In his 50 years on this earth, Nikolai Grozni, it seems, has been shifting through not one, but several lives at least. Born Nikolay Grozdinski in Sofia, he went to music school and studied piano (later this became the basis of his novel “Wunderkind”) eventually progressing to Boston’s Berklee college in the early 1990s. Despite the possibility of a career in music, he made a sharp turn towards writing and the spiritual path. In 1995 he went to India and Tibet where he studied Buddhism and the Tibetan language, also becoming a monk. The time spent living between the US and India was the focal point of his first books, most of them written in English and later translated into Bulgarian by the author himself.
The collection “Lives of Idle Men and Degenerate Mystics” was published in 2001, followed by the novel “Someone put a Spell on Existence”. In his homeland Grozni is best known for “Turtle Feet” (2008) and “Wunderkind” (2011), two works that also earned him international recognition with the latter being championed by no less an authority than Patti Smith who called it “a gift for the senses”. Grozni’s most recent novel was “Farewell, Monsieur Gaston” (2014).
After a period spent living between the US, France and Bulgaria, in 2015 Grozni moved back to Sofia on a permanent basis. Interestingly, instead of milking his success and status as a published author in the US, his instincts lead him in the opposite direction – away from media fanfare and commercial aspirations. A collection of short stories “Claustrophobias”(2016), followed by a book of poems “Songs for the Dust” (2021) and the brand new “Black Sea Upanishad” were released independently through Begemot publishing house, founded by Grozni and illustrator Iva Sasheva. All titles have Bulgarian and English versions.
The new book ushers us inside Grozni’s mind during the past three years which he spent living in the vicinity of Sozopol. “I feel detached from the static electricity of the city which can really weigh a person down. It’s easier to take in what’s going on in the world when you wake up and you see sheep.”
The promising writer as an eternal gardener
Having relocated to the seaside shortly before the 2020 pandemic outbreak, he describes his everyday life there as that of a hermit.
“I’ve had very little contact with people these past few years. I’m constantly rediscovering Sofia – I go off somewhere, I come back and sometimes there’s this energy in the air, as if something exciting is about to happen, but then nothing does. There came a moment when I started getting a little depressed by this. Being in the city is often about speaking, dialogue, trying to connect with society and the possibility of me doing so seemed to have evaporated. I found the introvert in me, the one I’d lost after coming back from India. Also, nothing keeps you more focused than solitude. Of course I don’t mean complete solitude – I can see Sozopol from here, I feed the birds, make wine, sow herbs, grow figs.”
At one point, he says “freedom” instead of “solitude”, which in itself speaks volumes. Still, why there of all places? The move, he explains, came as a result of him rediscovering his roots and ties to the Black Sea , with one part of his family hailing from Sozopol, another - from Varna.
The new hardcover release, unusually voluminous for a book of poems and with photos by Nikolai Grozni, was written entirely within the above mentioned time frame, its title “Black Sea Upanishad” referencing his life as a recluse both now and previously in India. The Upanishads are Hindu philosophical tracts that predate the Common Era and Grozni treats them more as literary texts rather than religious ones. “It’s almost impossible to attain any metaphysical knowledge through the texts, the sacred is always a personal achievement.”
He recalls how, after returning from India to Bulgaria, he spent one summer camping in Irakli and it was then that the idea to write something entirely dedicated to the Black Sea came to him. “I always wanted to write a book about the sea, but I didn’t know where to begin, what to say. I became obsessed with the idea. For me it’s a way of contemplating the vastness that can swallow everything, of understanding the relationship between the self and everyone and everything.” For reasons he cannot pinpoint, Grozni never felt drawn in that way to other seas or oceans. He puts it all down to his roots and childhood years when “I saw the sea as something between a mythical monster and God.”
In the new book, in which poetry sometimes gives way to fragmentary prose, he tries to define these feelings and associations.
“It has no beginning and no end, hence it is called black. It has no other face but a lack of one, that is why it is called black. It is too faint for any prophecy, that is why it is called black. It is the last thing those who have no more strength to continue swimming see, before they cast out their eyes, hence it is called black.”
Despite the experimental nature of the book, he describes it as one directly related to his life. “The first part is quite, in fact completely autobiographical. It’s about my grandfather. Overall, this book is the most joyful experience for me as a writer. I somehow managed to piece together my wanderings over the years, everything that was scattered between East and West.”
Bio literature without additives
Does he miss anything about the world of professional publishing, like the chance to reach a wider audience for instance? His experience is that of someone who has seen the system from the inside and has no intention of going back to it. According to him, the American market model has arrived in Europe ten years too late and currently there is a tendency “for the financing of more unconventional, marginal projects to be drying up. Literature has gone corporate, it’s gone all McDonalds. I can describe what I saw happening metaphorically through food. We have food chains, we have a menu that never changes, there’s a hierarchy of tastes that is very limited.”
He sees the diminishing opportunities for the publishing of unconventional literature on a larger economic scale: from the restriction of monopolies after the Great Depression in the US, their rejuvenation under the Reagan administration, to the present day, the perception of every book as a marketing product and the mandatory challenge for the author to cater to a specific target audience. A phenomenon that he sees as a legacy of a society, increasingly polarized in its values and political opinions, both there and in Europe.
“An American friend of mine from the hippie generation told me that he thought the world wasn’t the same after 9/11, which at the time I thought was a ridiculous statement. But now I think the world has indeed changed and is continuing to do so in a very dynamic way. Especially the world of artists and writers. A lot of my American friends simply stopped writing.”
He sees the economic model around the authors as smashed to bits and draws a parallel with music – there are a lot of famous bands who release their music themselves and have difficulty reaching a wider audience, but can go on tour, while public readings with tickets are rarely an option for writers.
“I may not have access to the same number of readers that I would via a professional publisher, but I think that what I’m doing now is in a way more worthy. Obviously, not everything that comes out from beyond the matrix is good and there’s still the big problem with independent releases: there’s no filter, the work hasn’t gone through any evaluation before being presented to the public. But I know I’ve done my best and even if only three people read my work, at least I tried.”
He considers it a difficult balancing act between publishing new work and his reluctance to do book launches and draw attention to himself. “We all want validation because it gives us strength and motivates us to keep going. Otherwise confidence turns into an inferiority complex. On the hand recognition and acclaim are an easy serotonin that can destroy the creative process. A number of great writers have shunned fame. Validation feels nice, but it also distorts you until you, yourself, become the product of a closed process.”
The publication is also a reminder of Grozni’s interest in black and white photography. In the years prior to his seaside move, his Sofia street photography was quite popular on Instagram. What does he photograph now that there’s hardly a soul around him? “I try to take snaps of the old women in Sozopol, but they rarely go out, “ he says, laughing. At some point he plans to release a book of photos taken in the streets of Sofia. He considers street photography an important time document, but while this is completely legal in the US and seen as a form of self-expression, in Bulgaria taking pictures of random people comes with certain restrictions.
Nikolai Grozni proves that mass recognition isn’t a necessary prerequisite for one to feel satisfied and fulfilled. Je claims to have the same approach to his food, as he has to his literature:
“I found an organic way of expression, without additives. I write the same way that I plant herbs.”
“Black Sea Upanishad” can be found at Greenwich Book Centre, Bulgarian Books, Nisim, Elephant and can be ordered online from www.begemotbooks.com.
Translated by Nasso Ruskov