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By November 16, 2018No Comments

Source : Literary Hub   –   Emily Temple


Some books transcend their authors. We read them, and think about them, and discuss them in classrooms, online, or amongst ourselves, and in doing so we often come to a general cultural conclusion about what they mean. But the dirty little secret about that is that we’re all just making it up. There’s only one real authority on any given text, and even that person isn’t necessarily an authority (literary theorists and readers in general are often split on this issue). But still, the more you know about the novels that form the basis of our literary culture, the better. To that end, I dug around a little to find out what the authors of some of our most oft-interpreted novels had to say about their own masterpieces.

Norwegian Wood is, as you’ve said, the only one [of my novels] written in a realistic style. I did this intentionally, of course. I wanted to prove to myself that I could write a 100% realistic novel. And I think this experiment proved helpful later on. I gained the confidence I could write this way; otherwise it would have been pretty hard to complete the work that came afterwards. For me, writing a novel is like having a dream. Writing a novel lets me intentionally dream while I’m still awake. I can continue yesterday’s dream today, something you can’t normally do in everyday life. It’s also a way of descending deep into my own consciousness. So while I see it as dreamlike, it’s not fantasy. For me the dreamlike is very real.

. . .

Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren’t any solutions provided. Instead several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the kind of novel I set out to write.”

“There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower. There’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence, or better still, on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to. But I didn’t know that before or while I wrote it. I can see now what I was doing on the last page. I was finishing the story, transfiguring and disseminating the haunting with which the book begins. Yes, I was doing that; but I was also doing something more. I think I was pleading for that wall or that bench or that tower or that tree when I wrote the final words.”

“I wanted to do something sad. I’d done some funny stuff and some heavy, intellectual stuff, but I’d never done anything sad. And I wanted it not to have a single main character. The other banality would be: I wanted to do something real American, about what it’s like to live in America around the millennium. . . . It’s a weird book. It doesn’t move the way normal books do. It’s got a whole bunch of characters. I think it makes at least an in-good-faith attempt to be fun and riveting enough on a page-by-page level so I don’t feel like I’m hitting the reader with a mallet, you know, “Hey, here’s this really hard impossibly smart thing. Fuck you. See if you can read it.” I know books like that and they piss me off.”

“As for the novel, I’m still sweating it out. Good things are being said and the publisher’s hopes are high, but I’m playing it cool with my stomach pitching a bitch and my dream life most embarrassing. I keep dreaming about Tuskegee and high school, all the scenes of test and judgment. I’ll be glad when it’s over. The prologue has caused some comments, but I don’t think Rahv [then-editor of the Partisan Review] has decided what he thinks about the book as a whole. He does know that it isn’t Kafka as others mistakenly believe. I tell them, I told Langston Hughes in fact, that it’s the blues, but nobody seems to understand what I mean.”

“It started with a joke that my wife made. There was a journalist coming to interview me for my first novel. And my wife said, Wouldn’t it be funny if this person came in to ask you these serious, solemn questions about your novel and you pretended that you were my butler? We thought this was a very amusing idea. From then on I became obsessed with the butler as a metaphor.

. . .

Jeeves was a big influence. Not just Jeeves, but all butler figures that walked on in the backgrounds of films. They were amusing in a subtle way. It wasn’t slapstick humor. There was some pathos in the way they would come out with a dry line for something that would normally require a more frantic expression. And Jeeves is the pinnacle of that.

By then I was very consciously trying to write for an international audience. It was a reaction, I think, against a perceived parochialism in British fiction of the generation that preceded mine. Looking back now I don’t know if that was a just charge or not. But there was a conscious feeling among my peers that we had to address an international audience and not just a British one. One of the ways I thought I could do this was to take a myth of England that was known internationally—in this case, the English butler.”

“[I]s The Handmaid’s Tale a “feminist” novel? If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings—with all the variety of character and behavior that implies—and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes. In that sense, many books are “feminist.”

. . .

Is The Handmaid’s Tale antireligion? Again, it depends what you may mean by that. True, a group of authoritarian men seize control and attempt to restore an extreme version of the patriarchy, in which women (like 19th-century American slaves) are forbidden to read. Further, they can’t control money or have jobs outside the home, unlike some women in the Bible. The regime uses biblical symbols, as any authoritarian regime taking over America doubtless would: They wouldn’t be Communists or Muslims.”

“I suppose the only honest answer to [the question of why I left black characters out of the novel] is that Giovanni’s Room came out of something I had to face. I don’t quite know when it came, though it broke off from what later turned into Another Country. Giovanni was at a party and on his way to the guillotine. He took all the light in the book, and then the book stopped and nobody in the book would speak to me. I thought I would seal Giovanni off into a short story, but it turned into Giovanni’s Room. I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the “Negro problem.” The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it. I might do it differently today, but then, to have a black presence in the book at that moment, and in Paris, would have been quite beyond my powers.

. . .

I wrote four novels before I published one, before I’d even left America. I don’t know what happened to them. When I came over they were in a duffel bag, which I lost, and that’s that. But the genesis of Giovanni’s Room is in America. David is the first person I thought of, but that’s due to a peculiar case involving a boy named Lucien Carr, who murdered somebody. He was known to some of the people I knew—I didn’t know him personally. But I was fascinated by the trial, which also involved a wealthy playboy and his wife in high-level society. From this fascination came the first version of Giovanni’s Room, something called Ignorant Armies, a novel I never finished. The bones of Giovanni’s Room and Another Country were in that.”

“An early book, driven by high spirits, happiness & the liberating spirit of the times. . . . Without quite knowing it, I had stumbled upon my theme—impurity. The impurity of the human compound. . . . On my rereading Portnoy’s Complaint at 80, I am shocked & pleased—shocked that I could have been so reckless, pleased that I should have been reckless.”

“[Setting The Left Hand of Darkness in a world without gender] was my ignorant approach to feminism. I knew just enough to realize that gender itself was coming into question. We didn’t have the language yet to say that gender is a social construction, which is how we shorthand it now. But gender—what is gender? Does it need to be male, does it need to be female? Gender had been thrown into the arena where science fiction goes in search of interesting subjects to revisit and re-question. I thought, Well, gee, nobody’s done that. Actually, what I didn’t know is that, slightly before me, Theodore Sturgeon had written a book called Venus Plus X. It’s worth checking out, a rare thing, an early male approach to considering gender as—at least partly—socially constructed. Sturgeon was a talented, warm-hearted writer, so it’s also interesting in itself. Stylistically, he was not a great writer, but he was a very good storyteller and a very good mind. But I, of course, went off in a different direction. You could say I was asking myself, What does it mean to be a woman, or a man, male or female? And what if you weren’t?”

“Around the time of Samurai, I had a very bad argument with my father. So I thought, We don’t pick our parents. If we picked, I would have picked something better than this. And then I had an idea for a book, or, anyway, a question: what would be necessary for it to be possible to pick? I think interesting books explore new paradigms. First you think of the paradigm—it might be: how does a chess player see the world? how does a statistician see the world?—then you look for the form that would make this work. But that kind of book does take time to execute well. It’s not just a question of writing so many thousand words a day.”

“I shall never regret Lolita. She was like the composition of a beautiful puzzle—its composition and its solution at the same time, since one is a mirror view of the other, depending on the way you look. Of course she completely eclipsed my other works—at least those I wrote in English: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Bend Sinister, my short stories, my book of recollections; but I cannot grudge her this. There is a queer, tender charm about that mythical nymphet.”

“I am indeed interested in self-deception. Realist fiction presupposes that the author has access to the truth. It implies a superiority of the author to his or her comically blundering characters. The Corrections was written as a comedy, a somewhat angry comedy, and so the self-deception model worked perfectly. Self-deception is funny, and the writer gets to aggressively inflict painful knowledge on one character after another.

In Freedom, the recurrent metaphor is sleepwalking. Not that you’re ­deceiving yourself—you’re simply asleep, you’re not paying attention, you’re in some sort of dream state. The Corrections was preoccupied with the ­unreal, willfully self-deceptive worlds we make for ourselves to live in. You know, enchantment has a positive connotation, but even in fairy tales it’s not a good thing, usually. When you’re under enchantment, you’re lost to the world. And the realist writer can play a useful and entertaining role in violently breaking the spell. But something about the position this puts the writer in, as a possessor of truth, as an epistemological enforcer, has come to make me uncomfortable. I’ve become more interested in joining the characters in their dream, and experiencing it with them, and less interested in the mere fact that it’s a dream.”



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