A Conversation with Danilo Kis
From "The Review of Contemporary Fiction," Spring 1994, Vol. 14.1
By Brendan Lemon
I met Danilo Kis for the first time at his Paris apartment on the day of our interview—a cool, overcast afternoon in May 1984. Kis hadn't been part of my original business in France. On the flight over from New York I had run into a writer friend who happened to be reading the French version of Kis's novel Hourglass, and this friend, who was doing some uncredited work on the English translation of the book which was then in progress, urged me to buy a copy of the novel as soon as I arrived. If I liked it, he said, he could help me arrange an interview with the author. To shorten a long story, a few days later I found myself arriving at Kis's tenth-arrondissement apartment building, tape recorder in hand. With gruff graciousness, the author ushered me into a modest-sized flat and, after procuring me a whiskey, over to a table abutting the door to a small balcony. We spoke for a couple of hours, in French, before a suddenly active telephone made it clear that it would be prudent to depart.
Although the interview was not undertaken on assignment, I was sure that I would have no trouble placing it: the then-imminent American publication of Hourglass made the story newsworthy. I did in fact sell the piece, to a fashion magazine, but the delay in the book’s appearance forced a similar delay in the article—for good, it turned out. Now that Hourglass and The Encyclopedia of the Dead, if not such early fiction as Kis’s first novel, Mansadara, and the collection titled in French Chargrins precoces (Rani Jadi or 'Early Sorrows"—ed.), have appeared in English, it seems an excellent moment to publish the exchange. Although some of the conversation, for instance about the Yugoslavian political situation, has been tragically overtaken by events, most of it, I think, remains relevant to that growing band of readers hungry for background on Kis and his work.
Brendan Lemon: How does Hourglass fit in with the rest of your work?
Danilo Kis: First of all, Chagrins precoces, Garden, Ashes, and Hourglass comprise an ensemble that you could call "novels of apprenticeship"—literary apprenticeship. Chagrins precoces are short stories, the world seen through a child’s eyes, and the vision is deliberately naive. Then there’s Garden, Ashes, where the main character becomes the father; in Chagrins precoces he appears only on the horizon. There’s also a stylistic change in the second volume: the child’s naivete is still there, but there’s also the perspective of someone writing thirty years later. In the third part, Hourglass, the child is no longer a character; the subject becomes more intellectual. In these three volumes you can see the development of a writer. And you can see three different points of view about the same subject: the vanishing world of Hungarian Jews.
BL: As the story progresses, it’s the father who becomes more and more important.
DK: The father became more idealized because I knew him so little; he was often away. My own father died at Auschwitz in 1944. He became mythical to me when I realized that he had an exceptional destiny and that my own destiny was marked by his Jewishness. I kept my father’s documents during the war with an idea—a very clear idea, I would say now—that one day these documents and these letters would become part of my literature. The long letter which is reproduced at the end of Hourglass showed me that my father was something of a writer manque. I knew my father so vaguely that I was able to use certain facts to transform an ordinary Central-European man into a mythical character; I could assign him certain of my own ideas.
BL: How old were you when you read the letter reprinted at the end of Hourglass?
DK: It was in the 1950s, after I returned to Yugoslavia from Hungary with my family. I lost the letter when I was a student in Belgrade. When I wrote Garden, Ashes I didn’t have it. In Garden, Ashes I said that my father wrote long letters to his relatives without having these letters myself. When I finally found the letter, I realized how much was in it (even I am mentioned in it) and that the letter was the stuff of a novel. I began to wonder what each word meant: Who is he talking about there? What did he think about these places? These people?
BL: Benjamin Britten once wrote a composition in which all the variations were introduced first and the main theme appeared only at the end. Hourglass has a similar structure: variations first, theme—the letter—last.
DK: I reversed the normal order because I wanted to unveil the subject very slowly throughout the novel. I saw the relationship between the novel and the letter in the following manner: as the story opens, a man enters a small, badly lit room late at night and begins to write a letter. I wanted the reader to travel bit by bit from that darkened room towards a final "illumination"; the novel would be a mosaic of images that finally became clear for those with a little patience. The following morning the father would have gained his letter, the writer his novel, and the reader his revelation. Everything in Hourglass can be found in embryo in the father’s letter. For example, twice in the novel the father undergoes police interrogation because in the letter he says that on two occasions he was taken to the police. I imagined what they might have asked him. Many writers are naive enough to think that everything they write is always very, very clear, and I have that sort of naivete myself. But I finally realized that many readers, sensitive readers, do not make the connection between what’s mentioned in the letter and events in the rest of the novel. There were many ways to develop the letter in Hourglass. But I couldn’t stray too far; I had to maintain maximum literary objectivity.
BL: You evoke the world of Hungarian Jews in Hourglass as well as the history of the Hungarian fascists who occupied Yugoslavia during the war. How does your own life fit into this period?
DK: Telling that story is both simple and complicated. Simple for us, complicated for foreigners. I was born in Novi Sad (which is not far from Subotica, where much of the novel takes place, or from Belgrade). I lived there with my family until January 1942 when there was a massacre of Jews and Serbs in the part of Yugoslavia and Hungary called Voyvodina. This area was occupied by Hungarian fascists who committed terrible massacres in practically all the Voyvodin towns; Novi Sad was one of the places where there were many, many people killed. My father was one of those waiting in line near the Danube during one of these incidents; many of the cadavers were thrown on the ice. That was the first time in my life I’d ever seen dead bodies: they were lying outside the houses on our street. Some of my friends were among those killed. We were saved thanks to documents like the ones the father (called E. S. in the novel) is looking for in Hourglass. We fled to the Hungarian countryside because my father thought that we would be safer from the fascists there than in a large city. It seems that he was right because we did survive, thanks in part to that. In the country we lived in terrible poverty. I worked with the peasants. We all did farmwork, except my father, who in 1944 was taken to Auschwitz. We had to wait until 1947 to rejoin my mother’s family. At that time we went back to Montenegro, where I went to high school. Then I moved to Belgrade.
BL: Why did they take your father but not the rest of the family?
DK: Because with a little cleverness it was sometimes possible in Hungary, in a family of mixed religious heritage—my mother was Christian Orthodox, my father Jewish—to use documents to prove that you were not Jewish, something that didn’t work in Germany. I was baptized into the Orthodox church when I was five years old. That was in 1938, and my parents were already aware of the threat to our safety in the region.
BL: The death of the father is an explicit theme in Hourglass. But because, in comparison to Garden, Ashes, it’s an "objective" novel, emotional response to that-emotional response in general—is not directly rendered. What other differences do you see between the novels?
DK: In Garden, Ashes it’s a matter of metaphor, of the awe a child has for his father. His father is always greater. It’s almost a Freudian subject: during a certain stage the father is, for the child, the king—the omnipotent. I wanted to develop that metaphor in Garden, Ashes with the idea that someday I would write something else about the father. In Hourglass I wanted to be the god myself, to substitute myself for my father. In the "catechism" sections of Hourglass I decided to forego revealing my own feelings for my father. But even when you resolve in advance to write only "objectively," you can never quite hide your own sensitivities. In Hourglass, despite all my efforts to cover my emotions as a writer, I hope the reader still finds them there.
BL: What about Chagrins precoces?
DK: Chagrins precoces is lyrical. The stories are made up of images from my childhood, images that couldn’t be worked into Garden, Ashes. Each story is almost a prose poem. I generally detest prose poems as a genre, but I guess I’ve written a few myself. Chagrins precoces establishes the motifs for the three novels. It was the first book of the trilogy that I wrote but not the first published.
BL: How old were you when you began writing the trilogy? Twenty-four, twenty-five?
DK: I’m terrible at remembering dates. Garden, Ashes was first published in 1965, Chagrins precoces in 1969.
BL: The act of reading is very important in Hourglass, especially the relationship between reading and dreaming. At one point you write that in The Interpretation of Dreams Freud didn’t pay enough attention to the reading we do before sleep. Do you read a great deal? What kinds of books do you read at bedtime?
DK: I read a great deal. And I generally dream about what I read more than about what I experience otherwise. I think that that would also have been the case for the father in Hourglass. Reading is also depicted in Garden, Ashes in the passage where the child reads a fragment from a novel about love. I like novels that work in bits of other books. It’s reassuring to those of us who spend most of our lives reading. It seems perfectly normal to me not only to dream about what one reads but also to insert what one reads into one’s life and one’s work. The relationship of reading to writing and of both to the rest of life is something that I’ve very consciously included in my work.
BL: Let’s get back to your reading.
DK: You know, I’m very lazy. I write little and rarely. But I read all the time, all kinds of things. I’m a big reader of poetry because I consider myself something of a poet manque. Technically, I know exactly what to do, and I like translating poetry. But I realized that I can better express myself in prose.
BL: The night I started reading Hourglass I dreamed that I was on a train talking to you and to E. S.
DK: You were at a good point in your reading. Let me give you another example of the same process, from my first novel, Mansarda. It’s the story of a student who’s in love and who reads a lot. At one point in the novel I introduce a fragment from The Magic Mountain without identifying it as Thomas Mann. Instead of writing "Madame Chauchat said," I wrote "she said," and instead of "Hans Castorp said," it’s "he said." By that I wanted to convey something about the psychology of reading, to show the degree to which one identifies with one’s reading. We carry around in our heads so many powerful impressions from books, and we usually end up forgetting exactly what books they came from.
BL: Memories of what one has read can pose a problem for the writer. In discussing this problem, Wallace Stevens once went so far as to say that reading is the deadly enemy of writing.
DK: I think the best way to handle the problem is to introduce one’s reading into one’s work.
BL: That can be a considerable technical problem.
DK: Technical problems interest me the most—technique is at least half of writing. Beginners think that to have experiences is enough. Apart from certain firsthand accounts, to be a writer- except for the first book, which is technically quite easy—one must always be aware of technique. How does one avoid repeating oneself? And there’s the problem of originality, which involves knowing the great literary works of the past and adding the drop of one’s own authenticity. It’s odd. I’ve never heard an engineer, for example, say, "I never studied the history of engineering because I want my structures to be original," but I often hear writers say, "You know, I never read because I want to maintain my originality." If you know about others’ techniques, you can avoid "non-originality" by avoiding their techniques. If you don’t know much about the great books of the past, you revert to the beginning stages of literature.
BL: What authors were important for you in writing Hourglass?
DK: Joyce. Without knowing Ulysses, I don’t know how I could have given form to that novel.
BL: The "question and answer" sections of Hourglass are a sort of Joycean catechism.
DK: I studied Catholic catechism at school in Hungary during the war, and then I found catechism again in Joyce. When I was writing the novel, I would jot down certain questions and then find answers for them; I realized that this was a matter not only of literary technique but of mental process: catechism is the photograph of a mental process.
BL: E. S. in both Hourglass and Garden, Ashes reminds me of Leopold Bloom.
DK: Absolutely. I was aiming for that. There’s something eerie about that because my father studied in Bloom’s hometown. Obviously, I played around with this similarity a lot. The opening sentence of the autobiographical sketch I wrote is [he pulls this book from a shelf, opens it to the first page, and begins translating from the Serbo-Croatian]: "My father first saw the light of day in the western part of Hungary. He completed trade school in the hometown of a certain Mr. Viraga who, thanks to Mr. Joyce, would become the famous Leopold Bloom."
BL: Before writing Hourglass, did you do a lot of research?
DK: I had less need of research than for my other novels because I could use so many family documents.
BL: Other than your father’s letter at the end?
DK: Yes. But mostly I relied on my own memory. I was a good witness, even though I was very young. I already had a feel for the period.
BL: About midway through Hourglass you write, "The history of religions is the extreme consequence of individual experiences. De Gustibus: aesthetic democracy . . . something fanatics don’t know about." E. S. is very sensitive to the complexity of ethical/aesthetic contrasts, or, if you will, to the debate between the Rabbi and the Dandy. How do you reconcile these two tendencies in your work?
DK: The phrase you’ve cited probably describes me better than E. S. I always come up against the problems of ethics and aesthetics. There are many things that are aesthetically pleasing but not morally so, and maybe the inverse is also true. Reconciling the two is one of the questions that obsesses me. Writing is aesthetics. As soon as you start writing you start looking for aesthetic effect, and at the same time you want to keep things somewhat moral. I’m not a moralist, but when you write, you sense the ideal: the good and the beautiful are mixed.
BL: In Hourglass you invoke the Talmudic passage that says that "the sons of Israel should give thanks to Jehovah when they catch a flower’s fragrance or a spice’s aroma."
DK: When I found that quote, it was a revelation. It expressed something I’d always felt but never formulated. So when I wrote the part of Hourglass where E. S. has an encounter with a woman and he smells her "feminine fragrance," I decided that the citation should be put there.
BL: Would it be correct to say that in the twentieth century Jewish intellectuals have been especially sensitive to questions of moralite esthetisante?
DK: It’s not only the fact of having a biblical heritage that has made us sensitive to these questions but also the fact that a minority which is constantly criticized is obliged to police itself from an ethical point of view. When you’ve already been singled out, you want to behave in a way that doesn’t provoke others. I think that’s the Kafkaesque ethical problem. The rest is aesthetics. I mean that what’s special in the literature of Jewish writers is that art is the territory where one can excel—and that isn’t dangerous. Art is the terrain where you are absolutely free and where you can explore all life’s beauties and all life’s vices without being punished. There’s a simple explanation for this: art is a replacement for real life. Art is the opposite of life. A normal person doesn’t write books.
BL: Are you much interested in music? In the other arts?
DK: I know painting well. When I was young I played the violin and later the guitar, which I still play today. But music remains somewhat inaccessible for me. If I had learned to play the piano when I was young, I think I would never have started to write because the emotional part of me would have already found an outlet. Most writers are a little interested in all the arts. I’m particularly fascinated by images. I like bizarre objects, I like to describe them in all their detail, as if I were touching them. That’s something I learned from the "new novel," even if I was never delighted with that form. There’s an aura about the "new novel "—something I learned more from its theory than from the writing itself—that is seductive. For example, if you enter a room and describe certain details, you’re already in the realm of literature. Afterward you can work in Psychology, Man, Woman, Love, and other notions. Description in such prose is a variation on the subject to come, a preparation for it.
The subjects I write about are always rendered with nostalgic overtones. Usually I describe things that no longer exist, that were part of my childhood—an oil lamp, an old Singer sewing machine, etc. I need to work with objects in the same way a painter would: by putting them in front of me. Doing that helps bring back a vanished world, a world to which I’m still connected thanks to sentimental objects.
BL: In the trilogy you are fascinated by a certain period of your childhood.
DK: But I think I got rid of that finally with those books. I was obsessed with that world. I missed it. There was a lot of cruelty there but also much beauty. From a literary point of view it was full of great material.
BL: You’re not tempted by more contemporary subjects?
DK: You’re familiar with my book A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, I suppose. It was one of the books I used to move beyond the family cycle. I’ve written another book since then called The Encyclopedia of the Dead, where, in turn, I wanted to move beyond Tomb, which was, I think, a little too preoccupied with Homo Politicus. What interests me—and this helps explain the long gaps between the appearances of my books—is to move beyond the one before. I’m more afraid of self-pastiche than of any other literary pitfall. I don’t like reading writers who do the same things in all their books. I’m incapable of doing that because once I master a technique it no longer interests me. After writing Tomb I could have written five more in exactly the same manner. (Thank goodness none of my editors would force me to do that!) When I start thinking about a future work, what excites me is the technique I’m going to use. I need to keep changing subjects, and in changing subjects, change styles as much as possible. Of course, there’s still a sensibility common to all my books. [Kis points out a passage from Tomb that is similar in style and subject to those of the family trilogy.]
BL: Where did you write A Tomb for Boris Davidovich?
DK: In Bordeaux, in about 1976.
BL: Boris Davidovich is very explicitly concerned with political questions. Do politics still attract you as a writer?
DK: I’ve always been obsessed with politics. But I’ve been making a great effort the last two or three years to get rid of them in my work. I finally understood the futility of such work. Because of my political obsessions I lost much time, many words; and I gained many enemies.
BL: In France? In Yugoslavia
DK: In both. I finally realized that I’m not the sort of French writer who can make politics a part of his literature and that my political opinions are deadly for my literature. Absolutely deadly.
BL: Were you a political activist in France?
DK: No, never. I was never left wing. It’s the French left that made me disgusted with politics.
BL: Were you in France for the "events" of 1968?
DK: Yes. I was an instructor of Serbo-Croatian in Bordeaux at the time. Both in print and in conversation I was opposed to all the protest movements. I finally decided: you’re either engaged in political struggle or you’re a writer. I don’t think the two go together. The literary careers of many French writers ended at the very moment they were being hailed as political thinkers. I’m thinking of Sartre as well as Aragon. In Yugoslavia if you don’t act within the framework of the Party, your political opinions are worthless.
BL: Do you return to Yugoslavia often?
DK: I go back regularly. I’m tired of political action there; it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. For years, I’ve tried to find political solutions, and I’m slowly starting to get rid of the need for that. Nabokov helped me here. I greatly admire his comportment as a writer. He understood: either literature, or. . . . He frequented that circle of Russian emigres and he saw how much intellectual waste it produced, how many people lost their literary or cultural lives in quarrels that ended nowhere. [Kis pulls his book Homo Politicus from the shelf, opens it, and reads one of the introductory citations from Nabokov’s story "Spring in Fialta"]: "Now, frankly speaking, I have always been irritated by the complacent conviction that a ripple of stream of consciousness, a few healthy obscenities, and a dash of communism in any old slop pail will alchemically and automatically produce ultramodern literature; and I will contend until I am shot that art as soon as it is brought into contact with politics inevitably sinks to the level of any ideological trash." [Kis then translates from Serbo-Croatian the other citation, from Orwell’s essay "Why I Write"]: "And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives, and humbug generally."
BL: Evidently you now feel closer to Nabokov.
DK: It always amazes me that when people speak or write about the Nobel Prize for Literature, they almost never mention that one of the committee’s greatest oversights was Nabokov. They always forget that.
BL: Lolita is one of my favorite novels.
DK: I prefer his short stories. I prefer writing stories myself—I’m working on some now.
BL: The last one of your novels published in English was A Tomb for Boris Davidovich.
DK: The very one that I consider more a collection of thematic stories than a novel. Foreign editors called it a novel. You can’t sell a book of stories, but you can sell novels.
BL: Why did you choose to live in France?
DK: There’s a long tradition of Yugoslavian intellectuals in France, but my generation was the last. It’s also a question of language. Now everyone speaks English, but in my day everyone still learned French at school. It was Paris, Paris, Paris for us. I came to Paris for the first time in 1962; New York was not yet "New York." For me Paris was the dream of a young man who wanted to escape from home. It’s only later that he sees that Paris is not exactly like it is in literature.