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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary

     

Slight Exaggeration

by
Adam Zagajewski


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Slight Exaggeration



Title: Slight Exaggeration
Author: Adam Zagajewski
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 275 pages
Original in: Polish
Availability: Slight Exaggeration - US
Slight Exaggeration - UK
Slight Exaggeration - Canada
Die kleine Ewigkeit der Kunst - Deutschland
  • Polish title: Lekka przesada
  • Translated by Clare Cavanagh

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Our Assessment:

B+ : rich, and nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NZZ A 10/2/2015 Andreas Breitenstein
Polityka . 16/10/2011 Krzysztof Cieślik


  From the Reviews:
  • "Nun, da man es in Händen hält, merkt man, wie sehr man sich nach einem solchen Buch gesehnt hat -- einem Buch, das die Kunst ernst und das Leben heiter nimmt, das Tiefe mit Ironie, Überschwang mit Abgeklärtheit, Gelehrsamkeit mit Leichtigkeit, Abstraktion mit Anschauung und Essay mit Erzählung verbindet. Einem Buch, das glücklich macht und erhebt, weil es eine Schneise der Konzentration in den Nebel der Zerstreutheit schlägt, welche über allen hängt, die mit ihren Apparaten an den rasenden Stillstand der um den Globus jagenden Information angeschlossen sind." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Dużo miejsca poświęca lekturom, impresjom na temat koncertów i -- oczywiście -- poezji, o której pisze w sposób niezwykle erudycyjny, a zarazem wciągający. Nie brak w tym wszystkim autoironii i dyskretnego poczucia humoru. Lekka przesada to -- wbrew temu, co sugeruje na początku sam autor -- esej bardzo osobisty." - Krzysztof Cieślik, Polityka

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Slight Exaggeration is perhaps best described as a book of reflections. The subtitle on the publisher's publicity page does call it: 'An Essay' -- though that description doesn't appear on the book proper -- , which seems quite misleading; the flap- and publicity copy describing it as: "a mosaic-like blend of criticism, reflections, European history, and aphoristic musings" is closer to the mark. The German edition, meanwhile, suggests it's a 'Tagebuch ohne Datum' -- a diary without dates, which also fits (loosely).
       The volume isn't a chronological account of the present-day, but rather ventures back, both near and far. It isn't straightforwardly confessional -- as Zagajewski makes clear with his opening words, promising or warning: "I won't tell all regardless". Zagajewski looks back not only on his own life, but that of earlier generations of his family; a great deal of it revisits old haunts, from the Polish family homes to times Zagajewski lived abroad, in Paris and America, to places he has visited.
       If there is any dominant presence or influence here, it is that of the father-figure. While not always in the foreground -- Zagajewski ranges far and wide, very often entirely beyond him -- it is the aged father that weighs most heavily on Zagajewski over the course of the book. He is first introduced here as an old man who, though still physically healthy, has completely lost his mind (and, of course, memories), and is now: "in a purely vegetative state". Unable to turn to the man himself any longer -- there but not there -- Zagajewski turns to memories, and, for example, looks into the memoir he asked his father to write -- back in 1991 --, From One Accident to the Next. Zagajewski understands that the long-form wasn't one that suited his father ("My father was an aphorist", he suggests, and pushed to write this memoir by his son: "he must have felt like a first-class sprinter who'd been ordered to run a marathon. It wasn't his distance") but still finds a great deal of material here, complementing his own memories. Unsurprisingly, one of the last entries in Slight Exaggeration mentions his father's passing -- yet Zagajewski also refuses to close on that note; indeed, he makes as much of his aunt's death, two months later, in the same brief section, before moving on to an account of a brief visit to Dresden, and reflections on a painting by Rembrandt, the final chapter in the book. The treatment mirrors the father's significance throughout: a strong presence, yet already long beyond reach, the influence entirely secondary since direct dealings with what is just a left-over body of a person are no longer possible.
       It can seem that Zagajewski flits around from subject to subject, but there is some design to this more-than-commonplace book. Music is important to him, and like in a musical composition Zagajewski returns to and repeats specific themes, and returns to certain figures, authors, and poets. His range is wide -- heavily Polish and Germanic, but with forays elsewhere (including considerable thought about how different modern French poetry is from his own traditions). Friend Czesław Miłosz (he recalls a trip to NASA, in Houston, with Miłosz: "as one of my best moments, a moment of carefree friendship") and Zbigniew Herbert are important figures -- though the single longest entry in the entire book (at just over seven pages), is a consideration of the less-well-known Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz
       There are nice juxtapositions of the personal and the literary: in Paris he visits Cioran once, but can't connect (and then looks sadly on when he chances to see the aged Cioran in the streets, by then having lost his mind), but returns repeatedly to the work -- and nicely suggests:

I'd like to imagine the kind of ardent reader who could spend his life between two books, between the Notebooks (Cahiers) of Simone Weil and the Notebooks (Cahiers) of Emil Cioran, by turns mocking and admiring first one, then the other (but never both at the same time), avoiding them, evading them, and always coming back, but never to both at once. Poets should be required to study Cioran's Notebooks, which hold nothing sacred, except for the music of Bach, Handel, and Mozart. [...] There is only Cioran or Simone Weil, mockery or sanctity and prayer. Poets are drawn to hyperbole, not litotes. Cioran cultivates a geometry of sharp angles, caustic, cutting, horizontal. You need Simone Weil for verticality.
       There's a great deal about poets and poetry -- and it's noteworthy how often Zagajewski turns personal, rather than merely discussing in the abstract. The human element -- the contact and friendships -- often comes to the fore, and even those he doesn't know are judged in personal terms -- "Bertolt Brecht, a marvelous poet and unpleasant person". Language and place also figure, as Zagajewski explores both Polish history and his own different places, including in fascinating bits such as his observations on Krakow, and why he felt compelled to leave it, this: "city of expression, or at least a city, so I thought, that invited expression, embodied expression".
       He thinks he has an explanation for why he isn't a novelist: because no one confides "petty social secrets" to him. One can understand how he is a gossip-failure, entirely too open and straightforward in his dealings with -- and writing about -- others. But he writes about novelists, too,and enjoys their work -- Musil, Proust, Mann.
       A nice section has Zagajewski pick up Gilbert Adair's The Real Tadzio -- about 'Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and the Boy Who Inspired it' -- in a Krakow bookshop (one hopes in the original Short Books edition, as Zagajewski also later properly enthuses about: "that splendid invention, the livre de poche, the pocket-book"). His meandering thoughts are typical of the agreeable ramblings and well-read connections found throughout. (Disappointingly, however, Zagajewski slips up horribly here -- and there was apparently no editor in the American house to catch this -- in calling the distinctly and entirely not-American Gilbert Adair: "an American from New York" (a mistake presumably arising from the title of Adair's sublime Love and Death on Long Island ).)
       Slight Exaggeration is an enjoyable book of reminiscences and reflections, from a world almost entirely literary -- and cosmopolitanly Central European. There's a timeless quality to Zagajewski's attitudes -- he's not truly contemporary, yet also not some relic of some other times. There's enough American experience here -- even as he particularly praises American university libraries for their European holdings, superior to those of their European counterparts ... -- for him to easily bridge that divide, much as he shows himself at ease with both East and West, and comfortably (and uncomfortably) familiar with Communist and post-Communist times and places.
       An agreeable -- even if one can disagree with some (or many of his opinions ...) -- volume by a modern literary intellectual, the type of book that might have been commonplace in the twentieth century but has become all too rare in the twenty-first.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 April 2017

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Links:

Slight Exaggeration: Reviews: Adam Zagajewski: Other books by Adam Zagajewski under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Polish poet Adam Zagajewski was born in 1945.

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© 2017 the complete review

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