Sound figures significantly in Infinity: The Story of a Moment. What was your first language? Is there any decision implied in your choosing to write in English? (Is this the language in which you dream?)
English is the only language I can write in. French was my first language but at the age of six I was sent to an English school and although I am bilingual as a reader and speaker I find I cannot write in French.
In some of my dreams I speak in English or hear English spoken, in others French, and occasionally Arabic or German or some language I do not recognize when I wake up.
Were you surprised by the response to What Ever Happened to Modernism? The book has received a lot of press. In Infinity: The Story of a Moment Mr Pavone, the central figure, is critical of many things: the US, the current state of art, etc. In fact he foresees "the end of civilization." He sees a decline in standards: "I do not say according to the highest standards, he said, but according to the highest standards that still prevail." Are you so dire?
I was amazed. Not by the negativity but by the inability to read simple prose evinced by most reviewers, even those who were 'positive'. Yet many people who read books but are not reviewers, and who have written to me or put up reviews on blogs and so on, seem to have had no difficulty grasping its basic and rather simple argument. On the other hand I should not have been surprised, since in a late chapter, talking of contemporary English culture, I noted its closed and reactionary nature, and how even the 'friends' of those artists I was interested in, were in effect 'false friends', reading Nabokov, for example, as a kind of super-realist. I had hoped, though, that those who attacked me would have read what I had written and not what they imagined me to have written. The book is open-ended, and I had, in my more optimistic moments, imagined it would spark a serious debate. There is, for example, a real question to be asked about who is ultimately right in the argument I set up between Francis Bacon, asserting in his conversations with David Sylvester, that though Rembrandt let the paint lead him, he also used his painterly skills and rich experience to help it along, and Duchamp's belief that all such 'help' will always be deeply tainted and totally unreliable. And there are other areas of genuine debate. But it seemed the bulk of reviewers preferred to dismiss the book with snooty and offensive remarks (such as the suggestion that if I didn't like the English culture I was living in, why did I not just leave these shores?) rather than engage with it.
Infinity is a novel, and though Tancredo Pavone says many things with which I agree, he also says much I disagree with or find ridiculous. He is based on the wonderful reclusive Italian composer, Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988), whose pronouncements about everything from rhythm in music to beautiful women and the future of civilisation are a curious mixture of profundity and bullshit. In fact it was this mixture I found so appealing and tried to mimic.
I see something of Gert Hofmann's Lichtenberg in Mr Pavone. Tell me about this enigmatic character.
I love Hofmann's novels and his last one, about Lichtenberg and the little flower girl, most of all, perhaps. But I feel Hofmann sticks close to the fascinating figure of Lichtenberg, whereas I am much more distanced from Giacinto Scelsi – which is why I called my character Pavone (Peacock) and not Scelsi, and why we see him through the prism of someone else and not directly.
Does a writer speak for other people? What is the correct configuration or responsibility as you see it?
I'm not sure I understand the question. One tries to catch an elusive something that will not let one rest until one has had a stab at turning it into a narrative of sorts. That something can be a rhythm, a character, an incident or a combination of all these. One's responsibility is to the elusive thing and to that alone. Of course by the time I have finished I usually feel I have not only failed to do what I had set out to do, but that I have also lost the stab of excitement which set me going in the first place. Very occasionally I feel I have captured something – and that makes everything worthwhile.
I want to talk about your story "He" in connection with your ideas about modernism. A work can contain the seeds of its own undoing, its own acknowledged failure. I think "He" is one of your best because it suggests a more honest way of practicing—a way that makes modernism not a brief epoch in the history of literature but a form of revelation. (Please comment.)
I'm touched that you should respond to that old story. I wrote it along with several others in the late seventies I think, when I felt I wanted to chase my feelings down all the way until everything was revealed, including the source of the need to chase things down in this way. So they formed instances of a kind of self-destroying machine. Tony Rudolf, bless him, published four of them at his Menard Press under the title Four Stories, and I appended an epigraph from Klee's Notebooks: 'White, in other words, is ever present, and must be crowded out step by step.' This ruthlessness or absoluteness, was a necessary phase, but there came a moment when I felt it was becoming a bit of a tick or habit, and slowly weaned myself of it. But that desire is there in my constitution, I notice, and resurfaces regularly (as in Goldberg: Variations ).
Infinity is dedicated to the composer Jonathan Harvey. In The Singer on the Shore you quote him as saying, "I am a composer first and foremost and so you will have to forgive me if I do not talk very well, for talking does not come very naturally to one who works primarily with notes" (308). Infinity is a form of testimonial, forced, enforced testimonial, it is a one-way communication and this structure has specific implications for the novel's overall message/effect. Would Mr Pavone/Massimo agree with Harvey's statement? Does a writer, perhaps a poet, not only a composer work primarily in notes?
Jonathan has been a constant presence in my work and my thinking since we first met in the seventies, when he came to teach at Sussex. I have always felt more at home talking to composers and painters than to writers, perhaps because there's no question of rivalry there, but perhaps for deeper reasons – certainly I feel that they talk about things that mean a great deal to me and my work when they talk about what is important to them and their work. Jonathan and I wrote a radio piece together – not a play with music nor an opera with libretto, but a genuine collaboration. Sadly, the BBC, which commissioned it, dithered terribly when it came to recording it, and by the time they got round to it we had both rather lost interest, and had other things on our minds. Anyway, a few years ago Jonathan introduced me to Scelsi's music and I became fascinated by it and by the man I glimpsed in the biographical comments on the record sleeves. I wrote thirty pages of a novel 'about' him, good pages, but I couldn't get any further. It lay there for several years, and I could not decide whether it was to go in the file of 'work in progress' or 'abandoned works'. Then Jonathan put me on to a book of Scelsi's essays which had been published in French, and through that I found two others, one a volume of his poems in French, the other a transcript of a dream he said he'd had. That got me listening to his music again, and suddenly I saw how to go on.
The quote from Jonathan, which came from his inaugural lecture as Professor of Music at Sussex, could hardly be further from Scelsi, who had none of these inhibitions about speaking, and in fact spoke up at every opportunity about everything under the sun. He told his interlocutors in one interview that he had been born in Mesopotamia in the third millennium BC, and elsewhere answered a request for a c.v. by sending a brief history of all the hats he had ever worn. Some of these delightful comments found their way into my novel, others, such as his belief in metempsychosis, didn't seem to fit my character and were suppressed.
I should explain that the structure of the novel takes the form of an extended interview with Pavone's manservant/chauffeur, Massimo, who is asked by an anonymous interviewer about his master, in the wake of Pavone's death. I think I was able to finish the novel when I understood that I was interested not just in Pavone's eccentricities and his music, but in his relationship with this man in the course of their many years together. When I grasped that I saw how the book could be shaped and found a new element (an element I realized I needed) that it excited me to explore. I hope that by the end not just Pavone's music or his wild and weird views, but his vulnerability, his humanity, if you like, as this emerges in his relationship with Massimo, had become the subject of the book.
Your mother was a translator. Have you done any translation?
My mother was one of the best-educated people I have known, mainly because she had had no formal education and had a naturally curious and lively mind. But she did have fluent French and Italian as well as English, and in her later years drifted into translation. Some of what she was offered by publishers was very boring, but when she worked on first-rate stuff, on Blanchot's essays, say, or the novels of Leonardo Sciascia, she found it stimulating and exciting. I have never translated professionally – balancing teaching and writing for 35 years took up all my time.
Movies have no prominence in your work in the way art or music does. Why do you think this is? There have been a number of books on the influence of movies on writers like Woolf and Benjamin recently. What is the influence of cinema on your work?
Some films have been terribly important to me. Alain Resnais' Muriel, for instance, still haunts me and (perhaps in a dangerous way) my writing. I was brought up as a child on the crazy shorts of Chaplin, Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy, and never tire of seeing the Marx Brothers. I would hope that something of that lovely craziness has got into my work.
Why do you think there has been so comparatively little attention paid to your work? You talk at various points in your work about the "impossible" fate of a writer like Kafka. But Kafka himself was recognized by his peers even in his time as a writer of stature—Carl Sternheim gave him his prize money. You, like John Berger, write about unrecognized genius or artists who should be better known. Infinity is not such a novel, in many ways it is a calling or taking to task. Is the fate better or worse for the unrecognized genius today? And do you call this neglect a form of injustice?
When I was just starting out as a writer David Plante said to me: 'Remember, Gabriel, that in this business there will always be people more successful than you and there will always be people less successful than you.' Wonderful words. And when I was discouraged by the response to what I had thought were good (not great) works, my mother would say to me: 'Don't be surprised, if you write what you feel you have to write and not what is expected of you, if you are not a great success.' In fact success and failure, apart from being relative terms, and almost bound to take on different meanings over time, are to a large extent the result of chance. I don't flatter myself that neglect implies genius or that worldly fame necessarily implies shallowness and compromise (look at Beckett). But not having too much success may in the long run be a good thing – we have seen too many promising artists lacking Beckett's ferocious ability to keep on living his life his way, in spite of fame, falling victim to early success and all it brings with it. On the other hand I think it is very hard for artists to work completely in obscurity – years ago Elizabeth Lutyens said to me that the most maddening thing about her ostracism by the English musical establishment in the years after the war was that she would put a manuscript in the drawer before it was quite finished, since she knew that anyway it would not be played. And the worst thing about not being published and having ones books out in the world, is that one tends to write the same book over and over again. Few of us are strong enough to go our own way regardless of the world, and there is always the feeling that if the world thinks you are wasting your time writing, then perhaps you are. Of course that feeling has to be fought, but it brings an added burden. Long before David Plante said those wise words to me the composer Gordon Crosse, with whom I shared digs at Oxford, remarked one day (we were, I think, talking about Mann's Doktor Faustus ): 'The two great enemies of the artist are failure and success.' I like that.
But I can't complain. I had a huge amount of good luck to be looking for a congenial job just when the new universities were starting up and to be taken on at the wonderful and stimulating institution the University of Sussex was in its early years. And, apart from a brief period a decade ago, when no-one seemed to want to publish my work in this country and I thought my only outlet might be in Germany, I have always found publishers for my books who understood that I would change nothing when once I had sent them in, accepted that, and were willing to publish me.
"Just as the most important words in a book are the words of the title, which are written in bigger letters than the rest, so the most important part of life is death, and it is written in bigger letters than the rest of your life." Tell me about the title of Infinity and how it relates to death or mortality?
Scelsi in later life 'signed' with a Zen Buddhist symbol, a circle over a line, signifying the sun over the horizon. From the start I knew that I wanted a sign of sorts as the title and soon hit on the symbol for infinity, 8. But I also remembered Dashiel Hammett's remark that you don't write a book with a title a visitor to a bookshop would not be able to pronounce (though how you pronounce Maltese and Falcon is a moot point). So I realized I would have to have the sign and the word. There are, however, too many books called INFINITY already, so I gave it a subtitle which seems paradoxical but is in fact an accurate description of both the content and the form of the book: The Story of a Moment – the moment of the interview which is the novel, the moment that is Pavone's life.
Do you think it's possible to learn from writers as different as say Thomas Bernhard and Henry James? Can two writers as different exist in the same man? Perhaps, they are not so different?
I'm not sure one learns anything from other writers, except the confidence to go at things in one's own way. Apart from the two writers you mention, and Gert Hofmann, I also love and admire the author of the biblical Book of Samuel, the anonymous authors of the Border Ballads, Aeschylus, and hundreds more. I would love to have written the Oresteia and Zazie dans le metro and Past Continuous and Jumpers. And dozens of other works. But of course I couldn't have. I could only have written what I actually have written, poor as that sometimes seems. No use lamenting.
Did your father become a writer—a writer of standing to your knowledge? What relation do you feel to your father?
My father was a writer, as was his father before him. He wrote a very bad set of interlinked stories called Etrange comme la vie and a short novel based on the life of Mesmer, as well as a number of movie scripts, in one of which the young Jean-Paul Belmondo starred. My grandfather, Albert Josipovici, wrote a novel with his brother-in-law, Albert Ades, Goha le Simple, which took France by storm in 1919, and was short-listed for the Goncourt in the year Proust won it with A l'Ombre des jeunes filles en fleur. It's set in an Orientalist medieval Cairo, and is not as bad as that makes it sound. In the fifties Georges Schehade, the Lebanese Francophone playwright, turned it into a film, which was shot with my cousin's old flame, Omar Sharif, in the lead. I never knew my grandfather, who died before I was born, and last saw my father (who is also dead) when I was two.
Where do you feel most at home geographically? Is this the same for your writing ?
Everywhere and nowhere. But I was surprised to find, on returning from a trip to Germany a few years ago, that I was really looking forward to getting back to England.
Writing is something else. I will never be inward with England and English life, yet I can only write in English. I will always struggle with that burden – one from which painters and composers are blessedly free.
I want to talk about Nice, Grenoble and Aix-en-Provence. Chagall, Stendhal, Cézanne. What associations do these places and names call up for you? Are there places more charged for you?
Aix was where my parents, as young marrieds, studied in the thirties. I went there with my mother in the eighties and while I was there retraced the walk Peter Handke took over Cézanne's mountain and described so well in The Lesson of Mont Saint-Victoire. I didn't encounter the dog. On that same trip we went to Nice to have a look at the place where I was born and where we had a very narrow escape from the Nazi death machine, but I of course remembered nothing of that. I liked the town and really need to go back. I have very little interest in Chagall, apart from a brief early period, or in Stendhal, apparently my father's favourite writer.
You write about Bellow's transformation from a minor to a major writer—"that readiness to follow where instinct seems to lead, which is perhaps what distinguishes the major from the minor writer"—Mr Pavone is similarly instinctual. He is earthy. From where do you date your own transformation? Which works do you count as most instinctual or intuitive—yours or otherwise? You admire Bellow for the double perspective he offers in Augie March, you admire Kafka for the same thing; tell me about this opening out of vision. What contemporary writers provide this?
I've often written about my own personal breakthrough. It came when I was struggling to begin my first novel, The Inventory. I loved the way the word 'inventory' went in two opposite directions: to invent, purely subjective and an inventory, a list of objects out there in the world. Actually they derive from two different Latin words, but never mind, in English they lie there in the one word. That gave me the subject of the book: a family and friends gather at the house of a recently deceased man to draw up an inventory of his belongings and in the course of the book each recalls or perhaps invents his or her version of the person. I knew I wanted to start with the solicitor arriving at this house, and I could see the house in my mind's eye perfectly clearly – but how to translate that into words and narrative? How to describe the house? Did I do it in one paragraph? In two? In ten? Every time I tried I found that I was being forced to use a tone that I couldn't recognise as mine or as one I wanted to use. It was driving me mad. And then, as sometimes happens when one desperately wants to say something but can't find the words, the miracle occurred. I suddenly realized that I could get the story started without needing to employ a narrative voice at all, without needing to describe the house at all – if what I wanted was to get the characters together and talking, then I could do that from the word go – bang! And at once the book became an exciting challenge: How to tell the story I wanted to tell using only dialogue and my inventory lists.
That moment not only freed me to write The Inventory, it also gave me the confidence to confront similar problems when they arose later, with other books. And I know now that books don't work for me if I am only excited by either a formal or a human problem; there has to be a fusion of the two, so that the form will yield the content or the content the form. And there's something else, harder to put one's finger on. The trouble with Infinity for a long time was that I had a loose form – the interview format – and was intrigued and amused by my protagonist, but I did not really feel him, I had not really invested in him emotionally. And it's only when you are prepared to do that that something as big as a novel can emerge. Because to invest in this way is to risk, just as falling in love involves risk – maybe it won't work, and then you will suffer, because you've given so much of yourself – but without the risk nothing of significance happens – in writing as in love.
Who is your first reader now? Your mother, Sacha Rabinovitch, was your first reader for The Inventory. And you describe this memorable experience of fulfillment in her validation. Have your first readers changed over the years? Do you abide by a first reader?
First readers are so precious. It has to be someone who believes in your work and has an instinctive sympathy with it – and at the same time someone who is prepared to tell you honestly if they are unhappy with all or part of what you show them. Of course in the end you have to have faith in yourself and no-one else. There were things of mine my mother was less than enthusiastic about, but I went ahead with anyway. Other things where I felt that she was right – though it was hard to admit it to myself I and needed someone else to say it – and worked on the offending passage. No-one has really replaced by mother, though of course there are one or two people I show my work to as soon as it's done, and to whose views I listen with great attention. But I feel they have less inward understanding of what I'm about, or perhaps it's just less awareness of the fact that even if it isn't wonderful it really is the best I can do. Wasn't it Warhol who said that what we all want is a boss on retainer? That's a profound comment on the modern condition, but of course there is no such thing and probably never was.
What more remains to do?Is there a book remaining that you have always wanted to write?
It doesn't work like that for me. Each new day brings its own imperatives and I just hope my energy will last for a while and my excitement at the thought of the day's work. So the answer has to be: a lot more – but what, I've no idea.
© Jason Rotstein 2012