It’s been a nice couple of months for Antoine Volodine, publicity-wise. First, he had this long essay appear in The New Inquiry. Then Music & Literature honored the publication of Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven with a week of Volodine-related content.
And now, the Paris Review has an interview with Volodine conducted by two of his translators, J. T. Mahany and Jeffrey Zuckerman.
There are so many quotable parts from this interview . . . First, for anyone unfamiliar with “post-exoticism” here’s a clip from Volodine’s explanation of the origin of the term:
Twenty-five years ago, a reporter at Le Nouvel Observateur asked in which literary category you would place your work, and you responded that it was outside and beyond the conventional categories of existing literature. The question prompted you to invent the nearly nonsensical phrase “post-exoticism.” But eight years later, the phrase had taken on some significance, enough that you published a book around it, Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven. Since then, has “post-exoticism” come to mean something different for you?
I’d like to start by correcting an error I made. I attributed this question to a Nouvel Observateur reporter. It actually came from a reporter for Le Point in July 1991. Our conversation was exactly this—“What genre do you prefer to be classified in?” “Anarcho-fantastic post-exoticism.” It was a somewhat irreverent wisecrack, but it was a way, at the time, to confirm that I didn’t belong either to science fiction, the genre in which my first four books had been classified, or to highbrow French avant-garde literature, which Éditions de Minuit, my publisher at the time, often published. I took the opportunity of the interview to proclaim this break, which seemed evident to me but which literary critics had had trouble taking into account. They hid for far too long behind the adjective unclassifiable, which I can still find in numerous publications today.
I knew at the time that I was writing a literature distinct from the main literary trends all around me. In particular, I didn’t feel attached in the least to contemporary French literature, with all that implied about traditions, schools, and debates. I was steeped in translated literature, mainly from South America, the Anglophone world, Russia, and Japan. I knew French literature well, but I placed it among the others and not as an inescapable and necessary literary mold. Starting with the publication of my first book, I completely abandoned France’s cultural heritage and went independently and alone down a path that, in a way, had come from nowhere and went nowhere. “From nowhere, to nowhere”—this phrase nicely defines the literary process of post-exoticism, and I’ve reused it many times in clarifying or explaining it. Even in my first books, post-exoticism existed with its idiosyncrasies, its refusal to belong to the mainstream, its marginalized characters, its revolts, and its murky narrators. And behind this narration was a narrative background, a “backfiction,” guided by exterior and manipulative voices.
The next Volodine book that we’re publishing is Bardo or Not Bardo, a book made up of seven overlapping vignettes, all revolving around the Tibetan Book of the Dead and mostly taking place in the Bardo, or space that exists after life and before rebirth. Despite the seriousness of the setting—every chapter includes a person’s death, and most their journey through the afterlife—it’s actually a really funny book, with characters fucking up all over the place, both purposefully (one character decides to sleep away his 49-day journey through the Bardo) and accidentally (a different character reads a Tibetan cookbook into the ear of his deceased friend instead of the Book of the Dead).
Since I just read that, I also really like this part of the Paris Review interview:
You also talk about the Bardo Thödol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, being the only non-post-exotic text shared among the various prison cells in which the writers are detained. That book’s realm, the Bardo, in which many of your writers and characters exist, isn’t necessarily the space of dreams, but the space between life and death, right?
We love the Bardo Thödol, which describes the floating world that follows death. Although we don’t appropriate its religious folklore or mystique, we see in it an immense poetic space. Our characters are quite often dead from the first page of the books in which they appear, which is why they cross the fiction like the dead cross the undefined space-time that follows their mortal passing. In theory, after death one enters the Bardo, where there is no longer calm or agitation, up or down, hot or cold, reality or dream, memory or invention. Opposites cancel each other out. It’s extremely exciting to build a fiction on this, particularly when there is also no longer I or you, male or female, narrator or character, or even reader or author. And since we are very open to the notion of compassion, this allows us to enter into the closest possible intimacy with our characters and share their thoughts, ramblings, and pain.
According to the Book of the Dead, the deceased’s walk through the Bardo lasts seven weeks and forty-nine days and ends either with enlightenment or rebirth. In post-exotic fiction, time is no longer measured, and characters often walk much longer through the fiction’s Bardic space. In Terminus radieux, this journey lasts hundreds of years, during which everyone mentally diminishes, loses language and intelligence little by little. They walk not toward rebirth but extinction. And they attain neither. The post-exotic Bardo seems to stray enormously from the Bardo described by Tibetan monks. In any case, for us, it’s a magnificent and inexhaustible reference.
Speaking of Terminus radieux, that’s the third Volodine book Open Letter is planning to bring out. It’s still a couple years off in the future (Jeffrey Zuckerman is translating it now, but it’s a 600-page book, so . . . ) but it opens with three characters “heading toward the hot center of a nuclear disaster zone, as in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.” I can not wait!
Volodine is slowly building a nice oeuvre in English translation, with six titles already available: Minor Angels, Writers, Naming the Jungle, Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, We Monks & Soldiers, and In the Time of the Blue Ball. As a publisher, I think you should start by buying our book, but as a reader, I think you should start wherever and devour them all. It’s a crazy world that Volodine has built, one that is more and more rewarding the deeper you read into it. All the various connections between the pseudonym, the books depicting this strange post-apocalyptic world, the books about the books and the post-exoticist writers—it’s all so fascinating and so much fun. Hopefully more and more readers will become ensnared in this spider’s web of a literary project as more and more of his books (from more of his pseudonyms) make their way into English.
I mentioned this in passing a couple weeks back, but The Paris Review website recently posted Dubrakva Ugresic’s “Assault on the Minibar,” which is one of the many fantastic pieces in her new collection, Karaoke Culture.
A number of sites have been linking to this essay, and I particularly like the summary that The Millions posted:
Anyone who travels a lot will enjoy Dubravka Ugresic‘s essay on hotel minibars. As a matter of fact, just about anyone will enjoy this essay regardless of how often they travel.
Here’s the opening of Dubravka’s attack:
At the reception desk I filled in all the necessary details and got the key. Before I headed off to my room the receptionist asked:
“Would you like to open a hotel account?”
“It means that you don’t have to pay for everything you have or use in the hotel immediately, you just give your account number.”
I declined. What do I want with a hotel account? I’m only here for three days. Breakfast is included, and most of the time I’ll be out and about.
The room was large, luxurious, and had that fresh new smell. The furniture was certainly brand-new, the bathroom enormous, and the heavy windows opened gracefully with the touch of a button.
I hadn’t even gotten around to unpacking my things when I heard a knock at the door.
“Can I help you?” I asked the young porter.
“Sorry, but I have to lock the minibar.”
“Because you didn’t open a hotel account,” he said, before heading for the minibar, locking it, and leaving.
All of a sudden I felt the blade of the invisible sword of injustice pressing on the back of my neck. I don’t even use minibars. Alcohol doesn’t agree with me; I don’t like greasy, stale crisps; I hate any kind of peanuts; candy bars of uncertain origin aren’t my thing; random bottled liquids inevitably give me heartburn; and carbonated, nonalcoholic drinks are just plain bad for your health. The bottom line is that a minibar doesn’t have anything I’d ever want. So why did I feel so humiliated? Just because the bellboy locked the minibar? Did he put a padlock on the shower, the bathroom tap, the TV remote, the toilet seat? He didn’t. Rationalizing it, comforting myself with thoughts of the palatial bed or a hot shower, nothing helped. I was inconsolable. It was just the hopeless sense of deprivation.
For this week’s podcast, Tom and I answered our first mailbag question about literary journals, discussed the old adage that “short stories don’t sell,” and complained about the unbeatable Milwaukee Brewers.Read More...
Interviewer: You write, then—?
Moravia: I write simply to amuse myself; I write to entertain others and—and, well, to express myself. One has one’s own way of expressing oneself, and writing happens to be mine.
Interviewer: By that, you do not consider yourself a moralist, do you?
Moravia: No, I most emphatically do not. Truth and beauty are educatory in themselves. The very fact of representing the left wing, or a “wing” of any sort, implies a partisan position and nonobjectivity. For that reason, one is impotent to criticize in a valid sense. Social criticism must necessarily, and always, be an extremely superficial thing. But don’t misunderstand me. Writers, like all artists, are concerned with representing reality, to create a more absolute and complete reality than reality itself. They must, if they are to accomplish this, assume a moral position, a clearly conceived political, social, and philosophical attitude; in consequence, their beliefs are, of course, going to find their way into their work. What artists believe, however, is of secondary importance, ancillary to the work itself. A writer survives in spite of his beliefs. Lawrence will be read whatever one thinks of his notions on sex. Dante is read in the Soviet Union.
A work of art, on the other hand, has a representative and expressive function. In this representation the author’s ideas, his judgments, the author himself, are engaged with reality. Criticism, thus, is no more than a part, an aspect—a minor aspect—of the whole. I suppose, putting it this way, I am, after all, a moralist to some degree. We all are. You know, sometimes you wake up in the morning in revolt against everything. Nothing seems right. And for that day or so, at least until you get over it, you’re a moralist. Put it this way: every man is a moralist in his own fashion, but he is many other things besides. [. . .]
Interviewer: How do you account for the big empty spaces in the novel tradition of Italy? Could you tell us a little about the novel in Italy?
Moravia: That’s a pretty large question, isn’t it? But I’ll try to answer. I think one could say that Italy has had the novel, way back. When the bourgeois was really bourgeois, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, narrative was fully developed (remember that all that painting was narrative too) but since the Counter-Reformation, Italian society doesn’t like to look at itself in a mirror. The main bulk of narrative literature is, after all, criticism in one form or another. In Italy when they say something is beautiful that’s the last word: Italians prefer beauty to truth. The art of the novel, too, is connected with the growth and development of the European bourgeoisie. Italy hasn’t yet achieved a modern bourgeoisie. Italy is really a very old country; in some ways it looks new because it’s so old. Culturally, now, it follows the rest of Europe: does what the others do, but later. Another thing—in our literary history, there are great writers—titans—but no middle-sized ones. Petrarch wrote in the fourteenth century, then for four centuries everybody imitated him. Boccaccio completely exhausted the possibilities of the Italian short story in the fourteenth century. Our golden centuries were then, our literary language existed then, had crystallized. England and France had their golden centuries much later. Take, for example, Dante. Dante wrote a pure Italian, is still perfectly understandable. But his contemporary Chaucer wrote in a developing tongue: today he must be practically translated for the modern reader. That’s why most modern Italian writers are not very Italian, and must look abroad for their masters: because their tradition is so far back there, is really medieval. In the last ten years, they’ve looked to America for their masters.
Click here to read the full interview.
As announced on their site the next issue of The Paris Review includes the first part of The Third Reich, Roberto Bolano’s “lost” novel (due out next year), which will be serialized over all four 2011 issues.
Spring is almost here1—and so is our spring issue! It’s an especially exciting one: We will be publishing Roberto Bolaño’s _The Third Reich_—our first serialized novel in forty years—with original illustrations by Leanne Shapton.
This is a first edition like none other—a collector’s item, and a chance to discover Bolaño’s famous lost novel almost a year before it appears in book form. For those of you who aren’t subscribers, we are offering a celebratory discount subscription (25% off the cover price domestically; offer good until March 15). Your subscription will also bring you new work by Lydia Davis, David Gates, and Jonathan Lethem, as well as interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Bret Easton Ellis, Yusef Komunyakaa, and much more . . .
This is a guarantee to up subscriptions to The Paris Review, and a pretty logical move considering the fact that PR publisher, Lorin Stein, was responsible for doing both 2666 and The Savage Detectives when he was at FSG.
$30 for is a decent price for 4 issues and the whole of The Third Reich, and as soon as that tax money arrives . . .
1 The “feels like” temperature in Rochester was -5 when I left for work this morning. “Almost,” my ass.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .