A number of people in America, and some in other countries,
are captivated by your short fictions and essays. I believe George
Steiner wrote that you and William Gass were two of the most important
contemporary writers in the States. How would you situate yourself
in American (and other) literature?
As a minor prose stylist.
When you say you consider yourself as a «minor prose
stylist», what difference do you make between a minor and
a major writer?
Harold Bloom the Yale critic has changed major and minor to strong and weak. The terms should not apply to the author but to individual works. Many writers (e.g. Melville) wrote both major and minor works. A major work takes its art to a high perfection and is usually innovative (Dante and Shakespeare would be the great examples here). More importantly, the theme of a major work must be universal and time-defying. «Of inexhaustible interest,» said Pound.
Minor writers may have charm, a polished finish, and a kind of eccentric attraction. Thomas Love Peacock, Colette, Simenon, Michael Gilbert - fine fellows and impeccable stylists, but when compared to Tolstoy, Cervantes, Balzac, or Proust, minor. I would place Poe and Borges among the minors, splendid as they are. They are narrow. A Martian could not learn about human nature from either of them.
I am a minor writer because I deal in mere frissons and adventitious insights, and with things peripheral. Very few people are interested in what late Greek antiquity looked like to a traveller («The Antiquities of Elis») or what aeroplanes looked like to Kafka.
Do you say this because you usually write very short texts,
and have never written a novel?
I'm not a novelist. Paul Klee was not a muralist. My ambition is to write as little as possible, in the smallest possible space.
All my discrete paragraphing is to force the reader to read. Most narrative prose can be read by running one's eye down the page. If I've worked one hour on a sentence, I want the reader to pay attention to it. I hope there's a web of symbols and themes running through all the stories.
Let us say that there are some readers who do not feel you
as «minor» (although I heard Michael Hamburger say
that «minor» writers are as important as «major»
writers) who would you see as a «major» writer working
in a context close to yours?
The major writers in whose shadows I grow my mushrooms are Osip Mandelstam, Donald Barthelme, Robert Walser, and Walter Savage Landor.
Your thesis was on Ezra Pound, and I suppose that you read
classics and modern literature, how come your first published
works (correct me if I'm wrong) were illustrations? And did you
study drawing? How do you now share your time between painting-drawing
My first thesis, at Oxford, was on Ulysses; the second, on Pound, was at Harvard. I don't know whether my first publication was drawing or writing, or where the bibliography formally begins. When I was twelve I published a daily newspaper, hectographed, The Franklin Street News (Anderson, South Carolina). It concerned itself with visits, birthdays, the birth of kittens and puppies. In Junior High School (grades seven and eight) I wrote and drew for the local city newspaper, and drew a series of sketches of old houses, with their histories.
I studied drawing and painting at Anderson College when I was in grammar school (private tuition. Clarence Brown, the biographer and translator of Osip Mandelstam, was also a pupil in these classes. A lifelong friend, he is now Professor of Comparative Literature and Slavic Languages at Princeton).
You once told me that you never sent your work to publishers
but waited for them to approach you. How did you publish your
My first book, The Intelligence of Louis Agassiz, was commissioned by Beacon Press, Boston. Tatlin! was the manuscript I sent to Scribner's when they asked for a book on eroticism in Greek poetry. The only book I have sent off in search of a publisher was Da Vinci's Bicycle. Scribner's turned it down, as Tatlin! had sold so poorly (despite having more reviews than any book Scribner's had published in a decade). While it was being looked at by Knopf and Athenaeum, Johns Hopkins accepted it, sight unseen, for their Fiction and Poetry Series.
Could we have a few details about your meetings with Pound
I met Pound in 1952, at St Elizabeths [no apostrophe] Hospital for the Criminally Insane, Washington. I was writing an article for the English Institute on Pound and Frobenius, and had written him asking about certain details. He invited me to visit him. I did. I saw him regularly, once or twice a year, until his release. I visited him in Rapallo in 1963 (as recounted in the story «Ithaka» in Da Vinci's Bicycle).
Louis and Celia Zukofsky came to Lexington for a week in 1964, to participate in a seminar I was conducting. We corresponded thereafter until his death.
Did you also know Basil Bunting?
Did not meet Bunting.
What do you think of him as a poet? As an English poet (this
because it seems to me that Bunting and David Jones - and Thom
Gunn, but I believe he's Americanized by now - are some of the
few poets of interest in Britain in the last forty years - but
I'm no specialist)?
I admire Bunting, but am not certain what he's writing about. David Jones is a very great poet. Thom Gunn is a fine poet. His innovations come from tradition rather than nowhere.
How important are constraints (if any) you might give yourself
in your writing; I'm here referring specifically to a text such
as «On Some Lines of Virgil» where the paragraphs
appear to have a specific length? Have you been using constraints
such as those which were created for poetry when writing prose
(there is, in your writing, a density that comes close to poetry)?
Constraints is not exactly the word. A style has its rules. I have used isometric paragraphs as a formal device exactly like the paragraph itself. Prose narrative has units (the chapter, areas of dialogue). Architecture may be behind much of this - «stanza» means «room». Each of my texts has its own architecture, as it has its own narrative rhythm.
By «constraint» you mean rules, order, formal devices. As in «O Gadgo Niglo», where there are no commas. Prose in blocks («Apple and Pears», «Tombeau de Charles Fourier»). Decasyllabic dialogue in «We Often Think of Lenin...», numbered and titled sections.
If not constraints in a formal sense, are there any constraints
such as frame of mind, position, colour of pencil, type of typewriter,
direction you are facing, etc.?
I have no superstitions about the act of writing.
Could you develop the expression «necessary fiction,»
which you once used to describe your short stories; are you always
aiming at reaching the tightest prose? (This description of your
writing was told me by William S. Wilson.)
«Necessary fiction» means merely that if I am writing about an historical figure (Vladimir Tatlin, Kafka, Walser, Pausanias, C. Musonius Rufus) I supply weather, rooms, samovars, Greek dust, Italian waiters, and so on, not in the historical record but plausible. It does NOT mean that I give fictional accounts.
Prose: one writes, or is written. (Barthes's great subject: that our phrases exist so extensively that an author merely arranges them).
I approach writing with the sense that my words must be chosen and arranged with care, as we live in a world of abused and meaningless words. I think it can be said that I write in order to use words in my way, for certain effects, rather than for any programmatic purpose (psychology, drama, politics, thematics).
What I write about is therefore all but gratuitous. I have enough sense of anecdote to make a narrative. But the narrative is the stage.
The prime use of words is for imagery: my writing is drawing.
Gerard Manley Hopkins said that if he could live long enough he could find a use in a poem for every word of English. Good writers can make words mean what they want them to. Henry James, for instance, works with the tones (and overtones) of ordinary words, controlling them with idioms. His style is completely colloquial, like Hawthorne's.
I couldn't write a novel: I'd use up all the words I would have for it by Chapter 3, and couldn't go on.
You said you wrote two theses, one on Ulysses, one
on Ezra Pound, you did not mention Greek literature. When I introduced
your writing to the readers of the first issue of La Main
de Singe, I mentioned Herakleitos and the fact that you were
more interested in pre- than post-Socratic writers; you translated
Herakleitos and Diogenes, Sappho, Herondas and a few others, you
are preparing a new edition of all your translations. What are
these writers, philosophers to you, the time they lived; also
Holland and Scandinavia, Charles Fourier and various other themes,
like flying for example, that keep cropping up in your writings?
Or am I simply trying to say that, like in Borges's short story,
after a life drawing mountains, horses, etc. the artist discovers
he has only drawn his face?
The Praesokratiker. I like the archaic, the dawn of things, before betrayals and downstream mud. Practically everything is hopeful at birth. The great enterprise of Confucius and Mencius was to discover and annotate a much earlier morality. I like Fourier, and the Dutch, and the Scandinavians because they are brave critics of civilization. Civilization can be lost in ten minutes, as in Germany.
Insofar as writing is essential to civilization, I am interested in how writing cooperates with other elements of civilization.
Talk about lugubrious and pompous!
Self-portraits: Hugh Kenner once pointed out that my Walser is one. Butler = professor.
What are the reasons behind your choosing a specific historical
figure? Why Tatlin?
I chose Tatlin because very little was known about him, and because he seemed to me to be the archetypical victim of authoritarianism. I could also use the parallel form in Russian writing for my form (Shklovsky, Mandelstam as models).
Walser is a prose Tatlin.
What are the links between your reading and your writing?
My reading is, I suppose, my chief source of material. Practically every story has a textual ancestor, but never quite alone. «On Some Lines...» is from Montaigne (with my translating his Latin and Greek examples of sexuality into action) + Bordes + a visit to Bordeaux (2 weeks) + Tati + a French sculpture of a legless boy with dog in a Beckett wheelchair that I saw at the Musée de la Ville de Paris + inventions (the uncle in the wall), and so on.
Another question would be about the use of the eye. Or the
Anglo-Saxon attitude, clear in Darwin, in Doughty, Howells, Whitman,
Bishop, Zukofsky, W.C. Williams, Davenport, Ronald Johnson and
so many others, which implies detailed description of what is
or was, letting the reader react in the way the writer did, or
wants the reader to; attitude very different to the French, for
example (I know the dangers of generalizing), who seem to have
a preordained theory which they then apply. Induction and deduction
in short. With the exception of a few writers like Fabre, the
French do not seem to have produced many writers who can simply
describe. What do you feel about my wooly ideas here?
L'oeil. This translates into imagery. Here I am guided by films and painters as well as texts. Max Ernst and Tchelitchev are constant guides. «O Gadgo Niglo» is a film by Bergman.
Joseph Cornell's boxes.
«Christ Preaching...» is a painting by Stanley Spencer made of a collage of elements: Dufy, Mallarmé, et d'autres choses. (All the stories in Eclogues have a shepherd, and in this story He is invisible except in disguised outlines and Spencerian theology, though the story ends in a baptism.)
Fouriers's imagery of the hordes and bands (already appropriated by Proust) I take to be some of the finest poetry in French writing of the nineteenth century. Also his verbal coinages. His psychology was vastly prophetic. I've had to add to his concerns Coubertin (play as sport: Fourier thought play would be absorbed into work) and the machine (he «invented» the steam locomotive, but had no notion of the airplane, not did he incorporate the hot-air balloon).
The art of description in English owes much to Flaubert (via Joyce and Pound). Théophile Gautier, RIMBAUD. (Looking for phrases from Rimbaud in my prose would render a neat little harvest, for scholars with nothing better to do.)
There's a poem («Mosella») of Ausonius's imbedded in «Wo es war...» translated into prose. A poem of Rimbaud's ditto in «On Some Lines». Also bits of Cocteau here and there.
None of this is to the point, as all art is worth only the spirit of the artist. There is ultimately, no text, only the author (Bon jour, M. Derrida!). All 4 gospels are logically and even grammatically incoherent, but their spirit shines through with great brilliance. You have the advantage of the word esprit, which includes intelligence, wit, and spiritus. We dropped the old English ghost (except in Holy Ghost), which, like Geist, might have served us. A work of art is alive. That's what art means. Inert matter (paint, words, stone) made kinetic.
No giver can know the value of the gift to the recipient. Hence the impossibility of the giver to assess, or comment on, the gift. The writer literally cannot know what he has written, just as no friend can know what his friendship means.
A reader completes a work of art. It is something «in between», a medium.
Why do you think French readers are taking so long to accept
I have always been doubtful of the French and their willingness to look at my pages. My American innocence is not refractable through the Gallic prism.