In this week’s podcast, we talk a bit about authors we “broke up” with. Writers like, say, Philip Roth, who evokes a pretty harsh reaction from Tom . . . Additionally we talk about authors we thought we had given up on, but to whom we keep returning and returning.Read More...
This originally appeared on the PEN World Voices blog. I’ll be writing for them all weekend, as will a bunch of other correspondents. So if you can’t be here, you can always check out these posts.
A number of years ago, when I was working for a different publishing house, Robert Coover suggested I take a look at the work of Catalan author Quim Monzo. I had someone do a reader’s report on 100 Stories, but the project sort of fizzled out despite the fact that the samples translated into English were brilliant and hilarious. Fast forward a few years, I’m now at Open Letter, have been to Barcelona (where I fell in love with the city and its culture, and where the people are always smiling and happy), met Quim Monzo, and signed on a bunch of his books, including the novel Gasoline, which we published a few weeks ago.
So I was naturally excited that the first PEN World Voices event I was able to attend was a one-on-one conversation between Quim Monzo and Robert Coover. The two writers have known and read each other for years, and interacted like old friends. (Apparently, they spent hours together before this event talking about everything under the sun, from masturbatory images to sex to how literature is better than life.)
Coover started off the conversation by talking about Quim’s work is so striking for being both incredibly serious (like in the Great Literature sense) and at the same time, so damn funny. Which is spot-on. Quim has the very, very rare talent to be able to infuse his sentences with a sort of charmed humor. It’s not like he writes jokes in the way that some writers jokes and punchlines, it’s different than that. Quim himself put it best in an interview he did some years ago in which he said: “In art, without humour—a subtle and invisible humour—there is nothing worth keeping.” A subtle and invisible humor. That’s it exactly.
As is basically mandatory, they talked a bit about influences, with Quim mentioning Julio Cortazar, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Raymond Queneau, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Samuel Beckett.
Beckett was the perfect example of what both Coover and Monzo found so exhilarating about the possibilities of literature, and about how you can write funny. Coover cited the bit from Malone Dies in which the narrator is trapped in bed and tries to describe what he’s seeing out the window. After two or three lines he exclaims, “enough with this fucking scenery.”
Quim’s Beckett reference was to the part in Molloy where the narrator puts a number of pebbles in his different pockets then describes all the possibilities of moving these pebbles around. (This is a scene that’s always stuck in my mind, and is E.J. Van Lanen’s favorite Beckett bit as well. Weird.) And as Quim said, “after reading that and about all the possibilities of fiction, how can you go back to writing realistic romances about how Jane’s in love and now she’s sad.”
For all the subtly and grace in his writing, Monzo’s amazing with the one-liners and comedic bits. For example, when Quim was younger, his mother discouraged him from reading, saying that “reading so many novels will make you an idiot.” Which is pretty much what Quim tells his son in relation to watching too much TV . . . But both of these things are wrong. “TV is great. There’s a lot of shit on TV, but walk into a bookstore and there’s a lot of shit there too.”
In relation to critcs: “Like Cabrera Infante once said, there are two types of critics. The ones who like your books, who are the good critics. And the stupid critics who think your books are shit.”
The best bit came when Coover said something about how you really can’t write funny things about love. Quim was astounded—“of course you can!”—and went into an amazing rant about the “three words that refer to nothing: god, happiness, and love. Love is being horny in a tie.” Well played, Quim. Well played.
(And for the record, in addition to Gasoline, which is available now, Open Letter will be bringing out Guadalajara—a collection of Quim’s stories—next spring.)
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