The controlling idea, I think, is not supposed to be about the performer, but the listener. The performer is always going to dominate and control the whole experience, but as much as you drain expression out of the performance, it’s still going to be completely dominated by the performer. You can get people to sand off those portions of the performance that maybe allow the individual more access and the listening experience to have more to it. If it’s all about the performer’s idiosyncrasies and emotions, then there is no room for the audience. Some audience members might like that kind of music, but take something hyper-emotive, like Janis Joplin, and I’ll think, Ok, Janis, there is no room for me in these songs, so I’ll just turn this off and listen to something else.
And Oldham’s latest video, which I would probably totally hate if I didn’t love it so goddamn much:
Clarice Lispector interviewed Antônio Carlos Jobim in 1968. Lovely, even through the strange wonderful estranging filter of Google translate.
I’ve been a fan of Roman Muradov’s strange and wonderful illustrations for a while now, so I was excited late this summer to get my hands on his début graphic novella, (In a Sense) Lost and Found (Nobrow Press). In my review, I wrote: “I loved Lost and Found, finding more in its details, shadowy corners, and the spaces between the panels with each new reading.” The book is a beauty, so I was thrilled when Roman agreed to discuss it with me over a series of emails. We also discussed his influences, his audience, his ongoing Yellow Zine projects, his recent cover for Joyce’s Dubliners, and his reaction to some of the confused Goodreads reviews his novella received. Check out Roman’s work at his website. You won’t be disappointed.
Biblioklept: When did you start working on (In a Sense) Lost and Found? Did you always have the concept kicking around?
Roman Muradov: The idea came to me in 2010 in the form of the title and the image of a protracted awakening. I wrote it as a short story, which had a much more conventional development and actually had some characters and plot movements, all of them completely dropped one by one on the way to the final version apart from the basic premise. I didn’t have a clear understanding of what was to be done with that premise, but the idea kept bothering me for some time, until I rewrote it a few times into a visual novella when Nobrow asked me if I wanted to pitch them something. Since then it went through several more drafts and even after everything was drawn and colored I had to go back and edit most of the dialogues, which is a nightmarish task in comics, since it involved re-lettering everything by hand.
Biblioklept: When you say you wrote it as a short story, I’m intrigued—like, do you mean as a sketch, or a set of directions, or as a tale with imagery? Part of the style of the book (and your style in general) is a confidence in the reader and the image to work together to make the narrative happen. When you were editing the dialogues, were you cutting out exposition, cues, contours?
RM: No, I mean a traditional pictureless short story. I was struggling with forms at the time and didn’t feel confident with any of them. In a way this still persists, because my comics are often deliberately deviating from the comics form, partially in my self-published experiments. The story itself was still ambiguous, I never considered showing what she lost, or how. With time I edited down all conversation to read as one self-interrupting monologue.
Biblioklept: I want to circle back to (In a Sense) Lost and Found, but let’s explore the idea that your work intentionally departs from the conventions of cartooning. When did you start making comics? What were the early comics that you were reading, absorbing, understanding, and misunderstanding?
RM: I came to comics pretty late; I only discovered Chris Ware & co around 2009. As a child I spent one summer drawing and writing little stories, ostensibly comics, then I stopped for a couple of decades. I’m not really sure why I started or stopped. In general my youth was marked by extraordinary complacency and indifference. I followed my parents’ advice and studied petroleum engineering, then worked as a petroleum engineer of sorts for a year and a half, then quit and decided to become an artist. I still feel that none of these decisions were made by me. Occasionally certain parts of my work seem to write themselves and I grow to understand them much later, which is weird.
Biblioklept: Was Ware a signal figure for you? What other comic artists did you find around that time?
Ware, Clowes & Jason were the first independent cartoonist I discovered and I ended up ripping them off quite blatantly for a year or so. Seth was also a big influence, particularly his minute attention to detail and his treatment of time, the way he stretches certain sequences into pages and pages, then skips entire plot movements altogether. Reading Tim Hensley’s Wally Gropius was a huge revelation, it felt like I was given permission to deviate from the form. Similarly, I remember reading Queneau’s “Last Days” in Barbara Wright’s translation, and there was the phrase “the car ran ovaries body” or something like that, and I thought “oh, I didn’t know this was allowed.”
Biblioklept: Your work strikes me as having more in common with a certain streak of modernist and postmodernist prose literature than it does with alt comix. Were you always reading literature in your petroleum engineer days?
RM: That’s certainly true, nowadays I’m almost never influenced by other cartoonists. I wasn’t a good reader until my mid-twenties, certainly not back in Russia. I stumbled upon Alfred Jarry (not in person) while killing time in the library, and then it was a chain reaction to Quenau, Perec and Roussel, then all the modernists and postmodernists, particularly Kafka, Joyce, Nabokov and Proust.
Biblioklept: How do you think those writers—the last four you mention in particular—influence your approach to framing your stories?
RM: From Nabokov I stole his love for puzzles and subtle connections, a slightly hysterical tone, his shameless use of puns and alliteration, from Kafka–economy of language and a certain mistrust of metaphors–it always seems to me that his images and symbols stretch into an infinite loop defying straightforward interpretation by default, from Joyce and Proust the mix of exactitude and vagueness, and the prevalence of style over story, the choreography of space and time. I should’ve say “I’m in the process of stealing,” I realize that all of these things are far too complex, and I doubt that I’ll ever feel truly competent with any of these authors as a reader, let alone as a follower.
Biblioklept:(In a Sense) Lost and Found begins with a reference to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and then plunges into a Kafkaesque—to use your phrasing—“infinite loop defying straightforward interpretation.” How consciously were you following Kafka’s strange, skewed lead?
RM: I wanted the reference to be as obvious as possible, almost a direct copy, as if it’s placed there as an act of surrender–I’m not going to come up with a story, here’s one of most famous opening lines that you already know. Usually I know the beginning and the ending and I often downplay their importance, so that the work becomes focused mostly on the process and so that readers don’t expect any kind of resolution or satisfactory narrative development. In the password scene the phrases are copied directly from Eliot’s Wasteland, which itself refers to Paradise Lost in these passages. It’s a bit like a broken radio, shamelessly borrowing from the narrator’s visual and literary vocabulary, the way it happens in a dream.
How did your severe insomnia affect this attitude at the time?
It was really the profound cause of my break with philosophy. I realized that in moments of great despair philosophy is no help at all, that it holds absolutely no answers. And so I turned to poetry and literature, where I found no answers either, but states that were analogous to my own. I can say that the white nights, the sleepless nights, brought about the break with my idolatry of philosophy.
When did these sleepless nights begin?
They began in my youth, at about nineteen. It wasn’t simply a medical problem, it was deeper than that. It was the fundamental period of my life, the most serious experience. All the rest is secondary. Those sleepless nights opened my eyes, everything changed for me because of that.
Do you suffer it still?
A lot less. But that was a precise period, about six or seven years, where my whole perspective on the world changed. I think it’s a very important problem. It happens like this: normally someone who goes to bed and sleeps all night, the next day he begins a new life almost. It’s not simply another day, it’s another life. And so, he can undertake things, he can express himself, he has a present, a future, and so on. But for someone who doesn’t sleep, from the time of going to bed at night to waking up in the morning it’s all continuous, there’s no interruption. Which means, there is no suppression of consciousness. It all turns around that. So, instead of starting a new life, at eight in the morning you’re like you were at eight the evening before. The nightmare continues uninterrupted in a way, and in the morning, start what? Since there’s no difference from the night before. That new life doesn’t exist. The whole day is a trial, it’s the continuity of the trial. While everyone rushes toward the future, you are outside. So, when that’s stretched out for months and years, it causes the sense of things, the conception of life, to be forcibly changed. You don’t see what future to look forward to, because you don’t have any future. And I really consider that the most terrible, most unsettling, in short the principal experience of my life. There’s also the fact that you are alone with yourself. In the middle of the night, everyone’s asleep, you are the only one who is awake. Right away I’m not a part of mankind, I live in another world. And it requires an extraordinary will to not succumb.
Succumb to what, madness?
Yes. To the temptation of suicide. In my opinion, almost all suicides, about ninety percent say, are due to insomnia. I can’t prove that, but I’m convinced.
From Jason Weiss’s 1983 interview with Emil Cioran, which is now available in full at his website, Itineraries of a Hummingbird. The interview was originally published in Weiss’s book, Writing at Risk, which is now out of print.
Tell me about your ideal film school.
This is something we can talk about later when we discuss Film Lesson, the programmes I made for Austrian television, but let me say here that there are some very basic skills that any filmmaker must have. First of all, learn languages. One also needs to be able to type and to drive a car. It is like the knights of old who had to be able to ride, wield a sword and play the lute. At my Utopian film academy I would have students do athletic things with real physical contact, like boxing, something that would teach them to be unafraid. I would have a loft with a lot of space where in one corner there would be a boxing ring. Students would train every evening from 8 to 10 with a boxing instructor: sparring, somersaults (backwards and forwards), juggling, magic card tricks. Whether or not you would be a filmmaker by the end I do not know, but at least you would come out as an athlete. My film school would allow young people who want to make films to experience a certain climate of excitement of the mind. This is what ultimately creates films and nothing else. It is not technicians that film schools should be producing, but people with a real agitation of mind. People with spirit, with a burning flame within them.
So you certainly don’t subscribe to the belief that your films are in any way ‘art films’?
Absolutely not, they are no such thing. I dislike intensely even the concept of artists in this day and age. The last King of Egypt, King Farouk, completely obese in exile, wolfing one lamb leg after another, said something very beautiful: ‘There are no kings left in the world any more, only the King of Hearts, the King of Diamonds, the King of Spades, and the King of Clubs.’ The whole concept of being an artist is also somehow outdated today. There is only one place left where you find artists: the circus. There you can find the trapeze artists, the jugglers, even the hunger artist. Film is not analysis, it is the agitation of the mind; cinema comes from the country fair and the circus, not from art and academicism. I truly feel that in the world of the painter or novelist or film director there are no artists. This is a concept that belongs to earlier centuries, where there was such a thing as virtue and pistol duels at dawn with men in love, and damsels fainting on couches.
Michelangelo, Caspar David Friedrich and Hercules Segers: these men are artists. ‘Art’ is a legitimate concept in their respective eras. They are like the emperors and kings who remain the crucial figures in the history of humankind and whose influence is felt even today, something that certainly cannot be said of monarchies today. I am speaking not about the death of the artist; I just feel that creativity is perceived with something of an outdated and antiquated perspective. That is why I detest the word ‘genius’. It too is a word that belongs to an earlier time and not to our own era. It is a sick concept nowadays, and this is why with utmost caution did I once call Kinski a ‘genius’. My use of the word comes close to my feelings about the man, but the expression itself and the concept behind it is something that heralds from the late eighteenth century and just does not fit comfortably today.
The truth is, I don’t believe all that much in writing. Starting with my own. Being a writer is pleasant—no, pleasant isn’t the word—it’s an activity that has its share of amusing moments, but I know of other things that are even more amusing, amusing in the same way that literature is for me. Holding up banks, for example. Or directing movies. Or being a gigolo. Or being a child again and playing on a more or less apocalyptic soccer team. Unfortunately, the child grows up, the bank robber is killed, the director runs out of money, the gigolo gets sick and then there’s no other choice but to write. For me, the word “writing” is the exact opposite of the word “waiting.” Instead of waiting, there is writing. Well, I’m probably wrong—it’s possible that writing is another form of waiting, of delaying things. I’d like to think otherwise. But, as I said, I’m probably wrong.
I first interviewed Lars Iyer in 2011, after the publication of his novel Spurious, the beginning of a trilogy that concluded with Exodus (my favorite of the three). I asked Lars to talk with me about his trilogy for an email interview, and we ended up discussing failure, comedy, optimism, academia, American writing, Britain in the mid-eighties, and his forthcoming novel Wittgenstein Jr.
Biblioklept: Why a trilogy? Was that by design? Is it a trilogy?
Lars Iyer: Spurious was only a beginning. I wanted to historicise my characters, to present their friendship as part of a larger social, economic and political context. Otherwise, I risked merely contributing belatedly to the literature of the absurd.
Biblioklept: I want to talk about the end of Exodus but that seems like bad form for an interview. Spoilers, etc. Can you comment on where you leave your protagonists, or how you leave them, or why you leave them?
LI: I leave my protagonists roughly where they were at the beginning of the trilogy: rudderless, rather lost, full of a sense of their failure, but with their friendship, such as it is, intact. ‘No hugs, no lessons’: my characters haven’t learned anything…
Biblioklept: Why can’t they learn? Why the repetition? Why not a heroic arc? Why not a saving grace?
LI: Perhaps because learning implies a kind of resolution that I think is inappropriate for the characters. Kundera says something apposite about Don Quixote. Cervantes makes his would-be knight-errant set off in search of battles, ready to sacrifice his life for a noble cause, ‘but tragedy doesn’t want him’. Kundera goes on:
since its birth, the novel is suspicious of tragedy: of its cult of grandeur; of its theatrical origins; of its blindness to the prose of life. Poor Alonzo Quijada. In the vicinity of his mournful countenance, everything turns into comedy.
So it is with my trilogy. No tragedy! No heroism! No tragic catharsis, that would see the tragic hero being dragged back into line. And no comic catharsis either, in which the older norms of a traditional societal system are reaffirmed. So much comedy is self-congratulatory, self-reassuring: the humour of good cheer, of port and cigars. It shores up things as they are. This is why I can never bear to watch comedy on television. It’s so rare to see comedians turn the joke on themselves. We need cruel comedy. Black comedy, which laughs at itself laughing…
Why the use of repetition in my novels? Because I want to portray the breakdown of things as they are, not once, but again and again. Failure, without amelioration. Serio-comic breakdown, without restitution. Anomie. Helplessness. Crushed hope. How else to acknowledge the prose of our lives?
Much of the humour of Don Quixote, depends on the contrast between lofty ideals and the concrete, everyday, corporeal life. The humour of my trilogy is analogous – but, of course, our everyday is utterly changed! A generalised precarity, un- and under-employment, free-floating anxiety, consumerism, the emphasis on self-representation, the sense that history is over, that politics is all played out, that financial and climatic catastrophe loom…
The tragedy of everyday life is that it’s not even tragic. It never reaches the lofty heights of tragic grandeur. Well, nor do my characters. When W. is at his most wretched, he cannot even die – that’s the end of Dogma. When W. is at his most revolutionary, participating in his own version of the Occupy movement, as at the end of Exodus … well, I won’t spoil the story, but it won’t surprise readers of previous books in the trilogy that there is neither a heroic arc nor a saving grace. Read More
One feels happiness each day, you’re happy to be alive and not dead already. That’s a great capital.
From the person who died, I know that you love life to the very last moment. Basically, everyone loves to live. Life cannot be so terrible that you don’t keep on with it after all. The motivation is curiosity. You want to know: what will come next? It is more interesting to know what will come tomorrow then what is here today. When the body is ill the brain develops astonishingly well.
I prefer to know everything. And I always try to rob people and get everything that is in them out of them. As long as you can do so without the others recognizing it. When people discover that you want to rob them they shut their doors. Like the doors are shut when someone suspect comes near. But if nothing else is possible you can also break in. Everyone has some cellar window open. That also can be quite appealing.
In a 1934 radio interview, Gertrude Stein talks American football:
INTERVIEWER: You saw the Yale-Dartmouth game a week ago Saturday didn’t you? Did you understand that in the American way or the football way or how?
STEIN: IN the American way. The thing that interested me was that the Modern American in his movements and his actions in a football game so resembled the red Indian dance and it proves that the physical country that made the one made the other and that the red Indian is still with us. They just put their heads down solemnly together and then double over, while on the sidelines the substitutes move in a jiggly way just like Indians. Then they all get down on all fours just like Indians.
INTERVIEWER: But those jiggles are just warming-up exercises.
STEIN: It doesn’t make any difference what they are doing it for, they are just doing it, like the way the Indian jiggles in the Indian dance and then there is that little brown ball they all bend down and worship.
INTERVIEWER: But the ideas in that is to get the ball across the goal line.
STEIN: But don’t you suppose I know that, and don’t you suppose the Indians had just as much reason and enjoyed their dancing just as much?
This is the 2nd part of my conversation with Ilan Stavans about The Plain in Flames, his translation of Juan Rulfo’s short story collection El Llano en Llamas. Catch up with part 1 here. Lauren Flinner made the artwork below. (Editor’s note: “Schade” is George D. Schade, who did the first English translation of Juan Rulfo’s short stories as The Burning Plain.)
The goal of putting these stories out in English is to say, “I can’t see the world without them.” I believe that I can dress the stories in a way that is truthful to the original. But now that they’re there, it is up to whomever comes to the text to be able to synchronize with the stories.
Rulfo said, upon finishing Pedro Paramo, “I couldn’t make head nor tail of it, which signaled to me that it was finished.” When did you know you were finished?
I take after Walt Whitman – I know that I am finished when I have finally forced myself to send it to the editor and begin the editorial process, and when (or if) I open it again – as you are making me do right now [laughs] – there is always a feeling of discomfort, “mm, maybe I should have done this slightly different,” because the Ilan Stavans that is sitting with you is not the Ilan Stavans of a year ago, who had the text and was reacting to life in a particular way.
A text is finished the moment the text reaches the page. There is always the temptation to retouch it. There is always the sense, in my view, that one should move forward, and what you did then is an expression of that time, and you should do other projects.
In the introduction you mention that Rulfo’s Mexican Spanish includes countless peasantisms, and that it would seem very jarring if you tried to mimic them in this era. Why did you not include them and what made them so jarring?
It is jarring because… let me transpose it just for a second into the slice of a culture that I think you will understand better. If I tried to translate a rap song from English into Spanish, I will find very quickly that there is no easy referent to the exact same culture in the Spanish speaking world, and that slang in one culture works in one way that doesn’t work in others. If I use the word “chota” in Spanish to describe police, there is no word in English that will make me convey the sense of fear of the degradation, of abuse, of disgust that chota has. “Cops” doesn’t quite work…
But that already brings an animalistic view here that you don’t have in Spanish. So, slang or speech that connects particularly with a region, localisms, or with a class, are very difficult to convey and you don’t want to have the wrong impression. It would have been very easy to use, for instance, language of farmers in the Midwest to recreate certain words that the peasants in Mexico in the 1950s are using. But if I had done that, what people would have thought in those words would be to connect it with Midwest America. The context would have totally been destroyed. And so you have to sometimes sacrifice geographical or cultural contexts in order to creatively convey the content of a word. You can translate words, but culture does not easily translate.
In most of those cases, would you keep the original Spanish, instead of using the jarring word?
I would keep the Spanish because I felt that the Spanish was no longer foreign. Take the word campesino. Campesino is a word that, in 1967, for Schade, might have meant “peasant”. But today if you say campesino, it is clearly a term that is used in certain parts of Mexico and Central America to denote somebody who is illiterate, who has no access to power, who has been alienated from urban society, for decades and decades. “Peasant” has a very different connotation. The word patrón is probably even a better example. Patrón could be simply “boss,” or “leader.” But the word patrón in Spanish means really… when you use “no patrón,” you really mean you are inferior to the person you are connected to. Inferior not only in a momentary way, but in terms of class, in terms of humanity, you consider yourself below that other individual. It is very difficult to look for an equivalent to patrón. And yet, the word patrón is so established that I chose to leave it in several places, because I believe that the English language readers have been exposed to it for long enough to react to it, to get the sensibility.
Reading your translation of “Luvina,” you use the poetic phrase “rumor of wind.” I read The Burning Plain to see how Schade took it – “noise” – and clearly you see this as an issue of translation.
I can tell you in general that the choice had to do with the fact that I wanted to recreate the poetry of the original, el rumor del aire, and simply “noise” wouldn’t have done it. Even though it is less clear in English, the poetry in Spanish is unavoidable.
And if you see the title… I’ll tell you. The title in Spanish has the alliteration – El Llano en Llamas. Llano. Llamas. In English, the first translation was The Burning Plain, which is so dull, so plain, so uninteresting. I immediately said I’ll do it, but it has to be The Plain in Flames, which plays with the alliteration. The Juan Rulfo Foundation said “we love it.” The publisher said “we can’t do it” – because people have already connected The Burning Plain with Rulfo, and if you change the title, you can lose readers. And I said I’m not doing that. If we don’t have “The Plain in Flames,” I won’t do it. And finally we were able to convince them. So they resisted for marketing reasons. That’s something that translators often have to deal with.
I noticed in The Burning Plain, the titles of the stories are extremely different – “No Dogs Bark” as opposed to “You Don’t Hear Dogs Barking” in your translation – which is striking.
The Spanish title – “¿No oyes ladrar los perros?” “You don’t hear the dogs bark.” That was a perfect story! The Spanish is so challenging. You see, in Spanish, it could mean it doesn’t have a question mark. But it could almost implicitly suggest that there is a question there. “Don’t you hear the dogs barking?” And this is the story of a father who is carrying his son… it’s an astonishing story, my God, that enough would have given Rulfo a place in the history of literary classics…The father is taking the son [who is wounded]. The father really doesn’t want to take the son because he is so ambivalent at the life the son has led. He believes that the son actually killed the mother because of his behavior. But he has to take him. The son is covering his ears, and he can’t hear for that reason, and the son is supposed to be the one that would hear the dogs barking when they approach the town where they will find the doctor. But you have the impression that the father might be walking in circles, to prolong the agony. And so it could be, “Don’t you hear the dogs barking?” “You don’t hear the dogs barking.”
I would send my translation to Harold [Augenbraum, co-translator], and he would say, “are you sure of this? What has Schade done? What other options do we have here?” We would have five or six options and I would go back to my original one, try to defend it, until we finally had the one that worked best.
In the story, the father still carries the son. And the father takes some joy, I think, about making his son cry about his mother.
I have to tell you of an experience that transformed my life. Last November  when the book came out, I got an invitation from a high-security prison in upstate New York. The inmates were all reading, in a class, The Plain in Flames. They wanted me to come and talk about the translation. I have never had such a rapt, passionate audience, and we spent a long time discussing that particular story. It has been said that no one understands Hamlet better than a person who has committed a crime, who has actually murdered. And in this particular case, I can tell you that this, between twenty-five and sixty year olds, all of them criminals in one way or another reading the story, transformed my way of seeing the story. They had either the burden of having killed someone, or understood that condition… and they felt the ambivalence of the father’s duty in a way that I had never seen before. It’s as if the story had been written for them.
I see immense differences in the design in both translations. First, with the illustrations and the very stylized text for the story titles in The Burning Plain. One of Rulfo’s photographs graces the cover of The Plain in Flames, and it strikes me as being very similar to his writing, as you say “realismo crudo,” interested with the rawness of life. The Burning Plain almost looks like a collection of fairy tales because of this sort of design. Did you have any say in the use of font, whether or not there would be illustrations, or any other matters of design?
I admire Rulfo as a writer without reservations, even though not everything that he wrote is superb and supreme, enough of it is to put him, in my view, in that shelf of classics that ought to be read for generations. I admire him not in equal measure, but almost, as a photographer as well. His photographs, when you see them, you will realize, are about those silences, and about that sense of desolation and isolation that exists in the Mexican countryside.
I wanted, and thus I petitioned to the Juan Rulfo Foundation, to use more than one photograph, and to see if one or two, or maybe more, could be used in the interior. They told us right away no, and you can only use one on the cover. I was at first disappointed – I thought it would be beautiful for the reader to see the photographs in connection with the book, because this a visual window, by the author himself, to his own stories, unfiltered, untarnished by a translator. Photography doesn’t have a translation, it comes as you see it. But they denied it, and now I think that I am grateful that they did, because the stories are read as stories, and that’s the way Rulfo wrote them. He did not write them to be accompanied by the photographs – they are published in separate volumes.
I am thrilled that I chose the one on the cover. If I have a reservation – and my editor and I claim that reservation – it’s that the font is a little too small. I wish it was a little larger, but I did not have any control on how the book was designed in its interior. I like the spareness, the big spaces of white; I like that we didn’t have any folksy type of imagery. But the stories live or die on their own merit. The same thing is true for the translation.
The complaint that I have about the font has to do with my aging. When I was younger I could read this in an easier way. Now I still can but I can perfectly sympathize with somebody who would say, “Oh, I’m sure those are great stories but the font is too small and I can’t read them.” And I think they should be accessible also to readers who might have that challenge.
I want to ask how that makes you feel as a writer and a translator. The design of the book has an immense impact on your reading. With The Burning Plain, the book itself is such an odd shape…
You have to think, also, in the 1960’s, Latin America was seen as a factory of folklore, much more connected to that kind of mythical past than the United States, which was already moving so fast into a post-capitalist stage of society. So, this style, this design of The Burning Plain reflects the way publishers and translators were looking at Latin America in that period, and here, with The Plain in Flames, I’m happy to say that, if this is a reflection of how we see it, Latin Americans have become contemporaries with the rest of the world, and we don’t need to turn it into folk stories – we can read them as legitimate, authentic, wonderful stories the way we would read them from an author from Russia or from Italy or Egypt or any other part of the world.
I grew up in Mexico and I came at age twenty-five to the United States. It was much easier for me to translate from English into Spanish, because Spanish was a language in which I had grown up in. English is my fourth language. And so it took me years to feel comfortable in English. I have reached a certain point in my life, linguistically, that there is a symmetry between the comfort that I have in Spanish and the comfort that I have in English. For that reason, if the same invitation by an editor had come to me fifteen years ago, when Spanish was much more a powerful force in my linguistic life and English was coming second, I would have had to say no, I don’t think I’m capable of translating Rulfo into English. In 2011, this symmetry was such that I thought I could do a service to Rulfo, that probably somebody who is a native English language speaker cannot do, because for me now the two languages are balanced.
Did that symmetry with English and Spanish come in any way from reading English literature?
It comes from literally having my life cut in two. Half of my life was spent outside the United States, and half of my life now has been spent within the United States, meaning I’ve lived my life inside and outside of English. And after twenty-five years the language becomes you, and you become the language. It comes from reading, it comes from being exposed to the language, it comes from becoming that culture – I am now an American, and a Mexican… I don’t know which is which.
What was your favorite story to translate? And which is your favorite story to read?
“It’s Because We’re So Poor,” the first one that I translated, it’s the story of a boy who is sitting next to his sister and their cow is carried away by the flooded river and he’s describing how their world has collapsed and how the reputation of the family is now in question… I adore that story. I adore “You Don’t Hear Dogs Barking.” If I had to choose ten stories from any writer and do an anthology for the future where only these ten stories would be read… that story would be there.
This is the moment to say that a good short story writer has ten, fifteen, maybe less, five stories to write, and that he or she spends his or her time trying to find which of those stories are going to be final… and many of them are exercises. Many of them are rehearsals for the big crime that will be committed in the defining story. I think some of the stories come as preparations for the great stories that you have in the book. But even a not-fully-developed story by Rulfo is an incredible story.
I am in the minority in not thinking that Pedro Paramo is a better book than this. There are many who think that Pedro Paramo is his greatest contribution. I believe El Llano en Llamas is the greatest contribution. I think some stories here are eternal.
Jason Schwartz’s novel John the Posthumous was published last year to wide acclaim, despite—or maybe because of—its challenging, disruptive qualities. With blurbs from Gordon Lish, Ben Marcus, and Sam Lipsyte, John the Posthumous had “cult novel” written all over it from the outset. It was a 2013 highlight for many critics, including K. Thomas Khan, who called it “a dizzyingly delightful and hypnotically haunting book that resists easy classification,” and David C. Winters, who described it as a “Fractal baroque: an unfurling art that enfolds us in incomprehension, in fear, but also in irreducible beauty.” In my review, I wrote that John the Posthumous is “strong, strange literature, a terrifying prose-poem that seizes history and folklore, science and myth . . . and distills it to a sustained, engrossing nightmare.”
Schwartz is the author of another book, A German Picturesque (1998). He lives and works in Florida. Schwartz kindly consented to an interview with me via email; his answers here approach the same oblique verbal dexterity that we see in his fiction. Get John the Posthumous from OR Books or your local bookstore.
Biblioklept: Your book John the Posthumous is a challenge to describe, let alone summarize. How do you describe the book to those who haven’t read it?
Jason Schwartz: I lie–it seems the only decent way to proceed. Why dwell upon unpleasant things?
Biblioklept: In a recent interview with 3:AM Magazine, you said that one of the first things you tried to write—in high school—was “a very long espionage novel.” You mentioned charts and appendices—lots of plots. In the same interview, you also say that you “favor format as someone else might favor plot,” which I think evinces in John the Posthumous and A German Picturesque. I’m curious what experiences—particularly what reading experiences—may have motivated a shift from an initial interest in writing plot-driven genre fiction to the stuff you write now.
JS: I’m sure I was abandoning other things too. I seem to recall something about a war. A catalog of imaginary battles, land and air–that would have been a handy enough project for a kid. Remember Little Wars? I don’t, but I like the idea of H.G. Wells and company concealed behind end tables, orchestrating cavalry raids. Unless the tactician was free to explore the drawing room, inspecting positions and so on, enumerating the wounded, admiring an especially fine artillery barrage. That seems more likely. But the would-be novel, espionage–I started that on a lark. I’d found an old Olivetti somewhere in the house–in the attic, I’d like to say, but we didn’t have an attic–and one thing led to another, et cetera, et cetera. A turn may or may not have occurred at that same moment, give or take, with all those devices, the appendices, the charts and annotated maps, captions for photographs that didn’t exist. Hard to say, exactly, going back now to the tenth grade. But they began to overtake the plot, such as it was. I liked some of the Bond books, and Graham Greene–still do–but I also liked The Encyclopedia of Espionage and that kind of thing, compendiums of jargon, biographies of Bulgarian spies. So maybe it was more the subject than the genre.
Biblioklept: Do you think about a particular audience when you compose?
JS: A young family, stranded on a mountain pass, killing time until help arrives. They take turns reading aloud–the text in question having been purchased by mistake and packed by accident, and later discovered in the luggage as potential kindling. The father shields the first child from those passages displaying traces of grotesquerie. The mother corrects the second child’s pronunciation or praises his elocution–as the case may be–on the occasion of the most ostentatious phrases. The third child, meanwhile, has wandered off into the woods. Ah!–it’s beginning to rain.
Biblioklept: Did John the Posthumous start as something smaller, like the pieces that make up A German Picturesque? Did you have the theme of adultery in mind from the outset?
JS: Yes, it was there from the outset, adultery, running through a number of things–directly and otherwise–and many of these appeared in magazines as individual pieces, beginning in 2003 or so. The “Corinthians” section, for instance, was once called “Breviary.” The final section in “Hornbook” was “Notation on Hidden Children.” Another one in that little series–a section in “Adulterium”–was “Notation on the Principal Graves.” There were changes in every case–all this happened over a very long period of time, obviously. “Housepost,” on the other hand, was done more or less at once, mostly in sequence. I published certain parts of this–“The Mary Casket” is an example–in various combinations, dismantling the house a few different ways.
Biblioklept: Your sentences are precise and concrete, but they also often refuse to give the reader something definite to grip on to. There’s a lot of power—and, I’d argue horror—in this restraint. How much of this technique is attributable to editing? How do you edit your work?
JS: As to the second question: it varies. No set method. And as to the first: I’m not really editing in that direction, no. I see this more as a simple matter of description. So–for instance–the schoolmarm in the museum, a wax form, with pins for eyes. A person of reputation in her hometown, I take it, and–it turns out–a distant relation of mine. I don’t wish to be flippant–or to sunder a cousin without good reason, here on the spur of the moment–but she seems easy enough to grasp in one’s hands, or at least as easy as any other set of letters. And she was, she certainly was, when they cut her in two, at the waist, and then into several smaller portions–her coat and purse set off to one side, forgotten there (the former eaten by moths, I’d guess, the remnants used to stuff the dummies on the second floor; the latter left on a shelf and, later on, mistaken for something foreign and important, given its own display)–in order to get her out the door. She’d have used, by the way, back at the schoolhouse, a razor blade and a ruler, according to a practice now out of fashion. “Children, let’s remove all your objectionable words and phrases, replacing them with more companionable ones.” And in the evening, the janitor and janitress would sweep up the scraps, and then use them to write ransom notes.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
JS: Sure. Including one from my grandparents’ bookcase, I’m ashamed to say. The book was The Deer Park. I was three, I believe, or four, or five. I was not, at the time, a fan of Norman Mailer. I must have mistaken it for something else–or maybe I had plans for it in the construction of a fort or what have you, some structure already underway, or only in the earliest planning stages, back home, down in the basement, off in a corner reserved for projects of just that sort. I suppose it could have been the jacket art, an attraction to that, but I can’t recall what was depicted on the cover, or even the colors on display. It’s unfair to speculate in this way, I know, but–to be on the safe side, and to put the matter out of mind, once and for all–let’s just assume it was a stick-figure deer, in black, on a field of red. Very much, in other words, the kind of stick figure–and field–I’d have quite disliked as a child. Anyway, my grandmother gave chase. She shouted in a language manufactured on the spot, and composed wholly of bedbugs and regret, dozens of variations on these words, accompanied by near-simultaneous translations, bent by the effect of her breathlessness, and taking curious shapes, in formation, at my back and overhead–or so it all seemed to me. And then? I was caught, of course.
Which reminds me: Some of your detractors say that you’re merely fashionable.
Well, the mere has always been a useful category.
That you’re a jackdaw, and your principle of selection is whatever glitters most.
I weep and tear my hair. And disagree.
Let’s look at a specific jackdaw’s nest, the barricade in “The Indian Uprising.”
I don’t see anything particularly fashionable. The table made from a hollow-core door may be a 1960s reference but aren’t people still making them?
But your barricade is not intended as straightforward realism; these things are artifacts of a certain culture.
An archeological slice. Not much glitter.
Won’t it require scholarly annotation in the future?
I’d say no. If you read The Swiss Family Robinson and you’re reading about what they unpack from the pinnace as they shuttle from ship to shore you don’t need any footnotes, even though there may be four hundred pounds of tallow in the cargo. You have a vague recollection that it’s used to make candles.
Actually I think the jackdaw business is a function of appearing in the New Yorker with some frequency. People read the fiction with after images of Rolls Royces and Rolexes still sizzling in their eyes. Rare is the reviewer who can resist mentioning the magazine’s ads when talking about the fiction. One is gilded by association.
Suppose we turn things around. Suppose I say that when I read that story I’m not at all concerned about whether people made tables from hollow-core doors in the 1960s. Rather, I’m interested in the speaker, who in the metaphorical context of the story is besieged by Comanches.
Is besieged by very much more than Comanches, but also by Comanches. He’s not meant to be a walking-around person so much as a target, a butt. The arrows of the Comanches but also sensory insult, political insult, there are references to the war there, to race, to torture, jingoism . . . But none of the references in the story were picked at random, and none are used simply as decor. If they seem random it’s probably because the range of reference is rather wide for a short piece—you have Patton and Frank Wedekind and the seventh cavalry coexisting on the same plane—but the crowding is part of the design, is the design.