Nerve and Narrative
Interview · By Martin Thomasson · Acne Paper · Autumn 2006, pp. 36–39 · Photo by Tobias Regell
Excellence and originality come in many forms and colors. In writer Aris Fioretos’s case the form is evolving for every new book but the color is gray, the color of ambiguity in which his texts manage to reveal hidden rainbows. It is a writing that lingers on the border to the unknown with quite a carnal lesson for its reader. At the moment, Aris is in the midst of writing what seems to become the last installment of his “biological trilogy,” which began in 2000 with the critically acclaimed Stockholm Noir. Martin Thomasson spoke to him.
Since the late 80s you have published academic works — Det kritiska ögonblicket (“The Critical Moment”) and The Solid Letter, among others — a trilogy of genre-defying books on vagueness and the spectral in literature, art, and film (Delandets bok [“The Book of Imparting”], Den grå boken [The Gray Book], and En bok om fantomer [“A Book about Phantoms”]), a book of short-stories in which the dead speak about their predicament, entitled Vanitasrutinerna (“The Vanity Routines”), a book of essays together with Katarina Frostenson termed Skallarna (“Skulls”), and lately, two novels which are part of a “biological trilogy” (Stockholm Noir and The Truth about Sascha Knisch). For those of us who have been following your career, the transition from the more genre-transgressive work of the 90s to the elaborate, story -driven novels Stockholm Noir and The Truth about Sascha Knisch is probably the most seemingly radical. To what extent does the publishing order of your books correspond to the evolution of your writing?
In an interview, Joseph Brodsky once quipped that a “writer’s biography is in his twists of language.” Considering biography in this manner, I suppose I’ve left behind the similes of childhood and paradoxes of puberty, and entered the adult realm of nerve and narrative.
For a number of years, I divided myself between Aris the writer and Fioretos the scholar. This was in the 1980s, a decade in which the most radical innovations, at least in Sweden, took place within forms of expression not habitually associated with literature in the narrow sense of the term: in criticism, in the essay. Somber, self-centered, and equipped with a massive authority problem, young men invested all their efforts in deconstructing what they considered oppressive to their aesthetic sensibilities. It may sound silly, or sentimental, but personally, at the time, I wanted to discover the truth — no, it must have been the Truth — about literature. Since I wasn’t particularly happy with the ways in which creative and scholarly writing were separated into “primary” and “secondary” literatures, I wrote a series of texts that tested this distinction from both sides of the barrier. I probed and palpated and drilled. My literary writings tended to be guided by a certain theoretical impulse; my scholarly work revealed traits commonly attributed to fiction. The outcome of all of this — my personal détente — was one book and a dozen lost years.
The book must have been Den grå boken, published in 1994.
Yes. Or The Gray Book as it was called when, a few years later, I published it in an English translation. It was an attempt to explore, or rather to celebrate, the gray area between literature and criticism. I wanted to use all means available to fiction to speak about literature. Today I look upon these endeavors with certain bewilderment.
What motivated you?
In the early 90s, I spent a year at a research institute in Southern California. One of my colleagues there was William Gass, who at the time was finishing his novel about ”the fascism of the heart,” which appeared as The Tunnel a couple of years later. We were soon involved in a discussion about the nature of narrative. Until then, I hadn’t read Gass’ work. In the library I discovered a slim volume he published in 1975, entitled On Being Blue. The book — the title of which makes one’s lips protrude so pleasurably — is an idiosyncratic meditation on a color and its meaning in literature. I was immediately attracted by this short but far-reaching scrutiny of “blue” ways of writing in works ranging from Joyce to Rilke, from Gertrude Stein to John Fowles.
At one point, Gass mentions Samuel Beckett. At the outset of Molloy, Beckett’s eponymous hero, or rather anti-hero, finds himself down at the sea, where he collects sixteen so-called “sucking stones.” Molloy tries to establish a system whereby he can distribute the stones in his four pockets and let them circulate through his mouth. He is determined to place each stone the same amount of time and equally often in his mouth as the others. But how? It’s getting dark, and by what means can he ascertain that it will always be a new stone he is introducing into his oral orifice? It’s the typical description of looming Cartesian madness that we’ve come to love and expect from Beckett. After a series of marvelous pages, Molly gives up and throws his stones away in disgust. Gass quotes this passage in order to provide an example of what he terms a “blue” text by a “very blue” writer. To me, however, the passage has always been gray, just as Beckett always has been une eminence grise. Minimal variations within a formally strict scheme: what could possibly be grayer?
Are these minimal variations and differences that are almost impossible for a reader to register, the defining features of gray literature or does this apply only to Beckett?
I think it was Jean-Luc Godard who, asked by a critic what he meant exactly by a particular film, retorted: “I mean. But not exactly.” That was the feeling I was after. Librarians, these gray guardians of print, use the term “gray literature” to classify publications not readily found through normal channels of distribution, and hence difficult to identify and obtain: government reports, specifications of a technical nature, off prints, and so on. When I discovered the term, I realized this might be the designation I was looking for. Naturally, I use the term freely. Having read On Being Blue, I was puzzled and wished to understand why the same passage, and the same author, could be considered so differently. At first, I tried to write Gass a letter. But it grew in size, if not in scope, and I was unable to stop my train of thought. Clearly, I had hit a nerve in my perception of the world. Finally I had something like a treatise in front of me that attempted to distinguish between fluid “blue” ways of writing and skittish “gray” kinds. Eventually The Gray Book emerged out of these wild efforts.
Gray is a color conventionally associated with dullness and lack of nuances, with a kind of erasure of the differences of the visual spectrum and also with boredom and the waning of life. Why are you so fascinated by this color?
I feel a certain affinity with intermediary realms and transitional stages — with gray zones of various kinds in life and among letters. Perhaps it’s due to my growing up at the intersection of different cultures and languages, where nothing was ever clearly just one thing or the other; perhaps it’s simply a question of mental disposition or short-circuitry. I’m loath to tell. In the case of the color gray, I was tempted to rehabilitate a hue generally considered the least lively and most bleak — the taint of vagueness, boredom, and uncertainty. To me, there’s nothing negative about grayness. On the contrary: the color allows for an infinite variety of shades and nuances. If Goethe is to be trusted, gray was even the first color proper — a “splendid shadow” created when ideal white mingled with material black. Chromatic tests show that, if all the colors are painted on a piece of cardboard which then is spun around, only gray will meet the eye. Personally, I wished to do the opposite: I want to slow down the pace in order to reveal the rainbow hidden in all things gray. Hence the attention to detail and miniscule deviations in my book.
In On Being Blue, the exemplary medium of Gass’ chosen way of writing is ink. It stands for a sensual, even eroticized relation to language and literature. In a sense, the fountain pen might be considered his preferred writing implement. Always possible to be refilled, it stakes a claim to infinity; leaving traces behind that are permanent, its particular forms of memorization remain reliable. Blue, therefore, is the hue of depth, desire, and dependability. In contrast, the prototypical implement of “gray” writing would be the lead pencil. While being used, it grows shorter until it’s so small it must be discarded. Also, everything written with a lead pencil may be erased by that erratic rubber cupping its tip. Nonetheless, the shadows and specters of what was written will linger on the page. In short: like man, the lead pencil is characterized by finitude and an unpredictable form of forgetfulness. Do you recall how Nabokov describes this utensil in his novel Pnin? “That highly satisfying, highly philosophical implement that goes ticonderoga-ticonderoga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soullessly spinning ethereal void as we all must.” Such qualities make the lead pencil very dear to me.
What about the years you claim to have lost?
I’m a slow learner. But having finished The Gray Book, even I realized that the truth one learns as a writer about literature is likely to be quite different from the truth one acquires as a scholar. I’ve said this before, but to me it bears repeating: as a writer, one must rely on instinct. The only thing that genuinely matters is the first impulse. Yet one should only ever trust the “second” word, that is, one has to find the word behind the word — discarding one word for a better one, then that word for yet a better one. For the critic, the opposite applies. When engaged in interpretory adventures one can never trust one’s first impulse. One always has to rely on the second impulse, that is, on reflection. Yet more often than not, the first word will do. (I’m not saying this to put scholars down, many of whom are excellent writers. But look at the record; most academic texts will bear out my impression.) This difference provides something like the genome of literature. It’s a rather pedestrian formula, I admit, and embarrassingly easy to deconstruct. Still, for me, it engendered two distinct truths about literature. And once I realized that, it didn’t take me long to figure out that academic life, in its traditional form, was not what I wanted to pursue.
You seem to be quite an obsessive person when it comes to writing. At least, that’s the impression I get from reading your books where a “subject” is investigated meticulously and from a multitude of perspectives — for example in The Gray Book and “A Book about Phantoms.” What pushed you toward writing in the first place? Was it a compulsion to write and to see where writing takes you or is writing just a medium through which you feel that you express and explore your ideas best? These are of course not the only alternatives . . .
One cannot reheat obsessions once they’ve vanished. It may still be champagne, oh sure, but the spunk and sparkle have vanished. In a sense, every book of mine has been an attempt to come to terms with — perhaps even to exorcize — passions or irritations or fixations that have kept me awake. Writing is the only way I know of that will accomplish this. Granted, taking the lid off your soul may discharge one or two demons into the world. But that’s the nature of literature: in lucky circumstances, the writer’s mischievous spirits become the benign worries of the reader — a decent division of textual labor.
As a critic one’s perspective on writing and literature is metatextual: in one way or another you add — in the supplementary meaning of the word “add” — a comment on a text. But this is no less true for the writer who also, although in a much more vague and independent manner, is engaged in a kind of “dialogue” with other texts. Still, if a writer, to put it harshly and perhaps a bit too simplistically, wants to be read, he or she must surprise, either through the modulation of his or her language or by telling a good story. Preferably by both. Since you are both a writer and a critic, I wonder whether your professional knowledge about literature poses a problem for you as an author of fiction. I mean, you cannot very well write intentionally ignorant of what you already know about the history of literature in order to achieve an original and exciting work of literature.
In contrast to the critic, I believe a writer can — and should — be disloyal to his own critical awareness. A text fettered by theoretical assumptions is a text dressed in a straightjacket. That’s not what formal constraints in art are supposed to be about. The critic has to be as dedicated and attentive as possible to the work under scrutiny, yet the lead is given by the text. Obviously, one can be playful in one’s relation to a particular piece of literature; one may take off on footnote-free flights of fancy or make lengthy detours around particular stumbling blocks. Still, the fact remains: without literature, there is no criticism — or, at the very best, somebody like Roland Barthes. Novalis once said: “It would be unfortunate if poetry waited for theory.” I agree.
Maintaining this primacy of literature, however, isn’t necessarily the same as insisting on an essential difference between primary and secondary literatures. One of the liberating aspects of deconstruction was that it demonstrated, with great cunning and infinite care, that literature always contained meta-theoretical operations which had already anticipated the interpretory labor the critic brought to bear on it — just as philosophical texts were likely to include aspects which were not conceptual but rather literary in nature, tropological dimensions over which it could exert only little control. Hence there’s a gray zone between literature proper and critical, aesthetic, or philosophical discourses which one can elect or not elect to explore. “Philosophy finds itself,” Derrida writes in his book on Paul Celan, “rediscovers itself, in the vicinity of the poetic, indeed of literature.” For Derrida, for deconstruction, this amounts to “the philosophical experience: a certain questioning crossing of limits, unsureness as to the border of the philosophical field — and above all the experience of language, an experience always as poetic, or literary, as it is philosophical.”
I have great sympathy with this view of the relationship between literature and philosophy. But by the mid-90s, I found the air it breathed too thin. I’m not speaking so much of the work of Derrida, which is very astute philosophically, although it tends to be a bit frivolous stylistically, but rather of a certain kind of literary criticism that emerged in the wake of his and Paul de Man’s writings. The questions and worries that preoccupied it somehow seemed too narrow — and also, despite the pathos of negativity so characteristic of it, a bit smug. Time and again, conditions of possibility were shown, albeit coolly and cunningly, to be ‘conditions of impossibility.’ That was not enough for me. I’ve said this before, but: I realized I was no longer interested in, or even intrigued by, the mechanics of interpretation. Knowing everything there is to know about the way a car functions may be admirable. Personally, I was more interested in driving.
Let’s talk about these earlier theoretical obsessions for a while, even if they are cold by now. How and when did you become introduced to the thinking of deconstruction?
Late 1970s Sweden was an odd place in which to grow up. If one were ten years too young for love, peace, and all of that, the thought of drinking tea, smoking pot, and walking barefoot in the public parks was likely to induce bafflement, even horror. I was seventeen and preferred to write poems at night that were filled with mysteries and marionettes. Although I didn’t understand myself, I knew this: I wanted nothing to do with lapsang soujong and batik-colored collectivism. For me, there was only one way of relating to the world, and that was by learning to live with my difference from it. One day I discovered several back issues of a journal at the local Marxist book café. I was thrilled. Here, finally, were people who tried to break with the maddening enchantment with everything supposedly natural, caring, and well meaning. In one issue the name of Harold Bloom was mentioned, in another that of Adorno. They put me on track. The name of the journal was Kris, and the rest is really history. By the time of the legendary issue in 1980 devoted to Blanchot and Derrida, I had graduated from high school and was already deep into Bataille, Jabès, and Leiris.
I know that you followed deconstruction’s “founding father” Jacques Derrida’s seminars at École normale supérieure in Paris in the early 80s, but what is the story that led you to the ENS?
After a year spent in Athens, I decided to move to Stockholm. I wanted to study with the person on the editorial board of Kris whose writings had intrigued me the most. But by the time I arrived, Horace Engdahl had received funding and didn’t need his salary as a teaching assistant. Instead we met in other contexts, outside the university, and a few years later, some friends and I were asked to form the new editorial board of Kris. Soon realizing that academic Stockholm was not set up the way I had thought, I did the only thing sensible: having compressed four years of study into two, I moved to the one place where difference was cultivated in such complex ways — to Paris. I took classes with Derrida and sat in on Jean Greisch’s seminar at the Institut catholique, devoted to the concept of textuality in writings from St. Augustine and the church fathers to Lévinas and Ricoeur. Mornings were spent writing poetry, afternoons shuttling between classes, and visiting the odd seminar by Deleuze, Kofman, Lyotard . . .
How was your first meeting with Derrida and his teaching?
I took to it like fire to a prairie. “Mehr Licht” was the first thing I heard him say. Each week I’d throng together with the other students, many of them foreigners, in the amphitheatre at rue d’Ulm. When Derrida entered the room on this particular afternoon, my first day in class, he tried to turn on the light next to the blackboard. Nothing happened. The bulb must have burned out. While we waited for the janitor, he took some books from his briefcase and began to read. But it was really too dark to see. Derrida did a pantomime, a suave scholarly version of Louis de Funès which had the class in stitches, then dryly remarked: “More light.” For me, Goethe’s last words on his deathbed were Derrida’s first behind the pulpit.
As soon as the janitor had changed the bulb, the seminar began. It turned out to be a traditional explication de texte. Derrida would read a passage, at times only a few words, then lay out the text. Calmly and cannily, he’d point to the blind spots in an argument and tease out complications. His sense for contradiction was very keen. Treating texts in this manner, he succeeded in unraveling them while he continued their train of thought. Coming from the mighty University of Stockholm, I thought I was well-drilled in the hard school of suspicion. But now I understood that, for Derrida, philosophy was about bringing thoughts to life. That is: about affirmation. For somebody rumored to have deconstructed the “metaphysics of presence,” he certainly made the process unusually long and pleasurable. More than anything, to me, he was the great animator.
Did you establish any personal contact with Derrida?
Halfway through the semester, I did a presentation in class — I think in the seminar on nationalities and nationalisms — that involved some meditations on poetry. That broke the ice. Some time later, I looked Derrida up to discuss a paper topic. He was polite and forthcoming, indeed, all ears. I remember thinking I had never met anyone so present. It actually seemed as if this maître-penseur had all the time in the world for a twenty-something from Sweden . . . At first, obviously, I was tongue-tied, then I stumbled on the subjonctif, where after words began to tumble out of my mouth helter skelter. However, Derrida’s patience was unwavering. Only later did I realize what I had been taught. He ceded the advantage to the other. In this rare gift, in this attentive affirmation, there was a demand much more obliging than courtesy or curiosity. It made one take responsibility for what one said.
Derrida belonged to that unusual category of teachers who don’t impose their own limitations on their students. This puts the student in a position all the more difficult, since that’s exactly the kind of teacher he or she aspires to be . . . In my experience, Derrida was no mentor in the traditional sense of the word — that is, a master who, paving the way for the student’s intellectual advancement, sets the course for his or her personal trajectory. Rather, he taught not to follow him, or to follow him only by losing him. I imagine that’s a virtue and pedagogical technique that wasn’t unfamilar to the wise man on Berggasse in Vienna — he who, sitting at the head of the couch and listening to his patients’ associations, could free both great and gruesome trains of thoughts merely by clearing his throat or humming in a non-commited way.
After Paris you went to the University of Stockholm as a doctoral student in comparative literature. Which were the most striking differences between the seminars with Derrida and the seminars in Stockholm?
In Paris, classes were about testing the limits of what had already been thought, of taking position in an ongoing dialogue with a philosophical past very much alive and kicking, of “working the concept,” as Adorno termed it. It was taken for granted that one knew one’s Kant, Hegel, and even Karl Valentin. Also, the Paris with which I had grown familiar displayed a rhetorical culture for which questions of authority were determined not so much by institutional standing as by intellectual agility. In contrast, in Stockholm, classes tended to train one to ascertain and affirm commonly held convictions and beliefs. By and large, the intellectual makeup of the academic Sweden with which I was confronted upon my return was empiricist in character. That need not be a bad thing. I have great admiration for philologically oriented scholarship. During my first semester, however, one professor informed me that, in his view, a dissertation should state a hypothesis and then proceed to test its accuracy. If, in the end, the hypothesis could be falsified, that would be a good thing to know for the general comparatist community. Was this what philology was about? I confess I was a bit surprised. Didn’t it suggest that, in the professor’s experienced eyes, the engagement with literature amounted to an exercise in syllogism? It took me a while to get my bearings in this new environment . . .
Of course, there were exceptions among colleagues and teachers to such somewhat narrow form of self-understanding, which didn’t seem too willing to take cognizance of the fact that literature and criticism shared the same medium of expression: language. Nonetheless, what innovation there was in comparative literature in Stockholm in the mid 1980s, largely defined itself by way of methodological import — with the implicit understanding that, as litteraturvetare, one was supposed to apply a certain theory or methodology to a particular body of work, which in turn suggested there was an underlying, largely unquestioned dichotomy between what was foreign and what remained native. One might be brought to bear on the other, but the two realms remained distinct and intact. I suppose it was naive of me to have been surprised by this state of scholarly affairs. It’s an aspect of being at the periphery of an intellectual continent. I haven’t visited this province of thought during the last fifteen years, however. Things probably look very different today.
In 1991, you defended your doctoral thesis at the University of Stockholm. It was a study on self-reflexive moments in texts by Longinus, Hölderlin, Walter Benjamin, and Paul Celan — moments when, in a variety of ways, texts turn out to contain rhetorical maneuvers that may be brought to bear on them. Your study was published by Norstedts as Det kritiska ögonblicket. The general notion, as I remember it, was that your thesis displayed a seldom seen (deconstructive) analytic brilliance. However, it also provoked people from the academic trade. What in your study caused the agitated, high-pitched tone on the part of certain people, do you think?
By the time I defended my thesis in Stockholm, in the fall of 1991, I had already spent five years in New Haven, Connecticut. That is, the context of my scholarship wasn’t necessarily of Swedish provenience. Also, there was no first chapter that paid homage to previous scholarship by Swedish academics. Obviously, this absence was not the result of negligence or disinterest, but merely related to the fact that the tradition within which the works of Hölderlin, Benjamin, and Celan are understood the best displays few Swedish coordinates. What caused the agitation to which you refer, to the point of making headlines in the newspapers, however, was probably my own gullibility. I simply thought that one’s scholarship should begin where previous scholarship ended. I saw little point in presenting and then applying theories as if they were the instruments of an autopsist, possible to wipe off and put back — clean and pristine — into the drawer once they had been used. Texts are live matters; when one engages with them, one is always also a vivisectionist. This fact requires a different touch, another sensitivity. Instead I tried to continue along lines of thought drawn up by the likes of Peter Szondi and Paul de Man, teasing out critical implications already inherent in the texts chosen. I certainly didn’t want to dispute the difference between theory and literature; I merely wished the discourse of understanding texts to be a little more aware of its own presuppositions.
This may have been standard procedure in the academic world with which I happened to be familiar at the time, but I admit that Paris, Berlin, and New Haven don’t necessarily constitute the limits of the academic community. Clearly my procedure was unhealthy in the eyes of certain people — in particular a professor in Gothenburg, known for his work on the Icelandic sagas, who considered my scholarship “unnatural” and “foreign.” Being born in that city, it would be far from me to suggest that Gothenburg might not be the very capital of international literary studies . . .
Still, today, I’m inclined to consider the brouhaha over my book an institutional epiphenomenon. Every discipline needs to reconsider its own premises every once in a while. My study simply provided an opportunity to do so.
What did you do after having presented your dissertation?
The morning after the celebrations, I flew to California, where I spent a year at the Getty Center. After that, I was a professor at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for a couple of years. That’s the period in which The Gray Book was written and published. Since then, I’ve only had scant contact with the world of teaching and correcting papers.
You moved into fiction proper . . .
Yes. Although the first book I published, half a year before my dissertation, was a collection of prose poetry entitled Delandets bok (“The Book of Imparting”), it dealt with a real-life incident and its aftermath. The language was literary, but the material itself documentary. In a way, the text augured the hybrid nature of works such as The Gray Book and “A Book about Phantoms,” which is why these three titles belong together for me. Not having been written in relation to one another, however, they form not as much a trilogy — which would suppose a premeditated composition — as a “trio,” that is, a constellation of shared concerns.
The theme of medicine and biology is particularly obvious in your novels Stockholm Noir and The Truth about Sascha Knisch, both of which are part of what you call “a biological trilogy.” Why this interest in medicine and biology in the first place?
By the time of “A Book about Phantoms” in 1996, my mind traveled in other realms. I had left literary criticism and had begun to engage more seriously with the visual arts and film. The book really marks the end of a period in my life. After that, I stopped writing para-literary work. The fizz and flicker was gone. Suddenly I discovered all the stories that I carried around in my head: having been hiding in the penumbra of my mind, they were now craving to be put into words. It came as an utter shock to me from which I doubt I will ever recuperate. Today I feel time’s bad breath breathing down my neck. Gray gods willing, I have a handful of novels in me before my brain will turn to pulp. I don’t plan to waste this grace period with matters that are not necessary in my life.
“The Vanity Routines,” seven attempts at metaphysical deadpan published in 1998, provided a kind of testing ground. Using the schtick and the stand-up routine as models, I was trying out voices as vehicles for narration. A little later, finally, I returned to my childhood fascination with medicine and biology. I’m not convinced I know why. The biographical aspect — I’m the son of a doctor, and once planned to study medicine — is likely to be the least pertinent. But for the first time, I feel at home. The novel is a very accommodating form. It allows for nervy, conflicting perspectives but also for resonant ideas, for emotionally charged lyricism but also for drama of the highest order. I know of no other literary form that is so elastic. And none in which cunning and desire, memory and sensation, may be so intricately interwoven. To me, that sweet shiver coursing along your spine when you read superior fiction is the surest proof there is such a thing as the biology of literature.
In Stockholm Noir, one narrative line concerns a scientist who performs dubious experiments in order to locate biologically where the “soul” is seated. The novel may be considered a subtle parody of the history of biology and psychology and their merging through the late nineteenth-century science of “psychophysics.” The use of fiction to enact history (in the case of Stockholm Noir, medicinal history), to unearth its “bones,” so to speak, is one striking feature of both Stockholm Noir and The Truth about Sascha Knisch. How important is the historical aspect for your writing? What does it provide your writing with (if anything) that other categories don’t?
Both novels deal with notions of the human being as they evolved and circulated in Europe a hundred years ago. That doesn’t necessarily make them “historical,” however. I’m not interested in the equivalent, in literature, of the costume movies of yore — Ben Hur, say, or How the West Was Won. The books use a certain amount of authentic material, but they undermine what we assume are facts by testing, through fiction, the limits of the believable. Also, they’re written with contemporary concerns in mind. I’m not the only one to have noted a certain parallel between today’s fascination with the body as well as with what constitutes human agency and similar discussions a century ago. While different, in both periods you can detect a tendency to use biological models of understanding. Or take our obsession with sexuality. Today’s belief that the truth about a human being may reside between his or her legs was, well, if not invented or discovered, at least firmly established some hundred years ago.
The books are part of a “biological trilogy” . . .
Each volume takes a different bodily organ as its point of departure. The first, Stockholm Noir, deals with the brain. In it, a young woman from Berlin travels to the capital of Sweden in order to find her father, whom she’s met only once in her life. At the same time (the novel is set in December 1925), a “soul biologist” by the name of H.H. Schaumberg, who has devoted his entire career to the question of where, exactly, the soul is located in the human brain, is leafing through old files pertaining to his most famous, or rather infamous, case. The patient, obviously, turns out to be the father of the woman. Slowly the two plots lines of the book begin to converge. For example, the scientist, modeled on a famous Swedish neurologist of the time, advocates the theory that the typology of the human brain corresponds to that of Stockholm. When my female protagonist arrives in a city covered in snow, she enters a white maze, creating a path that may or may not correspond to the way in which the soul supposedly travels in the human brain. I wanted the manner in which Stockholm Noir was written to have similarities with the way in which the brain operates, that is to say, with reflection. Thus the narrator, who’s identified only on the last page, speaks from a certain distance, observing what happens without really participating. Since the book dealt with the brain and with reflection, it was also in a manner about freedom of thought. Without giving the plot away, I suppose one could say that, at the end, the female protagonist liberates herself from her past.
The second part of the trilogy, The Truth about Sascha Knisch, deals with sexuality, especially with the male sex, and even more especially with the testicles. Since it’s a book about sex, it also deals with instinct. Its hero does a lot of things without reflecting, instinctively, which puts him in several delicate situations. If one reads between the lines one will realize he’s the boyfriend of the girl in the first book. But that’s not important to know; it merely adds an aspect to the story. Just like the organs in our body, the three parts of the trilogy are interrelated but must function independently of each other. If the first and second volumes were about reflection and instinct, respectively, the third will be about emotion.
So its chosen organ or organizing principle will be the heart?
I’m too superstitious to tell you. Suffice it to note that we don’t feel with our hearts alone, do we? Stockholm Noir was about reflection, and hence about freedom (of thought). Since The Truth about Sascha Knisch dealt with the testicles, which have a tendency to show up in pairs, in a manner of speaking, it was about brotherhood. The remaining part of the trilogy will concern itself with the third element of that revolutionary trinity: equality.
Cross-dressing and gender change is one theme in your second novel. Sascha Knisch is a film projectionist and a cross dresser in late 1920s Berlin. This makes very much sense as cinema is a projection of the possibility of being an “other,” one that Sascha seizes in his own peculiar way when he’s not at work. What in cross-dressing made you chose it as a vehicle for that particular book?
I wished to turn inside out the search for truth, a theme fundamental to the crime story — incidentally a genre just as popular in the 1920s as it is today. “In questions of sex, nobody tells the truth,” the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld once noted. But what about the transvestite? In a sense, he is showing the truth about his sexuality by disguising his sex. This paradox provided the impetus for a story of love and deception, of cunning and criminality, during the rise of the Third Reich. Save for the tights I was made to wear during ballet lessons as a six-year-old, I have no first-hand experience of transvestism. But as the child of immigrants, I believe I know a fair deal about second-degree transvestism. That is, about language. If one grows up the way I did, there’s little natural relation to words. Different tongues become different forms of dressing thought. As an immigrant child one wants to speak the language of one’s adopted country flawlessly — one wants to “pass,” as the idiom goes. That’s only one impulse, however. Another, just as powerful, is the wish to master the language of the natives just as well as or perhaps even better than they. This creates a conundrum. In a way, one is trying to camouflage oneself as a peacock. Perhaps that’s what transvestism is about?
It’s a highly peculiar Berlin that serves as the backdrop of The Truth about Sascha Knisch. The main protagonist moves in social and architectural settings marked by the turbulence and restlessness characteristic of the capital of the Weimar republic in the years leading up to the Nazi’s seizure of power in 1933. It’s a phase in the history of Berlin (and of Germany) that has been explored by several writers, film makers, and artists. I’m thinking of John Heartfield’s photo montages, for example, of Nabokov’s Despair, and of Fassbinder’s congenital version of that novel for the screen, of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (again, Fassbinder turned the text into a film) and of Christopher Isherwood’s short-story collection Goodbye to Berlin, which served as the basis for the stage play Cabaret, later turned into a movie with Liza Minelli. Why did you choose to set your story during this particular era of Berlin’s history?
I was not interested in celebrating what is usually referred to as the “golden” or “roaring twenties” — a period to which we commonly, and rather routinely, attribute the uneasy mixture of volatile politics and voluptuous erotic panic. My Berlin is not the Berlin of a pudgy Italian-American starlet with spastic body movements and eyes so a twinkle she seems to move around in eternal daze. To me, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret says more about early 1970s disco culture in New York than night clubbing among ex-pats, brown shirts, and other deviants in the city of Hindenburg and tempered hysteria. Also, quite frankly, I find the film’s the-show-must-go-on ethos a bit taxing. I like art to blend wit with Sachlichkeit, reverie with frankness. Sass mixed with sentimentality is not my cup of spiked tea.
Isherwood’s novella is a prescient piece of writing, but what would be the point of repeating his achievement? Rather, I wished to get under the skin of an epoch, during which much of what today is considered modern was discovered or invented — not least in terms of sexual and biological identity politics. It’s a period in which many of the daring but also dangerous, audacious but also ambiguous notions circulated that only a few years later, once the Nazis had gained power, were compromised in the saddest ways imaginable. By setting the story in the 1920s, I wanted to avoid trapping the reader’s sensibilities. As soon as themes dealing with body politics bathe in the brown emulsion of National-Socialist ideology, our sense of good and bad, right and wrong, is fixated in ways that don’t allow for much stretching of the imagination.
Like Stockholm Noir, The Truth about Sascha Knisch deals with what was referred to at the time as der neue Mensch. In this context, although not a main character in my book, the figure of Magnus Hirschfeld is quite crucial. An open-minded Social Democrat, gay, and Jewish, he ran the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin-Tiergarten, where incidentally Isherwood stayed for a brief period and where people who suffered from “deviations of the sexual instinct” were treated, where women of no means could have abortions, and where research was conducted on questions concerning sexual-biological identity. Once I discovered that some of the scientists who were employed by Hirschfeld were involved in testicular research, and that even films dealing with forced gender “rectification” were made, I knew I had found my topic. Another aspect, also important, was the way in which Hirschfeld — who presented cases in his voluminous studies that actually read like prime literature — didn’t separate aspects of enlightenment and entertainment from one another the way we, belonging to a supposed era of sobriety, tend to do today. His museum, visited by everyone from the likes of Chaplin and Eisenstein and curious citizens looking for clarification, to shady characters dressed in rain coats and in search of cheap thrills, contained both medicinal instruments and fetishes, scientific charts and pornographica. This conflation allowed me to explore a domain of human activity and a realm of imagination in which fact and fiction cohabit.
With which of your novels are you most satisfied, and why?
I’ve discovered that I tend to be the least displeased with the last book I’ve written. That’s still The Truth about Sascha Knisch, I’m afraid — or rather: my English translation of it. Probably this is so because I was able to iron out a few wrinkles that had remained in the Swedish version. Besides, dressing up the text in English made me understand Sascha’s motives a little clearer.
If you scrutinize the history of your writing, which are its critical turning points and transitory phases, as you see it?
The greatest turning point probably occurred before my published history. For a number of years in my early twenties, mainly while studying in Paris, I worked on a manuscript entitled “The Burning Book.” The writing hovered between poetry and prose, and paid elaborate, even laborious, attention to symbol and structure. Serious stuff . . . Everything had a double meaning — down to certain syllables and markers of punctuation. I was obsessed with allegorical structures of signification, and wished to write a book that told the story of the hunter Orion, chasing vowels as if they were wild animals. Considering that the Greeks introduced vowels into our alphabet, on another level, the book obviously was an attempt to come to terms with my paternal heritage.
I was about to finish the manuscript when I moved to New Haven. There I met a lovely woman. Less than a year later, she was killed in a car accident. My only way of coping was to write. Eventually this work of mourning turned into “The Book of Imparting.” In a manner of speaking, it’s a text less about vowels than about consonants, that is, about what a person who is no longer breathing leaves us with. For a long time, I called the manuscript “The Book of Ashes.” Secretly, it’s still the title I give it. From fire to ashes: my published history begins not with bounty, but with loss. In comparison to later turning points — such as the loss of the taste for exegesis, or the turn to fiction — nothing has meant as much.
What are you up to at the moment?
I’m about to finish a new rendition of Lolita. It’s the third version of the text in Swedish, and hopefully the first translation proper. Nabokov forced the publisher to destroy the original Swedish Lolita shortly after the book was published in the late 1950s. Then, around the time of the second version for the screen — the one by Adrian Lyne in the early 1990s in which Jeremy Irons cuts such a pitiful figure, a far cry from the lascivious nastiness of James Mason — a second Swedish translation appeared that succeeded in touching up the initial here and there, but not much else. Once Lolita is out of my hands, I’m aching to return to my own work. With a little luck, a new novel should be finished by the end of this summer.
Which writers do you return to with the highest frequency of compulsion?
I read the works of certain writers for different reasons today than I did ten or twenty years ago. Take Kafka, for example. Once I was intrigued by the ingenious impasses of his plots, which seemed to me just as puzzling as evident, and rather droll to boot. Now I’m more interested in details: the way the number of buttons on a jacket may be repeated in the number of knocks on a door, or how nimbly he may shift the signification of a word until its latent meaning will emerge with the soft and stealthy force of destiny. Or take the clockwork narratives of Kleist or Henry James. Once I was intrigued by their deft economy and clean deployment of symbols; today I’m more fascinated with the way in which both make silence and suppression constitutive of a story.
Which contemporary writers do you read with most gratification?
In my experience, once an author is two or three books old, so to speak, he loses touch with colleagues. Of course, I read the books of friends, and occasionally, I come across writings I wish I had discovered earlier. The work of Felix Hartlaub, an art historian who wrote contraband fiction in the immediate vicinity of Hitler, is one such discovery, the novels of Clarice Lispector another. Among the contemporary writers I’ve cherished in recent years, are people like Aleksandar Hemon, Ali Smith, and Attila Bartis. But I cannot say I keep track of what is going on in contemporary fiction. While working on something of my own, I seem unable to read serious fiction. Whether close or remote in scope or style, it interferes too much with my mind.
With regular intervals, the decline of literature is proclaimed. At the turn of the second-to-last century, the compression of language represented by the press was argued to have an insidious effect on literature. There were new styles — for example, Nietzsche spoke proudly of his own telegram style, although he considered it a product of his experience with typewriters. Today, some people point to blogging as the greatest threat to language, while others claim that it implies a form of democratization that has made possible a genuine freedom of expression. Is literature in peril today, and if so, whence does the greatest threat come?
The greatest threat to literature has always been laziness of thought, sloppiness of style, and that mystifying desire to write despite the fact that one has nothing to say.
Historically, the role of literature as a primary carrier or conveyor of knowledge remains undisputed. How do you look upon the future, however, in terms of the role that literature may play?
Literature is so tenacious, and thrives on adversary, that it will be around long after the plug has been pulled on our computers.