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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Physics of Sorrow

Georgi Gospodinov

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To purchase The Physics of Sorrow

Title: The Physics of Sorrow
Author: Georgi Gospodinov
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 283 pages
Original in: Bulgarian
Availability: The Physics of Sorrow - US
The Physics of Sorrow - UK
The Physics of Sorrow - Canada
Physique de la mélancolie - France
Physik der Schwermut - Deutschland
Fisica della malinconia - Italia
Física de la tristeza - España
  • Bulgarian title: Физика на тъгата
  • Translated by Angela Rodel

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Our Assessment:

B+ : creative take on the stories of life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 8/2/2024 Matthew Janney
NZZ . 6/5/2014 Andreas Breitenstein
The Times . 3/2/2024 John Self
World Lit. Today . 1-2/2016 Michaela Burilkovova

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Physics of Sorrow is less an attempt to describe the world through a set of stable laws than a constellation of vignettes, anecdotes, lists, digressions, secret corridors and rooms, dreams, memories, odds and ends. These fragments of experience form a speculative autobiography of astounding originality. (...) There is something of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man here, furiously attempting to write the world before it’s all swept away. Stories are perishable, ephemeral, therefore meaningful." - Matthew Janney, Financial Times

  • "Eine veritable Wundertüte ist dieses Buch. Vom scheinbar Nebensächlichen (der Wäscheliste für Rekruten der Volksarmee) geht es bis zum grossen Ganzen (Quantenphysik) -- wobei Gospodinow, die Zeitgeschichte aussparend, vor allem in Bezug auf die absurden Lebenswelten des Realsozialismus aus dem Vollen schöpfen kann. Ohne Unterlass (und doch mit selbstreferenziell-ironischen Rast-Aufenthalten, in denen er seine versprengten Leser einsammelt) entrollt der Roman quer durch das 20. Jahrhundert federleichte und sternenschwere, schlichte und vertrackte Episoden, in denen sich Kindheitsmomente, Historie und Mythologie kreuzen. (...) So tief und witzig hat schon lange kein Autor über sich nachgedacht." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Masterfully written in rich language, the novel meanders like a stream in the flatlands. Angela Rodel does an excellent job of the difficult task of translating some wordplays and proverbs without losing too much spice." - Michaela Burilkovova, World Literature Today

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:

       The narrator of The Physics of Sorrow identifies himself as 'Georgi Gospodinov', and much of the novel is autobiographical, the born-in-1968 author describing his early childhood as well as much of his life in communist and then post-communist Bulgaria, as well as beyond. Identifying himself as such, however, does not limit the author to his own (life-)story: named after his grandfather, the narrator inhabits that identity as well, and recounts stories from this previous and other 'Georgi Gospodinov''s life as well. Early on, the narrator admits: "I could get inside other people's memories, and that was my biggest secret"; The Physics of Sorrow is essentially a chronicle of dealing with and revealing that skill -- of becoming and being a recounter of stories, an author.
       A Prologue suggests a multiplicity of identities, an 'I' born in 1913 (as Gospodinov's grandfather was) and in 1968 (as Gospodinov was), but also in other time-frames, in completely different other forms. It is summed up, beautifully, in the first-person singular and plural last identity he presents himself as, a simple, universal:

We am.
       If the Cartesian essence of being -- the definitive ergo sum -- is in thought (cogito) itself, so Gospdinov suggests the communal ergo sumus is in our (shared) stories: story-telling, and the preservation and (re)presentation of our stories is what makes us human, what makes humanity.
       A guiding figure and tale here is that of the not-entirely human Minotaur. Gospodinov identifies with him, writing that at age nine he already began to write a defense of him, the first iteration a very brief text that concludes with the identifying avowal: "I, the Minotaur".
       That text begins: "The Minotaur is not guilty", and Gospodinov suggests:
In broad terms, that is the basic thesis. Over the years I have merely added further evidence.
       The Physics of Sorrow is, in a sense, the case-file -- with, also, the Minotaur's labyrinth the guiding (and in every sense a literary) metaphor. So too Gospodinov explains:
I can't offer a linear story, because no labyrinth and no story is ever linear.
       Gospodinov describes a variety of attempts at the preservation of stories, from his own efforts with his own work to more elaborate time capsules that have been hidden away over the decades. He collects and stores clippings, and his own notes -- relying also on his "old-fashioned notebooks" rather than digital archiving, "Just in case the world turns analogue [sic] again. The likelihood is not at all negligible".
       He also collects (and recounts some) actual stories -- but only: "private pasts, the pasts of specific people" --, paying people for them -- often to their surprise. He pays for the stories he collects because it is another way of showing that they have value. His interest isn't necessarily in the grand, historic, important-seeming; he understands and is fascinated by the fact that:
In the small and insignificant -- that's where life hides, that's where it builds its nest.
       And, with Minotaurian obsession, he sees documentation -- writing -- as essential. His is the cry of the author, drawn and pushed to his calling, wanting and imagining nothing else:
     Let me write, write, write, let me record and preserve, let me be like Noah's ark, not me, but this book. Only the book is eternal, only its covers shall rise above the waves, only the beasts inside, between its pages swarming with life, will survive.
       The Physics of Sorrow is a deeply personal book. Grandfather Georgi Gospodinov and his otherwise secret and forever lost tale are preserved here, and so is much of the life of author Georgi Gospodinov, from basement childhood to his own experiences with his young daughter: The Physics of Sorrow is testament and, like any story-recording, myth-making. In a post-Knausgaardian world there's less room left for this approach, at least at its most direct: the six volumes of Min Kamp (see e.g. volume one) are exhaustive apotheosis. Gospodinov manages to transcend the limitations in part, his ambition to: "bring back a slice of the past, a pint of drained-away time right here" buttressed by his reliance on the Minotaur, or also, in part, on physics (yes, that also comes into play). Yet much is still traditional personal-account, Gospodinov too often shying away from the promising 'We am' of the Prologue to the entirely self-focused.
       Perhaps unsurprisingly, among the most successful of the personal memories he recounts are those of imagining more: for example, he describes stealing a cookbook and following the recipes with a girl he was living with, but solely in their imaginations, since they were too poor to buy any of the necessary ingredients -- yet: "we got so into it that afterward, you could see traces of flour on our hands".
       More revealing is the (potential) get-rich-quick scheme a friend of his dreamed up: 'Movies for the Poor', where they would retell movies for those too poor (like themselves) to buy tickets for the Hollywood blockbusters in post-communist Bulgaria -- the project falling apart because, not having seen the movies either, they couldn't offer an adequate re-telling to satisfy the customers: a failure of the imagination, and reminder of Gospodinov's reliance on factual basis for what he recounts.
       So also there's the neat look back to childhood, to the beginning of his: "indiscriminate guzzling of books. Some kind of literary bulimia", Gospodinov explaining:
I learned the alphabet from the cemetery in that town languishing in the sun. I could put it this way, too -- death was my first primer. The dead taught me to read. This statement should be taken absolutely literally.
       Validation comes in the factual, the insistence on a claim being taken literally; it need not.
       At one point Gospodinov writes:
Indeed, inside me, the Minotaur shivers, afraid of the dark, but otherwise I look completely normal, I wear the body of a white, middle-aged man
       The Physics of Sorrow is at its most successful when the focus isn't on appearances, and on Gospodinov's actual experiences, but rather when he lets the Minotaur out -- or ventures into the labyrinth. Not that it's not successful otherwise, too, but the transcendent is beyond the personal, and while Gospodinov repeatedly reaches for it here, in often marvelous detail, he is dipping his toe in rather than taking the necessary complete plunge.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 February 2015

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The Physics of Sorrow: Reviews: Georgi Gospodinov: Other books by Georgi Gospodinov under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Bulgarian author Georgi Gospodinov (Георги Господинов) was born in 1968.

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© 2015-2024 the complete review

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