Han Kang is a disquieting storyteller who leads the reader into the very heart of human experience, where the singular crosses the universal. Author of ten books of fiction and poetry in her native Korean, Han’s subversive work has been brought onto the Anglophone stage through close partnership with her award-winning translator Deborah Smith. Smith’s elegant renditions of the novels HUMAN ACTS (2016) and THE VEGETARIAN (2015) form part of a recent blossoming of international interest in Korean literature; Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature launched in 2013 and consists of 25 translations so far. Originally published as three novellas in South Korea nearly a decade ago, Han has said that THE VEGETARIAN was initially received as ‘very extreme and bizarre’ in Korea. It has since become a cult bestseller, with translation rights sold in twenty countries and its central novella ‘Mongolian Mark’ awarded the prestigious Yi Sang Literary Prize in 2005. HUMAN ACTS, her latest novel, was awarded the Korean Manhae Literary Prize last year, adding to her numerous other accolades.
‘I believe that humans should be plants.’ This line from the great modernist poet Yi Sang, written in the Korean script hangul banned under Japanese rule, reportedly obsessed Han during university and became the seed for THE VEGETARIAN. Yi’s dream-like images evoking the violence of imperialism upon the colonial subject are mirrored in Han’s surrealistic and painterly portrayal of a woman’s personal rebellion. The novel tells the story of Yeong-hye who, haunted by grotesque dreams, first gives up meat, then food altogether in a radical refusal of human cruelty and destruction. In a patriarchal society where vegetarianism is rare, Yeong-hye’s transgression eventually leads to her institutionalisation and force-feeding. Han’s life-long exploration of the themes of violence and humanity are here rooted in the anorexic body forming a provocative psychological portrait of a woman’s body politics.
HUMAN ACTS revisits these themes but pans out to the national stage, excavating the traumatic legacy of the Gwangju massacre in post-war Korean history. Opening in the Gwangju Commune, the action unfurls in the crucible of the 1980s student and worker-led democratic movement. In 1979 when military dictator Park Chung-Hee, the father of current president Park Geun-Hye, was assassinated his ‘protégé’, General Chun Doo-Hwan, succeeded him and extended martial law across the country, closing universities, restricting press freedom and banning political organising. On 18 May 1980 when students gathered in Gwangju to protest these measures, the government responded by sending in soldiers who opened fire on the crowds. A citizen army managed to eject the military presence and in the following days virtually the whole city joined together in creating an autonomous community comparable to the Paris Commune. The uprising endured for a few days until it was crushed by a US-approved military operation on 27 May that killed and injured thousands.
The massacre left a deep imprint in Korea’s cultural memory, in part because the truth around events was suppressed for years afterwards. Conservative accounts painted the incident as a Communist plot driven by North Korean sympathisers, and the death toll remains contested. ‘Gwangju’, Han says, has become another word ‘for all that has been mutilated beyond repair. The radioactive spread is ongoing.’ Thus HUMAN ACTS is a book with a banging door – it is fiction as a form of alternative historiography where the unresolved past pollutes the present. For Han, ‘Gwangju’ functions like a common noun denoting mankind’s capacity for acts of extreme violence in the same instance as acts of great humanity. Indeed, Korea’s tumultuous history has seen a succession of Gwangjus: there has been little closure, for example, for the Korean women forced into sexual slavery under Japanese colonial rule, or for the families separated by the Korean War that left the two Koreas divided by the Demilitarized Zone when the Cold War turned hot on the peninsular.
A language carries its culture on its back and Han deftly transports the myriad complexities of Korean history through her spare prose. Yet HUMAN ACTS, likeTHE VEGETARIAN, is often about the failure of language to adequately convey experience. In a striking scene, a survivor of torture asks, ‘Would you have been able to string together a continuous thread of words, silences, coughs and hesitations, its warp and weft somehow containing all that you wanted to say?’ Han certainly attempts to do so, both in her lyrical work and in this interview, conducted through email and translated by Deborah Smith.
Q. THE WHITE REVIEW — The history of Korea in the twentieth century is rich in trauma – why did you choose to write about the Gwangju Uprising in particular?
A. HAN KANG — The twentieth century has left deep wounds not only on Korea but on the whole of the human race. Because I was born in 1970 I experienced neither the Japanese occupation, which lasted from 1910 to 1945, nor the Korean War, which began in 1950 and was concluded with a cease-fire in 1953. I began to publish poetry and fiction in 1993, when I was twenty-three; that was the first year since the military coup d’état in 1961 that a president who was not from the army but a civilian came to power. Thanks to that, I and writers of a similar generation felt that we had obtained the freedom to investigate the interior of the human without the guilty sense that we ought instead to be making political pronouncements through our work.
So my writing concentrated on this interior. Humans will not hesitate to lay down their own lives to rescue a child who had fallen onto the train tracks, yet are also perpetrators of appalling violence, like in Auschwitz. The broad spectrum of humanity, which runs from the sublime to the brutal, has for me been like a difficult homework problem ever since I was a child. You could say that my books are variations on this theme of human violence. Wanting to find the root cause of why embracing the human was such a painful thing for me, I groped inside my own interior, and there I encountered Gwangju, which I had experienced indirectly in 1980.
A great writer, James Salter, died aged 90 last Friday. Here’s an excerpt from his Paris Review interview from 1993, on his French literary influences:
Do you think your sensibility is French?
Not particularly. Ned Rorem said that it is. I like France, and I like the French, but no.
Is Colette a figure who has meant anything to you?
Oh, yes. I don’t remember when I first came upon her. Probably through Robert Phelps, although I must have read scraps here and there. Phelps was a great Colette scholar who published half a dozen books about her in America, including a book I think is sublime, Earthly Paradise. It’s a wonderful book. I had a copy of it that he inscribed to me. My oldest daughter died in an accident, and I buried it with her because she loved it too.
Colette is a writer one should know something about. I admire the French for their lack of sentimentality, and she, in particular, is admirable in that way. She has warmth; she is not a cold writer, but she is also not sentimental. Somebody said that one should have the same amount of sentiment in writing that God has in considering the earth. She evidences that. There’s one story of hers I’ve read at least a dozen times, “The Little Bouilloux Girl” in My Mother’s House. It’s about the most beautiful girl in the village who is so much more beautiful than any of her classmates, so much more sophisticated, and who quickly gets a job at a dressmaker’s shop in town. Everyone envies her and wants to be like her. Colette asks her mother, Can I have a dress like Nana Bouilloux? The mother says, No, you can’t have a dress. If you take the dress, you have to take everything that goes with it, which is to say an illegitimate child, and so forth—in short, the whole life of this other girl. The beautiful girl never marries because there is never anyone adequate for her. The high point of the story, which is marvelous because it is such a minor note, comes one summer when two Parisians in white suits happen to come to the village fair. They’re staying nearby in a big house, and one of them dances with her. That is the climax of the story in a way. Nothing else ever happens to her. Years later, Colette is coming back to the village. She’s thirty-eight now. Driving through town she catches sight of a woman exactly her own age crossing the street in front of her. She recognizes and describes in two or three absolutely staggering sentences the appearance of this once most beautiful girl in the school, “the little Bouilloux girl,” still good-looking though aging now, still waiting for the ravisher who never came.
When did you get to know Robert Phelps?
It must have been in the early 1970s. A letter arrived, a singular letter; one recognized immediately that it was from an interesting writer, the voice; and though he refrained from identifying himself, I later saw that he had hidden in the lines of the letter the titles of several of the books he had written. It was a letter of admiration, the most reliable form of initial communication and, as a consequence, we met in New York a few months later when I happened to be there. He was, I discovered, a kind of angel, and he let me know, not immediately, but over a period of time, that I might belong, if not to the highest company, at least to the broad realm of books and names—more was entirely up to me.
Phelps introduced me to the French in a serious way, to Paul Léautaud, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Jouhandeau, and others. His life in some respects was like Léautaud’s—it was simple. It was unluxurious and pure. Léautaud lived a life of obscurity and only at the very end was rescued from it by appearing on a radio program that overnight brought him to public attention—this quirky, cranky, immensely prejudiced, and educated voice of a theater critic and sometime book writer and diarist who had unmercifully viewed life in the theater for some fifty years and lived in a run-down house with dozens of cats and other animals and, in addition to all this, carried on passionate love affairs, one for years with a woman that he identified in his diaries as The Scourge. Phelps had some of that. He lived a very pure life. Books that did not measure up to his standards he simply moved out into the hall and either let people pick up or the trashman take away. He did this periodically. He went through the shelves. So on his shelves you found only the very best things. He believed in writing. Despite every evidence to the contrary in the modern world, he believed in it until the very end. Phelps died about three years ago. I said I thought of him as an angel. I now think of him as a saint.
It seems as if André Gide was a major influence on you at one time.
He was, but I cannot remember exactly why. I read his diaries when I first started writing in earnest, and then I read, and was very impressed by, Strait Is the Gate. I had an editor at Harper Brothers, Evan Thomas, who asked me what I was interested in, and I told him I was interested in Gide. A look of bewilderment or dismay crossed his face, as if I’d said Epictetus, and he said, Well, what book of his are you reading? I said, Strait Is the Gate. It’s simply a terrific book. Have you read it? He said, No. I could tell from his tone that it was not the sort of thing he read or that he approved of my reading. My impression of Gide, looking back, is of an unsentimental and meticulous writer. I would say my attentions were not drawn to the wrong person.
Are there other French writers who particularly influenced you?
I’ve read a lot of them. Among those who are probably not widely read I would say Henry de Montherlant is particularly interesting. Céline is a dazzling writer. Here we have a disturbing case. Certain savage works of his have been stricken from the list. We know his views. The French almost executed him themselves. So we are talking about a dubious personage who is now deemed, I think correctly, as one of the two great writers of the century in France. It’s a perfectly valid nomination. Even his last book, Castle to Castle is tremendous. It must have been written in the most trying circumstances imaginable. When you read something good, the idea of looking at television, going to a movie, or even reading a newspaper is not interesting to you. What you are reading is more seductive than all that. Céline has that quality.
In 1967, while working with the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr on A Fortunate Man, a book about a country GP serving a deprived community in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, John Berger began to reconsider what the role of a writer should be. “He does more than treat [his patients] when they are ill,” Berger wrote of John Sassall, a man whose proximity to suffering and poverty deeply affected him (he later committed suicide). The rural doctor assumes a democratic function, in Berger’s eyes, one he describes in consciously literary terms. “He is the objective witness of their lives,” he says. “The clerk of their records.”
The next five years marked a transition in Berger’s life. By 1972, when the groundbreaking art series Ways of Seeing aired on BBC television, Berger had been living on the Continent for over a decade. He won the Booker Prize for his novel G. the same year, announcing to an astonished audience at the black-tie ceremony in London that he would divide his prize money between the Black Panther Party (he denounced Booker McConnell’s historic links with plantations and indentured labour in the Caribbean) and the funding of his next project with Mohr, A Seventh Man, recording the experiences of migrant workers across Europe.
This is the point at which, for some in England, Berger became a more distant figure. He moved from Switzerland to a remote village in the French Alps two years later. “He thinks and feels what the community incoherently knows,” Berger wrote of Sassall, the “fortunate man”. After time spent working on A Seventh Man, those words were just as applicable to the writer himself. It was Berger who had become a “clerk”, collecting stories from the voiceless and dispossessed – peasants, migrants, even animals – a self-effacing role he would continue to occupy for the next 43 years.
The life and work of John Berger represents a challenge. How best to describe the output of a writer whose bibliography, according to Wikipedia, contains ten “novels”, four “plays”, three collections of “poetry” and 33 books labelled “other”?
“A kind of vicarious autobiography and a history of our time as refracted through the prism of art,” is how the writer Geoff Dyer introduced a selection of Berger’s non-fiction in 2001, though the category doesn’t quite fit. “To separate fact and imagination, event and feeling, protagonist and narrator, is to stay on dry land and never put to sea,” Berger wrote in 1991 in a manifesto (of sorts) inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book he first read, in French, at the age of 14.
Berger’s influence in the literary and wider artistic worlds is a little easier to measure. “He is the lodestar of the contemporary literary experience,” the Irish novelist Colum McCann tells me. “I cannot imagine my bookshelves without him. The other writers would collapse.” Susan Sontag described him as “peerless” for his ability to merge “attentiveness to the sensual world” with “the imperatives of conscience”, though Berger himself prefers to be described, simply, as “a storyteller”. Social and political commentary, subjective response and aesthetic theory are the basic elements of much of what he writes – but it all begins with seeing.
When I arrive, wet, to meet Berger at a house in Paris one recent gloomy morning, he looks concerned. “You’re cold!” he says, urging me to sit down by the radiator while he disappears into the kitchen to make coffee.
The author who writes under the pseudonym Elena Ferrante responded to written questions via email through her longtime Italian publisher, Sandra Ozzola Ferri. The following is a translated transcript of that interview.
Q. You insist on anonymity and yet are developing a cult following, especially among women, first in Italy and now in the United States and beyond. How do you feel about the reception of your books in the United States in recent years, and your growing readership, especially after James Wood’s review in The New Yorker in January 2013?
Q. Do you feel your books have found the following they deserve in Italy?
A. I don’t do promotional tours in my own country or anywhere. In Italy my first book, “Troubling Love,” sold immediately, thanks to the word of mouth of readers who discovered it and appreciated the writing, and to reviewers who wrote about it positively. Then the director Mario Martone read it and turned it into a memorable film. This helped the book, but it also shifted the media attention onto me personally. Partly for that reason, I didn’t publish anything else for 10 years, at which point, with tremendous anxiety, I decided to publish “The Days of Abandonment.” The book was a success and had a wide readership, even if there was also a lot of resistance to [the protagonist] Olga’s reaction to being abandoned, — the same kind of resistance faced by Delia [the protagonist] in “Troubling Love.” The success of the book and of the film that was made from it focused even more attention onto the absence of the author. It was then that I decided, definitively, to separate my private life from the public life of my books, which overcame countless difficulties and have endured. I can say with a certain pride that in my country, the titles of my novels are better known than my name. I think this is a good outcome.
Q. Where do you see yourself in the Italian literary tradition?
A. I’m a storyteller. I’ve always been more interested in storytelling than in writing. Even today, Italy has a weak narrative tradition. Beautiful, magnificent, very carefully crafted pages abound, but not the flow of storytelling that despite its density manages to sweep you away. A bewitching example is Elsa Morante. I try to learn from her books, but I find them unsurpassable.
Fiona McCrae, publisher of Graywolf Press (with whom Fitzcarraldo Editions shares Eula Biss’s On Immunity), was interviewed in Guernica earlier this year by Jonathan Lee. A very interesting summary of the indie publishing philosophy, as evidenced by this snippet on discovering Per Petterson:
Guernica: I saw you speak at an event last night at the offices of the literary journal A Public Space—where, as you know, I work—and you were addressing a crowd of emerging writers. You talked about Graywolf publishing “against the tide”—finding work that other houses might overlook or might not think would work. How much of that is out of necessity, and how much is by design?
Fiona McCrae: I think it’s both. The two drive each other. My nature is much more attracted to against-the-tide books. For example, at Graywolf, if I hear that there is another offer on a manuscript, it generally makes me less interested, not more. I do not feel competitive in that way, so I don’t believe that the fact someone else wants to publish a piece of writing makes that piece of writing good. I think I was overly affected as a child by fairy stories where the bronze casket turns out to be the winner, not the gold. With a Graywolf author like Per Petterson things have happened for him in a wonderfully organic way—he’s become a big name for all the right reasons, from quite modest beginnings. When publishers spend a huge amount of money on a book up front, they start from the position that it has to work, or else, and that can drain the pleasure from the experience and make everyone overly tense, and certain successes are deemed insufficient in some way.
Guernica: You publish a book like Out Stealing Horses with pretty modest expectations of sales, and then when it wins the IMPAC things grow from there, naturally. That’s your preferred route to success.
Fiona McCrae: Yes. I don’t think I’m particularly unusual in the publishing industry in loving those “sleeper” stories. I prefer them to the stories of splashy advances. At Graywolf, I prefer knowing we were the only ones who offered on a book, who saw it might work.
Of course, I don’t mean that everyone we publish would stand no chance at another publishing house. But we like to make the right offer on a book, and to make that offer to an author who really does connect with Graywolf. With Out Stealing Horses, we bought that for a fairly modest advance when a number of publishers over here [in New York] had turned it down. And then unexpected things started to happen.
Guernica: What was the first unexpected thing?
Fiona McCrae: Well, early on Amy Tan phoned up out of the blue to offer a blurb that we hadn’t asked her for. That never happens. And then the book was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, then shortlisted, and finally, incredibly, it won. And then the same for the IMPAC, which was announced one week before [it appeared] on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Suddenly everything was happening.
Another example. I remember us publishing Tracy K. Smith’s poetry, and then in 2011 publishing her new collection Life On Mars. We thought she deserved to win something that year, but then the National Book Awards came and went. Nothing. Later in the year I was at the National Book Critics Circle Awards announcements. Nothing. Then I was in London for the London Book Fair in April, out with three friends who’d studied English literature with me at university, and a text came through saying: “Tracy K. Smith has won the Pulitzer Prize.” That was great fun—to see that happen to someone [for whom] you’ve published over three books.
Publishing Kazuo Ishiguro was like that in England. Faber published his first work in an anthology, and then his first two novels before The Remains of the Day, which of course won the Booker Prize.
Guernica: What about those difficult moments where you do well with an author’s book, and then they cash in by leaving for a bigger publishing house?
Fiona McCrae: It happens, of course, but sometimes an author just needs more money than we can offer. There’s no point wringing your hands over that. It’s not our job, as a small non-profit publisher, to come between an author and a big advance. In fact, it goes with the territory at any-sized publishing house. People leave Penguin. People leave Knopf. The nice thing, when authors don’t leave, is that all the books stay under one roof, and the continuity can be very productive. Per Peterson has always remembered that we took him on when others didn’t want to publish him. And after the huge success of Out Stealing Horses, there was no doubt in his mind that he wanted to stay with Graywolf. We paid more for his next book, of course, but he could have got a bigger advance by switching publishers. He chose to stay. And we took on Kevin Barry in a two-book deal, so were able to publish his short-story collection after he too got the front cover of the New York Times Book Review and went on to win the IMPAC.
In the words of the commissioning editor who is behind this piece, this interview by Ned Beauman with William Gibson, on the occasion of the release of his novel The Peripheral, is the ‘nerdiest ever bit of commissioning’:
Let me make one thing clear from the start: this is not going to be one of those hard-hitting Lynn Barber-type profiles. I am a huge William Gibson guy, and I have been since I was 13 years old. Earlier this year I took my devotion to the extreme lengths – the excessive lengths, let’s all admit – of publishing what was essentially a William Gibson tribute novel, like a small-town Black Sabbath playing an evening of wonky covers at the pub. So when I tell you that Gibson picked me up in his car from my hotel in Vancouver, so I didn’t even have to get a taxi – and indeed that he was impeccably hospitable and generous over the ensuing 24 hours – you might think: “How awfully convenient that this lifelong hero of Beauman’s, whom he is clearly desperate to be friends with, should happen to be a really nice guy.” Yes, I agree, it is awfully convenient, but sometimes things just turn out that way.
The effect that Gibson’s debut novel Neuromancer had on me when I read it as an adolescent – comparable to a defibrillator applied directly to my forebrain – was the same effect that it had on speculative fiction in general when it was first published in 1984. People who wouldn’t normally be seen reading a book about a hacker in the future who sneaks on to a space station to help a computer turn into a god – and that’s a lot of people, perhaps including you – they made an exception for Neuromancer, because it was just too brilliant to ignore. Neuromanceroriginated a subgenre of science fiction called cyberpunk, which later withered away, redundant, because cyberpunk had become the condition of the real world. Gibson could therefore be credited with anticipating the information age, with the result that for the last 30 years he has regularly been pressed into service as a prophet. And yet you’re not giving his fiction its due if you just score it on the accuracy of its predictions like a six-horse accumulator. Call me biased, but I think the most interesting thing about a novelist is the inherent quality of his or her novels. And Gibson’s – 11 so far – are some of the best and most singular novels by anyone writing in English.
Gibson picked me up that day so that we could drive about 20 minutes northeast to Dusty Greenwell Park, a margin of grass overlooking Vancouver Harbour. Dusty Greenwell Park is not the most arcadian of retreats. Down the slope, past a snarl of blackberry bushes, is Canada’s largest container grain-loading facility, where trainloads of malt are disgorged into containers and then trucked off to the shipping terminals. Trains thunder past for minutes at a time, almost drowning out conversation, and a grain elevator, discoloured by rust and moss and pigeon shit, blocks part of the view of the North Shore Mountains across the bay. We visited because this was the setting of one of the climactic scenes of Gibson’s 2007 novel Spook Country, in which “the narrow park leap[s] into shivering, seemingly shadowless incandescence” as a spy flees a patrolling helicopter.
Spook Country is not the book that Gibson, 66, is currently promoting. That is his superb new novel The Peripheral. But The Peripheral is set partly in the American south in the 2030s, and partly in London in the 2100s, so it would have been difficult to find a directly relevant excursion within the Vancouver city limits.
In the book, it’s a sort of transtemporal Skype running on a mysterious Chinese server that accounts for those two eras becoming entangled in a single story. By bringing them face to face, Gibson was addressing the tendency of any given generation to assume that “the inhabitants of the past are hicks and rubes, and the inhabitants of the future are effete, overcomplicated beings with big brains and weak figures. We always think of ourselves as the cream of creation.” Although he generally defers to his unconscious when asked about his creative process, Gibson allowed that this book may have had its origin in a news story he read about a midwestern Christian militia called Hutaree whose members were arrested in 2010 for an alleged conspiracy to kill local police officers.
“The thing that struck me was that several very young teenagers had been left to fend for themselves when all of the adults had been taken away to jail,” he said. “I started imagining being one of those kids and how I would understand the world.” The setting also fed on Gibson’s own upbringing in small-town South Carolina, the film Winter’s Bone and the HBO series Deadwood, about a lawless town during the Gold Rush. “I wanted the equivalent of the city slickers, from a very different world, turning up in Deadwood. Initially I thought the other world would be New York or Los Angeles. But at some point I realised that could be the future.”
By now we had found a bench and we were both sipping from little cans of Boss Coffee that we’d picked up at Fujiya Japanese Foods on the way to the park. This made the outing rather Gibsonian in ways that neither of us realised at the time. Boss Coffee is manufactured by Suntory, and I’ve since learned that a lot of the malt in the containers before us would have been bound for Suntory’s beer and whisky breweries in Japan. Huge Japanese conglomerates with tentacles in the most unlikely places; the hypercomplex networks of globalised commerce; really good espresso – these have been quintessential Gibson tropes ever sinceNeuromancer.
By and large, I like Gibson now for the same reasons I liked Neuromancer when I first read it: his books are really cool – and I don’t mean “cool” as in “hip” or “chic”, I mean “cool” as in “awesome” or “rad”. That sounds like faint praise, because 13-year-olds have no taste and “cool” is not a respectable term of critical approbation. But what I mean by “cool” is that Gibson presents you with something new – a technology, a garment, a building, a scheme, an expertise, a power structure – and this new thing is burnished with so much imagination and lyricism and attention to detail, and so much of the noir and the gothic and the postmodern all at once, that it’s electrifyingly exciting just to contemplate. He does this several times on every page, and intersperses some old junk that he did not invent, and then connects all this stuff up so unpredictably that the connections are themselves exciting. And before long the connections are dense enough that he has a world, and he lets you shadow a small cast of reprobates as they pinball through every echelon of that world.
There’s a new English-language interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard in Hazlitt, in which he talks about becoming a cultural influence.
Also, there are so many pictures of him on the internet. He looks like he enjoys author pics.
My Struggle has now earned a certain stature in contemporary world literature, as it did in Norwegian culture upon its original publication. It’s spoken of as a necessary text for people to read, to contend with, in our contemporary moment. Do you think about the fact that you are now an influence? That you are a cultural influence, you’re not just documenting things.
Hmm, no. I don’t think about that. I remember, I didn’t read David Shields until I was done with these books because I knew there were some relations there. He was writing about much of the same things, but I read it afterwards and I liked it very much. I related to his views in many ways. But no, I can’t really think in those terms whatsoever, and it is, you know, it’s just some books. You have to be lucky for them to be translated in the first place, and then someone well-placed has to say, I like them, they are very good, and if you don’t have that then it’s too risky for people to go for the book. But James Woods said, I like it, this is an important book. Then you have some other people, well-placed, saying this is very good. Zadie Smith did. Then it just opens up and it’s established as a good book or an important book. But you could imagine, in a parallel universe, this wouldn’t happen and then it would just be a book, and it wouldn’t have any influence.
So it’s been very interesting to see that process, because it first happened in Norway and then in Scandinavia, and then in England and the U.S. I think maybe it just has something to do with the zeitgeist and being a contemporary, I don’t know. There was a Norwegian writer who said he really hated these books, and he hated the hysteria surrounding them, so he wrote a piece and said, Just wait until they’re translated and you’ll see how provincial they are. And in a way he could have been right, I don’t know. But I think everything this book has exists in other places. I think my books have a few catch lines in their 3,600 pages, and a title, and controversy, and that’s it. That’s the way I explain it, at least.
Emmanuel Carrère is a writer who doesn’t get enough attention. He is one of France’s best, a kind of Geoff Dyer-figure who blends fiction and non-fiction to great effect (although he is less comically inclined). The Adversary, in which the author recounts his attempts to write the true story of a pathological liar who ends up murdering his entire family to cover up his lies, is a good place to start. Limonov, his latest book published in English about the Russian dissident writer Eduard Limonov (pictured above), is also an excellent book. Carrère’s Paris Review interview, published last autumn, provides a good introduction to his work:
We come to your last book, Limonov, which is again nonfiction. Who is Limonov?
Eduard Limonov is a Russian writer who is about seventy. I knew him in the eighties in Paris. The Soviet-era writers at the time were mostly dissidents with huge beards. Limonov was more of a punk. He was an underground prodigy under Brezhnev in Moscow. He had emigrated to the United States, been a bum and then a billionaire’s butler. He had a kind of Jack London life, which he wrote about in autobiographies that are actually very good, very simple and direct.
Then came the fall of the Soviet empire and things got strange. He went off to the Balkans and started fighting with the Serbs. He became a kind of crypto-fascist. It was a little like finding out a friend from high school had joined al-Qaeda. But time went by and I didn’t give it much thought. Then the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated, and I went to cover it. I was amazed to discover that in the little world of liberal democrats around Politkovskaya, Limonov was considered a fantastic guy. It was as if Bernard-Henri Lévy and Bernard Kouchner suddenly said, Marine Le Pen, now she’s great. I was so intrigued that, in 2007, I decided to go see Limonov. I spent two weeks with him trying to understand this strange political and personal trajectory.
The mystery of fascism? Was that what intrigued you?
I remember the exact moment I decided to go from reporting to writing a book. Limonov had spent three years in a labor camp in the Volga, a kind of model prison, very modern, which is shown to visitors as a shining example of how penitentiaries have improved in Russia. Limonov told me that the sinks were the same ones he had seen in a super-hip hotel in New York, designed by Philippe Starck. He said to me, Nobody in that prison could possibly know that hotel in New York. And none of the hotel’s clients could possibly have any idea what this prison was like. How many people in the world have had such radically different experiences? He was really proud of that, and I don’t blame him. My socioeconomic experience is relatively narrow. I went from an intellectual bourgeois family in the 16th arrondissement to become a bourgeois bohemian in the 10th. So these trajectories of the little boy in the African village who becomes the UN secretary-general or the little girl from east bumfuck in Russia who becomes an international supermodel fill me with wonder. I have to admire that amplitude of experience, the ability to integrate completely different values and ways of thinking. Limonov’s story, from that point of view, is fabulous. It’s a picaresque novel that also allowed me to cover fifty years of history, the end of the Soviet era, and the mess that followed. I’m surprised that the book has received the unanimously warm reception of the last one.
Apparently Tao Lin first interviewed Ben Lerner for The Believer ‘three years and 10 days ago, although it seems less to [him].’ Only Tao Lin would then ask Ben Lerner if it feels the same to him, but his answer is interesting: ‘It seems shorter to me, too. But that might be because writing 10:04 confused my sense of time—I’ve been building a fiction in part around the Marfa poem since my brief residency there, which has kept it from receding into the past.’
And that’s pretty much how the whole interview goes: kooky/non-question from Tao Lin, insightful answer from Ben Lerner. There are some exceptions, including this interesting passage on autofiction:
BLVR: When you’re having the experiences that end up in your fiction or your poetry are you aware they might end up as literature? Like are you thinking “this is going in a book,” or do you try to oppose that tendency, saying “no, I’m going to experience this as if ‘writing’ didn’t exist to me” and then, as needed, recall the experience only in retrospect, as you’re writing?
BL: I’ve always wondered about that. Henry James claim that if you want to be a novelist you should be somebody on whom nothing is lost. The problem is that if you’re self-conscious about being a person on whom nothing is lost, isn’t something lost—some kind of presence? You’re distracted by trying to be totally, perfectly impressionable. I guess when I’m frightened or in pain or maybe very bored I’ve tried to hold myself together by imposing a narrative order on the experience as it happens. I don’t think “I’m going to publish this as fiction” but I think “I’m going to tell this story to a friend” and then I start telling the story in my mind as the experience transpires as a way of pretending it’s already happened. Does everybody do this? I’ve always assumed this is a common human defense mechanism. Regardless, this is the opposite of James’ dictum, right? Because I’m trying to be somebody on whom the experience is lost by supplanting it with its telling. I definitely do that in medical contexts, even in trivial ones.
Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro has made four feature and medium-length films to date: El hombre robado (The Stolen Man, 2007), Todos mienten (They All Lie, 2009), Rosalinda (2010), and his latest, Viola (2012), which recently screened in New York as part of the New Directors / New Films series. His films are remarkable for their worrying of literature and the tension between text and image. Each of the four films takes either a literary figure or text as the jumping-off point for an exploration of the slippery correspondence between narrative and reality. Piñeiro is making movies that point to one of the original questions raised by cinema: How does the imposition of writing—of language or of a lens—alter the world? His carefully structured films—balanced like mobiles, as he says—describe with precision that slippage between words and reality.
While El hombre robado and Todos mienten both circle around the writing of statesman and polymath Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, the Argentine equivalent of Thomas Jefferson, in essence, they are both descriptions of the power dynamics of a small group of young upper-middle-class friends. His latest two, Rosalinda and Viola, are both based on Shakespeare and are the first two entries in a trilogy that the filmmaker has called “The Shakespeariada.” Working with the same cast and crew in all four features, Piñeiro—whose work shows a debt to the comedies of Rohmer and the shell games of Rivette—has developed a language all his own. Using literature to foreground the complex web of lies, acting, and language that underlies any social interaction, these films are less interested in psychology and individual characters than they are in social and linguistic structures.
Both the filmmaker and his work are warm, funny, and full of life. I encountered his work when his first two films screened at the Harvard Film Archive a few years ago while he was in Cambridge working on Viola as a Radcliffe Fellow. He is currently living in New York, where we met at a diner on a snowy February afternoon to discuss his films and how he makes them.