Andrea Scrima’s debut novel, A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil, 2010 and 2018), might be described as a portrait of a young artist’s consciousness. Taking place over several years and centered on five separate locations—three in her native New York, two in Berlin—the novel is structured as a series of fragments or prose poems. As the narrator’s mind moves through the spaces of her past, the reader may find herself left less with a story than with a strikingly sharpened gaze. Days after I’d finished the novel, I found myself wandering my city, narrating it to myself in Scrima’s voice: In A Lesser Day, intersecting streams of coffee and dog urine on a Manhattan sidewalk become factors in a crucial but illegible chance equation; a rustling of leaves takes on “mythical significance”; a twisted knot of rope on a pier enchants so deeply that the ship it once held pulls out to sea unnoticed . Life as ekphrasis—a natural mode, perhaps, for a writer who trained and worked for many years as a painter.
Recently published in German as Wie viele Tage (Literaturverlag Droschl, 2018, translated by Barbara Jung), the novel is now enjoying new life in the language of the author’s adopted homeland. Andrea, a resident of Berlin since 1984, and I sat down in the midst of her German reading tour to talk about art, autofiction, and how to translate oneself into a foreign but deeply familiar language. Our conversation was conducted in person on April 6, 2018.
A Lesser Day is partly a reconstruction of memory—the narrator is attempting to order her sense of self via five different addresses she’s lived at during a particular period of her life—but it’s also something like a metaphysics of space. Where did this premise, or this structure, come from?
Actually, I had been working on a different book for several years, a novel that’s still unfinished. And in between all of this, I had my son. The hospital I gave birth in had a tiny library, where I happened upon a book by Marie Luise Kaschnitz titled Orte—“Locations” or “Places” in English. I stole it, brought it home, and read it in a state of wonder. It certainly provided one of the impulses for my book, although I didn’t know it at the time. Kaschnitz begins some of the sections of Orte with specific locations, as I do in A Lesser Day, and goes on to search her memory for everything she can remember that’s attached to a particular place in the past—in her case, very far in the past. She was writing about her childhood in the first years of the twentieth century, from a perspective of some seventy years later, near the end of her life.
In the first couple of weeks after coming home with my son, I was preoccupied with this screaming monster I’d given birth to. I had no intention of beginning a new work; I was very concerned with trying to finish another book. Five minutes before it happened, I still had no idea that I would get up from my chair, walk over to the desk, sit down at the computer, open up a new Word document, and begin. I literally wrote the first section of the book just like that—I sat down and wrote about a memory that I had of my father putting coins on the piano in the living room—his bridge toll coins. He would line them up in a little stack on the corner of the piano.
It was really quite puzzling how this book began, especially when I compare it to how long I’ve been working on this other novel. I began A Lesser Day and finished it maybe a year and a half later; I remember editing the book as I was taking my son to daycare for the first time. For me, that’s not just fast, it’s inconceivably fast, because everything else I do takes so much time. I’m very slow in general. It was as though the book wanted to be born. I think it had something to do with the way different parts of the mind and memory become dislodged after an experience like pregnancy and giving birth. It’s life-changing, and I know that if I sat down now and tried to write from the same structural premise—A Lesser Day is based on five different places I’ve lived in, and if I were to say, okay, now I’ll choose five other locations from my past to work from—I really doubt that I would be able to write a book like that again. It had something to do with this wondrous new experience that challenged me to the extreme and made me tunnel back into myself and search for anchors in my emotional past.
It’s very interesting for me that this book was, as you say, born right after your son. The experience of giving birth was a trigger for the writing, yet it’s not at all a book about motherhood or giving birth. There’s a baby or a child mentioned two or three times, but it’s otherwise an absent child.
Yes, it’s not at all about motherhood. There are a few isolated moments—a child crawling on the floor pulls the plug of the computer and everything that the narrator has been writing is lost. And there’s another instance where there’s a child sitting on the floor with a pile of building blocks, and the narrator is observing him—
He’s very deliberate about which blocks he wants, and the narrator can’t determine the pattern—
But he’s so sure of what he’s doing. He picks up a block and looks at it, knows exactly that it goes over here, on the rug, and then the next block that he picks up, the yellow block, is not the block, and he puts it back down. There are a couple of descriptions like this in the book, which are, to a certain extent, metaphors for the writing process, the ordering process. The narrator is sitting there at a certain critical point, and she’s watching this child and nothing he does makes sense to her, but of course it makes as much sense as her own ordering process in writing the book.
There’s one more child in the book, an imagined child that’s actually the projection of the narrator’s own consciousness. She’s trying to recall something and she catches herself in the process of shutting down, of protecting herself from remembering a certain thing. She imagines her own mind as a recalcitrant, stubborn, obnoxious child, and the frustration mounts and at some point she has an urge to hit this child, to slap the child in the face. It’s a disturbing little text, and it’s not about her relationship to a child, obviously, and not about her relationship to the child in herself, but rather how she imagines her subconscious in that moment, hiding something from her. Long after writing that passage, I discovered another correspondence with Kaschnitz in her short story “The Fat Girl” (“Das dicke Kind”), in which she encounters a little girl, a fat little girl who, in the end, turns out to be the child she once was. The two passages are very different, but I feel there’s an emotional impulse that’s related. In mine, it’s not about the child that I remember being, but more like an embodiment of a state of mind as an imagined child.
There’s a very striking scene when the narrator is out on the street, observing two thin streams of dog urine and spilled coffee about to meet on the pavement, and she feels as if there’s some equation that has been composed for her alone, but she’s not able to solve it, to interpret it. In general, her gaze is very intense, there’s an obsession with interpretation, with trying to decipher all of the patterns that she sees around her, and sometimes succeeding, but more often failing, and feeling that this pattern is much too big and complex for her to be able to interpret it correctly.
She sees a slip of paper lying on the street at the point of projected convergence, and she picks it up with a feeling that retrieving it is somehow necessary and crucial. That’s a key passage in the book, and it comes close to describing a relationship to meaning, in the way that you’re living in an insentient world, in a world of natural phenomena, man-made phenomena, trains and buses and buildings and streets, yet things are constantly happening that can suddenly seem to be saying something to you. The phrase I use in the book is “a language of happenstance […] in the din of occurrence.” Searching for meaning in these chance occurrences—the superstitious see signs in coincidences, but you could also think of them as constituting a kind of language. But whose, and to what purpose? At the moment I’m reading Esther Kinsky’s Hain, a beautiful book that she’s called a Geländeroman—how would you translate that into English?—it’s not nature writing, but a meditative description of outdoor spaces that could be called wasteland or fallow land, something in between city or village and rural. Basically, the premise of the book—although I’m sure Kinsky’s intentions are more complex—is to reflect consciousness in the process of observation. Kinsky’s narrator studies a landscape that’s transitioning into a kind of poorly defined, semi-urban space—it’s a landscape, but it’s not idyllic: there’ll be a dump somewhere, or something broken down and very ugly. And through this description process, through this unbelievably painstaking, precise description that consists of the quietest, most strikingly poetic details, she reflects and clarifies her thought process, her process of remembering. There’s a passage mid-way in the book in which she actually begins speaking of a grammar in the landscape: a slash, a comma, a sentence answered by another sentence; birds as a flurry of punctuation marks. It’s extraordinary.
There’s so much precision of description in your book as well. The narrator observes with an amazing level of detail and insight and in a way which gives us the feeling that we know her quite well—but, actually, we know relatively little about her. She doesn’t talk about herself, she doesn’t talk about her child, her sexual relationships, even her relationship to her parents and the other characters that come into her life; the reader has to infer a lot. What’s talked about isn’t the relationship itself, but the concrete things that surround it, from the wallpaper to the sidewalk, and occasionally a raw, isolated emotion.
The book is a kind of a pseudo-autobiography. It’s told in the first person, in the present tense, and so there’s a seeming urgency about it. But there’s method involved in creating an atmosphere of intimacy, and this intimacy turns out to be less revealing than it initially appears to be. Throughout the many passages that describe sensory phenomena, the narrator acts as a cipher, a placeholder. It’s more about sensitizing the perception and accessing the reader’s own intimacy with him- or herself. If I can create a certain type of perceptual shift in the reader’s mind—I mean, we all see reflections of light shifting as they move across a wall, and if you describe them accurately enough, or lovingly enough, maybe, most people who’ve ever sat on a chair and looked at anything closely will recognize it and feel moved by it—then it can unleash the reader’s own mental images, which are far more powerful than mine could ever be.
Absolutely—there’s almost an assumption of intimacy, isn’t there? Many of the sections start with, “and how I did such-and-such” or “the time I did such-and-such,” as if she’s referring to an event that’s already known to the reader.
Yes, it’s like, “Don’t you remember when we . . .?”
Exactly. And I think this already encourages the reader to supply one of her own memories before the narrator even begins to share hers. What you were describing just now, about how the novel sets up sensual or perceptual experiences, aligns really well with the book’s fragmentary, photographic structure, as well as with the photographic metaphor that runs throughout it. Not only in that each section is short and gives us a good deal of visual information, allowing us to read in the emotional content, the way we would with a photograph when we’re missing a certain amount of context; but also, photography comes up quite literally several times, for instance when we see the narrator cutting photos out of a newspaper.
Yes, it’s a media-reflective aspect that comes from my art-making and all the complexities and contradictions of translating an image into words: how the lexical description of a photograph essentially recreates it, rewrites it. For instance, one of the descriptions of news photos in the book is a scene of pandemonium in which plunderers are holding up the gilt-framed canvas of a millionaire, about to smash it to the ground. And so we have a text about a photograph of an oil painting of a man who has presumably fled for his life only hours, or perhaps minutes, before the photo is taken and the painting is destroyed. Part of the interest I had in these passages was in seeing what happens to an image when it’s described in words, but several of the newspaper photographs the narrator describes have to do with the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and they situate the book in time and provide a larger historical backdrop to her very interior existence.
The title of the book also refers to a photo.
Yes, to a photo that fails. The narrator is a young artist, and she begins a project in which she takes one photograph each day for an entire year, using a cheap instamatic camera. The photos she takes are not of monuments or mountains or the sea—
Not picturesque things.
No, not at all—it’s maybe a swirl of oil on a puddle, or a certain configuration of cracks on the asphalt that attracts her attention. Something that seems meaningful in some mysterious, abstract way. Again and again, the things she’s drawn to are stains, bits of rubbish, patterns of erosion. But imposing this rule of taking a photograph each day doesn’t always work. Sometimes an entire day goes by and nothing emerges, and she finds herself having to take a photograph of something—
Just for the sake of the principle.
It’s a decision she’s made, that each day has to be recorded in some way. And maybe she’ll find something at the very end of the day that’s compelling, and even though there isn’t enough light, she takes the photograph anyway. Later, when she has the film developed, she discovers that the machines are set up to skip over the bad photographs, the under- or overexposed images in which nothing, or nearly nothing is visible. But there’s a memory contained in each of these photographs; it might not be registered on film, but it’s there somewhere. She might not even remember what happened that day, but the day’s photograph has to be developed because it existed, it was important, something happened. And so there’s a battle with the photo labs to get them to print the bad photographs. In the end, she has to pay for a costly hand development, and the results are these pea-green or sepia-colored, monochromatic blurs. Metaphorically speaking, the “lesser days.”
A lot of what she ends up photographing, and a lot of what she observes throughout the book, are things that are closer to the ground. There aren’t, for example, all that many descriptions of the sky, or of the tops of buildings; she’s very interested in what’s happening at eye level or below. Lots of looking down.
Yes, but also puddles, reflections of things. And there’s an interest in the way things wear away, what a damp plaster wall with a layer of enamel looks like as the damp starts to bubble up underneath the enamel and buckles the paint—
Or the narrator painting oranges to see how the paint will collapse as the orange rots.
Some of these were actual works—there’s a series of overpainted apples, bananas, radishes, orange peels…
I suspected there might be! Excellent segue to my next question. Surprisingly, A Lesser Day is often erroneously described as a memoir or as a work of non-fiction when it is, in fact, a novel. The confusion seems to come from the fact that like the narrator, you were born in New York and came to Berlin as an artist, and then moved back and forth for several years before permanently settling in Berlin. We’ve talked about this before, but there seems to be a tendency for readers to expect a certain amount of autobiography in women’s writing. Can you talk about your relationship to those two genres?
It’s amazing how people forget to distinguish between the author and the narrator, especially, as you say, when the author is a woman. There’s a complicated relationship between the two, which has taught me many things about where fiction begins, or whether it’s even possible to write an autobiography at all without writing fiction. I’ve come to believe that all writing is fiction. The historian Hayden White, who died recently, made a strong case that history is always interpreted history, writing, and as such it’s essentially narrative and conforms to narrative categories. He coined the term “poetics of historiography.” In terms of what does or doesn’t constitute autobiography or memoir, I think if you move more rigorously in the direction of fiction, you might loop back eventually and finally begin writing about yourself in a more truthful way. Personally, I prefer the category “autofiction.” For me, after the experience of writing this book and the experience of working on another novel that feels to me so much more revealing than A Lesser Day does, these categories have become very fluid. I’ve given the narrator in A Lesser Day many aspects of my own biography—she’s grown up in New York, she’s moved to Berlin, she’s spent time in these five different locations that are actual locations from my own past—but it’s a story about a young artist, and what’s completely missing in the book is the fact that I was struggling with finally becoming a writer throughout much of this time. I haven’t given her many key parts of my own life—
Your intellectual development?
No. I was interested in a certain kind of interiority that this artist spends a lot of her time existing within in order to be able to make her art. It’s a very hermetic book, it’s about a certain kind of thought and a certain kind of perception—perhaps also a certain kind of anxiety—that is very familiar to me, having spent decades working, without words, in a studio. These long, long days spent on paintings or installations—not formulating things in words, but as far away from words as possible, in a visual language. This is her mirror, her environment, this is where she mentally thrives. I haven’t given her my obsessive preoccupation with words. In fact, what happened to me as an artist was that I spent around the last ten years of my exhibition activity doing large-scale, site-specific text installations, sometimes over the course of several months, for instance in residency programs, and so I’d been moving toward writing for a long time, whereas the narrator of A Lesser Day is far more intuitive.
And this hermetic experience is amplified across the narrator’s entire life—
Exactly. And she has a couple of terrible jobs to contend with. In one of the descriptions of the theatre job she’s doing—she’s mourning her father towards the beginning of the book—she suffers from the incredible disconnect between her own interiority and the actual world that she’s forced to function in. I think part of the confusion over the book’s category was that, when I first published with Spuyten Duyvil in 2010, we didn’t really know what to call it. I think we settled on fictional memoir, but that’s not quite accurate. I had this discussion again with Christopher Heil, my editor at Droschl for the German translation, and he said, “Is it okay if we just call this a novel?” And I said, “Yeah, sure,” because it made everything so much easier. It really is a work of fiction, but as I said, language itself does something to transform reality.
Life is one thing; life is not analogous to the structure of language. It takes a lot of work to create meaning out of life. And a lot of the meaning that we create, the narratives that we create from our lives, one could think of them as a type of fiction that we need to survive mentally, emotionally, maybe even physically. We believe in certain things—the operative word here being “believe”!—but to believe in something means there’s no actual proof that it exists. We are pretending that there’s meaning, we’re searching for meaning, we’re telling ourselves stories about our lives so that we can bear to continue living them. Because if you take a long, hard look at life, it’s very difficult to make out any meaning at all. For me, the category of fiction touches upon the boundaries of what we mean when we say this is how something really happened. How do we know something really happened this way?
Writing A Lesser Day, taking some of my actual memories as a departure point that then drifts off into a fictional account, my experience has been quite strange. I look back on certain things that I wrote about; I no longer have, in an unfiltered way, whatever memory was there that prompted a particular text. I remember the text. I don’t mean this in a coy way at all: I really do remember the text as though it were more real than whatever fragment of memory inspired it. And that tells us a lot. We know from forensic science, from psychology, from the courtroom that memory is not a reliable thing. But to discover how we’re constantly rewriting our memory is something else entirely when you experience it in such a concrete way.
As you mentioned a moment ago, A Lesser Day has now been translated into German as Wie viele Tage (How Many Days). It’s a beautiful translation by Barbara Jung, on which you collaborated quite extensively. Was it important to you from the beginning to see the book in German?
Yes, I would have liked to have it translated much earlier. In fact, Barbara and I translated a third of the book in 2003 or 2004 when I applied for the Literaturstipendium (writer’s grant) from the Berliner Senat (Berlin city government). Which I actually got, and so there was this moment in the beginning where it seemed like I might find a German publisher. But then many things changed. And then a couple of years ago, there was a concatenation of happy accidents and I ended up with the wonderful Literaturverlag Droschl. Of course I had a moment when we started working on the translation again where I thought, oh no, can I go back into this now, will the book still feel as close as it once did? What is it going to be like now to go through the translation process again, after all these years? And I was very happily surprised to find out that I could dive right back into the book, almost immediately. It was as though nothing had changed. A Lesser Day feels like this thing that just gave birth to itself, somehow. It had this integrity of form from the very start, like an egg, and I just had to help it happen. It was really strange because many of these fragments formed individual story lines, but for the most part they were disconnected, and at some point I wrote a fragment and I realized, oh, this is how the book ends. Now I understand what it’s about. It had a structure; it had a beginning and an end. And I understood, oh, I have to draw this other arc, and I suddenly understood where the gaps were. I don’t know if I’ll ever write another book that easily—I don’t mean that it was easy to write; some things were very hard to write—but it had its own dynamic.
By the time you were writing this book, you’d been in Germany for many years, you were fluent in German, you felt very comfortable within the German context. But the narrator of the book does not—
No, not at all! [Laughs.]
She has a lot of culture shock, to put it mildly, and she experiences other forms of extreme alienation, particularly with the language. I’m wondering whether there was any kind of irony, or humor, or satisfaction for you in seeing the book in that very language which you yourself have one relationship to, but which the narrator has quite a different relationship to?
I don’t feel any irony, I have to say, more of a sense of astonishment at how much we change throughout life. The narrator is contending with another Germany than we live in today; the book takes place in the 1980s and 1990s, and her experiences belong to another time. Germany was still divided by the Iron Curtain; at the time, it was difficult to have a relationship to the country that wasn’t stained by the Second World War and the memory of the atrocities that took place here, the genocide. As for me, at this point I can’t read an American last name like Schroeder in an American accent—how do Americans pronounce that? My mind switches right away into German. It’s very hard to unknow something that you know. German was never a language that I was attracted to or interested in studying; there was never a natural affinity. I know that I found it harsh then, but I no longer do. I find it very gentle, actually. I read quite a bit of German literature, it’s such a beautiful language to write in, and at this point, thirty-three years later, it’s hard for me to peel away that level of engagement. It’s become another home. But I’m not sure I answered your question…
I guess my question is more from your perspective now—to see this book in German, which can very much be your German—
What that feels like?
Well, it was a couple of different things. It was a difficult process. It was a collaborative process—
You participated a lot in the translation.
Yes, and I had the great fortune of working with a translator who could, well, tolerate me. I translate myself—I’m not a literary translator, I mostly do art criticism—but I know that it’s not much fun to have the author interfering in what you do. As we all know as translators, we spend a lot of time and energy engaging in this incredible, acrobatic type of diplomacy: finding nice ways to say, “You’re wasting my time! I don’t feel like explaining to you why the grammar you want doesn’t work here, or why there isn’t a one-to-one equivalency.”
I got the impression that it was a very productive working relationship, though.
It was productive, it was collaborative, and it was also sometimes very frustrating. Two languages, as we know, are never identical, they each have their own logic, exist in their own universes. It’s a question of finding and forging an entire written voice in another language. That’s not an easy thing to do, and it begins with a set of decisions: how do we deal with this type of gerund construction, this type of syntax that recurs again and again, do we change this, and if so, how? And can we use that again, can we rely on it?
These grammatical shifts, these concessions you have to make to the structure of a foreign language, sometimes also result in a certain shift in tone. Did you notice anything like that, or do you feel that if you were a native speaker in German, this is the book you would have written?
Oh, it’s absolutely the book I would have written in German.
I’m thinking of my favorite example of this situation: Beckett’s self-translations from French, his second language, to his own native English, where he sometimes makes quite significant changes. There’s a moment I love in Waiting for Godot, for example, where Estragon eats a carrot. In French, he says, “Délicieux!” and in English, he says, “I’ll never forget this carrot!” Were there any moments like that for you? Was there any place in the German where you thought, oh, I can play with something here in a way that I couldn’t in English?
Not really, not in that way. It was more of a struggle to not lose certain things that I didn’t want to lose. Again, much of the book consists in descriptions of visual imagery and how the language intersects with metaphor, and the sequence in which a metaphor unfolds or an image is described is anything but random. It was a challenge to adapt to the German syntax and create a musicality in the language, in the sound and meter of the words.
Which is very important in the book.
It’s extremely important. I think that much of the book is closer to poetry than prose. The syntactical shift from English to German often made this very difficult, and so I had to alter certain things in the translation because I felt that the sound and rhythm were more important than the specific image.
Sometimes it was frustrating because you see that you’re not going to make it to the other side of this sentence and retain everything that was in the English. So what do you do, what do you forfeit, what can you gain? But we worked very hard on the translation, and I think it’s beautiful now.
It is. And it sounds like you.
Thank you. It was important that it become my voice in German. I pushed for changing the sentence structure whenever I felt very sure that it had to have a different rhythm, a different musical sound. But my translator always had the last word. I’ve been in Germany for more than half my life, but I’ll never be a native speaker.
Can we talk for a second about the title? I know that took a long time to translate.
Yes, we didn’t have a good title for the longest time. I had a list with probably two dozen ideas—it was clear that we couldn’t translate “a lesser day”—this would be Ein geringerer Tag in German, which unfortunately doesn’t make any sense at all.
The way that I generally find my titles is that I stumble over them—they’re usually a phrase taken from the book that somehow encapsulates what the book is about. And that wasn’t happening, and I must have gone through the manuscript ten times, scouring it for metaphors, that ray of light hitting that part of the table, like, there it is! There’s the German title! But it wasn’t happening. As a last resort, I went to the library to track down every translation of Four Quartets that I could find [a passage of which appears as the book’s epigraph]—I thought maybe I would find a metaphor somewhere in Eliot that would be beautiful in German that I could use. And I convinced myself a couple of times, well, this is okay, and my publisher was saying, no, it doesn’t have that ring to it—“A Lesser Day” sounds like it means something, and then there’s this strange twist to it, and you ask yourself, but what does it mean? And we just couldn’t find an equivalent. And at some point my publisher was about to impose a title on me that I wasn’t very happy with, and then all of a sudden, the pressure of the situation just popped the title into my mind—and it was so totally unspectacular that I didn’t even take it seriously. But after a while it started to grow on me. It’s multi-layered, and it can mean many things. I realized that I could not only live with it, but it was starting to feel like a very good choice. By now, it feels very natural, as though it had always been the title of the book.
Andrea Scrima is an artist and writer based in Berlin. She writes literary criticism for The Quarterly Conversation, The Brooklyn Rail, and other publications. Her current novel-in-progress, Like Lips, Like Skins, was awarded second prize in the Glimmer Train Fall Fiction Open. You can visit her website at www.andreascrima.com.
Madeleine LaRue is associate editor and director of publicity for Music & Literature. She lives in Berlin.
Banner image copyright Eliza Proctor, 1998