Daniel Green’s The Reading Experience was one of the first sites I started reading regularly when I first started blogging about literature on Biblioklept. If you regularly read literary criticism online, it’s likely you’ve read some of Green’s reviews in publications like The Kenyon Review, 3:AM, Full Stop, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Full Stop, and more.
Green’s got a new collection out from Cow Eye Press, Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism, which presents his philosophy of literary criticism, drawing on writing he has done over the past dozen years on The Reading Experience, as well as essays he has published elsewhere. Beyond the Blurb lucidly explicates an approach to criticism that stresses careful attention to literary form and language. “The experience of reading is the experience of language” might be a tidy blurb for Beyond the Blurb.
In his own words, Green was trained as an academic literary critic, but has long since seen the error of his ways. He lives in central Missouri. Over a series of emails, Green was kind enough to talk to me about his new book Beyond the Blurb, literary criticism, experimental fiction, William H. Gass, the New Critics, James Wood, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel, and lots more.
Biblioklept: In the introduction to Beyond the Blurb, you outline some of the core tenets of your philosophy of literary criticism. One of these is, “The meaning of a literary work consists of the experience of reading it, not in abstracted ‘themes’ that signify what the work is ‘about.'” Another tenet is that, “The experience of reading is the experience of language.”
This idea of a reader’s experience of reading appears throughout Beyond the Blurb, and indeed, your website is named The Reading Experience. Is it possible to define, or at least describe, what you mean by the reader’s experience of reading, in a general sense?
Daniel Green: The Reading Experience is a direct allusion to John Dewey’s Art as Experience. My insistence that reading is experience of language is an attempt to apply Dewey’s concept of “experience” to reading works of literature. I probably put more emphasis on language per se than Dewey did, which is likely the residual influence of New Criticism. I was a graduate student at a time when many older literary scholars—including some of those with whom I studied—were still New Critics, or at least assigned New Critics in classes I took. (Or maybe I just read a lot of New Criticism on my own).
I still think the New Critics’ general approach, which emphasized the “ambiguity” inherent to a literary work, is sound, although they went too far in using words like “icon” and “heresy,” almost making works of literature into sacred objects. I discovered Dewey’s book and was converted to the notion that works of art are objects of experience whereby the reader/beholder is given the opportunity simply to appreciate experience for its own sake. (Dewey thought works of art gave us the greatest opportunity for this).
The experience of reading is always the experience of language, even though many readers don’t stop often enough to acknowledge this. We read artfully arranged words that in works of literature create “meaning” only relative to their arrangement, which is not the arrangement to be found in newspaper columns or political speeches. A critic should be sensitive to the particular kind of arrangement—which includes the arrangement into “form”—found in a particular work. Even leaping ahead to “story” or “setting” distorts our actual experience of the work unless we also notice the way the writer has used language to create the illusion of story and the illusion of setting.
Biblioklept: Is there a risk though at falling into “the experience of the experience” when reading literature? Many people like to “get lost” in the illusion that the language of literature replicates reality. James Wood, in particular, seems to particularly value reality or life in the literature he esteems.
DG: People are perfectly free to read in any way they want, including for the illusion of reality. But I see that as a secondary effect. Has the work succeeded aesthetically in creating that illusion? It seems to me that critics ought to be those readers who are most sensitive to the “experience of the experience.” This ought to be the first goal of the critic, to describe that experience. Jumping right to “life on the page” is jumping right over the art of literary art.
Frankly, I’ve always found the notion that literature (fiction) is valuable to the extent it provides access to “reality” or “human life” bizarre. Since we’re humans writing about human experience, what other than reality could we possibly find in a literary work? Doing creative things with words isn’t separate from human life. It’s part of human life.
DG: Yeah, there are a lot of claims that the primary value of fiction lies in its ability to allow readers to “share” other people’s experience and perspective, to see the world from their point of view. On the one hand this seems to me a fairly innocuous notion. If a novel effectively conveys the illusion that you’re inhabiting another subjectivity and you think the experience has been salutary in your sense of “empathy,” then so be it. It is, however, an illusion, so on the other hand in no way are you really sharing another perspective or point of view, since what’re you are in fact experiencing is an effect of the writer’s skillful disposition of language. There are no “people” in fiction, just words and sentences, and therefore when you talk about empathizing or adopting another perspective, at best you are speaking metaphorically—it’s like empathizing with a real person, even though it’s not.
I would also say that the notion you’re sharing the author’s perspective, or engaging with the author’s “mind,” is misbegotten as well. A work of fiction (at least a good one) doesn’t have a perspective, or it would be a work of nonfiction.
I actually do think reading literature can make you a better human being, by helping you to be a better reader, or by expanding your ability to have a rich aesthetic experience. The idea it can make you ethically or morally better (presumably by teaching you a lesson) is one I assumed had been discarded long ago.
Biblioklept: I think a lot of folks still believe in “moral fiction” of some kind though (Mark Edmundson’s attack on contemporary poets in Harper’s a few years ago comes immediately to mind). Your response recalls to me some favorite lines from William Gass’s “The Medium of Fiction.” “It seems a country-headed thing to say,” he writes, “that literature is language, that stories and the places and the people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes cloth or metal tubes.” Gass is one of the examples you include in your chapter on “Critical Successes.” What do you admire in his criticism and his critical approach?
DG: I think of Gass as a “poet-critic,” even though he is of course a fiction writer. Indeed, I can think of few critics who make better use of the poetic resources of language in writing a criticism that is also pungent and deeply informed. He is among critics the most sensitive to the aesthetic character of literature and best able to express his aesthetic engagement in his own aesthetically rich prose. He’s a critic who registers an “appreciation” of literature more than he attempts to explicate through analysis, but there is room for both kinds of critics.
Biblioklept: Harold Bloom also strikes me as a critic “sensitive to the aesthetic character of literature,” and he also lands in your examples of “Critical Successes.” Bloom’s had a long history of pissing off various critics and even casual readers. What do you make of his agon with the so-called “School of Resentment”?
DG: I think he probably overdid the rhetoric with the “school of resentment” thing, although his underlying insight, that academic criticism had abandoned the study of literature for its own sake—to illuminate what is valuable about it—in favor of other agendas for which literature is merely a convenient tool of analysis, was certainly correct. I don’t object to forms of criticism or scholarship that favor cultural or political analysis over literary analysis, but these approaches came not to supplement or coexist with literary analysis; instead they completely replaced it. Bloom expressed his love of literature through becoming a learned professor and scholar. Now the idea that a literature professor is someone who loves literature seems quaint, if not outlandish. (Which is no doubt why Bloom seems an outlandish figure to many people).
Biblioklept: Sontag is another figure in your chapter on “Critical Successes”; indeed, you cite her at some length. Sontag wanted us to “learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” What are some practical methods for critics (and readers in general) to attend more to the “sensuous surface”?
DG: With literature, that has to mean attention to the palpable features of the writer’s shaping of language. A work of fiction is not a script for the reader to imagine into his/her own movie version. The “sensuous surface” is the sound and movement of the language. Gary Lutz is a good example of a writer who understands this. Lutz’s stories deliberately frustrate attempts to read for the plot or to visualize the characters, instead requiring attention to the transformed effects of word choice and syntax. Lutz may be an extreme example, but critics should approach all works of literature in the way his fiction demands. The notion that poetry should be read this way is not such an outlandish one, and criticism of fiction has moved too far away from criticism of poetry. Both fiction and poetry should be read first of all as aesthetic arrangements of language, although I don’t say that all criticism should necessarily stop there.
Biblioklept: What are some of the directions that criticism might go after appraising the aesthetic arrangements of language?
DG: As I say, I don’t object to criticism that examines works of literature for political or historical contexts and implications, but this should be done with the proviso that works of literature (most works of literature) are offered first of all as works of art. Examining a literary work for the aesthetic arrangements of language is the way of establishing that, because its language has been aesthetically arranged, it can’t coherently be subsumed to a political position or reduced to a cultural symptom. I’m speaking here of fiction and poetry (also drama, to the extent it belongs to literature). Including works of “creative nonfiction” as literature arguably muddies the waters some, but even here the “creative” part must count for something, must mean something other than simply “nice prose.” It ought to involve ways of making “meaning” more complex, more suggestive, not more transparent.
Older, more “canonical” works can certainly serve as the focus of lots of different critical inquiries, since in most cases their specifically literary qualities can be assumed as established, but I’d want them to be taught as first of all works of literary art. Presenting them to students immediately as politics or objects of theoretical discourse seems to me to simply erase “literature” as something about which it makes sense to speak as a separate category of writing.
Biblioklept: You include “Academic Criticism” in your section of “Critical Failures.” The focus in the chapter on “Academic Criticism” is on Joseph M. Conte’s study of American postmodern literature, Design and Debris, and not necessarily academic criticism in general. In general though, do you think American universities and schools are neglecting the aesthetics of literature in favor of different “theoretical” approaches?
DG: Yes, of course they are. I don’t think many academic critics would deny it. Certainly most of the academic journals that determine which approaches are informally—if not “officially”—sanctioned and which are disdained are now completely devoted to non-aesthetic approaches. Lately a quasi-formalist strategy called “surface reading” has become more respectable, but even it is offered as a corrective to certain kinds of theoretical overreach and doesn’t finally threaten the hegemony of theory itself as the primary concern of academic criticism. What’s called “digital humanities”—data-mining using literary texts as data—shares with theory the assumption that assessing works of literature for their aesthetic qualities was long ago deemed insufficiently “rigorous” as a way of organizing the study of literature—although for some reason, unclear to me even now, the term “literature” has been retained to identify the nominal object of study, and what these critics do is still referred to as “literary study.”
There are, of course, professors who do continue to present literary works as works of art. They are surely in the minority, however, particularly in the more prestigious universities.
Biblioklept: Another entry in your section on “Critical Failures” is James Wood, whom you devote quite a few pages to. I often find myself very frustrated with Wood’s approach to literary criticism, but he’s also a very perceptive reader.
DG: Yes, he can be a very insightful reader. I think in the essay I say that he is, on the one hand, one of the few practicing critics who is able to focus very closely on the text under consideration and offer a sensitive “reading.” But, on the other hand, he uses that sensitivity to advance a very narrowly conceived agenda. It seems to me he isn’t reading the work to understand what the author is doing, whatever that might be, but to find support for his bias toward psychologically complex realism. It causes him to unfairly characterize fiction for which he does not have affinity (“hysterical realism”), when he’s not merely ignoring work that contradicts his agenda. I actually learn from his reviews of some writers, especially certain translated authors whose work clearly does conform to his preconceptions of “how fiction works.” But he seems to know very little about American literature, and his critical agenda especially distorts the formal and aesthetic assumptions of many American writers, particularly those in the tradition of nonrealist writing going back to Poe and Hawthorne. Since the kind of experimental writing I admire to a significant extent has its source in that tradition, naturally I find his approach objectionable.
Biblioklept: Wood often violates the first of John Updike’s “rules” of reviewing books (from Picked-Up Pieces): “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”
DG: Yes, that’s exactly right. You can then either judge the author a failure by the standards he/she has adopted, or you can rule what the author has attempted out of court—that’s not the sort of thing a novelist should be doing. It would be hard to justify the latter position, although you could mount a sustained critique of the author’s chosen mode. Perhaps its conventions are stale or its strategies are incoherent. Mostly Wood doesn’t do this. He instead continues to judge by the standards of his preferred mode—it’s realism all right, but it’s “hysterical.” Continue reading “An interview with literary critic Daniel Green about his new book, Beyond the Blurb”
When I first heard about the concept for Scott Esposito’s new book The Missing Books, I thought, Damn. I wish I had thought of that. Then I read it and thought, Damn, I wish I had written that.
The Missing Books is an ongoing e-book project, “a curated directory of books that do not exist, but should.” The first version features missing books from “Cormac McCarthy, the Oulipo, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, JM Coetzee, Roberto Bolaño, Vladimir Nabokov, Mario Bellatín, Jose Saramago, Philip K. Dick, Christian Bök, Kenneth Goldsmith, Gerald Murnane, Jorge Luis Borges, László Krasznahorkai, Edouard Levé,” and many others. It’s a joy for bibliophiles.
Esposito is the co-author of The End of Oulipo? (with Lauren Elkin) and the author of The Surrender. His book The Doubles is forthcoming in 2017. He’s a frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement and the San Francisco Chronicle. His blog is Conversational Reading. He was kind enough to talk with me about The Missing Books over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: When and how did the idea for The Missing Books come to you?
Scott Esposito: The concept of The Missing Books came together over the summer while I was trying to figure out a good concept for an ebook to release to my core fans.
Let me take a small step back to explain: I’m a big fan of hip hop music, and one of the things I’ve really taken note of about that scene is how rappers use mixtapes to stay relevant between projects, increase their fan base, try out new concepts, etc, etc. I think rappers are geniuses at marketing their concepts and getting attention for them in the world—they’re some of the best in terms of speaking in ways that the internet can understand—and mixtapes are a true innovation in this regard. I’ve long admired this. So I had the idea that I could try to create something like a mixtape in the literary world.Last fall I tried it out by releasing an ebook project titled The Latin American Mixtape, which was well-received. Like any good mixtape, it had some old content that was repurposed for the project, plus some things that were completely new and strictly Mixtape-only.
With the success of The Latin American Mixtape, I decided to do another one this year, so I began to try out concepts that might work for such a venture. Ebook-native projects are up against some barriers that don’t pertain to print titles, so I knew that in order to make this work, it would have to be a fairly catchy idea that could translate into various sorts of memes. Eventually when I hit upon the idea of doing missing books, I had the feeling that this was definitely a concept that could work in that way.
Of course, this wasn’t just about outreach. Lost books, non-existent books, book criticism, biographies of fictitious entities—these are all very much my aesthetic. I like what Borges says, along the lines of preferring to write about a novel instead of writing the novel itself, that you can have all of the essential features there in a condensed form, and it’s even better because you can dispense with all that unnecessary stuff. I feel an affinity for that kind of commentary that stands in for a book, that can be a way of grasping the inherent mystery and excitement of a book at a glance. And this is what I’ve tried to offer in The Missing Books, little chunks of what these books might have been, since we can’t actually read them.
I’ve also long been fascinated by the Oulipo, whose whole idea of writing “potential books” is very much in league with the project. (I had formerly wanted to title The Missing Books something along the lines of Potential Books, but I had to discard that, as it was too close to sounding like the Oulipo.) And just in general, I love to find out about the curiosities of the world, the oddities, those things that were epic failures, that drove writers to the end of their career, that never quite got completed, or that are so bizarre that they can only exist inside of other books. Those things have always appealed to my imagination.
Lastly, making The Missing Books electronic-only allows me to easily integrate a feature I really wanted to have in there: revisions. One of the core ideas of The Missing Books is that it grows and updates as I find out more about this world of nonexistent titles, and as the books themselves change their lost status. While this could be done in print, it’s much more practical to do this electronically. Moreover, it allows The Missing Books itself to be a missing book: a book that is always getting a little bit closer to completion, but who says I’ll ever finish it?
Biblioklept: When I first heard of The Missing Books, I thought it might be a work of fiction, like Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, or Borges’s work in general.
SE: It’s a little bit of both. That was one of the fun things with a project like this. It was really fun to research (it got a little addicting to try and find more and more “missing books”; it was a great way to relax after hours of writing), but then it also opened a lot of doors to invent or embellish within the boundaries of the project. In the end, I don’t think it kind of defies definition as either nonfiction or fiction. I think there’s a little of the spirit of Borges in there, where if you write it maybe one day it finds a way to become true, or maybe the fiction is just better than the truth.
First off, I should say that there’s a lot in The Missing Books that’s based on solid fact, like the book Truman Capote never finished writing, or Georges Perec’s long lost first novel, which was recently discovered, translated, and published in English. That’s all pretty firm nonfiction—these things really happened, you can look it up—although in some places, I tread into fiction. Like, for instance, where I imply that someone should complete Kenneth Goldsmith’s conceptual art project to print out the Internet. That’s insane! I don’t really think anyone’s going to do that, or necessarily should. So there I’m playing with the unreliability of the voice and hinting that people who read The Missing Books might not take everything in it completely truthfully.
Then there’s a gray zone, books that may exist at some point in the future, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger. There’s a lot of hearsay and rumor involved in that section, and of course what we regard as “facts” about these titles will change as dictated by future events. So I’d say those titles are rooted in nonfiction, but aren’t exactly nonfiction, something more along the lines of “speculative nonfiction,” stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily commit to print (or even e-print) but that is appropriate to a work like this, where the understanding is that it’s a living, updating document that often thrives on speculation and half-truths.
Then there are the books that themselves come from works of fiction, which turn into an even grayer zone. These are in some weird kind of ontological status, but where they come from fiction, and where in the context of The Missing Books I treat them like fact, even though we both probably know that these aren’t actual books. Except, in some cases they are: like H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, a fairly minor invention of Lovecraft’s that developed a huge and devoted following after his death and which now has been written into existence (multiple times) by other people. Or even a book found in Philip K. Dick, which someone self-published on the Amazon Kindle. What are these things? Fact or fiction? Are these books the Necronomicon? Could such a thing even exist, aside from some unstable and uncommitted concept in the mind of Lovecraft fans?
For fun and to add to the poeticism of the project a bit, I admit to embellishing or adding a few twists of my own to certain of these book-from-books, although fairly minor things that might be hard to detect. And—and this is something that to my knowledge no one has picked up on yet—I have invented a few titles in The Missing Books. Maybe some day they’ll come into existence in one way or another.
Biblioklept: My experience in reading The Missing Books was very much that strange mix of recognition and then its immediate opposite—for example, nodding in recognition at the entry on PK Dick’s The Owl in Daylight, but also puzzling over the veracity of Thomas Bernhard’s Breathing.
You brought up “the books that themselves come from works of fiction.” This is a potentially enormous section (just check out Wikipedia’s list of fictional books). How did you go about deciding what to include (and what to leave out) in this section?
SE: Oh yeah, it’s a ridiculously large category. Just the books listed in Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas is enough to make up a document five times as long as The Missing Books. Then you could start to bring in all the fake books in authors like Eco, Lem, and popular authors like Stephen King, and it all gets excessive very quickly.
I started off with a simple rule: I was only going to consider things from the beginning of the 20th century forward. So that right there slices off quite a bit, but it still leaves a whole lot. So to pare it down even further, I chose to only list items that I felt had some kind of story to tell us. One easy rule to follow was: do I find this interesting? If I can’t become intrigued by the story behind a missing book, that’s a pretty good indication that no one else is going to either, and that it probably doesn’t have anything of interest to communicate to us.
With those rules in place, I began to get together a fairly substantial group of projects, and some general themes and arcs of the project began to naturally emerge. Once that started happening, I began to purposely look for missing books based on how well they played off of what was already there. Like, for instance, The True Son of Job by Harry Sibelius, which is found in Bolaño’s Nazi Literature—it’s quite reminiscent of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen, found in Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, and I know that Bolaño was a big Dick fan, so it seems possible that there was some influence there. At the very least the similarities are striking enough that it’s interesting to situate them close to one another. And then from there, it seemed worthwhile to include various works by Phoebus K. Dank, which begins to comment on how the idea of the “Philip K. Dick” author has grown into a trope of his own.
I was also always interested in books that seemed to push up against the boundaries of the categories. Like The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, which I place under the heading of “lost books”—is it really lost, or did Pessoa complete it? Well obviously Pessoa never “finished” it in the sense that most books are finished, but then again, Pessoa’s life project arguably rebuts the whole notion of finished books as we tend to construe them. And also, The Book of Disquiet is arguably a journal of sorts, and are those ever completed? George Steiner also makes an interesting case when he argues for Disquiet as a complete work by telling us that “As Adorno famously said, the finished work is, in our times and climate of anguish, a lie.” So I was also always on the lookout for titles that seem to render these categories less stable, the better to contemplate what they actually mean and whether or not there really is such a thing as a “missing book.”
Biblioklept: On the other side (if there is an “other” side) are the books that we never finish reading (even if we read all the words on all the pages)…there are books I return to again and again and richer, deeper, changed since the last time I read them. Do you experience this? Are there “missing,” unfinished books that you have, as a reader, “finished,” yet return to anew?
SE: For sure, it would be a disappointing kind of literature that didn’t permit those sorts of repeats. What immediately comes to mind is the author Stephen Marche, who claims to have read Hamlet over a hundred times, or Gerald Murnane, who avowed in his writing of the early 2000s that he would spend what time remained to him as a reader contemplating a handful of the mot profound texts in his life.
Certainly there are lots of books of theory that I have only begun to understand, writers like Heidegger or Lacan or Deleuze and Guattari, who have tried pushing language to challenging places in order to say things that it cannot currently say. Or a writer like Adorno, who wrote in such a way as to frustrate simple meanings or conclusions. These are people whose ideas can easily be summed up but whose actual work must simply be experienced as such and wrestled with for a long period of time.
In terms of literature, I think of writers like Pynchon, who writes in such a dense and maximalist and frustrating way that his books require long engagement, or someone like Proust, who understood humanity so deeply and extensively that one continually gains new insight as one becomes more and more experienced as a human being. But then there is also something to be said for the minimalism of a Coetzee or a Bioy or a Kafka, whose constructs seem to me like some kind of a simple-but-intricate object that one keeps staring at, trying to understand how it is built and what it means.
I would also add the category of books that I refuse to return to, books whose first experience was so bewildering and mysterious—and also so poetically infused with my life circumstances at the time—that I am fearful of destroying the impression they have left in my mind.
Biblioklept: Do you have a timeline for how the different versions of The Missing Books will come out? Or are you working on the project more organically?
SE: I very much want it to grow organically. I don’t have timetables other than to keep each new version somewhat spaced out in order to give readers a chance to chew over each edition of The Missing Books before the next one comes out. Also, I want to give the titles themselves a little time to move around and change status, as well as for new titles to emerge through the news cycle, so making the updates too frequent would be counterproductive. And of course, there’s a fairly heavy research component to each update, as I don’t want to release a new version without making some substantial additions. I’m also toying around with adding a new title grouping for Version 2, but I’ll have to see about that—it might be a little early for that sort of thing.
Right now, I’ve been more or less eyeing a spring release date for the next version.
Biblioklept: Which of the titles in The Missing Books do you most want to read?
SE: Wow, this is one of the hardest questions anyone has ever asked me. There are so many titles in The Missing Books that would greatly alter my sense of literature, that could change my life, that would put entirely new angles on writers I love…I think were I to pick just one, I would select the universal dictionary of all known human languages. I love reference books; when I was a kid I would just read volumes of the encyclopedia like they were novels, and to this day I spend obscene amounts of time reading random entries on Wikipedia, or Stanford’s online Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Dictionaries are great too in this way, although they offer a very different reading experience from the encyclopedias. I think it would be too much to pass up, the opportunity to be able to pore over all of the weird words and parts of grammar and ideas and what have you that have been embodied in the languages that humans have created to express themselves in over the course of our few thousand years of being writing, speaking beings on this planet.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
SE: No, definitely not. I’m fortunate in that books are one of those minor luxuries that I’ve always had the means to support for myself, so I’ve never been anywhere near the position of needing to steal them. When I was young my parents would always buy me any books I needed, and now it’s not an onerous expense to purchase the books I read. There are review copies, of course, there’s no getting around the need for them, but I make it a priority to support presses with purchases in at least some cases where I’d probably be “entitled” to a review copy. Especially nowadays, when my colleagues include many people at independent presses and bookstores, I try to do what I can to support their work financially.
Author Brian Hall is known for his diverse subject matter. His 2003 novel I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company is a fictionalized account of Lewis and Clark, and his 2008 novel The Fall of Frost re-imagines Robert Frost’s personal life and inner world. Hall’s writing has received significant praise over the years; his 1997 coming-of-age novel The Saskiad has been translated into twelve languages.
This year Hall collaborated with composer Mary Lorson for a rather unusual endeavor: setting James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to music. Part of the Waywords and Meansigns project, Hall and Lorson were tasked with creating an unabridged musical version of the Wake’s famous eighth chapter. The chapter presents a dialogue between two women, who are in turn juxtaposed with Dublin’s Liffey river and one of the book’s main characters, Anna Livia Plurabelle. (You can hear their chapter in the embedded audio player below.)
Derek Pyle, who runs Waywords and Meansigns, spoke with Brian Hall about a number of topics ranging from the experience of wrestling with Joyce’s text to the process of writing and researching novels.
Brian Hall: We decided that I would record the voice track first, before she did anything else. I’ve never recorded any reading before, so we practice recorded the thing twice, just to get me used to it. That way I could get used to just how thorny it is to read at a relatively quick pace, to manage to spit out all of these weird words one after another. You have to practice quite a lot so you can get through a sentence and make it sound somewhat natural.
I assured Mary right at the beginning that the final mix and music, all of that would be entirely up to her and I wasn’t going to interfere. I made some suggestions, just throwing out ideas — I know [classical music] pretty well, and she was interested in drawing on that, so I mentioned a few things that could be related.
Derek Pyle: At times your voice has a call and response feel — it was her tinkering that created this effect?
Brian Hall: The chapter is clearly some kind of a dialogue, but a lot of it is not really clear which voice is which. I was looking online and nobody really agrees on how the voices divide. I made my own version of the back and forth, just by highlighting the younger voice, and I gave Mary a copy of this marked up version of the text.
When I read it in the studio in Toronto, it was all on one track. As I read, every time I went to the younger voice I pitched my voice a little bit higher. So with the pitch between the two voices, and my printed version, which had highlighted the young woman’s lines, Mary could tell pretty easily which was which. She put the voices on two different tracks, one on the left speaker, one on the right speaker, and did everything that we hear. It really gives a much better feel.
Derek Pyle: It’s such a full landscape of sound, with the river running through the conversation. What were some of the other underlying conceptual elements guiding your reading?
Brian Hall: Because I tend to gather books, I already had the Tindall guide to Finnegans Wake and I also had the Roland McHugh Annotations to Finnegans Wake. I read through both the Tindall and the McHugh related to this chapter, to see whatever there was — things that I couldn’t figure out on my own.
Since Joyce uses — I can’t remember the figure — 140 different river names, McHugh notes pretty much every time there’s a river name. He doesn’t say which country it’s in, so I marked all of this up and then for all the river names I looked them up on Google Maps.
I wanted to find out what country the rivers are in, because you don’t really have a sense how to pronounce it unless you know what language it’s in. When you’re reading [the Wake] out loud you want to straddle, as much as possible, the different possible pronunciations of these multilingual words.
But I don’t really know how Joyce pronounced some of those words. He may have had a Dublin-English version of it. A lot of it is total guesswork but it was really fun, although a fair amount of work — with a text like this you basically have stuff all over the page, with arrows trying to figure out what the hell you’re doing.
Derek Pyle: What was your engagement with Joyce prior to this undertaking?
Brian Hall: By the time I got out of college I had read most of Joyce except Finnegans Wake. I cheated a bit — I took a course on Ulysses and I ran out of time in the course, the way you do in college, and I ended up only reading about half of Ulysses. I wrote a paper on the part that I had read, to hide the fact that I hadn’t read the whole thing.
When I was forty, I went back and read the entire Ulysses, and like loads of writers I was pretty fascinated. Large parts of it are some of the most interesting stuff written in the 20th century, I think.
But it’s true for a lot of great work, one of the things that makes them so fascinating — as you approach them as a critical reader and as a writer yourself, it makes sense that there are things that you don’t entirely agree with. There are parts of Ulysses which I think go farther down the formalistic path than is really helpful. I never much liked the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter, the one that goes through the history of the English language.
I think a lot of Ulysses, as great as it is, it’s a little longer than ideal. But you know, it’s a fabulous monumental work. When people pick it as like, if you’re forced to choose the greatest novels of the 20th century, I’m certainly not surprised that a lot of people pick Ulysses.
Portrait of the Artist I’ve probably read three or four times. Dubliners you of course get in high school and I read it again in my forties. I read Stephen Hero at one point because I was curious to see the earlier version of Portrait of the Artist.
But Finnegans Wake was the big thing that I had never gotten around to. I actually have you to thank — it really was an opportunity for me to do something I’d wanted to do, which is to take a closer look at one part of the Wake. I always wondered how to what extent I would appreciate what his goals are in Finnegans Wake.
Derek Pyle: How would you articulate Joyce’s goals?
I can only speak of the Liffey chapter, but I think he goes further down the path of playing with language, to the point where it starts to become a question of diminishing returns. I want to stress how much I enjoyed reading it out loud — it is a fascinating word fest he’s done.
But he has the idea that [the chapter] is going to be about rivers — about a river, the Liffey. He has what I think are loads of great ideas about how to do this, where Liffey and Livia are basically the same. The way he describes the places where the Liffey runs and the kinds of landscape it runs through — he does it in such a way that pretty much every moment is both about the river but also about this sort of mythical female figure, Livia. I think a lot of that is really great.
Then there’s this other side of Joyce — and this is the part where I as an artist part ways with him — since he’s doing a thing about the river, he decides to incorporate into the chapter the names of like 140 rivers from around the world. I think that layer just gets in the way; I can’t see that it adds much.
Who am I, of course — I’m just me and he’s James Joyce. If I were his childhood friend and he took any advice from me, I would say “hey Jim, maybe that one layer…”
Derek Pyle: As a writer reading Joyce, is there any way his works have influenced your own craft in terms of techniques to use, or even to avoid?
The generally broad idea of stream of consciousness narration, which of course takes many forms, but he was obviously one of the big fat originators of it. That’s had a big effect on the way I write. I believe very strongly that prose should take whatever form it needs to take, to properly convey the way a person is thinking.
All of my writing, except for my first novel, is in close third person. But I think the writer whose style of stream of consciousness influenced me somewhat more than Joyce — but of course she herself was influenced by Joyce and vice versa — was Virginia Woolf. Her approach in Mrs. Dalloway is the way I tend to write when I’m trying to convey the moment of thought in one of my character’s minds.
I think a big problem with a lot of literary writing today is that a lot of writers consistently stick to a polished lyrical style. I guess it’s out of the idea that beautiful writing is always beautiful, so why not write beautifully. My temperament or whatever, my reading of that, it’s not psychologically acute writing because it doesn’t reflect emotional turmoil.
If you’re describing a character who is very upset or angry or confused, or if the character is not very literate — I think the prose should always try to reflect the content, and that means loads of good prose is not beautiful.
You know Joyce, a lot of his stuff is of course beautiful in its own way, but you get to the “Sirens” chapter in Ulysses and you have this overture section at the beginning. It’s just totally fractured. He’s not trying something beautiful there, he’s trying something much more interesting.
Derek Pyle: Whether it’s Woolf or Joyce, did you take a research approach into looking at technique, breaking down how and why does this work?
Brian Hall: I haven’t sat down and analyzed it. Stuff that I read that really excites me, I just assume it’s working its way into how I think about writing. I do lots of research for my novels, but it’s not related to stylistic stuff.
The novel I’m working on right now, the main character is an astronomer. My sense is, if you’re going to write a novel where the main character is an astronomer, you really should know a lot about astronomy. It’s not like you need lectures in there about astronomy, but just in the background of your mind, you should know a lot because that’s how your character will look at the world.
It helps if you like to do research for its own sake, because then you don’t have the temptation to try to shoehorn too much into the novel. It doesn’t feel like a waste to me if I have twenty times more material than I actually put into the book. I love research, so I don’t regret that at all.
Derek Pyle: Anything else you want to add? Biblioklept interviews usually end with the question ‘have you ever stolen a book?’
Brian Hall: I’ll say this. I really detest copyright law in general and in the U.S. in particular and these organizations like creative commons — what you’re doing with this whole project, where stuff is put online for people to freely download, I just think it’s great.
My understanding of the original idea of copyright law, for one thing it only lasted for sixteen years when it was first proposed by Jefferson. The idea was to keep people from competing in the market with the original thing.
But when you take something, and you change it dramatically by adding things — I ran into this with my Frost book. I ended up not being able to quote certain Frost poems because of supposed copyright problems. That’s a real perversion of the original idea of copyright protection. What I was doing in the Frost book would in no conceivable way cut into the sales of volumes of poetry by Frost.
I personally sympathize with people who are alive and remember Frost and are uncomfortable with the idea of a novelist like me coming along and writing a very personal novel about Frost. I don’t think it’s ridiculous that they don’t like it. But if it weren’t for the ridiculously extended copyright laws in this country, there wouldn’t be a problem. I’d be allowed to do what I do, they could be unhappy about it the way that I’m unhappy about lots of things, and you know, we would just move on.
Oh, and to answer your question, I’ve never stolen a book.
Evidently, in a world where philological education has almost completely disappeared, where critics are no longer attentive to style, the decision not to be present as an author generates ill will and this type of fantasy. The experts stare at the empty frame where the image of the author is supposed to be and they don’t have the technical tools, or, more simply, the true passion and sensitivity as readers, to fill that space with the works. So they forget that every individual work has its own story. Only the label of the name or a rigorous philological examination allows us to take for granted that the author of Dubliners is the same person who wrote Ulysses andFinnegans Wake. The cultural education of any high school student should include the idea that a writer adapts depending on what he or she needs to express. Instead, most people think anyone literate can write a story. They don’t understand that a writer works hard to be flexible, to face many different trials, and without ever knowing what the outcome will be.
Yuri Herrera was interviewed by Tristan Foster at 3:AM Magazine a few weeks ago. Herrera’s new novella (or “new” in English translation by Lisa Dilman, anyway) is The Transmigration of Bodies and it’s really, really good. I read most of it in one sitting a few months back, and I owe it a proper review. Herrera’s previous novella, Signs Preceding the End of the World, was one of my favorite books published last year.
3:AM: Despite both the seriousness of its themes and the apocalyptic backdrop, Transmigration is full of an absurd kind of fun. I’m thinking here, for instance, of the scene at the strip club; the strippers have taken off everything except for their facemasks, but they use the allure of removing the masks to excite the men watching. Is this writing fun? Is fun crucial to this kind of writing?
YH: The quest is fun, the walking in the dark is fun. To create your own paths in a room without light. Of course, this sometimes is also frustrating, when you just keep bumping into things, most commonly into my own very clumsy self. Eventually you discover that you have not been walking completely in the dark but with some sort of intuitive sense of direction, some creative spine. But until you discover that, you alternate between the joy and the anxiety and puzzling with words.
Hey, wow. Haven’t done one of these in a while.
Only a handful of novels are so perfectly simultaneously comic and tragic. Moby-Dick? Yes. Gravity’s Rainbow? Absolutely. (G R and J R, a duo published two years apart, spiritual twins, massive American novels that maybe America hardly deserves (or, rather: theses novels were/are totally the critique America deserves). I guess maybe what I’m saying is J R is the Great American Novel to Come (The Recognitions is perhaps overpraised and certainly not Gaddis’s best novel; J R is. The zeitgeist has been caught up to J R, the culture should (will) catch up).
I also read and wrote about Ashley Dawson’s Extinction: A Radical History, a scary little primer that argues mass species extinction is
…the product of a global attack on the commons, the great trove of air, water, plants and creatures, as well as collectively created cultural forms such as language, that have been regarded traditionally as the inheritance of humanity as a whole…capital of course depends on continuous commodification of this environment to sustain its growth.
My reading of Extinction—and hence my writing about it—is/was inextricably bound up in a viewing of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 eco-fable 1997 , Mononoke-hime. (The film’s title is usually rendered in English as Princess Mononoke, but I think Spirit-Monster Wolfchild is a more fitting translation). I also linked the book to Gilgamesh and Easter. And I used this gif:
I wrote a post about listening to audiobook versions of “difficult novels,” taking my lead and license from this big quote from William H. Gass’s essay “The Sentence Seeks Its Form”:
Breath (pneuma) has always been seen as a sign of life . . . Language is speech before it is anything. It is born of babble and shaped by imitating other sounds. It therefore must be listened to while it is being written. So the next time someone asks you that stupid question, “Who is your audience?” or “Whom do you write for?” you can answer, “The ear.” I don’t just read Henry James; I hear him. . . . The writer must be a musician—accordingly. Look at what you’ve written, but later … at your leisure. First—listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville.
I reviewed Mahendra Singh’s marvelous satire American Candide. Far better than my measly review is a long interview I did with Singh, who is just a damn genius. I’m most grateful for the final exchange of our review, which was not really a part of the official q & a type thing we were doing—rather, I was bemoaning my ability to write anything lately, and Mahendra offered me the following, which I edited into the interview:
The hidden contempt that our culture harbors towards art will drive you nuts if you think about it … so don’t think too much … write instead! And if you can’t write, read smartly. I find great solace in the classics and have devoted most of my life to trying in whatever way I can to perpetuate the classical tradition (in concealment) and create situations where young people can gain access to the eternal truths and beauty of the classical world tradition. We are living in a time of imperial decline and must preserve the best of the past as our ancestors did in similar times of trouble. The pendulum will swing the other way in a few centuries.
While the High-Rise adaptation delivers Ballardian style, that Ballardian style only points at itself, and not at our Ballardian present, our Ballardian future.
Here’s that promised stag (by Diego Velazquez):
William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, newish from University of Delaware Press, collects academic essays and memoir-vignettes by a range of critics and authors to make the case that Vollmann is, as the blurb claims, the “most ambitious, productive, and important living author in the US.” I interviewed the book’s editors, Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, over a series of emails in a two-part interview. You can read the first part here. A few days after the first part of the interview posted, Lukes and Coffman hosted a book launch party in NYC for WTV: ACC; the pics in this interview are from that event (check out the Facebook page for more, including Jonathan Franzen reading from his piece on Vollmann).
Biblioklept: Let’s talk about the formal elements of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion. The collection seems to balance essays of a more academic flavor with memoir-vignettes, personal accounts, and riffs.
Christopher K. Coffman: We decided early on to intersperse among the academic essays pieces by non-scholars, or by scholars writing in a non-scholarly mode. The goal here was at least two-fold. We wanted to offer something a bit more accessible to WTV readers who were not in academia (although I think the average WTV fan can follow scholarly arguments as well as many of us in academia can). Also, we realized that some people with a privileged view on WTV’s work–such as those of WTV’s book designers who contributed (Bolte and Speaker Austin)–could add something of interest and great value to audiences in and out of academia, and we wanted to make space for that. I would have to look back through the e-mail log to be sure, but I think Daniel first came up with the idea of soliciting shorter pieces from non-scholars, and that I then conceived the structural component. I am a huge fan of Hemingway’s In Our Time, and the contrapuntal play between the stories and the very short inter-chapters in that book served for me as a paradigm of what Daniel and I have tried to do in this regard. Of course, as soon as we brought up the example of Hemingway, we recalled that WTV does something similar in Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs, so he beat us to the punch even there. At any rate, my hope is that our readers find in the short chapterlets material that serves as a response to or as an extension of ideas presented in the more properly scholarly readings that surround those shorter pieces.
The second question of arrangement was the placement of essays and interchapters, and we here grouped according to subject matter as well as we could, without merely replicating what McCaffery and Hemmingson had done for Expelled from Eden. We also, obviously, made space for both Larry and Michael as the authors of the Preface and Afterword. Our intention there, insofar as I can speak for both of us, is to make it clear that we are trying to situate our contribution to scholarship on WTV in relation to the work that Larry and Michael have already done. Finally, I wrote the Introduction not only because one of us had to, but also because Daniel was spoken for in the sense that he already had material that formed the basis for the really great chapter that he contributed. Also, I found the chance to frame the book’s material via an introduction that dealt with WTV’s place in the landscape of post-1945 American fiction appealing. That said, while the introduction bears my byline, my ongoing conversation with Daniel during the past few years shaped my thinking about WTV as much as any original ideas of my own, so he deserves a lot of credit for the introduction as well.
Daniel Lukes: I’ve been going back over the timeline to see if Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou’s edited volume The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, which also features some shorter pieces, was an influence on that, but it looks like we took our approach independently. Though I will say their book did serve as a model in some ways of what ours could be. Dealing with the “non-scholarly” pieces has been for me one of the most exciting parts of putting this book together (the distinction between “scholarlies” and “non-scholarlies” itself being one of the various amusing frameworks that Chris and I have been carrying around throughout the process). From the beginning I thought it would be very helpful to have some of Vollmann’s literary peers chime in: you just don’t hear too much from them about him. So we reached out to writers we thought might be Vollmann readers: some just weren’t (I’d love to know if Cormac McCarthy reads Vollmann: the letter I mailed to a presumed representative of his returned unopened). Some were Vollmann fans/friends, but couldn’t make it for another reason; when Jonathan Franzen came through and expressed his enthusiasm for the project and willingness to contribute a piece, I felt some relief. And James Franco was a pleasure to work with. That said I think the primary value of the non-scholarlies is in the insights they offer into Vollmann’s world and writing practices, from those who have worked closely with him, in particular Carla Bolte, Mary Austin Speaker, and Mariya Gusev’s excellent and vivid pieces. Continue reading “An Interview with Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, Editors of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (Part 2)”
I recently talked to Derek Pyle about his project Waywords and Meansigns, which adapts James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake into a new musical audiobook. Derek worked for years as half of Jubilation Press. Printing the poems of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Thich Nhat Hanh, and William Stafford, Derek’s letterpress work can be found in the special collections of the New York Public Library, Brown University, and the Book Club of California. Derek co-founded Waywords and Meansigns in 2014 and became the project’s primary director in 2015. While living part-time in Western Massachusetts, Derek produces Waywords and Meansigns in eastern Canada.
Biblioklept: What is Waywords and Meansigns?
Derek Pyle: Waywords and Meansigns is a collaborative music project recreating James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Seventeen different musicians from all around world have each taken a chapter of Finnegans Wake and set it to music, thereby creating an unabridged audio version of Finnegans Wake.
Finnegans Wake is an incredible book, but it’s notoriously difficult to read. One hope of the project is to create a version of the Wake that is accessible to newcomers — people can just listen to and enjoy the music. To maximize accessibility, we are distributing all the audio freely via our website. But the project does not only appeal to Wake newcomers — as we’ve seen so far, a lot of scholars and devoted readers are also finding Waywords and Meansigns an exciting way of interpreting and engaging with Joyce’s text.
Biblioklept: How did the project come about?
DP: In 2014 I organized a party to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the publication of Finnegans Wake. To celebrate we decided to listen to Patrick Healy’s audiobook recording of Finnegans Wake, which is 20-odd hours long. The party, as you can imagine, lasted all weekend — we actually listened to Johnny Cash’s unabridged reading of the New Testament that weekend too. There was very little sleep, and fair amount of absinthe.
A lot of people really rag on Healy’s recording, because it’s read at breakneck speed. I actually like it though — he creates a very visceral flood of experience, which is one way of reading, or interpreting, Finnegans Wake. But during the party I started wondering about other ways you could perform the text, and that’s when I came up with the idea of approaching musicians to create a new kind of audiobook.
As it turns out, a lot of people seemed to think my idea was a good one. We’ve had no shortage of musicians willing to contribute, including some really cool cats like Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth and bassist Mike Watt, who currently plays in Iggy Pop’s band The Stooges.
Biblioklept: Watt rules! I love the Minutemen and his solo stuff. He seems like a natural fit for this kind of project, as so much of his music is based around story telling. I imagine the musicians involved are composing the music themselves…are they also recording it themselves?
DP: Yeah, it’s very cool to have Watt on board. Turns out he’s a huge fan of Joyce — he recorded a track for Fire Records in 2008, for an album of various musicians turning the poems of Joyce’s Chamber Music into songs. Mary Lorson, of the bands Saint Low and Madder Rose, also played on that Fire Records album, and she’s collaborating with author Brian Hall for our project.
To answer your question, yes, all the musicians are recording their own chapters. Since we have contributors from all around the world — from Berlin to Amsterdam to British Columbia — it would be a logistical nightmare to figure out where and when to record everyone. Not to mention the cost of it. One of the really cool things, I think, about this project — for everyone, it’s a labor of love. No one is making a profit, off any of this. People are just doing it because they love Joyce, or they’re obsessed with Finnegans Wake, or it just seems like a fun challenge to think creatively in this unique way. Either way it’s a pursuit of passion. That’s why we will distribute all the audio freely. There’s this phrase in Finnegans Wake, “Here Comes Everybody!” We’re having fun with Finnegans Wake and everybody is invited to the party. Continue reading “Derek Pyle Discusses Waywords and Meansigns, an Unabridged Musical Adaptation of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake”
William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, new from University of Delaware Press, collects academic essays and memoir-vignettes by a range of critics and authors to make the case that Vollmann is, as the blurb claims, the “most ambitious, productive, and important living author in the US.” I interviewed the book’s editors, Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, over a series of emails.
If you live in NYC (or feel like traveling), you can check out the book launch for William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion this weekend, hosted by Coffman and Lukes (4:30pm at the 11th Street Bar).
This is the first part of a two-part interview.
Biblioklept: How did William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion come about?
Daniel Lukes: The starting point would be the MLA panel I put together in January 2011, called “William T. Vollmann: Methodologies and Morals.” Chris’s was the first abstract I received and I remember being impressed with its confidence of vision. Michael Hemmingson also gave a paper, and Larry McCaffery was kind enough to act as respondent. Joshua Jensen was also a panelist. I kept in touch with Chris and we very soon decided that there was a hole in the market, so to speak, so we put out a call for papers and took it from there.
One of my favorite things about putting together this book has been connecting with – and being exposed to – such a range of perspectives on Vollmann: people seem to come at him from – and find in his works – so many different angles. It’s bewildering and thrilling to talk about the same author with someone and not quite believe you are doing so. And I think this started for me, in a way, at least as far as this book is concerned, with reading Chris’ MLA abstract.
Biblioklept: I first heard about Vollmann in connection to David Foster Wallace (Wallace namechecks him in his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”). A friend “loaned” me his copy of The Ice-Shirt and I never gave it back. When was the first time you read Vollmann?
Christopher K. Coffman: I first encountered William T. Vollmann’s work about ten years ago. At the time, I had just finished grad school, and as my dissertation work had been focused on aspects of modern and contemporary poetry, I had let my attention to contemporary prose slip a bit. When I realized this had happened, I starting reading a lot of recent fiction. Of course David Foster Wallace’s books were part of this effort, and I, like so many others, really developed a love for Infinite Jest and some of the stories in Girl with Curious Hair. My memory’s a bit fuzzy on the timeline, but my best guess, given what I know I was reading and thinking about at the time, is that in my reading around DFW I discovered the Summer 1993 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction with which Larry McCaffery had been involved, and that the interview with DFW in that issue–along with the WTV materials themselves–woke me up to WTV and his work. I can’t say enough about how important Larry’s championing of WTV has been, and continues to be. Of course, one could say that about his support for so many of the interesting things that have happened in fiction during the past three or four decades. His interviews, his editorial work, the part he played with the Fiction Collective …. the list of the ways that he identifies and promotes some of the best work out there could go on for a while, and no one else that I know of has done it as well as Larry has for as long as he has. Anyway, as I was pretty much broke at the time, my reading choices were governed in large part by what I could find at libraries or local used bookstores, and The Ice-Shirt was the first volume I came across in one of these venues. I was already a huge fan of The Sot-Weed Factor and Mason & Dixon, and the entire Seven Dreams project very much struck me as a next step forward along the trajectory those books described. As a consequence, I immediately started tracking down and reading not only the rest of the Dreams, but also everything else I could find by WTV.
What about The Ice-Shirt that really won me over, aside from my impression that this was another brilliant reinterpretation of the historical novel, is that WTV was clearly bringing together and pushing to their limits some of my favorite characteristics of post-1945 American fiction (structural hijinks of a sort familiar from works by figures like Barth and Barthelme, a fearlessness in terms of subject matter and the occasional emergence of a vatic tone that reminded me of Burroughs, an autofictional element of the sort you see in Hunter S. Thompson). Furthermore, as a literary critic, I was really intrigued by two additional aspects of the text: the degree to which The Ice-Shirt foregrounds the many ways that it is itself an extended interpretation of earlier texts (the sagas on which he draws for many of the novel’s characters and much of its action), and the inclusion of extensive paratexts–the notes, glossaries, timelines, and so forth. In short, this seemed like a book that united my favorite characteristics of contemporary literary fiction with a dedication to the sort of work that I, as a scholar, spend a lot of my time doing. How could I resist? It took my readings of a few more of WTV’s books for me to be able to recognize what I would argue are his other most significant characteristics: his global scope and his deep moral vision.
As for your also having begun reading WTV with The Ice-Shirt: It’s an interesting coincidence to me that we both started with that book. I have always assumed that most people start into WTV via either the prostitute writings (which have a sort of underground cachet by virtue of subject matter) or Europe Central (which is of course the book that got the most mainstream attention), but here we both are with The Ice-Shirt. WTV has indicated he sees it as under-realized in certain ways, but I am still quite fond of it, even in comparison to some of the later books. Continue reading “An Interview with Christopher K. Coffman and Daniel Lukes, Editors of William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (Part I)”
Bob Schofield is a writer and artist. He first showed up on my radar when theNewerYork sent me a digital file of his book The Inevitable June, which I described as “the kind of thing that we need more of; not a gimmick or a hybrid, but something new.” I’m still not sure what the book is, but I dig it. Bob was kind enough to talk to me over a series of emails about his work. Read some of Bob’s work at his website. Read my review of The Inevitable June here. Read our discussion below.
Biblioklept: What is The Inevitable June?
Bob Schofield: The Inevitable June is a collection of 30 surreal short prose pieces, one for every day in June, intercut with black and white illustrations. The drawings don’t always correspond to the text, and there isn’t really much of a coherent “story” per se, but there is certainly momentum and direction. The book definitely goes somewhere, though I’m not sure where exactly that “somewhere” is.
I kind of just wanted to build a little world that mirrored my imagination. A kind of scale-model. So I wanted it to be a little cold and sad and spooky and, hopefully, also fun. Like some kind of weird, floppy theme park made of bound paper squares.
Biblioklept: How did you compose that “scale-model”? Did you have an outline from the outset?
Schofield: There were a few structural “rules” I came up with, and the rest I sort of made up as I went. Like I knew I’d have thirty pieces total, and they’d all be titled for successive days in June. It’s funny, a lot of the momentum in the book just comes from that progression of calendar days. I guess we’re just culturally wired to feel like we’re going somewhere when we see those days slide by. But in the book it’s all relatively arbitrary, and if you were to take the days away as titles, things would feel a lot more meandering.
My other big structural decision was to start every piece with “This morning,” which would become a kind of refrain throughout the book. I kind of thought of it a bit like a dinner bell, indicating one course of the meal was over, and we were moving on to the next.
Then as I was writing all the individual pieces, I’d cherry pick certain images and phrases I liked, and then be sure to repeat them later on. That way the reader’s brain would kind of light up as they recognized parts of a pattern, even though the pattern wasn’t really saying anything specific. I think that kind of thing is important when you don’t have a more familiar storytelling structure to rely on. You need to give the reader something to hold on to.
And for myself as writer, all these patterns and rules gave me just as much of an anchor. It meant I wasn’t just spinning off into some sort of insane, incomprehensible word soup. I’d always be aware that I’d have to wrap things up at some point, and move on to the next “day.”
Biblioklept: Your book The Last Days of Tokyo shares some of the anchoring features you mention—beginning each page with the phrase “On the last day of Tokyo,” for example, and the image of a salaryman fleeing in horror, his face an echo of Munch’s The Scream.
Kevin Thomas’s new book Horn! (from OR Books) collects the book reviews he’s been doing for the past few years at the Rumpus. Kevin reviews new books (and occasionally reissues) in comic strip form. Over a series of emails, Kevin talked with me about his process, how he got started, the books that have stuck with him the most over the years, and his theory that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a secret remake of Three Amigos! Find Kevin on Goodreads,Twitter, and Tumblr.
Biblioklept: You’ve been reviewing books at The Rumpus for a couple of years now in your strip Horn! How did the strip start? Did it start with The Rumpus, or before?
Kevin Thomas: I had been making these primitive autobiographical webcomics under the “Horn!” moniker for about a year when The Rumpus Book Club started. One of the selling points of the book club was that if you reviewed a book and the editors liked it, they’d publish it on the site. So I dedicated one comic a month to reviewing these books, and after the third submission was accepted, The Rumpus asked me if I wanted to make it a regular strip.
Biblioklept: What other kinds of comics did you make before that? Did you have any training or background in cartooning?
KT: No, I was trained, to put it generously, to be a composer. Before that I wanted to be a poet. I had great teachers in both of those fields, but never even thought about taking a studio art class. Maybe the fact that I hadn’t yet tried and failed at comics was what drew me to it. Continue reading “Kevin Thomas Discusses His Illustrated Book Reviews with Biblioklept”
Every story in Jessica Hollander’s début collection In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place feels thoroughly real, deeply authentic, and if we already know the contours of these plots—perhaps having lived some of them ourselves—Hollander makes us experience them anew with her bristling, strange sentences. Hollander writes here of families on the brink and families broken, families fragmenting and families forgetting. She conjures domestic spaces limned with ghosts and memories, children and parents who aren’t quite sure how to be a family, but who nevertheless try—even if trying is really just imagining.
Jessica was kind enough to discuss her writing with me over a series of emails, sharing her thoughts on sentences, families, and zombies.
Biblioklept: When did you start working on the stories that make up In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place? The collection feels really unified in its tone, themes, and images. Many of the stories were published in different journals and magazines before they were collected—did you always envision them collected? Were there stories you left out that you felt didn’t fit?
Jessica Hollander: I worked on a lot of these stories while in my MFA program, so over four years, though a couple date back even further than that. I was interested in trying out new voices and forms, but I kept examining similar questions and anxieties, just from different angles. During the years I wrote most of these stories, I lived through a lot of “big” moments – marriage, parenthood, home-ownership – and writing was a way to deal with some of my anxieties in doing what our society tells us we should do. I constantly questioned why I wanted these things—if I really wanted them or if I’d only been conditioned to want them. I thought a lot about identity and what happens to it once you start taking on roles with so much cultural baggage attached to them, as I became a wife, a mother, etc., which is why in some of the stories the characters are even referred to by these titles. It’s a battle between the role and their individuality.
I didn’t think about writing the stories for a collection. I knew I was “worrying” particular subject matter that was important to me, and it was exciting to see trends in tone and imagery develop, but it wasn’t until I’d accumulated a mass of work that I started sifting through it. And many stories were left out that didn’t seem to fit or that years later didn’t interest me as much anymore.
Biblioklept: One thing I love about the stories in the collection is how they take on those “big” moments you mention—how alienating it is all of a sudden to inhabit a new role that’s already been socially scripted in some way. Do your stories start from those conflicts, or from something else? I mean, do you start by trying to write (through, against, about) the anxieties, or do the stories germinate in other ways?
JH: Most of the time I don’t have a clear idea of what I’m going to write about. I’ll start with a character or a small scene inspired by something I saw or experienced, but often I’ll start with style—wanting to try out a modular story or write about characters who have titles instead of names or I’ll want to try a particular point of view I haven’t written from in awhile or I will write a sentence and see if I’m interested in the voice. I have to be interested in the sentence level to push a story further, so sentences come before themes or even character for me. But that’s what was strange and exciting about the stories that came together to form this collection—I seemed to keep worrying over these similar themes, anxieties over identity and role-shifts, but it wasn’t planned. I guess that’s the part of writing that the subconscious has a bigger hand in. A lot of my extended family was surprised when they read the collection because the stories seemed so pessimistic about things like family and connections between people. They tell my parents, “But she had such a happy childhood!” And now they see me, and I am married and have kids and (besides general anxieties) I am happy (though it’s hard to write that word without quotations—what does “happy” mean?). And of course these stories are fiction, it isn’t me, but it all still comes from me and things I’m thinking about on some level.
Biblioklept: I can imagine those family reactions—because the stories seem so real, so true, so authentic. But I think a lot of that authenticity originates from the sentences, which you bring up here. In many of the stories, the reader gets a whole story out of just a sentence or two, and part of that story comes from the disconnect between the way a character might perceive the world and the way that the other sentences have represented that world—like the poor babysitter of the title story. Is the sentence as important to you as a reader as it is to you as a writer?
JH: The sentence is important to me as a reader. There was a time when I didn’t really even think about what language could do to a story—I only noticed macro-level things like plot and character, then later I got more interested in image and metaphor. Now, to me, it seems like the central energy of a piece comes from the sentences. If I’m not interested in the writing, if there’s no strangeness or surprises or just some poetic sense of words interacting with each other, I rarely stick around to find out about plot and character.
Biblioklept: I think the sentences in your collection mediate the tension between the simultaneous reality/irreality of domestic life, of the weirdness of being in a family—that a family is a set of contingent relationships, never stable. In one of our earlier emails, you mentioned working on new material with a “hyper-real semi-comic tone but with some darker threads” and that there might be “zombies and haunted houses and things” in your latest work. Is this a conscious shift away from the content of your collection, which focuses so much on families?
JH: Oh, no, the stories I’m working on now are still all about family and relationships, but I’m having some fun drawing from the female gothic tradition, examining the dark sides of domestic life and pressures of social/gender roles. Gothic literature is interested in what’s unexplainable, both inside and outside of us, and looks at impulses based in emotion and not logic. There’s hauntings from the past and monsters inside of us, battles between logic and emotion, repressing feelings that later manifest destructively, and humans being drawn to the sublime and the numinous: things that inspire both fear and awe, that remind us of our own demise, but encourage us to see beauty in sadness, death, and suffering. So certainly relevant to families!
Biblioklept: You teach writing now here in the South—do you think that the Southern Gothic tradition has influence you at all? Why do you think that we so strongly identify Southern lit as Gothic?
JH: Gothic is often about hauntings from the past, and I think a lot of people view the south as haunted, by slavery and economic disparities and the war. A lot of southern gothic writers (Faulkner, O’Connor, Williams) confront or critique southern romanticism, a longing for the old south as a magical place where chivalry and passionate emotions thrived that was unfortunately corrupted/destroyed by outsiders and modernity. But we know the old south was not so beautiful as that; it was of course a complex place where a lot of dark things passed between humans. Classic Gothic literature (Frankenstein, Dracula, Castle of Otranto, Edgar Allan Poe’s work) is romantic, too, with long passages about the sublimity of nature and characters moved by strong emotions (including grief, despair, anger, and love), but Gothic always exposes the dark urges of humans, and how people inevitably contribute to their own demise.
Biblioklept: What authors do you encourage your students to read?
JH: I’m really conscious of exposing students to a lot of different styles of writing, from traditional realism to postmodern experiments, so we can talk about how choices different authors make in terms of language, image, structure, portrayal of reality, and so on shape theme and meaning. This seems like the best way to prepare students to make conscientious choices when defining their own aesthetic interests and to recognize the wide variety of options available to them. Toward the realism side of things, I like Michael Cunningham, Dan Chaon, and Jennifer Egan; for maximalism, Alice Munroe; Lorrie Moore, Miranda July and Raymond Carver I use for hyper-realism and minimalism; Christine Schutt for lyricism; Sherman Alexie, Haruki Murakami, and Kellie Link for magical realism and surrealism; Jessica Hagedorn and Michael Martone for formalism; and George Saunders and Stacey Richter for absurdism. And it depends on the class. I use different authors for the gothic class and for the linked story workshop I’m teaching now, but I always try for variety.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
JH: I haven’t stolen a book from a store or library, but there’s one book that I borrowed and never returned: the Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor. When I lived in North Carolina a few years, I lent a writer friend my copy of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which she amazingly hadn’t read, and she lent me the O’Connor book, which amazingly I hadn’t read. I was happy with the one I ended up with. She must’ve been, too, or maybe she forgot we’d switched, but we never swapped those books back to each other. Maybe it foreshadowed my move further south to Alabama and my interest in dark humor and gothicism.
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. Continue reading ““We Need Cruel Comedy” | A Lars Iyer Interview”
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.