Quarterly Conversation #30 [The Author Interviews]
Most of today’s content is brought you by Scott Esposito and Daniel Medin and the spectacular new issue of Quarterly Conversation, which, as always, features a lot of great international lit related content. Generally, when a new issue comes out, I post a summary piece linking off to all of the various articles of interest. In retrospect, that doesn’t give this publication near the attention it deserves. So I’m going to split this summary up over a few posts so that I can quote a longer bit from the more interesting articles. Again, click here to skip ahead and read the entire issue.
One of the best parts of this issue are all of the interviews with international writers and translators. First up is Mieke Chew’s interview with Jenny Erpenbeck:
Mieke Chew: In a review of Visitation, Alfred Hickling said that your novel had attempted to compress the trauma of the 20th century into a single address. To start then, a big question: how has history affected your writing?
Jenny Erpenbeck: I think I always start with a very personal issue. Then, once I start to look at it closely, it becomes historical. Things become historical, just by looking at how they came about. It’s not that I start with the idea of telling a “historic” story. I think history infects the lives, the very private lives, of people, so you cannot remove something from history, even if you just want to tell a story. It gets in here and there. I think that this was what happened when I started to write Visitation. I started with my own story about the house, and then I saw that there were so many stories involved. Stories that occurred long before I came to the place that I write about. All of a sudden I was in the middle of the German history without having thought about it. [. . .]
MC: Do you read your translations?
JE: From time to time. For instance, here in Adelaide I had to do a reading. I don’t read my translated books from the beginning to the end. I am kind of afraid of that. I can’t explain why but it’s strange to read your book in someone else’s words. But every time I have read it, or have had to read it for an audience, I did feel that it was really my book. It was perfectly done. Sometimes her translation is so perfect that I don’t even know the vocabulary she has used. Once I asked someone about a word and he said, “This word exists, but it is a very delicate word.” This I liked a lot because she really thought about what words to use, as it is the same for me in German. I love to use old, almost forgotten words because they can express so much more than the daily used words—and I think she does the same for English.
MC: I think you might have similar reading taste as well. I have read that you admire the work of Robert Walser?
JE: He is one of the greatest. He is very good.
MC: What is it about Walser?
JE: He writes very slowly. One of my favourite pieces is The Walk. He is just walking, maybe for one hour or so. He has the whole world in this walk. He describes all the places where he stops for this or that reason. He has to go to the bank to see to his money affairs, then he sees a young girl and wonders about her, whether she will be a great singer or not. Step-by-step he opens up a whole world. The storyteller himself is not always a perfect person: sometimes he’s mean or afraid of something, he has doubts, preferences or aversions. Sometimes it gets almost surreal, but it’s just a walk. Walser is very exact, and he goes into great detail. He’s not fast: he’s just a slow walker.
Another interview—one of particular interest to me, since we publish Season of Ash—is by Diego Azurdia and Carlos Fonseca with Mexican author Jorge Volpi.
Diego Azurdia and Carlos Fonseca: In your Trilogy of the Twentieth Century there seems to be a short-circuit between historical events—the Second World War, May of 1968, the fall of the Berlin Wall—and literature. How do you think literature works on history? How does history work on literature?
Jorge Volpi: First of all, literature and history are absolutely linked. The narrative of history is already in some sense literature. That is to say, history has been understood in the past centuries as a scientific discipline, as a constant reference to concrete facts, constantly relying on documents as its source. Thus, one could say that literature has the capacity to fill in the gaps that these documents leave behind. Literature uses imagination as its tool for analyzing the historical processes. [. . .]
DA and CF: Both El fin de la locura (The End of Madness) and No será la tierra , seem to be narratives that tell of the disappearance of a utopic horizon. The theme returns, in your more recent El Jardín Devastado (The Garden Destroyed). What do you think is the place of utopia today? Has it merely disappeared, or do you believe that, as in your novels, we live under its shadow?
JV: We are accustomed to understanding utopia in these extreme terms, which have to do with the imposition of a truth. The utopia understood merely as some model of behavior, which exists already in Plato’s Republic, disappeared in the 20th century, becoming in turn some sort of recipe that those in power decided had to be the only truth possible. This produced the inevitable link between utopia and totalitarianism, and in the long run it discredited not only totalitarianism but also utopia. And yes, during the second part of the 20th century there was a nostalgia for utopia. While in general it was seen that the utopias generated monsters—totalitarian regimes—there was still a nostalgia for utopias that could really lead to a better society, more just, that was really the origin of utopia as such. In our age I believe that we are living in an epoch not so much of disenchantment, discontent, or nostalgia but in an epoch that is attempting to rearticulate utopia again in its original sense, merely as a model that is not sought by force. Above all, the utopia of a better society, more just, more egalitarian, should still be the hope of most of us, but we must not interpret it as the only and absolute truth. [. . .]
DA and CF: In recent statements you have declared Roberto Bolaño to be the last Latin American writer. What does this mean?
JV: Certainly there is some provocation to this statement, a small boutade like the ones Bolaño loved so much, but there is also something true to it. Bolaño seems to me to be the last writer that really felt part of a Latin American tradition, the last writer that responded with a knowledge of those models. Not only did he have a battle with the Latin American Boom but with all of the Latin American tradition—in particular with Borges and Cortázar—but that extends back to the 19th century. His was a profoundly political literature that aspired to be Latin American in a way different from that of the Boom, but that was still Latin American. I believe that this tradition stops with Bolaño. After him, my generation and the subsequent generations, I don’t see any authors that really feel part of the Latin American tradition, or that might be responding to these models. They seem to respond to more global models. There is no knowledge of a strong Latin American identity. This is the central theme of this book [El Insomnio de Bolívar] that has won the Casa de las Americas Award. Latin American literature seems to dissolve as a unity, and it is only possible to understand it as a collage of fragments that no longer form, as in the times of the Latin American Boom, a cathedral. Now, writers in the distinct countries of Latin American feel part of their own nationality, and maybe what they are beginning to form are models whose paradigm would no longer be a giant edifice, a cathedral, for example, a Latin American temple, but rather holograms. That is to say, little fragments that contain information that is Latin American, almost in an unconscious fashion, but that above all respond to an individual will and that are no longer a matter of identity.