Thursday Fiction Corner: A Conversation with Danilo Kiš

Danilo Kiš

“Art is the terrain where you are absolutely free and where you can explore all life’s beauties and all life’s vices without being punished. There’s a simple explanation for this: art is a replacement for real life. Art is the opposite of life. A normal person doesn’t write books.” — Danilo Kiš

We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! Today we continue our series of Thursday Fiction Corner posts highlighting conversations from the Dalkey Archive backlist (so far we’ve featured Nicholas Mosley and Carlos Fuentes) with a conversation with Danilo Kiš and Brendan Lemon, which took place in 1984. Kiš was a Yugoslavian and Serbian writer known for combining narrative experiment and humor with the deadly serious realities of life in Eastern Europe in the mid and late twentieth century. In their interview, Lemon and Kiš discuss Kiš’s reading habits, his love of the technical aspects of writing, and “the problems of ethics and aesthetics.” Read the full conversation on the Dalkey Archive Press website.

Brandon Lemon: The act of reading is very important in Hourglass, especially the relationship between reading and dreaming. At one point you write that in The Interpretation of Dreams Freud didn’t pay enough attention to the reading we do before sleep. Do you read a great deal? What kinds of books do you read at bedtime?

Danilo Kiš: I read a great deal. And I generally dream about what I read more than about what I experience otherwise. I think that that would also have been the case for the father in Hourglass. Reading is also depicted in Garden, Ashes in the passage where the child reads a fragment from a novel about love. I like novels that work in bits of other books. It’s reassuring to those of us who spend most of our lives reading. It seems perfectly normal to me not only to dream about what one reads but also to insert what one reads into one’s life and one’s work. The relationship of reading to writing and of both to the rest of life is something that I’ve very consciously included in my work.

BL: Let’s get back to your reading.

DK: You know, I’m very lazy. I write little and rarely. But I read all the time, all kinds of things. I’m a big reader of poetry because I consider myself something of a poet manque. Technically, I know exactly what to do, and I like translating poetry. But I realized that I can better express myself in prose.

BL: The night I started reading Hourglass I dreamed that I was on a train talking to you and to E. S. [the father in Kiš’s novel lss].

DK: You were at a good point in your reading. Let me give you another example of the same process, from my first novel, Mansarda. It’s the story of a student who’s in love and who reads a lot. At one point in the novel I introduce a fragment from The Magic Mountain without identifying it as Thomas Mann. Instead of writing “Madame Chauchat said,” I wrote “she said,” and instead of “Hans Castorp said,” it’s “he said.” By that I wanted to convey something about the psychology of reading, to show the degree to which one identifies with one’s reading. We carry around in our heads so many powerful impressions from books, and we usually end up forgetting exactly what books they came from.

BL: Memories of what one has read can pose a problem for the writer. In discussing this problem, Wallace Stevens once went so far as to say that reading is the deadly enemy of writing.

DK: I think the best way to handle the problem is to introduce one’s reading into one’s work.

BL: That can be a considerable technical problem.

DK: Technical problems interest me the most—technique is at least half of writing. Beginners think that to have experiences is enough. Apart from certain firsthand accounts, to be a writer–except for the first book, which is technically quite easy—one must always be aware of technique. How does one avoid repeating oneself? And there’s the problem of originality, which involves knowing the great literary works of the past and adding the drop of one’s own authenticity. It’s odd. I’ve never heard an engineer, for example, say, “I never studied the history of engineering because I want my structures to be original,” but I often hear writers say, “You know, I never read because I want to maintain my originality.” If you know about others’ techniques, you can avoid “non-originality” by avoiding their techniques. If you don’t know much about the great books of the past, you revert to the beginning stages of literature.

BL: What authors were important for you in writing Hourglass?

DK: Joyce. Without knowing Ulysses, I don’t know how I could have given form to that novel.

BL: The “question and answer” sections of Hourglass are a sort of Joycean catechism.

DK: I studied Catholic catechism at school in Hungary during the war, and then I found catechism again in Joyce. When I was writing the novel, I would jot down certain questions and then find answers for them; I realized that this was a matter not only of literary technique but of mental process: catechism is the photograph of a mental process.

BL: E. S. in both Hourglass and Garden, Ashes reminds me of Leopold Bloom.

DK: Absolutely. I was aiming for that. There’s something eerie about that because my father studied in Bloom’s hometown. Obviously, I played around with this similarity a lot. The opening sentence of the autobiographical sketch I wrote is [he pulls this book from a shelf, opens it to the first page, and begins translating from the Serbo-Croatian]: “My father first saw the light of day in the western part of Hungary. He completed trade school in the hometown of a certain Mr. Viraga who, thanks to Mr. Joyce, would become the famous Leopold Bloom.”

BL: Before writing Hourglass, did you do a lot of research?

DK: I had less need of research than for my other novels because I could use so many family documents.

BL: Other than your father’s letter at the end?

DK: Yes. But mostly I relied on my own memory. I was a good witness, even though I was very young. I already had a feel for the period.

BL: About midway through Hourglass you write, “The history of religions is the extreme consequence of individual experiences. De Gustibus: aesthetic democracy . . . something fanatics don’t know about.” E. S. is very sensitive to the complexity of ethical/aesthetic contrasts, or, if you will, to the debate between the Rabbi and the Dandy. How do you reconcile these two tendencies in your work?

DK: The phrase you’ve cited probably describes me better than E. S. I always come up against the problems of ethics and aesthetics. There are many things that are aesthetically pleasing but not morally so, and maybe the inverse is also true. Reconciling the two is one of the questions that obsesses me. Writing is aesthetics. As soon as you start writing you start looking for aesthetic effect, and at the same time you want to keep things somewhat moral. I’m not a moralist, but when you write, you sense the ideal: the good and the beautiful are mixed.

BL: In Hourglass you invoke the Talmudic passage that says that “the sons of Israel should give thanks to Jehovah when they catch a flower’s fragrance or a spice’s aroma.”

DK: When I found that quote, it was a revelation. It expressed something I’d always felt but never formulated. So when I wrote the part of Hourglass where E. S. has an encounter with a woman and he smells her “feminine fragrance,” I decided that the citation should be put there.

BL: Would it be correct to say that in the twentieth century Jewish intellectuals have been especially sensitive to questions of moralite esthetisante?

DK: It’s not only the fact of having a biblical heritage that has made us sensitive to these questions but also the fact that a minority which is constantly criticized is obliged to police itself from an ethical point of view. When you’ve already been singled out, you want to behave in a way that doesn’t provoke others. I think that’s the Kafkaesque ethical problem. The rest is aesthetics. I mean that what’s special in the literature of Jewish writers is that art is the territory where one can excel—and that isn’t dangerous. Art is the terrain where you are absolutely free and where you can explore all life’s beauties and all life’s vices without being punished. There’s a simple explanation for this: art is a replacement for real life. Art is the opposite of life. A normal person doesn’t write books.

Read the full conversation on the Dalkey Archive Press website.

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