From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Spring 1991, Vol. 11.1
STEVEN MOORE: Did your years as a religious prepare you in any way for the literary life? What parallels are there in the devotion inherent in both callings? Is the artist indeed, as Stephen Dedalus has it, a priest of life?
ALEXANDER THEROUX: Both are vocations, certainly. I was always a dreamer, an “introspective voyager,” as Wallace Stevens put it. I never supposed divine things might not look divine. The Church sedulously encourages the Imagination. I was the world which I walked on. I believe that writing continues the work of the Evangelists. The Church gave me an interest in miracle, mystery, and ritual, and imprinted its visions on me. It also shaped my nightmares. I believe in grace. And I share Dedalus’s interest in taxonomies. Catholic children, at least years ago, used to have to memorize many lists.
SM: Your first publications were in poetry and drama, but since then you’ve devoted yourself to prose. Did those earlier genres simply lose their appeal for you?
AT: I had brilliant friends at the University of Virginia, many who were actors. The plays I wrote were for the most part vehicles for them, many one-act plays for workshops and then two staged productions, “The Viceroy” and “The Secretive World of Miss Ball.” I began writing poetry in the Trappist monastery, deep and meaningful things of the confessional sort—I always tended to be among the Pale and Interesting group—one of which began, “Swift, swift, yea, they come / Fresh pluck’d from the bowers of never ending thought . . .” (pause) I must have been reading too much Francis Thompson.
SM: Was that your very first work?
AT: My first effort was writing and illustrating a novel in the seventh grade at a neighborhood chum’s house, an Italian boy, using his machine to type the text on the backs of yellow recipe cards. His older brother later got angry with him about something and tore it up.
SM: When writing “Three Wogs,” were you conscious of working in any particular literary tradition, or in the manner of any specific writer? “The Wife of God,” for example, is highly reminiscent of Firbank.
AT: Well, I had read Firbank by then. I’ve always admired stylists. I put the writers of bumphable, ready-to-wear prose, calculated to sell, guaranteed not to shock, in the same category as artists who can’t draw. There is a lack of bravery and a lot of fraud in them. I have tried never to write a book that didn’t attempt something new in the way of narrative technique. Writing is an assault on cliche. I find little to admire in writers who make no attempt at originality. (I remember, among other things, effortfully working to make the perambulations in London of Roland McGuffey recapitulate the lines of the Union Jack.) It’s death commercially, of course, but I knew from the beginning that I was too opinionated, literate, and unconventional to enjoy a widespread reputation. It doesn’t bother me in the least. I’ve always been too busy to make money. I’m among the freest people I know.
SM: You mean that?
AT: In the sense of not needing fame, yes. A psychiatrist once told me, “You’re always trying to get out of the world.” So? We all have to manage that one day. Maybe I’m only practicing my technique.
SM: Something Darconville shares.
AT: And Marina, in “An Adultery.” There is a method, a deliberateness in a way of writing that has its parallel in the way of living. I’m talking about being loyal to your own vision, not living by borrowed apocalypse or polluting your dreams, in life or art, just for success. It’s interesting, fashion is the enemy. True style means more than anything a refusal to compromise.
SM: You mean to be true to yourself?
AT: Basically. Write the books you should, be the person you are. I wanted to write a “roman d’analyse,” for example, with “An Adultery.” A new genre. Plot didn’t interest me in the least. Character is plot, anyway. Start delineating a figure—merely describe a person—and he or she will begin to act, do things, go in a particular direction. I set the novel up as a syllogism and purposely wrote balancing rhythmic and arhythmic sentences. I think its rewards come only if you’re willing to think, to come to terms with what I set out to question, sort through, analyze. (pause) Nothing there for the Leon Uris crowd—beach readers, military minds, people who flip pages to pass time. I wanted the book to be what it was, no self-promotion, no hook for a publishing scheme. There’s a mystical passivity in refusing the entrepreneurial.
SM: Marina does show that.
SM: A simple girl.
AT: Simplicity has its own unique beauty. It was her unawareness that made her simple. But that unawareness bled into not being conscious of Christian. She was unaware of even the depth and love she stirred in him. Farol was the opposite, a passenger, a lamprey, an incomplete and basically sexless woman like a weak diode, who didn’t really cast light, but sort of emitted it. Why can so many see a fire and not see a faker? I think it was my brother Peter in his book “Sandstorms” who pointed out- was he speaking of the Israelis?—that though they possessed nothing but chaos, they put it to use by trapping other people in it. Farol was like that. Hideous. She was cold in her shadow. But Marina fought for nothing. Her goodness asked for nothing. Desire implies lack. Too much “possibility” leads to the madhouse. “Kill the Buddha.” Even attachment to him may get in the way of ultimate perception.
SM: That’s not futility?
AT: Fatality, maybe.
SM: You admire Marina’s self-negation?
AT: I share it. Strangely, I’ve become something of a pathological recluse. It’s not only that we’re manipulated in the everyday process of living like Third World chickens. I’ve begun to find art more real than life. I really mean that. Music, books, museums, even my dreams have come to replace, well, “living” I guess would be Norman Vincent Peale’s word. As time went by, after writing “An Adultery,” I found the need to be alone, went into a sort of self-imposed exile. Everybody’s at his own movie, anyway. I became more and more disillusioned with friendship, which I sometimes see as having no spiritual significance, as the negative of the irremediable solitude to which every human being is condemned, but which somehow the artist knows how to put into account. I don’t know, his task, so to speak, in this brief life. (pause) Have you ever read Villiers de L’Isle Adam’s play “Axel”? “Let our servants live for us.”
SM: Oh, but many people speak of you as being gregarious, a mimic, great company?
AT: Will the Blakean war explain it? I suppose, if not, it’s either a question of psychological arm-wrestling, or schizophrenia. My friends all suffer from each as they suffer from both. A woman friend of mine in New York once wrote me a trenchant little poem about it:
I’ve cooked a roux
Read billets doux
And met a Sioux.
Not really noux
To say Theroux.
I thought I knoux
And now I doux
There are twoux
(At least) of youx,
SM: “An Adultery” shows a different style than “Darconville’s Cat.” A more sinuous line, an almost measured, sometimes hypnotic pace, less joy.
AT: Well, it’s told in the first person, and it’s an adulterer’s voice. There are of course many puppets in a writer’s box. But I also wrote most of that novel tired, dangerously underweight—thin as a hop pole. I was teaching at MIT at the time. Whereas I undertook the task of initially deliberating whether Christian only wanted Farol’s body, merely clothing his desire in an elaborate structure of moral validation, delaying his gratification while reviling her for seeking her own at everybody’s expense, I eventually came to see that I had to dismantle four personalities to know, just as four personalities were dismantled. There are real Farols. They’re neither bright nor perceptive, and denial allows them anything, but I frankly believe that one day they do come to see themselves for what they really are. (pause) I wonder if Hallmark makes a card for an occasion like that.
SM: Tell us about the composition of “Darconville’s Cat.” Did it begin as a shorter novel of revenge before burgeoning into a Burtonian anatomy of misogyny, replete with catalogs and an anthology of narrative forms, or did you contemplate a “big, bold, pumpkinified compendium” from the beginning?
AT: Revenge, one of my theories, is the main theme of the greatest works of Western literature. Epics, novels, poems, etc. Have you read my essay on revenge? But it had little to do with the book, though I did conceive the idea for it in a low state of mind in the fall of 1973, on a plane, pondering the binaries of love and hate. I was amazed that one could feel both simultaneously. The two chapters “Love” and “Hate” were to be bookends. I always had a grand scheme in mind in writing it, because what I closed in on, its subject, like the girl I loved, often receded. That is one of the main challenges of writing. Epistemology is always involved in writing good fiction. Before being happened on by people, an object exists not without interpretation but with infinite interpretation. When you limit your description of it to what you see, feel, hear, and alone connect it with, exclusive of what of the world’s knowledge you can acquire and so apply to it, you fail to capture the object itself. The narrower your description, the more cliched and uncommunicative, the more of the object you leave behind. Art is simply being able to communicate an object in its entirety, and it is just beyond the realm of human capability. The proponents of the encyclopedic novel, the so-called novel of learning, Sterne, Rabelais, Cervantes—and Burton in his book—have nevertheless had great fun trying to refute this.
SM: They’re not average books.
AT: “Tristram Shandy” made Sterne famous virtually overnight, in fact. But ours is a different age. The visual is slowly replacing the verbal.
SM: “Darconville’s Cat” was nominated for the National Book Award as the best novel of 1981, critic Anthony Burgess called it one of the greatest books of the century, yet it failed to make the “New York Times Book Review” list of the hundred or so notable novels of the year. Did you anticipate such disparity of response?
AT: It was reviewed by a tiny aging intellectually egg-bald mediocrity from Amherst College named Benjamin DeMott, an envious professor whose own books add verifiable proof to the theory that the average human head needs something removed from it rather than have something inserted.
SM: So the book didn’t sell?
AT: He strangled the baby in its crib. It sold 15,000 copies or something like that, thanks to him, nothing much, roughly the population of a mile of houses in North Medford. No, the fiduciary slant on my work regarding this interview won’t boggle any minds, I’m afraid.
SM: Some people found the book hard to read.
AT: That, to make an understatement, is an overstatement. I was particularly surprised so many people missed so many points. It’s supposed to be often funny. Nobody seemed to see that “Why Don’t You — ?” was a chapter about verbs, “The Unholy Litany” about nouns. Someone said there are only 2400 people in the world worth writing for, anyway. I wonder if that’s true. But readers are so lazy. The several books I’ve written have won me no fame. I do not complain of this, any more than I boast of it. I feel the same distaste for the “popular author” genre as for that of the “neglected poet.” I marvel at writers who write a book a year, approaching mass production. I apologize for not being terribly impressed.
SM: Marvel at their speed?
AT: Their shamelessness.
SM: No aspect of your work has attracted more attention (or more abuse) than your astonishing vocabulary. Knowing full well that even an editor of the “OED” would be unfamiliar with hundreds of your words, were you at all concerned that your lexical precision would be lost on most readers, or did you expect them to look up every unknown word as they went along? Are you saying you write to learn? That reading is studying?
AT: All is never said. Knowledge is involved everywhere. You have to shape the truth. ” Everyone applauded, and I’m glad he did,” is ugly, but grammatically correct, while “I don’t think anybody knows what they are” is the opposite. I’m only saying that we have to try to contest what we want to come to terms with, whether readers or writers. It depends on how much intensity a person has, how curious he is, and whether he or she wants to live a life of meaning. I have always tried to tell my students, especially those who every June apply to law school or business school in such a perfunctory way, as if, you know, those were the only alternatives -a condition abetted in the Ivy League by the army of secular and soulless mechano-moronic professors and deans who view education solely as a means of entering the labor force—that the point of living is trying to figure it out. My ideal reader burns with what Walter Pater described as a “hard gem-like flame.” (pause) In any case, Tolstoi somewhere speaks of the psychological law which compels a man who commits actions under the greatest compulsion to supply in his imagination a whole series of retrospective reflections to prove his freedom to himself. It sounds a bit didactic, but it explains one aspect of writing.
SM: You’ve written that of the writers who have “taught me some of the ruses of the trade” the most influential are Homer, the Cicero of the “Letters to Atticus,” Rabelais, Shakespeare, Milton, Aubrey, Trollope, Proust, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Rolfe, Joyce, Saki, Borges, and your acknowledged mentor, Juvenal. Have they also informed your style?
AT: Possibly, in the subtle and mysterious way influences work. But of course the sources of a person’s style are everywhere, his face, where he lives, the amount of sunlight through his windows. I also learned a lot from early radio, old animated Disney movies, the stories my father passionately read to us in bed. “The Arabian Nights”! Magic! “During the reign of the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid . . .” My compulsion to overwrite, for circumlocution, I can probably attribute to the ponies I read in the early grades, the lead-heavy prose I turned into even more tortured English in my Latin and Greek classes.
SM: I notice no Americans are on your list. But certainly there are some American writers you feel akin to? Stylistically, for example, Melville, or possibly the Djuna Barnes of “Nightwood”?
AT: Both, definitely. And of course Thoreau, Henry James. Did I mention Wallace Stevens?
SM: You’ve also taught at Harvard, MIT, Yale. Has the world of pedagogy, or scholarship, made a difference of any kind in your writing life?
AT: I enjoy the classroom. Good students, whom I’ve always had the good luck to teach, have blessed my life. It’s the faculties I’ve come to loathe. (pause) Yale was an awful place, a school of social counterfeits, slope headed he-women, aggrieved blacks, frightened department heads, cowardly deans, and no end to whistling pendants trying to gussy up the status of their books by giving them the pseudo-Hellenistic label of “hermeneutics.” (pause) Professors there worked hard to seem polite. All were grave, none serious. Most were knife-throwers. Eunuchs. Like most academics.
SM: Why is that?
AT: I have no idea. The emperor Nero habitually peered through an emerald to watch lions eating the Christians. Was this a covert need to temper his cruelty? Or just cowardice? (pause) Anyway, college allows you libraries. But the time spent teaching to earn money in order to write books prevents you from ultimately having the chance to do so.
SM: Does one always write the same book? You’ve written two books about lost love.
AT: So people say. I’ve always thought “An Adultery” was about the pollution of language, and “Darconville’s Cat” about the redemption of the imagination. We get back to paradise that way. Yeats has written some wonderful poems along these lines. If I may quote myself, “Art is the Eden where Adam and Eve eat the serpent,” or words to that effect. (pause) There is without a doubt a shared theme in both books of romantic disappointment. The without-hope-ness of not being in love, whether a person be young or old, single or married, is the worst thing on earth—in my opinion, the main reason for crime. I also recall reading somewhere that the majority of people in mental institutions have been disappointed in love. The essence of loneliness is that one both remembers and hopes, though in vain, in the midst of one’s dissolution. Plain nothingness compared to it is a comfort, a kind of hibernation, a tundra of arctic whiteness that negates feeling and want. Loneliness, not hatred, is the antithesis of love. No, I won’t deny it, the subject, its conflicts, its drama, fully fascinates me. “On the day on which I am no longer in love,” Puccini said, “you can hold my funeral.” How wonderful it is to be able to care for someone who depends on you and to hope for the same from her. At the same time, I am reminded that we are largely the architects of our own romances. It’s a revealing paradox, I suppose, that Puccini’s wife was so destructive. (pause) I am half-Italian, remember, and share his Tuscan sadness. “La mestizia Toscana.”
SM: You’re pessimistic about love?
AT: No, only what comes in to replace it. But I am not at all surprised that the line that follows the seemingly hopeful, “When the moon comes over the mountain,” is “I’ll be alone with my dreams.”
SM: Going back for a moment, you mention paradox. It’s everywhere in your books. It’s a figure of speech that seems to intrigue you.
AT: I love paradox. Keats’s subjects are usually auditory. Milton rarely mentions birds. Rembrandt loved to put dogs in his paintings. My love is paradox. Not the mere play of words Chesterton bored us with, those tired anti-symmetries. It’s related to irony, the way people should be. Did you know Flaubert knew a prostitute named “Crucifix”? The Athanasian Creed sparkles with paradox. It’s everywhere in my writing. “Opposites are one.” Freud’s darkest truth.
SM: The self that emerges from your writings is, in many ways, an anachronistic one, even a reactionary one: devoutly Catholic, decidedly misogynistic if not misanthropic, elitist if not aristocratic, and highly opinionated. Would you say this is a fair deduction?
AT: I would agree with Dr. Crucifer, without embracing anything else, that “no man ever rose to any degree of perfection but through obstinacy and an inveterate resolution against the stream of mankind.”