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.


No comments:

Post a Comment