A Conversation with Felipe Alfau By Ilan Stavans

From the “Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Spring 1993, Volume 13.1

“A man’s life is like those geographical fragments with which children learn ‘the contiguous countries.’ The pieces are a puzzle; but put them together carefully, and lo! They are a map.”—Charles Reade, The Autobiography of a Thief

ILAN STAVANS: Why did you become a writer?

FELIPE ALFAU: I am not a professional writer. Only by necessity have I ever received payment for my work. Dalkey Archive Press offered money for my two novels but I refused to accept it. For my poems I received $500 because I needed to pay the monthly payment here, in the retirement home. The truth is, I was never interested in writing, nor did I ever dream of making a living at my craft. I hate full-time authors. I hate intellectuals that make a living from abstractions and evasions. The art of writing has turned into an excess. Today, literature is a waste. It should be abolished, at least in the form we know: as a money-making endeavor.

IS: How do you think writers should support themselves?

FA: I am not sure, but certainly not by selling their books as jewelry.

IS: Yet I know you first submitted Locos to a New York publisher for financial reasons. You wrote it in English because you needed money.

FA: Who doesn’t? And when I got a job, a stable job, I took the manuscript back. It was scheduled for publication under the title Madrilenos. I changed my mind and asked the editor to return the text.

IS: Had it been accepted?

FA: Yes. It was already in galley form.

IS: And you took it back?

FA: I didn’t need the money anymore. I had a wife and a daughter, and enough to support them.

IS: You come from a family of journalists, translators, and fiction writers. Your father was involved with several newspapers, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Your sister Monserrat, married to Felipe Teixidor, was close to the publishing house Editorial Porrua, S.A., in Mexico City. She did translations.

FA: There was a possibility of her translating Locos.

IS: What happened?

FA: I don’t know. I don’t think the publisher at Porrua liked the book. I don’t blame him!

IS: One of your other sisters, Jesusa Alfau de Solalinde, who married a professor and lived in Wisconsin, wrote a very well-received novel, Los debiles, before she turned twenty.

FA: Jesusa and her husband, the philologist Antonio Solalinde, did like my first novel. I remember that a magazine in Wisconsin published an article about it, a very scholarly one, back in the forties. But all that is now lost. Jesusa and the others were all very serious about their work. . . . I wasn’t. That’s why they were far better writers than I am.

IS: I see a contradiction here. Were the members of your family “professional writers” in your eyes?

FA: No, they were journalists, translators, and people devoted to their art. They didn’t write to make money. On the contrary, they wrote and if money came, it was welcome. The world has changed for the worse, there is no question about that.

IS: Even in the early thirties, your style, your views of literature were not very commercial. Sorry to put it this way, but how could you ever dream of getting some money, even a little, from the sale of a manuscript?

FA: I got $250 for Locos. But you are right. In fact, I don’t see how anybody could like my books or could even understand them. They are unreadable.

IS: Are you being modest?

FA: I am always surprised when I see positive reactions to my two novels. My editor is obstinate. He sends me only those reviews that celebrate my work. I have repeatedly asked him to send me the negative ones but he silently refuses. Those are the ones that interest me, the negative reviews. As the author, I am a supporter of my work, or at least I have to take responsibility for the product, don’t you think? What I really need to know is what I did wrong. And that can only come from negative comments.

IS: Do you have any friends in this retirement home?

FA: No, everybody here is a little crazy. Like me, they have lived too long. They say things that don’t make sense and they act very suspiciously.

IS: What do you do all day?

FA: I wait. I read the paper or watch TV. I just wait.

IS: Does your family ever come to visit you?

FA: No, they all live far away. My daughter lives in California.

IS: So you are on your own all day.

FA: Yes. Once in a while I talk to someone about politics, but the result is always predictable. People are stupid.

IS: As you know, I have been interviewing friends you had a long time ago because I am contemplating the idea of writing your biography.

FA: A waste of time. My life doesn’t have anything out of the ordinary.

IS: I will find that out for myself. Besides, you gave me your permission and Dalkey Archive Press wants to publish the biography as soon as possible.

FA: They will lose money. They have already lost a lot with my books.

IS: You’re wrong. One of the editors told me that when Locos was published, the company was in serious financial trouble. Locos helped them recover.

FA: Impossible.

IS: You were born in Barcelona in 1902.

FA: Ninety years ago . . . too long ago. I am more than ready to leave this boring, repetitive universe. I swear I can’t wait to depart!

IS: But you wouldn’t commit suicide, would you?

FA: No, my Catholic education prohibits taking the laws of nature into your own hands.

IS: Do you believe in God? Because if you don’t—and I suspect you are a skeptic—why then rely on Catholic values? Why not commit suicide?

FA: Would you? You are Jewish. . . . You share with me similar values. Will you commit suicide if you reach my age and turn out to be as bored as I am?

IS: I think I would, not withstanding the offense I would inflict on my beloved ones. If and when the day comes, I only hope to be brave enough. To me it’s all a matter of courage.

FA: As for me, I am a skeptic, as you said. I cannot but have doubts regarding the afterlife. What if there is a God? What if all our uncertainties are a children’s game? What if we are punished for our sins?

IS: We, if we are, I won’t be aware of it since I’ll be already dead.

FA: I wish I was sure it was all a joke.

IS: You have lived more than seventy years of your life in the United States. Do you still feel Iberian, a citizen from Spain? Or are you now an American like everybody else around here?

FA: Neither one nor the other. I guess I am a frontier man that belongs to a world that is no more. I am a traditionalist stubbornly loyal to what some would think are outmoded principles.

IS: Like monarchy?

FA: Certainly. I think democracy is a disgrace. Machiavelli was absolutely right: the difference between tyranny and democracy is that in tyranny you need to serve only one master, whereas in a pluralistic society you have to obey many. I always thought Generalisimo Francisco Franco was a trustworthy ruler of Spain, and thus supported him. Since his death, the Iberian peninsula is in complete chaos. In fact, at the time of the Spanish Civil War, I championed Franco’s cause in this country as much as I could.

IS: You wrote poems included in Sentimental Songs in Spanish, but everything else you wrote in English. Did you ever write any prose in Spanish?

FA: Never. In fact, I am wrong. When I was a young man, between eighteen and twenty-five, I wrote music criticism for La Prensa, a newspaper in Spanish in New York City. Thank God, all that rubbish is now forgotten. The poems I wrote in my mother tongue because poetry is too close to the heart, whereas fiction is a mental activity, an invention, something foreign, distant.

IS: The fact that you switched from Spanish to English is puzzling to me. I can think of only a handul of other writers who have mastered a second language and used it to write their oeuvre: Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Brodsky, and Jerzy Kosinski. Was if hard to switch from one language to another?

FA: It took a while. I never studied English in school. My parents, after a life of wandering in the Philippines, the Caribbean, and several cities on the Iberian peninsula, emigrated to the United States. I arrived when I was fourteen, in 1916. A child picks up new linguistic patterns rather easily. An adolescent has a harder time, and an adult may never accomplish the task of mastering a second language. I took some courses of philosophy at Columbia University, but by and large, I was a self-educated man. I always wanted to be an orchestra conductor. That interest led me to the study of music. I was also in love with mathematics and with physics. As you can see, my novels are evidence of those lifelong passions.

IS: Did the fact that you spoke and wrote in a language other than your mother tongue ever give you a feeling of being an exile? Of living in a universe that wasn’t yours?

FA: No. By mere chance we are born in a specific geography and time. I always wished to travel through time, to champion a life beyond my individual boundaries. Unfortunately, I never succeeded.

IS: You have a daughter from your first marriage, Chiquita.

FA: I left her when she was very little. We hardly lived together. She gave birth to twins.

IS: Does she speak Spanish? Do her kids speak it?

FA: No. A few words perhaps.

IS: You didn’t care to perpetuate your linguistic lineage within the family?

FA: No, I didn’t. And the explanation is very simple: Man is alone on this planet. Our projects, our goals regarding the children we bear are often transformed by unforseen circumstances, by forces beyond our control. The only thing we are accountable for is our own self.

IS: Gustavo Perez-Firmat, a Cuban poet who teaches at Duke University, once wrote a poem; I have forgotten all its lines, but I do remember one stanza: “The fact that I write in English, and not in Spanish, already falsifies what I wanted to say.”

FA: Untrue.

IS: In a conversation with Joseph Brodsky, he told me Firmat is mistaken. Language is only a vehicle through which we verbalize thoughts. Thus, words don’t falsify, only the speaker does.

FA: When I read the lousy Spanish translation, made in Barcelona, of Chromos, I thought my message had been deformed, my intentions inverted. The translator often misunderstands a sentence. Unfortunately, the mistakes are not rare. The art of translation is difficult, to say the least. One cannot substitute one word in a language with its equivalent in another. The task is to make two cultures find a common path, a bridge. I think translators must be anthropolinguists if they want to succeed in their profession.

IS: The first paragraph of Chromos is symptomatic of the dilemmas a non-native English speaker must deal with when living in the United States. Here it is: “The moment one learns English, complications set in. Try as one may, one cannot elude this conclusion, one must inevitably come back to it. This applies to all persons, including those born to the language and, at times, even more so to Latins, including Spaniards. It manifests itself in an awareness of implications and intricacies to which one had never given a thought; it afflicts one with that officiousness of philosophy which, having no business of its own, gets in everybody’s way and, in the case of Latins, they lose that racial characteristic of taking things for granted and leaving them to their own devices without inquiring into causes, motives or ends, to meddle indiscreetly into reasons which are none of one’s affair and to become not only self-conscious, but conscious of other things which never gave a damn for one’s existence.”

FA: My English is Iberian—an acquisition. It’s half English and half my own creation, the result of an immigrant experience.

IS: One could conclude that in a country like the United States, made of immigrants, the English language is a hybrid.

FA: It is. Every generation, every ethnic group creates its own deformations.

IS: Like your characters, those dreamers in Chromos that live in Manhattan without anybody noticing them, speaking a language very much like their own.

FA: Yes, like them.

IS: Farrar & Reinhart published Locos in 1936.

FA: It was only sold to subscribers, as part of one of those failed projects attempting to sell books. Almost nobody read them.

IS: Are you surprised by the recent discovery of your work? Are you amazed by the attention you are receiving?

FA: All of this has come too late. Truly, I don’t care anymore.

IS: An anticlimax, perhaps?

FA: No. . . .

IS: Are you bitter? Did the world betray you? In other words, is all this attention well-deserved but badly timed?

FA: That is for others to judge.

IS: What is?

FA: If my work has some value.

IS: Do you think it does? Does it deserve to be read in the future?

FA: I have forgotten what I wrote more than fifty years ago. Besides, my novels were written in an unprofessional way, especially Chromos.

IS: What do your mean?

FA: I was a translator for Morgan Bank in Manhattan for many, many years. In the office, between one document and another, I would write a paragraph or two. I then pasted together the whole book, as in a collage.

IS: Did you ever attempt to translate your own work?

FA: Never. Why would I?

IS: Were you ever a good reader?

FA: No. I only read about mathematics, physics, and music. I told you I am a failed musician. Today, I do read the New York Times every day, from the first to the last page. And the Daily News as well. I particularly enjoy the obituary section. In fact, that is the one I read first. I like to find out at what age people died and the cause. If they are younger (and they are, more often than not), I try to remember what I was doing at the age when death took these people’s breath away.

IS: Do you do the crossword puzzle?

FA: No. Occasionally.

IS: In Sentimental Songs there is one poem entitled “Afro-Ideal Evocation,” which some critics find racist, anti-black.

FA: As a child, when I first came to this country, I thought blacks were dirty people that didn’t wash themselves enough. I have learned to live in this society but I do believe the United States has degenerated in the last three decades because of the influx of citizens from the Caribbean and Hispanic America.

IS: Do you think whites are superior?

FA: I trust Western civilization to be built upon the wisdom of the Greek and Roman empires. Purity is fundamental if continuity is to be achieved. Take New York City as an example. In the fifties this was a safe place to live, but now so many immigrants have invaded its streets and neighborhoods, making it a violent jungle.

IS: But you were also an immigrant. . . .

FA: Yes. Others must have felt suspicious of me, even if I am a European.

IS: Aren’t you old-fashioned?

FA: Obviously. My ideas are wrong in today’s cultural climate, but they are mine.

IS: A couple of friends of yours, among them Chandler Brossard, say you are also an anti-Semite.

FA: I am not. In Spain, Jews have been seen as Christ-killers by the Church. Yet to me, they are wise and educated. I had many Jewish friends: Daniel and Toby Talbot, for instance. . . . You know, Chandler Brossard was always an eccentric. He says outrageous things.

FA: I was taught to keep a distance from Jews, but I didn’t. Brossard may also tell you I am anti-communist.

IS: Are you?

FA: It’s irrelevant, especially in today’s world.

IS: Are you capable of hatred?

FA: What do you mean?

IS: Could you hate somebody enough to drive that person to death?

FA: Of course not. I am not a man of action. I am a voyeur. I observe and meditate.

IS: Tell me, are you acquainted with Jorge Luis Borges, Pirandello, or Nabokov? Some, including me, have compared you to them.

FA: I have heard the names but I don’t know what those men did.

IS: Never read a story or a play by them?

FA: I didn’t know they wrote stories and plays.

IS: At times, when I talk to you, I get the impression you are a Robinson Crusoe of sorts, or a Kaspar Hauser—a man isolated from society, yet very knowledgeable of the essence of things. Why do you think your novels took so long to get attention and incite interest?

FA: Perhaps because they didn’t belong to the cultural climate of the past, but they fit into the present.

IS: Why?

FA: I don’t know. That’s a question for critics to answer.

IS: Don’t you have some sort of explanation?

FA: No.

IS: Do you see yourself as a time-traveler, a man with a vision?

FA: I see myself as an old man ready for death, ready for rest. I already told you that, didn’t I? I repeat myself. I have been repeating myself for a long time.

IS: But you did it anonymously . . . until somebody decided to listen.

FA: It was better when nobody cared. Some people think I am a celebrity, but I don’t even understand what that means. Better to be all alone, alone and silent.

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