Interview with Rodrigo Fresán (Part I)

As you hopefully already know, for the next two months we’ll be producing a weekly podcast and a series of posts all about Rodrigo Fresán’s The Invented Part. All grouped under the title “Two Month Review,” this initiative is part book club, part exercise in slow reading, and part opportunity to discuss and expand upon many of the fun and wonderful aspects of Fresán’s novel. Over the course of the next two months, we’ll serialize an interview that translator Will Vanderhyden did with Fresán. It’s broken up to somewhat align the responses with the section of the book being discussed that week on the podcast, although this is somewhat inexact.

That said, this first section offers up an introduction to Fresán’s work as a whole—written by Will Vanderhyden—and includes a few good questions that serve as openings to The Invented Part. We’ve already posted a few quotes from the first section of the book to whet your interest, and later this week there will be a post about the beginnings of Fresán’s books. Then, on Thursday, June 1st, the new podcast will be released, covering pages 1-45.

You can find all of the “Two Month Review” posts and podcasts by clicking here. And if you use the code 2MONTH on our website, you can get 20% off the book itself. And be sure to weigh in with your comments over at the Goodreads forum!

Rodrigo Fresán was born in Argentina in 1963, spent much of his adolescence in Venezuela, and moved to Barcelona in the late 90s where—apart from a brief stint in the U.S. as an Honorary Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program—he has lived ever since.

He published his first book of fiction, Historia argentina, in 1991 to great critical and commercial success, making him a reference point in a new generation of Argentinean and Latin American writers eager to escape the typecasts imposed by the global success of the Latin American Boom writers. Since that time, Fresán has published nine more books of fiction. His stories have been widely anthologized and his books translated into a variety of languages.

He has also worked as a journalist and columnist, writing prolifically for various publications in Spain, Argentina, and elsewhere. He has translated, edited, annotated, and/or written prologues for the work of numerous writers including John Cheever, Denis Johnson, Carson McCullers, Iris Murdoch, and Roberto Bolaño.

Fresán’s fiction has been praised by the likes of Jonathan Lethem, John Banville, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Osvaldo Soriano and described as “singular,” “virtuosic,” “irreverent,” “contagious,” and “kaleidoscopic.” He has been compared to Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, Geoff Dyer, and David Foster Wallace and called a “pop Borges,” a “genius inventor,” a “guru of literary trends,” and “the only pure postmodern writer in the Spanish language.”

Fresán’s writing is saturated with literary and pop culture references, particularly—though by no means exclusively—references to modern and contemporary English-language literature and to global pop culture of the 1960s and 70s. His books are typically sprawling in both form and content, eschewing conventional narrative structures in favor of more open and fragmentary forms and incorporating elements of science fiction, literary and cultural criticism, and rock journalism. His style is characterized by a hyper self-conscious, encyclopedic, and darkly humoristic narrative sensibility and a prose that is simultaneously playful, kinetic, and unabashedly prolix.

Across his expansive body of work, Fresán explores myriad subjects (Argentina’s dirty war and globalism in the 1980s in Historia argentina and Esperanto, religion and pop art in Vidas de santos, Mexican identity in Mantra, Peter Pan and the lysergic 60s in Kensington Gardens, and science fiction and 9/11 in The Bottom of the Sky, for example) invariably linked to his own obsessions and preoccupations—childhood, memory, the pitfalls of idealism, great literature, writers’ lives, art, and pop culture to name a few—with an approach marked by an insatiable curiosity and an irrepressible compulsion to tell stories.

In a way, The Invented Part—Fresán’s ninth book of fiction and second to be translated into English—subsumes all the books that preceded it. His most overtly autobiographical work to date, this novel—now merely the first book in a trilogy whose second volume has already been published in Spanish and whose third is well under way—is an exploration of the capacious mind and creative process of an aging writer, jaded by readers’ tweet-length attention spans and his own struggle to find a way to feel relevant and to keep on writing. That struggle plays out on the page, across seven novella-length sections that, in one way or another, are descriptions of the novel the writer is trying to write. All of it amounts to a novel (Can I call this a novel?) that is quintessentially Fresanian: a carefully orchestrated yet tornadic crescendo of big ideas, leitmotifs, extended metaphors, humorous lists, surreal and satirical set pieces, reflective digressions, story sketches, and “referential mania,” revolving around questions about what it means to live and create art in our globalized, hyper-mediated, and technologized post-millennial world.

Will Vanderhyden: How to begin . . . I suspect that—considering its subject and scope—this novel contains, in one form or another, the answer (or an answer) to any question I might come up with . . . But setting that suspicion aside for the moment, in the interest of establishing a framework for talking about this book, I think it might be helpful for newcomers to your work to start with some questions about where you think you fit in terms of literary traditions and trends. So, first off: to what extent do you consider yourself an Argentine writer? I know it’s facile to reduce writers to their nationality, but Argentina’s literary tradition is a unique one and your work seems both inextricably bound up in it and somehow external to it. What does that tradition mean to you and where do you fit in it?

Rodrigo Fresán: I consider myself very Argentine in the sense that I don’t consider myself Argentine at all. There’s nothing more Argentine than this, I think. Among the many and exceedingly varied disadvantages of having been born where I was born there is—if you’re a writer—one great advantage, which Borges describes in his essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” and which, for me, is something like the trade’s tables of the law for someone who starts out writing as an Argentine in order to, suddenly, right away, as quickly as possible, turn, Argentineanly, into something else. There he writes: “What is Argentine tradition? I believe that this question poses no problem and can easily be answered. I believe our tradition is the whole of Western culture, and I also believe that we have a right to this tradition, a greater right than that which one of the inhabitants of one or another Western nation may have [. . .] Everything we Argentine writers do felicitously will belong to Argentine tradition, in the same way that the use of Italian subjects belongs to the tradition of England through Chaucer and Shakespeare [. . .] Therefore I repeat that we must not be afraid; we must believe that the universe is our birthright and try out every subject; we cannot confine ourselves to what is Argentine in order to be Argentine because either it is our inevitable destiny to be Argentine, in which case we will be Argentine whatever we do, or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask. I believe that if we lose ourselves in the voluntary dream called artistic creation, we will be Argentine and we will be, as well, good and adequate writers.”

And, it seems to me, there’s nothing more to add . . .

WV: You have described yourself as “a reader who writes.” Is that a better way to think about where you fit in terms of Argentine tradition, among writers whose work is grounded less in their nationality and more in their library?

RF: Yes, another very Argentine trait. In way, all the writers I admire and am interested in (the aforementioned Borges, Bioy Casares, Cortázar, Piglia, Pauls, Pron, Saccomanno, and on and on) are overflowing with books and writers. I have said it many times in too many interviews: I think that, while other literatures from Latin American and even from Spain have their roots firmly buried in the ground where they take place, Argentine literature’s roots are buried in the wall and, more concretely, in the wall of the library. The tradition of the Argentine writer is built more on the foundation of the figure of the reader than the figure of the writer. And this seems good to me, because when it comes down to it, to tell the truth, everyone who ends up writing does so because they started out reading. The true homeland of writer is his or her library. And a writer’s library is also an important part of his or her biography: a liferary. Nabokov said that the only possible biography for a writer would have to pass through the history of his or her style. I agree, but an important part of one’s style is formed and informed and deformed by the history of one’s readings.

WV: Continuing in the vein of facile classifications . . . I remember hearing an interview with David Foster Wallace where he responds to a question about whether or not he’s a realist by saying that he doesn’t know any writers—even so-called postmodernists like himself—who don’t consider themselves realists, in terms of writing about what life really feels like to them. He goes on to say: “I mean, a lot of stuff that is capital ‘R’ realism just seems to me somewhat hokey, because obviously realism is an illusion of realism.” The narrator of The Invented Part, The Writer, seems to have similar ideas, even ironically coining the term “logical irrealism” to contrast his own writing with “magical realism.” He says: “If magical realism is realism with irreal details, then logical irrealism is its twin opposite: irreality with realistic details . . . And yet, is there anything as irreal as so-called realism? Those stories and novels with dramatic pacing and a perfectly calculated and managed sequence of events. Like Madame Bovary. Or the neat structure and the precise pacing of most detective novels. But reality isn’t like that. Reality is undisciplined and unpredictable. Real reality is authentically irreal . . . There is more realism and verisimilitude in single day of the free and fluid and conscious drifting of Clarissa Dalloway than in the entire prolix and well-measured life and death of Anna Karenina.” Can you talk about what these various classifications mean to you and how they relate to your work?

RF: I agree with Wallace: there are many realities that are in this one just as there are many worlds that are in this one. Nabokov (a writer I’ve gone back to in recent years, more dazzled than ever), again, is useful when it comes to positioning myself on this issue in an interview: “Reality is neither the subject nor the object of true art which creates it’s own special reality having nothing to do with the average ‘reality’ perceived by the communal eye. [. . . ] You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you can never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable. You can know more and more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing: it’s hopeless. So that we live surrounded by more or less ghostly objects. [. . .] We speak of one thing being like some other thing when what we are really craving to do is to describe something that is like nothing on earth.” And let’s go a little further: “The most we can do when steering a favorite in the best direction, in circumstances not involving injury to others, is to act as a breath of wind and to apply the lightest, the most indirect pressure such as trying to induce a dream that we hope our favorite will recall as prophetic if a likely event does actually happen. On the printed page the words ‘likely’ and ‘actually’ should be italicized too, at least slightly, to indicate a slight breath of wind inclining those characters (in the sense of both signs and personae),” he points out as a sort of editorial advice in Transparent Things. “I am no more guilty of imitating ‘real life’ than ‘real life’ is responsible for plagiarizing me,” he explains in the preface to the collected stories Nabokov’s Dozen. And more, even more Nabokov: that flower plucked by Nabokov, in that interview, as an example of how “reality is a very subjective affair” and that “I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information; and as specialization.” That, again, reality is nothing but “an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms.” And that, of course, there is a neutral reality that includes and involves all of us; but that, in the next breath, each of us has our own reality and entirely personal perception of that flower. And that there’s no such thing as “everyday reality” which is a term that “presupposes a situation that is permanently observable, essentially objective, and universally known.” And still more: “‘Reality’ (one of the few words which means nothing without quotes),” he concludes in the afterword to Lolita.

The thing about “logical irrealism” was just a joke (I hope a good one) to escape from the “magical realism” that—when I first started to write and publish—every foreign publisher and academic and critic seemed to be searching for, even though it wasn’t there, in Argentine literature just because it was Latin American. In any case, Colombian or Chilean or Mexican or Peruvian writers of my generation had it much worse in that sense because their past and present were much more irradiated by their totemic writers and by the luminous shadow of the Boom. In Argentina, we were never that concerned with/interested in the Boom and, besides, all the great writers from my country embraced the fantastic genre as one/another facet of reality.

We’ll be back with more of this interview next week!

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