ANA LUCIC: When did Natural Novel first appear in Bulgaria, and were you pleased by the reception it got? Do you think critics understood the novel?
GEORGI GOSPODINOV: Natural Novel came out first at the end of 1999, after winning a national competition for manuscripts of contemporary Bulgarian novels. It was my first attempt at this genre and I was prepared for failure because the novel was very different from anything in the Bulgarian literary tradition. Yet, I can’t complain about the reception the book got. The tastes of readers and critics came together fortuitously. The book sold out in a short time, and a second edition followed. Critics pronounced it “the first novel of the 90’s generation—by birth and by fame.” There were an incredible number of reviews, academic interpretations, even BA and MA theses not only in Bulgaria but also in Polish, Russian, and German universities. Natural Novel was included in the programs of several Slavic departments. So, believe it or not, the volume of texts about the novel overwhelmed the novel itself. When the book came out in France, the French press called it “a machine for stories,” and this is my favorite definition.
AL: Among other things, Natural Novel talks about the process of writing. The narrator in this book says that the fly in his head needs to get out. Is this how you see the writing process?
GG: Yes, indeed, Natural Novel talks about the process of writing. More precisely, about how reality and fiction, the imaginary and the real, sometimes mix in a very dangerous way, and you never know which of the two will prevail. According to this book, writing is equally close to life and to death: there is something of both conditions in it. When the author is writing, he or she is neither fully alive nor dead, but in some strange, in-between condition: a word that has sneaked among other words. The line you mention reads, “The fly in my skull needs a hole.” This points directly to death.
AL: Could you talk about which authors you admire and have influenced your writing? One of the writers I was reminded of while I was reading your novel is Paul Auster. Is he an author you’ve read? If so, what is it in Auster’s writing that particularly influenced you?
GG: The list is enormous. I think the writer shouldn’t confine himself only to literary texts; he or she should be curious about many things. Anything could be useful. In this sense I can mention many guides and handbooks on beekeeping and gardening, textbooks in biology, even the cookbooks that I have read with the same pleasure as good novels. But, going back to your question, I like Melville’s Moby-Dick—it’s a whale-huge book, a book that must be taken in, swallowed whole. In terms of scale, Natural Novel is a fly beside Melville’s whale. (It’s no coincidence that the fly is a central image.) All kinds of genres—scientific texts, natural histories, the Bible—interest me and affect my writing. Among my favorite authors, I will add also Salinger, in whose short stories exist some upseting, unspoken secret. Of course, Paul Auster is on my list, too. While I was writing my novel, I thought it would be great if he could somehow read it one day. Now, with the publication of an American edition, this seems less improbable.
AL: You gave your book the title “Natural Novel.” In what sense is it “natural”?
GG: It is “natural” in terms of Ancient Greek natural philosophy, which I consider to be an essential element and pattern of everything in the world. The protagonist in the novel is seeking for the same pattern in the cosmos of his personal life and failures. “Natural” also evokes the sense employed by Michel Foucault in his analysis of 17th century natural history. But it is also “natural” in the sense of everyday life—reality without pose and pretence.
According to some of the critics, the term “natural” is used ambivalently, ironically in the book in order to show the impossible naturalness of literature—the secondary character of this writing, its postmodern strategies. Probably this is true. There is a paradox, a contradiction in the phrase “natural novel,” it is almost an oxymoron. None of the novel is natural or self-created. But, on the other hand, this same impossible dream of naturalness exists in the book. Mixing the beginnings of great classical novels (almost alchemically), the protagonist wants to achieve a novel that can be created by itself, written by itself without an author.
AL: Do you feel as though your writing represents some international movement? Do you associate yourself with any other Bulgarian writers?
GG: Probably. At least when it comes to relativization, the mixture of fiction and fact, the obfuscation of the boundary between reality and imagination. Also, in the theme and technique of the fragmentation of both personal life and narration. The hero of this novel faces the problem of finding some meaning, some reasons and motivation to continue to live after a dark apocalypse. And this, I think, is one of increasingly important themes of life in a world of global loneliness.
I said that the novel was too different from the literary tradition in Bulgaria for a sense of affiliation to exist. But this doesn’t bother me because, in my opinion, the division between Bulgarian and non-Bulgarian literature is eroding. Literature is becoming less national and more personal.