McCarthy’s works have been termed “experimental” by most critics but he thinks that can be said of most serious writers. “Any serious writer is experimental in that he’s trying to do something new or better.” A serious writer, he adds, sits down and begins to write and develop the story as he goes along. “He doesn’t just sit down and 70,000 or 80,000 words come full blown into his head.” He suggests that anyone who intends to write “read to know what’s been written before—both good and bad.” This point complements the theory of author as experimenter, for, as McCarthy said, “you will see things in other writers you admire and that you think you can do better.”
While our interview takes Telluria as its starting point, Lawton talks at length about his other Sorokin translations, as well as forthcoming translations by Jonathan Littell, as well as his own fiction.
Biblioklept: Please: describe Telluria.
Max Lawton: TELLURIA is “Oxen of the Sun” as sci-fi novel, without any notion of a language’s generation—without any notion of “progress.” It is fractal and rhizome, scattered out over 50 chapters, with the only hint of redemption coming in a narcotic vision of Christ. TELLURIA is about pushing one’s mastery of style to the point where it begins to break down—in the mode of late Miles. It is at these moments of breaking down that something new begins to come into being. On the level of content, TELLURIA suggests that the small is always more charming—more desirable—than the master narrative. Nationalism, he suggests, can only be cute if it’s a doll-sized state that’s doing the nationalizing. Anything bigger is monstrous. The book, then, is an ode to difference. And a challenge to land-grabbing, logos-hijacking imperialists who believe in a single story. For Sorokin, the world is a million different textures, a million different languages, and no ONE can be said to triumph.
Biblioklept: I want to come back to notions of triumph and redemption later, particularly with the final chapter of Telluria in mind. But before we get in the weeds (a favorite place of mine), tell us a little bit about how you came to translate Sorokin. When did you first read him?
ML: I first read Sorokin after encountering a comparison made between him and Houellebecq in a review of ICE (probably in The New York Times). Angsty teen that I was, there could have been no higher praise. As it turned out, however, this was a red herring. Sorokin neither bore nor bears any resemblance to Houellebecq. Given that introduction, ICE was mostly confusing.
A few years after that, I dug into BLUE LARD in French, which was a truly formative reading experience. To read something so chilly, brutal, beautiful, and, most importantly, incomprehensible––it changed me entirely. I read it while teaching at a French immersion camp for children and a fellow counselor and I took to using neologisms from the book as slang between ourselves (“mais, c’est top-direct, mon brave!”). Embarrassing to think about now, but perhaps important.
During my four years of Russian study, then, at constant war with the thorniness of the language, Sorokin was the carrot on the stick that kept me going. All I wanted was to read him in the original. To read what hadn’t been translated. To translate him, perhaps. I bought BLUE LARD in Brighton Beach during a class field trip after one year of study and nearly wept when I tried to read it. It would take a great deal more work than I’d already done.
Immediately after college, my Russian good enough (I thought), I translated a big chunk of BLUE LARD and sent it to Sorokin. He liked it, impressed by whatever promise he saw in first swing, and we began to work together. It was then that I realized how ill-prepared I was for the job and, during the next few years at Oxford, Middlebury, and Columbia, I worked very hard to get my Russian up to snuff––to deserve the work I’d somehow lucked into.
Sorokin and I also began to become friends––a process that was crystallized by my first night in Russia: supper with Vladimir at Café Pushkin and a long stroll through the city.
For the next four years, we worked together relentlessly with no prospect of publication, emailing almost every day. I drafted four books before we eventually broke through with NYRB and Deep Vellum (which acquired Dalkey soon after we got in touch). While I would never recommend this approach to any other young translator, the drafts (fairly polished) helped get editors interested––no one really trusts the readers they hire to write reports about books in languages they can’t read…
Biblioklept: What I’ve read so far of Blue Lard has made my head spin. The idea of attempting it in a whole other alphabet seems unreal to me, so I could imagine going about translating it might be daunting at times–but also very rewarding.
When I was reading Telluria, I would often think, This seems like it would be really fun to translate! There’s all these different voices, registers, dialects, grammars, and so on bubbling along (I loved the centaur’s voice in particular).
ML: TELLURIA was a work that offered me immense freedom as I translated it. Sorokin’s conceit in writing the thing was not to symbolically represent a particular historical period or something like that, but to give voice to difference itself. 50 voices and 50 differences. Because of that, my task was monomaniacal in its complexity: to follow Sorokin out into deep waters of difference and, like him, give birth to 50 absolutely unique voices. I felt like a guitarist called up to play with Miles Davis on the DARK MAGUS tour. I had to be impenetrable where he was impenetrable, ungainly where he was ungainly, and senseless where he was senseless; anything less would have been a betrayal of what makes the book worth reading. As such, I appealed to Chaucer (for the centaur), Céline (for the bagmen), Turgenev translations (for the hunting), Faulkner and McCarthy (for the oral narratives about highly rural situations––what a blessing that we have a commensurate American tradition of SOUTHERN SKAZ FICTION able to render the Leskovian oral narratives that Sorokin fucks with), Ginsberg (for the “Howl” rip-off), Mervyn Peake (for the overripe fantasy-novel fun), and a great many others. Sometimes, Sorokin’s deranged signifiers come forth from very specific literary and historical phenomena. At others, he plays freely. In the former case, I tread very carefully (and Sorokin also watches my step). You’re right to say that TELLURIA was fun to translate for precisely that reason. And, indeed, BLUE LARD was also very fun to translate at certain points––dealing with the futuristic neologisms in the epistolary section and the Earthfuckers’ world––, but I had to tread carefully when dealing with the arch deconstructions of Soviet speech and the parodies of famous Russian writers.
Maybe the common trajectory of both Miles’s and Coltrane’s careers would be valuable to think of here. Playing in their early bands, you would have been constantly (and neurotically) thinking of the impending changes as you played. Later on, not so much… But that didn’t mean there wasn’t something rather precise at stake within the chaos… I too sometimes think and worry about impending changes––in THE NORM, certain sections of BLUE LARD, certain sections of MARINA’S 30TH LOVE… ––, whereas, at others, I am more free, but still after something very precise.
Biblioklept: Is Blue Lard the next one NYRB will publish?
ML: Yes, BLUE LARD is coming out in 2023, along with a collection of Soviet-themed short stories entitled DISPATCHES FROM THE DISTRICT COMMITTEE from Dalkey (the latter of which will also be illustrated by Greg Klassen).
Then THE NORM is coming out in 2024, along with ROMAN from Dalkey.
Then RED PYRAMID (selected stories) is coming out in 2025, along with MARINA’s 30TH LOVE from Dalkey. All dates are subject to change.
We have yet to place DOCTOR GARIN, THE SUGAR KREMLIN, MANARAGA, some of the short stories, and the complete plays. Sorokin is, thank God, still writing an awful lot. So there is much to look forward to.
In lining up this release schedule, our goal was to marry the extremity of Sorokin’s early work to the evenness and warmth of his later work. Leaving out either side of the equation creates an image that is simultaneously distorted and uninteresting. Insane, aberrant violence is just as valuable as Chekhovian sentence-surface.
Biblioklept: Your use of the adjective “Chekhovian” in your last sentence prompts me to ask where you situate Sorokin within (or perhaps against) the Russian literary tradition. You were quoted in a recent New York Times profile as saying, “Sorokin has earned his place in the canon.” Can you expand on that? How do you believe Sorokin sees himself with respect to the history of Russian literature?
ML: Canon-formation doesn’t depend so much on author as on reception––and, since BLUE LARD, Sorokin has been very lucky in that regard. So, whereas many people once treated Sorokin’s work with a high degree of suspicion, they no longer have that luxury. His influence on younger writers, on philosophers, on philologists, on cinema, on popular thought… his unbelievable ability in having predicted what Russia’s become… beyond the question of quality, Sorokin is simply too important not to be read.
He also happens to be the best writer writing in Russian since Nabokov, but I digress…
In a certain respect, one might think of him as a Sadean trickster who, in the second half of his career, developed a Chekhovian or Zhivago-esque soul… I’m not sure how Sorokin himself would respond to such a characterization. He’s been a very religious dude since he started writing, but I know he’s also highly cognizant of the difference between DOCTOR GARIN (which I’m very excited to translate) and THEIR FOUR HEARTS. His early work has a highly destructive relationship to the canon. For example, here’s the back-cover text of DISPATCHES FROM THE DISTRICT COMMITTEE as I wrote it (which means this will double as a record of the censorship imposed upon me by Dalkey (just kidding Will and Chad!):
For the new to come into being, the old must be destroyed: burnt to the ground. Cultural stagnation and unreflective canon-worship are a sure recipe for aesthetic decay. In the career-spanning Soviet-themed stories that make up DISPATCHES FROM THE DISTRICT COMMITTEE (many of which are drawn from his legendary collection MY FIRST WORKING SATURDAY), Sorokin eviscerates the old, the dull, and the calcified with a feces-dipped dagger. Once upon a time, it seemed that the coprophagia, necrophilia, grievous bodily harm, Joycean gibberish, transgressive sexuality, and aberrant Bataillean metaphysics that make up these stories might be a satanic incantation uttered to bring a New Russia into being. Alas, they’ve now become a monument to that which never was: a rune etched in PUS, SHIT, CUM, and LARD.
Sorokin’s later work still has this pus-, shit-, and cum-drenched side to it, but paired with a deep sort of Christian warmth––as in the chapter in TELLURIA that describes the man who spent a great deal of time with the apostles by way of tellurium-wedges. I can’t help but see Sorokin himself in that man. The latter mode of Christian mysticism is, of course, more in line with the Russian canon as a whole, but what happens when you combine it with the former impulse I describe in the back-cover text?
Biblioklept: So, you’ve now brought up that particular late chapter of Telluria twice, where an exhausted man returns to his family after a long philosophical quest for meaning—the chapter ends in an affirmation, one delivered via a tellurium nail trip.
Many of the characters seek similar confirmations or comforts when they have tellurium nails hammered into their heads by the professional “carpenters” who are almost something like a class of monks. Other voices in the book search for escape or novelty via tellurium—not necessarily transcendence.
Do you think that the returning father in the particular chapter you’ve mentioned embodies a moral vision in Sorokin’s work?
And what do you make of the final chapter, where the driver — the same one we’ve seen earlier in the novel, if I’m not mistaken? — goes alone into the woods to make a new and solitary life for himself: “Seemed like my hands’d been longin’ for carpenters’ work,” he declares, before hewing logs and building a cabin.
ML: As for Sorokin’s moral compass, it’s hard to say. It seems to me that Sorokin mostly portrays God by way of His absence. THEIR FOUR HEARTS is a particularly striking example of this. But there’s also a strain of more old-fashioned Russian mysticism (which I’ve alluded to above) sometimes at play. The religious chapter is a good example of this (the Jesus trip), as is the hankering for a more simple rural life—the plagal cadence with which the novel comes to an end. That ending is a near-perfect rhyme with another Sorokin story called “The Governor,” which I’d be happy to send you. This longing for rural Russian Orthodoxy is often submitted to the same brutal criticism as everything else in his work is (like in ROMAN and THE NORM, in which Sorokin destroys his own personal ideal, just as the Bolsheviks destroyed the great cathedrals of Moscow).
At what point does violence intersect with God? If one were to strip out the explicitly religious and moral moments, what would it look like for a kind religious man to submit what he considers his highest impulses to a brutal species of live surgery—sort of like in the underwhelming [David Cronenberg film] CRIMES OF THE FUTURE? I don’t have the answer to this question. But it’s the same ambiguity that exists between Sorokin’s dissidence and his apolitical aestheticism: the driving enigma of his work.
Biblioklept:Telluria might be many English-language readers’ first introduction to Sorokin. How representative do you think it is of his work as a whole—thematically, formally, linguistically…?
ML: As I suggest above, TELLURIA is the work of a kinder and more gentle Sorokin—a Sorokin whose masterpiece is DOCTOR GARIN. His early work is far more likely to call forth an affective bodily rejection to the content that’s been read (a good, honest response to any work of literature: vomiting).
More than anything else, the early Sorokin responds to a single dictate: in an interview he gave when he was younger, he complains that Tolstoy was such a consummate God of his own creation in WAR AND PEACE that he should also have included descriptions of how Natasha Rostova shits and fucks—of how her sweaty underarms smell at the end of long balls. This is the mission of much of Sorokin’s early work: to become the God of every level of his literary creation.
The later Sorokin operates in a more logocentric world—one in which the body is not quite so overwhelmingly present (though it’s certainly still there…).
I recommend any new reader of Sorokin to immediately chase TELLURIA with THEIR FOUR HEARTS: those two combined give something like a complete picture of the master at work.
Biblioklept: In Telluria and Blue Lard, certain words and phrases are italicized, quoted, or capitalized—and particular voices tend to showcase this kind of emphasized phrasing more than others. Is this part of your translation technique? Something original to Sorokin’s typographic style?
ML: For the most part, I adhere quite rigidly to Sorokin’s own typographical choices. This is true without exception when it comes to boldface, quotes, and capital letters. However, the italics seem to play a more complex role in Sorokin’s voice. Sometimes, they’re merely used to indicate a sort of fantastical technology or a new concept. In those cases, I don’t fiddle. At other moments, they represent a kind of ironical intonation. Or… maybe not ironical. Let’s say: a very Sorokinian tone. As such, when this tone appears in the translation in a way that it didn’t in the original, I think the italics can be used as a powerful tool to smooth out some of the weirdnesses that might otherwise have been bothersome in the new text.
However, I use this technique sparingly. It’s something of an emergency fix––mimicking Sorokin’s sometimes overripe and ironical tone when normal language disappears in the interstitial moment between the two languages…
I’m generally very devoted to Sorokin’s original, but in spirit rather than letter. The experience of reading my translations should be much like that of reading Sorokin in the original; this goal necessitates creative solutions that are not––though fools may call them––mistranslations.
As a footnote: though my own fiction generally couldn’t be more different from Sorokin’s, I did take the italics and run with ’em––a feature of my style for which I’m also indebted to Will Self’s style in the Technology Trilogy––UMBRELLA, SHARK, and PHONE (three of my all-time favorites).
Biblioklept: I’m also curious about the footnotes in Telluria, which give a gloss for certain non-English words and phrases (usually Chinese). Are those Sorokin’s or yours?
ML: All of the footnotes dealing with other languages are Sorokin’s, all of the ones dealing with Russian are mine (I think there are two of the latter).
Biblioklept: There’s no introduction composed for Telluria, which is unusual for NYRB classics. Do you have any insight on that editorial choice?
ML: For a little while, I was rather taken up by the notion (one held very dearly by Vladimir) that the book should speak for itself entirely––without the intercession of any scholar or critic. Part of this has to do with the weird stranglehold held by Slavic scholars over the words of the writers they purport to explain to the world. In no other comparable world literature do scholars demand such a high degree of compliance from their authors. Sorokin has often complained to me that “Slavicists always want the forewords and never the afterwords.” And is it so insane that he should want the first word of the book to be… the first word of the book?
In this context, Sorokin and I love to bring up the anecdote of Pound showing Mussolini the Cantos and being so utterly delighted when il Duce exclaimed, “ma questo è divertente!”
This, then, is what the ideal reader of Sorokin’s work should immediately exclaim upon reading the first few lines of his texts. And his reader will surely not have such an unmediated reaction if, on the first page, he meets, not with the words of the author, but with a tangled gristle-bit of academic jargon:
TELLURIA exists in the interstitial space between the ultra-left Hegelian notion of the state’s disintegration as reinterpreted by Marx, but without reference to the monetary policy predominantly worked out in the initial chapters of DAS KAPTIAL, whereas the aberrant references to rightist dogma serve to underpin the fundamentally ambiguous approach to polyphony-as-palimpsest in the context of a global carnival utterly distinct from Dostoevskian scandal.
However, I’ve since softened.
Sorokin’s stuff could use a little explanation and, especially if we get interesting writers to engage with and write on Sorokin, the benefits of such critical apparati far outweigh the downsides. As such, Will Self will be introducing two of the coming short-story collections, Blake Butler will be introducing another, and I can’t yet reveal the other INCREDIBLE writers we have lined up.
Introductions dope enough to make the ideal reader also exclaim “ma questo è divertente!”
Biblioklept: I totally get Sorokin’s point. When I set out to read a book by an author I love or watch a film by filmmakers I love, I like to go in cold—no summaries or trailers. But the key there is that I already love (or pick your verb) the creator in question, which means at some point there’s already been an introduction. For a lot of us that’s as simple as a friend whose taste we trust (like my friend who insisted we see Fargo in the theater), or maybe a teacher who can present a frame for us to better understand the work (I can’t imagine reading The Sound and The Fury without at least a fuzzy precis). For the record, I think Telluria works great without an introduction, because the book’s shape (or “plot,” such as it is), reveals itself in the reading. And the reading is delicious. I do think though that Blue Lard might benefit from a brief introduction, so I’ll offer my unasked-for services: “This shit is wild. Just go for it. Don’t try to make it do what you think a novel should be doing. Just go with it.”
ML: BLUE LARD is about that state of confusion—ontological and linguistic—as it unfurls. To introduce the text beyond something like your pithy statement above might be a disservice to the book. The reader should be confused and it should hurt—then feel fucking good. This isn’t gloppy OLDOSEX; when reading Sorokin, we’re fucking nostrils with forked dicks (or—getting our nostrils fucked by the same).
The book’s real introduction is the Nietzsche quote at the beginning.
Does FINNEGANS WAKE need an introduction? Is one even possible?
I loved BLUE LARD when I first read it precisely because I had no point of reference for understanding it. Much like SCHATTENFROH (another text I’m working on).
Biblioklept: The Michael Lentz novel, right? Tell us about that one.
ML: Oh man… where to start. The book is a brick. The densest thing I’ve translated and among the densest things I’ve ever read. It’s a story about a Father. And Nazi Germany. And the Baroque (as such). And a chair. And online torture vids. It’s written in a very alienating mode. Like chewing on the blackest of black bread. And yet there’s something so enticing about the damn thing. As with BLUE LARD, a cliff face made of only black ice. I want to climb it, want not to slip, but the sliding down once I’ve lost hold is part of the pleasure. I’m honored to be working with the mighty Matthias Friedrich on this. Without him, I fear my German wouldn’t be quite up to the task.
I’m close online pals with Andrei of THE UNTRANSLATED and SCHATTENFROH is one of a few books he’s proselytized that I’m sampling. I’ll do the first that gets picked up. The others are: Moresco’s GAMES OF ETERNITY trilogy (with the great Francesco Pacifico on board as editor), Laiseca’s LOS SORIAS (would like an editor for this as well––ideally a Hispanophone translator from English into Spanish), and Goldshtein’s REMEMBER FAMAGUSTA. These books are not the easiest of reading (and they’re long––hence: expensive for me (us) to translate). If you’d like to see one of these samples, just ask! Especially if you work at a publishing house!
And there are more possible future plans in the works as well…
Biblioklept: You’re also translating titles by Jonathan Littell. Can you tell us a little about those?
ML: So I’ve just finished his short book on a Belgian Nazi entitled THE DAMP AND THE DRY (turned it in today). Despite all my little polemics with the notion of a Skeleton Key, one might be forgiven for reading THE DAMP AND THE DRY as a Skeleton Key for THE KINDLY ONES (one of my 30 fave books, for sure).
AN OLD STORY is the real juicy bit: a novel, 300-some pages of metaphysics in superposition—war, sex, death, solitude, orgy, pegging, self-dissection… as if Sade had happened to write the best nouveau roman ever put to page. The book absolutely rules. My first time through, I read it in a day. Vomiting, weeping, and throbbingly erect for ten hours straight.
It’s a great experience to work with Jonathan who edits my work a lot, as compared to Vladimir who just hands me the wheel. Two different styles, both with downsides and benefits.
I also want to translate a few old Russian novels: PETER THE FIRST by Alexei Nikolaevich Tolstoy, IT’S ME, EDDIE by Eduard Limonov, THE SILVER PRINCE by Alexei Konstantinovich Tolstoy, THE LESSER DEMON by Fyodor Sologub, and A HUNTER’S SKETCHES by Ivan Turgenev. And am determined to do two novels by the great Turkish novelist Oğuz Atay, working with the formidable Ralph Hubbell (whose translation of Atay’s stories coming out next year from NYRB is a must-read––WAITING FOR THE FEAR). And… and… maybe a few things by Céline, working with Iain Sinclair, one of my favorite novelists. And the three insanely fucked volumes of MICROFICTIONS––the most contemporary of abjectness in 10 frames or less, but 500 times––1000 pages per book. And Guyotat’s late novels––would kill to do those. And be killed by doing them. And… and…
Enough for now. Enough to keep me busy for decades. But also some things I’m not allowed to talk about.
Biblioklept:An Old Story sounds to be cut from the same cloth as The Kindly Ones, which I loved too. You mentioned your own fiction—can you touch on that some?
ML: The cool thing is how different UVH [Une vielle histoire; An Old Story] is from THE KINDLY ONES. It shows the extent to which Jonathan has legs as a writer. To do something that doesn’t deal in history or linear narrative AT ALL, then to succeed no less spectacularly than in THE KINDLY ONES… well, it rocks to have done something that dope.
My own fiction is difficult to talk about. Until it’s published, it really is unbecomingly vain to wax eloquent on the subject. I can say that I have two collections of intertwined stories (THE WORLD vols. 1+2)––tangled up in the same way A HUNTER’S SKETCHES and THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION are––and a novel (PROGRESS). In the interests of being as objective and unannoying as possible, here’s the synopsis of PROGRESS agents and publishers get:
It’s October, 2020. On a Saturday night, a college sophomore and his best friend engage in a radical act of sexual experimentation with their female acquaintance. The next day, a prolonged series of crashes heard through a dormitory window heralds the end of something. In simple terms: all wheels stop spinning and all screens stop shining. Afraid of this new world and the people they share a city with, the two boys make the precipitous decision to begin walking from their place of study in NYC to the narrator’s home in Ohio. As they walk, the formerly platonic contours of their relationship give way to something else. Maneuvering across the concrete skin of America, the boys slumber in the empty belly of a dead country in blissful ignorance of the threat hanging over them.
Opening as a campus novel, morphing into a melancholy psychogeographic exploration of a country-carcass, and ending as a psychedelic vision of the end of history, Progress is about what happens when rules change. Conceived of and started before the pandemic, this novel is a particularly relevant read in our current historical moment. Written with the chilly object-fixation of Peter Handke and the wry humor of Will Self, Progress is also deeply indebted to Vladimir Sorokin’s shamanistic and scatological engagements with Russian history. To put it another way: Progress is The Road meets Call Me By Your Name with a dash of Dhalgren. It is a transmission both awful and enormous from the heart of our new American age.
It’s not for me to say if it’s good or not. Hopefully it sees the light of day soon, then the Owl of Minerva shall get to flying… Greg Klassen will be illustrating both volumes of stories and I hope my friend Zoe Guttenplan, an amazing book designer who will be doing hyper-Soviet designs for four (or more) of the coming Sorokin books, will be doing abstract, pornographic photo-art to accompany them as well. PROGRESS will be simple in its publication: a normal book with only text. I want both volumes of THE WORLD to be hyper-decadent editions. Coming soon. I hope.
As it happens, Zoe might also be snapping pics for an article Will Self and I will hopefully be co-writing next year around Bloomsday… a throwback to a more Gonzo style of journalism… all I can say…
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
ML: For my translation process, digital texts are a necessity. They really do save me a lot of time. As such, the ready availability of Russian novels in PDF form on the internet has been an occasional boon to my work. However, I always then buy the physical copy too (if I don’t have it already).
Digital without physical is like body without soul. Feeling the translated pages tick up from 0 is also something I can’t do without (their almost furred texture on my right thumb as I flip through ‘em).
But I’ve never stolen a physical book. Never even lost a library book. A boring dude who saves his wildest transgressions for the printed page.
Max Lawton is not a boring dude. (Stealing books does not make you interesting, kids. Unless it does.)
Max Lawton is a translator, novelist, and musician. He received his BA in Russian Literature and Culture from Columbia University and his MPhil from Queen’s College, Oxford, where he wrote a dissertation comparing Céline and Dostoevsky. He has translated many books by Vladimir Sorokin and is currently translating works by Jonathan Littell. Max is also the author of a novel and two collections of stories currently awaiting publication. He is writing his doctoral dissertation on phenomenology and the twentieth-century novel at Columbia University, where he also teaches Russian. He is a member of four heavy-music groups.
There’s a nice new big fat interview with Ishmael Reed now up at The Collidescope. In the interview (conducted by George Salis), Reed discusses lots of stuff, including his love of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” (“one of the great short stories [by] the greatest of American white male writers for my money”), his contempt for David Simon’s The Wire, most of his novels, and his new play The Slave Who Loved Caviar.
Late in the interview, Salis asks Reed to name a novel he thinks deserves more attention. Here’s Reed’s reply:
IR: Let’s see, there’s a novel by Ron Sukenick, one of the experimental writers about the golden calf [Mosaic Man, 1999]. I can’t figure the title right now, but I think it deserves more readers. I think they like Philip Roth and pedestrian writers like him. But Ron Sukenick was an excellent writer and one of those experimental white writers who don’t get enough attention. I like also A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley which I have written a review about but it’s not published and there are a lot of excellent writers, excellent novelists, but the Anglo minds of reviewers is just preventing the public from having access to these writers.
From the interview, on what inspired Licorice Pizza:
A very long time ago I was walking around my neighborhood, and I passed Portola Middle School. It was picture day, and I saw this very energetic teenager flirting with the girl who was taking pictures. It was an instantly good premise. What happens if you have a kid invite an older woman to dinner, and what if that girl against her better judgment says yes? That seemed ripe for humor. That didn’t go anywhere, but then I had a friend who grew up in the San Fernando Valley. He was a child actor who got involved in the waterbed business. And he told me all these stories, and each one was more wonderful than the last. Like there was this time he’d appeared in the movie “Yours, Mine and Ours” with Lucille Ball, and he was on his way to New York for a publicity tour and needed a chaperone. He ended up hiring a burlesque dancer who lived in his neighborhood to take him. And Lucille Ball was on her second marriage to Gary Morton, and she used to scream “Gary!” all the time. That was my friend’s name, so he’d think, ‘Holy shit, she’s yelling at me.” But she was screaming at her husband.
I saw the film this weekend and it’s one of the best musical documentaries I’ve seen in ages. The film is really about the art scene in New York City in the 1960s, and as such, Haynes employs a number of aesthetic conceits, all of which vibrate on just the right side of pretentiousness. There are lots and lots of clips from Warhol’s films and screen tests combined with archival footage (John Cage on teevee, for example), and old interviews interspersed with new interviews with John Cale, Moe Tucker, and a host of other musicians, artists, actors, and folks who bore witness to that whole scene. The film is its own thing—it transcends being “about” the band—indeed, that’s the best thing about The Velvet Underground: it lets you see and hear the band you discovered when you were thirteen or fifteen or thirty with fresh ears and fresh eyes. To this end, it’s possible that the film might turn off folks completely unfamiliar with the band and its influence. Haynes addresses this in his interview with Adams:
I mean, there are some people for whom this will be frustrating and not what they expect from a documentary. They kind of want that tidier oral history. If you’re interested, there’s all kinds of more stuff to find and discover for yourself. But I wanted it to be mostly that experience where the image and the music were leading you, and then it was a visceral journey through the film.
A visceral journey it is.
A highlight for me in the film is a series of late appearances by Jonathan Richman. Adams enjoyed that too:
[Adams]: As someone who’s been listening to him for a long time, the interview with Jonathan Richman is a real highlight of the movie. It makes me hope there’s a Blu-ray someday so you can just release the whole thing as an extra.
[Haynes]: Oh, it’s so fucking great. The whole thing is just, it’s a complete piece. I was crying by the end of it.
Was it your idea for him to have the guitar, or did he just bring it with him?
No, he just brought it. And I mean, come on. It was just so generous and so insightful. And he served the purposes of saying things that I had sort of decided I would not include in this movie: fans, other musicians, critics. It was just going to be about people who were there. That was the criteria. Well, he was there, in spades, and I didn’t realize to what degree.
That picture of him as a teenager with the band, I’d never seen that before.
Fucking crazy. But he could also then speak so informatively as a musician and as a critic and as a fan.
What about the moral responsibility of the artist? I take it that you are a responsible artist (as opposed, say, to X, Y, and Z), but all is irony, comic distortion, foreign voices, fragmentation. Where in all this evasion of the straightforward does responsibility display itself?
It’s not the straightforward that’s being evaded but the too true. I might fix your eye firmly and announce, “Thou shalt not mess around with thy neighbor’s wife.” You might then nod and say to yourself, Quite so. We might then lunch at the local chili parlor and say scurrilous things about X, Y, and Z. But it will not have escaped your notice that my statement has hardly enlarged your cosmos, that I’ve been, in the largest sense, responsible to neither art, life, nor adultery.
I believe that my every sentence trembles with morality in that each attempts to engage the problematic rather than to present a proposition to which all reasonable men must agree. The engagement might be very small, a word modifying another word, the substitution of “mess around” for “covet,” which undresses adultery a bit. I think the paraphrasable content in art is rather slight—“tiny,” as de Kooning puts it. The way things are done is crucial, as the inflection of a voice is crucial. The change of emphasis from the what to the how seems to me to be the major impulse in art since Flaubert, and it’s not merely formalism, it’s not at all superficial, it’s an attempt to reach truth, and a very rigorous one. You don’t get, following this path, a moral universe set out in ten propositions, but we already have that. And the attempt is sufficiently skeptical about itself. In this century there’s been much stress placed not upon what we know but on knowing that our methods are themselves questionable—our Song of Songs is the Uncertainty Principle.
Also, it’s entirely possible to fail to understand or actively misunderstand what an artist is doing. I remember going through a very large Barnett Newman show years ago with Tom Hess and Harold Rosenberg, we used to go to shows after long lunches, those wicked lunches, which are no more, and I walked through the show like a certifiable idiot, couldn’t understand their enthusiasm. I admired the boldness, the color and so on but inwardly I was muttering, Wallpaper, wallpaper, very fine wallpaper but wallpaper. I was wrong, didn’t get the core of Newman’s enterprise, what Tom called Newman’s effort toward the sublime. Later I began to understand. One doesn’t take in Proust or Canada on the basis of a single visit.
To return to your question: If I looked you straight in the eye and said, “The beauty of women makes of adultery a serious and painful duty,” then we’d have the beginning of a useful statement.
Q: You don’t consciously see yourself as John Barth, the postmodernist?
JOHN BARTH: Oh no, no, and the term now has become so stretched out of shape. I did a good deal of reading on the subject for a postmodernist conference in Stuttgart back in 1991, and I think I had a fairly solid grasp of the term then. At the time, there seemed to be a general agreement that, whatever postmodernism was, it was made in America and studied in Europe. At my end, I would say the definitions advanced by such European intellectuals as Jean Baudrillard and Jean- Francois Lyotard have only a kind of a grand overlap with what I think I mean when I am talking about it.g about it. They apply the term to disciplines and fields other than art-their thoughts about postmodern science, for instance, are very interesting-but when the subject is postmodern American fiction, things get murkier. So often we’re told, “You know, it’s Coover, Pynchon, Barth, and Barthelme,” but that’s just pointing at writers. Perhaps that’s all you can do. It led me to say once, “If postmodern is what I am, then postmodernism is whatever I do.” You get a bit wary about these terms. When The Floating Opera came out, Leslie Fiedler called it “provincial American existentialism.” With End of the Road, I was most often described as a black humorist, and with The Sot-Weed Factor, Giles Goat-Boy, and Lost in the Funhouse, I became a fabulist. Bill Gass resists the term “postmodernist,” and I understand his resistance. But we need common words to talk about anything. “Impressionism” is a very useful term which helps describe the achievements of a number of important artists. But when you begin to look at individual impressionist painters, the term becomes less meaningful. You find yourself contemplating a group of artists who probably have as many differences as similarities. I recall a wonderful old philosophy professor of mine who used to talk about the difference between the synthetic temperament and the analytical temperament. With the synthetic, the similarities between things are more impressive than the differences; with the analytical, the differences are more impressive than the similarities. We need them both; you can’t do without either. In that context, once you’ve come up with some criteria that describe what has been going on in a certain type of fiction composed during the sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties, I think the differences among Donald Barthelme, Angela Carter, and Italo Calvino are probably more interesting than the similarities.
From an interview with Barth conducted by Charlie Reilly in the journal Contemporary Literature, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Winter, 2000).
Their discussion begins with Street Cop but expands much further, touching on postmodernism, realism (“Our Zeitgeist has left us mostly with shards of media as our reality,” says Spiegelman; “When people ask me, I say that I learned my realism from Kafka,” replies Coover”), time and space, the desire for happy endings, and more. But like I said, it begins with Street Cop:
ART SPIEGELMAN: So first: why a street cop?
ROBERT COOVER:Well, I wrote Street Cop in 2019. It emerged, like everything I write, from anxieties about the present. I had written about private eyes, but the dumb street cop was something new. I liked the idea of a guy who would be technologically inept. It’s about a bumbler who began his career as a crook and drug dealer, before accidentally becoming a cop who stumbles his way through a techno-city where the landscape changes daily thanks to 3D printing—blurring past, present and future. His job is to convict suspects rather than solve crimes, but all he wants, really, is to return to the old part of town, a seamy noir-like zone where his urges, and their many flaws, are permissible.
AS:When I first read and signed on to illustrate your story early in 2020’s quarantine, I was grateful to dive into a Dystopia Next Door and escape the one that surrounded us even in the bucolic bunker in the woods we’d retreated to from NYC. Choking on an overdose of toxic news, and compulsively “doom-scrolling”—I really love that phrase—I found the Covid-free air of Street Cop breathable because at least it didn’t have the twin viruses of the Covid pandemic and Trump directly confronting me. Still, the very first picture I drew had Covids in it—it was inevitable that they found their way into the prescient present of the story.
JA Tyler: Since Motorman was first published by Knopf in 1972, you’ve written two more novels and two novellas based on the world of the character Moldenke, and this year, we’ll see another two: The Blast in July and The Old Reactor in late 2014. Why are you so drawn to this landscape—this future ruin of flood and famine and oppression?
David Ohle: What draws me to this landscape/dreamscape again and again is probably very much like what attracts a gamer to his game world. It’s a gnarly place where anything can happen, but you’re in control of what does. Getting there for me as a writer and reporting about it is accomplished with a simple formula: take current trends and add time. The more time I add, the more ruin I see. But it isn’t total ruin in my novels. Transportation is available in one form or another. There’s food, drugs, and beverages around, however crappy they may be. People don’t starve. And they get high on williwhack, stonepicks, and maximine to ease oppression in general, whether religious (Reverend Hooker in Pisstown Chaos) or governmental (President Michael Ratt in The Age of Sinatra). Once I venture to these landscapes, I become a documentarian, recording what I see. My narrative style is camera-eye, almost entirely visual. I “see” what goes on in these bleak places and times, and I like being there just long enough to write it down.
The interview includes a number of scans of The City Moon, a dadaesque “newspaper” Ohle made with his friend Roger Martin:
The City Moon was a satirical print “newspaper” that a friend, Roger Martin, and I produced back in the early-to-mid ’70s. Other friends became involved from time to time, too. It was mainly a cut-and-paste operation. We had a vast collection of old—and sometimes new—newspapers and magazines from which we mined headlines and stories that we “processed” into better and more interesting stories and headlines. This mix of current and old news gave the paper a steampunk aspect. The University of Kansas libraries at the time were tossing out collections of newspapers dating back to the turn of the century, papers like The New York Herald, which still featured articles about horse and motorcar collisions, The Rock City Daily Rocket, and many foreign papers as well. The library tossed them after they were microfilmed. We harvested them from a dumpster behind the library. We also invented stories and characters, many of which found their way into my later fiction in different form. Not long ago, the University of Kansas’s Spencer Research Library undertook to digitize all eighteen issues of the Moon and was generous enough to allow them to be put online where anyone can view them.
This is the meat locker, where Dolores’s parts are. When the electrician wired it up, he asked, “What do you use this for?” I said, “Oh, that’s just where I keep my victims.” There was a long silence….She’s got her dresses here and I have my bulletproof helmet and various stuff from my journalism in there.
Have you taken many reporting trips recently?
No, that seems to being drying up. It seems that the magazines have less and less money. They’re mostly interested in domestic stuff. I don’t know whether it’s to save costs or if they really think Americans are only interested in America. I get sort of sick of it. So there are the wig heads. Whatever woman comes in here, I always say, “Now, those are your rivals.” They kind of freak out.
Do you have many visitors or is this mostly a solitary space?
I have the occasional visitor, yeah. And then let’s see. [Opens the door to the bathrooms.] I figure the men’s room and the women’s room ought to connect.
Why is that?
Well, you know male and female should always get together wherever possible. The men’s room is the toilet. The women’s room is the shower. They didn’t used to connect. It was really, really gross when I bought the place. This old restaurant—everything was all rotted out with pee.
[Bill takes me into another small room.] And then this is the books and bullets room. I put my phone in the closet most of the time, so I never have to hear it. I got all the extra copies of my books and all the bullets I’ll need for my various pistols.
There’s a little bit of terror to almost all the good stuff I recall in literature, a little bit of terror, like Heart o f Darkness. I love the ghost story. I love to go after mysteries. I think all the best stories I have ever read are very close to ghost stories. I have no interest, by the way, in Poltergeist. But I am interested in the mysterious X, the big force behind something perceived. We’re usually not privy to too many of those things ourselves. But our friends have lived them. Of course I grew up in the Vietnam era. My classmates fought the war, came back with their tales— it still works on the heads of people my age, because it was a fantastic zone, that some of the veterans can’t even acknowledge happened nowadays, you know? But there are other places you’ve been that are—Denis Johnson examines these things-zones of irreality that had not only horror, but some sweetness. The writer ought to go into these other zones and come back like a spy, and tell us something exciting. And move us. And sometimes disgust us. There’s not enough of that now.
There’s a “new” video interview with Barry Hannah and his wife Susan at Southwest Review. The interview was conducted by Southwest Review editor-in-chief Greg Brownderville some time in “the late aughts” in Hannah’s back yard, under his muscadine arbor. Brownderville and his friend Luke Duncan (both grad students at Ole Miss at the time) were trying to put together a film about muscadine grapes, and interviewed the Hannahs about the project. Hannah’s extemporaneous responses veer all over the place though, using muscadines as kind of kernels of memories from which to riff on: dead pets, boyhood oyster shell fights, and “the wonderful time my dad and I had at Arkansas drinking wine and watching the University of Arkansas, who was number one in the nation, whoop Texas, both of us high on wine from Altus.” The whole interview approaches something close to one of Hannah’s looser short stories, and is definitely worth the 20 minutes.
(Thanks to Patrick for sending me the link.)
(Tangential note: My wife’s grandmother makes her own muscadine wine. We get a bottle of it for Christmas every now and then. It’s pretty sweet stuff.)
As a huge fan of Remedios Varo’s art, I was thrilled last year when Wakefield Press published Margaret Carson’s Letters, Dreams and Other Writings.I reached out to Margaret, who was kind enough to talk to me about her translation in detail over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: When did you first see Remedios Varo’s art?
Margaret Carson: I first heard of Remedios Varo in the mid-80s, when I was living in Madrid. But it was by reading Janet Kaplan’s biography, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, that I learned more about her life and first saw many images of her paintings. That was in the 90s. On a trip to Mexico City at that same time, I was surprised to find in a bookstore a small collection of her writings, Cartas, sueños y otros textos, and I brought it home with me. I started translating parts of it and later heard about an exhibit of her paintings at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C., in 2000: The Magic of Remedios Varo. That was my first experience seeing her paintings up close, and it blew me away. Nothing compares to standing in front of one of her paintings to see the meticulous details, the true color, and the actual scale (her artworks can be much smaller than you imagine). Since then, I’ve seen other paintings, includingMimetismo/Mimicry andLa creación de las aves/The Creation of the Birds, at theMuseo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, which has over thirty of her paintings—the largest collection in the world.
Exciting news for Varo fans in the New York area: MoMA has acquired one of her most extraordinary works,The Juggler, which will be put on display when the museum re-opens in October 2019. Can’t wait to see it!
Biblioklept: I’ve yet to see one of Varo’s pieces in a museum, unfortunately—just reproductions in books and online. But I love them. I think the first time I saw one of her works was in Women, Art, and Society by Whitney Chadwick, sometime in the late 1990s. There’s a tiny black and white reproduction of Celestial Pablum in there, next to a reproduction of a Dorothea Tanning painting. Leonor Fini also gets a black and white reproduction in that chapter, while Leonora Carrington’s Self-Portrait gets a larger, full-color reproduction. All of these painters, with the notable exception of Varo, also show up in another of Thames & Hudson’s World of Art series that was important to me when I was younger, Sarane Alexandrian’s Surrealist Art. While internet archives have made images of Varo’s works easily available to those who search for them, she is still something of a comparatively obscure figure, at least next to other Mexican artists like Frida Kahlo or Leonora Carrington. Have you noticed any change in her prominence as an artist since you first encountered her work?
MC: You brought up Whitney Chadwick, which reminds me of her essential book, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, first published in 1985 and still in print. If you don’t know it, take a look. That’s where many readers have had their first encounter with women surrealists. Chadwick devotes several pages to Varo and includes three color reproductions and many black and white images of her work. As to how well known Varo is, it’s hard to tell what causes an artist to move up or down in the fame game. Varo seems to have a solid core of admirers who had an encounter with her work, almost always in reproduction, and the images stick. Why is that? What is it about her paintings? Their inherent narrative quality, their mystical elements, their humor? The simple pleasure of looking at her meticulously composed scenes? I think she’s still fairly unknown, but did you know that in the first chapter of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 there’s a fascinating description of Varo’s Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle? I just met a young bookseller who told me that that’s how she first heard of Varo. And did you know that in chapter 9 of Amulet, Roberto Bolaño imagines that the main character, Auxilio Lacouture, visits Remedios Varo in her house? So Varo has already popped up in ways that go beyond her artwork.
Biblioklept: I’m a huge fan of Bolaño, and I read Amulet eight or nine years ago, but I’d honestly forgotten about the Varo episode! I just went back and reread the chapter, and there’s this wonderful strange moment where Varo shows Auxilio a landscape painting, the “last one,” or maybe the “second-to-last one” she’ll paint, and the painting causes an anxiety in Auxilio that manifests in the vision of “a man made of ice cubes, who will come and kiss” her on the mouth. I love the line because it’s so strange; it shows a kind of poetic rivalry on Bolaño’s part with Varo’s own imagery.
I’m also a huge Pynchon fan. I remember that I wasn’t able to find a reproduction of Embroidering the first time I read The Crying of Lot 49—like in the late nineties—but when I reread it a few years ago it was as easy as a simple internet search. So I think the internet is making her work more accessible. Pynchon apparently actually got to see Emboidering at a retrospective of Varo’s work in Mexico City in 1964, and, as Bill Brown notes, Pynchon essentially reinterprets the painting’s details from memory. He probably didn’t have a reproduction of it. Again, the author enters into a kind of rivalry with the poet.
Letters, Dreams & Other Writings contains a section that features Varo’s own descriptions of her paintings, comments intended for her family back in Spain. She describes Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle like this: “Under the orders of the Great Master, they’re embroidering the earth’s mantle, seas, mountains, and living things. Only the girl has woven a ruse in which she is seen beside her beloved.”
I’m curious about your translation here, particularly of the word “Only,” and the singular “girl,” which seems to contrast the “they” referenced in the previous sentence. Varo seems to describe two parts of the triptych, the second and the third panels. Can you talk a little bit about translating this description?
MC: Varo has a description for each of the paintings in the triptych (her descriptions, of course, shouldn’t close off other interpretations). That singular “girl” is introduced in the first painting,Toward the Tower, which shows a group of convent school girls riding fanciful bicycles made in part from their capes. Varo writes that while the eyes of the other girls are “as if hypnotized,” only the girl in front “resists the hypnosis.” (Sólo la muchacha del primer término se resiste a la hipnosis.) The girl clearly has a mind of her own. Varo follows her into the second painting, Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle. The original is: “Bajo las órdenes del Gran Maestro, bordan el manto terrestre, mares, montañas y seres vivos. Sólo la muchacha ha tejido una trampa en la que se le ve junto a su bienamado.” There’s a repetition in the Spanish, “Sólo la muchacha….” that I picked up in the translation “Only the girl has woven a ruse….” She’s the exception—she stands out from the other girls (“they”) who are under the influence and control of the Great Master and are embroidering what he commands. I could have said “Except that the girl has woven a ruse in which she is seen beside her beloved.” to underscore her act of rebellion more clearly, but then the parallelism would have been lost.
Getting back to the Bolaño, I’d like to re-read Amulet and think about how he works Varo into the narrative and whether he’s referencing any of her paintings or making them up — from your description, I suspect the latter. But more importantly, what did Varo represent to Bolaño? How did he come to know about her work? Did she have some sort of underground fame in Mexico City while he was living there?
I’m also fascinated by the fact that Auxilio visits Varo at her house, which I always make a point of passing by when I’m in Mexico City. (Again, Bolaño’s description is not based on reality.) Varo lived in Colonia Roma on Avenida Álvaro Obregón in a four-story building that’s now boarded up—someone told me it was damaged in an earthquake. But lights are on at night behind windows covered with newspapers, so someone’s living there. Is there any memory in the neighborhood that Varo lived there? It’s where she painted her most famous works. To me, it has a special aura, even in its dilapidated and boarded-up state.
Biblioklept: I’m pretty sure Bolaño made the painting up, although I did spend quite a bit of time looking for a real-world corollary for it. He definitely had a penchant for invention, often taking cult or outsider artists and then attributing works to them that don’t always exist. It seems possible that he could’ve been aware of the location of her house, but I’m guessing he was living in Spain and had been away from Mexico for ages when he wrote Amulet.
On of my favorite pieces in Letters, Dreams & Other Writings is “On Homo rodans,” a Borgesian send-up of scientific monographs. (Varo attributes the monograph to one “Hälikcio von Fuhrängschmidt”). While its style isn’t a huge departure from that of the letters or even fragments in the collection, it stands out a bit. Can you tell us a bit about translating “On Homo rodans,” and a bit about the piece itself?
MC: Homo rodans is one of Varo’s oddest creations. It has two parts: first, the “fossil find” of the humanoid figure with one big wheel instead of legs, which she crafted out of chicken and turkey neck bones and fish vertebrae. The second part is a pseudo-scientific treatise she wrote to accompany the “fossil,” which purports to explain its origin and the great significance it has—it’s basically a missing chapter in human evolution, a predecessor to Homo sapiens that depicts a road not taken: before evolving into a biped, humans were creatures on a monowheel. (That sort of figure is a recurring leitmotiv in her work—seeTransmisión ciclista con cristales from 1943,Caminos tortuosos from 1957.) I’d now like to clear up a misunderstanding that’s arisen with the English translation. To an English-speaking reader, “rodans” might look like a corrupted version of “rodents.” It’s a similarity that exists only in English. To Varo, rodans was a creative spin on rota, the Latin word for wheel, from which the Spanish rueda descends (in English we have rotate, rotary, rodeo). Varo wasn’t suggesting humankind descended from rats; she was imagining a wheeled ancestor and giving it a suitably Latinate name.
Varo wrote “On Homo rodans” by hand, in the style of an old illuminated manuscript (see attached photo), and gave its narrator the farfetched but seemingly authoritative name of Hälikcio von Fuhrängschmidt, an anthropologist who sets out to correct a colleague’s error about bones discovered on the southern slopes of the Carpathians. I think this was all for the sake of fun, like a lot of her writings. She probably never imagined that anyone would be interested in buying the sculpture and the treatise. It was just by accident, apparently, that someone happened to see it when she was showing it at a bookstore and acquired it for his boss, who was none other than the President of the Republic, Adolfo López Mateos. That was in 1959.
On an investigative level, I’d love to find out who owns Homo rodans now—the sculpture and original manuscript (does the López Mateos family still own it?). I’d also like to do some sleuthing to discover how it was that a small facsimile edition of the treatise was published a few years after Varo’s death. What called that into existence? Who read it? Was it reviewed? It’s because of that edition that we have the text in Spanish.
As to the translation itself, something that helped me catch the antiquated tones of the pedantic von Fuhrängschmidt were nineteenth-century bulletins on scientific expeditions and fossil excavations you can easily find using Google Books. But on the whole it was a wild ride. You’ll notice that the Homo rodans itself only comes up once, toward the end of the piece, after countless disquisitions on unrelated subjects (Babylonian wet nurses, the universal tendency toward hardening and softening (wink-wink), the transcendence of canes, the pterodactyl-turned-first-umbrella…), interspersed with quotes by ancient sages in nonsense Latin. Before I translated it, I thought “On Homo rodans” would mostly be about the one-wheeled fossil. It was only after I got into the translation that I realized the fossil find was just one stop on an extended absurdist romp.
Biblioklept: It’s interesting to me that you used old pieces of science writing as reference points. Was this to help convey the flavor of Varo’s prose, and to give an aural sense of what she’s parodying? Did you use similar techniques elsewhere in this translation, or in other translations of yours?
MC: The Edinburgh Encylopaedia, published in 1832, was an excellent resource to mine for old-fashioned scientific prose. Some of it rubbed off on the translation. “Osseous,” for example, referring to bones, was a word that peaked in the nineteenth century, according to Google Ngram, and it fit in perfectly.
For Varo’s recipes “To Induce Erotic Dreams” and “To Dream You Are King of England,” I consulted cookbooks such as Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking to see how the instructions were worded. As strange as the recipes are, I had to keep to the conventions of the cookbook genre: “Set hens to boil.” “Reserve feathers.” “Take the four kilos of honey and with a spatula spread on the bedsheets.” It’s one example of how translators often look at companion texts in the language they’re translating into—some text that shares some stylistic feature with whatever is being translated, or that treats a similar topic. In a previous translation I did, Sergio Chejfec’s Baroni, a Journey, there’s a scene in which a cockfight takes place. Knowing nothing about cockfighting, I looked at Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust, where there’s a play-by-play of a cockfight in progress. I pilfered some of the language and phrasing there to help make the translation ring true in English.
Biblioklept: Varo’s “recipes” are a great example the tension between a conventional form and a kind of, I don’t know, absurd pivot in the language that creates a surreal image. Her letters, too, are infused with vivid and surreal images. She describes raising a “supernatural puppy,” details enclosing a “small volcano” and turning it into a kitchen, and tells one unidentified painter that he may be interested in her “residence in a piece of quartz.” Can you tell us a little bit about translating the letters? Were there letters of Varo’s that were perhaps more conventional that aren’t collected in Letters, Dreams & Other Writings?
MC: The original Cartas, sueños y otros textos contains only eight letters, but I’m sure Varo wrote many more. She had a genius for letter-writing, too—it was simply another medium she excelled at. As you say, the letters are infused with all sorts of surreal images and absurd scenarios, such as the “small volcano” that begins to rise on its own in the courtyard of someone’s house, throwing off lava that her friend Leonor Carrington is allergic to. That’s in my favorite letter, no. 7, “To Mr. Gardner,” i.e. Gerald Gardner, the great British popularizer of Wicca in the 1950s. It’s completely over-the-top! The most notorious is Letter 5, a kind of Surrealist prank, in which she picks a person’s name from the phone book and invites him to a New Year’s Eve party. (See Varo’s “Letter to a Stranger”). What comes next is left to your imagination: did the stranger show up, and if so, what happened?
As to other letters being published elsewhere, I’m aware of a few additional ones, to her mother and to some friends from her schooldays back in Spain, which were included in a personal memoir written by her niece, Beatriz Varo. I suppose you could call those letters more conventional, but they’re equally amusing to read, even when she’s telling her friends about her arduous ocean journey to Mexico in 1941, when she sailed from Europe on the Serpa Pinta with many other refugees who had been granted asylum in Mexico.
I was enchanted by all the letters and I’m hoping more of her correspondence turns up. I’d be especially interested in her side of the correspondence with Benjamin Péret after he returned to France in 1948. His letters to Varo are collected in his Oeuvres complètes, but no one seems to know where hers are…
Biblioklept: It’s a shame that we don’t have Varo’s letters to Péret. It seems like a lot of the work by the women surrealists of the twentieth century was perhaps at the time not seen as important as the work by the men. (I think of The New York Times’s obituary for Frida Kahlo, which opened with this line: “Frida Kahlo, wife of Diego Rivera, the noted painter, was found dead in her home today”). I think that your work, the work of Wakefield Press in general, and the work of other independent publishers is helping to bring the work of people like Varo, Leonora Carrington, Gisèle Prassinos, Unica Zürn and others to a wider audience though. What other women writers and artists would you like to see gain a wider audience?
MC: What writings are out there, out of print, or unknown, hidden in archives, uncatalogued, untranslated? The French poet and artist Alice Rahon, who also lived in Mexico City and moved in the same artistic circles as Varo, should be better known. She published a few books of poetry during her lifetime, and there’s an archive of unpublished work in Mexico City in both French and Spanish to be explored. A few poems in translation appear in Mary Ann Caws’s The Milk Bowl of Feathers, an anthology of surrealist writing published last year by New Directions, and I believe Mary Ann has been translating more of Rahon’s work. The Spanish artist Maruja Mallo, who was slightly older than Remedios Varo, also deserves more attention. Like Varo, she graduated from the prestigious Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid and also lived in exile, in her case in Uruguay and Argentina, before returning to Spain in the 1960s. They both spent time in Paris in the 1930s, and I’m fairly sure they knew one another. Mallo has gotten some renewed interest lately—there was a recent gallery show in New York—and she has a short text “Surrealism as Manifest in My Work” in Penelope Rosemont’sSurrealist Women: An International Anthology. The artworks clearly take the lead for all three women, but their writings give a window into their strange art (and vice-versa), or maybe, can even stand independently, as do Leonora Carrington’s writings.
Biblioklept: Thanks for that list! I’m curious if you know how much of Carrington’s fiction Varo might have read. Was Carrington a stylistic influence? I’m also curious about other influences you detect in her writing, which seems so strange and original. “On Homo rodans” is definitely Borgesian, and Varo mentions reading Borges’s story “Deutsches Requiem” in one of the “Dreams” in the collection…who and what was Varo reading? How might it have influenced her writing?
MC:It’s hard to talk about influence because there must have always been a back-and-forth between Varo and Carrington and an intense sharing of mutual passions. They collaborated on a play, El santo cuerpo grasoso (“The Holy Oily Body”), written in the late 1940s and as far as I know, never performed for the general public. The original manuscript shows that they composed it in alternating lines, one hand followed by the other and back again, somewhat like a cadaver exquisit. They appear to have written it as a private amusement, to be performed by a small circle of friends. Carrington has a Varo-like character in The Hearing Trumpet, Carmella Velazquez, who, just as Varo did in the letter mentioned above, wrote letters to complete strangers she picked out of the phone book. She was the one who introduced Varo to Gerald Gardner, the Wicca popularizer. She may also have introduced her friend to Frank Sherwood Taylor, the British author of The Alchemists. A Spanish translation of this book was in Varo’s library.The heroine of Varo’s story “Mistress Thrompston Discovers by Accident the Source of the Tremendous Humidity that Reigns in the County of Kent” seems to be modeled on Carrington. There are other appearances by Carrington in the translation. Varo’sMimicry (Mimesis) makes an obvious nod to Carrington’sSelf-Portrait.
About their writings, keep in mind that Varo, unlike Carrington, never published her work during her lifetime, and it’s not clear she would have done so if offered the chance. Most of the texts I translated were found in Varo’s notebooks after her death. And don’t forget her long relationship with Benjamin Péret. A comparison of Varo’s and Péret’s writings would also be interesting. Her automatic writings probably date back to the time they were together. In Letters, Dreams Péret appears in the Felina Caprino-Mandrágora story as Benjamin Pérez, an avid bicyclist and the owner of a carrier-pigeon business. It’s a funny little scene, perhaps Péret-like in how it unfolds. All speculation, because I don’t know his work that well.
At a recent exhibition at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City of items from Remedios Varo’s archive, there were a few shelves of books from her library. I saw titles (in the original French, Spanish or English or in translation) by Jean Ray, H. P. Lovecraft, Rodney Collin (a British writer influenced by the mystics Pyotr Ouspensky and Gurdjieff), Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, Simone Weil. That gives you an idea of other directions her reading took besides Borges. No way of knowing, though, all the books she read, or what her earliest reading was like growing up.
Biblioklept: Varo clearly read works of literature both in translation as well as in their original languages. In our own era, it’s very easy to quickly access all kinds of media from around the globe, including media that might not be as challenging to understand as literature might be. Why is reading literature in translation still important?
MC: You’re right—there’s more “content” than ever before and you can find it in a split second via Google. But if you’re asking, is there still a place for literature given the glut of writing, etc. on the Internet, I’d say yes, because it’s not an either/or. At the same time, I don’t think reading literature in translation is something meritorious in itself. It’s simply a natural consequence of being curious about what’s being written in other places: fiction, poetry, essays, plays, graphic novels, comics. It’s inevitable: a lot of it has to come to you in translation.
Biblioklept: One of the longer pieces in Letters, Dreams & Other Writings is titled “Project for a Theater Piece,” which you note was likely to be a collaboration with Leonora Carrington. For me, “Project for a Theater Piece” is simultaneously rich and frustrating. It opens with a character list that includes characters that we never get to meet (and omits characters we actually do meet), and has like a dozen plot openings that remain unresolved. This is what we might expect from a surrealist text: aporia, incongruity, dream logic (and some wonderful humor). At the same time, Varo’s writing strikes me as not bound to any kind of genre expectations.
MC: “Project for a Theater Piece” is indeed fragmentary and puzzling. Leonora (Carrington) and Eva (Sulzer) are inspirations for the Ellen Ramsbottom character. Daphne Fitz is inspired by Edward James, the eccentric Scottish arts patron who was a close friend of Leonora Carrington’s. He also seems to be the inspiration for the Poltergeist, who appears in the story wearing a short plaid skirt, sneakers and ankle socks, and is mistaken at first for a woman. I have no idea why it’s called “Project for a Theater Piece,” since it’s basically a cast of characters followed by two unconnected short stories. I’m assuming the editor of the original book, Isabel Castells, gave it that name. All the texts are said to be from Varo’s notebooks, so everything needed to be transcribed: in her introduction, Castells says that Varo’s last partner, Walter Gruen, did the transcription. I’m not sure if Castells saw the original; she may have been working only with Gruen’s transcription. Did the order in the book follow the order of the texts in Varo’s notebooks? Or was there some editorial intervention by Gruen and/or Castells linking them together? I don’t know. Castells also suggests that Leonora Carrington may have written parts that are missing, in a kind of surrealist chain story. If that’s true, it would be interesting to read “Project for a Theater Piece” against the collaborative play I mentioned above, El santo cuerpo grasoso/The Holy Oily Body, for stylistic similarities. Whatever the case, I wouldn’t read it as a finished text. It’s open to all sorts of speculations about the context in which it was written and about the editorial interventions that occurred later on in preparing the original edition of Cartas, sueños y otros textos for publication.
Biblioklept: I’m curious about the samples of automatic writing in the collection—specifically, I’m curious about how you approached translating them. Translating strikes me as a hyper-conscious art, a practice that involves a precision and command of tone, diction, rhythm, etc.—but automatic writing is, ostensibly, writing without consciousness.
MC: These texts seemed like prose poems to me, wonderful bizarre and disconnected, which led to some head scratching, and yes, a hyper-conscious translation. The text starts off with what seems to be a list of ingredients, like a recipe… or is it for some kind of magical spell? Each “ingredient” then becomes the lead word for a short sequence of images that often evoke Varo’s art: the egg, the crevice that widens (Harmony/Armonía), the raw silk being spun, which reminded me of the delicate lines crisscrossingFellow Feeling/Simpatía). The sequences in themselves don’t make much sense, but the words themselves are very clear and simple. Sometimes there’s some wordplay, such as “trasto trastorno, torno” in Incense (literally, “dish upset/overturned, turned”) which I translated as “dish depraved, lathe” to get some of the sound effects of the original and suggest the spindle in the next line. We don’t, unfortunately, have Varo’s description of the conditions under which she wrote these texts, or anything that tells us how she understood “automatic writing.” (Also, remember that she didn’t label these writings as such— it was the book’s editor.) She may not have been a purist. Whatever the case, this section is one of my favorites in the book. I love her random scattering of images and the lack of narrative direction. For me, the more nonsensical, the better.
Biblioklept: The issue of the editor’s hand is of course interesting. The “Automatic Writings” do feel…I don’t know, more automatic than some of the project ideas and fragments, which have narrative properties. There’s something wildly imagistic about the “Automatic Writings,” something cinematic really, mental imagery that seems like it couldn’t be painted. But then you read Varo’s descriptions of her own paintings, and you realize that her imaginative vision could realize seemingly impossible images in both paint and words.
MC: Yes, you wonder what her jumping-off points were. There are a couple of clues. In her “Unpublished Interview” at the beginning of the book, for example, she talks about how a painting develops: “I visualize it before I begin painting, and try to make it conform to the image I’ve already fashioned” (“lo visualizo antes de comenzar a pintar y trato de ajustarlo a la imagen que me he formado”). That’s about as close as she comes to describing her process explicitly. (By the way, it’s very possible that she created this interview herself. It was in one of her notebooks, undated, with both the questions and answers in her handwriting. A published version has never been found.)
I read the comments she made on her paintings a bit differently, though. She wrote these on the back of photos she sent to family in Spain after the paintings were finished, so she had her brother, mother and other family members in mind as she wrote. The wild creative impulses that went into the act of painting them have calmed down now. Still, she’s not giving away any of their secrets. Of course, when you’re reading the descriptions, you should also be looking at the images, just as her family was. She talks about things you notice in the paintings, but not about all of them.Her descriptions of Harmony and Talleur pour dames (p. 102) are little gems, in my opinion.
Biblioklept: Can you tell us anything about your next possible translation project?
MC: No projects at the moment and I’m not sure when I’ll pick up a new translation. Right now I’m doing some investigations around Remedios Varo and her circle of friends. I want to put her writings more in context, for example, that play she collaborated on with Leonora Carrington, or the Homo rodans piece. Or widen the lens to write about the “Surrealists of Calle Gabino Barreda,” the street in Mexico City where Varo and Péret lived in the 1940s. It seems to have been the center for a lot of creative and collaborative activity among the European surrealists in exile.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
MC: I’ve taken books people leave in laundry rooms or out on their front stoops, which happens a lot in brownstone neighborhoods in New York City. I also pass by a “Little Free Library” box on my way to work. I’m usually not tempted to take anything, but one day I saw a volume of Virginia Woolf’s Diaries and grabbed it!