March 17th, 2011 / 1:50 am

Interview Roundup, Part Ten: Eugenides, Jelinek, Adichie, Solzhenitsyn, Carson

“That’s what gave me such trouble and why it took me so long to write the damn book at first. It took me two years to get this first-person omniscient narrator. I was sure I needed a first-person narrator for many reasons. I wanted the story of Calliope’s transformation to be intimate. I also wanted to avoid — and this is a very practical writerly point — to avoid the pronominal problem with he/she that we’re having in this interview. I wanted it to be ‘I.’ And the point is also that we’re all an I before we’re a he or a she. So it seemed important to have this ‘I,’ but in order to tell the story of the grandparents and the parents, if I remain in a first-person narrative voice, I can’t go into their minds and tell you what they’re feeling. It becomes very dry and voyeuristic. It took me a long time to figure out how to have a first-person that could also switch into the third-person. I had to basically give myself permission to do that, and I had a lot of scruples against doing it for the first couple of years. So I wrote the story many different ways — sometimes all third-person, sometimes all first-person. I knocked my head until I finally realized I could have the narrator do both things and give the sense to the reader that Cal, telling the story years later, is possibly inventing things and maybe knows things that he can’t but that’s all right. I worried that the reader would resist certain things that Cal knows, but I’ve found that actually readers don’t bother themselves with the details as much as I do. In general, readers don’t worry about things like, how would he know this about his grandmother?” – Jeffrey Eugenides, in Salon

“The novel is the opposite of pornography. Pornography suggests desire everywhere and at every moment. The novel proves that this does not exist, that it is a construct meant to keep women willing, because they are usually pornographic objects anyway, while men look at them, and can almost penetrate their bodies with their gaze. But I am used to being misunderstood. I am even blamed for what I attempt to analyze in my writing. As so often happens, the messenger is attacked, and not what she expresses. No one is interested in that.” – Elfriede Jelinek at Serpent’s Tale

“I’m not sure my writing in English is a choice. If a Nigerian Igbo like myself is educated exclusively in English, discouraged from speaking Igbo in a school in which Igbo was just one more subject of study (and one that was considered ‘uncool’ by students and did not receive much support from the administration), then perhaps writing in English is not a choice, because the idea of choice assumes other equal alternatives.” – Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie in WOCALA

“Periods of rapid and fundamental change were never favourable for literature. Significant works, have nearly always and everywhere been created in periods of stability, be it good or bad. Modern Russian literature is no exception. The educated reader today is much more interested in non-fiction. However, I believe that justice and conscience will not be cast to the four winds, but will remain in the foundations of Russian literature, so that it may be of service in brightening our spirit and enhancing our comprehension.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Independent

“In surfaces, perfection is less interesting. For instance, a page with a poem on it is less attractive than a page with a poem on it and some tea stains. Because the tea stains add a bit of history. It’s a historical attitude. After all, texts of ancient Greeks come to us in wreckage and I admire that, the combination of layers of time that you have when looking at a papyrus that was produced in the third century BC and then copied and then wrapped around a mummy for a couple hundred years and then discovered and put in a museum and pieced together by nine different gentlemen and put back in the museum and brought out again and photographed and put in a book. All those layers add up to more and more life. You can approximate that in your own life. Stains on clothing.” – Anne Carson, in the Paris Review


  1. Anonymous

      I don’t know if the interview roundup has been a long-standing thing here or not, but I’m really enjoying it. Some really insightful stuff I would not have seen otherwise. Thanks.

  2. deadgod

      When [the ancients] talk about poetry, they talk about mimesis as the action that the poem has, in reality, on the reader. Some people think that means the poet takes a snapshot of an event and on the page you have a perfect record. But I don’t think that’s right. I think a poem, when it works, is an action of the mind captured on a page, and the reader, when he engages it, has to enter into that action. And so his mind repeats that action and travels again through the action, but it is a movement of yourself through a thought, through an activity of thinking, so by the time you get to the end you’re different than you wee at the beginning and you feel the difference.

      [Mimesis] is a practice.

      [I]t is [an action for both the writer and the reader], and they share it artificially.


      This is an astutely unconventional – and I think: accurate – Aristotelianism. “Mimesis” (in the Poetics) is not ‘copying’, but rather, is ‘linguistic (and dramaturgic) sympathy’, of which ‘copying’ is a paltry – but classroom-ready – aspect.

      It’s not ‘Oedipus’ on stage, or an actor pretending to be ‘Oedipus’ (Brecht). Through the alchemies of language and the social ritual of theater, it’s you (Aristotle, etc.). Not a matter of ‘identifying with the character’ or any vulgar sentimentality like that; the universality of ‘Oedipus’ doesn’t depend on some universal Oedipal/Laian/Jocastan complexes (however common they actually are). The universality of the effect of Oedipus depends on the universality of the enigmatic but rationally undeniable becoming who you are.

      (I’d quarrel with “repeats” and “thought/thinking”.

      When one reads a sentence or single word, one does ‘repeat’ it, but the meaning translated from writer to reader is a shared horizon, not an area contiguous at every point; that word or sentence, perhaps materially identical (or near enough), is similar in the two minds without being the same.

      And, unless it’s taken a bit unusually, “thought” is too limited a term for the multifarious cognition enacted linguistically by a poetic word, which “word” is a ‘cognitive’ complex consisting of sound, image, intellectual grasp, and feeling.)

  3. Kyle Minor

      I’m doing eleven of them. The last one is tomorrow. I figured enough of my yammering — why not take two weeks to hear some voices we don’t hear around here very often?

  4. Kyle Minor

      If I were the boss of this place, you’d be a daily contributor. I love the way you respond so thoroughly (if often curmudgeonly — sometimes I like that, too, but not always), and I wonder what we’d get if instead of responding to our posts, you were responding to your own daily reading, experiences, etc. It’s rare to meet someone to whom I must so often say: I concede the point. I wish my life were full of people whose minds and logical apparatus and general breadth of known-stuff would force me to do that (as the great book of atrocities would have it: As iron sharpens iron.)

  5. deadgod

      That’s kind of you to say, Kyle. (I am a “[nearly-]daily contributor”.)

      I hope ‘concession’ isn’t the best word. I mean that I hope that one isn’t buffaloed off of a principle, but rather accepts the rationality of a contrary or ‘novel’ perspective: ‘provisional agreement’? I’m with Plato’s Socrates: it shouldn’t be another person who forces one to change one’s mind, but rather, one’s mind itself. – Socrates who was not so much a steel whet-rod as a midwife.

      (I don’t remember having been too obnoxious to anyone who wasn’t dismissive or hostile first. Childish, but justly childish – that’s my ticket. I’m not much of a politician.)

      If you’re interested in an Aristotelian philosopher who does not ‘read’ the dogmatic ‘Aristotle’ who’s often the target of Great Debunking, have a look at Aristotelian Explorations, by G. E. R. Lloyd, especially the introductory chapter (“Introduction: reading Aristotle”) and chapter 3 (“Fuzzy natures?”).

  6. alanrossi

      i completely agree. deadgod’s comments are spaces to inhabit, intellectual escapes during my day. i never would have imagined i’d be contemplating mimesis in a new way, but here it’s happened – part of this is owed to Carson’s impressive insight and the rest to deadgod, who furthers the idea of mimetic becoming with this right on use of Oedipus as example.

      seriously cool.

  7. Tummler