The work of Georgi Gospodinov inhabits a space where the trivial can never be disentangled from the exceptional. In the wake of two acclaimed poetry collections, his 1999 fiction debut, Natural Novel, cast him as both a faithful chronicler of everyday life and a singular literary provocateur, breaking the placid waters of Bulgarian fiction after the country’s transition to democracy. Gospodinov’s project had been to write a novel that “contains everything (that doesn’t go into novels)—a natural history of the toilet, personal stories and Ancient philosophy, overheard conversations, flies and everydayness, lists, beginnings of novels”—in other words, everything “inside a person’s head who is trying to narrate his own impossible story.” That impossibility for Gospodinov is a symptom of a time “when the sublime is gone and all we have is everyday life,” suggesting how incapable traditional genre categories were of depicting the “non-eventfulness” of Bulgaria’s post-Communist fallout. His second novel, The Physics of Sorrow, is similarly built on willful miscellany, trading the coherence of plot for a kinetic, multidirectional progression of chapters, which don’t so much develop as accrue in an archive of lived experience. Rather than a low-stakes nod to postmodernism, this atomized style is part of a larger impulse underpinning all of Gospodinov’s work—from his widely translated fiction and his plays, essays, screenplays, and graphic novel to his collaborative anthology of 171 personal stories called I Lived Socialism—to preserve the concrete and barely graspable as an antidote to conceiving ideology and history as abstraction, separate from their toll on individual lives.
It is the disappearing and untranslatable language of his childhood, his grandparents and of coercive ideology that make up the subject of his latest publication, The Story Smuggler. As well as a reaction against Bulgaria’s “culture of silence”—the kind produced by every totalitarian system—the cahier is an intimate micro-chronicle of the moments from the narrator’s life that never fully lend themselves to being captured. One, slightly atypical, passage recounting his visit to an Edward Stieglitz exhibition serves as a microcosm of the whole text. Describing Stieglitz’s two obsessions, clouds and Georgia O’Keefe, Gospodinov describes the “two hundred photographs of clouds from the 1920s and 1930s: scattered, thick, low, high, disappearing” and “over three hundred photographs of O’Keefe: hands, palms, breasts, lips, eyes, profiles, frontals of the face, even toes […] Crazed photographing of every fold and curve, every centimeter of her body, as if in a desperate attempt through constant snapshots to prevent time from expiring.” Even in the knowledge of failure, this methodical compulsion assumes in Gospodinov’s work the only means of averting it.
How did The Story Smuggler come into being? Did it stem from The Physics of Sorrow and does it exist in Bulgarian?
It hasn’t been published in Bulgarian, it was written especially for the Cahier Series. There’s a little overlap, a couple of paragraphs perhaps, drawn from The Physics of Sorrow, but the idea is different. These are fragments from my notebooks, mostly written while I was in a Franciscan monastery in Switzerland.
What was the translation process like?
I wanted translation, or the impossibility of translation, to be an intrinsic part of the text. Because of that, its starting point was the untranslatability of the Bulgarian тъга (“taga”: sorrow, melancholy), the concept as well as the word itself. The text is made of various personal notes which take their structure from the notebooks I travel around with. I always have one with me, I am now probably on volume 67 or so.
Do you have it with you currently?
Yes, I always have the latest one. Though I travel a lot and carry at least the last fifteen with me.
Do you ever write on a computer?
Yes, but it all starts from the notebooks: the ideas, the phrases. I develop these further on a computer of course, and I do write prose on it, but poetry I can only write on paper. I am an analog poet. Poetry on a computer is a different genre altogether.
I recently read an interview with an American writer where she said that she has completely given up on paper, that the kinetic possibilities which come of moving things around on a computer has become integral to the way she writes.
Precisely, it’s a different style of writing. For me, writing on a computer is too quick, it distances you. On paper, I sometimes can’t decipher what I’ve written but that gives birth to other forms and figures, through those mistakes. That experience, through the mistaken, through the transferred, remains very important to me. I wrote The Physics of Sorrow in different places and when I finally typed it up and printed all the pages together, I had forgotten to number them. I dropped that folder, the order was completely lost and that was part of why the novel’s structure became a labyrinth, the physical disorder of those pages. It’s not that I couldn’t trace the order back from the file but I preferred to find my way back from the sheets of paper themselves. It is also mentioned somewhere in the novel that the securest, the oldest technology is paper. It also proves the most stable. There is some consolation in that.
I wanted to know more about the unstable form of The Physics of Sorrow. Its instability seems both deliberate as well as, it turns out, accidental. How does one choose an ending for a construction of open-endedness, of unfinishedness?
Uncertainty was very important for this novel and it was important for me to maintain it because it connects the two main structures of the novel’s concept. The first the labyrinth, where a person always has to be uncertain if this direction is the way forward. The other is quantum physics, in which we always reside, a little like Schrödinger's cat, unclear whether dead or alive, in a state of wave-particle duality. I found this idea—that you could be simultaneously in two places, two states, as wave and particle—very appealing. This transformation, this omnipresence, which was possible in literature before it was discovered in quantum physics: writing these things, you are both here and in your grandfather’s childhood. My analogy here was of empathy as a time machine, through which you enter your grandfather’s, your father’s, and your own story simultaneously. This is why evading an ending, leaving things open-ended, was important to me because unfinished stories, uncertain stories, hold potential for all possibilities. If you shut them down, round them off, you cut off the chance of something else happening. The problem of a labyrinth isn’t that there is only one way, there are many, the problem is that all of them are wrong. And you have the burden of choice. In terms of endings, I always conceived Natural Novel as a novel of beginnings, based on the idea of how good it would be to live until page 17 of our lives and then change the person, or the life.
Are you committed to sustaining some sense of perpetually being in the beginning of something?
In a way. While Physics of Sorrow has endings, they are multiple because the book is structurally framed around a multiplicity of selves. Having been born as many things, you finally understand that you die as all these things. You have a multi-blended death, you die as a Minotaur, as a ginkgo tree, a fruit fly, you die through the death of everything else. This openness and open-endedness of the separate parts, the separate chapters, is an attempt to evade the ending.
A critic wrote that The Physics of Sorrow could in a way be read as fulfilling the promises made by Natural Novel.
Indeed, The Physics of Sorrow goes deeper and actually carries out a storyline. Natural Novel was a book about the impossibility of narrating our own life and attempting to tell it to through the history of flies, the history of other things. I think it was a Village Voice critic who called it a novel of stuttering beginnings, stuttering because the impulse to narrate doesn’t work the same way, because you can’t tell a story right now the way you would have during the 19th century. Life isn’t ordered as it was in the nineteenth century, the continuity is disturbed, and so for a novel to be faithful to the present, it could only stutter and remain in the beginning, digressing into more beginnings. As for The Physics of Sorrow, despite the disintegrations and collapses, it was more life-affirming perhaps. Natural Novel was shorter, faster, intense, seen through the lens of a younger man. The Physics of Sorrow is slower, more incremental, filling out these empty squares, spanning over a more substantial period of time. Natural Novel was about the 1990s, the collapses and disintegrations that really happened to us then. This decade was immensely important to me, to my generation. While The Physics of Sorrow is trying to describe the century, through personal histories, going back all the way to the injustice of the Minotaur myth (the Minotaur who is not granted a voice).
Both novels seem to have a very specific relationship to context and scope, both temporally and geographically, spanning from antiquity to family history of a century ago. At the same time, both are situated, very physically, through the objects of the narrator’s childhood, including that book of Greek mythology, which many Bulgarian children growing up then—myself included—would recognize, down to the edition it refers to. Natural Novel similarly situates a life in its specific visible, local surroundings, then juxtaposes it with beginnings of classic literary works, almost suggesting it can’t be told on its own but needs that placing to give it legitimacy or weight. I was curious how much that was a conscious impulse?
You are right that it is through this situatedness, through ancient philosophy, through the atomists, Democritus, Empedocles, that the novel’s structure emerges; from the idea of atomizing as a principle of ancient philosophy. The idea of objects and of concreteness is indeed very important to me because it is faithful to the child’s point of view. That point of view plays a part in both novels, often stemming from my own childhood, when a child looks at the world from about a meter or just over a meter’s height and sees things up close. All my childhood memories from growing up in a small village go back to the Bible that my grandmother read (the book was conspiratorially wrapped in an official newspaper), to the flies on the ceiling, the bare electric light bulb. All this somehow remains in the child's consciousness. My idea of storytelling has always been bound up with that and this is perhaps part of the specificity of my books. To tell about the concrete and the daily, without being repulsed by it, by the flies, but to approach it with a sense that even they contain something higher or sacred. There is a chapter in The Physics of Sorrow titled “Buffalo Shit, or The Sublime Is Everywhere.” This idea that the sublime really is everywhere, that you could elevate something perceived by a child in some Bulgarian village to the larger, global context and that it is no less noble than what happens in Buckingham Palace.
This reminds me of an early Elif Batuman essay about Isaac Babel, which mentions a passage of his about flies “dying in a jar filled with milky liquid” and relates it to other drowning or dying flies in Russian literature (an inkwell full of dead flies in Dead Souls; a lyric about cannibalistic flies in a glass of water in The Brothers Karamazov). What struck me was that if Russian flies seemed to almost always point to mortality or decay, there is something vital, life-affirming, almost supercharged about your flies.
Yes, in Natural Novel the fly is both an angel and Lucifer moving between life and death, between the living and dying. Flies appeared very early in my work and have persisted throughout all my books. At first, in my 1992 poetry collection Lapidarium, the fly appeared more as a word, as sound—муха (muha).
I know you also wrote a graphic novel in collaboration, The Eternal Fly. Could you tell me more about how that came about?
The idea was the entire history of the world, the entire history of art, narrated through the point of view, and participation of, the fly. It was a nod towards my anti-anthropocentrism, to shaking the anthropocentric history of the world. The latest thing I wrote in which the fly plays an important role is my opera libretto, another project which doesn’t exist in Bulgarian.
What was its origin?
It’s called Space Opera. It was commissioned by the Polish opera Grand Theatre in Poznań and is currently available on The Opera Platform. It’s about the upcoming space mission of the first two astronauts to Mars, where the problem isn’t technological but rather about how two people can bear each other for five hundred days in order to last the round trip. It needs to be a very solid, stable couple. The opera is about the transfer of this claustrophobia to space, into the shuttle, and what happens when a third character—a fly—enters this set up. It is not an ordinary fly but one with the ability to read people’s minds; what transpires is that it is in fact the first Martian who has been on Earth and it has snuck into the space shuttle in order to return to its homeland. This idea originated from history: the fly was indeed the first living being sent into space, in 1947, when Americans launched a captured Nazi V-2 rocket after WWII. They needed a mortal, perishable being, one that could only last for two or three hours in space, so they picked the common fruit fly, I think Drosophila melanogaster is its scientific name. So the whole opera stemmed again from this anti-anthropomorphic attempt to acknowledge living things that have been to the open space before humans—Laika the dog, the American monkeys, worms. There is a chorus of flies that opens and concludes the opera, and their importance is precisely due to the fly’s perishability and transience. The passing, the perishable has always been incredibly valuable to me, perhaps more valuable than anything else.
Do you see a link to the emerging literature of global warming, in which the fly often takes on an ominous meaning?
Yes, though ever since the Bible there have been punishments by flies, with gruesome flies. And still, they are related to decomposition, rot. At Literaturen vestnik (a Bulgarian literary newspaper), where I was editor for 20 years, we had a special issue dedicated to the fly, featuring a Brodsky poem about the fly as a destructive creature, the opposite of the bee, which became a communist symbol—the bee, which is organized, a builder.
Part of the hive.
Yes, the whole beehive is like a little communist society. So there is ideology involved in the figure of the fly and the bee.
How did you decide to take on the opera genre?
I got a letter from a Polish composer, Aleksander Novak, there were two books of mine published in Poland at the time. He wrote that he'd heard an interview I did on Polish radio and invited me to write a libretto for his next opera, giving me complete freedom over subject matter, which he would use to compose the music. Initially, I refused because I had never written anything for opera, and I didn't have any special knowledge of it as a form. He was very insistent however and started sending me CDs of contemporary operas. It began with Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach and John Adams’s Nixon in China, and I found myself hooked. According to my amateur understanding, opera was a finished genre, completely at odds with my own writing, and it adhered to a sentimental, monumental style. But these operas showed me that there is another way of doing it, and I found out that many composers work with poets, including Philip Glass who worked with Ginsberg. Besides being skeptical of opera, I was skeptical of Mars as a subject, which doesn’t even seem like sci-fi or utopian fiction but something imminent. What I wanted to convey is that the central issue isn’t technological but psychological, to do with how people live with each other.
Adam and Eve, beside signifying the first man and woman, are also common Polish names. I didn’t initially intend for the fly to go in but then I read further and found out that the fly is the first living being. So I instantly felt a personal link to the material, and I always find it crucial for all my work to have that personal element. One of the saddest stories I remember as a child was of Laika the dog and I always felt that it's still somewhere up there. It was a big part of my childhood. So I decided to write this libretto as a tribute to Laika, to the flies, to all the beings used in space exploration, half of which never made it back, and to my skepticism of the notion that going to space will solve the problem of human relationships. The fly in the opera arrives with a sense of irony; it brags about being “the first fly in opera.” It was a clash between the elevated nature of opera and the profanity of the fly. I worked on it with composer and we developed some of the themes further. There was a touching moment where the fly chorus sings its version of the origin of the world, which goes “In the beginning, God created the fly, there was nothing else but the fly, and from the fly everything was born”—an apocryphal version, which some of the cast refused to sing at rehearsal because it ran counter to their beliefs.
They felt it was anti-Catholic? Blasphemous?
Yes, they refused to participate and there was a dedicated attempt to convince them that it is fiction and that perhaps I meant it about the Orthodox Genesis story, not the Catholic. I realize it was a provocative libretto and while some reviewers embraced it, others felt it made a mockery of the genre. But I feel that collaboration between composers and writers has been essential for opera's contemporary development. The composer I worked with is now starting on a new opera, whose libretto will be written by Olga Tokarczuk.
Something, or rather someone, else who has been consistently appearing throughout your books is Gaustine, both as a character and an alter ego. Could you tell me more about him and the process of inventing him?
He appeared first in my poetry—most of the recurrent features in my work do. I wanted to begin a poem with an epigraph that I did not want to sign myself, so I had to make up a character and came up with Gaustine, a troubadour from the thirteenth century. The epigraph was three lines, something like: “The troubadour was created by the woman, I can say it again, she invented the inventor.” After the book was published, I remember running into my ancient Greek literature professor—the best in his field—in front of the National Library and he told me, almost guiltily, “All afternoon I’ve been searching for this Gaustine in the library archives and there are no sources whatsoever about him.” Which was a very nice compliment. So Gaustine just went ahead and found his way, appearing in different forms.
When did you start writing for the first time?
When I was about seven or eight, I had taken an old notebook of my mother’s or grandfather’s and I started writing poems. Most were very dark, not really a child's poems. I was a slightly gloomy kid, I had a very happy childhood but I was thinking about these dark things, about growing old, about dying
Do you think that has something to do with the fact that many children at that time were brought up by their grandparents and so would spend a lot of their time exposed to old age?
Precisely, I remember very clearly when I was eight how my grandmother would open the wardrobe once a month and say, “When I die, you will bury me in this and this” and I lived as though death was in the wardrobe over there, within arm’s reach. She would continue to test out different things, she would get a new headscarf and look in the mirror to check if she was presentable enough to meet death.
Like many people of her time, she would tell these fantastic folkloric stories, would point at someone and say “he was born with wings,” “she made love to a dragon,” like a kind of local village Marquez without ever having heard of him.
Many writers talk about a turning point or an influence that almost gave them permission to write the way they do, either because it didn’t exist to that point or was in some way forbidden. Was there an equivalent of that for you? I’m thinking specifically about Natural Novel, which so sharply deviated from the Bulgarian literary tradition and what was being written at the time.
Indeed, when it was published it became the object of various conflicting conversations and reviews about whether one could even write in this way. There was, I realize now, some form of daring perhaps, but I didn’t experience it like that at the time. I was only writing poetry at the time and felt that whatever happens, I am a poet who would now happen to write some prose. But I am not one of them, a prose writer, and I would never enter their guild. Being an outsider to the genre made me feel I could do anything. The other important thing was that it was the nineties, when it really did feel like everything was possible, in language, in everything. And I couldn’t possibly make myself write a novel that acted like a novel, that pretended to be a traditional novel, especially when I was already conscious that such tradition was no longer possible or adequate. I wanted to speak directly to the reader. And, coming from poetry, I wanted every sentence to be important. That has always remained an element in what I write, that sentence-level focus associated more with poetry.
The other thing that I experienced as perhaps permission-granting was that I was thirty at the time I started writing, in 1998, and it was when I got divorced. There was a personal, autobiographical aspect to the novel when the narrator lives in a room with no phone for months. That is how it was, a reclusive, strange time, when I took out my notebooks—I had about fifteen at the time—and I wanted to write a novel that reflected the notes randomly strewn across the pages.
Another important influence was Lars Gustafsson’s The Death of a Beekeeper, about a schoolteacher with a cancer diagnosis who lives alone and takes notes about flowers, beekeeping, herbariums etc. At the time I harbored a strong interest in botany and spent a lot of time reading about those sorts of subjects in the National Library before deciding to write an article on how the botanic discourse in the early twentieth century influenced literature.
What did you make of its reception internationally?
I liked that the reception was very different everywhere. In France, critics wrote that the style was in line with the French literary tradition, that French authors had originated it, and they would list examples. In the UK, the consensus was that the novel’s strength was not because but despite of its postmodernist techniques, that it was the story which gripped you. The Village Voice also wrote of postmodernism as being passé. The latest translation so far is in Iceland, where it was read as a very happy, cheerful and ironic novel. There is an ironic distance that isn’t present in The Physics of Sorrow, which was widely read as being more sentimental.
There was something more personal in the place of irony.
Yes, and while these postmodernist/meta games liberated me to write Natural Novel, I wanted to step up to the challenge of surrendering ironic distance and in that respect I think The Physics of Sorrow is the braver novel. Still, even though I felt The Physics of Sorrow was closer to being a classical novel, it still felt too intimidating for many publishers, especially English-speaking ones. That idea, that you could be giving a reader something that might not be a novel, in the classical sense, seemed especially threatening.
Did you ever feel like you were writing as part of a literary lineage, or perhaps consciously against a certain national tradition in Bulgaria? One of the most striking things about both novels is their almost complete lack of precedent in Bulgarian letters.
I have a philological background and many classic Bulgarian works have been formative to me. And indeed when the novel came out, there was a nervousness about it being in conflict with the Bulgarian literary tradition. The thing is, it didn’t come from the Bulgarian prose tradition but from poetry. Beyond a stylistic break of tradition, there was an ever bigger sense of breaking away from the past after 1989. I remember spending all day in the National Library and by second year I'd already stopped going to university because 1989 happened. We were either on the street or in the library, listening to the commotion outside. I read a lot of philosophy and had an interest in ethno-methodology. Shultz, the beginning of conversations in Garfinkel, studying the factual function of language—how does a conversation start, how we speak—drew me immensely towards triviality. Bulgarian literature is more monumental, more conservative. That trivia that was part of daily life and of everyday interactions—it felt to me the whole of socialism was that, that kind of small dailyness. Conversations would go “how are you, how’re you doing,” “well what would I be doing,” “yeah, what would you be doing,” “life is ticking away, we’re growing old, the important thing is for the kids now to be fine and healthy, we’ll help with what we can”—all these constructions.
It is almost a Zen of the trivial. My irony doesn’t calcify into sarcasm. It was still an attempt to understand, to engage. In that sense, I don’t believe I’m a classical postmodernist writer either, and didn’t feel like I belonged in that tradition. There is no distancing, no satire; I was after a sense of consolation, tenderness.
I was thinking about the physicality of the language, this awareness of words as separate entities, some on the brink of extinction. Was that idea, to archive a receding language, to preserve the specific language of grandparents, idioms of a certain time, period expressions etc, a conscious effort?
The Physics of Sorrow was always meant to function as a time capsule. I write conscious of a sense of preservation, this is why one writes. In terms of language, some of it came from my grandmother, it is a pre-socialist language, almost mythological in some respect. For example, we used to keep bees and when the mother bee, the “queen bee” as it were, would separate from the hive, my grandmother would shout “mat, mat, mat” and the bee would return to the hive. Much later I learned that “mat” is in fact the Indo-European root of the word “mother.” So you talk to the bee in Indo-European. This went into a poem. I had a poem from the time, “Language’s Last Suppers,” which talks about the “language of grandfather Whitman and my grandfather/the one he’d curse the sheep with/ which they understood,” the language of “grandfather Eliot and my father,” of “grandmother Emily and grandmother Liza [Elizabeta Bagryana], and my grandmother,” these collisions and connections were always very important to me.
I read a lot of poetry at the time, from the thirties and forties, and the language of all these people around me, my grandparents and this poetry, this mixing, was always part of my writing. Like when I mention influences, it is always Borges and my grandmother, as a set, never separately. This idea of the miraculous in the daily has been close to me since childhood, since reading Andersen and spending a lot of time alone. My parents worked, so I spent many hours in different rooms, trying to make things up to pass the time, like trying to turn water into lemonade or conducting some natural-historical experiments I’d read about like putting a hair from a horse’s tail in water so it turns into a snake in forty days. There was an almost visible quality to the language, as well as the objects of that time. There was a game that went “I am I, you are you, who ate the shit, you or I?” So this engagement with language all comes from my childhood and some of it is often the language of my childhood. There was an epigraph in Natural Novel that states “Only the banal stirs my interest” and it is indeed only the transient, the mortal, that interested me. My grandmother used to say that flies’ consciousness is peoples’,” that we are not important but only eat up bread, like flies. You could go with or without us. We aren’t needed, just like flies, we are not necessary. This almost hesychastic withdrawal from the world’s importance was very significant, and in a way, it keeps you going. We’ve lived in various rented basement-level rooms, inhabiting claustrophobic spaces. These people belong to an oral culture, they are a storytelling people, and when you leave somewhere remote, it’s only through stories that you are able to connect to the rest of the world. My grandmother really did invite people to come over and talk about where they’d travelled, what they’d been doing. When the world is denied to you and you know there are very few ways of experiencing it physically, and you are not familiar with metaphysics, you end up inventing private sacred categories.
Considering how concrete and specific the language you draw from is, what has your experience with translation been? Has collaboration been important to you or is it more about a sense of trust?
Collaboration has been very important for my books, precisely because sentences matter individually. I always get worried when translators don’t ask me questions and when we don’t speak during translation. It is often in these cases that the most misbegotten errors appear. I’ve really loved the correspondence with different translators and encountering the untranslatable elements in their languages. We are still debating whether тъга is more accurately translated as sorrow or sadness. We are also rethinking the translation of the last sentence of the prologue in Physics of Sorrow: it is currently “We am” but the literal meaning is “I are,” relating to the narrator’s embodiment of other characters. It’s a question between what sounds more natural and what best conveys the meaning.
The other problem is deciding how much to explain to a “foreign” reader. My English translator, Angela Rodel, had a very good idea of adding footnotes but the publishers didn’t take to it. Though the book has many lists and word capsules as it is.
This reminds me of a long feature written by Dimitar Kenarov for the Boston Review about ten years ago, in which he calls you “the least Bulgarian writer of Bulgarian writers,” referring to your style and sensibility. Do you think there is something to that?
It is paradoxical because my subjects and stories are very specifically Bulgarian. What I am trying to do is, and what perhaps creates that impression, is to tell these specific, local stories—including historical events from the seventies and eighties—and to awaken a collective memory in a reader who doesn’t possess the local knowledge. This idea that you are talking about the melancholy of a Bulgarian child stuck in a basement room in some afternoon of 1978 and then someone in Zurich would come up to me after a reading and tell me that they’ve never been to Bulgaria or lived on the basement floor and yet it felt like the story of their childhood, with the same feeling of abandonment. These are, after all, universal categories, grown on local, specific things. This is what I tell my students, you can’t start from the universal; you have to begin on the level of detail. It was interesting that at one of my readings in Germany, a man from the audience said he expected to hear about Bulgarian-Ottoman conflicts, yataghans, massacres, the national literary stereotypes in other words. It is a problem in the national landscape.
Currently, there seems to be a renaissance of precisely the kind of historical fiction you are talking about, especially when it comes to recreating the period language of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. There is Milen Ruskov’s Summit, the recovery of Georgi Bojinov’s Revival period novels . . .
Yes, there is a historical wave but perhaps I have a more unliterary interpretation of it. By that I mean that writers often sense and anticipate readers’ tastes, or they don’t consciously but match them by coincidence. I don’t count Bojinov in this of course as he wrote is novels in the eighties but refer mostly to Milen Ruskov and the other prominent historical fiction writer Vladimir Zarev, for example. A few books have gathered a lot of attention but there is speculation regarding some aspects of the genre’s popularity. One explanation is the classical Bulgarian reader of my parents’ generation having grown up with historical novels—Anton Donchev’s Time of Parting, Vera Mutafchieva’s books etc.—and their contemporary incarnations are sometimes partly a nostalgia wave for that time, and for mending the fractured national identity of the present. These novels tell you of a past grandeur, of haidouks and heroes, as a confirmation of a greatness that is now lost. Not knowing who we are now, versus knowing we were once great.
I think this is related to a wider concern, to a sense that there is a deficiency when it comes to a future, the reaction to which is this desire to look back. What worries me is that this quickly shades into nationalism in some other writers. There are several novels that have come out recently, I won’t name them, which elevate the Bulgarian as a sacred category; there is a novel, which tells how Roma people rob and pillage Bulgarian villages and a Bulgarian hero rouses the nation against them. It is all speculation. I remember when editing the anthology I Lived Socialism, comprised of individuals’ private recollections of the Socialist era, it was met with an automatic dismissal. Critics were asking whether this was the right time to talk about socialism while a political scientist had written that “We shouldn’t leave socialism to be narrated by those who lived it.” They were too partial, time needed to pass, some distance to be achieved, so that it might be described coldly and neutrally, which of course goes entirely against my understanding as a writer. What is missing are precisely the personal, private stories of these people.
This reminds of me of your critique of the Museum of Totalitarian Art in Sofia when it opened in 2011, I remember you criticizing the ahistorical presentation and curation of objects.
It is terrible. Again, together with some friends we were thinking of making something like a Museum of State Security, which was naïve of course, because these things are blocked from a high level, and at root. But we had put together a lot of plans, I have about a fifty-page concept for it. This was when I was in the Swiss monastery. I wasted some time, created this presentation, we found architects, we found the place. The idea actually came from the head of the National archive at the time. Underneath it, in the basements, on 5 Moskovska Street, was where, in the sixties, various young people were taken in for disrupting order—whether for narrow trousers or for other Western-like clothing—and were then sent off to the Belene work camp. He wanted to see it happen but when the Oresharski government came into power, everything collapsed of course [when he appointed the media mogul Delyan Peevski to head the Department of National Security, sparking the mass protests of 2013]. The problem wasn’t only caused by that government or the previous one. There just isn’t enough of a collective will for something of that scale. The push back is too strong.
There is a sense in Bulgaria that certain structures from before 1989 have remained and still remain intact, which is something not widely talked about.
Yes, on one hand intact, on the other, they are entering the public sphere in new ways through new media, through Facebook and internet trolls . . . I felt it particularly over the past three years, especially because I’ve always had a position on this, it’s always been clear where I stand. I never took any part in party politics but I was columnist for Dnevnik [a leading national newspaper] for 10 years, so I wrote what I thought every week. In 2013 after Oresharski’s government came into power, I gave a speech in front of the National Library that ended up resonating widely, as well as being misinterpreted widely. It was about the political kitsch that was dominating the public sphere and how only the reading person could offer an adequate resistance, that it was a political question to have and develop a taste that cuts against this political kitsch. It has one line that said “the reading person is beautiful” because he can’t be as easily corrupted, predominantly on aesthetic grounds. There was a backlash and a fixation on me as an opinion leader as this slogan about the “beautiful” protester got appropriated as ammunition against the movement. As in, if I am calling them beautiful, it must mean I’m saying that the non-protesters are ugly, that kind of thing. These rhetorical wars of course become part of the literary ones.
Your short film with Theodore Ushev, Blind Vaysha was nominated for an Oscar. How did you begin working together and are you collaborating on anything else?
We’re adapting Physics of Sorrow into an animation. In fact, that was the project that began our work together while Blind Vaysha was almost accidental, even as it felt more topical. It was during the period of adapting it that we also collaborated on the Cahier. As for Physics of Sorrow, ARTE just joined as producer of the thirty-five-minute animation. Theodore wrote to me after reading it and it turned out he was also born in 1968. When we met, we immediately clicked. He is not one of the silent ones unlike many other Bulgarian writers who prefer to keep to themselves.
Who are some of the contemporary Bulgarian writers you read? And the non-Bulgarian ones?
I don’t read many contemporary ones but I reread a lot of old ones, recently Ivaylo Petrov, who is about to be published in English. I feel there is a good middling professional level here and I am counting on a lot of the young writers working today.
What are your plans now?
I just got a fellowship in New York, where I will live next year. It’s the Cullman fellowship at New York Public Library, where I will be spending most days. Elif Batuman actually was a fellow in the past.
Where are you based now, before going to New York? I know you were in Vienna.
I was there for six months, a little incognito. I had some readings but generally didn’t go out much. I was in Berlin before that but I am based nowhere currently. A bit of a flying Dutchman. In some respects that’s nice, I really liked Berlin but Vienna . . .
Vienna didn’t suit?
I couldn’t really write in Vienna, it was a little too leisurely, too melancholic. I need something opposite to my melancholy.
Something to create friction.
Yes, and Berlin is like that, a hard, raw city. In Vienna, you could just let the time pass . . . that’s what happened in
I would be interested to read of a New York refracted through your point of view. What are you working on now?
I am trying to start a new novel. Different ideas are colliding in my head and taking shape . . .
Maria Dimitrova is a writer in London.