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Effets de voix

Pierre Gault

Guy Davenport. Lexington, Kentucky

December 1991

Laurence Zachar

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1Laurence Zachar:

2Lately, with the Lolita French research group on American Literature, we have been trying to analyse which elements might be characteristic enough of an author’s way of writing to make it possible to distinguish it from other writers’ works, by comparing relatively short excerpts of one or the other. It wouldn’t be just themes, or syntax or play on words, it would have to do more with the suggestiveness of an underlying perceptivity. We chose to call this notion "voice". Your stories are at once aesthetic constructs, which conceal more than they reveal their indebtedness to an authorial stance, and lyric variations on privileged themes.

3To tell "voice" from what is traditionally called "style", how would you define style to begin with?

4Guy Davenport:

5Style, as we all know, is ultimately undefinable. I think the best way to understand style is to look at the graphic arts and begin with something like handwriting. We know that handwriting is like a finger print, that there are experts who can testify in court that this is or isn’t your signature.

6In painting, you can say "That is a Van Gogh". In the 18th century, connoisseurs deliberately developed an eye, saying "Only Botticelli could have drawn this foot". Then, of course, you get into an argument because there’s always someone who says "Well yes, but Botticelli’s disciple could have drawn that foot". That gets us into the realm of imitation. All style is imitation and we can trace in the early work of practically any artist the style of his master. The amount of Beethoven one can hear in early Brahms is a good example. A masterful draftsman like Aubrey Beardsley, who eventually achieved his own style so that we can say "Only Aubrey Beardsley could have drawn this", began indistinguishable from Burne-Jones. Slowly, drawing by drawing, in a very steady progression, there emerged the characteristic shapes, that is to say the style, of Aubrey Beardsley. Now, in the visual arts, instead of "voice" we would say "eye". So we have a good analogy there between the eye of the draftsman and the voice of the writer.

7But I think the writer has an eye also, very much so... and I have often wondered if my writing isn’t drawing in words. There is a visual shaping of the matter at all times, like texture, color, shape, staging. All fiction involves something like an imaginary movie-camera or an imaginary stage. There are writers like P. G. Wodehouse whose novels frequently were Broadway musicals; he could translate one to the other. Any classical comic writer has the stage to work with.

8L. Z.:

9So writing has a stage-like -- visual and auditive -- quality in the author’s mind.

10G. D.:

11When I’m making a story, it’s a matter of inventing and finding and of writing. There are very few linear constructions. By linear I mean: first sentence to last sentence. My notebooks are my source. I draft sentences in the notebooks and then I put these together into paragraphs, the paragraphs into stories.

12I once said I trust images; and I don’t think that I really need to know what the images mean. A good paradigm here might be that passage of "The Antiquities of Elis" in Da Vinci’s Bicycle, where I suddenly drop a lyric into the text. Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were walking in Scotland on one of those Victorian tours that poets liked to do, and they saw and heard a Scots girl working in the wheatfield. She was singing, but she was singing in Gaelic. And though they could hear the tune which they thought was ineffably beautiful and poignant, they couldn’t understand the song. I give that experience to Pausanias who is the voice in "The Antiquities of Elis". That passage isn’t in Pausanias; I’m translating and improving.

13So I think my attitude toward my subject matter is like Wordsworth and Dorothy and the highland lass. There are a lot of things that I can shape on the page in one phrasing or another and I simply have to trust that it’s like that song in Gaelic, that it says something to somebody, and the singer knew what she was singing, and another Scots person would know what she was singing.

14L. Z.:

15When you see a Van Gogh, you know it is a Van Gogh. Something similar happens if you read Faulkner. He has a distinguishable way of writing, a certain range of vocabulary, colloquialisms...

16G. D.:

17Quite literally the grammar. The way Faulkner writes his sentences is like no one else. Just as the way Joseph Conrad writes his sentences is like no one else.

18L. Z.:

19Thematic and grammatical patterns are part of what we call style. Style, to me, describes rhetorical structures which you can recognize as being characteristically recurrent.

20G. D.:

21Diction. By diction I mean the range of words in the dictionary that a particular writer uses. This became crucial in the 19th century to the higher criticism of the Bible; and now with computers we can, as it were, put all of St. Paul’s words in a list as verbs, as nouns, as adjectives and so on; together with the way he handles certain Greek phrases. The scholars can say that these letters by St. Paul are, in fact, an amalgamation by some early Christian who knew his St. Paul but was putting together a kind of sermon, and who became identified later in the middle-ages with St. Paul; or even if St. Paul did write the letter to the Ephesians, he did not write the letter to the Colossians because the diction is so different and the stylistic traits are so different. So that’s what style can do and the analysis of style. None of this allows for St. Paul’s being clever enough to use two styles and a lot of writers have many styles.

22L. Z.:

23Precisely. The concept of "voice" amounts to trying to detect elements liable to give us a clue as to what accounts for such or such shift in style. When you read an author’s works, what is it that makes you say: oh, this is by Guy Davenport-however variegated the subject matter, genre or style.

24G. D.:

25You are looking for... what?... an ineffable essence! (laughter). Only the French would try this. Barthes could do it or at least fake doing it. I think I see what you are getting at.

26The story "Tatlin!" itself is a bit problematic because its opening section, which describes Tatlin at a particular exposition, I intended to be the voice of Soviet writing at that time. It has the ideological opacity of what I consider Russian rigidity. It has a kind of naivety and obviousness about it.

27L. Z.:

28Yes, you feel that in the breaks of the discourse. A sentence like "This is no place to continue talking about..." strikes the reader as different as compared to the rest of the narrative.

29G. D.:

30Tatlin wrote various pamphlets. At the same time, I am trying to say: "Dear Reader, don’t be taken in by any of this". This is clearly a case where an official style must be looked around, where the interesting thing is what is not being said.

31L. Z.:

32This is most interesting to me. I have the feeling that, in your works, most of the message is not on the explicit plane. It is paradoxically perceptible in "what is not being said", which conveys the hidden meaning or emotion on the part of the author.

33G. D.:

34I think of it as a kind of transparency or X-ray. Stand back from the one story "Tatlin!" and all I am doing is saying: here is one of the greatest artists of our time who was prevented from doing anything that a free artist might have done.

35A book like Hermann Broch’s Death of Virgil is about Virgil who really doesn’t want to write the Aeneid, but the Emperor Augustus has cajoled him, bribed him, made him feel that he is the greatest living poet, and all this works. Virgil did write the Aeneid. We don’t know what Virgil wanted really to be writing. Presumably things like the Eclogues, the Georgics, or other poetry we know of Virgil. But he had to write an official epic. He had to pretend he was the Homer of the time. And what we are reading in Hermann Broch is of course by an Austrian writer who, after the Anschluss, escaped; the Death of Virgil was written in Princeton, New Jersey. As so much of Thomas Mann and even Brecht was written outside of the country in which the author ought to have been. But in Tatlin, we have a rare case of a genius who survived, in his homeland.

36L. Z.:

37Do you feel that contemporary society is less overpowering?

38G. D.:

39I can think all sorts of ways. I believe that we’re all in a totalitarian state. We American writers are perfectly free to write anything we want to, as French writers are, or Danish writers. There still is the implicit censorship of non publication. I’m not saying that I’m the victim of any of this. I don’t think I am. But I know a lot of interesting writers who simply can’t get published.

40I’ve been reading a new biography of Wordsworth and realizing all over again how the English Romantic writers as they published their work-work that we consider as masterpieces of English writing--were simply rejected by all the major critics of the time. Wordsworth was called a fool, a childish writer, and they couldn’t see. Eventually, Wordsworth simply gave up and said: well, I’m writing for posterity.

41L. Z.:

42So "Tatlin!", through collages that never provide any direct authorial intrusion, nonetheless is intended to put through to the reader this sentiment of yours.

43G. D.:

44All right: "Tatlin!" is narrated by various disembodied authorial voices, and we’ve talked about the irony there. "The Aeroplanes at Brescia" is narrated by me, isn’t it? "Kafka stood on the sea-wall at Riva".

45L. Z.:

46But not in a first person narrative.

47G. D.:

48I am trying to be outside. A narrative is something told and you can do anything you want to with it. There is certainly a very conscious choice, to get back to voices. Voice, because until you have a voice, you can’t proceed; you don’t know what the phrases are going to be. I think the surest thing to say here, Laurence, is that my voice is always forbidden; as far as I know, I have never used it. I mean the one I’m using now to talk to you. I can’t use it for writing the stories.

49It’s like Alec Guiness in acting. He once said that when he creates a character, he starts with the voice and then he gets the walk and ultimately the make-up and so on. But that until he understands the voice, he can’t create a character.

50I remember solving the problem of "1830" and I said "Aha! Fair sailing!". I simply said: I am Edgar Allan Poe and every phrase is going to be Poe. One of the things about Poe is that he’s a show-off. He adores saying: "Look at me. I am a learned man, a sensitive man". So when the story starts it says "On the first night of the century Piazzi found the planet Ceres". That is Edgar Allan Poe showing off.

51I mean, I had to look all this up. I read about asteroids, I read Piazzi, and I said: let’s get a grand focus here. The place of discovery was of course Sicily where Persephone went into the underworld. The man’s name is mysterious: Piazzi, places, Monsieur Laplace. And the fact of finding a fragmented planet and of naming it Ceres, the mother of Persephone... So that’s the moon, earth, this world, underworld.

52L. Z.:

53Tatlin! ends with "Neil Armstrong, of Ohio, stepped with his left foot onto the dust of the moon".

54G. D.:

55The moon is Hades. We have absolute Greek authority for that. That’s where the souls of the dead are. Not until The Jules Verne Steam Balloon do I have any interest in "up". The steam balloon apparently belongs to some celestial force.

56Underground is everywhere in Tatlin!: Hades, underworld, netherland, the human subconscious as understood by Freud. But people are always finding things in it: the beautiful past is down in Lascaux. Holland, the Netherlands, is one of my model countries and with great effort was zoned off from the sea bottom. So I think there is a great question-mark at the end of Tatlin!: is going to the moon good or bad? Science is good; but then Butler and the Erewhonians made the decision that mechanical progress is a regression. Commander Armstrong is a military person, and we didn’t invent that rocket and spend all of that money to send a man on the moon; we invented it to destroy Russia in case there should be an exchange of ICBMS.

57L. Z.:

58Your personal stance is never made explicit, yet the text indirectly reveals what you rise up against.

59G. D.:

60I try to keep up as best as I can a complex of analogues--answers which literally mean responses. The dead moon that ends the whole book has been prefigured in the idea of flight with Tatlin’s glider, the aeroplanes, the lecture devoted to the Russian inventor of the rocket. It’s my idea of organizing the narrative. It’s a matter of repetition. Art thrives on repetition. Take music. If the tune didn’t come round a second time, our ear couldn’t hear it as music satisfyingly.

61For instance, the room in the story that is told in Poe’s voice is the room in which Lenin first addressed the first Soviet in the "Tatlin!" story. That is what the text is about: that this bit of red here in the carpet is going to turn up in another pattern in the carpet and is to be recognizable. One of the rules of painting that I learned at art-school is that all colors have to be duplicated. Sometimes it can be in a very subtle way. You’re painting a woman in a red dress; somewhere else in the picture you want maybe a mere dot of red. It’s a kind of answering.

62L. Z.:

63Why does violence always remain implicit in your text?

64G. D.:

65There’s the Russian Revolution in "Tatlin!", sometimes off-stage and sometimes on-stage. But what is more miserable than to be a great artist, and not be allowed to make the monument for the Third International or to manufacture the flying bicycle which you have designed; or even to paint pictures which cannot be exhibited?

66"The Aeroplanes at Brescia" is a kind of drum-roll all the way through of the fact that aeroplanes can bomb cities. And when I wrote this book Dresden, Hiroshima, London, Berlin had all been destroyed by bombs and the man who dropped the first bomb from an aeroplane, d’Annunzio, is in the story. "Robot" is against the background of the Second World War; it has the refugees on the French roads. I talked with a woman who was in one of those automobiles and about how, when a car stalled, the other French people would get out and roll the car into the ditch -- this is like chopping off the fingers of the person who can’t get into the lifeboat because he will sink it so the whole boat dies, and you must kill one person in order to save 50.

67"Heraklitos" is against a background of war. "1830" has various wars in it, and "The Dawn in Erewhon" is very much Second World War and Cold War story. Adriaan van Hovendaal saw Jews being lined up when he was a little boy. There’s only two sentences to that. So I think violence is everywhere implicit.

68L, Z.:

69A proportionately large part of your work is Utopian. It deals with happy people, in an ideal place where there is no violence.

70G. D.:

71Of course, because "The Dawn in Erewhon" is all about a Utopian vision. Communism is a Utopian vision, first story. In "The Aeroplanes at Brescia", there’s the implicit sense that aeroplanes were going to stop all wars; the Wright brothers wrote a famous letter to the War Department which paid no attention to it, saying: with the aeroplane, there can be no more troop movements because they can be observed from the air, and therefore no more wars.

72L. Z.:

73Why does your personal stance always remain so implicit?

74G. D.:

75My constructs are analytical exercises in certain tones, qualities. I do not think of myself as a fiction-writer. I make a sharp distinction between a narrative for the excitement of its unfolding and the denouement -- Maupassant, O. Henry, Tolstoy -- and what I helplessly call my stories. I’m not writing that kind of tale.

76For years, I have lectured on Osip Mandelstam and specifically The Noise of Time and the story about the crimes in the time of the revolution. Mandelstam, who is a poet, in writing prose wrote as carefully as a poet and he made vivid descriptions of certain events and conversations and memories, but never shaping them as a narrative with forward propulsion. It’s fun showing students how this very different kind of text is to be studied.

77The "Harbormaster" of Mandelstam begins with a long meticulous Flaubertian sentence: "The harbormaster, immaculate in his white starched tunic...". I make the students stop there and I say: what is being said about his tunic? And they say: it’s white. They don’t even look at the word "starched" and I make them look at how carefully that word is chosen. I say: How do you make starch? Flour, wheat. Now, what’s the story all about? It’s about how Odessa in Ukraine is the last open port in revolutionary Russia and, a few sentences down, Mandelstam mentions the grain ships. If those grain ships cannot come in, there is no bread, and we’re looking at a grain society. You realize that, in this one sentence, the poet has very, very carefully put his entire story.

78When I wrote Tatlin!, I said: I am going to try as close as I can to be as economical and as careful as Mandelstam. Now, whether I have or not is for the critics to decide. But that was my ideal. So it wasn’t Flaubertian realism, but Mandelstam’s way of trying to pack meaning everywhere without any throw-away. Consequently, there are a lot of readers, I’ve heard their complaints, who can’t read me at all. They aren’t used to close reading a hard text, and I’m not saying it’s worth it! I’m just pointing out that there are people who read by running their eye down the page and expect to see the detective with his pistol!

79L. Z.:

80In your text, the sign which I found most revealing of some intimate "voice" -- in so far as it is always there whatever is being mentioned or how -- is your use of transitions. Even when there are jumps from one subject to the other, or changes in register or in syntax, a pivot is always provided. It is usually something which seems to have no apparent reason for being there, the function of which is to give us a clue as to "What is not being said". It can be the repetition of a word, of an expression or given syntax, or a common denominator between seemingly alien themes...

81G. D.:

82... Or a jolt so severe that I expect you to stop and say: what in the name of God is this doing here?

83Somewhere in The Jules Verne Steam Balloon, there’s a rather naughty and salacious passage followed by a paragraph from Darwin’s book on orchids. We know that the transpollinators, the insects, think that the flower is quite literally their wife; a thing that Linnaeus wrote so entertainingly about that the Victorians had to censor his Swedish delight in it. The Latin meaning of some botanical terms we’re ignorant of and we go right ahead and use them. The word "orchid" means "testicle", and all of the identification of things like stamen and ovary is simply a description of human intercourse. Ruskin was so shocked that he wrote a botany book that pure English little girls could read, and took all of these things out, just in case they figured out from their Latin dictionary things they ought not to be reading at that tender age, so Ruskin thought.

84L. Z.:

85One strategy I found to be recurrent in your text and implicitly revealing of the interpretative direction which the text seems to favor. It consists in the context leading the reader to put forward a hypothesis, having to do with a potential relation between two elements in presence, A and B. The existence of this link is never ascertained by the text. However, a similar process is repeated between subsequent elements, C and D, Ε and F, until the impression is almost confirmed, although never actually proven to be true.

86G. D.:

87Good, Good. I think a text is held together by a surface logical sense, a plain coarse sense, and inevitably by a subterranean text that’s full of suggestiveness. It’s a lot of fun finding these curious Freudianisms in a text that I’m certain the writer did not all intend and would be embarrassed by. But the mind does that. That’s one thing Freudian analysis was at least on the right track of: that we do think on several levels at once. You can be talking about one subject and thinking about something quite different. Joyce was very much aware of this and allows Leopold Bloom to look at innocent things and then to record the subconscious things that they make him think of.

88L. Z.:

89For instance in "The Dawn in Erewhon", pages 168-169, in the scene between Adriaan van Hovendaal, Kaatje and the little boy Peerke. I was under the impression that there was a question asked deep down at the implicit level. Adriaan openly advocates broad-mindedness and freedom. Yet, through the intrusion of certain apparently unaccountable-for elements, it is as if he were faced with the fact that there are limits beyond which, if you tread, you fall into the negative side of freedom.

90G. D.:

91I think so.

92L. Z.:

93There’s the sense that it wouldn’t take much perhaps for an apparently innocent playing around with the little boy to lapse into perversion. That is never explicitly stated. Only the subterranean plane of meaning suggests this dimension.

94G. D.:

95Adriaan will turn out in "Apples and Pears" to be a kind of shepherd. He is almost too honest to be true. He has saved Sander, the young painter, from having fallen all the way into the sixties’ drug and sex scene. I hope my writing about love, even in various experimental ways, is first of all a protest.

96In my own sense of what I am doing, I see all of my stories somehow as the war between meanness and good nature. So many of my stories can be horribly misunderstood if you assume meanness on my part, or on the part of the characters in my books. Fourier is really my favourite philosopher. The whole purpose of the harmony was to replace constant meanness, jealousy, spitefulness and aggression with good nature. Fourier never even bothered about the problem of war because good-natured people don’t fight each other. They have other ways of solving their problems. So that the center of "Apples and Pears" is the simple line in Adriaan’s notebook: "to breed meanness out of human nature". And this will take quite some doing, because man is an animal.

97In my books, there’s the sense that the true nature of human life is both obvious and hidden. The fact that we exist is something we speak about with glorious tautology about, and yet we’re not happy. We commit suicide; we feel that life is unfair, horrible, a misery.

98L. Z.:

99When you yourself read a book, are you ever halted in the process because you feel no "voice" underlying, carrying the narrative forward?

100G. D.:

101I know I have rejected a writer whom I had defended, written about; this is Cormack Mc Carthy. His most recent novel is to be the ultimate cowboy novel of the West, as it really honest to God was, without any romance.

102It is so violent, so horrifying, knife-fights, eye-gougings, disembowelings, castrations, lies. What I perceived was that Cormack was not showing his hand at all as to whether he liked this or disapproved of it. Writers cannot be objective. Joyce’s famous objectivity in Dubliners and Ulysses is so slanted that you’re not fooled; you know that you’re in the hands of a man who is condemning Ireland. In Cormack, I could see no moral disapprobation; and when there’s no moral disapprobation, the space is wide-open for moral approbation.

103Two people at least have taken at face-value, and got terribly upset about it, my story in the Jules Verne Steam Balloon which is a lugubrious German of the 1930s talking about Hitler. The tone of voice here is uniformly ironic, and you have to watch every phrase. All the material in this "Bronze Leaves and Red" was carefully taken from Nazi propaganda. The narrative belongs to a middle-class small-town party-member who is completely taken in. What interested me was the self-delusion and the public illusion. I was hoping to get what to me is one of the most revolting things in the world: the lugubrious voice of chauvinism.

104It’s one of the duties of a writer, I think, to be that kind of an explainer, and the difference between imaginative writing and historical writing is that you can do a kind of mime of perverse mentalities.

105L. Z.:

106Some of your stories appear as purely formal constructs of historical references, without any explicit emotional touch. Obversely, lyricism prevails in the Erewhonian stories. Why such a clear-cut distinction, often amid a same collection?

107G. D.:

108I know I feel a distinction between a big world in which you know things happen -- stock markets crash; there are wars that we hear about but haven’t experienced -- and the life we lead in our bodies.

109I would point to what I think is my most successful lyricism, which is the sex life of the wasps in "Au Tombeau de Charles Fourier"; I did research on the nervous system of the wasp. What I was trying to do there was to show that there really is no distinction between what we call intellect and feeling, once you get down to a certain level.

110I think the creative urge first turns up as sexual play and then this is articulated, made into a useful grammar that can do any number of things. Joyce felt this and if you read A portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the first creative activity of the artist is the being of his adolescence and this takes very crude, nasty Irish guilty forms of going to the prostitutes and the houses. But then he slowly shows you how this sensitizing of the creative ability is moving towards something like the skill with which the book was written.

111There is a kind of beautiful and insidious structural poetry somewhere very deep in the human mind and in human desires that are involved with each other like the apple and the pear. If you get back far enough in evolution, an apple is a pear.

112Apples and pears are mentioned together throughout Greek poetry, Roman poetry and the whole history of painting right up through the modern. Picasso is absolutely magnificent in the combination of apples and pears, right down to peculiar drawings in which one eye of a face is pear-shaped, and the other apple-shaped. And in this I see somehow the mystery of male and female because the apple is male and the pear is female, in the great Christian symbolism where one is the redemption of the other. By the apple Adam and Eve fell. In many paintings of Madonnas, Mary is giving a pear to Jesus.

113I think the title means that our salvation is in our fall. It’s like "Wo es war soll Ich werden" in its implications that our best hope is also our greatest danger.

114L. Z.:

115Pattern, you mentioned earlier, implies repetition. Your favourite motifs are in fact repetitions with variations.

116G. D.:

117I think any writer is a composer. Beethoven sometimes uses a same tune about seven times. In literature, this goes back to a sense of winding images, which is how Pound constructed his Cantos. I think my method, because it is prose, is quite different from Pound’s.

118Analogies are meaningful in themselves, and a sustained analogy will give you a parallel. In "The Wooden Dove of Archytas", we have two narratives. One is a real event which my grand-mother Davenport used to tell me; she’d always have marvellous stories. This one was about a dead dove belonging to an Indian. The dove (named Dovey) having been killed by a door slammed by the wind, Ann Breadcrust asked for a match-box -- obviously early twentieth-century match-boxes were much larger than now -- to make a coffin for it. Ann Breadcrust, what a lovely name, and Jack Frost too; each would have another name, a Cherokee unpronounceable one meaning all sort of strange things which they would not expect the outsider to know.

119The wooden dove is also from Diogenes’ Lives of the Greek Philosophers, and it turns up in several accounts of automata. I got interested in automata when I did the illustrations for Hugh Kenner’s The Counterfeiters -- drawings like "Mr. W. B. Yeats’ Aspiration toward Mechanical Birdhood Collides with the Present State of Vaucanson’s Duck". I began to read about automata and about this wooden dove of Archytas which, on all accounts, actually flew; it ran by steam.

120So there are two narratives; one is the analogue of the other. They’re both somehow about the dove as spirit, which is a Christian thing. I’m probably not even a Christian! But there is such a Christian cultural hegemony in our Western world, that Jews, Mohammedan and atheists alike would recognize here a kind of meditation on the spiritus sanctus which took the form of a dove.

121L. Z.:

122You speak up recurrently against chauvinism, be it religious or political.

123G. D.:

124In The Drummer of the Eleventh North Devonshire Fusiliers, I very sparingly recount the death of Tom White. He was hanged at age 16 in 1830 for having sold his body to another military person, for a shilling perhaps. I think this is a barbarity beyond belief. So that’s the meaning of the title; my allusion is only a page long; but it is meant to be the ground on which all the rest, my Danish school, is built.

125What we know about Tom White is in a letter from Scrope Davies, a British aristocrat, to his friend Byron. Byron was in Greece on that part of his life that he wrote up later as Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Scrope Davies was in London, witnessed the hanging. The whole tone of the letter was: let’s both be more circumspect hereafter. He had noted several other notorious pederasts wearing judge’s robes... It’s a scene out of Goya; I don’t know a satirist horrifying enough. Goya’s the only counterpoint in my text; it’s like having a color field balanced by one dot of different color. I didn’t want to make a great deal out of it, except that titles are extremely symbolic. I checked the regiment out; it was in Spain and Goya’s etchings do depict things that Tom White would have seen.

126One person whom I really want to write about is Yanusc Korczak. He had an orphanage in Poland in the 1920s; which was -- all 173 orphans -- taken off and gassed at Treblinka. I think it’s the most moving event of our time. I’ve discussed this with many people. I was talking with a Jewish friend the other day who was telling me things that a rabbi had said to him. Six million as a number simply tears the gears of the mind to pieces; I don’t know what six million grains of sand, butterbeans or marbles look like. The rabbi had said: you think about the holocaust by thinking about one Jew who has an individuality and a name, and a destiny and a fate and he would have had a future except that Hitler took it with awful violence. And then two Jews. And then somehow the 173 orphans of Korczak. Orphans who thought they were going on a picnic. Korczak knew exactly where they were going but he wouldn’t tell them.

127And the bastards who stuffed them in with their boots are still alive, sitting in Germany right now, drinking beer, farting, wishing Hitler were back. But the triumph of man -- even if the Greek tragedy were not there -- is that Korczak, who was a doctor, an officer of the Polish army and as such did not have to go with the children, insisted on going with them and dying with them.

128L. Z.:

129A large part of your work concentrates on apparently prelapserian situations though.

130G. D.:

131Why not? One writer cannot do everything. I would like to think that I am deliberately avoiding lots of subject matter and themes which I feel are being beautifully handled by other writers. Why try to outdo John Updike in the anatomy of American marriages and the agonies of divorce? I couldn’t, of course.

132In a sense, the word "classic" means when a work of art has defined sometimes forever its subject. What playwright would dare write a play called Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, a study in indecision, Renaissance policy, Œdipus complex and all the rest? One says it’s Shakespeare’s, and is done. There are very great writers who like to redo; Racine redoing the Phaedra, though his play is quite different from that of Euripides. One of the problems of any person who wants to make something is to find a place that isn’t trampled on. Don’t go to the waterhole where all the animals go to drink. I learnt from Kafka, who found a place where no one else had been before. It was an awful struggle and he really didn’t feel he’d done it; he didn’t publish The Trial because he thought it was too Dickensian.

133L. Z.:

134Your text recurrently offers passages quite similar in their Erewhonian characters and situations.

135G. D.:

136One thing which I do over and over is to introduce a real live Cupid, an Eros. People who’ve read all of my works probably get bored with this. The Greek genius for love was Eros, a little boy. In Homer’s time, it was a little girl named Peitho. There’s a drawing from a very archaic moment in Greek history, one of the few visual images we have, of Peitho and her brother Eros. It’s in "Au Tombeau de Charles Fourier", page 75. And for some reason, Peitho got dropped out.

137There’s a lot of work being done on Greek sexuality now because we’ve had it so wrong; we’ve so sentimentalized it; lots of it has had to be kept in the closet. For years, to the Victorians, it was simply a horrifying fact. You had to forget that the Greeks were all pederasts, that they loved children; Sappho loved pre-adolescent girls. Greek emotional life was entirely based on the sentimental chasing of children, which Plato tried to dignify as teacher and pupil, and which the generals of the army tried to dignify as making stalwart recruits and brave young men.

138The people are just now facing up to the fact that all of Greek emotional life involved a little male child, whom they called Eros, the god of love, and who rather shockingly is always around his mommy Aphrodite. Ezra Pound with some wisdom once said we should think of all the Greek gods as states of mind. Pallas Athena is the intelligence by which things requiring great skill are made, architecture, weaving, all the manufacturing arts, as well as philosophy. Wisdom; that Greek word Sophia has a very wide range; it could mean hunting a rabbit wisely and successfully, or it could mean drawing the blueprint for the Parthenon whose church it was. Alright, Aphrodite is obviously what we call sex. Hermes is slyness, cleverness, deceit; the Greeks would have a god of deceit!

139L. Z.:

140What is the incentive in your case for choosing one period more than the other. That is, you were saying that in ancient Greece, in Homer’s time, a little girl was the center, and later on a little boy.

141G. D.:

142Peitho got lost entirely. I don’t think she had any Roman counterpart, though Eros had a Roman counterpart. Actually, he had two. One is so shameful that we don’t talk about him; that is Ganymede, from which we get the word "catamite", etymologically.

143L. Z.:

144But you associate such different centuries, such varied elements in your work, with flashbacks and diachronic juxtapositions; why privilege the Eros era rather than the Peitho one?

145G. D.:

146Because that’s the age from, say, Heraclitus to Plato--that’s about 200 years. After a certain time the Greeks were simply rationalists pretty much as we are.

147Nowadays, we may have a religion for some sentimental or family reason, or even for philosophical reasons or pure belief, but that great age of faith is, we know, gone. The Greek age of faith belonged to, I would say, the age of Homer which we now know is around 2,000 BC. It was 1,000 when I was in school, but they keep moving it back. When Cicero wrote his treatise on the gods, he was sitting in the chair of Voltaire. He was an ironic educated enlightened Roman, and he felt the idea of the gods was magnificently poetical, cultural and folklorish, but he didn’t believe in any of them even though the Romans kept, as we do, all the forms. The Senate could not open unless the augurs had looked at the liver of a poor cow or fowl.

148L. Z.:

149All this accounts for your constant parallel of modern society and classical times.

150G. D.:

151Adriaan is an Orpheus and his Eurydike is both boy and girl, a bisexuality which seemed to me to be properly classical insofar as the name Adriaan is for the emperor Hadrian who loved a boy, and Hovendaal means the garden-keeper, the gardener, le Jardinier. He is Hadrian the Epicurean and I’m recognizing Epicurus as the best defined naturalist philosopher and realist.

152L. Z.:

153Orpheus is a recurrent figure in your text.

154G. D.:

155Orpheus invented the love of boys after the loss of Eurydike. The philosophical excuse the Greeks are writing in their myth is that he could only love Eurydike, and since Eurydike is locked away forever until he dies and goes to Hades, he invented the love of boys and got torn to pieces for it by the Bacchantes.

156The detached head is in Keats’s "Pot of Basil" which he got out of The Anatomy of Melancholia. It comes into French literature with Stendhal, the head of Julien Sorel. Then we have Hérodias (Trois Contes) by Flaubert; and it becomes one of the symbols of exactly a century ago, the 1890s, with Aubrey Beardsley, and Wilde’s Salome which turns into that dreadful opera Salome of Strauss. I take the beheading of Orpheus as a kind of castration, not of the testicles but of the penis itself, since those are the two heads in the male body. There’s a kind of threatened sterility which Adriaan interprets as great reason to cherish what we do have.

157L. Z.:

158"The Dawn in Erewhon" is filtered through the consciousness of your character Adriaan, as are "Apples and Pears" and "The Death of Picasso".

159G. D.:

160This drawing here is a pen and ink quotation of an imaginary Dutch painting which is a repainting of a Picasso. All of the drawings in those stories are meant to be collages cut out of Adriaan van Hovendaal’s sketchbook; that’s the whole point. And I couldn’t get the publishers to understand that at all.

161What am I doing in the text? I’m making a kind of diary and philosophical workbook for a Dutch philosopher who does not exist. As he does not exist, I have to go through the labor of making what drawings he would have made; and Sander’s drawings too, since there is no Sander either.

162The text in "Apples and Pears" is suspect at every point. It has to be because it is written by Adriaan van Hovendaal, who gives himself away many times. Presumably, I’m some kind of translator into English. These are the notebooks in which Adriaan writes when he wants to; that is, when he’s in the mood for drafting passages.

163L. Z.:

164Why such a character as Adriaan and the pastoral scenes he records?

165G. D.:

166A lot of my erotic writing, I would like to think, is a response to what I see as the handling of sexual matters so ruthly, horribly, and nastily. I grew up in a society that was repressed. I think I was personally fairly repressed. What I would like to be understood is that affection is affection and that the restraints placed on it are verging on the inhuman.

167The fact of sexuality has been treated, let’s restrict it to American and British writing during my life-time and just before, through all sort of things as degrading as power over women, as some kind of elaborate macho game. I think I have been trying tο return the sexual feelings to something like their excitement in early adolescence. Bonnie Jean? once made this remark which I consider astute, she said: "There’s no sex in Guy’s writing; it’s all pre-sex."

168I was also trying to create little worlds in which there is a kind of radical, charming, innocence to sex, and a lot of people have read this quite differently.

169L. Z.:

170People ask: why so many scenes describing a similar initiation of children to sexuality? When I read your works, I was under the impression that, every time, each was included in such a context as to shed a different light on it, at the implicit level, and on the meaning of the text as a whole consequently. It wasn’t mere repetition; it was a repetition with variations.

171For instance, it is the succession of various such scenes which makes the reader understand that there is a progression on the implicit plane: that of Adriaan being lead to asking himself questions about how far you can go into freedom without falling into perversion.

172G. D.:

173One thing I make a point of, and am very exacting toward myself about, is not repeating myself. For instance, there is a story which I’ve spent three years on. It’s called "A Table of Green Fields", a Shakespearean quotation. I wrote the story, and I rewrote it, and it has twice been accepted for publication, and I have twice withdrawn it from publication. It just doesn’t suit me. I think there’s a little voice somewhere inside that tells me: Guy, you’ve done this before.

174One of the editors that I took it away from evidenced Brancusi, who made 15 and 20 versions of the same subject, the "oiseau", the "kiss", refining it each time. But I rejected that. I said: "No. Though there are many things which I will salvage from this story, and do something else with."

175Karl Marx took the idea of monotony -- as being the one dehumanizing thing -- out of work, and gave this as a principle for changing the modes of production and getting some sort of variety in. Freud took the simple principle that a suppressed desire will turn into a monster. Fourier wrote about a Russian woman who was systematically smothering all the little girls who were her serfs. Fourier guessed accurately that if society would allow her to love the girls, then she would love them; she would not kill them. But society would not and so she murdered them. He seems to me to be the prophet certainly no one has listened to. He said: "You must not have sameness everywhere in society; you must have diversity."

176Sameness is entropy and death. Information is always difference, for the human mind as well as for the computer.

177L. Z.:

178So, paradoxically, repetition in your text advocates the right to difference. Do you mean to convey the sense that there should be freedom in everything, but that total freedom of one person to do as he or she pleases might well encroach upon other people’s freedom?

179G. D.:

180I hope I am not preaching. There is indignation. I hope I am Christian and humanist enough to say we should not hang 16 year olds, for something that could not possibly be a crime except for an arbitrary taboo.

181L. Z.:

182In your work, sexuality is never an aggression.

183G. D.:

184Some critic felt it worthwhile to say that never once in my writing is there any sexual engagement without the full consent of both parties. I had never thought of that at all. I am not interested and I am not that kind of a writer at all. I could never write a story about, say, a rape. As a reporter I think I could write it up if it were a reality, if I were in a position to know the truth about William Kennedy Smith and whatever went on down there. But it would never be of interest to me as a fiction writer.

185L. Ζ.:

186Several times I heard you speak against pornography.

187G. D.:

188Pornography is almost impossible to define. Of course legally, the wisest of legislatives have simply to argue in a circle that pornography is what is offensive to people who consider themselves decent.

189Here’s an instructive tale. Robert Mapplethorpe, now dead of AIDS quite young, did a lot of photographs. I don’t like any of them, but anyway. The National Endowment for the Humanities had a traveling retrospective exhibit of his photographs; ninety percent of them were still-lifes with flowers; some two percent were, as the papers said, homoerotic. Naked males, usually black, with enormous machinery and alas several pictures of naked children which I don’t think anybody in Europe would look at twice except to say: cute kids; and the fact that they have no clothes on would not bother a Dane, or German, or French, or Russian. These were denounced as child pornography just because of nudity. The sheriff of Cincinnati came in and took one look and arrested the entire staff. It became quite a horrible legal problem, because at one point he was arresting the United States government which was the sponsor of the traveling show. The show was never closed; it was in the papers; everyone took sides. The up-shot was that about two million people came and looked at the pictures, whereas normally the Cincinnati Art Museum, if it is only showing Van Gogh, or Monet, or Cézanne, only gets a few hundred interested cultivated people.

190Well, there were two bible-packing fundamentalist religious women in their gingham dresses who wanted to come and see Satan with their own eyes. They had such filthy minds apparently that the phrase "child-pornography" lead them to believe God knows what. Anyway, they looked at the exhibit and they looked at it again and finally they gave up and came to the guard and said: "We’ve been told there’s child-pornography here and we can’t find it." And they were terribly disappointed; they had seen the pictures of the children and had said: "What cute kids." Apparently they wanted to see children fucking, or masturbating, or leering at one another. So it is entirely a cultural definition.

191I have a Jewish friend who was not allowed to go and hear Wanda Landowska, the great harpsichordist, in New York, because she was playing in short sleeves. His orthodox parents noted the fact. They loved music; they were cultivated people; but they would not allow their son to go and see a woman in her 60’s performing on stage with naked elbows. This is pretty high-class! But it is the principle for all ideals of obscenity.

192Pierre Loti, I believe it was, records that in Tahiti, European sailors seeing the entire populace stark naked took off their clothes too. Some were in an obscene state to the Tahitians, as their foreskins were retracted, and they were thus, to the Polynesian eye, naked. Now you can’t get more refined than that, but that’s the Tahitian sense of decent and obscene.

193My writing after all is very mild when compared to some. I would say that my sexual scenes have a certain deliberateness in that they are anti-pornography. I don’t think I ever offer sex as something to slurp over, gloat over. Whether my passages are sexually arousing or not I do not know. Its according to the mind and the imagination that you bring to it.

194L. Z.:

195Your elliptic style, whatever the subject broached, invariably triggers the reader’s imagination with a few given chosen words.

196G. D.:

197I think that a beautifully worked out algebraic problem is as sexy as courtship. In the United States we have this awful almost Berlin wall between the eye and certain parts of the body. But the mind is very much a sexual organ, and the sexual act as far as we know is almost wholly imaginary. I don’t mean nonexistent; I mean imaginary in the sense of reinforced. When the bull mounts the cow, we have raw instinct, a Pavlovian response to a smell, and thus we get a calf. But homo sapiens has made the appetite for the reproductive act and all of its fringes much larger than necessity. We could stay alive on dry bread and water, but as a matter of fact we have such glorious things as French cuisine. I think sexuality is exactly the same. If we were limited to making a baby the way the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church dictates, we literally would be bull and cow. As a matter of fact, the sexual imagination has generated vast amount of good poetry, painting, music.

198There’s a scene in The Drummer in which Pascal is explaining botany or geology in wonderful long words to his girl-friend, while making love to her. They’re being as sexy as they can. I think I may be doing that too. Making love to the reader while using big words. I went to great trouble to get this vast erudition right because I don’t want them talking nonsense. I’m hoping this is a comic scene. Sex is an imaginative act.

199L, Z.:

200Speaking about erudition, your historical references are almost all drawn from reality and handed down unchanged, aren’t they?

201G. D.:

202Yes, but I wouldn’t say I’m a historical writer. I choose historical moments which, I was about to say are fairly well known, but as a matter of fact, several times I chose times where I think the ordinary educated person is mystified as I was mystified. For instance, "The Antiquities at Elis" deals with Pausanias; he’s first century, and he’s describing a Greece that has gone. That’s the whole point of the story. He doesn’t understand any of the places he visits. And the time of C. Musonius Rufus is not one that your ordinary educated person can rapidly fill in; nor the philosophical placing of Rufus, who was Epictetus’s teacher.

203There’s also manipulation. My uses of historical events are all meant to be naive. In "Tatlin!" for instance, I have the battleship Aurora actually firing on the Winter palace. That never happened. What I’m reflecting there is the fact that the Russians rewrote their history. They have an official mythology which they have amended over the years; for instance deleting Trotsky from photographs, from the history books. This is partially a device that I find charming in Kafka’s novel Amerika. He simply makes up a United States, knowing that he’s got it wrong; but he’s writing a parable, and this adds to the mysteriousness and I think to the validity of it. I’ve never been to Russia, I don’t know what St Petersburg looks like. So I went ahead and frankly put in things, about which an educated person is going to say: this isn’t right.

204L. Z.:

205Do you do that to give a sense that what is handed down to you is necessarily filtered through some kind of ideology, in the very choice of events, remembered or obliterated?

206G. D.:

207It’s filtered through lots of layers of perception; again my transparencies.

208I’m not a realist. And I think realism in the arts is impossible. Art by its very nature is the very opposite of reality though it can be a mirror of reality. But a strawberry-cake in a mirror is not a strawberry-cake, right? It can’t be tasted or smelled; it can only be gazed at. So realism is a wonderful trick. Nabokov in his Harvard lectures used to shout at his students that Madame Bovary was absolutely no different from Mother Goose; that it was a fairy-tale right on. And of course he was right. The realist simply chooses certain details to give a sometimes sustained illusion. I don’t know of a more romantic writer than Émile Zola; that is all the realism has pretty well drained from Zola, though it hasn’t drained from Flaubert. It could be argued that Alice in Wonderland is far more realistic about the British psyche than Zola’s novels are about the French psyche.

209L. Z.:

210Your writing is not a mere juxtaposition; it’s organized. I was wondering whether that had any link with an ontological perception of the world.

211G. D.:

212If I have ever achieved any understanding of the world, it has lasted no more than two or three hours. I am fascinated by Santayana, who is a philosopher not read anymore. He wrote I think the most beautiful and persuasive of philosophical treatises; it makes perfect sense to me all the way through. It’s called The Realms of Being. He is an absolute materialist.

213Matter is. Matter somehow accommodates something called spirit, which is utterly inexplicable, but we know it when we see it; and when it’s not present in the body, the body is dead. He says we might as well recognize the fact that there is a world which exists intermittently, in fascinating profusion, called "The Realm of Essences"; by essence he means our perception of anything at all in the mind or outside the mind but particularly the real world (everything we can see, hear, feel and taste).

214What fascinates him is that these perceptions must be unique. When you look at the fire, Laurence, your accumulated remembered essences (what Freud would call the unconscious) obviously makes your perception of the fire different from mine. So that the problem of other minds he solves by simply admitting that no two minds can experience the same thing. All essences are unique and non-reoccurring. This is where Proust was important to him. Proust will involve you in the magic of a Venitian dining-room; and then volumes later he will take you back where Swann had gone, specifically in search of this previous happiness and charm. And of course it isn’t there and it never is there. An essence never repeats.

215L. Z.:

216Do you adhere to his thoughts?

217G. D.:

218What I said was that he can make me feel that I understand the world, but not consistently.

219L. Z.:

220So when you are writing, you don’t have any sense that...

221G. D.:

222When I am writing I’m making a construct. I think that is one of the reasons people make any work of art. You fix a particular moment.

223But we all know that artists have rejected their work; or that the fact of making a work of art is cathartic. You free yourself. Eliot said we should never write poetry to involve ourselves in emotion, but to free ourselves from emotion. And I think I have freed myself from lots of emotions.

224It freed me to write. When I wrote the very first story, "The Aeroplanes at Brescia", it was the distance, the strangeness, by this time the mythological aspect--the early aeroplane is myth--which appealed to me. The first aeroplanes I saw were biplanes; this would be in the 1930s. I was aware of the heroic invention of this strange machine. It was practically the fulfilment of the Arabian Nights, the flying carpet fantasy.

225L. Ζ.:

226In your stories, we get the feeling that ancient Greece or modern Denmark symbolize a certain freedom.

227G. D.: I’ve probably idealized them. As an observer of the world I live in, there are certain freedoms that one admires. This is inevitable. It’s an American thing and it goes back to the 19th century Americans who went to live in Italy, and to those who went to France traditionally in the 20th century. Henry Miller could only be published in Paris. The United States has a very complex history of tolerance and repression. We’re a country the constitution of which says should have absolute freedom, like modern Denmark, of the press for instance. Of course, we’ve never had it.

228Exile seems to be a thing that is very good for literature. Look at the British love of exotic places; Robert Louis Stevenson in the South Seas. Graham Greene spent most of his long life wandering around Africa, South America. One of the very best British poets at the moment, Christopher Middleton, has lived in Texas for the last thirty years. Norman Douglas lived in Italy for most of his life.

229I’m not an exile. I feel perfectly at home in the United States. But I think I’m a kind of internal exile in that I don’t write about the United States. Someone once figured out that there are only three pages in all six of my books of stories so far that are set in the United States, and those are not contemporary. There’s the part of "The Wooden Dove of Archytas" set in early 20th century.

230L. Z.:

231Is that in reaction to modern America?

232G. D.:

233My concept of what I call a story obviously has nothing to do with expressing myself or recording drama that I have been involved in. My life has been exemplarily dull, charmingly dull. I love routine. Boredom is not boredom for me. My life has not been adventurous in any way, so there’s probably a raw element of romantic distance; writing about something that is far more interesting than anything you have experienced.

234L. Z.:

235Do you write with a virtual reader in mind?

236G. D.:

237I don’t think so. No! you can’t. Readers are so different from one another. I suppose you write in a kind of blank faith. Who did Proust have in mind? We don’t know. Joyce?

238L. Ζ.:

239I suppose when you write there is always the image of someone you are addressing the text to.

240G. D.:

241No, no. I think all art is made for the universe, as it were. I was impressed years and years ago by Walt Whitman saying that a work of art creates its own audience. He had written Leaves of Grass; he had sold three copies on the street corner; he had written several anonymous reviews; the poor man was totally unknown. He got fired from his government office for writing Leaves of Grass and that’s when he saw that a work of art makes its own audience. We have several examples of this: Finnegans Wake, Ulysses; in a sense Proust. There was no wild reception. I was reading the other day some important stuffed-shirt contemporary critic who made an article on the important books for a given year, something like 1922. Proust’s Swann’s Way had been published but he did not mention it. As a matter of fact Proust was largely unknown.

242L. Z.:

243Do you write for an average reader, for a more educated one? For someone whom you intend to do some research work? Or do you suppose everyone can read you without any research work, for the exotic appeal to the imagination of the allusions?

244G. D.:

245It’s a matter of different thresholds and levels. I don’t know what readers know. I’m very conscious of teaching when, for instance, I have the cosmology of the Dogons and I don’t expect people to know that; even the most educated people. So it’s according to where your historical information coincides with that of the text.

246I think it’s an illusion that all art should be for everybody. That is a feature of our world and it has caused enormous trouble. For instance, censorship and alarm about literature which can corrupt people’s morals keep intensifying for the simple reason that we now write with the understanding that everybody who exists should have access to a work of art. I’m writing for grown-ups.

247It’s my impression that I write for very few people and that I write for people who like and are capable of enjoying ideas as things in themselves. So I would say it’s not a matter of editing my work with forty footnotes a page, but of recognizing the pattern, harmony, texture of the text. I would say the spirit of the text if that makes any sense.


248- Tatlin! (1974).

249- Da Vinci’s Bicycle (1979).

250- Eclogues (1981).

251- Apples and Pears (1984).

252- The Jules Verne Steam Balloon (1987).

253- The Drummer of the Eleventh North Devonshire Fusiliers (1990).

254- A Table of Greenfields (1993).


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