objects and about ways of seeing and explaining,” which implies that there is something to see and something to explain. In her subsequent books, Tulli becomes more “narrative”—more concerned with the possible ways to tell a story. Indeed, in In Red, the novel that followed Dreams and Stones, she tells the same story in at least three different ways. Her next, Moving Parts, tells a story almost inside-out, as though the main characters (at least there are main characters) are insignificant. Flaw, the most recent of her work to be translated into English, is a kind of parable as seen through the lens of a city square on a single day, where somehow the people, who disappear, are more real than the stones of the square itself, which stays.

Ultimately Tulli seems most concerned with these many ways of seeing and explaining the quicksilver moments of feeling that most of us let slip by, barely conscious of our awareness or regret. We try to grasp for some permanence of meaning with inadequate methods: ours is an age, Tulli suggests, of “commemorative watches and also commemorative teapots and irons, an age of ever new inscriptions on sashes, ever new faces in photographs and challenge trophies which were constantly being given and taken away.” But that does not mean hers is a world where all that is solid melts into air. As she notes, the rhythm of the hearts and the shape of the veins in the hand do not change. Something permanent and real exists. She does after all, talk about both dreams and stones. And stones have permanence. Substance. Reality:

Thanks to the overabundance of faith and strength [of the city-builders], facades were adorned with attics and bas-reliefs, and statues appeared in the recesses of the walls. These figures of stone were clad in stone aprons, stone shirts with rolled-up sleeves and stone pants. Their stand was imperturbable; they had protruding eyes without pupils and held a bricklayer’s trowel or carried a pickax over their shoulder. They were a hard-handed race who wore clothes sewn by stone seamstresses and ate loaves of stone; the ablest of the master craftsmen who at the beginning of the world, out of bricks, sheet metal and plaster created all the wonders of that world.

“The solid interior of the stone belongs to another world,” writes Tulli: “a world in which unity of substance prevails.” A philosopher might accuse her of empiricism, of faith only in external reality, because the end, when her city is broken and destroyed by flood, the stone is still there.

“…The obvious truth,” she notes, is that “…the city to which the tree of the world gave birth at the beginning of this story is not real, just like the tree and like us ourselves. But the life of stones, which has no care for the past or the future, existed and will continue to exist: a steadfast endurance free of any name.”

Tulli seems to think that her readers will find this a comfort. Strangely enough, she is right.

Bloom Post End

Nicki Leone showed her proclivities at a young age when she asked her parents if she could exchange a gift of jewelry for a hardcover Merriam-Webster. Later, her college career and attending loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. Currently she works with the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. She has been a book reviewer for local magazines and newspapers, and the on-air book commentator for her local public radio and television stations. She is also past president and a current member of the board of the North Carolina Writers Network. She lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with a varying numbers of dogs and cats.

Homepage photo credit: Sarah Korf via photopin cc

Nicki Leone’s previous features: Daniyal Mueenuddin’s Pakistan: Where East Meets EastGaston Leroux: A Man of Heaven and EarthConnections in Space and Time: The Stories of Josh RolnickSamuel Richardson: Persuading PamelaBruno Schulz: Living in the Republic of Dreams, When Style Is Content: A Run-In with the Fiction of W.M. Spackman

One thought on “The Not Non-Fiction of Magdalena Tulli

  1. I loved this review. I’m sure Tulli will feel it has done her work full justice. I’ve yet to read it, but the review is seductive. To me, such works are surely philosophy – existence, knowledge, values, mind, and language.

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