A Conversation with Alex Kovacs, author of “The Currency of Paper”

Cailin Neal: You live in London and your book is set in London. An obvious question, but why London for your book?

Alex Kovacs: I’ve actually been away from London for a year, but am hoping to soon return. It feels like I’m still living in the city really, it still feels like my home. I was resident in London, hardly ever leaving, between 2007 and 2012, arriving at the age of 25, the first time I had ever lived in an urban location of such size. So this novel is, partly, an outsider’s response to London.

When I arrived I had been working on The Currency of Paper for some months. By that point I had planned most of the novel’s structure, but it was only shortly before I left for London that I decided the novel needed to be set there. I felt that Maximilian was somehow an undeniably British character and that the novel needed to be set somewhere within the country, a place which after all I had lived in for my entire life, and which I knew far better than any other location on the planet. It soon occurred to me that if the novel was to be set in Britain it was only in London that my character could truly possess the kind of anonymity and secrecy necessary for his story to take place.

There is also the Modernist fascination with cities, which I share. Texts such as Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway, Manhattan Transfer and Paris Peasant have long been inspirational to me. They suggest that the city is a mystery to be explored and understood, that it is a textual site, which is constantly being re-written. I find London to be an endlessly suggestive and fascinating environment, and I was attempting to communicate some of this excitement through my writing.

CN: Your book is comprised of different scenes; it’s not necessarily a stream-lined story. Is that how you wrote it? Did you wake up and say, “I think Maximilian should build a sculpture the size of a warehouse today”? Of course, I’m being a bit facetious, but was that the process? Or was each scene meticulously planned beforehand?

AK: Most of the chapters and the book’s essential structure were planned in basic form at the beginning of the composition process. I needed to have an entire narrative map in place to feel secure that I knew what I was doing. Nevertheless, I continually made changes to the narrative as I wrote it, inventing many new chapters, discarding others, tampering with the chronology. Often I might carry what felt to me like a firm idea for a chapter for months or years in just a handful of scribbled words (e.g. “giant sculpture”), before committing any further words to paper. Usually I felt certain in such instances that I had a sound basis for an idea and that it was just a matter of time before I got around to elaborating. When I came to the point of actually writing a chapter, I would draft a rough list of elements that I wanted to explore in it before plunging into the actual writing.

CN: How long did it take you to write The Currency of Paper? Are there drafts out there somewhere where Maximilian takes on other outlandish projects?

AK: In all it took nearly four years to finish writing the original manuscript that I sent to the Dalkey Archive offices, which was a complete version of a novel. That was followed by a fairly large amount of editorial work during which I worked through the entire text and produced seven new chapters. That process certainly made the book stronger in my view. There are also quite a few other abandoned chapters lying amongst my notebooks and typescripts, but I’m sure none of them should ever be made public. There are a fair number of papers related to the novel, as originally I wrote everything out by hand and then most of the chapters were extensively redrafted, sometimes as many as fifteen times.

CN: Did you write the entire book by hand? Have you always done that or do you have a different process for different projects?

AK: All of the first drafts for The Currency of Paper were written by hand, which is one reason why it took me so long to complete the manuscript! At first I worked in black ink, then moved on to green, then purple. Green proved to be my favoured colour however and that’s what I still tend to use. It seems to lead to a kind of openness, to the possibilities of phantasmagoria. I somehow felt much more comfortable working in the medium of handwriting to begin with. I would tend to make lots of crossings out on the notebook pages and then also make many changes when typing work up on to the computer. I eventually realized that literary writing seems to read entirely differently when typed out and printed, rather than simply read on a computer screen, so I would print out drafted chapters and read and re-read them, marking new changes with almost every read through. After some time you come to understand that revisions can always be made, that work can go on interminably, but that it should not. This is generally the process I’ve gone through to date.

CN: Maximilian’s art projects are never seen by anyone. He always imagines that after his death people will find his sculptures or his manuscripts, but that’s a big assumption. If they’re never seen, it’s almost like they never existed, and his efforts – which are indeed large – will be in vain. Why? As a writer, how do you feel about that?

AK: It is true that most of Maximilian’s projects are never seen by anyone during the course of the narrative, but there are a few occasions in the text at which he does have a small audience. For example his radio show has some listeners, his play is attended by a handful of people, and a few passersby respond to his busking. Doubtless this is all quietly gratifying to Maximilian.

Overall, it would be true to say that Maximilian is not greatly worried about his work finding an audience. He finds a certain meaning, somehow, purely within the processes of creation. This is not such a rare phenomenon, although usually artists do indeed want to share their work, particularly if it exists on the scale of the projects described in the book. My personal feeling is that art should be social, a shared experience. I wouldn’t want any artist of talent in the world to be entirely neglected, and indeed the question of whether someone is “talented” or not can often be a subjective one.

One of the major influences on this book was what has been called “Outsider art”, and in fact one artist was of particular importance. Nek Chand, who is now 88 years old, created what became known as the Rock Garden of Chandigarh, in northern India. Construction of the garden, which is located near the centre of a city with a sizable population, began as a secret between 1958 and 1975, when it was accidently discovered by the authorities. Chand worked entirely alone and without even informing his wife to begin with. At the time of discovery the garden had grown to be 12 acres large and consisted of hundreds of concrete sculptures of human and animal figures coated in recycled waste materials such as broken glass, bangles, crockery and shards of ceramics. I’ve never visited this location, nor am I even very knowledgeable about it, but nevertheless the fact that the site was so large and was entirely secret for so long became a source of fascination for me. Nek Chand’s example made me think that almost any amount of artistic secrecy might be possible and perhaps even desirable. It got me imagining similar events occurring in London.

CN: We can think of Maximilian as being a satirical figure: someone who cuts out the middle man between art and money. But he is also very human: he can be funny, he has sexual curiosities. Is this based on someone you know or strictly a figment of your own creation? Have you read Gaddis? He writes about this a lot.

AK: I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone quite like Maximilian. The closest person might be myself. He is certainly, to some extent, an alter ego, but he is also very different to me, being considerably more obsessive and alone.

As for Gaddis I have read both The Recognitions and J R once each. I found myself stumbling through the later parts of J R, getting lost amidst the labyrinth of unnamed voices. I haven’t performed a close reading on either of these books, and haven’t read either of them for some years now. Nevertheless, I do think that Gaddis was an extraordinary writer. He was an influence on my book, but perhaps not one of the most important ones. Essentially I was influenced by the basic thematic concerns of those first two books, which when considered in combination seemed to suggest a further unspoken book . . .

Perhaps the main lesson I learned from J R concerned the extent to which human beings can become contaminated by the influence of money so that it ends up infecting bodies, particularly mouths. I was very taken with the novel’s vision of America viewed as an endless, swarming series of dialogues, many of them essentially corrupting or empty.

Retrospectively it seems to me that Maximilian does bear a few similarities to the title character of      J R. They are both constantly active figures hidden in the background of a great mass of persons, many of whom they are busily manipulating in order to complete their own secret schemes revolving around money. But Maximilian is his own man, more of an adult, although a very peculiar one. Kurt Vonnegut’s Mr. Rosewater and B.S. Johnson’s Christy Malry were also inspiring examples of satirical characters related to money.

CN: I like the idea of a “further unspoken book” that lies between the lines of Gaddis’ novels. The idea that books don’t have endings or that there are lives happening in between chapters is indeed a nice one. While, yes, it is fiction, it doesn’t mean that the story has to end. Do you ever find yourself still thinking about Maximilian? Are there characters from other stories you’ve written whom you still think about?

AK: Yes, I agree, there is an appealing space, existing beyond the borders of a given fiction, where the work perhaps continues and still exists. Imaginative readers will probably always inhabit those spaces.

On the other hand, once a book has been printed, bound, and placed inside shops and libraries it seems fixed and definitive. I can’t imagine wanting to make artistic revisions to a work once it had arrived in that state.

I don’t really spend much time thinking of Maximilian or any other characters I’ve created. They feel like part of my past.

CN: Who would you cite as your influences?

AK: As well as the Modernists already mentioned, many writers who have been labelled “Postmodernist” were also important influences. The most significant of these were:

Donald Barthelme, Julio Cortázar, B.S. Johnson, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Pynchon, Georges Perec, Gabriel García Márquez, Milan Kundera, Kurt Vonnegut, Ann Quin, Don DeLillo, Harold Pinter, Walter Abish, Italo Calvino, Susan Sontag, Richard Fariña and Ben Marcus.

I learned many methods from these writers for extending my imagination in unprecedented directions, for attempting new literary forms, for breaking all literary “rules” in any way that happened to appeal to me. It occurs to me now that I discovered each of them purely out of imaginative enquiry, and that I was not really aware until later that they could all potentially be grouped under the rubric of “Postmodernity”.

A number of French authors had written about eccentric millionaires in a way that I found very inspiring. I think Maximilian can be seen as a something of a relation to Des Esseintes from Huysmans’s À rebours, Canterel from Roussel’s Locus Solus, and Barthlebooth from Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi.

Nevertheless, the most important novel in my life has undoubtedly been On the Road by Jack Kerouac, which was the book that first made me want to be a writer. It remains my favourite novel to this day. I don’t know how you might see its influence upon The Currency of Paper, but I do believe it lies lurking within my book. A large part of the reason for its influence upon me stems from the fact that it was one of the first literary novels I read, at the age of 15, and so it possessed the ability to imprint itself upon me to an extent that books read later could probably never manage. The first time only happens once.

Re-readings have always confirmed me in my opinion that On the Road is one of the great novels of the 20th century. I think of it as a remarkable expression of freedom genuinely obtained, of a liberated consciousness roving through the spaces of the North American continent. It is also a brilliant record of social observation, with many haunting portraits of the underprivileged and marginal. I still find it to be forceful and tender and explosive and vast.

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