An Interview with Gerald Murnane

An Interview with Gerald Murnane

Will Heyward: I like the epigraph to Invisible yet Enduring Lilacs where you say: “I should never have tried to write fiction or nonfiction or even anything in-between. I should have left it to discerning editors to publish all my pieces of writing as essays.” And you say something similar in Barley Patch about rejecting the words novel and short story.

Gerald Murnane: There’s a piece in Invisible yet Enduring Lilacs that I first presented and delivered as a speech. I wrote conscientiously wrote for months about the effect on me of Proust. It started out as autobiography, but most of it is just pure fiction. I can’t say that I ever experienced half the things I wrote about in that, but it made for a good piece of writing. I presented it as an essay, but I would comfortably put it in a book of fiction. That suggests to me, if not tells me, that there is a very fine line between the two.

WH: This way you have come to understand the act of writing…

GM: I’m no closer. It’s a mystery. When you start to put down words your own personality becomes fractured. You’re never quite sure what part of you the words are coming from. It’s a fairly trite statement, but you begin to question the reliability of memory or even experience itself. What emerges from the writing is something that could never have been predicted. This is the magic, that writing is unpredictable. It leads to discovery, and that is a word that is overused and has a sort of twee sound, and it’s not a word I feel comfortable with. But you learn from writing things you couldn’t possibly learn by any other means.


To read this entire extensive interview, purchase Music & Literature no. 3...


An Interview with Vladimír Godár

An Interview with Vladimír Godár

Taylor Davis-Van Atta: You have described Béla Bartók’s music as “a kind of milk” for you. Can you elaborate on how Bartók’s music has informed your thinking and your evolution as a composer?

Vladimír Godár: As a child, I went to a school where I specialized in mathematics, studied piano, and listened to rock music. The worlds of numbers, words, and sounds interested me. I was twelve when The Prague Spring occurred, and it was then, after the occupation of Czechoslovakia, that I realized that the world of words was the main harbinger of shameless lying, so of the two remaining worlds—of numbers and of sounds—I chose the world of sounds. In fact, it was Bartók’s music that was the impulse for this decision. Initially, I admired his music’s expression, and later on its ideal balance between rationality and spontaneity, expression and construction, between contemporary and historical models, and between rational composition and oral traditions. The synthetic nature of his personality still fascinates me today. And not just me: we can hear Bartók’s influence in the ideals of many other composers whose music I enjoy: Lutosławski, Górecki, Ginastera, Piazzolla, Kancheli, George Crumb, and so on. The universality of Bartók was masked for too long by Adorno’s assertion that the polarity of Schoenberg and Stravinsky was the key to contemporary music. To discover Bartók’s significance, it is necessary to thoroughly critique Adorno’s ideas.

TDVA: One of the most beautiful movements of Querela Pacis is entitled “A Sad Pavan for These Distracted Times.” This movement seems to me as much an elegy to a bygone era and culture as it is a lament to what that old way of life has been replaced with: that is, a lament to today’s disposable culture. Art is highly marginalized in Western culture—and increasingly so in world culture. Even though most of the major oppressive political regimes of the past century have fallen, it seems to me that we now engage in a form of self-censorship, wishing to remain distracted rather than engaged. Do you believe it is possible for art to engage with the mass public today?

VG: Thomas Tomkins composed his virginal work “A Sad Pavan for These Distracted Times” two weeks after the King of England, Charles I, was beheaded on February 14, 1649. Perhaps he wanted to designate that period in history which was without rules, when violence and terror were everyday occurrences. Today, mass murder, possible because of the latest scientific discoveries, is being legalized by journalists, politicians, administrators of justice, and church leaders. The marginalization of art and its function inevitably accompanies our reality. . .


To read the entirety of Vladimír Godár's first English-language interview, purchase Music & Literature no. 3... 

A Conversation with Iva Bittová

A Conversation with Iva Bittová

Mark Molnar: What was the public reception like when you started performing?

Iva Bittová: It was very strange, very difficult. That is why I have always said that at the beginning of one’s work and process, [wide exposure] is always more difficult. If you achieve huge success immediately, then all of those things could die very soon. But, that is just my thinking. It was strange because my first productions and presentations were usually in Folk Festivals in the Czech Republic. I was acting at that time with Divadlo Husa na provázku [Goose On A String Theatre], an important avant-garde theatre. The director and the people in the theatre group knew what I was trying to do, and I was given the chance to play some characters on stage where I could include my violin and different sounds with my voice. It was fantastic. When I started my career as a musician, I only acted for a few more years and then I completely stopped because I was not happy. I was really hoping that music was the right thing for me to do. I was not meek on stage as a musician, but the audience, especially young girls, sometimes they would be smiling and saying, “What is she doing? She is completely crazy! What are these sounds? What does this mean?” But they are smiling, and I was trying to keep going and to play the whole piece. It was not like fighting, but your self-confidence leaves suddenly because you do not get a reaction that you want to accept. But I was not waiting for praise. I was thinking too much about what I was doing. And I was practicing more and more. I did not want to give up the idea. I was trying to be stronger and stronger. After about two years of performing I started to get more respect from the audience. But that was my process.

MM: Was Balada Pro Banditu part of this process?

IB: Balada Pro Banditu was a film adapted from our performance in theatre. It was the first Czech music drama on the screen, and it was very popular.

MM: When people would hear you play your songs, would the audience recognize the lyrics as poems or common folk songs that offered them a way into what you were doing?

IB: In Czech Republic, yes, but the style of it was a huge shock.


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The Sukhum Photos

The Sukhum Photos

To sit in a room on an evening and consider how to avoid thinking about madness, to sit for hours doing this, looking out of an old window not seeing anything because of the darkness of course, to look out not for that reason yet to continue looking and thinking further about how to avoid thinking about madness, about techniques of avoidance, or rather about whether the apparatus of such a technique might be inexhaustible, or rather about the possibility that the store of such techniques could be entirely exhausted, then to walk up and down in the room and, first, to consume what remains in the bottle of Unicum then to open one of beer, not thinking whether there might be another bottle of Unicum but to go on and on thinking with a glass of beer in one’s hand, sitting down in an armchair wondering whether avoiding madness might be like avoiding a heart attack and answering, yes, they are comparable…


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Two Lost Interviews with Hubert Selby, Jr.

Two Lost Interviews with Hubert Selby, Jr.

Paul Vangelisti: In Last Exit to Brooklyn you see there’s sometimes incredibly complex writing that was really worked, you know what I mean? Not aimed toward naturalism at all, but aimed toward musical effects and—

Hubert Selby, Jr.: That’s right, I write by ear.

PV: Orchestration.

HSJ: Yeah, Beethoven was my only conscious influence in writing that book.

PV: What got you to write “Landsend”? “Landsend,” to people who haven’t read the book, is a thing at the end. There’s one parallel in world literature that really comes close, and that’s Verga’s House by the Medlar Tree. That’s the English title. It’s about the deterioration of a family… A family of fishermen. And there are parts of the book, chapters within chapters that are written in the choral effect, where the society talks, literally. When you don’t know exactly who’s speaking. But it’s just voices. Anyway, in your book, you have a whole section like that called “Landsend” where you’re moving around within this housing project. What—why did you write that? Why did you write it that way? How did you get to write it that way?

HSJ: Well, first of all I guess get back to my basis of how I write anything. I believe that each and every piece of work makes its own demands. In other words, I don’t believe that you should develop a style and impose that on everything, that’s acting. That’s not writing. Each and everything makes its own demands and it’s up to the writer to find out exactly what the demands are and to fulfill those demands. And as that thing came to me, that was the structure it took in my head, and if I remember correctly it took me a couple of weeks just to work on the outline of what was going to go where. Because I realized, what I did was I tried to select certain attitudes that I felt would reflect the entire establishment of, not only a housing project, but this whole insane idea of a classless society. The whole idea is—that’s the whole American image, façade. Cosmetology is the thing that’s going to cure all the evils and ills of the world. And it’s absurd. So we have this myth of a classless society where we’re all the same. Look: solid, red brick. And I try to select attitudes that show what not only goes on behind the walls, but why it’s a fallacy, why it’s not a classless society, and why it fails. You see? But, you know, what are the things that keep it in balance? As I say, my only conscious influence was Beethoven. Now, what will keep this thing in balance? How will we balance the women’s chorus, with Ada, with Lucy, with Irene? What are the things that are making these people go around and do what—why do people do what they do?


To read both lost interviews with Hubert Selby, Jr., purchase Music & Literature no. 1...

A Conversation with Arvo Pärt

A Conversation with Arvo Pärt

Jordi Savall: I find your situation especially interesting. Early on, you were composing within various traditions of the avant-garde, according to those systems. Then suddenly you decide it’s time to ask questions. You went through something like a renaissance as a composer… Since then, have you used the knowledge that you had acquired during your earlier period, or did you say: “I will never again do what I’ve already done”? Are your early works completely separate from those you’ve written since?

Arvo Pärt: Of course. We learn from the mistakes we’ve made. But unfortunately, it’s not possible to change everything we would like to change within ourselves. We lack the ability of the old masters to take off and soar. Why? I can’t say. We must adapt to our conditions. Each person must search for and find his own solution. Ideally, I would be able to write a melody with an infinite voice, a voice that carries on forever. Music that would be like speech, like a flood of thought. Thought is never pure, it’s often pierced by lightning, from without as from within. Thought is fragile. This means that our music also flows from our fragility and our inadequacies. And all this is reflected in the melody that has one voice, which is like a blood test. In music, one could say that a voice or a melodic line is like a man’s soul. In this sense, polyphony would have more to do with the idea of a crowd. The richness of the music of many voices is, however, the sum of the wealth of each of these melodic lines—as was the case in the polyphony of the great masters of the past.


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A Conversation with Micheline Aharonian Marcom

A Conversation with Micheline Aharonian Marcom

Taylor Davis-Van Atta: Your first two books were deemed "acceptable"—were reviewed and won awards—because, I suppose, they could be read as "social novels" in that they expose readers to a time in history, a culture, that is lost to most Americans, or is at least far from their own experience, which is valued by whoever is in charge of determining such things. But Draining the Sea and The Mirror in the Well, which were poorly reviewed, both in terms of the quality and quantity, are evidently not acceptable. Do you have thoughts about why your first two books received a good amount of attention and the second two got virtually none?

Micheline Aharonian Marcom: Yes, “social” novels where perhaps the reader can “learn” something about foreign places and cultures are en vogue—but only, it seems to me, if the book has a fairly easy “access” to the American reader.  And while there’s nothing wrong with reading a book and also learning about a different time and place—I too have done that through reading Homer or Hawthorne or Taduesz Borowski or Isaac Babel—I do think we ought to be wary of taking some kind of “exotic journey to foreign lands” via a novel, of facile and superficial understandings. Books are first and foremost aesthetic achievements, and they are not a sociological or historical tract or travel guide. But books do allow for a deep connection: the consciousness of a reader with the text and story of the book—and that is amazing and radical and very particular to the mode of reading.

I think Three Apples Fell From Heaven was easier to read in some ways: it is a more “character-driven” book. Whereas, the last book of that trilogy, Draining the Sea, was less about exploring character and more about how in language trauma sustains itself and manifests. It was a “language-driven” book: strange and repetitious and seeking the unknown at the edge of the known world.

The Mirror in the Well was, I'm guessing, too vulgar for most tastes with so many “cunts” and so much cunnilingus.  I think in part I was trying to rehabilitate that great Old Norse word, cunt, in the English of our time, where, especially in the US, it still has the power to shock. It’s curious how offensive it is, even in our supposedly sexually open society, to say “cunt” in literary fiction.

TDVA: For me, the artistic organization and execution of a novel is far more important any social "statement" it might make. Social novels, which I'm broadly defining as those John Hawkes wanted nothing to do with, are mainly what's being produced in the US today, and they're boring. A writer's exploration of language is what’s compelling for me. Sentences. Repetition…to the degree that words lose all meaning and before assuming new meaning. I read each of your novels as if it's a new experiment, and in each you're questioning the way in which language operates (and cannot operate). It's as if you're saying: if English cannot express the most difficult or privately hidden emotional truths, can't express the cultural toll of genocide, then you're going to draw attention to the paradox of writing in a language that cannot express truth by writing in unbeautiful, broken, corrupted language… So to my mind all of your novels fall outside of the acceptable model. Has your thinking about what a novel is and can be evolved since Three Apples Fell From Heaven? Has the exploration or interrogation of language always been what you're most interested in as a writer?

MAM: Finally, that's the issue for me: I am just so bored by a lot of current writing, I can't read it, the plots grinding along, but, as you say, the language, the sentences, flabby, like chewing gum…I'm not against realism or naturalism as a style, but so few do it really well, get the sentences to sing, are wildly imaginative, and I dislike that TV-style dialogue that is evident in so many books. On the other hand, I love the stories from The Thousand and One Nights, and Dickens and Chekhov and Bulgakov and how a wonderful and fully imagined story, written well, is a great pleasure. Left to my devices, each book for me is an exploration: how to tell what it is I'm interested in inquiring into, each form, pattern, made book by book…I follow my pen, my obsessions, and am interested in how form can be wild.

But, as it happens, I'm writing a narrative book right now and it's interesting, I’m learning in this novel to stay on top of time and move things along in a linear progression, doing it quickly to see what it looks like, feels like, and it's a story I care a lot about so that keeps it interesting: Central American migrants crossing Mexico on cargo trains to get to the US.

     I appreciate what you say about my books. I think that yes, they are seeking often to make space for the unsaid and the silences of language and history. It's always been my interest to in some ways push against English, get it to “do more” in a way. Of course Faulkner is one of my big inspirations, he taught me how syntax can be radical. Wallace Stevens teaches me that too.

I guess now I've written enough books that I feel more able to consciously “play,” but still a lot of writing in first drafts is unconscious for me, I follow my inklings, my interests, the rhythms and images I hear and see.

TDVA: Your writing has always reminded me of an essay by William Gass (“Philosophy and the Form of Fiction”) in which he talks about “fiction [as] the creation of a verbal world.” In each of your books—particularly Draining the Sea and The Mirror in the Well—there is obsessive repetition of certain sets of words and images that accumulate meaning, strange meaning that makes sense only within the context of that particular novel. I'm thinking particularly of the image of the boy tied to the cypress tree in Draining the Sea. It's perhaps the most distressing image in any of your books and it comes uninvited to the narrator's mind compulsively, resurfaces, each time carrying a bit more power, more history and memory. And its repetition lends the book rhythm. Could you talk a bit about this image? It seems as if it could be the source of the whole novel. What initiated that book for you? What were you “inquiring into”?

MAM: I would say the mind is making the patterns. There's no way I could come up with the repetition “logically” in some ways, and the book is, I suppose, interested in the natural ways in which things emerge and reemerge in the mind. How trauma is a repetitive mode in the mind. That said, I spend a lot of time fine-tuning and editing my books, when I do bring my conscious mind strongly to bear and try and make sure the book holds as a thing…as a object: that it has an arc and is not ramblings but, in fact, a book.

The image of the cypress in Draining the Sea came from the trips I made to the village of Acul while visiting Guatemala in those years I was writing the novel. And I was taken to that tree, quite an ordinary tree, but I had already read about what had happened during the time of the massacre years before, and somehow that became the central image for me of the massacre. I know when writing that one of the things books do is cull the symbolic thing, or moment, which has to stand in for a whole. And so in Draining the Sea, we return again and again to the tree, hopefully each time revealing a little bit more, the world slowly coming to life, the full impact of that awful day of the massacre felt and inhabited. But you know I forget also, it's been a long time since I wrote that book. I know at that time it was central, the men in the ditch, the tree the boy was tied to. When writing about such things I am aware that there is no way my book can “record” everything that's happened, can even, in a way, “do justice” to the suffering and tragedy of that day, that era, in Guatemala, and to all of the dead. And one image has to do a lot of work, to in some manner encode the story. Most of my work has been very image-driven: a girl walking to a well in Three Apples Fell From Heaven, the orphan boys in the sea in The Daydreaming Boy, the tree in Draining the Sea

I think in part Draining the Sea was inquiring into what feels to me like a great loneliness in America.  The book begins: “We are more alone in this city—Marta.” And, as always, the ways in which conventional historical narratives don't contend with the real enough—for one thing, they don’t include what history feels like. I wanted in a way to collapse history in that book, make a book that collapsed space and even time and put two things side by side so that their relationship to one another could be felt and experienced. So in Draining the Sea the American man in Los Angeles and the Guatemalan girl from a small village are together. They were in many ways allied by history: Ronald Reagan and Rios Montt, the dictator in Guatemala, were partners, the bombs dropped near her village were made in Kansas. And in the book these relations, I hoped, could be seen. Could be felt.

And I guess I am always struck by how the language of oppressing the “other” is pretty standard from place to place. In my mind, the Armenians of 1915 and their descendants and the Ixil-Maya must be together in a book! And so they are…


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