From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 1998, Vol. 18.3
SINDA GREGORY: What kinds of books did you read when you were a kid?
RIKKI DUCORNET: One of my favorite books was Heinrich Van Loon’s Ancient Man, filled with his strange little drawings. Whether he was sketching Neanderthals or Babylonians, Van Loon’s ancients all looked like insects. Ceram’s Gods, Graves and Scholars had drawings too; I recall a mysterious House in Ur and Mayan glyphs of the months of the year. And, of course, I read Alice.
LARRY MCCAFFERY: I know you spent some time as a child in Egypt. Did that have any kind of an influence on your sensibility?
RD: I was “stunned” by Egypt. We lived there one year. My father was Cuban, and so we also spent some time in Cuba, too, when I was very small. I cherish memories of the old Havana.
LM: That’s interesting simply because it seems to provide a biographical connection with the Latin American fabulism and magical realism feel that your writing often has.
RD: I had a very “Marquezian” grandmother—fantastical, greedy, and narcissistic. She was a perverse storyteller, and she was an anti-Semite. She never forgave my father for marrying my mother—who was Jewish. Once, when she thought she was dying, she confessed to a black African and a Jewish ancestor. Like the fresh chocolate in one of her favorite stories that was spoiled by a naughty schoolboy’s sliced-off finger, the family blood had been soiled.
SG: This sounds like some of the images and background material that appear in Entering Fire.
RD: Emelina Carmen Dionysia is the bad wind behind much of my work.
LM: At what point did you start becoming interested in surrealism?
RD: I first came to surrealism in early childhood and through the back door: via Dali and Cocteau. I say “back door” because both were titillated by totalitarianism and, in fact, were not surrealists. Cocteau never was and Dali only briefly. But the “convulsive” beauty of Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet—which I saw at the age of eight—and Dali’s inspired drawings from the thirties and early forties really seized my imagination. After that I was forever hunting down a similar resonance or “quality;” it was a kind of hunger. Remember, I grew up near a college library. I found Ernst and Eluard (together, in a book with a pale blue cover and treacherously brittle pages), Duchamp, Tanguy, and even Jarry. Breton’s Nadja was one of “the” books of my adolescence. Later on, when Guy Ducornet and I returned from Algeria, we met the Chicago-based group “Arsenal” at the first anti-Vietnam war rally in New York City and soon after joined the Paris-based international group, “Phases.” My engagement with both was primarily as a graphic artist; I didn’t start writing until much later.
LM: Your first one-person show was in Algeria. What was the background of that?
RD: Just after Algerian independence, Guy went to Constantine for a two-year engagement in the “Cooperation” (the French equivalent of the Peace Corps). I went with him. During the day I was alone and could not move freely through the city—it proved too dangerous: I looked Arab, and I refused to wear a veil. So I did drawings—imaginary architectures inspired by the human face and ideal landscapes.
SG: What was it that first awakened your interest in writing fiction?
RD: Just after the coup d’etat in Greece, I read a piece by a leftist agitator who had been arrested and tortured. During the interrogation she miscarried. I felt such outrage I wrote all night and when I finished I had a strange little book called From the Star Chamber. Its dark energy is rooted in the torture of Algerian students in Paris, the night of Crystal, My Lai, Hiroshima . . . and in my personal life also. Guy’s brother had died in a car crash; my mother was battling cancer. The first Butcher’s Tales are here.
LM: Charlotte Innes’s Nation article referred to The Butcher’s Tales in painterly terms—for instance, she likened those stories to miniatures. I realize this topic is probably something that’s difficult to articulate with any degree of precision, but could you talk about the way your background as a visual artist may have influenced your fiction?
RD: Looking at the paintings of the artists I love—such as Bosch or Vermeer—has had an influence on the way I see the world and so on the way I write. Often I want a kind of Vermeer light—that transcendency- and a Boschian “noise.” That savagery. That clarity. That delicacy.
LM: I first became aware of your work when I saw those drawings you did for Bob Coover’s Spanking the Maid. Those seemed to be beautifully integrated with what Bob was doing in that piece—his interest in representing transformation and metamorphosis, the peculiar combination of abstraction and sensuousness, and so on.
RD: We met in ’66. I was drawing, “transforming,” objects. They were like aberrant natural histories or subversions of encyclopedia plates. And Bob was writing Pricksongs—those wonderfully mutable stories. There was a startling affinity there; our friendship has been long and delightful.
LM: Were you aware of Robert Kelly’s work? Wasn’t he at Bard about the same time?
RD: How interesting that you should mention him! Yes, I met both Bob Coover and Robert Kelly at Bard. I hadn’t thought of Kelly influencing my work before, but I thought Cities was a fascinating piece of work when I first came across it; and you’re right—it did fire my imagination. I also loved his novel: Scorpions.
SG: Fairy tales and other forms of fabulous storytelling that you’ve used in your work are similar to science fiction—that is, anything can happen from one moment to the next as long as it fits into the logic of the story, as opposed to realistic fiction, where you’re locked into describing only certain kinds of characters and events. Obviously your approach allows you to present these transformations almost “naturally,” in a way.
RD: The world was imbued with beauty and magic when I was a child. I had the luck to grow up on the Bard campus; which, as I think of it now, reveals itself as an “axis mundi”—a metaphysical core. There was a window of green grass on the second story of the old library. For a child of six, walking across it to shelves on the other side was like walking on water. Beneath it, the first floor looked like it was submerged. I used to dream of libraries that were also aquariums. And there was an intimate biology lab—its door always open—filled with queer things floating in jars. A few years ago I met Rosamond Wolff Purcell, we discovered that for both of us childhood has the intoxicating smell of formaldehyde!
Once while walking in the woods with a friend, we came upon the body of a red fox swarming with bees. And I think because I had been reading so many fairy tales that summer, the fox’s body seemed magical, portentous—and the forest enchanted. I remember we both needed to shit—to leave a mark, an offering of some kind—beside the body of the fox. As though at some pagan altar! Because the encounter was sacred somehow, simultaneously beautiful and terrible. Like Black Kali! Or a scene from Le Chien Andalou!
LM: It strikes me that the things you’re talking about pose in a very deep-down way, the central direction of Western Europe ever since the French Revolution—that is, this sort of massive, collective cultural effort to stop change, stop transformation, or at least find a means of controlling it.
RD: On the contrary, the direction has not been to stop but to accelerate change. The Market has become a global power—that is an unprecedented transformation. The “great history” has been an infamous history of oppression—domestic and foreign—and one ethnic and nationalist conflict after another. Advances of a democratic nature—so threatening to the market—are finite compared to the ecological and social ravages so evident since the Industrial Revolution.
The right is eager for change when it is financially profitable—no matter what the consequences—and fearful of changes that will bring about social justice. And the Market exploits the profound connection between nature and autonomy. There is a long and bloody history of such exploitation. For example, recall England’s ecological destruction of Ireland which led to the enslavement of a people. To justify their violence, the British pointed to the genocide of the American Indian. The “transformation” taking place in Chiapas right now is the consequence of the same hateful mechanism. Threatened with starvation, free people are quickly made into slaves.
Parodoxically, the left is engaged in “conservation”—conservation of culture, ecological autonomy and diversity—and the change the left is calling for is a profound change of heart. There are two important books that come to mind—one is Karl Polany’s The Great Transformation in which he demonstrates how human society has become an accessory of the economic system, and the other is David E. Stannard’s brilliant American Holocaust.
LM: Your works seems to display a sense of the world as a place of inscrutability. There’s an emphasis, let’s just say, on mystery. Again, this goes back to the notion of the realistic novel, which emerged in the eighteenth century during the age of a world where everything can be explained. In your work I never get that sense. There’s always that respect for ambiguity.
SG: It seems like the negative characters in your work are often the ones who are trying to explain and catalog and quantify it all.
RD: The terror of the unknown—which is also a terror of death and of change—is also the terror of the stranger. If in The Jade Cabinet Radulph Tubbs destroy Etheria’s garden, it is because it is the one place she can be free—and this makes her “strange.” And the garden exemplifies the natural world’s sexual sprawl, beauty, mutability; the subversive quality of poetry.
LM: There’s that incredible moment in The Stain when Charlotte’s father comes home to find his wife about to give birth and that moment of horror. That scene struck me as one of the most powerful moments in your work. It seemed to embody that fear of the feminine, the fear of mystery, the fear of, of everything that that represented—the blood, the birth, the vagina, the mystery. All these things seem to come together right at that moment.
RD: Exactly. Charlotte’s father is a hunter; he’s been out in the woods reducing life to a bone. He exemplifies the lie that because things die (or can be “seized” or soiled) they have no intrinsic value—a profoundly fascist idea that broods at the heart of capitalism: nature and people reduced to marketable objects. Remember Robinson Crusoe and his endless list? He survived on his island only because an entire hardware store washed to shore.
SG: The thrust of a lot of recent feminist criticism often associates this desire for meaning and order—I guess you could call it this rationalist impulse—specifically with masculinity, while women are seen as resisting order and being more in tune with the mystery and ambiguity. Do you see it coming down to this sort of basic either/or distinction between men and women?
RD: Both capitalism and fascism have produced untold suffering and chaos. There is nothing wrong with order and nothing wrong with rationality. The problem is abusive authority and magical thinking—the Inquisition, for example, the idea of ethnic cleansing, the “Stalinization” of Islam. The idea that you can poison nature indefinitely and she will heal herself is magical. Or that the Market will regulate itself.
LM: All of this suggests that you view power-wielding, or the urge to control and define and destroy, to be an existential problem rather than something that arises out of gender.
RD: Power doesn’t belong to the phallus. Living for twenty years in a small village in France, I witnessed many abusive mothers. Powerless in the workplace, illiterate and impoverished, they expressed their frustration and rage by bullying their children.
LM: When I first read The Stain I was struck with how authentic these descriptions of life in this village were. Could you tell us a little bit more about this village you were living in and how the experience of living there might have affected your work? For example, did you actually start writing either The Butcher’s Tales or The Stain while you were living in that village?
RD: Yes, both those books were written in Le Puy Notre Dame. I was fascinated by village life, the seasonal chores imposed by wine growing, the customs, the superstitions, archaic political structures, and so on. We were living in the poorest section of the village among an uneducated peasantry. There were no television sets, washing machines, telephones, cars. For a time my husband was called upon to drive old people to funerals. My son grew up among children who could imitate the crowing of roosters and knock flies off the wall with a rubber band.
LM: You said this morning that if you scratched this village life just a little bit, you were back in medieval times. Did you find the kind of religious fervor that one associates with medieval times—and that plays such an important role in The Stain? For instance, was there any equivalent to the Mother Superior figure in The Stain?
RD: She is a composition of several bullying nuns who had a lot of power in the village in the early years of our village life. The character called the exorcist is based on the village’s very real exorcist who once promised to show me “the soul of a sinner in a mirror.”
SG: What was the initial impulse that got you started writing The Stain?
RD: The Stain got kicked off when I came to know an old woman who was the only one who didn’t have a washing machine; she was still going down to the “lavoir” to do her laundry, and I would go there too, because there were a lot of insects to watch and frogs and other creatures, and we would talk about the past. She had been a child at the turn of the century, and she had memories from as far back as the 1880’s. One day she was talking to me about birthmarks and how important they had been when she was a little girl. People living in the village believed that you would know how somebody had sinned because of the mark on their face, things like that. After that conversation, I took my bike on a wonderful ride through the vineyards, quite far from the village; as I was returning, the sun was setting, and I saw this creature bounding across a meadow. It looked like a ball of fire at first—an incredible incandescence; then it stopped and stared at me and I didn’t know what it was! I looked at it for a long time, and it looked at me, very intensely—so intensely that I finally had to turn away. Then it leapt off, and I realized it was an enormous hare. That night I had a dream of a woman giving birth to a child with a birthmark in the shape of a hare. It was really more like a vision than a dream, and I started up from it and immediately wrote my book’s first chapter. Then the exorcist came in almost immediately after as a voice. There’s a little store that I describe with a wonderful shopkeeper in it; all that was exactly like it was. The shopkeeper had all sorts of things dating from the turn of the century—boxes of silk thread, jars of buttons, bolts of cloth that you can’t find anymore, and handmade soap. People would come in and bring fruit from their gardens or vegetables, and she would sell local people’s cheeses and fruits. She was also sort of the village psychoanalyst, and sometimes you’d have to wait for an hour because she’d be talking to somebody about their problems and helping them solve them. Her name was Blanchette Leclerc. One day I asked her how she was, and she said, “I’m not feeling very well; I have a ‘zona’.” And I said, “What is a ‘zona’?” And she lifted up her skirts and showed me what looked like an enormous welt on her thigh; it was some kind of great sore. She’s in The Stain as well. I also went to a wedding and after did some research—I actually did a lot of research for that book—and discovered that the wedding I’d been to was really just like a nineteenth-century wedding in the Loire Valley; the only difference was there had been a record player. A lot of the village people and episodes wound up appearing in The Stain.
SG: I assume that you couldn’t have been conceiving this in terms of a tetralogy at the outset. When did you realize you had something larger than a single novel?
RD: As I was finishing The Stain, I thought: this book is so “Manichean!” All that stuff about the body-as-cage, about sin and about gardens. A real earthbound book. And I thought: “Yes. And the next one will be about fire.”
LM: Was Bachelard’s The Psychoanalysis of Fire partially an inspiration for Entering Fire?
RD: Bachelard’s great philosophical reveries on literature were in fact the inspiration behind the idea of the entire tetralogy—but not Entering Fire specifically. Only when I began The Fountains of Neptune did I recognize Bachelard’s part in the decision I had made to investigate the elements. I returned to L’Eau et Les Reves and decided to convey all possible waters through the language, mood, and music of the novel: salt and fresh, swift and still, calm and treacherous, sexual, glacial.
LM: So it was only at that point that you began to do any sort of advanced planning about the series as a whole?
RD: Only this: I knew each novel would engage a different approach. The Stain is about the Christian idea of sin—the world and the body seen as satanic vessels. If The Stain was precipitated by dream, Entering Fire began in a greenhouse outside Paris where orchids were being cloned. There I imagined an Amazonian woman far from home and squatting in the artificial rain. Next, Septimus de Bergerac’s Nazi rantings revealed the book to be about many fires: of the Holocaust, of sexual passion, of intellectual curiosity, of the burning Amazon. And I wanted to make the reader’s experience of reading the book feel like running over coals: very fast, hot, and always burning.
SG: When did Lamprias appear?
RD: Very soon. And when he did, I thought, Thank God, there’s this other voice! Entering Fire turned out to be Manichean, too: a species of cosmical struggle between two voices, one good, one evil.
SG: Of course, these voices are male voices; and in fact you’ve used male perspectives in most of your novels. Has that been a problem?
RD: Not at all. In fact, I find that I want to write from the male point of view, because I was fascinated by my father; he had a very interesting mind and was a wonderful storyteller himself. So I think that has a lot to do with my being interested in the male voice. And I’m really interested in knowing how I’m looked at by men, or imagined by them. And of course because I’m also busy participating in the erotic life of a man, I’m interested in imagining the erotic life of men. So the issue of writing from the point of view of a man has never been a problem for me. Quite the contrary. . . .
LM: What was the background of your decision to have the family in Entering Fire be descendants of Cyrano de Bergerac?
RD: I always loved the character in Rostand’s play. But it wasn’t until I began to do research for the book that I discovered Cyrano (or: sire-en-o, the man at the center of the circle) had existed and that he had been the first writer of science fiction (he imagined a trip to the moon). And he had been an alchemist. He attempted to create a homunculus with his own sperm; he was attempting cloning. So Entering Fire was propelled by what Andre Breton called “les hazards objectifs.”
SG: This sounds a bit like that running Borges motif where things created in one’s imagination begin appearing in your daily life.
RD: Several of these magical connections happened while writing that book. The week I visited the local greenhouse to learn more about cloning was the week Barbara McClintock won the Nobel for her work on spontaneous mutations. The greenhouse I visited contained thousands of rubber plants. Row after row they were identical; erect, smooth, and deep green, they seemed like ideal ciphers of glyphs for rubber plants and the sight was uncanny. But then at the far end of a row I saw one that was seemingly tied in knots, purple and strange—it was the “spontaneous mutation!”
LM: I was very moved and also disturbed by the last two entries in Entering Fire—Marta’s sad and horrifying description of being sent of to the Holocaust and her lyrical reveries about the night “blazing with fireflies” when Lamprias seduced her with stories of the sex lives of flowers; then you have the last entry written by Lamprias’s son Septimus, with its chilling remarks about the Holocaust and his announcement that he’ll someday show up again just when he’s least expected. And of course, what’s happened the past fifty years right up to the recent events in Bosnia have proved that, unfortunately, Septimus is right—that sort of fascist, fearful, sadistic mentality hasn’t left us.
RD: Septimus, or rather, what he represents, is never far. This ugly face is in constant mutation and is animated (or so I think) by terror. Terror of the imagination (which has its roots in the unconscious); terror of human autonomy (once again, the unknowable other); terror of beauty, of the things that move us deeply, of loving profoundly, of sexuality, of the body—the wonderful, the vulnerable, the transient body! So, yes, Septimus is always out and about struttin’ and fartin’ “somewhere.”
SG: Obviously Septimus is an awful character who must have been conceived by you to be that from the get-go. And yet there were moments in the book where I found myself not exactly “liking” him but somehow sympathizing with him. And certainly you give him some of the best lines in the book—he’s funny! Did you ever feel uncomfortable knowing that you were being the medium for this voice which was so monstrous and yet so compelling?
RD: Absolutely! For a time I did battle with Septimus. I didn’t want him to be funny! I didn’t want him to be so brilliant or so poetical! But then I realized that if the book was to be strong, he had to be an engaging character in his own way—and, as you said, also very funny. What became clear to me, too, is that there is something very funny—and of course terrifying as well—about a personality like Septimus’s. I’m reminded of a story I heard: when the Nazis first arrived in Czechoslovakia, they put on a great show—they were goose-stepping through a stadium and so forth; the Czechoslovakians’ response to that was whistling the theme song from Laurel and Hardy!
LM: The whole Marx Brothers/Groucho business that’s referred to in Entering Fire was hilarious as well. This is disconcerting in the way that black humor traditionally is—that is, you don’t allow people to respond to things merely tragically; there’s this other dimension that is always there in your books, so that humor and horror seem utterly intertwined in a way that makes the viewer or reader feel uncomfortable.
RD: Making people feel uncomfortable strikes me as being a legitimate aim for an artist. And in fact humor is often a very healthy response to horror. There’s a wonderful moment in “Schindler’s List” when there are all these Jews standing around in a concentration camp roasting potatoes, and one guy says to another, “When was the last time we had a potato roast like this?” Humor is one way of surviving.
SG: Your willingness to grant even your villains a sense of humor may offend some people in these days of political correctness, but the truth is that sometimes dreadful people aren’t reducible to the features associated with “villains.” Awful people can be very, very funny, for example, and their humor is part of their attractiveness; it’s part of why they’re not just a monster and part of why people continue to be led or influenced by them. But in the case of Septimus, you really found his humor emerging more or less spontaneously?
RD: Yes, it really seemed spontaneous. Most of what you find in my books results more from spontaneous generation than from being consciously thought out in advance. I’m basically a very intuitive writer. That’s been true more with some of my books than others. Entering Fire, for example, really seemed to write itself in great part because Septimus’s voice was so strong and I “trusted” it. Not what he said, but “how” he said it.
SG: I suspect that the humor in your writing—which is always there, even in the darkest moments of The Stain and Fire and The Butcher’s Tales—is something that many readers don’t pick up on at first. That’s partly because of the violence and grotesqueness that’s so common in your writing but also—and this is to your credit—you’re able to introduce humor into the regular flow of the narrative, as opposed to most writers, who usually have to stop the action so that they can deliver the punch line.
RD: As I’ve said, when I’m writing, scenes just seem to happen. In Entering Fire I didn’t know that Buttons and the Blue Man would go off together holding hands until I wrote the scene. In The Stain I didn’t know the Exorcist had his foot up the Mother Superior’s skirts until Emile spilled his peas and went under the table to find them. It was the Cod’s spyglass in The Fountains of Neptune that revealed Odille’s murder, and I didn’t know Memory had the hots for Tubbs until she told me, or that Charlotte would eat glass and so, like Emile, have trouble speaking.
LM: Speaking of speaking problems, I noticed that starting with The Stain and then continuing on in just about all your works, there always seems to be this problem with speaking. Is this another spontaneous mutation or a motif you’ve been consciously exploring?
RD: It’s always been conscious. Ever since Charlotte revealed to me that “language is power!”
SG: Are there other motifs you’ve grown more conscious of exploring from book to book?
RD: Yes. For instance, the exorcist in The Stain metamorphoses into Septimus in Entering Fire and then is transformed again into Toujours-La (“Always there!”) in Fountains of Neptune; he takes on a new sort of life as Tubbs in The Jade Cabinet. All these characters entertain a self deluding as well as hypnotic rapport with language. Language is their way of masking the black hole of a desperately hungry psyche.
LM: Many surrealists have tried to find a way to access their dreams in their works. Do you do that?
RD: All the time. For example, when I was working on Entering Fire, I did six months of research on the Amazonian rain forest, but it wasn’t until I started “dreaming” it that I could write about it. That book was informed by a species of lucid dreaming.
LM: For some reason, your presentation of Septimus kept reminding me of Rimbaud—perhaps that was due to the paradoxical feature to his sensibility, the ways he could be seen as being the kind of madman or “thief of fire” that Rimbaud describes in The Illuminations.
RD: In French a madman, a man informed by a poetic or sacred fire, is called an “illumine.” From the start it was clear that Septimus was such a one—and a “fou litteraire” as well. The “fou litteraire” (or literary madman) was seized by a species of metaphysical delirium. My favorite of these was Jean-Pierre Roux—who Septimus and his mother, Virginie, have read avidly. Sitting on a chamber pot having taken an enema, Roux was visited by a sacred cabinet illumed by celestial fire and thundering with God’s own voice. It seems that having voided profusely, Roux was worthy of Divine intervention or penetration. When I came upon this “fou,” I knew I had found a soul mate for Septimus.
Roux also had curious theories concerning language. For example, words like “shit” and “devil” are just synonyms for one thing, which is “agent morbilique” or corrupting agent. He believed that cooks and cookery were satanic but that eggs were pure. Something else: about halfway through Entering Fire I came across some of the anti-Semitic pamphlets Celine had written during the war. Because of their explicitly racist and murderous nature, these had been out of print for decades. I was fascinated by the similarities between Septimus’s voice and the voice of Celine; the stench and texture of their delirium coincided. Something was working in terms of the makeup of a Nazi personality. Around this time the French psychoanalyst Pierre Sabourin gave me Alice Miller’s For Your Own Good. Miller investigates what she calls the “black pedagogy” which colored pedagogy in Germany (and France) in the last century. She argues that Hitler—who was violently beaten, beaten to the point of psychosis by his stepfather—was not unique, not an aberration, but an inevitability. Miller makes an impressive argument linking domestic violence, a psychotic national character, and oppressive political systems. Interestingly, Russell Banks once told me that his great novel Affliction was informed by Miller’s book also.
LM: This seems related to your own focus on childhood and the vulnerability of children.
RD: Years ago when I was beginning to write poetry, I read R.D. Laing’s Schizophrenia and the Family. Laing argues that the worst thing you can do with a child who has seen or experienced something frightening, bewildering, is to say, “You have seen nothing.” Because this forces the child to distrust his own perceptions, he takes the first steps to schizophrenia. I continue to be interested in madness and infancy especially as our own society, inexorably engaged in its own oppressive process, reveals itself hateful of its young—especially its children of color.
I live with a psychoanalyst—Jonathan Cohen—who questions the collusive nature of traditional psychoanalysis in our society and proposes what he calls a “moral landscape,” a certain quality of mind and of experience. The idea of “quality,” of “moral landscape,” appeals to me immensely. I don’t think a novel can with grace “map” such a landscape, but perhaps it can offer an intuitive itinerary.
SG: One of several politically incorrect things that you have done in your work is to present Charles Dodgson in such a favorable light in The Jade Cabinet. This goes against all the negative reinterpretations of Lewis Carroll—the suggestions that he was a sort of pederast or pervert. And yet you have all these wonderful descriptions of the joy that he brought these girls, and how much they enjoyed taking off their clothes, that freedom they felt in his presence when he was taking the photographs of them, and so on. Such treatment struck me as being very brave.
RD: I researched Carroll very carefully, and there is nothing in any of the loving reminiscences of the women who were his child friends to imply that he was a “voyeur” or abusive in any way. In fact, several insist upon the joy it was to kick off their boots and run around naked! I think he was a little girl himself. Did you know he signed his earlier pieces “Louisa Carolina”?
LM: You mentioned earlier that as a child you loved Carroll’s books. What was there about his works from an adult perspective that made you decide to have him play such an important role in The Jade Cabinet?
RD: What makes those books so extraordinary—coming out of the Victorian Age as they do—is that common sense is always triumphant, and that a little girl is the voice of reason.
LM: You also have in your works all those interesting speculations about language itself—about paradox, the different ways words can mean, and so on—and the ongoing delight in wordplay.
RD: To a great extent Alice is all about the irrational use of language by tyrants. Humpty Dumpty is a terrifying figure, for example, insisting that words have no intrinsic meaning. I think of him as the first deconstructionist making language do his bidding.
LM: Edward Lear is often associated with Lewis Carroll, for obvious reasons; but I think he’s really more interested in true nonsense (whatever that might mean!) than Carroll was—or the surrealists were, for that matter. Are you interested in nonsense? I recall the epigraph to The Stain—something like “aaa ooo zezophazazzaieozaza”—seemed to introduce the notion of nonsense. Where did that come from, anyway?
RD: That bit on nonsense is a Gnostic mantra. Its intention is to empower the navigating soul as it passes the planets—all guarded by demons—on its way back “home.”
LM: Again, that sort of discourse seems to be operating differently from nonsense. The way I think of it is that nonsense is literally nonsensical words or phrases, whereas surrealism suggests that the symbols have different kinds of hidden meaning that the artist can access. Again, I know you’ve always been interested in Lear; the epigraph to your first book of poems—The Star Chamber—Up Yours was for Lear, wasn’t it?
RD: Lear’s old man of Ibreem who threatens to scream is threatened with a beating just as Alice is threatened with decapitation when she “talks back.” Nonsense delights us I think because it offers us language in mutation, in gestation—how much richer English is for “brillig” and “snark!”—and because it ridicules pompous, vain, and obsessive behavior.
LM: You did the illustrations for an edition of Borges’s Tlon, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius—just one indication of many that Borges has been important for you.
RD: Very much so. Those drawings are a parallel itinerary. And this because Borges’s wonderful story “evolves” so much—causing the reader to dream startling and inventive dreams. I spent six months on that series of illustrations, and as I was drawing, I would return to the text to discover that I was constantly reinterpreting it. It seemed to be a text in spontaneous mutation. This experience had tremendous impact on the writing of The Fountains of Neptune, which is riddled with implied histories.
SG: I’d say your work often seems to operate that way—that is, like Borges and Calvino, you often seem to enjoy creating lists or an extended series of images that summon up all these other narratives that aren’t fully developed in your own book but which invite subsequent exploration by readers. For instance, there’s a scene in The Jade Cabinet where they visit the circus and see all these fabulous and hideous creatures, each possessing its own background stories which you briefly mention and then move on to the next. It’s almost as if you’re saying to the reader, Yes, there’s all these stories to be told about these things, but I don’t have time to tell them so why don’t you tell them yourself.
RD: One of the delights of travel is to discover that the world is full of stories. Heinrich Bleucher used to say: that man is mythmaker! Perhaps for me writing stories is a way of engaging in the infinite, the mutable, the “evocative” world which is the world of the imagination.
SG: As I’ve already suggested, it seems to me that postmodernism has gradually evolved so that it is now synonymous with skepticism and nihilism. But the fact that any story can be approached from all of these different directions and that there are multiple tellings possible of everything doesn’t mean that there is no truth; it just suggests to me that there are many truths that can be expressed with language. This is deeply troubling to a culture that seeks to limit “truth” to linear, logical propositions. I guess one of the things that I like so much about your work is that you seem more interested in using language to express multiplicity than using it in the service of either the reductiveness of rationalism or the kind of empty relativism that seems so “hip” these days. You have that great line in your work about the path that goes straight a leaden door, while the circuitous one goes to a garden.
RD: Certain writers, specific books come to mind at once: Marcel Detiene’s Le Jardin d’Adonis, Robert Harbison’s Eccentric Spaces, Pierre Mabille’s Le Miroir du Merveilleux, Gass’s Omensetter’s Luck, Sarduy’s Cobra, Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants, Calvino’s Cosmicomics, all of Borges. Manuel Puig, Angela Carter, Mary Caponegro. I just finished Harry Mathews’s wonderful new novel, The Journalist. Speaking of metaphysical delirium!
LM: What about Jose Donoso? I was just wondering because you apparently lived in Chile for a while.
RD: I’m especially fond a story of his called The Walk. I met Donoso recently, and it turned out he had been analyzed by Mateo Blanco—a Chilean analyst of special interest to Jonathan. So the meeting was delightful and intense for all of us!
SG: You mentioned last night over dinner that you developed a friendship with Angela Carter.
RD: Bob Coover suggested we meet because he knew we shared a similar private landscape. And there was a remarkable affinity between us. An early interest in the surrealists, Sade, and Freud had a lot to do with that connection, and our love of Rabelais and Jarry. Despite her terror of bicycles, Angela was a fearless, an acutely subversive creature.
LM: Over the past couple of years, you’ve been sending me sections of work-in-progress that’s not connected to the tetralogy. Have you found the process of working on it to be any different since it’s outside of this structure you’ve been working on for so long? Or has it been basically the same?
RD: In some ways the writing of the new book—which is now entitled Phosphor in Dreamland—has been somewhat different. It is a slender novel that I would describe as a species of parable. However, I would say that if it stands alone, it also illumes the tetralogy.
LM: As you were working on the books in the tetralogy, you obviously had these central metaphors or motifs—earth, fire, water, and air—that created a kind of organic framework for what you were doing. Is there any kind of unifying image or principle that you are aware of with the new book? Or were you mostly just telling a story?
RD: I think the unifying principle was Don Quixote—but as a “folie a cing.” The novel turned out to be about all sorts of things: terror of the female body, of the unknown, of the abyss, of absences. The attempt to fill the hole with noise. Magical thinking! Orthodoxies and sexual craziness. As the novel progressed, the vanished aborigines of Birdland returned in the shapes of visions, food, songs, erotic artifacts, a painted cave, and, finally, a living lover. So if the book is about human folly, it is also about the resurgent capacity of the erotic imagination.
LM: Do you find your creative process operating differently now from the way it did when you were first starting as a writer? For instance, you mentioned that you are now perhaps more aware of reworking motifs and character type.
RD: Somehow that doesn’t get easier. When I write it’s almost as if I’m in a waking hallucination even though I’m aware that I’m consistently dealing with certain kinds of motifs, like the cosmic egg, or twins, or monkeys, or the problem of power. The only thing that’s different is that, having done it before and survived, I know I can do it again. Psychologically, then, it’s easier; from a technical standpoint, it’s not. If anything, there seem to be more challenges.
LM: Beginning with that early scene in The Stain where Charlotte eats the clock, references to eating and food are a constant in your fiction—in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read anybody who has as many different kinds of food references that operate in so many different ways, sensuously and also metaphorically. Can you talk for a moment about the role of food in your work? It was obvious from the dinner you made last night that you’re interested in food from a personal standpoint, but at what point does this become a motif that you’re aware of as an artist?
RD: I love the sensual world, I love the body, and I love the physical, natural world. And for me part of the delight of existence is the feast. The ideal day for me is to get a walk in nature, do creative work of some kind, and then prepare a feast at the end of the day.
SG: In The Jade Cabinet you describe Tubbs arriving in Egypt and wanting to make it into a pudding with raisins. That sentence seemed to express beautifully not only a deep-seated response to the awareness that time and the cosmos are devouring everything—but the desire to turn this around, so that “he” can do the devouring.
RD: Tubbs is the Market! He would eat the world with a runcible spoon if he could—he is so fearful of being devoured himself: by space, by time. It is mortality that prods him on.
LM: After you had finished Entering Fire, at what point did you begin The Fountains of Neptune?
RD: At once. The wonderful thing about having the tetralogy in mind was an extended “season;” it was like writing a single book.
LM: Those vivid, fantastic stories that Nicolas hears throughout the opening of Fountains of Neptune, the ones about ghost ships, bars made out of whale bones, mermaids and sea monsters and so forth—where did those come from?
RD: Some of them came from living in the village and listening to my neighbor, who was drunk but also a wonderful storyteller; the stories that would up in the book aren’t his stories, but there’s something about the quality of his storytelling that informed Toujours-La’s voice.
LM: It struck me while I was reading The Fountains of Neptune that you were describing the last period in which this kind of magical storytelling was possible. We can’t have stories like that anymore—the magic and mystery has been dispelled by the cameras and information.
RD: No, its gone, You know, that’s one of the things that I really miss about living in the village before television. There were a lot of old codgers around who would say things like: “I remember when sardines were so precious that for a treat we would have them for dessert with coffee.” An image like that one would often be enough to get me writing.
LM: Nicolas’s construction of this strange, idealized other world—a place outside of space and time that he could control—reminded me of similar creations: J. Henry Waugh’s baseball universe in Bob Coover’s Universal Baseball Association, Kinbote’s Zembla in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the various fantastic imaginary cities and worlds you find in Borges, Calvino, and Robert Kelly.
RD: Nicolas’s ideal world originates in my father’s passion for war games. He had hundreds and hundreds of lead soldiers—Hittites, Nazis, everything. He also played a postal game and had named himself the Emperor of d’Elir. It was delirium! My father was brilliant, handsome, eccentric, and fearful of the world. Playing at war, he could make and break the rules. I grew to hate games because whenever he was cornered he would pull a new rule out of the air. Once he offered to teach me fencing, and before I knew it he had lunged at my heart. The “rule,” I knew, was that a touch was enough to win. I thought: “what if that rule gets broken?” I never did learn to fence.
Many years later he was nearly blind and living in Canada, he was desperate to play Chinese chess. I felt sorry for him and said OK. He got out a board—I think it was for Parcheesi, and various pieces from chess and checkers games (even dominoes!)—upon which he had stuck little emblems, and said “As you can see I don’t have a Chinese chess set, but these elephants will be horses and they move like bishops except that on certain occasions they can leap to the left (or the right); and then this piece with the tiddly-wink glued to its head will be the emperor although it’s the wrong color. But you’ll remember that all the black pieces belong with the red—you’ll notice we have black, red and white; the green tiddlywink is really black.” This went on for ten minutes and then I said, “Dad, I need a walk, I’ll be back.” And walked over to my friend Jane Urquhart’s house and I said, “Jane, I need a whiskey.” And Jane said, “Rikki, you don’t drink whiskey.”
SG: Where did the image of the jade cabinet come from?
RD: I love jade and the tales about the uncut stone’s destiny conveyed to the carver in a vision or a dream—the virtual image hidden within that he is to give tangible form to. A terrific metaphor for a character telling the author what the book must be. I’ve done many drawings inspired by Chinese or Mayan jade—imaginary archeologies. But The Jade Cabinet was precipitated by a phrase of Kafka’s that’s always intrigued me: “All language is but poor translation.” In other words, if we could speak the language of languages, the language of Eden, we would have the power to conjure the world of things: a tower of Babel, cabbages and kings. But it was Memory who gave the book to me, just as Septimus gave me Entering Fire.
SG: Of course, the main focus of The Jade Cabinet is Etheria. Did you ever consider narrating the book from her point of view? Although that would have kept her from being such a figure of levitation.
RD: You’re right. Etheria had to be talked about; her story was “porous.” This is why she takes form through scraps of letter, journals, phrases, and memories. She is volatile, a spirit or inspiriting presence, an animating air. For her gravity-bound husband, Radulph Tubbs, she is also a season of the mind.
SG: At the end of the book, were you aware when those shots were fired that killed the magician that it wasn’t Etheria who had been murdered?
RD: No, I didn’t plan it that way. I didn’t know that until Memory discovered it. At that point, I though, My God, Etheria has vanished!
SG: There are several ways that your work goes against the grain of a lot of things that are in the air, philosophically and aesthetically, in postmodernism. For instance, there seems to be an insistence in your writing that everything is finally not undecidable and relative, that there are moral distinctions that can be made (and need to be made). So for all the emphasis in your work about flux and ambiguity, there’s also an almost old-fashioned insistence on the difference between good and bad. But it also strikes me that in your work the difference between good and evil is not the difference between power and passivity, but more between the willingness to use power for life enhancement or for destructiveness—it often seems as simple as destruction vs. creation, or something like that. Part of that has to do with the way you present language itself—this sense that language has an ability to control and limit in bad ways versus language which liberates, which opens things up, in good ways.
RD: I grew up on Sartre and continue to think that freedom without responsibility is just another form of enslavement. We live in terrible times in which the so-called freedom to make money without concern for the social and ecological consequences is unquestioned. Living and being has been usurped by taking! To fight this is seen as subversive.
It seems to me that rigor—aesthetic, intellectual—is the paradox at the heart of creative work. But what I call rigor resists definition because it cannot be reduced to one small bone; it is not palpable, but intuited. Every artist worth her salt knows what I mean—either one chooses the well-trodden path, platitude, sentimentality, the current orthodoxy, whatever, or one blazes a trail which is, no matter the nature of the work, part of the process of becoming. I think rigor implies trusting inner experience, investigating inner experience, and so investigating the work of courage. In this way the artist reveals the darkness and the wild beauty at the heart of things. Such a revelation can be a profound aesthetic experience and, simultaneously, a transgressive, a regenerating experience.
I fear we are undergoing a “fascistization” of culture and one indication of that is the idea that beauty is elitist, or somehow “soft.” As if beauty didn’t belong to all of us. And the idea that truth is a lump of bloody human cartilage attracting flies and not the “living being.” What I am attempting to describe here is the process toward understanding, and if I speak of rigor and imagination so much it’s because I think we cannot function as free beings, as “imagining” beings, unless we have the courage to perceive the world and to name what we see, to choose clarity over opacity.
LM: Again, the way you’re describing this process—this struggle between competing forces, the existence of an evil that is actual rather than just a metaphor—sounds almost Manichean.
RD: There’s a connection there with Manichism, I’m sure, but I’m not talking of “cosmical” powers but worldly ones. I’m talking about the constant tension or struggle I perceive—well, it is “palpable”—between forces of enslavement and obscuration, and forces of liberation and illumination. For example, what are the descendants of the Maya fighting for now? They are fighting for what we all want and what we all must have: the right to “be” in the fullest sense.
LM: In some basic sense your books always seem to present these opposing kinds of principles struggling for control of people’s minds and lives—and one thing I admire about your treatment of this struggle is that you’re “old-fashioned” enough to eschew the easy relativism that’s become associated with so many postmodern works. In other words you’re willing to take sides and come down clearly on the side of “life.”
RD: I’m saying the side of life is the primary subversion.