Sunday, January 25, 2009

W. G. Sebald, The moral backbone of literature is about that whole question of memory.

Maya Jaggi: You were born in Wertach im Allgäu, Bavaria, on May 18 1944, in the waning years of the Third Reich. How would you describe your family background?

WG Sebald: Wertach was a village of about a thousand inhabitants, in a valley covered in snow for five months a year. It was a silent place. I was brought up largely by my grandfather, because my father only returned from a prisoner-of-war camp in 1947, and worked in the nearest small town, so I hardly ever saw him. I lived in that place until I was about eight. My parents came from working-class, small-peasant, farm-labourer backgrounds, and had made the grade during the fascist years; my father came out of the army as a captain. For most of those years, I didn't know what class we belonged to. Then the German "economic miracle" unfolded, so the family rose again; my father occupied a "proper" place in lower-middle-class society.

It was that social stratum where the so-called conspiracy of silence was at its most present. Until I was 16 or 17, I had heard practically nothing about the history that preceded 1945. Only when we were 17 were we confronted with a documentary film of the opening of the Belsen camp. There it was, and we somehow had to get our minds around it - which of course we didn't. It was in the afternoon, with a football match afterwards. So it took years to find out what had happened. In the mid-60s, I could not conceive that these events had happened only a few years back.

It preoccupied me all the more when I came to this country [in 1966], because in Manchester, I realised for the first time that these historical events had happened to real people. [One character in The Emigrants (1993) was based partly on Sebald's Mancunian landlord, a Jewish refugee.] You could grow up in Germany in the postwar years without ever meeting a Jewish person. There were small communities in Frankfurt or Berlin, but in a provincial town in south Germany Jewish people didn't exist. The subsequent realisation was that they had been in all those places, as doctors, cinema ushers, owners of garages, but they had disappeared - or had been disappeared. So it was a process of successive phases of realisation.

WG Sebald: "The moral backbone of literature is about that whole question of memory. To my mind it seems clear that those who have no memory have the much greater chance to lead happy lives. But it is something you cannot possibly escape: your psychological make-up is such that you are inclined to look back over your shoulder. Memory, even if you repress it, will come back at you and it will shape your life. Without memories there wouldn't be any writing: the specific weight an image or phrase needs to get across to the reader can only come from things remembered - not from yesterday but from a long time ago."

Friday, January 23, 2009


"It leads to the downfall of a country. Mikis Theordorakis wrote the music from house arrest in Greece and it was smuggled out to be placed on the film. Yves Montand played the lead role and was blacklisted from getting a US Visa for his participation until some strings were pulled and he was allowed a 24 hour visa, to be extended each 24 hours in order to allow him to film "On A Clear Day You Can See Forever". At the end of filming,that night he made a surprise appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. He told the story about "Z" and commented that he was in the care and custody of US Immigration and the FBI. The camera panned right and a dark suited man slid quickly behind the curtain. He apologized for his abruptness, but his visa expired at midnight and he had to get to the airport. When I saw these things, I was shocked my government would take a movie so seriously. When it showed up in an obscure movie theater in Houston, I had to go. I was the only person buying a ticket just after noon that day. Upon entering the theater, a dark suited man was sitting in the lobby. I walked into theater and then stuck my head back out to see what the only other individual in the theater was doing. He was stepping away from the ticket booth. I watched as he walked the short distance to my car, took out a notebook and wrote in it while looking at my license plate. This is how it happened. It was 1969. J. Edgar Hoover had stated publicly that no truly loyal American would pay money to see such a movie. It was unpatriotic. Newspaper articles that spring reported it."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Tadeusz Rózewicz, Survivor

Mickiewicz: "It is more difficult to live through a day well than to write a good book"

Tadeusz Rózewicz in Conversation with Adam Czerniawski
"I search books and poems for practical help. I hope they will help me overcome despair and doubt and, strangely enough, I sought help both in Dostoevsky and in Conrad. Similarly, I sought help during the Occupation, and even before, in poetry. And when this led to disappointment-after all, these were only books-I became angry and disillusioned with the greatest works. I felt I was muddling things up in some way and yet I couldn't face up to this. Because I myself have always searched, begged for help, I began to think that I too may be able to help, though of course I also have moments when I feel it's not worth anything. Occasionally, someone writes to me in a way that strengthens my conviction regarding my determination to turn words into practice."

The Survivor
by Tadeusz Rozewicz

I am twenty-four
led to slaughter
I survived.

The following are empty synonyms:
man and beast
love and hate
friend and foe
darkness and light.

The way of killing men and beasts is the same
I've seen it:
Truckfuls of chopped-up me
who will not be saved.

Ideas are mere words:
virtue and crime
truth and lies
beauty and ugliness
courage and cowardice.

Virtue and crime weigh the same
I"ve seen it:
in a man who was both
criminal and virtuous

I seek a teacher and a master
may he restore my sight hearing and speech
may he again name objects and ideas
may he separate darkness and light

I am twenty-four
led to slaughter
I survived.

translated by Adam Czerniawski

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Liviu Ioan Stoiciu: On the days I do not write one line for the drawer I feel I have wasted a day of my life – and lately this has happened more...

A few days ago, I leafed through "Child of Europe: a new anthology of East European poetry", and I read a few poems by Liviu Ioan Stoiciu, and that these were quite strange, being seemingly incomplete and disjointed, so the investigation into the poet began. It turns out that there is currently no collection of Stoiciu poetry available in English, but I did find an interview. I'll reread the poems and type so of it up.


"I read poetry voraciously, I am a reader of poetry more than a writer of it. What I read was not entirely satisfactory to my sensibility.

I am indeed very free when I write. I never think of obstacles, censorship, or anything that surrounds me. I think of ‘human condition’. When I write I am first and foremost honest with myself, I will never lie to myself then. This is the most intense form of freedom. I have never been a party member. I have never written my graduation paper, which has forced me to do humiliating jobs. I have never aimed at positions; after the revolution I did not know when to say no and it was a terrible source of agony. I have always been unable to adapt and seemed incomprehensible to everyone. I have wanted to be a ‘common’ person (no car, no villa, no trips abroad, no worldly ambitions), to be myself, never to hate myself for a shameful compromise. It has not been easy to fight human frailty in this way. My life has been full of renunciations and deprivations. I have lived from day to day – I could hardly afford vacations at the seaside or in the mountains, so I wrote and wrote, musing that a line is more than a vacation one easily forgets. I am trying to say I am a simple man, who does not know how to enjoy life – my very name is proof of that (connected with the word ‘stoic’, as my father’s father came from the old Aromanian country of Macedonia, the country of ‘stoics’). I have always and only wanted to be left alone. Unfortunately since 1981 I was followed by the Securitate and my life was miserable. But I was still free when I wrote. Subconsciously, self-censorship perfected my language, but I never gave up poetry for the sake of being subversive. A year after my debut I entered with Heart of Rays (1982) an infernal, adult world, and had to leave the paradise of my childhood free from all political regimes, as it can be seen in The Train Flag.

My poetic manner? It was born while I wrote for the drawer. Before my debut volume – when I was thirty – I had written twelve volumes. I mean that. On the days I do not write one line for the drawer I feel I have wasted a day of my life – and lately this has happened more and more often, so I must be slowly dying. All I can do is read and write. It is a matter of calling. I bear my cross (reading and writing). So how could I fail to find out my calling? I do not have a pattern. Whenever I sit down in front of the sheet of paper (I still write in longhand, not using the computer), I am intensely anxious, I experience an existential alarm. Fortunately, though, I write freely, not caring about the masterpiece. I write ‘exercises’ which I later on revise if they look good."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Danilo Kiš, You know, I’m very lazy. I write little and rarely. But I read all the time, all kinds of things. I’m a big reader of poetry

BL: The act of reading is very important in Hourglass, especially the relationship between reading and dreaming. At one point you write that in The Interpretation of Dreams Freud didn’t pay enough attention to the reading we do before sleep. Do you read a great deal? What kinds of books do you read at bedtime?

DK: I read a great deal. And I generally dream about what I read more than about what I experience otherwise. I think that that would also have been the case for the father in Hourglass. Reading is also depicted in Garden, Ashes in the passage where the child reads a fragment from a novel about love. I like novels that work in bits of other books. It’s reassuring to those of us who spend most of our lives reading. It seems perfectly normal to me not only to dream about what one reads but also to insert what one reads into one’s life and one’s work. The relationship of reading to writing and of both to the rest of life is something that I’ve very consciously included in my work.

BL: Let’s get back to your reading.

DK: You know, I’m very lazy. I write little and rarely. But I read all the time, all kinds of things. I’m a big reader of poetry because I consider myself something of a poet manque. Technically, I know exactly what to do, and I like translating poetry. But I realized that I can better express myself in prose.

BL: The night I started reading Hourglass I dreamed that I was on a train talking to you and to E. S.

DK: You were at a good point in your reading. Let me give you another example of the same process, from my first novel, Mansarda. It’s the story of a student who’s in love and who reads a lot. At one point in the novel I introduce a fragment from The Magic Mountain without identifying it as Thomas Mann. Instead of writing "Madame Chauchat said," I wrote "she said," and instead of "Hans Castorp said," it’s "he said." By that I wanted to convey something about the psychology of reading, to show the degree to which one identifies with one’s reading. We carry around in our heads so many powerful impressions from books, and we usually end up forgetting exactly what books they came from.

BL: Memories of what one has read can pose a problem for the writer. In discussing this problem, Wallace Stevens once went so far as to say that reading is the deadly enemy of writing.

DK: I think the best way to handle the problem is to introduce one’s reading into one’s work.

BL: That can be a considerable technical problem.

DK: Technical problems interest me the most—technique is at least half of writing. Beginners think that to have experiences is enough. Apart from certain firsthand accounts, to be a writer- except for the first book, which is technically quite easy—one must always be aware of technique. How does one avoid repeating oneself? And there’s the problem of originality, which involves knowing the great literary works of the past and adding the drop of one’s own authenticity. It’s odd. I’ve never heard an engineer, for example, say, "I never studied the history of engineering because I want my structures to be original," but I often hear writers say, "You know, I never read because I want to maintain my originality." If you know about others’ techniques, you can avoid "non-originality" by avoiding their techniques. If you don’t know much about the great books of the past, you revert to the beginning stages of literature.

BL: Before writing Hourglass, did you do a lot of research?

DK: I had less need of research than for my other novels because I could use so many family documents.

BL: Other than your father’s letter at the end?

DK: Yes. But mostly I relied on my own memory. I was a good witness, even though I was very young. I already had a feel for the period

DK: The subjects I write about are always rendered with nostalgic overtones. Usually I describe things that no longer exist, that were part of my childhood—an oil lamp, an old Singer sewing machine, etc. I need to work with objects in the same way a painter would: by putting them in front of me. Doing that helps bring back a vanished world, a world to which I’m still connected thanks to sentimental objects.

BL: In the trilogy you are fascinated by a certain period of your childhood.

DK: But I think I got rid of that finally with those books. I was obsessed with that world. I missed it. There was a lot of cruelty there but also much beauty. From a literary point of view it was full of great material.

BL: Boris Davidovich is very explicitly concerned with political questions. Do politics still attract you as a writer?

DK: I’ve always been obsessed with politics. But I’ve been making a great effort the last two or three years to get rid of them in my work. I finally understood the futility of such work. Because of my political obsessions I lost much time, many words; and I gained many enemies.

BL: In France? In Yugoslavia

DK: In both. I finally realized that I’m not the sort of French writer who can make politics a part of his literature and that my political opinions are deadly for my literature. Absolutely deadly.