There’s a “new” video interview with Barry Hannah and his wife Susan at Southwest Review. The interview was conducted by Southwest Review editor-in-chief Greg Brownderville some time in “the late aughts” in Hannah’s back yard, under his muscadine arbor. Brownderville and his friend Luke Duncan (both grad students at Ole Miss at the time) were trying to put together a film about muscadine grapes, and interviewed the Hannahs about the project. Hannah’s extemporaneous responses veer all over the place though, using muscadines as kind of kernels of memories from which to riff on: dead pets, boyhood oyster shell fights, and “the wonderful time my dad and I had at Arkansas drinking wine and watching the University of Arkansas, who was number one in the nation, whoop Texas, both of us high on wine from Altus.” The whole interview approaches something close to one of Hannah’s looser short stories, and is definitely worth the 20 minutes.
(Thanks to Patrick for sending me the link.)
(Tangential note: My wife’s grandmother makes her own muscadine wine. We get a bottle of it for Christmas every now and then. It’s pretty sweet stuff.)
As a huge fan of Remedios Varo’s art, I was thrilled last year when Wakefield Press published Margaret Carson’s Letters, Dreams and Other Writings.I reached out to Margaret, who was kind enough to talk to me about her translation in detail over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: When did you first see Remedios Varo’s art?
Margaret Carson: I first heard of Remedios Varo in the mid-80s, when I was living in Madrid. But it was by reading Janet Kaplan’s biography, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, that I learned more about her life and first saw many images of her paintings. That was in the 90s. On a trip to Mexico City at that same time, I was surprised to find in a bookstore a small collection of her writings, Cartas, sueños y otros textos, and I brought it home with me. I started translating parts of it and later heard about an exhibit of her paintings at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C., in 2000: The Magic of Remedios Varo. That was my first experience seeing her paintings up close, and it blew me away. Nothing compares to standing in front of one of her paintings to see the meticulous details, the true color, and the actual scale (her artworks can be much smaller than you imagine). Since then, I’ve seen other paintings, includingMimetismo/Mimicry andLa creación de las aves/The Creation of the Birds, at theMuseo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City, which has over thirty of her paintings—the largest collection in the world.
Exciting news for Varo fans in the New York area: MoMA has acquired one of her most extraordinary works,The Juggler, which will be put on display when the museum re-opens in October 2019. Can’t wait to see it!
Biblioklept: I’ve yet to see one of Varo’s pieces in a museum, unfortunately—just reproductions in books and online. But I love them. I think the first time I saw one of her works was in Women, Art, and Society by Whitney Chadwick, sometime in the late 1990s. There’s a tiny black and white reproduction of Celestial Pablum in there, next to a reproduction of a Dorothea Tanning painting. Leonor Fini also gets a black and white reproduction in that chapter, while Leonora Carrington’s Self-Portrait gets a larger, full-color reproduction. All of these painters, with the notable exception of Varo, also show up in another of Thames & Hudson’s World of Art series that was important to me when I was younger, Sarane Alexandrian’s Surrealist Art. While internet archives have made images of Varo’s works easily available to those who search for them, she is still something of a comparatively obscure figure, at least next to other Mexican artists like Frida Kahlo or Leonora Carrington. Have you noticed any change in her prominence as an artist since you first encountered her work?
MC: You brought up Whitney Chadwick, which reminds me of her essential book, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement, first published in 1985 and still in print. If you don’t know it, take a look. That’s where many readers have had their first encounter with women surrealists. Chadwick devotes several pages to Varo and includes three color reproductions and many black and white images of her work. As to how well known Varo is, it’s hard to tell what causes an artist to move up or down in the fame game. Varo seems to have a solid core of admirers who had an encounter with her work, almost always in reproduction, and the images stick. Why is that? What is it about her paintings? Their inherent narrative quality, their mystical elements, their humor? The simple pleasure of looking at her meticulously composed scenes? I think she’s still fairly unknown, but did you know that in the first chapter of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 there’s a fascinating description of Varo’s Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle? I just met a young bookseller who told me that that’s how she first heard of Varo. And did you know that in chapter 9 of Amulet, Roberto Bolaño imagines that the main character, Auxilio Lacouture, visits Remedios Varo in her house? So Varo has already popped up in ways that go beyond her artwork.
Biblioklept: I’m a huge fan of Bolaño, and I read Amulet eight or nine years ago, but I’d honestly forgotten about the Varo episode! I just went back and reread the chapter, and there’s this wonderful strange moment where Varo shows Auxilio a landscape painting, the “last one,” or maybe the “second-to-last one” she’ll paint, and the painting causes an anxiety in Auxilio that manifests in the vision of “a man made of ice cubes, who will come and kiss” her on the mouth. I love the line because it’s so strange; it shows a kind of poetic rivalry on Bolaño’s part with Varo’s own imagery.
I’m also a huge Pynchon fan. I remember that I wasn’t able to find a reproduction of Embroidering the first time I read The Crying of Lot 49—like in the late nineties—but when I reread it a few years ago it was as easy as a simple internet search. So I think the internet is making her work more accessible. Pynchon apparently actually got to see Emboidering at a retrospective of Varo’s work in Mexico City in 1964, and, as Bill Brown notes, Pynchon essentially reinterprets the painting’s details from memory. He probably didn’t have a reproduction of it. Again, the author enters into a kind of rivalry with the poet.
Letters, Dreams & Other Writings contains a section that features Varo’s own descriptions of her paintings, comments intended for her family back in Spain. She describes Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle like this: “Under the orders of the Great Master, they’re embroidering the earth’s mantle, seas, mountains, and living things. Only the girl has woven a ruse in which she is seen beside her beloved.”
I’m curious about your translation here, particularly of the word “Only,” and the singular “girl,” which seems to contrast the “they” referenced in the previous sentence. Varo seems to describe two parts of the triptych, the second and the third panels. Can you talk a little bit about translating this description?
MC: Varo has a description for each of the paintings in the triptych (her descriptions, of course, shouldn’t close off other interpretations). That singular “girl” is introduced in the first painting,Toward the Tower, which shows a group of convent school girls riding fanciful bicycles made in part from their capes. Varo writes that while the eyes of the other girls are “as if hypnotized,” only the girl in front “resists the hypnosis.” (Sólo la muchacha del primer término se resiste a la hipnosis.) The girl clearly has a mind of her own. Varo follows her into the second painting, Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle. The original is: “Bajo las órdenes del Gran Maestro, bordan el manto terrestre, mares, montañas y seres vivos. Sólo la muchacha ha tejido una trampa en la que se le ve junto a su bienamado.” There’s a repetition in the Spanish, “Sólo la muchacha….” that I picked up in the translation “Only the girl has woven a ruse….” She’s the exception—she stands out from the other girls (“they”) who are under the influence and control of the Great Master and are embroidering what he commands. I could have said “Except that the girl has woven a ruse in which she is seen beside her beloved.” to underscore her act of rebellion more clearly, but then the parallelism would have been lost.
Getting back to the Bolaño, I’d like to re-read Amulet and think about how he works Varo into the narrative and whether he’s referencing any of her paintings or making them up — from your description, I suspect the latter. But more importantly, what did Varo represent to Bolaño? How did he come to know about her work? Did she have some sort of underground fame in Mexico City while he was living there?
I’m also fascinated by the fact that Auxilio visits Varo at her house, which I always make a point of passing by when I’m in Mexico City. (Again, Bolaño’s description is not based on reality.) Varo lived in Colonia Roma on Avenida Álvaro Obregón in a four-story building that’s now boarded up—someone told me it was damaged in an earthquake. But lights are on at night behind windows covered with newspapers, so someone’s living there. Is there any memory in the neighborhood that Varo lived there? It’s where she painted her most famous works. To me, it has a special aura, even in its dilapidated and boarded-up state.
Biblioklept: I’m pretty sure Bolaño made the painting up, although I did spend quite a bit of time looking for a real-world corollary for it. He definitely had a penchant for invention, often taking cult or outsider artists and then attributing works to them that don’t always exist. It seems possible that he could’ve been aware of the location of her house, but I’m guessing he was living in Spain and had been away from Mexico for ages when he wrote Amulet.
On of my favorite pieces in Letters, Dreams & Other Writings is “On Homo rodans,” a Borgesian send-up of scientific monographs. (Varo attributes the monograph to one “Hälikcio von Fuhrängschmidt”). While its style isn’t a huge departure from that of the letters or even fragments in the collection, it stands out a bit. Can you tell us a bit about translating “On Homo rodans,” and a bit about the piece itself?
MC: Homo rodans is one of Varo’s oddest creations. It has two parts: first, the “fossil find” of the humanoid figure with one big wheel instead of legs, which she crafted out of chicken and turkey neck bones and fish vertebrae. The second part is a pseudo-scientific treatise she wrote to accompany the “fossil,” which purports to explain its origin and the great significance it has—it’s basically a missing chapter in human evolution, a predecessor to Homo sapiens that depicts a road not taken: before evolving into a biped, humans were creatures on a monowheel. (That sort of figure is a recurring leitmotiv in her work—seeTransmisión ciclista con cristales from 1943,Caminos tortuosos from 1957.) I’d now like to clear up a misunderstanding that’s arisen with the English translation. To an English-speaking reader, “rodans” might look like a corrupted version of “rodents.” It’s a similarity that exists only in English. To Varo, rodans was a creative spin on rota, the Latin word for wheel, from which the Spanish rueda descends (in English we have rotate, rotary, rodeo). Varo wasn’t suggesting humankind descended from rats; she was imagining a wheeled ancestor and giving it a suitably Latinate name.
Varo wrote “On Homo rodans” by hand, in the style of an old illuminated manuscript (see attached photo), and gave its narrator the farfetched but seemingly authoritative name of Hälikcio von Fuhrängschmidt, an anthropologist who sets out to correct a colleague’s error about bones discovered on the southern slopes of the Carpathians. I think this was all for the sake of fun, like a lot of her writings. She probably never imagined that anyone would be interested in buying the sculpture and the treatise. It was just by accident, apparently, that someone happened to see it when she was showing it at a bookstore and acquired it for his boss, who was none other than the President of the Republic, Adolfo López Mateos. That was in 1959.
On an investigative level, I’d love to find out who owns Homo rodans now—the sculpture and original manuscript (does the López Mateos family still own it?). I’d also like to do some sleuthing to discover how it was that a small facsimile edition of the treatise was published a few years after Varo’s death. What called that into existence? Who read it? Was it reviewed? It’s because of that edition that we have the text in Spanish.
As to the translation itself, something that helped me catch the antiquated tones of the pedantic von Fuhrängschmidt were nineteenth-century bulletins on scientific expeditions and fossil excavations you can easily find using Google Books. But on the whole it was a wild ride. You’ll notice that the Homo rodans itself only comes up once, toward the end of the piece, after countless disquisitions on unrelated subjects (Babylonian wet nurses, the universal tendency toward hardening and softening (wink-wink), the transcendence of canes, the pterodactyl-turned-first-umbrella…), interspersed with quotes by ancient sages in nonsense Latin. Before I translated it, I thought “On Homo rodans” would mostly be about the one-wheeled fossil. It was only after I got into the translation that I realized the fossil find was just one stop on an extended absurdist romp.
Biblioklept: It’s interesting to me that you used old pieces of science writing as reference points. Was this to help convey the flavor of Varo’s prose, and to give an aural sense of what she’s parodying? Did you use similar techniques elsewhere in this translation, or in other translations of yours?
MC: The Edinburgh Encylopaedia, published in 1832, was an excellent resource to mine for old-fashioned scientific prose. Some of it rubbed off on the translation. “Osseous,” for example, referring to bones, was a word that peaked in the nineteenth century, according to Google Ngram, and it fit in perfectly.
For Varo’s recipes “To Induce Erotic Dreams” and “To Dream You Are King of England,” I consulted cookbooks such as Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking to see how the instructions were worded. As strange as the recipes are, I had to keep to the conventions of the cookbook genre: “Set hens to boil.” “Reserve feathers.” “Take the four kilos of honey and with a spatula spread on the bedsheets.” It’s one example of how translators often look at companion texts in the language they’re translating into—some text that shares some stylistic feature with whatever is being translated, or that treats a similar topic. In a previous translation I did, Sergio Chejfec’s Baroni, a Journey, there’s a scene in which a cockfight takes place. Knowing nothing about cockfighting, I looked at Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust, where there’s a play-by-play of a cockfight in progress. I pilfered some of the language and phrasing there to help make the translation ring true in English.
Biblioklept: Varo’s “recipes” are a great example the tension between a conventional form and a kind of, I don’t know, absurd pivot in the language that creates a surreal image. Her letters, too, are infused with vivid and surreal images. She describes raising a “supernatural puppy,” details enclosing a “small volcano” and turning it into a kitchen, and tells one unidentified painter that he may be interested in her “residence in a piece of quartz.” Can you tell us a little bit about translating the letters? Were there letters of Varo’s that were perhaps more conventional that aren’t collected in Letters, Dreams & Other Writings?
MC: The original Cartas, sueños y otros textos contains only eight letters, but I’m sure Varo wrote many more. She had a genius for letter-writing, too—it was simply another medium she excelled at. As you say, the letters are infused with all sorts of surreal images and absurd scenarios, such as the “small volcano” that begins to rise on its own in the courtyard of someone’s house, throwing off lava that her friend Leonor Carrington is allergic to. That’s in my favorite letter, no. 7, “To Mr. Gardner,” i.e. Gerald Gardner, the great British popularizer of Wicca in the 1950s. It’s completely over-the-top! The most notorious is Letter 5, a kind of Surrealist prank, in which she picks a person’s name from the phone book and invites him to a New Year’s Eve party. (See Varo’s “Letter to a Stranger”). What comes next is left to your imagination: did the stranger show up, and if so, what happened?
As to other letters being published elsewhere, I’m aware of a few additional ones, to her mother and to some friends from her schooldays back in Spain, which were included in a personal memoir written by her niece, Beatriz Varo. I suppose you could call those letters more conventional, but they’re equally amusing to read, even when she’s telling her friends about her arduous ocean journey to Mexico in 1941, when she sailed from Europe on the Serpa Pinta with many other refugees who had been granted asylum in Mexico.
I was enchanted by all the letters and I’m hoping more of her correspondence turns up. I’d be especially interested in her side of the correspondence with Benjamin Péret after he returned to France in 1948. His letters to Varo are collected in his Oeuvres complètes, but no one seems to know where hers are…
Biblioklept: It’s a shame that we don’t have Varo’s letters to Péret. It seems like a lot of the work by the women surrealists of the twentieth century was perhaps at the time not seen as important as the work by the men. (I think of The New York Times’s obituary for Frida Kahlo, which opened with this line: “Frida Kahlo, wife of Diego Rivera, the noted painter, was found dead in her home today”). I think that your work, the work of Wakefield Press in general, and the work of other independent publishers is helping to bring the work of people like Varo, Leonora Carrington, Gisèle Prassinos, Unica Zürn and others to a wider audience though. What other women writers and artists would you like to see gain a wider audience?
MC: What writings are out there, out of print, or unknown, hidden in archives, uncatalogued, untranslated? The French poet and artist Alice Rahon, who also lived in Mexico City and moved in the same artistic circles as Varo, should be better known. She published a few books of poetry during her lifetime, and there’s an archive of unpublished work in Mexico City in both French and Spanish to be explored. A few poems in translation appear in Mary Ann Caws’s The Milk Bowl of Feathers, an anthology of surrealist writing published last year by New Directions, and I believe Mary Ann has been translating more of Rahon’s work. The Spanish artist Maruja Mallo, who was slightly older than Remedios Varo, also deserves more attention. Like Varo, she graduated from the prestigious Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid and also lived in exile, in her case in Uruguay and Argentina, before returning to Spain in the 1960s. They both spent time in Paris in the 1930s, and I’m fairly sure they knew one another. Mallo has gotten some renewed interest lately—there was a recent gallery show in New York—and she has a short text “Surrealism as Manifest in My Work” in Penelope Rosemont’sSurrealist Women: An International Anthology. The artworks clearly take the lead for all three women, but their writings give a window into their strange art (and vice-versa), or maybe, can even stand independently, as do Leonora Carrington’s writings.
Biblioklept: Thanks for that list! I’m curious if you know how much of Carrington’s fiction Varo might have read. Was Carrington a stylistic influence? I’m also curious about other influences you detect in her writing, which seems so strange and original. “On Homo rodans” is definitely Borgesian, and Varo mentions reading Borges’s story “Deutsches Requiem” in one of the “Dreams” in the collection…who and what was Varo reading? How might it have influenced her writing?
MC:It’s hard to talk about influence because there must have always been a back-and-forth between Varo and Carrington and an intense sharing of mutual passions. They collaborated on a play, El santo cuerpo grasoso (“The Holy Oily Body”), written in the late 1940s and as far as I know, never performed for the general public. The original manuscript shows that they composed it in alternating lines, one hand followed by the other and back again, somewhat like a cadaver exquisit. They appear to have written it as a private amusement, to be performed by a small circle of friends. Carrington has a Varo-like character in The Hearing Trumpet, Carmella Velazquez, who, just as Varo did in the letter mentioned above, wrote letters to complete strangers she picked out of the phone book. She was the one who introduced Varo to Gerald Gardner, the Wicca popularizer. She may also have introduced her friend to Frank Sherwood Taylor, the British author of The Alchemists. A Spanish translation of this book was in Varo’s library.The heroine of Varo’s story “Mistress Thrompston Discovers by Accident the Source of the Tremendous Humidity that Reigns in the County of Kent” seems to be modeled on Carrington. There are other appearances by Carrington in the translation. Varo’sMimicry (Mimesis) makes an obvious nod to Carrington’sSelf-Portrait.
About their writings, keep in mind that Varo, unlike Carrington, never published her work during her lifetime, and it’s not clear she would have done so if offered the chance. Most of the texts I translated were found in Varo’s notebooks after her death. And don’t forget her long relationship with Benjamin Péret. A comparison of Varo’s and Péret’s writings would also be interesting. Her automatic writings probably date back to the time they were together. In Letters, Dreams Péret appears in the Felina Caprino-Mandrágora story as Benjamin Pérez, an avid bicyclist and the owner of a carrier-pigeon business. It’s a funny little scene, perhaps Péret-like in how it unfolds. All speculation, because I don’t know his work that well.
At a recent exhibition at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City of items from Remedios Varo’s archive, there were a few shelves of books from her library. I saw titles (in the original French, Spanish or English or in translation) by Jean Ray, H. P. Lovecraft, Rodney Collin (a British writer influenced by the mystics Pyotr Ouspensky and Gurdjieff), Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Katherine Mansfield, Simone Weil. That gives you an idea of other directions her reading took besides Borges. No way of knowing, though, all the books she read, or what her earliest reading was like growing up.
Biblioklept: Varo clearly read works of literature both in translation as well as in their original languages. In our own era, it’s very easy to quickly access all kinds of media from around the globe, including media that might not be as challenging to understand as literature might be. Why is reading literature in translation still important?
MC: You’re right—there’s more “content” than ever before and you can find it in a split second via Google. But if you’re asking, is there still a place for literature given the glut of writing, etc. on the Internet, I’d say yes, because it’s not an either/or. At the same time, I don’t think reading literature in translation is something meritorious in itself. It’s simply a natural consequence of being curious about what’s being written in other places: fiction, poetry, essays, plays, graphic novels, comics. It’s inevitable: a lot of it has to come to you in translation.
Biblioklept: One of the longer pieces in Letters, Dreams & Other Writings is titled “Project for a Theater Piece,” which you note was likely to be a collaboration with Leonora Carrington. For me, “Project for a Theater Piece” is simultaneously rich and frustrating. It opens with a character list that includes characters that we never get to meet (and omits characters we actually do meet), and has like a dozen plot openings that remain unresolved. This is what we might expect from a surrealist text: aporia, incongruity, dream logic (and some wonderful humor). At the same time, Varo’s writing strikes me as not bound to any kind of genre expectations.
MC: “Project for a Theater Piece” is indeed fragmentary and puzzling. Leonora (Carrington) and Eva (Sulzer) are inspirations for the Ellen Ramsbottom character. Daphne Fitz is inspired by Edward James, the eccentric Scottish arts patron who was a close friend of Leonora Carrington’s. He also seems to be the inspiration for the Poltergeist, who appears in the story wearing a short plaid skirt, sneakers and ankle socks, and is mistaken at first for a woman. I have no idea why it’s called “Project for a Theater Piece,” since it’s basically a cast of characters followed by two unconnected short stories. I’m assuming the editor of the original book, Isabel Castells, gave it that name. All the texts are said to be from Varo’s notebooks, so everything needed to be transcribed: in her introduction, Castells says that Varo’s last partner, Walter Gruen, did the transcription. I’m not sure if Castells saw the original; she may have been working only with Gruen’s transcription. Did the order in the book follow the order of the texts in Varo’s notebooks? Or was there some editorial intervention by Gruen and/or Castells linking them together? I don’t know. Castells also suggests that Leonora Carrington may have written parts that are missing, in a kind of surrealist chain story. If that’s true, it would be interesting to read “Project for a Theater Piece” against the collaborative play I mentioned above, El santo cuerpo grasoso/The Holy Oily Body, for stylistic similarities. Whatever the case, I wouldn’t read it as a finished text. It’s open to all sorts of speculations about the context in which it was written and about the editorial interventions that occurred later on in preparing the original edition of Cartas, sueños y otros textos for publication.
Biblioklept: I’m curious about the samples of automatic writing in the collection—specifically, I’m curious about how you approached translating them. Translating strikes me as a hyper-conscious art, a practice that involves a precision and command of tone, diction, rhythm, etc.—but automatic writing is, ostensibly, writing without consciousness.
MC: These texts seemed like prose poems to me, wonderful bizarre and disconnected, which led to some head scratching, and yes, a hyper-conscious translation. The text starts off with what seems to be a list of ingredients, like a recipe… or is it for some kind of magical spell? Each “ingredient” then becomes the lead word for a short sequence of images that often evoke Varo’s art: the egg, the crevice that widens (Harmony/Armonía), the raw silk being spun, which reminded me of the delicate lines crisscrossingFellow Feeling/Simpatía). The sequences in themselves don’t make much sense, but the words themselves are very clear and simple. Sometimes there’s some wordplay, such as “trasto trastorno, torno” in Incense (literally, “dish upset/overturned, turned”) which I translated as “dish depraved, lathe” to get some of the sound effects of the original and suggest the spindle in the next line. We don’t, unfortunately, have Varo’s description of the conditions under which she wrote these texts, or anything that tells us how she understood “automatic writing.” (Also, remember that she didn’t label these writings as such— it was the book’s editor.) She may not have been a purist. Whatever the case, this section is one of my favorites in the book. I love her random scattering of images and the lack of narrative direction. For me, the more nonsensical, the better.
Biblioklept: The issue of the editor’s hand is of course interesting. The “Automatic Writings” do feel…I don’t know, more automatic than some of the project ideas and fragments, which have narrative properties. There’s something wildly imagistic about the “Automatic Writings,” something cinematic really, mental imagery that seems like it couldn’t be painted. But then you read Varo’s descriptions of her own paintings, and you realize that her imaginative vision could realize seemingly impossible images in both paint and words.
MC: Yes, you wonder what her jumping-off points were. There are a couple of clues. In her “Unpublished Interview” at the beginning of the book, for example, she talks about how a painting develops: “I visualize it before I begin painting, and try to make it conform to the image I’ve already fashioned” (“lo visualizo antes de comenzar a pintar y trato de ajustarlo a la imagen que me he formado”). That’s about as close as she comes to describing her process explicitly. (By the way, it’s very possible that she created this interview herself. It was in one of her notebooks, undated, with both the questions and answers in her handwriting. A published version has never been found.)
I read the comments she made on her paintings a bit differently, though. She wrote these on the back of photos she sent to family in Spain after the paintings were finished, so she had her brother, mother and other family members in mind as she wrote. The wild creative impulses that went into the act of painting them have calmed down now. Still, she’s not giving away any of their secrets. Of course, when you’re reading the descriptions, you should also be looking at the images, just as her family was. She talks about things you notice in the paintings, but not about all of them.Her descriptions of Harmony and Talleur pour dames (p. 102) are little gems, in my opinion.
Biblioklept: Can you tell us anything about your next possible translation project?
MC: No projects at the moment and I’m not sure when I’ll pick up a new translation. Right now I’m doing some investigations around Remedios Varo and her circle of friends. I want to put her writings more in context, for example, that play she collaborated on with Leonora Carrington, or the Homo rodans piece. Or widen the lens to write about the “Surrealists of Calle Gabino Barreda,” the street in Mexico City where Varo and Péret lived in the 1940s. It seems to have been the center for a lot of creative and collaborative activity among the European surrealists in exile.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
MC: I’ve taken books people leave in laundry rooms or out on their front stoops, which happens a lot in brownstone neighborhoods in New York City. I also pass by a “Little Free Library” box on my way to work. I’m usually not tempted to take anything, but one day I saw a volume of Virginia Woolf’s Diaries and grabbed it!
AV: Yes, what’s important in post-exoticism is that it does away with exoticism. You suggested anti-exoticism, and it could just as well have been anti-exoticism, in as much as what characterizes exoticism is the absolute distinction between the metropolis and the margin, between the center and the periphery. With exoticism, there is an interest in the margins–the writer lives on the margins–but it’s all for the sake of the center. In exoticism, one describes the margins with ideas that come from the center, whereas in our books, the characters—who are dying, or perhaps already dead, who are birds, or animals, or insane—have no center, or rather it is their margin that is the center—the center no longer exists. For us, mental derangement doesn’t refer to a discourse of normality outside of it. In the books, it is present, and it is the center, it is what’s creating the world. In Lisbon, Last Frontier, it’s Ingrid Vogel who creates the world. The reader might think she’s completely mad, schizophrenic, paranoid, but, in fact, the book never refers to an outside normality, from which one could judge Ingrid’s experience. Yes, the book enters her imaginary; yes, it creates imaginary spaces for her to inhabit, but it never refers to a normality outside of her. And it’s through this precise mechanism that the books are on the margins, in the dustbin (to borrow an expression from Lisbon, Last Frontier); it’s in this way that they are dustbin literature, a literature from elsewhere, and that’s what comes into being with post-exoticism. That’s what’s important I think: a literature that doesn’t refer to normality, that doesn’t refer to the center. In that sense it’s more anti-exoticism… but of course I’m not going to change it now. It’s too late; it’s post-exoticism until the end!
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, FullStop, 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 theNecronomicon? 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.
Today, I somehow ended up listening to a “rare” 1996 David Foster Wallace interview on Boston’s The Connection (I was purging a bunch of old stuff, student work, in my office, and, as I often do, put on YouTube as a distraction—the interview popped up after another vid I can’t recall, but one that featured DFW reading too). Here’s the audio:
The interview is pretty good, especially as it happens right before Infinite Jest explodes, but also in the midst of IJ’s marketing buzz, which posits Wallace-as-next-Pynchon, “voice of Gen X,” etc.
I consider myself Generation X, and I have to admit that although I know that much of how a generation is defined boils down to fucking marketing trends (look at how Millennial has been steadily pushed younger and younger over the last ten years), I’m still fascinated by broad-stroke characteristics. (I’m also just generally mad at boomers, as is my Gen X right).
Anyway, some of my favorite bits of the interview circle over Gen X and what it is or is not (prompted by caller “Don,” who wonders whether DFW is a Gen X Tom Pynchon).
Wallace, born in 1962, would be a late Baby Boomer according to many demographers and cultural analysts. (So would Douglas Coupland, author of the 1991 “novel” Generation X, born just a few months before Wallace. So too, for that matter, would be the members of Sonic Youth, born between 1953 and 1962).
Christopher Lydon: David Foster Wallace is our guest, his new novel — it’s his second novel and his third book — is this huge doorstop of a post-modern, experimental, funny, dark, incredibly compelling… my taste does not run to avant-garde fiction generally, but this is an irresistible book. I was dreading it, and then I didn’t want it to stop. Don is calling from Rockport.
Don: I have a short question. Just talking on your program months ago with John Updike about Thomas Pynchon, who gave a kind plaudit to him… is Mr. Wallace the Generation X’s Tom Pynchon?
Christopher Lydon: David Wallace, what do you think?
David Foster Wallace: I’d need some kind of cogent explanation of what Generation X is. I hear the term a lot and I’ve honestly never understood what it means. I don’t know Pynchon as well as you do, but for me Pynchon is a quintessentially sixties writer. His sensibility comes out of the late Beats of the sixties. One of the things that I think my generation misses is that real sense of unity and community in the sixties. One of the things I find amusing about Generation X is that it’s kind of a clumsy attempt to form some kind of rubric or community out of our generation. I’m 34, so we’re talking mostly about people who are younger than I, but I think one of the difficulties of my generation is that there’s a great amount of atomism and anomie, and there doesn’t feel like a whole lot of a community. There aren’t a whole lot of shared values. There aren’t a whole lot of shared ideals. I mean [Generation X] seems silly. It seems like it’s trying to impose some kind of sixties type agenda on a generation that as far as I can see is essentially very lost and lonely.
Christopher Lydon: There is an incredibly lost and lonely feeling running through this whole book, I’ve got to say, running through maybe all of American life at the end of this century. Can you talk about the lost and lonely piece?
David Foster Wallace: When I started the book the only idea I had is I wanted to do something about America that was sad but wasn’t just making fun of America. Most of my friends are extremely bright, privileged, well-educated Americans who are sad on some level, and it has something, I think, to do with loneliness. I’m talking out of my ear a little bit, this is just my opinion, but I think somehow the culture has taught us or we’ve allowed the culture to teach us that the point of living is to get as much as you can and experience as much pleasure as you can, and that the implicit promise is that will make you happy. I know that’s almost offensively simplistic, but the effects of it aren’t simplistic at all. I don’t have children but I’m sort of obsessed with the idea of what my children will think of me, and of us, and of what we’ve done with all we’ve been given, and why we are so sad.
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.
More and more you seem to use found materials in your stories.
Back in the early eighties, I realized that you could write a story that was really just a narration of something that had happened to you, and change it slightly, without having really to fictionalize it. In a way, that’s found material. I think it’s hard to draw the line and say that something isn’t found material. Because if a friend of mine tells me a story or a dream, I guess that’s found material. If I get an e-mail that lends itself to a good story, that’s found material. But then if I notice the cornmeal making little condensations, is that found material? It’s my own, I’m not using text, but I am using a situation that exists. I’m not making it up. I find what happens in reality very interesting and I don’t find a great need to make up things, but I do like retelling stories that are told to me.
The last time I was here you mentioned that you jot things down on scraps of paper. What happens to those scraps?
They pile up in my study. And then I use them. Sometimes when I’m just sort of tidying up, I go through them and type them onto the computer and then either do something with them right away or else I just leave them there for later. When I travel, I carry around a notebook with me. I use notebooks a lot because my brain tends to live in the moment. I’m always afraid of forgetting something.
From the Spring 2015 issue of Paris Review. Lydia Davis’s full interview is now online. She discusses her fiction and translation, recalls taking Grace Paley’s writing class when she was 19, and trying to run away from school after reading Walden.
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)”→
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)”→