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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Night School

Bán Zsófia

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

To purchase Night School

Title: Night School
Author: Bán Zsófia
Genre: Stories
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 240 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Night School - US
Night School - UK
Night School - Canada
Abendschule - Deutschland
Escuela Nocturna - España
  • A Reader for Grownups
  • Hungarian title: Esti iskola. Olvasókönyv felnőtteknek
  • Translated by Jim Tucker
  • With an Afterword by Nádas Péter

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Our Assessment:

A- : cheeky, sharp, provocative

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
NZZ A+ 30/5/2012 Ilma Rakusa
World Lit. Today . Fall/2019 Thomas Nolden

  From the Reviews:
  • "Selten kommt es vor, dass jemand so kühn debütiert – und mit so viel Raffinement. (...) Zsófia Bán beherrscht die Kunst, Bildungsgut neu zu arrangieren (und neuen Zwecken zuzuführen), Wörter und Wendungen zu verballhornen, verschiedenste Schauplätze (von Brasilien bis Rügen) anzuzitieren, bizarre Phantastereien mit (pseudo)wissenschaftlichen Versatzstücken aus Geografie, Biologie, Physik usw. zu verbinden. Sie kreuzt Disziplinen und Stile, Parodie und Poesie, Didaktik und Fabulierfreude, wobei dieses lustvolle Spiel nicht nur literarischen Mehrwert, sondern auch Erkenntnis generiert. (...) Lakonische Sentenzen, spöttische Bonmots, gelegentlich harsche Urteile sind aber nur Splitter in Báns kaleidoskopischem Textuniversum, das zur prallen, ausgefallenen Narration neigt." - Ilma Rakusa, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The strongest pieces in this "textbook" are tightly narrated stories in which a few select images and elements become the object of playful permutation (.....) Mingled among the many lessons on illustrious subjects are, if you will, electives that present somewhat lighter fare." - Thomas Nolden, 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:

       Night School is a story-collection that is presented as 'A Reader for Grownups' -- a mock-textbook, each story assigned to a (school-)subject. So, for example, the story 'Gustave and Maxime in Egypt (Or: The Metaphysics of Happening)', playing off of Gustave Flaubert's 1849 trip to Egypt with Maxime Du Camp, is a 'French' chapter; 'The Mantegna Madonna (folksong for expectant mothers'), which manages to bring together Isaac Newton, a Mantegna Madonna, and serial killer Dr. Harold Shipman (among much else ...) is a 'Physics/Biology' lesson. (Oddly, the table of contents only lists the stories, not the subjects they reflect.)
       Throughout there are also, textbook-like, small (mostly roughly an inch square) illustrations near the margins, helpful (and equally often mis/leading) complements to the texts.
       Bán's lessons are a far cry from what might be found in the usual textbook, and in many the connection to the subject matter is, at least at first sight, arguably tenuous. Some of the texts do vaguely resemble school-texts, more directly engaging the reader, via questions and references interspersed in the story -- though even when this is not done as directly, it's clear throughout that Bán is encouraging dialogue with the texts and prodding the reader to engagement (also by needling and teasing the reader ...) with her often provocative claims and presentation. So also one aspect of the stories that helps make this a more unified collection is that many of them feature a short separate section in which a question (or several) or exercise is presented, as in a textbook-chapter-conclusion encouraging the student to show what s/he has learnt inspired by the material: 'WRITE AN ESSAY on your favorite holiday with the title "Why I love Christmas" !', for example, or 'CALCULATE how many angels can fit on the head of a pin if each angel is approximately 45mm and faithless"
       The pieces vary in style and approach, though a common aspect to many of them is their foundation in textbook-subjects such as historical episodes and literary texts: Bán rips riffs off culture with abandon. In some, she offers her own reïmagining of historical events -- Flaubert and Du Camp in Egypt, for example, or space-pioneer dog Laika telling her story ("I'm only whispering because I'm making this recording in secret") in 'On the Eve of No Return (archival recording)' ('Teacher's Edition/Russian'). In others, she creates new fiction on old: there's a 'Fidelio (a blog opera)'; 'What Is This Thing Called the Exchange Reaction ? (destructive affinities)' (in: 'Chemistry/Physical Education') features the quartet from Goethe's Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities) competing in a ping-pong doubles match, while 'Mme de Merteuil Shakes Herself' (a 'Geography/Biology/History' entry) is a beginning-of-the-new-millennium continuation (of sorts) of Choderlos de Laclos' epistolary novel, Les Liaisons dangereuses -- "an edited version of the subsequent correspondence", now conducted as an e-mail exchange, beginning with letter 176 (and finding its conclusion in horrible-fascinating fashion in one final spectacular encounter that readers recognize will go off entirely differently from what the correspondents had in mind -- though this is the one story that is arguably a bit too obvious (and sensational) in what it builds to).
       Typical of some of the leaps and connections Bán makes is that in 'The Two Fridas (school beyond the border)' ('Health/Homeland'), inspired by Frida Kahlo (and her famous double portrait), in which there are two schoolgirls -- two Fridas -- and:

And so it was: we filched a scalpel and clamp from the doctor's bag, and once he left we went into the bathroom and set about connecting our hearts. Our reasoning was that if we could make the two of them one, then we could not die separately, because the other one would also be me. Our biology teacher would have given us a B+ for this (because, and I quite, an A is only for the most exceptional). Upon completing the procedure we cleaned up the bathroom after ourselves and then, with the satisfaction of a job well done, took out the trash and did the dishes without so much as being asked. Our mother gave an uneasy smile.
       Creative variations also range from 'A Film (24/1)' ('Physical Education'), a nice sequence of diving, to 'How I Didn't (exercises in style: a partial inventory)' ('Hungarian'), in which the narrator describes (sort of -- Bán's stories tend to go way beyond their apparent premises) how she didn't meet each of a number of famous Hungarian authors (including some long deceased ones). The latter also has a great concluding exercise:
WRITE AN ESSAY on this topic: If you had the choice, which of your favorite authors would you choose not to meet ?
       The clever and enjoyable premises are one thing, but what really impresses in Night School is Bán's free-wheeling, wide-ranging style. This is cheeky, playful writing, but with a great deal of depth to it. There's little convention here, with shifts from one line to the next -- or even within them -- in a dizzying layering-on:
     As for myself (but who is really speaking here ?), what interests me most -- and I mean REALLY -- is the stops for a moment, what's up with that ? What happens in that vacuum moment when we find ourselves pedaling in mid-air, like in the cartoons, neither up nor down, but precisely there and then.
       'Concerto (with subtitles)' ('Singing/Music') comes with legends of sorts: "The valley buzzes: buzzing. The brook babbles its burbles: burbling babble". 'The Temptation of Henri Mouhout' ('Geography/Biology') connects the historical explorer -- "before you could say Jack Robinson he had already discovered Angkor" -- with the decidedly fictional Emma Bovary. 'Mrs. Longfellow Burns (a biography)' ('English/Home Economics') looks at American "national poet" Henry Wadsworth Longfellow -- "making culture before the nation has even invented it", fluting his way across Europe, and, in 1834, winning: "the prize for Most Handsome Professor of the Year, ending up on the cover of Life".
       Among the great ex/changes -- between the author and herself, as well as the reader --, and one that sums up well a lot what Bán does, and how, is:
     There is something unsaid here, some hint, some dark and unhappy story. Or if not dark and unhappy, then something left unsaid, something that, shut up, sweetheart, you're too young for this, something that, ask your father, something that is there, since only a blind person could not see it, but whereof one cannot speak. One must be silent.
     But enough of that.
     No, my dears, it's not like that. Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we perhaps should try to speak, you see. After all, this is why we were given this damned language (→ swear word from a native speaker) language, this is how we raised ourselves above the animals, by pointing to this, as if to say, well, you know, it's language.
       There's an enjoyable and very wide variety of stories but perhaps the only slightly disappointing thing about the collection is that it's not entirely cohesive; some of the stories -- good though they are -- feel a bit of an odd fit, all the more so because a large core do seem to be of a (very fine) piece. The textbook-like arrangement is inspired, complete with the illustrations, but a few of the pieces do feel like they're a bit forced into it.
       Beyond that, however, this is an impressive, even wonderful work, Bán's dense, bubbling flow of ideas and words carrying readers along like on some wild river raft-ride -- with the use of the familiar (historical and literary figures, in particular, as well as art and music) helping to ground the texts and give the readers something to clutch to. Fans of Dubravka Ugrešić should enjoy Bán, whose writing is similarly creative and intelligent, and grounded in fact and art, even as her approaches and styles are distinct and different.
       Night School is very smart, good -- if dizzying -- fun, by a remarkably assured writer.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 January 2019

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Night School: Reviews: Bán Zsófia: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Bán Zsófia was born in 1957.

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© 2019 the complete review

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