Catching Up with Garth Greenwell
Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, a novella of sexual passion and transaction in Bulgaria, which calls to mind the richly textured fictions of Imre Kertesz, W.G. Sebald, and Marguerite Duras. Greenwell grew up in Kentucky, studied poetry at Harvard, and taught high school in Michigan, before settling (for now) in Bulgaria, where he teaches at the American College of Sofia. Mitko is available in bookstores, and also through Small Press Distribution, Amazon, and the publisher. We corresponded last week by Facebook messaging.
MINOR: I first became acquainted with you through your poetry, but your first book, Mitko, is a work of fiction, a novella, which reads in some ways like that variety of fiction that hews close to autobiography.
GREENWELL: Until coming to Bulgaria, all of my creative work was in verse, and in some way I don’t fully understand I think that moving to a place so free from things I recognized or understood urged me toward a mode of writing that was new to me as well. I’m not one to advocate a notion of the advantage or purity of innocence or naiveté, and certainly the tradition of prose writing has always been important to me as a reader; but there was something liberating for me in writing in a way so far removed from any of my formal writerly training, a sense of experiment and exploration of unknown territories, an exploration that of course paralleled the experience of my daily life in a place and language unfamiliar to me. Still, I do see this novella as of a piece with my work in poetry, interested in similar themes and patterns of thought. Structurally, too, I think it owes a great deal to my reading and writing of poems, both in its sense of a kind of lyrical time, an expansiveness of moment, and also in the porousness it allows between interior and exterior experience, its investment in description as a kind of confession.
As a reader, I find myself drawn to books in which a primary interest lies in a drama of sensibility or mind, and the distinction between fiction and nonfiction (which in such books is anyway often enough negligible or unclear) is more or less irrelevant to my readerly engagement: Augustine’s Confessions and Mann’s Death in Venice, it seems to me, deliver to a very large extent similar pleasures. In Mitko, the central consciousness of the book is clearly in some sense a version of my own consciousness, and much of what we learn about his background and routines mirrors my own. To that degree the book might be called autobiographical, but I felt, writing it, no allegiance to anything like “the truth,” and I do think such allegiance, however complicated or impure, is a responsibility of writing that calls itself nonfiction. Where the narrative of Mitko hangs from events that resemble events in my own experience it does so fortuitously or opportunistically. Its allegiance is to something else.
MINOR: There is a lot about the novella that seems more European than American, although it is written by an American. There is a willingness to engage fiercely with abstractions, to essay, to foreground thematic questions, to be expository, to privilege the interior experience in places where other writers would privilege the exterior, to be polysyllabic, to follow the sentence through the swirls and caverns the compound-complex construction will allow.
GREENWELL: I suppose many of the modern writers most important to me are European (Mann, Bernhard, Marìas, Sebald, Henry Bauchau), and I am drawn to a tradition of the novel that is less invested in elaborate invention than in essayings, as you put it, of the interior. But there’s a rich tradition of this kind of writing in American literature: Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, above all Henry James, and surely it lives on in a writer like Marilynne Robinson. Perhaps it’s not an accident that all of these writers make use of an extremely wide range of syntactical structures, including (especially striking in the work of Sebald and Robinson) structures that have tended to fall away in recent practice. I’m drawn to a syntax that dramatizes a certain circling or twisting process of thought, a kind of exploratory and self-interrogating syntax, a syntax invested as much in the shape as in the content of a thought (or in which content is intricate with shape); and I’m interested, too, in the weird, exhilarating expansiveness and variety of structure available to us in English, with its hybrid resources culled from both Germanic and Romance sources. I like the access it gives to both elegance and brutality, to elegance and brutality at once.
And this fascination with syntax comes from poetry, too, my own sense of which depends crucially on the relationship of sentence to line. I spent a great deal of time as an undergraduate and graduate student studying the English Renaissance, and the sentences of Donne and Milton, in both their poetry and prose, continue to be a school in and of themselves of the inexhaustible resources of the English sentence. Among the moderns, Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Frank Bidart, Carl Phillips, Linda Gregerson have all been models for me of a sentence that dramatizes the work and play of the mind.
I like writing that is promiscuous and willfully impure in its approach to syntax, idiom, diction, mode, that borrows from different eras, different languages and literatures.
MINOR: There’s a strange mixture of loneliness and communion that seems to mark the narrator’s relationship with Mitko B. At one level, their relationship is a transaction — he’s seeking sex, and Mitko is seeking money. Thereafter, there is a push-pull — the power dynamic has a back-and-forth motion between the two players, and the disparity in position is never not in play, but there is also a tenderness and momentary togetherness that sometimes creeps into the relationship that seems to transcend, if only briefly, the transactional context.
GREENWELL: I think that comment goes to the heart of the narrator’s ambivalence, which is at times so intense he feels it as a sort of paralysis. And I think that the questions raised in the book—how much of what these two men experience is performance and how much is sincere, how much is about commerce or advantage and how much might be a genuine investment in the being of the other—are, however heightened or put into relief by the particular context of this relationship, applicable more generally to our experience of intimacy.
The image on the cover of Mitko, a plate from Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion series, illustrates for me something of the dynamic explored between the novella’s two primary characters. Looked at in context, set beside the five or six shots that show these two men wrestling, there’s no ambiguity about what’s going on in this image: one man is exerting power over another, rendering him literally prone. At the particular moment frozen in this photograph, though, the image is full of elegance and grace and even tenderness: one man could be catching or embracing the other; they might almost be dancing. In the same way, the narrative of the novella is, looked at as a whole, entirely clear and seemingly inevitable: one man pays another for sex; he becomes fascinated in a way that transgresses the bounds of their contract; things don’t end terribly well. But at particular moments in the book I think their relationship seems full of mystery and possibility, even of beauty; as you say, for brief moments there’s something that seems like genuine tenderness between them. I think those moments are true, just as the more brutal moments are true; neither perspective (the frozen instant, the full picture) trumps in any easy way the other. And again, however starkly these issues appear in the context of this particular story, they seem to me more broadly applicable to the ways in which we make narratives of our lives.
MINOR: What’s next, for you? Are you still writing poems? Do you plan to write more fiction? Is Bulgaria your home now? Do you plan to return to America?
GREENWELL: I finished a manuscript of poems about a year ago, and since then I’ve only been working on prose projects. I’m busy now with a second novella, with a third (I hope) to follow. As for future plans: part of the decision to quit graduate school and begin teaching at the secondary level five years ago was a desire to step off the intensely goal-directed path I felt I had been on for a very long time, and I’ve deliberately held back from any long-term (or even short-term) plan-making. So the future is unclear.
I can’t say that Bulgaria has become a home, though I’m intensely grateful for the time I’ve spent here and the people I’ve met. And I’m in love with the language, which is challenging and strange and extraordinarily rich. I would be happy to stay here for some time, but I do feel still, and strongly, the appeal of elsewhere.