A Conversation with Chandler Brossard
By Steven Moore
The following is an edited transcript of two talks we recorded during the summer of 1985 at Mr. Brossard's apartment in New York City.
Review of Contemporary Fiction: You began your career as a journalist; when did you discover you had a talent for writing fiction?
Chandler Brossard: I discovered this on the "New Yorker" to my great surprise—I didn't know I had it. The most prized writing on the "New Yorker" when I was there was "Notes and Comments," the first page. (That was many, many years ago; it's changed since.) It was the most difficult to write—these little things written by E. B. White and James Thurber were like little sonnets. They were very elegant and very funny and they took a lot of talent to write. I loved them. I was sharing an office with a very strange guy who wrote some—a creepy strange nice man named Stanley Edgar Hyman, the critic, who was married to Shirley Jackson. I loved reading them; they really thrilled me. This was the closest I’d come to what I understood to be fine writing. And there I was working at the "New Yorker" where it was being done, and I thought, "Oh boy, isn’t this wonderful: I’m just an arm’s reach from the chef himself, and I can watch him make that stew." I read those and loved them, but at the same time I was supposed to be doing "Talk of the Town" things, which I did okay, but I still didn’t feel at ease in that form. I started writing "Notes and Comments" things and I sold them three or four. And what happened was I literally put myself in the identity of E. B. White somehow, and I found that once I was there I could write with infinitely greater ease than the skill with which I wrote my own "Talk of the Town." It was a very strange experience. I first discovered I could assume other identities and while so doing really do what they did quite well. Whereas if I were trying to do it under my own identity, I couldn’t do it. It is really quite odd, which might be one of the reasons I signed so many short stories with women’s names, because I found it very easy to write from a woman’s point of view—not just looking at but becoming literally.
RCF: That would also explain the multiple voices you use in your later works where the narrators seem possessed by a variety of voices.
CB: Yes, I find it the most comfortable of all fictional places; it has always been comfortable for me—to be somebody else’s sensibility. As I say, I discovered it a very, very long time ago—over forty years ago. It was an odd talent, like being able to see numbers without having to add them up. So I started doing this wildly inventive journalism, starting at the "Washington Post", but I never took it seriously. I never took journalism seriously and still don’t take it seriously.
When I think about it, I realize that my writing life has not been happenstance in terms of my character makeup. I think I went into writing for the very simple reason that very deeply I needed a number of voices in order to survive. That’s what brought me to fiction. In other words, some character deformation brought me into fiction. It is the perfect objective correlative for my problem. I was a multiple schizophrenic, if you like, but I was aching and aching to be a variety of people. I didn’t come to fiction as a straight by any means, and I realize that it’s essential to understanding me and my fiction and the wide variety in terms of the characters within the particular books—but it was an organic need. By the way, the only person who’s ever said this was an analyst who took me on after reading "The Bold Saboteurs". He said, "It’s the finest, most remarkable aesthetic resolution of ambulatory schizophrenia I’ve ever read. You’ve resolved all your problems by being a writer. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen this. "The Bold Saboteurs" looked at this way is a classic resolution of schizophrenia." So I was kind of lucky I fell into it; some deep urge said look for that situation in which you could be a variety of people because you’ll be saved—otherwise you’ll crack up.
RCF: That reminds me of a passage in "Wake Up" where one of the more bizarre characters says: "All art primarily is an extreme device for protecting one’s uniqueness and separateness, and this is the reason it is both not understood—shared in the communal sense—and even hated" [chap. 4]. Is your writing then a self-protective act for maintaining your individuality?
CB: Yes, I would think so. I remember writing that as a matter of fact. I wrote that on an airplane coming back from making up a story on La Jolla, California ["Holiday", August 1969]. It’s a section, as I recall, having to do with an analysis of aesthetics. This crazy urge came over me while I was on the airplane and I wrote the entire section on a copy of the "Kenyon Review", using all the margins to write this thing on. It’s really quite bizarre. But yes, I feel that there’s certain kinds of fiction—my fiction—certain kinds of art (rather than, obviously, Christopher Isherwood, who would not explain his fictions in terms of that at all). But I think with major art, very serious art, one has to understand the relationship between the artist and his particular kind of work. If you can understand, under certain circumstances, minds under very high pressure, with their own urgency or their own need to be—you find some way of balancing yourself or you die. And so one is always looking for a way of balancing oneself, for carrying on an existential dialogue with this fucking world. A lot of people really don’t need it because there’s really not that much tension in them. I think I’ve been phenomenally lucky in the sense of quite accidentally running into Maria, because I’ve devoted a great deal of my life to knowing women, or the joy or pursuit—but Maria fits in perfectly. There’s not one need of mine that Maria doesn’t respond to and fulfill. It took me a lifetime to find someone I like being with all the time. I’ve never had a minute of boredom with Maria. To me she’s the best and last companion I’ve ever had. We’ve got a wonderful act going and the family—I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’ve got this little girl whom I’m crazy about whom I see all the time—I don’t see anybody but Genney—a wife who amuses me enormously, and we’re a very amused family.
So yes, I would say one does what is required to keep one’s balance, and think fiction’s always been a great balance for me, and in fact I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have my family now, since I’ve pretty much decided not to write anymore—there’s hardly any point in it. I couldn’t have written "Closing the Gap" ten years ago; in fact it had to arrive when it arrived as the last statement that I’ve made. (And they’ve all come along at times when I could handle them at quite natural intervals; I haven’t had to bring them up.) I agree with what the person said in the book about art being a way of maintaining oneself and at the same time keeping "them" away from you, which is one of the reasons they hate you. The same reason the Italians are upset terribly if they find a person who wants to be by himself—they think he’s sick. They really will kick your door down. You know there’s no natural Italian word for "private"; it’s not an Italian concept, so they had to bring in the English word: it’s "privato." They just don’t know what it’s all about; they just think, "Well of course he wants nine people in that bedroom with him."
RCF: What kind of an audience do you envision yourself writing for?
CB: I don’t know. I’m always surprised and puzzled when I meet people who have read my work and like it because I don’t really know what they get out of it—I really don’t know. And I was always amazed when people would write me and tell me how much they like things, and I just turned them off like that; "Oh, you liked that?" And I still don’t understand how people could respond positively to what I think is my trash fiction. I really don’t understand it, and I’m not being cute.
I don’t know what people get out of my fiction. What I get out of reading is something that is new to me, new and deepening and takes me someplace in the human spirit that I haven’t been before; plus it gives me new faces and new everything. It’s like going to see a foreign movie: I’ve just finished a lovely book, recently translated, by Primo Levi, the Italian writer, called "Periodic Tables." It’s very beautiful, and I love European fiction, as you know. This is a book I could never have written and it takes me into a place in the human heart of the human terrain, if you like, that I find almost ecstatically pleasurable, the same way that reading Kafka or Babel or Borowski makes me quite happy. So that’s what I get out of reading fiction: it makes me quite happy and I feel at home and think how wonderful it is to be here in this place with this person. I love that. Other fiction I can’t even make contact with. I can’t make contact with Gaddis’s fiction—I literally can’t. I look at it thinking, "Well maybe if I held it up to the light or something . . ."
RCF: Is there any American writer you can make contact with?
CB: Well, the last one I found very funny was Terry Southern, that funny, dirty writer. But in general, no. I’ve made limited contact with some of Raymond Carver’s short stories, but only with some effort because the people he writes about I find so despicable. I don’t like reading about people I find despicable. I don’t mean because they do bad things; they’re just so fucking spiritless and awful. And also he has a catatonic style. It’s like the early Hemingway stories—that’ll only get you so far. I think what he does he does beautifully, but it doesn’t take me anyplace. But I’ve made contact with two or three of his things. I think his poetry is quite dreadful, really quite third-rate, and I think his own personal story is tragic and dreadful.
RCF: You once expressed an interest in the early work of Burroughs and Hawkes; do you still follow them?
CB: I don’t like Hawkes at all. I read one book of his (because he was published at the same time I was published at New Directions) called "The Cannibal," and I liked that but I’ve not liked anything of his that I’ve read since. It’s terribly self-conscious and very "literary," and not of any interest to me.
RCF: And how about Burroughs; have you lost contact with him as well?
CB: I haven’t seen Burroughs in many, many years. I did like "Junkie" enormously when I first read it. I really think it’s a variation on "Walden," really. It’s in a classic tradition, it’s a classic naturalistic, sort of philosophic work—but it happens to be a different subject—but it’s very conservative and, as I say, traditional in its approach and its sensibility and language. It’s very classical. It’s obviously the work of a very well-educated person—anybody could see that, and anybody can see that nobody named "William Lee" wrote this book, because you can tell just as when you’re around Burroughs: he’s obviously from the upper middle class. (He was then; I don’t know what he’s like now.) But he writes as an upper-middle-class person, whereas John Rechy is clearly lower middle class—actually he’s half Hispanic and half something else—but he’s lower class. And so to read this very elegant book about this disgusting life is kind of unusual. And then I liked the parts of "Naked Lunch," but I don’t think he’s moved a step beyond either one of them. He’s just done variations on them.
RCF: How about the Latin Americans? "Magic realism" was the term your French reviewers used to describe "The Bold Saboteurs", so do you feel any affinity with Gabriel Marquez or other magic realists?
CB: No, I don’t. As a matter of fact, as I’ve gotten older and stranger and more crotchety in my ways—then somebody says, "What do you mean? You were that way when you were twenty!" I like Vargas Llosa’s work and I like some of Marquez’s work . . .
RCF: And Borges?
CB: No, I’ve never liked Borges. I despise his work, and I despise him too. He’s a fascist swine—he was very close to Pinochet, by the way—a loathsome swine who did not ever come out for the Left or anything. I’ve never liked his work because it’s terribly artificial—I just never believed it.
But even though I’ve gotten pleasure out of reading these people from time to time, the ones who thrill me are the ones like Babel, the divine artists who do magic in two or three sentences. They don’t take seven-hundred-page books to do it. And they thrill me. Also the Latin American writers are very overblown, elephantine—they’re hooked on baroque, as against someone like Machado de Assis, who is more in the European tradition of elegant simplicity. I like elegant simplicity, and inventive, explosive simplicity. Babel is the perfect writer, I think, as I look back thinking, "How perfectly that’s done! How beautifully that’s done!" You can’t beat him, you can’t write better than that, you can’t do fiction better than that. And I think that’s where the real beautiful talent lies. When you’re old—like the great Japanese painters, they got simpler and simpler but deeper and deeper. They’d synthesize everything into those four or five markings. Oh, how beautiful that is, how exquisite that is.
Of course, oddly enough, Hemingway went the other direction: he started simple and went downhill rapidly. So I don’t have any affinity for the Latins. I think I’ve been touched more deeply (and by that perhaps even simpler than "influenced by" because of having been touched so deeply) by the middle European writers, by the Jews. Being "influenced by" is a ten-week seminar: what do you really mean by that? But the people that have touched me and deeply moved me have been middle Europeans, and largely Jews, with that exquisite, almost painful simplicity. And that kind of writing can’t be done in this country, for all kinds of obvious psycho-social reasons.
RCF: Almost all of your fiction is presented in a spoken language rather than a written one. What is it about the vernacular that attracts you?
CB: Well, I don’t know; the answer is it just does. Why do you like that person—I just do. It has enormous energy and also it has levels of meaning that official languages don’t have, because vernacular has been used for centuries to say a variety of things simultaneously. The hidden meanings, the implications are always at least on two levels. To "high hat" some somebody, for example—you can explicate that for an hour, it’s so beautiful. Or to give somebody "the cold shoulder." It’s immensely inventive also on an unconscious level. It’s a deep, deep, true language combining many varieties of reality, hinting at those things that are somewhat beyond reality. It’s a perfect language.
RCF: I understand it’s the hardest kind to translate.
CB: It’s impossible; you can’t do it. I learned from Queneau, who said, "You know, we’ve just got this translation of "Who Walk in Darkness" which we’re rejecting; we’re going to get another one. But I can tell you, your books are virtually impossible to translate because they are in spoken language; we can just approximate them." So I can only imagine how different the original Genet is from the translations; people tell me it’s not the same book. They say Celine is divine in French, just crazy. The fictional implications and ramifications of the vernacular voice are quite wonderful; and they go back . . . I don’t know, I guess I could even theorize about the oral tradition and storytelling and so on, but there’s something more about it than in that other language. I wouldn’t say more meaning. It’s richer and impossible to develop a defense against, whereas people can get up a defense against an official attack. And also it’s unofficial, and I think it’s almost an answer to the official language.
RCF: You seem to have a predilection for characters who live outside of "official" society: thieves, chimney sweeps, harlots, counterculture activists, and so on. Is this so?
CB: Yes, their language . . . It’s really an underworld and I think this obviously comes out of the fact that the people I felt comfortable with when I was growing up were the demimonde, the underworld, the outcasts, and so on, from the very beginning. I’ve never felt comfortable with other people at all, which explains my always very extremely limited social life. I just don’t feel comfortable with straight people most of the time; I can’t be with them. The people that I was happiest with, whom I grew up with, who taught me everything, who took me in, were those odd people: thieves, homosexuals, the whole schmeer, like an early German movie—they were all there, and I felt terribly at home with them. I could go into the metaphor of these people—because they were many-voiced, and many-this and many-that—but I’ve always felt official society (from childhood on) was death for me—total, utter death. And a kindness and decency was shown me by these outcasts and never by official society.
RCF: How much outlining or drafting to you perform when writing a book?
CB: I don’t do any. I just make it up every day.
RCF: So it’s largely improvisational?
CB: Yeah, completely. I can’t stand making notes. I can’t bear it. It’s like planning on fucking—I think, what a bore! I just make it up. I have a very good memory; I don’t have to take notes or anything—I can remember it very well.
RCF: But for your longer fictions, do you plan where you want them to go?
CB: Nope, I don’t. It’s like free associating: as soon as I wake up I think, Oh boy—and I can go on forever. I just stop because I’m bored or tired. One thing leads to another.
RCF: How do you know when to stop?
CB: It sort of stops naturally: I’m tired, or I think I’ve done enough writing.
RCF: Kerouac compared his spontaneous improvisational approach to an extended jazz solo; how would you—
CB: I wouldn’t dream of such comparisons. It’s just my way of working. It’s just improvisational, just as when I taught I improvised all of my lectures. Never made notes, and I could not do it otherwise. It’s my style, it’s my way of doing things. I never took notes on any reportage; I just remembered it.
RCF: What influence did your Mormon upbringing have on you?
CB: When I’ve discussed my past or origins I think sometimes I’ve given the wrong impression. It’s funny: however awful my childhood was, my family were upper-middle-class people. They were the elite of the inter-Rocky Mountain Mormons. And in their world you could not get any higher than these people: they were the children of bishops, and big landowners and so on, and they were the most educated. And so I was brought up by the upper middle class of this region. However little money there happened to be around due to my father’s depredations, my background (however crazy it may seem) was an upper-middle-class background. My mother was a Mormon princess whose father and grandfather were the wealthiest men in the entire section of Idaho, who had land that was so great that when my grandfather died the land was split into fourteen different farms. Very big, wealthy men. These were people who, mind you, went to college—it was unusual for men and women to finish college in those days. They were both college graduates, so I was surrounded by people who were upper-middle-class Mormons—whatever crazy things were happening, they were not louts. They put an enormous priority on education, and also an enormous priority on self-education. Mormons live by achievement, by sacrifice, by being tough—they don’t fuck around. And they pride themselves on doing it their way. I was brought up in this tradition, so it was quite natural I wouldn’t go to school, it was quite natural I should teach myself because this is what you do. And also they reward achievement, they reward guts—they reward these things.
Sometimes people think, "Oh, you must have come from the gutter." No, I didn’t come from the gutter—I lived close to the gutter—but my mother was a very elegant and extremely well-read, well-educated woman who just had no money because of my father. The other day Maria was talking about my childhood and how I’ve misrepresented it. I mean, it was quite brutal and painful, but it was very upper class in its values. My mother made all of my clothes, all of the clothes for the children, so I lived in handmade clothes. When we bought all the clothes, they were the very finest of English woolens because nobody else in the store wanted them. My mother made them.
Whenever I’d come out of one of my migraine headaches—seizures which would last for two or three days, and I was just practically dead—and my mother was bringing me up out of the fatigue of these things (I’d been vomiting straight for two or three days), one of her ways of helping me out of this postmigraine horror was to play the piano for me and to sing, and also to show me her furs, which she had quite a collection of—and of course which she sold off piece by piece in order to support us. She had these two great trunks full of her furs, and she’d show them to me and tell me stories of her childhood, and this would bring me up out of this black hole I had been in for two or three days. And it was she who told me to have these hallucinations (or whatever I was having), to have them at home, don’t walk around anymore on the streets—because I would fall down in the streets, or I’d bump into things. And she would see these bruises all over me and say, "What are you doing?" And I said, "Well, I’m having these visions." And she’d say, "Well, why don’t you have them at home? Just select a time and lie down and have them." So the woman was very knowledgeable—this was almost sixty years ago. Also there was a tradition in my mother’s family of having visions—her father had them, and her grandfather and her great-grandfather had visions.
So in many ways it was terribly deprived and crazy, but in other ways it was very privileged in an intellectual, sociological sense. But it was a very contradictory background. I see pictures of my mother, and I think, My God, who is this ravishingly beautiful woman in these ermines and mink? Well, that was my mother, the Mormon princess.
RCF: Speaking of visions: you once described "true and original" writers as "visionaries . . . magicians and shamans, mythmakers and mythologists" ["Harper’s", June 1972]. These terms originate of course in religion (or ritual, mystical experience)?
CB: I suspect there is on the highest level, on the truly great level—by that I’m talking about truly great artists like Kafka, Proust, and others. I think yes it does have; someone says, "Well, why did you do it? Why are you bothering to do all this, devoting your life to this suicidal operation?" I think that in so many words one can compare it to the religious experience, which is an attempt to get beyond the limitations of one’s self. If you really do believe in your heart of hearts that there’s no life after death, that can make you a dangerous person, I think. Now I have very mixed feelings about that; I was raised to think that there is a life after death. But I could not say in my heart of hearts totally absolutely I believe there is not a life after death. I can’t say that; I’d like to say it, but I can’t say it. Because if I ever felt that—that it all ended when you’re dead—I would become a ruthless killer without any qualms at all. Well, what’s the difference, there is no anything! As Dostoyevsky said, if there is no God, anything is possible. Well, he’s quite right.
So I think man makes various attempts in various ways to get beyond the kind of horrifying limitation of that which you can see before you and the naturalistic limitations of life. I think that there’s something more and I think fiction on its highest level is an attempt to get there. An attempt to create is a very religious act. To go to a new place is, in a sense, equivalent to believing in God—that "I can’t prove it, but I think there’s something out there." And it’s going beyond one’s self, which I think is an indication that man does go ever forward, which is fundamentally I guess a religious notion. So I guess in that sense I am quite religious.
RCF: Much of your recent fiction is political; is there a similar connection between fiction and politics?
CB: Also I believe that politics—in its highest political ideology—is another attempt by man to break his bonds and to transcend the limitations of the present life. And this is what attracted me for a very long time to very progressive political ideologies—still does, except that I’m so pessimistic now I’m not engaged by it at all. I have nothing but the gloomiest views of everything, especially in this country.
RCF: Do your books have a didactic purpose? Are you out to change anyone’s mind or viewpoint?
CB: I think in the same sense that I think religious people who believe in God are trying to get you convinced that God exists. So I think I’m really an evangelistic sort of person, very much so. I know that when I teach I become a raging evangelist—they look at me as though I’m about to levitate. I believe passionately in these things, really very passionately. I do want people to be more human; I do want people to realize metaphorically there are several thousand ways to fuck—the simplest way is not the only one. Don’t believe it. It’s also an attempt to tell people don’t believe the lies people tell you in order to order you around.
RCF: This religious/moral impulse seems to be especially strong in The Double View. Yet that book seems also to be sending out conflicting signals. On the one hand, it argues for freedom from repression by living out one’s fantasies, and yet everyone who does so in the book is destroyed for doing just that.
CB: Well, I think that’s the classic existential dilemma, isn’t it?
RCF: I guess it is.
CB: Yeah, which does not invalidate it. There’s a dilemma that somehow one has to accept as a dilemma and see if no one can do something about it. But it may be an unsolvable dilemma—you will be punished by living that very life you have to live, which is very religious in a biblical sense that there are these conundrums and dilemmas: now what are you going to do with that one? Also it has a very Hebraic quality to it, of the doomed act which you must make in order to get your freedom. It’s very interesting to me. It’s something of an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth feeling, very much so. Very primitive, I think.
RCF: "Wake Up" (and the unpublished "Come Out with Your Hands Up!") incorporates many earlier writings of yours—short stories, book reviews, plays—that were obviously written for other occasions. What was the strategy behind recycling this material?
CB: My view in these great freak show, saturnalian fictions of mine was almost like a kind of circus, where you absorb any piece of material you want to absorb. And I wanted to engage the reader in all aspects of my psyche—the part that went on twenty years ago, and the part that did short stories, and then this sudden voice. Because the short stories, for example, were written in a very different kind of mind that I wanted to introduce as part of the multiple identity process that I want very much to engage them in. If you can imagine the Grand Guignol, or the Saturnalia, or a person hallucinating—they would go back and start singing childhood songs. And this is very much the impression that I wanted to create fictionally.
RCF: Was the form so elastic that anything could go in?
CB: No, no, not everything. Certain things I felt comfortable about putting in and certain things I would not put in. They were very, very absorbent to me, and I wanted to have it as complex and as energetic an experience as possible for the reader, because they’re almost like trances to me, in many ways, like visions or hallucinations. One of the things I was impressed with when I first read Levi-Strauss, when "Tristes Tropiques" first came out, was his description of a tribal chieftain who periodically would lie down in his hammock and go into these trances and relate these stories in funny voices. And the people thought that that was just swell! And also, this is what they did in Homeric times; I’m sure when those people were wandering around telling those stories, those were participatory tales. I think that the listeners participated.
RCF: The psychohistorian Julian Jaynes has described that ancient mind as bicameral, where one half "spoke" to the other as in an auditory hallucination.
CB: Well you know that mind was not the modern mind. That was not the mind one’s familiar with; it was a mind that did quite different things. And once you could get that through your head, it wasn’t a variation on anything at all, it wasn’t what you do. So they had no objection to hallucinating or going nutsy—they did have orgies all the time in those days as part of their experience. You’re all participatory, you’re all taking voices in this. So it’s almost an atavistic form of fiction; I want the sudden voice of my childhood to come out in it, and this was very, very planned.
RCF: So it’s the personality of the author—rather than any fictional narrator—that unites the books?
CB: I’m the ultimate person who wrote it, but also the narrator is the straw boss who whips it into shape, certainly in "Come Out with Your Hands Up!" in that lunatic Decca Record, who finally becomes Milton Berle at the end: "Come back, Uncle Miltie!"
RCF: With "Closing the Gap", your most recent book, you seem to close an arc—
CB: To come to an end!
RCF: —an arc that began with objective, outward-directed writing (with identifiable people, settings, issues) to an intensely subjective, inward-directed writing, where language is almost entirely self-referential, almost solipsistic. Do you view your output in this way?
CB: I see that as a natural . . . I see it very comparable to the other artists too, especially in the painting field, where they got simpler and simpler and simpler, and more self-referential, and more in one beautiful, ecstatic area.
RCF: Are you also referring to other writers who create such fictions? I’m thinking of Beckett’s short pieces.
CB: I don’t like Beckett at all. I’ve never understood why people like him. I literally can’t read him—I can’t watch or read him. That’s not meant as any sort of an evaluation of him, I just can’t do it. One is directed, or helped along one’s way, or experiences change in oneself, due to a lot of things. It’s quite possible that somewhere along the line, even though I didn’t really like Beckett, I heard some of the things he said—so there might be more than just an indifferent connection. I don’t know. I think it’s impossible to trace what has influenced one or what has helped one to achieve one’s own direction. I’d say that in the development of my sensibility, the way I feel about life, certainly the Jews have had as profound an influence as anything I know.
RCF: The culture in general or their writers?
CB: The culture in general, the suffering, and the writings. And I think the destruction of the Jews has been the most phenomenal thing in the history of the world. Unbelievable. But they fascinate me, and I think they are a kind of chosen people.
RCF: You’ve probably received less critical attention than any other significant writer of our time—
CB: Damned right.
RCF: To what do you attribute this?
CB: I don’t really know. I can just guess at a few things. I think my work has been more original than other people’s, original in a way that worries people and makes them uncomfortable. You do have to remember that Celine was remaindered in this country. You think, Why is that so? Explain that to me. Why didn’t he catch on when he first came over? Why do so few people know anything about Ernst Junger? There’s a reason.
I think I was just . . . they didn’t want to go where my fiction led them. I’ve always been appreciated by writers, but by people beyond that it’s very difficult, although I was appreciated immediately in France. I don’t know why people evaluate fiction they way they do. I don’t know why people read fiction. I don’t know what happens to them when they read it. But I can say that my fiction was not what they were looking for. It made them very uncomfortable, and also it demanded a great deal from them whether they knew it or not. Just as Maria explains to me from time to time: "You may be unaware, Chandler, but half an hour around you can be very exhausting for most people. And even though you don’t know this, you can wipe out a room in no time if you really want to, if your just turn up all your knobs." And I guess this is so. She says, "You’re relentless when you start pouring on energy. And also you come across in a very strong way and no wonder a lot of people are afraid of you." Well I’m kind of unaware of this, but she says, "Take my word for it. You’re intimidating when you really get going."
So I guess my fiction in some way intimidates people or exhausts them or does something to them that they’re not looking for. Also, one of the reasons is that this country is not known for its practiced, educated, sophisticated literary appreciation. When you look at what we’ve produced in terms of critics, it’s pretty pathetic.
RCF: Especially book reviewers, who’ve had the first shot at your books.
CB: Oh my God [snores]. Why wasn’t "Junkie" responded to more than it was? It lay around doing nothing for years and years and years, entirely forgotten. Nobody made any mention of it at all. I picked it up and loved it. But I think that my fiction worries people in a way they don’t want to be worried. It’s more than just fiction. Something about it is too high-voltage for them. They think, "I can’t handle this. Don’t give this to me anymore." Whereas the one thing that was not was "The Spanish Scene", and that’s been the most thoroughly well-reviewed book I’ve ever written. It didn’t get one bad review. People love that fucking book. It got a great review from the "Los Angeles Times"; the man said, "This is journalism of the highest order"—really went out of his way to praise it. My wife loves "The Spanish Scene", just loves it. But I think that’s because it’s more than fiction, just as "Who Walk in Darkness" is more than just a story about some people.
RCF: You’ve described that as a "documentary nightmare," yet many readers missed that aspect. What exactly gives it a nightmare quality?
CB: I think that there are two things going on that create a peculiar resonance. It has this almost monotone—documentary, unevaluating monotone—like a documentary’s a documentary: it doesn’t take any judgment. But resonating against this or bouncing against this are all the strange things that are happening with these people—what they’re doing to each other, the observations on the outside of what is taking place—in somewhat the same way that the New Wave movies, the Godard things, were quite lunatic. I mean those movies were quite crazy in that flat way. "Breathless" was quite insane; "Two or Three Things I Know about Her" was quite an insane movie, but it was done in this very even, calm way. And that was the intention of "Who Walk in Darkness", and also to produce the effect of the endless dream or nightmare. You know the title was originally more reflective; it was "Night Sky," with the obvious implications of night/sky. But it was as though there were a permanent night, and the tactile qualities of the prose were supposed to introduce this endlessness. There’s no real ending to "Who Walk in Darkness", just endlessness. Just as Camus’s "The Stranger" had an endless quality. So this is never going to end. It had no seismographic qualities, as the next books did; it purposely had none at all—I didn’t want it to have any seismographic qualities.
RCF: Your next novel, "The Bold Saboteurs", likewise has an unusual ending, with the protagonist deep in an hallucination, looking for a way "back." Were you suggesting he does finally make it back to "normalcy," or is he left in a permanent state of schizophrenia?
CB: Well, fiction often leaves you with questions; they’re not resolved. They say, now here he is. I think he was looking for a way back; it could have been a way back to himself, really, to find himself. I think "The Bold Saboteurs" can be interesting on a number of levels: one in terms of the boy taking a long voyage and finally hoping to get to himself—the purpose of the voyage is to find himself. And that’s one way one might look at it: he was looking for that device, that vehicle that would return him to himself. But it was certainly a book of self-discovery. It’s not just a story like "Huckleberry Finn"—it was one of bath and blood and fire. In a number of ways it’s quite clear to him that "This is up to you. Nobody is going to help you do any of this." It’s a voyage toward one’s self, of somehow balancing yourself: well here you are, rather than here you are not. I think it has that significance to it, of "You’ve survived, now what are you going to do that you’ve survived? Where do you go from here?" But it did have that as one of the conscious directions of it—although I wrote a great deal of it unconsciously, as I do most of my work anyway. But that was the first book I opened up all the doors to, because "Who Walk in Darkness" was almost like the finals in some academy in a way. I wanted it to be this seamless, perfect, controlled, absolute thing of infinity, where in "The Bold Saboteurs" I just let everything go crazy. And I was no longer under the influence of Flaubert and my French masters. And also there were places I would be willing to let myself go in my head, which I was not willing to do before. Thinking about it now, I see that I couldn’t quite fruitfully have written a sequel to "The Bold Saboteurs". Not picking up from, but that psychic zone called "The Bold Saboteurs" could have been expanded—I could have done more with that. I could have gone on and done another book in that way. I don’t feel I exhausted it.
RCF: But poverty drove you at that point to writing potboilers instead?
CB: Yeah, I was really fucking starving to death. I really was starving to death. I had no money at all. But looking back, I think, "God damn, I wish I’d had the time"—because I was really striking gold there in myself, you know. I could have done another long, crazy, beautiful, exploratory thing.
RCF: It seems to be your most popular book.
CB: I wonder why? There’s something romantic about it, but also it’s the story of a boy, which always makes people like it. And it’s not a savage book (whereas "The Double View" is a savage book); it has the beautiful innocent quality of this child. I think it’s one of the great children’s stories of the little boy, and I can only think of four or five that really compare to it in quality. And I think people like it because of its craziness—its benign craziness, not black craziness, but its benign craziness. Meaning this crazy tunnel you will come out of at the end and other books you think, "Oh, if I ever go in there I’ll never return." You’re quite right—you won’t. But I think it has a joyous lunatic quality that people love. So it has a happy festival quality, plus the fact there’s this innocent little boy who’s the only innocent person. Although I will say that the sensibility that guides all my work is terribly innocent. I cannot change that. And I realize in all of my things, if there is one constant, it is the innocence of the sensibility guiding the book, because it’s always outraged. Whereas there’s no innocence in Celine, and there’s certainly no innocence in Gaddis. Gaddis is wry from the very beginning; you think, "Boy, were you born wry." But there’s always this innocence, which is a very religious notion, by the way: that one must maintain one’s innocence in spite of what they all do and say.
RCF: I guess that answers my last question. I had planned to ask whether you see your huge output as all of a piece, and if so what connects this body of writing. The thematic common denominator seems to be just that.
CB: Innocence outraged. And also I think they can all be understood in a deeply religious sense. I think the thing that is continuous in this writing of mine is this almost blind religious innocence, of the religious innocent. Now the religious innocent is an inextricable part of religious literature throughout the ages. When the man said, "Listen, we’re going to walk on this water," he was the one who said [brightly], "Okay!" The believer who believes in miracles persists in going on. In none of my work has the innocent voice lost its innocence. It may be covered with blood, but it has never become a cynical, pessimistic voice. Crazy is one thing, loony is one thing—but it’s never become cynical and tired. The believer has never been changed into a disbeliever in all of my fiction. It simply never has. And that does link it. Even the seeming non-voice of "Who Walk in Darkness"—about as neutral as you can get—has a kind of innocence if you realize he did select some things rather than other things. It may water, but let me show you what’s in that water.
Very, very moralistic books—and there’s something quite innocent about morality, terribly innocent about it. Like it’s not real! What do you mean, don’t cheat and lie? Are you crazy or something? Everybody cheats and lies! Everybody cheats and lies—the question is can you get away with it. So the person who truly believes you shouldn’t cheat and lie is either an oaf or one of the children of God. And I really do believe in moral behavior, I really do believe in it. That doesn’t mean I can’t fuck monkeys, but I really do believe in deeply moral behavior. I believe it’s a crime to cheat people; it’s a crime to lie to people. And this is what Christ is supposed to be telling you about, to be good. I really do believe in being good, and even though I know better, I can’t knowingly violate these rules of mine. It is the bruised, unrepentant innocent that ties this together and the passionate believer and fiction as an experience beyond. Otherwise it just becomes topical, boring fiction, quite forgettable boring fiction, like all of Mailer’s fiction.
RCF: Samuel Butler said he wrote books in order to have something to read in his old age; do you enjoy rereading yours?
CB: No, I never do. I can’t bear it, I just can’t bear it. I can’t look back, I guess. I think I’ve read "Closing the Gap" once just to check a couple of things out, but it’s all over for me when I finish it. I just don’t want it, and it makes me nervous, and I don’t particularly enjoy it.
RCF: It’s like a live performance, then? You do it and it’s over?
CB: It makes me very jumpy. And also I’m afraid I might start imitating myself. And I’m not interested. I love "Closing the Gap", but I’ve already started thinking of some new things. If I could get over this combination right now of the despair that comes from pain and being crippled—it’s very hard to fight. I think, "Oh my God, I can’t function!" And then it’s very hard for me with the difficulties I’ve had getting published. But if I could lift this despondency, I’d like to start this new thing I’ve told you about, this "Lit. Nuggets" thing. [From a letter to Steve Moore dated 11 March 1985: "I have some deliciously insane stuff in my head, all ready to go. Having, for example, to do with Marcel Proust’s first Western. Called 'Whoa Boy!’ Written when he was 13. Few people knew he was a closet admirer of Zane Grey. He was so pleased with 'Whoa Boy!’ that he announced plans for a second gay sagebrush thriller: 'SaddleStud.’ That’s when his mother stepped in."] And I thought of one for Kafka today: the manuscript he first wrote to his friends from the cafe at Prague was "A Pregnant Woman’s Guide to Cotton Futures." I’d like to write this "Lit. Nuggets," you know, about 15-20 pages, but I won’t do it. I simply cannot raise pen to paper. I think, I’m asking for trouble—it’ll never be published. I think "Closing the Gap" is the last book for me. And I’m really dying to start writing this lunatic thing about these people, the inside story of Flaubert and Emma.
RCF: Different chapters on each writer?
CB: Just these moments, they won’t even be chapters. They may be a paragraph, you see? And I think, my, how marvelous; this is really organic because I didn’t think of it—it just came one day. I don’t sit around thinking anymore at all: like "Closing the Gap" came, it was there. And "Postcards" was originated really by Maria. I started writing these loony things to her, but I don’t work that way. And I haven’t been getting any "documentation" from the outside in quite a long time. I mean I haven’t been translating small-craft warnings from Amsterdam in twenty or thirty years. But I’m exactly where I want to be in terms of my mind and my imagination and development—precisely where I want to be. I’m terribly happy.