The embodiment of terror in the mind and the perception structures, unstable, a perpetual spin, beginning and ending in cycles that could be endless. The devil, not as a folkloric, horned figure, but as a feasible existential possibility, a everyday chance, although not at all trivial. The horror story as an experiment, an outburst, musical harmony, as a new roman by Jean Ricardou or Alain Robbe-Grillet. That's all about the collections of short stories The Light is Alone and Malingerer, wide fields of audiovisual findings, diabolical presences, complex and unspeakable constructions. The author, Thomas Phillips – writer, composer, theorist – whose interview follows below.
A interesting element in your narratives is the ritual, the stylized way of life used by the characters in their interactions. Of course, some plots directly address the ritual – "Alyssa", "Keep the Holy of Sabbath", "The Evil Thereof", "Hideous Gnosis" – but in all his tales of the books The Light is Alone and Malingerer, the reality is constantly ritualized by characters, so can (or imagine) get a complex interaction with the universe around them, that is, the ritual is like a process of our nature, as meaning that we commonly use down in a universe of random repetitions and little sense. This conception of ritual emerged from some reading/theoretical interpretation or developed as a narrative construction aftermath?
This is a fascinating observation, particularly in so far as I tend not think of ritual as constituting defining moments in the stories. Rather, it is more aligned with formulas that emerge from the milieu of the story itself. Satanists engage in ritual, as do fundamentalist Christians and black metal musicians; it appears in my work, then, as a kind of prop, as opposed to a theoretically-informed anchor. This is not to diminish the general significance of ritual in everyday (or exceptional) life, though I'm mostly interested in literary style and form over such content.
I realize in reading your stories, a complex approach to spatial displacement: places that lose their usual concreteness (the dentist's office in "Ground Drilling" or the beach in "Ov Fire and the Void") or characters that become, in a way or another, exiles, expatriates, individuals who are forced to displacement by external, unmanageable forces. This spatial issue arose by personal experiences? How did you get this approach to the exile, the instability of the usual space?
I've spent significant periods of my life living abroad, in Finland and Quebec, in addition to casual traveling. Though these experiences have been largely positive and formative of what is perhaps an idiosyncratic literary sensibility, at least in the context of American fiction, they have certainly provided a taste of displacement or dislocation that is inevitably as challenging as it is productive. One can go a certain distance in determining the quality of one’s interiority, in controlling one's reactivity, but the external forces you mention may be especially robust when acting on us in relatively unfamiliar contexts, which of course is an excellent reason to live abroad, to abandon, however temporarily, what is safe and comfortable.
From a theoretical perspective, I've always been keen on Viktor Shklovsky's notion of literary defamiliarization, of removing an idea, a character, or an object from a familiar context and placing it elsewhere so as to produce a novel perspective. I suppose this is what we do with ourselves when leaving habitual terrain, be it geographical or psychological.
Some of your stories deal with the baffle interpretations by humanities and social sciences at our time, by the use of exquisite and sophisticated irony. Philosophy, semiotics, anthropology and some analytical social conceptions arise especially in Malingerer (I think the first tale and "Hideous Gnosis” as good examples). His interest in these disciplines is related to research or emerged as a form of ironic treatment of excessive systematization of our perceptual reality, a veritable trap of all our systems of meaning?
I was introduced to post-structuralist and postmodernist theory as a young literary student and was immediately captivated by its resonance with certain religious or mystical ideas that had come to inform my sense of humanity's severe limitations as well as its prospects of more or less transcending the latter. Theory can doubtless be excessive in so far as it operates as yet another mere institution, a doctrine that ultimately elevates the ego, particularly one in process of chasing an academic career, though it also has much to teach us regarding said limitations and, in a few cases (Deleuze comes to mind), techniques of unblocking ourselves, of stripping away the paint of normative ideology and hegemony. With horror fiction, I tend to be most concerned with exposing impediments and blockages, particularly those that arise from rather gruesome power structures. Of course, I’m also interested in the presentation of unsettling atmospheres, creepy, confrontational ambiance.
In my opinion, the element that makes the HP Lovecraft's fiction extraordinary is the systematic use of synesthesia for narrative construction – the monsters, the scenes, a whole world emerges from evocations based at the crossroads of senses associations. I think your stories have, accordingly, certain resemblance to the Lovecraft work: in them, there is also the systematic use of synesthesia. Although the central element of perception in your plots seem to be aural because the characters construct and deconstruct scenes and moments using auditory perception, by the sounds that evoke images, colors and movements. What strategies do you use to build this universe of indirect perception? How you work out the synesthesia and the aural assault, in preparing your fictions?
I must confess that I don't evoke a particular strategy in this regard. That said, music/sound/listening have always been important in my life, so it's no surprise that they emerge periodically in the writing. Another way of addressing this issue is, as the question suggests, to reference other writers. Lovecraft is certainly an influence. I think, too, of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and the manner in which the house manifests its anthropomorphism via sound, how it affects the senses with relative nuance. Perhaps we could even speak of a synesthesia of influence, of how particular words and tones, their signification, provoke related but divergent responses in a reader/writer.
Your production is multifaceted, wide: there are essays, novels, short stories, musical compositions. Theory, narrative, music. On the other hand, their narratives reveal a close co-existence of all these elements, especially by synesthesia and ritualization (in the case of the theoretics). How the narratives came under your creative possibilities? Emerged as a result, simultaneously or preceded other activities?
As it happens, my initial forays into creative writing, as a young teenager, explored the horror genre. Jackson, Lovecraft and Clive Barker were my primary guides. It was only later, in my twenties, and following committed, university literary studies, that I began writing novels prompted by the "synesthesia" of reading different writers – Kundera, Duras, Hesse, Baldwin – a peculiar assortment. By the time I discovered contemporary French writers associated with publishing houses such as Éditions de Minuit and P.O.L., I recognized a literary voice, or voices, that I had to make my own. Writing has been a staple throughout my life. The same can be said for music as well; as a listener and practitioner, I've never been without it. Inevitably, the disciplines (and they certainly require discipline) inform one another, which speaks again to your observation about the role of sound in my stories. While my novels tend to focus on the psychology of the quotidian, with few of the trappings of more conventional fiction, horror is a unique pleasure for me because it relies on provocation of the senses. Though my horror fiction isn't especially conventional, relying, like the novels, as it does on a minimalist aesthetic, the genre requires tension born of atmosphere, (in my case) a modicum of but a charged and immediate mode of description. If the novels are akin to a minimal, delicate music composition, the horror stories, though still reduced, are more aligned with a short blast of harder, heavier music.
Theory, of course, is yet another writing mode that offers its own pleasures, and like other genres, is one that is always evolving in my practice. How to maintain a level of stylistic ingenuity, to balance this with clarity, and still operate within the confines of certain academic formulas – this is an ongoing effort for me.
The infernal power is a recurring element of the tales of The Light is Alone and Malingerer, although the evocation – so to speak – of the demonic being is never straightforward. Your devil is a possibility, a suggestion, a peculiar form of Nature not bend to human plans – even in the case of some soi disant adepts. The demoniacal force comes suddenly, an inadvertent event even for those who are waiting eagerly (as in the short story "En Attendant le Diable"), a possibility impossible to frame in traditional tables of philosophy, history, theology. How did you come to this original narrative perception of evil? What, in this sense, your main influences?
There are two central points of origin here. First, I enjoy horror that examines not simply the figure of Satan, which of course I regard as nothing more than a myth, but human – all too human – practitioners of Satanism, people who are inevitably flawed, damaged, or simply over-invested in the ego and yet, as a result of their suffering, manifest exceptional power in the context of quite ordinary, bourgeois society. Such characters make for fascinating narrative constructs in so far as they speak to a general dis-empowerment in the everyday and our collective yearning for agency. And naturally, as with any fictional form, the uneasiness that almost invariably results from efforts to advance tipping over into raw egotism is tremendously seductive. Like most readers, I receive a kind of perverse pleasure from the violence of witnessing people rise and fall. Which is not to say that I'm in any way misanthropic or particularly negative. Consider the incredible tension in the children's stories of Dr. Seuss or Charles Schulz.
On the other hand, there are real dangers in the world, all of which, I believe, can be understood from the perspective of unconscious, reactionary modes of being. Terry Eagleton makes the point that reactionaries, in the form of religious and political fundamentalists, those of us who haven't the self-respect or motivation to think critically and intellectually about what it means to be a self among others, are weighted down by a surfeit of being, a crystallized or monolithic identity, as opposed to the non-being that allows, and indeed, compels one to embrace a more fluid and open existence, which, of course, is the nature of our collective experience, try as we may to impose embarrassingly absurd and paranoid boundaries around ourselves. This condition signifies true evil to me – unconsciousness – the face of Satan that is far more frightening than any horned figure. Hence a Tea Party Rally as Black Mass in the story "Tea,” or an evangelical school teacher whose patriarchal neurosis around sexuality, Biblical literalism, and a particularly American work ethic finally summons a rather vicious demon.
The structure in the tales of The Light is Alone and Malingerer seems to favor the narrative as a short form – even though there is the suggestion that the tales of the two books have resonances, closeness, including by this curious sequel relationship between "Alyssa" and “Malingerer (is That you, Alyssa?)". The decentralized, fragmented construction with incessant new beginnings that we see in your tales benefited the choice for short narratives, these diabolic tales? Have you any plans to expand these tales in a much longer narrative someday?
Despite the gravity of my response to the above question, horror is first and foremost a source of joy for me as a writer. I love reading it, watching it. As such, the short story format is perfectly suited to my ambitions in terms of occupying relatively short bursts of writing that may be, ironically, even more experimental than my novels to the extent that I give myself the freedom to do anything with the former – as long as it communicates a sense of darkness. So at the moment, I don't have any concrete plans to write a horror novel, though it isn't outside the realm of possibility. I've just finished the first draft of an academic book on liminal narrative that addresses horror in a longer form and, I must say, this experience was delightful. So perhaps I will turn that theoretical lens toward an extended burst of fiction at some point. The question makes me think of T.E.D. Klein's wonderful story, "The Events at Poroth Farm" and how I remain anxious about tackling the related novel, The Ceremonies. I suspect this is my loss.
Interview conducted with support from PNAP-R program, at the Fundação Biblioteca Nacional (FBN).
If there is something that makes the narrative something close to a witchery, a gesture that belongs less to the human and more to fields related to the supernatural sphere, the metaphysics speculations and fears, is the Mystery. And there are a kind of Mystery overflow in Jonathan Wood stories, as in the participation that he made at the volume in honor of Fernando Pessoa, Dreams of Ourselves, released recently by Ex Occidente/Zagava Press. This is a a fundamental and transcendent Mystery that disrupts the very reality, not just our usual perception of reality. In the following interview, we propose not to deciphering the mystery, vain and destructive activity, but to contextualize the Jonathan Wood fascinating creative mind.
One aspect of your fiction that emerges clearly and always resurfaces in new and complex shapes, is the idea of deception, delusion, deceit. In The New Fate, for example, there is the deception of the double protagonist, an element that precipitates the amazing conclusion. At this point, it's good to point that this kind of deception isn't a more or less naive literary trick: this is a mistake (deliberate or voluntary) that approaches to the harmatia, the tragic flaw, so essential in tragedy for obtaining the therapeutic effect of catharsis. How did you come to this notion of deception? Was there any influence in your peculiar deceit synthesis?
Deception dominates my quiet literary thinking because I am continually wondering about the qualities of truth and what are the qualities of reality; how around every corner the harmatia comes walking or is seen in the reflected waters of a rain puddle. The act of writing, the thought processes behind it and the interplay of characters all breathe with the oxygen of deception and the perceptions that accompany the act of writing bring with it a complex spectrum of illusion and delusion. For instance, you could apply the synthesis concept of deception to a very wide spectrum of thought and to me, it is almost a very central and natural starting point when attempting to discuss or explore moral, temporal or spiritual issues or indeed to build characters out of the thin air. The evolution and interplay between characters is built out of a complex array of actions and meanings or the reverse of that and deception is observed in what we loosely term ‘real life’, watching from an unsafe distance the nuances of conversation and language and expression.
The subtle identity of a character is built out of an perhaps unrecognised acknowledgement of something that is not ‘straight’ but that is has a singular number of edges and curves to it. I don’t construct or observe deception or deceit as a deliberate observation, but as something that is far beyond a trait within the character and the narrative; a natural tendency like the weather, if you will. It is the normal representation of what we hope to think and hope to experience. When someone is conversing with you, is it against a backdrop of truth or it is against the background of nuance and meaning and symbolic behaviour that leads to a secret mirror, where you can see only the back of your head? When I look at Rene Magritte’s painting La Reproduction Interdite , I have all I think I need to know….and that is of course a lie.
There is something paradoxical in your fiction: on one hand, there are some complex metaphorical constructions supported by almost abstract notions and philosophical principles; on the other, a strong recovery of historical contexts. For example, the universe of Nazism in The New Fate, both an evocation and a solid construction imagery and the same about the Post-War context in "White Souls Against Dark Background". Was there any methodology for this paradoxical effect? Could you describe something about your creative process?
I use historical context not necessarily to ‘earth’ a narrative into some recognisable time frame or period, but to try and draw out of the context and colour, some particular element that might be quite oblique or evasive or illusory, almost like thoughts or snatches of a conversation of passers-by that have some quality to them; a nod of the head or a furtive expression that has its own history that can then develop its own sense of period within the recognisable. The central historical context of White Souls concentrates on loss and despair in The Great War and examines those mechanisms used to mitigate the great gaping gash in the mind, body and soul of a complete generation. There is the ambiguity of the distant voices on the battlefield and the feverish impulses of Grovelock and the spiteful resonance of Father Bankman and the séance room and yet, what was important for me, was the examination of the characters ‘away’, if you like, from the broader recognisable historical concept, where their language can come to rest, bringing with it a flavour of the period. I wanted to concentrate on this post-war inner conflict of London. In The New Fate, I wanted to distance the historical context significant – as we would all recognise it – so that the described experience becomes ever rarefied and highly localised, so that the central theme and the characters [if you will] are like dots on the sun ready to disappear, until the conclusion, when the historical context kicks in with a vengeance you might say. The wake-up call into bitter historical reality. The planting of context is as much about the examination of the remnants of memory and deep sadness and despair as it is here about precise fiction, reflecting what is known and understood. I wanted to travel down a bore into the displacement of sensibility leading into rationalised and logical despair and detachment.
I thus wanted to ensure the characters in White Souls and The New Fate were as uncomfortable as possible, but also slightly outside of a recognised milieu. There is probably a schizophrenia within the central tenet of context and characterisation that will itself be examined in future work. In Pray to the God of Flux, the historical context perhaps reveals itself through the mores and manners of the two central characters who are caught in the conflict between adhering to the ‘normal’ stultifying life of lower middle-class commerce and the daily round and the alternative of tasting of the lurid forbidden fruits of Brussels that yet only compels them back into the ‘normal’ life. Here, I had in my mind that evocation of the great mass of people drawn up from the suburbs, transported by trains, into the thick miasma of early 20th Century London, but it would be deceptive of me to confirm that to you! I did not want these central characters to be free, but rather to be blind to their own impulses and the blurring the lines of period, time and place assisted with this. There is much congruence in the great novels of the early 20th century that follow the tracks of the men of commerce to the door with the question mark upon it! Huysmans was doing that first, before them in the century that died before it! And perhaps Poe.
I notice in your narratives a certain instability of time: past, present and even the future, the virtual and real time, all these elements seem to collide and converge – a process taken to its ultimate consequences in the short story "Pray to the God of Flux". Is this perception of time, simultaneously or in a constant flux, originated from a specific philosophical conception? Or was it the result of some empirical experience?
I think that is a very perceptive observation and I would say that my answer is weighted towards reacting to consciousness and life in general, where the boundaries and the logical distinctions between experience and existence bleed into each other. Pray to the God of Flux has resolutely rebounded on me with a vengeance, in that what I merely ‘imagined’ from my smug vantage point as a so-called ‘writer’, as the experience of the ‘somnambulistic apes’ trudging across London Bridge in some awful Modernist nightmare, has actually now become my own daily fate, as I continue to earn a daily crust from commerce, but in a new location! Life has imitated art in a very spiteful and well-deserved way! I guess that there is too an element of the philosophical as well where Time becomes very precise and contracted and fevered in my stories and this matches the experiences of the protagonists. I enjoy experimenting with the fluidity of ideas and time and experience, as if it is a unified dialogue in my head that just has to happen. I think of the mind as being in a ‘constant flux’ as you cite above and from the centre of the mind, is drawn out the entire paradoxical spiral of thought and experience in all its minutiae. In Pray to the God of Flux, I wanted to mine deeply that paradoxical set of impulses so richly described by Huysmans with Des Essientes, that hearkens to and are in thrall of the mundane and to the piquant. Perhaps this too will come out in future fiction. The characters thus always seem to be in transit, in thrall to the God of Flux; the ultimate compulsion and a variant of the tightening mainspring coil of The New Fate. I am very interested in this notion of continual inner transit, the journeying of ideas and notions and characters into the earth and the journey beyond, further into themselves. In Beloved Chaos that comes by Night, the internal meditations of the main character – a vessel if you will, ready to be filled – well, the thoughts are aspirant beyond his context and into new places and unto his ultimate fate. The characters become the host for something deeper and in their transit they become the abstraction.
In your stories, there is an elaborated construction of objects by imagery, at the same time marked by the beauty and symbolically relevant – the goblets in "Pray to the God of Flux", the brothers wandering in The New Fate, the dreamer cartographer in "White Souls Against Dark Background". Such images are constructed within the writing act continuum or come in other moment? How do you visualize this elements and inserts them at the plot?
I cannot separate the capture of the construction of objects by imagery from the writing continuum generally. The visual elements and the symbolic seem to awaken as soon as I put pen to paper. I am afflicted by a mind that remembers images and symbols and then these enter the mental archive for future reference. I carry a notebook with me on a good day and on a bad day, I carry fragments of paper on which to record all kinds of impressions that then feed into the construction of images. I tend to meditate on visual images – back and forth, back and forth – in the mind for what can seem an eternity and also these images and new ones come through in many dreams that I have. In my dreams, I seem to be able to tap into the past very easily, so that I feel that I am experiencing a heightened retrospective reality – that is perhaps a notion to play with when considering my fiction. I feel that my mind captures things of the ‘old school’ and it has always been so and from a very young age, so that I can remember with precision images from 40+ years ago that should perhaps have been lost in the mind forever. I can give one example – an old stone fireplace in a ruined castle on the edge of some famous sand dunes seen when I was very small. The floor had fallen in years ago through the ravages of the weather and history, but there was the fireplace, halfway up the ancient façade, no longer a fireplace but some fabled gateway waiting to be passed through. Likewise, on the corner of Sclater Street in the East End of London, there is something very similar. I find it difficult to distinguish writing from the constant examination and utility of imagery. I guess too that I have to thank a very early interest in the works of Edgar Allen Poe for that! One has to be careful though – about what you draw on from reality and fantasy. Once in Palermo, Sicily, in the 1980s, I walked past a shop window in a forlorn backstreet, displaying a vast altar cloth/robe with the sigil of Aleister Crowley’s Mega Therion emblazoned on it. However, repairing to that street the next day, only resulted in a shop window of the highest banality with no altar piece cloth/robe. I experienced this as a loss and yet the image resides in my mind and has been used in previous distant fiction. The use of imagery is also a suitable gateway into expanding and framing the confines or boundaries of a story, so that it can automatically grow in an artificial life of its own. I am also interested in what the characters themselves see as important images within the frame of the story – perhaps this is most apparent in White Souls [mirrors, Parhelia, occult symbols] and Pray to the God of Flux [visions that are not visions but are compulsions that happen within the searching iniquitous desires of the characters that ensnare them like the hit of the drug]? And then there are the images taken from life itself. The goblets were such and I shall leave it at that.
The novel The New Fate is remarkable in more than one point of view: the approach of the theme of the Doppelgänger, the imaginative picture of Germany under Nazism, for example. In my opinion, it is a very powerful narrative, at the same level of novellas such as Death in Venice by Thomas Mann or The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West. Talk a little about the creation process of this magnificent book.
I am extremely humbled by your words and yet I don’t know where to begin. The writing of The New Fate left a huge feeling in the pit of the stomach and the conclusion haunts me still, for it was written before I had the sense that it had been written; as if it were something harboured and that indeed I had missed its construction, noting it only with a beating heart, once it had been put on paper. If there is such a thing as ‘automatic writing’, then there are parts of this novella that can fall into this description. And that is not a cop-out or a distancing by the writer of the responsibility he bares as the universal midwife, but it is an acknowledgement that there are elements to the creative process that are singularly indefinable and alarming. The New Fate fell out of the sky like a malign Icarus after a significant period of silent meditation; I was in a sense concentrating on the meditation of what is ultimately nihilism or ‘the nothingness’ and how hollow can the ‘inner man’ be. I knew that I wanted to write about a trait of National Socialism – when Dan Ghetu described the main notion behind The Last Thinkers – and yet the challenge was to capture subtle undercurrents that are conveyed and created by the myriad of historical images that we are all familiar with in newsreels, but so that the representation ceases to become documentary, but rather it unfolds a narrative about itself for itself, testing the very bounds of history and the self, mutating the certainty of recognised Nazism into something prescient but without a name. I wanted to drill into something that had an opacity about it, something raw and indefinable, but at the same time that had the warped dynamic that leads to the national compulsion that was unstoppable and so by this method, the construct becomes the mania that happened and was truly blind. It helped that this background palette seemed to seed itself naturally in the words. I kept returning and returning in my mind to the Studentenverbindung associations of the German19th Century as a central ‘earth’ for this novella because I wanted to describe and work in some kind of febrile atmosphere of philosophical thought and argument, that was unfettered; but this idea or notion of Fraternity only led me to the localised concept of the two brothers, Karl and Pieter, the meaning of which I will only loosely articulate about here and out of this comes the paring of the mind and for ideas to go from fertile and life-enhancing to empty and echoing against the background of many emblems and a cacophony of chaotic confusion. I then took this notion of the brothers and in the anticipation of developing a ‘story book’ world of Volkish tradition and domestic entrapment and destiny, built something that acts as a central thread of compulsion.
I am of course dominated by the folk tale tradition and the notion that within each one of us there resides a number of personalities that are attuned to the nocturnes and shades of an ‘otherness’, a detachment if you will, that sends us further and further from sane recognition into the deeper chapels of irrationality and bewitchment. I wanted the characters that one means on the lonely road to come to life here, off the page. And in the striking permanence of the memory of folk tales that I love, this becomes reality. I wanted in a sense to be cruel to and within the narrative and to the figures within the landscape, so that there is no comfort in expectation, no recognition through the medium of the Doppelganger, only the heightened winding of the coil into iniquity and the reflected destiny of what was inflicted on so many. I felt very strongly at the time about the manifold perceptions and precepts of this kind of philosophy and how these are taken and injected into the soul by the protagonist[s]s and also the concept of compassion and how in any circumstance that is strained to the extremes of human experience, it is somehow filtered through into its reflection in a shattered mirror. The New Fate is very ordinary, in that it inhabits and is infected by the domestic minds of ordinary people who feed off the unstoppable disappearing stream that runs dry into ash. I feel very strongly about the relationship between art and literature and the subject matter – which you could determine as some kind of ‘abstraction’ lent itself to being portrayed against the indefinable background of utter abstraction, where that which is certain bleeds unstoppably into that which is uncertain, unrecognisable and which becomes deadly and distorted where it was once so ordinary. Observing the Doppelganger operating upon the page was an alarming part of the night’s work and I still don’t understand it fully. We can never be certain about who is also in our nature. I would consider that you and D. F. Lewis have precisely caught the essence of The New Fate in the rays of the sun. I can ask for nothing more and for the exemplary treatment of it by Dan Ghetu, on the page, I give immeasurable thanks…I know this to be fact.
There would be some relation of imagery and visual component of your narratives possess with the cinema? With the Jean Cocteau movies, so evocative, perhaps? The pictures systematically constructed in your stories do not seem to have such a powerful resonance as other narratives that seek to approach to the cinematic language – your images possess a different nature, dynamical but more conceptual than cinematographically structured. Was there any movie director or cinematic style in which you recognize some influence?
From my childhood, I have been as much influenced by cinema and the language of film as I have by literature. I was haunted and still am, by early German and German expressionist cinema – Lang, Wiene, Wegener/Galeen etc and in particular by the way bare narrative unfolds in accordance with the ability of the imagination of the viewer to let it, to implant these stories that never go away from the mind. They are the perfect visual folk tales for the fireside of the mind. I was always particularly moved by films with subtitles, where this notion of living narrative and the storytelling imagination are fused together to the point where the viewer becomes and remains obsessed because he or she has to walk into the story on film, in the same way as a significant novel imprints itself on the philosophical mind. There is no escape. I think here particularly of the work of Ingmar Bergmann – in particular The Seventh Seal, Persona, Silence, Hour of the Wolf etc where the character struggle is as much internal as it is universal in its philosophical anatomy. I can think too of a personal epiphany [perhaps this word is now overused] when first watching Mirror by the great Russian director Andrei Tarkovksy – where the visual poetry of the images and the narrated sense of the past and the present are almost beyond description, because he has captured in a crucible all the raw elements of life – light and dark, nature, youth, age, tradition, history, pain and beauty and spiritual joy beyond description. It is the raw cascade of life and thought that climaxes with the grandmother returning through the swaying fields. There is nothing better. I could mention Alfred Hitchcock.. the internal dialogue of Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins in Psycho and the perfect dream path of Du Maurier leading to Manderley in Rebecca; Derek Jarman and his deconstructive masterpiece Jubilee, Luchino Visconti – the master of grand themes interwoven with moral decay in Death in Venice and The Damned [the finely-tuned and oblique Nazism, far superior to the notions of Cavani’s The Night Porter that left me cold]– and Roman Polanski’s canon of exceptional offerings, where storytelling, personal vulnerability and fate are fused like no other. In film, there is the layered symbolic existence caught like dust in the rays of sunshine in a single sequence of frame, like the sentence in a novel – film as single frame too, and so film as single written image or passage or chapter. In my first years in London, back in 1978 – 81, I became obsessed with the Magick Lantern Cycle of Kenneth Anger – for in those short quirky masterpieces reside the visual equivalent of fables, short stories, parables, poems and forgotten dreams or snatches of opium dreams, that you cannot hold onto at the climax of REM. Watching the films of Kenneth Anger opened up a questioning sense of articulating the dream state in a story, where comatose lucidity is the passport to infinite opportunities for the pen on the page. I would say that this too is a key influence. Imagine the power of the image of an elephant’s foot treading on a snake, seem but for a second as if it were not there. Gone…..but not in the head…..there forever. Watch Anger’s Lucifer Rising and find out for yourself.
Given your work so far, you you show a preference for the short narrative – the short story or the novella. Would be a deliberate choice? You think to publish a large novel in the future?
I’ve been privileged to have some significant opportunities to develop the short story into novella mode and for this I am indebted to Mark Valentine and Dan Ghetu for their encouragement and faith in my work. I would say that it has not been so much deliberate as an unforeseen and highly instructive transition into the process of shaping ideas, notions and the shadows of characters from out of the ether; almost the ‘letting it happen’ if it can. I believe that the novella form is a very precise mechanism for unfolding and examining notions and ideas. It is a challenging form of writing but it brings with it the advantages of its own confines, especially useful when the central construct within the novella is incubating and inculcating itself as if it is an automatic and detached process. This feature too has manifested in a recent submission to Mark Beech’s Egaeus Press and also something for Dan Ghetu regarding Fernando Pessoa. I find this deeply disturbing and deeply exciting because it seems to signify that there are other forces at work which are very raw and deeply independent of the idealised self as writer. Maybe I will develop this further and perhaps I just have done, for the world to see. I love the question ‘do you have a novel in you?’ – my father has asked me this - and my answer is ‘yes, probably I do’. I have two separate constructions in the background at present – I hope that the gods will allow me to fuse these together into a novel – which will shine a light into the Shadows of London [I know of one person who will recognise this] alongside something called The Book of the London Witches – but do not expect witchcraft here, but rather an insidious and shifting sift through a spectra of London as it settles to the bottom of the hour glass as I wander back down Memory Lane hoping to make sense of some of the retrievals. I will embark on this fusion process on January 1st 2015 as a defence against ennui and the year-end ritual of Janus-faced transition and why not? Many fragments have been written down which are currently being assembled. However, I am not bold in the face of the idea of a novel. It is a frightening prospect, expanding the regime and landscape of the novella into the new cultivated land. There is the conflict in the novel – between the balance and confidence of the narrative, the constancy and credibility of the characters and the nobility and grandeur of the situation; and if that ‘grandeur’ be confined to the internal thoughts of an old misanthrope, then one must make haste to the study and to the inkwell, before Fate catches up. I am not fool enough to think it will be easy. Writer’s fear is worse that writer’s block.
Interview conducted with support from PNAP-R program, at the Fundação Biblioteca Nacional (BNF).
n 1975, Jorge Luis Borges published a story that would materialize the dream of every bibliophile: "The Book of Sand", a book whose pages are infinite (or countless) as the grains of sand on a beach. The protagonist of the Borges tale acquires this fantastic volume of a Scottish Bible salesman who comes into his home but ends up a prisoner of that "monstrous", "diabolical" book. This is a impossible and fascinating object, – with a apocalyptic Rhys Hughes reading, in a tale of his New Universal History of Infamy – a symbol of what we desire and what feeds our worst nightmares, something that we can just drop in a place where the diabolical object will definitely miss, haunting us as a probable illusion of the senses. It is curious that the monstrous volume is not unusual: the cover showed that the book had passed through many users hands, the language in which it was written might be strange, but the typography was mediocre, the pages were worn, the illustrations were clumsy and mediocre. In a way, Borges was sensitive to a curious phenomenon – many everyday books, to a limited experience, reproduce the feel of the book of sand thanks to curious Nature dispositions. Time, for example, can waste a volume in a way that the once wonderful pages, come in our amazed fingers (that may not have touched these pages for a few years) as a brittle thing. In other way, the memory has the effect of astonishment at a book we imagine know (and that surprises us, which indicates that probably did not know for real) when certain passages that are in such and such page disappear, when new illustrations or directions emerge even in a brief, cursory reading. However, some book formats have always the tendency to emulate, of course imperfectly, the infinitude: almanachs and collections, that allowed the (re)discovery, the unexpected frisson in reading experience. But none of these methods of the Book of Sand, not a natural but perhaps a object of the possible realm (like many unnatural objects), is like this strange artifact published by Zagava/Ex Occidente Press: Infra-Noir, a multifaceted and unique compendium, the closest possible experience to the book of sand.
The title, "infrablack", seems to allude to the series of manifestos and pamphlets of the Romanian Surrealist group, which gathered in the 1940s names like Gherasim Luca, Dolfi Trost, Paul Păun and others. This relationship with the rich and complex Romanian surrealism is accentuated by the excerpt from the poem of Virgil Teodorescu (illustrated by stilamancies of Dolfi Trost), Poem in Leoparda (1940), that illustrates the book jacket, written in the "language of leopards", aural ferocity invented by Teodorescu as "language" of his poem, modeled by – as highlighted by Andrew Condous – the Dadaist Tristan Tzara experiences around the so-called "simultaneous poems" and the Isidore Isou "Letterism" proposals. The original odd poem by Teodorescu and Trost was confiscated by the Romanian authorities in 1959 and it was probably destroyed forever. Indeed he was, but not entirely: four pages were secretly saved by the wife of Virgil, Helene – from these pages, we have the section that is on the Infra-Noir dust jacket: "Sobroe vinwid tidiv toe". The strangely unreal and powerfully suggestive language of the poem appears in flawless, black typography on the all black jacket, an exquisite verse in a language unknown but perceived by mankind. On the spine, the clear indication of blackness, darkness, secrecy, threat of oblivion: the book title. This incredibly significant and complex universe, nevertheless are still the book jacket that despite its grandeur is not enough to avoid the impact of the volume content: six complete books from a wide range of poetry, poetic prose and fiction in various shapes and typography, a luxurious workmanship that includes a beautiful, disturbing illustrations and photography collection.
The opening of Infra-Noir is "Smoke," a book of poems by Mark Valentine. A broad poetic composition spectrum from the vanguard of the early twentieth century – notably Surrealism, Hermeticism, Dadaism, Expressionism – informs the poems of Mr. Valentine, however marked with a very personal diction. The most obvious poetry kernels in Valentine compositions are the exile and dispersion as singular events whose occurrence is both in the dimension of the everyday and the exotic, the constant projection of other universes in the universe of our common cognition. Fountains, marble objects, obscure temples, mirrors, lost or forgotten things – this is the imagery developed by Valentine in superb poems, small masterpieces in the verge between poetry and fantasy fiction as "hark to the rooks" and "a note about hats", poems about the loss of identity by the pressure of Nature and by the pressure of political systems. The second book is "Inflammable Materials", written by the Danish author Thomas Strømsholt, whose approach is also poetic. However, it differs from the experiment by Mark Valentine: this is another poetic tradition, the little prose poem, a form that has reached some considerable degree of sophistication in the hands of authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, and Franz Kafka. Strømsholt attacks this poetical genre with wit, cunning, intelligence and engagement, working the allegorical narratives with the small chisel of meaning multiplication – the very mystery of open allegory are the essential aspect of a little prose poem. In this sense, some very effective aftermaths are achieved by the author, notably in the poem "The Glowing Heart", a Wildean gem in which a pagan Inquisitor, also philosopher and poet, confronts a Christian saint, with revealing results for both of them and, of course, for the reader.
The third book in the Infra-Noir wilderness, "The Unfolding Map" is a short novel by John Howard. It is a masterpiece of the mixture between Historical Reality and the todorovean Fantastic – a projection and philosophical speculation, very usual in other works of the author. But due to the conciseness and accuracy, this refined piece approached to the fictional best works created by H. G. Wells, Henry James or William Gehardie. In the plot, we follow the meetings of a group headed by a Nazi leader scheduled for Berlin in negotiations about borders, always a moving target, between Romania and Hungary in the 1940s. The discussions take place in a fictional and refined restaurant, located in a Romania fictional town – but each of these elements could be or perhaps would be real. This changing appearances are at the core of the plot and the happening at the climax is at the same time supernatural, magical, possible, perhaps indefinable. The fourth book closes the poetic half of Infra-Noir: "Soot", by Dan Watt, with illustrations by Andrzej Welminski. Watt built a prose fueled by strange confluence between humanity and its small mechanical devices, made to obsessively rebuild and cut an often gray, stony, suffocating reality. The name of the game, here, is deception: between forms captured by the senses and exposed at its heart in the poems of Watt and the Welminski illustrations. Thus we have characters who guess oddities carried by others, a circus that reverses the role of spectator and spectacle, unusual rituals for rare books, mystical transformations.
The fifth book is "The Salamander Angel" by Damian Murphy, another novel, this time with a curious structure of multiple characters and viewpoints. It is a very appropriate format, considering the fact that the plot presenting multiple views of a single apocalyptic event, though perhaps invisible. The prose of the Murphy’s novel follows an obscure and even occultist approach, with references to Theosophical and Hermetic rituals and practices. The visions of intertwined characters reach an amazing, unbelievable climax imagery, with a statue transmuted to apocalyptic angel(s) transmuted to a fragment of lodestone, a symbol that serves as a kind of unifying image. The last book, a novella, "The Slaves of Paradise" by Colin Insole. This Insole fiction takes place during the years of Nazi occupation of France, with the strange and ambiguous mixture of everyday life that followed the usual course and the requirements imposed both by the collaboration and resistance. This universe, in the plot is materialized by the film backstage, very appropriate to illustrate the many ambiguities of France under Nazi occupation. The motif of involuntary betrayal and deliberate deception – revealed as an act of overwhelming perversity – are central in the novella, with subtle cinematic resonances: I am spotted references to the films The Seventh Cross (1944) directed by Fred Zinnemann and Les enfants du paradis (1945) by Marcel Carné. But this work does not limited itself to the homage of its rich cultural and historical sources, so that "The Slaves of Paradise" is another precious gem within the Infra-Noir and a contemporary chef d’oeuvre.
The Romanian surrealists was a largely obscure or lost group, adherent to the dark, underground, even forgetting materials as methodology and weapons of resistance to Fascism and Nazism and Stalinism – in some way, this new Infra-Noir book are worthy of that tradition. But the dark and forgetting materials are a ambiguous strategy, which also looks set to some downfall in its new incarnation: a real literature event in the second decade of this twenty first century, the publication of a incredible body of works that are assembled in Infra-Noir is in danger of becoming a footnote of some magazine or journal or website, the everyday media usually focused on the narration of the small and large disasters of mankind. But is not what we might expect from something so monstrous and so magnificently beautiful as a book of sand?
In his website, the “About” section has the following information: “Stephen J. Clark has been active within the International Surrealist Movement for over fifteen years, appearing in numerous surrealist publications and has most recently participated in exhibitions with the Czech and Slovak Group. (...) Returning to writing fiction in 2008, Clark's story ‘The House of Sleep' was published by Ex Occidente Press in the Gustav Meyrink homage anthology Cinnabar's Gnosis. Work has since appeared in various publications by Side Real Press, Supernatural Tales, Fulgur Limited, Talking Pen Press and Skrev Press among others. (...) The author's debut novel In Delirium's Circle was published by Egaeus Press in 2012. He is currently working on a collection of short stories.” (saw at http://www.thesinginggarden.co.uk/about.html).
In your last book, In Delirium's Circle, a complex and discontinuous flow and relationship between Image (there are the illustrations but also many descriptions: photos, objects, places, etc.) and Plot. Are there any planning or method in this disposition or the automatism used by the characters influenced the narrative structure? And, in this sense, are there any past experience (in Narrative form) that influenced your vision here?
With my writing I try to develop a dynamic between planning and spontaneity. I approach it as a form of play; a game allowing space for the subconscious to speak. Rather than seeing the subconscious only as a reservoir of suppressed images I view it almost as an active, volatile agent too that transforms what it comes into contact with. It lies in wait, latent or dormant in our relationship with the world as we experience it. It is not just situated deep within us but deep outside us too.
I try to keep the story as open as possible to suggestion and change right into its later stages. Stories and images I think can have a life of their own and their development can be compared to alchemical distillation. My aim is focused on developing an approach to writing and storytelling as a hermetic method for myself, so the exploration of drawing in relation to writing is part of this experiment. I’m wary of anything described as ‘experimental’ these days, yet by experimental I simply mean play; creativity that includes chance and accident and openness to interpretation. I’m cautious too about describing what I do as having anything to do with occultism, in the sense that I don’t think one has to be steeped or versed in specialised or dogmatic knowledge to do what I do, or gain insight through such methods. For me commitment to one’s own imaginative creativity and intuitive understanding of experience and the subconscious can be a form of initiation and exploration in itself. I think there’s a danger in identifying with something in a dogmatic and formulaic way that closes down the free play of critical interpretation and creative experience, I think that can be just as true of surrealism as it is with magical traditions. I’m thinking of writers such Gustav Meyrink and Alfred Jarry, writers who I appreciate and admire for their knowledge and experience in hermetic ideas and practices, yet also for the wit and inventiveness of their individual approaches. The same can be said of Austin Osman Spare as an artist I think, for example in the way that he incorporated his experiences of cinema into his work in the form of his ‘sidereal’ methods. There’s a sense of invention and irreverence in all their work that keeps it volatile and alive to this day.
I’m interested in the experience of imagining: for example the psychological and symbolic significance that the emergence and development of narrative events and characters could have for the writer’s inner life. I see the process of writing a story as a form of personal exploration, an act of gnosis, of self-knowledge. The story is a microcosm, a theatre where the inner life’s dramas are played out. I’m inspired more by ideas from hermetic philosophy than literary theory. A great many if not all academic observations about narrative theory can be recognised and contemplated intuitively anyway, without the need to identify them with specialist literary terminology. What matters is the individual’s experience of these forms. Somewhere within my method there are ideas concerning the use of what could be thought of as “discontinuous” forms, alternating between prose and visual image, to cause subconscious ruptures in the linear, discursive flow of words and suggest that another way of engaging with the narrative must be sought by the reader, yet I have to say that I don’t allow myself to scrutinise and dissect that too closely in the process of developing the story. I think to focus too much on that would divest the story of its rawness and frayed edges.
I think it’s vital to my creativity to be attentive to what might arise from the subconscious; mapping and developing a story from the primal matter of the subconscious yet refining it, distilling it through methods of interpretation and imagination. I think writing can be compared to a waking dream where the writer and the reader alike are enticed as if by seduction, as if under the influence of an enchantment, seduced by the incantation of words into dreaming together. I see the story as being the residue of a dream; dream and the waking world meeting in the form of words and creating an artefact.
To paraphrase Jacques Lacan; the Unconscious is structured like a language. I think my experience of structure in my writing at least in part emerges from a kind of meditative dream, following another kind of logic; a logic close to dreaming. I don’t simply mean that a story only emerges from a method like automatic writing. Images and ideas arise from the subconscious as if they’d offered themselves seductively, returning to your thoughts to show you another facet. My process is more to do with interpreting and exploring these images and ideas imaginatively to see where analogical thinking might take me. The visual images rupture the flow of words. There are many phantoms in the novel. The visual images haunt the prose, they intervene rather than illustrate; they interfere with what’s being said. And they suggest that another approach must be found because another kind of understanding is required.
As dreams have their own logic and momentum so too do stories, at least the kind of writing I’m mainly interested in. Writing and reading can act as a bridge, a space where dreaming enters waking life. I see what I do as tapping into a rich source or stratum of language, imagery and culture that one could call mythology. I believe Apollinaire and Andre Breton said of De Chirico’s paintings, that they represented or embodied a kind of modern mythology; charting the undercurrents, the nightmares and the enigmas of his own time.
In terms of past experience of narrative structure, if I understand you correctly you are talking about ‘literary influences’. I think there are writers that I’d previously read that must have formally influenced how I write, such as William Faulkner, whom I single out especially because of the obvious characteristics of form he used in many of his books, yet I must emphasise that it is the experience of writing as a form of meditative play and dreaming that drives me; writing as personal revelation. Much of the structure can be found as I write and respond to accommodate and explore what arises. I don’t think it would help to list writers that I appreciate here. I used to have certain favourite writers but currently I can’t say that I do.
The structure I find effective reflects how I understand experience; the interplay of multiple perspectives and the elliptical, discontinuous nature and enigmas of communication, the enigmas of intimacy, the intimacy too between the reader and the story they engage with. I prefer such a structure as I feel it reflects the hidden polysemous nature of reality and experience. I know that runs the risk of sounding grandiose but ultimately it comes down to empathy. I’m not interested in writing or reading something purely as a piece of entertainment. When the old cliché “Write about what you know” is wheeled out I’d have to say that there are many ways of knowing what’s there in front of you, there are many ways of imagining the real other than so-called realist representations. “Write about what you know”? What do I know today? I know that my day began with a dream.
In your novellas (narratives more lengthy in extension, in this case), The Satyr and In Delirium's Circle, there are some kind of tendency related to the narrative disintegration: from a more or less stabilized starting point to a more subjective and abstract universe, commanded by some visionary State. Is this a influence of the powerful Image and Vision (including illustrations and design with a high and unique meaning in the both of books) in this novellas? Or it's a poetical direction assumed to the plot?
I see it as a matter of transformation which involves the disintegration of what went before, the disintegration of the habitual; the disintegration and dissolving of the conscious in the subconscious perhaps. The stable is made volatile and vice versa. The world is turned on its head. Out of the chaos of madness another form of understanding arises. I think of the old maxim from alchemy, no generation without corruption, or in other words: new forms arise out of decay and destruction. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I do express a personal “worldview” or philosophy in my stories, so to speak, not in any didactic way but simply because I’m passionate about exploring those ideas for myself to see where they will take me. I think it’s inseparable from how I write. It informs the language and form of what I do. It informs the tone and atmosphere of what and how I write and draw. I prefer writers and artists who do have a “vision” of their own that can be explored over time. I find that a rewarding and enriching experience and I think it relates back to the idea of mythology, the development of a writer’s personal symbolism over time, the way an individual engages with the world through their imagination, through their subconscious mind as if they are consulting an oracle and acquiring insight.
There are some claims, for one side to another, about the powers of suggestion in Literature and the Visual Arts: sometimes one side is on top of another and vice-versa. It's not impossible to saw that your narrative work follow a borderline between these two fields. So, for you, the suggestiveness in Literature and Visual Arts follows a equal pathway or it is not the case and one outdo the other. Is it possible a medium resolution?
Rather than involving an aesthetic or theoretical opposition between Literature and the Visual Arts I see it more in experiential terms; in the sense of how one experiences visual images and words, how they attract and repel each other. Especially with In Delirium’s Circle, I am playing more with those ideas and attempting to explore the elliptical nature and enigmas of how we experience images and words, of how we communicate and how we understand our senses, memory, community and history. The fabric of the perceivable world and the world of human exchanges consists of experiential, sensory, epistemological and existential uncertainties. Everyday life is made of numerous flaws and fissures in our understanding, of strange inexplicable moments and chance events that we learn to repress and forget. Often what we consider a social or even scientific certainty will be at least in part a construction of habitual consensus. So I’m trying to convey these ideas through the structure, for example in the way I use the epistolary form with In Delirium’s Circle. I felt that form was effective as it allowed me to play with the ambiguities of identity and communication; to accentuate the absences and silences and mysteries of human life that are commonly disregarded. I like to take common experiences, something like mistaken recognition, of thinking you know someone when you don’t, and playing with the mysteries of that enigma. I’m interested in what I’d call enigmas of intimacy. I think the experience of reading and writing is an area rich with such enigmas of intimacy.
I’m thinking of the term intimacy as Georges Bataille might define it, as involving risk and vulnerability. Of course that dynamic is charged with inherent longing and promise, the longing for empathy and transference … the dissolving of individual identity in words and silence. It involves the significance and ambiguities of silence - of using form and language in such a way as to express something that is beyond words, or that slips between words. It involves the use of language and silence, or image and absence to evoke something that’s Other, to summon something from the subconscious. I think my use of the interplay of words and visual images in this way is an attempt to reach this intimacy. With In Delirium’s Circle I’m engaging with ideas about what role mythology has in society, what power it had in that post-war era, partly in the form of propaganda, but in other ways too, and what power it still has and how mythology is used to coerce and influence others - mythology as an inner war. Yet also the reclaiming of mythology as an intimate thing, how it can be claimed back and explored subjectively and inter-subjectively by individuals.
So I’m not interested in the current status of Art or Literature in aesthetic or theoretical terms, nor feel the need to comment on that status critically. Nor am I experimenting with form in that context. I don’t think what I do is anything new or different from what has gone before, or is an attempt at a resolution or middle way between Art and Literature as your question seems to infer. I just know I have to be as true to the story as I imagine it and true to my own imagination. I just think you have to be true to yourself and follow that obsessively. I like to think of In Delirium’s Circle as a fugitive artefact, an anthropologist’s field report, or a grimoire from a dream. The decision to include drawings in the fabric of the story wasn’t something that I approached as an experiment with form. The desire to explore that dynamic came out of ideas for the story itself.
In the novel In Delirium's Circle, there are a kind of sect that is, at same time, a avant-gardist group, art community and even more, as the plot develops its layers. That's an amazing creation, so fascinating to the protagonist as to reader. What about the sources for the creation of this group? Are there some model in the distant or close reality?
My understanding of surrealist groups both historical and current definitely partly informed the idea of The Circle in my novel In Delirium’s Circle. Yet I didn’t want to make it specific. I used that idea and those experiences to serve another aim, to convey the mythology of a secret community of outsiders and the mysteries of communication, the ambiguities of desire and sanity, the otherness of other people. I also wanted to draw upon associations of other groups too, not only intellectual and radical groups of recent history but also the myths of hidden or fabricated or lost groups such as the Rosicrucians and other hermetic fraternities that I’ve been interested in reading about for quite some time now, in the historical studies by Frances Yates for instance. Yet I suppose, in keeping with our own times, there are intimations of other kinds of groups, such as terrorist cells, again raising questions regarding the nature of belief and desire.
The important thing for me was to leave it open, to use ambiguity to suggest the other world of this hidden community, that was very real and very human, with its own enigmatic past, existing within the world we think we know and yet involving a perception of life that’s very different from the wider consensus, that involves a way of life that’s at odds with the world of the wider society, a group of misfits brought together in their search for lost intimacy. Again, the idea of the secret group lends itself readily to the other themes of empathy, community, mythology and power.
I’ve been interested for some time in the writings of Georges Bataille and the group known as Acéphale that he played a key part in forming. It was a group formed with the purpose of exploring what it would mean to be part of a secret community in relation to understanding wider society and exploring the nature of intimacy and communication. I’m aware of how that can be misunderstood as being elitist yet I think Bataille saw it as a necessary tool with which to truly explore experiences that would otherwise remain in the realms of intellectual speculation for him. Not only is it a way of demarcating a zone of exploration it’s also an act of resistance against the values of wider established society.
The Circle in my novel is a microcosm of the thematic currents within In Delirium’s Circle. In a way it’s the hub from which everything else radiates or the pool into which everything else is pulled and descends and vanishes. Of course there’s a whole tradition within gothic literature and cinema of people having doomed dealings with hidden orders, cults, secret agents, master criminals and so forth and it’s something I’ve often enjoyed in literature, TV drama and film, so I’m also playing with that idea. I’m playing with those threads of association that already exist for me, not that it’s obvious or necessary for the reader to recognise them, yet in cinematic terms I’m inspired by the imagery say of Fantomas, or Georges Franju’s films Judex and Les Yeux Sans Visage, or Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, or Svankmajer’s Faust and Conspirators of Pleasure. It’s an affinity I have with the currents that run through such work, which leads me to the next que
Your novella The Satyr had some curious aspects related to the 1940s film universe. The name of one of the protagonists for start, but even the structure: some events in the novella brought me to the memory films like Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear (1944), specially the chapter dedicated to the séance. Even Hitchcock's 39 Steps (1935), with the ambiguous feminine persona. Could you tell more about these cinema transnarrative and influences in these novella?
Cinema is so part of the mythology of modern society. People have worshipped at the altars of actors for decades and still do. I don’t consciously allude to specific Forties films or use them to structure narrative yet I do attempt to evoke the noir atmosphere, particularly with In Delirium’s Circle. While working on my novel I would read and watch anything that I thought might inspire me, anything that might by some process of osmosis inform the atmosphere and spirit of the work, so I explored Patrick Hamilton’s novels and read Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear and The Third Man, although I watched the films after I’d read the texts. I’d never seen The Third Man film before that point, although I’d read the novella. And I only watched the film after I’d finished my novel. I wanted to approach it in the field of written prose you see. I didn’t want there to be any obvious allusions to or influences from having watched the film. There are other sources too that haunt the fringes of In Delirium’s Circle, such as the Quatermass screenplays and early adaptations. There’s something about the paranoiac atmosphere of those films, of there being an invasion from within that fascinates me. I think that’s a myth of that era, the myth of invasion, of some unnameable and nebulous threat arising from the commonplace. I wanted to evoke that myth in my novel. There was a film too that I watched just as I was finishing the final draft of my novel, it’s called The Clouded Yellow (1950). A noir thriller with moments that verge on the dreamlike and a chase sequence filmed in Newcastle upon Tyne, so watching it was an experience of synchronicity. I hadn’t known it existed until that point. Actually I find the experience of watching many of these noir films dreamlike, surely seeing the past in this way must be considered a kind of waking dream. So films and old TV dramas are an important part of my creative life and do inform my writing and my visual art.
I’ve strayed from your question there. The Satyr was my way of engaging with Austin Osman Spare’s myth with an emphasis on him being a vulnerable human being rather than a legendary artist and magician. I didn’t explore his ideas in depth in the novella partly because of the emphasis I wanted to give. I think he’s a remarkable artist partly because he was a humble and vulnerable human being and not some god or genius as many believe - at least that’s my view. What keeps me interested in Spare are the anecdotes about his daily life and the encounters he had with the community he was part of.
The imagery of The Satyr undoubtedly draws upon the cinema you refer to in your question yet more in terms of atmosphere. There is an element of noir mythology in the novella. Much of it works in terms of poetic suggestion. For example the use of a name such as Marlene Dietrich, can act as a kind of depth charge and has reverberations evoking all manner of nebulous and perhaps conflicting associations from that era. I used that name to suggest certain tensions in the story.
The Satyr is my first attempt in print to explore the possibilities of combining prose with visual art, where the art isn’t simply a secondary illustrative thing but serves a narrative purpose too and actively contributes to the story, however elliptically. I’d worked on something similar before but with poetry. The poetry collection The Bridge of Shadows a collaboration with my old friend Bill Howe, explores a similar area where Bill’s photographs and my poems exist in a field of analogical and enigmatic associations. The photographs aren’t there as illustrations, they are a visual counterpart to the poems. So the image can act as a counterpoint to the text and vice versa. The title of the book infers this relationship. The image and the text exist in a complex relationship where they might on the one hand attract and on the other repel one another. The visual image might first seem to overpower and silence the poem or the poem might in some subtle way suffuse or question the image. And all the while in the flux of this dynamic interrelationship all manner of other poetic associations might be vying to be heard or imagined. The text and the image might cancel each other out or they might help each other to speak in another unexpected way. It’s a game that emphasises the part played by the reader to find their own associations between poem and photograph.
There were too many external factors and pressures involved in the creation of The Satyr for it to fulfil its potential. It was completed within one month due to the deadline, so it was rushed. It was an opportunity I had to take at that time. As a friend remarked, it was like a concentrated version of a much bigger book waiting to emerge, which I think is a fair point. So I see it as flawed but I’m glad I did it. I’d like to revisit The Satyr but we’ll see. The form of combining image with text however may be rather unattractive to many publishers.
In your work with book illustration – a special and unique work, a imagerie that dialogue with the plot and meaning of the book but preserve your marks and vision – the image creation process needs some narrative treatment, some form to create a visual and synthetical adaptation?
When creating narratives that mix text and image, which one comes first? Tell us a little of his working method.
I’ll answer these questions together if I may, as I think they cover similar ground if I understand them correctly.
So far it’s depended upon the individual book. With In Delirium’s Circle the text came first in the sense that it started out as an unpublished short story. So that kernel of words came first yet as the novel took shape the drawings emerged as part of the momentum of creation. Part of it involved practical and budgetary considerations later, so discussions took place with the editor, Mark Beech at Egaeus Press, but if anything Mark encouraged me and said it wasn’t a problem to include more drawings and just take the time to get it right, to complete it as I’d fully envisaged it. So a few of the drawings came later in the process and were suggested to me from the numerous times I’d reread and redrafted passages of the novel. The Bestiary of Communion differed and is largely a conventional case of illustration. Two of drawings came after the stories were completed. As with The Satyr it was another case where publishing constraints meant a project couldn’t reach its full fruition and the result I think shows that it was quite rushed, at least with the story My Mistress, the Multitude. However with this story the image of the Countess/ Sphinx was developed as a drawing during the process of writing the story.
With the writing of The Satyr it was a matter of sometimes leaving spaces into which the drawing would be later inserted or making a textual reference and then creating the drawing afterwards and leaving the possibility for fluid adaptations of either text or image later, synthesis as you rightly describe it. I often thought about a drawing and developed the idea in my mind while writing the story. So sometimes the order of these things is very difficult to convey. Sometimes the idea of a drawing might suddenly emerge anticipating the later events of the story, taking the story on another trajectory. Ideas for visual images, or actual visual images might come to mind and shape the development of the story. So there have been instances where the image and a textual passage have emerged simultaneously, out of an interrelationship where they mutually transform one another as I develop the story. For me this is partly why I want to explore this method and form further. While I think one could make comparisons with the relationship of script/ dialogue and image in film the use of visual images and prose is of a different order I think. The other obvious comparison of course is the comic book, which was very important to me in my childhood. Yet I also think William Blake’s use of images with words left its mark on me too.
Are you working on some narrative at the moment? Talk about some of your future plans.
Well, I’m rather superstitious about discussing creative plans. I have quite a major project in mind that I’m waiting for the right opportunity to get to grips with, so at the moment I’m working on something more immediately realisable.
Currently I find myself working on many stories simultaneously, mainly short stories but a more substantial tale too concerning the origins of William Fetch, the protagonist of In Delirium’s Circle, yet I’m unable to reach a point where I’m able to look at conclusive drafts. This is entirely to do with personal circumstances that greatly limit the work I’m currently able to do. 2012 was a difficult year, intensely creative in one respect in finishing the work on my novel, yet at the same time terribly traumatic as a close friend of mine committed suicide which had terrible repercussions on my own circumstances too. I have to take courage though in the fact that I was able to deliver my novel under such duress. So I’m slowly working towards a collection of stories that I hope will be out in 2014. It’ll feature previously published stories that I’ve re-worked but also new unpublished work too.
This interview was conducted with the support of FAPESP, as part of my post-doctoral research.
Writer, researcher, collector, Andrew Condous blended reality and fiction, literature and bibliophilia in his book Letters from Oblivion, focused on the Romanian publisher, specialized in avant-garde works of authors such as Gherasim Luca and Dolfi Trost, Les Éditions de L'Oubli. This is a exquisite work, a mixture of historical accounts, memoirs and fiction about real books and authors that seem coming out crazy fictional extrapolation and utopian books palpable as the matter of all dreams.
The early twentieth century avant-garde, in a way, established a utopian internationalist possibility, which contradicted some nationalist mythology grown strong since Romanticism. This possibility is evident in your book, as in the political obscurantist processes (the Fascism and the Stalinism) made it impossible the cultural universe in which the Romanian surrealism was a reality. In this sense, this element about another possible History in Europe, which led you to write Letters from Oblivion? If not, what would be the prime motivator?
The prime motivators initially were more simplistic before extending into exactly what you envisage.
One initial prime motivator was to produce an unprecedented historical account, an account where most of the factual events, locations and some of the publications were never before documented and to include some reference to people that have not been previously associated with the Romanian Surrealism movement. That is, to make the book a unique supplement to the history of Romanian Surrealism. Hence I purposely avoided including what was already known and documented apart from what was absolutely necessary to give relevant context. This historical account also served to renounce the assertion that Les Editions de L’Oubli was a fiction and to dispel the mystery surrounding this publisher. I was also motivated to highlight one particular author who was not directly within the Romanian Surrealism movement but had interactions with them and their publishers. An author who has been particularly neglected yet I predict this will change in the future. When I first discovered this author many years ago, it felt in a sense similar, I suspect, to what the French Surrealists experienced on their discovery of the works of the Comte de Lautréamont.
The other motivator is more personal. Some of the events referred to in Letters from Oblivion were in fact first hand witness accounts, relayed to me (with extreme passion) years ago by someone who was within Bucharest at the time and who interacted with the Romanian Surrealists, other writers within the Romanian avant garde and the publishers. He was astonished by the symbiotic relationship of the intense creativity and widespread destruction of war time Bucharest that marked the literary output of the time. I desired to document some of these accounts, in effect a form of anonymous memoir, and this book was the perfect medium for doing so.
Of course I also felt that there was a need to give some proper perspective on Les Editions de L'Oubli's relatively recent resurrection especially given the quality of the works being published pursuant to this second phase.
Letters from Oblivion has a very interesting and dynamic and intricate structure: it is the recovering of an editorial experience (Les Éditions de L'Oubli at Bucharest in the 1940s), indeed, but this does not restrict the plot only to a catalog function. Poetic and narrative flows coexist with the functionality of historiography. What guided you toward this synthesis?
There was a need to provide some texture and colour to the books in question and their contents, the atmosphere of the time and the personalities involved. Rather than simply inserting elaborate details about these aspects I thought it best to provide some fictional prose that attempts to reflect and condense these elements.
Importantly, the mix of fact and fiction is also a reflection of the incorrect perception people had of Les Editions de L’Oubli itself.
The brief and intense Les Éditions de L'Oubli period of production, both in terms of editorial and artistic excellence, would possess some parallel in Romania itself? There were other publishers and publishing traditions who have embarked on similar adventures?
On a general level I would include within the category of editorial and artistic excellence most of the publishers that were associated with the Romanian avant garde and some earlier lesser known movements that involved the Romanian Expressionists, Symbolists and Decadents both in terms of published books and journals/magazines. There are many publishers and journals that could be named (Unu and Alge are probably the most noted journal examples) and it is not limited to small publishers and would include some of the large publishers such as Socec. The various publishers in Craiova should also get a mention in particular during the period when restrictive publishing laws in Bucharest were put in place and enforced. Special mention should also be made for the magazines of the Romanian Symbolists especially those that are associated with Macedonski such as Flacara and Versuri si Proza.
Such editorial and artistic excellence in Romania has not ceased and an obvious example, (and I can assure you this is an objective view formed a few years ago) includes the publisher of Letters from Oblivion.
In Brazil, a group of avant-gardists – who called itself "anthropophagous" – overthrew picturesque view and the conventional exoticism applied to tropical countries, employing these two biased concepts as weapons for aesthetic production. Was there something analogous in the Romanian avant-garde production which you research, maybe something related to the Romanian geographical position "in the very the limits of the West"? How was the World view about notions of exotic and picturesque in authors such as Trost and Luca and when this kind of concept were eventually applied to them?
It is interesting you mention the “anthropophagous” and with reference to its core Group of Five members it immediately springs to mind some parallels with the Romanian Surrealist “Group of Five” even though their respective manifestos, pursuits, artistic/literary works and cultural contexts differ in material ways but not completely, especially in respect to some of the underlying theoretical influences of the respective groups (eg Breton, Freud, Picabia etc). A comparative analysis would make a complex yet interesting topic to explore.
I am unsure whether Romania's geographical position per se was a significant factor but rather the perception of its capital city, the perception that it was an exotic version or in a way the extravagant younger sibling of the grand city of Paris, "the Paris of the East" as it is commonly called. However within literature this comparison is relevant in many ways but not in terms of internationalisation of literature. Few Romanian authors, and this for example includes Tzara, Eliade, Cioran, Ionesco etc and also to a lesser extent some others like Luca, Naum, would be well recognised by the foreign readership. However most Romanian authors across all the various literary movements, and this includes the other members of the Romania Surrealism group, remain exotic. More generally, the western, exotic or picturesque aesthetics is evident for other avant gardists (e.g. constructivists, expressionists) like Scarlat Callimachi, Horia Bonciu, Aron Cotrus etc more so that the Romanian Surrealists.
To most foreigners, Romanian Surrealists as with the avant garde more generally and for that matter the city of Bucharest as well, continues to have a strange and bizarre allure, beauty and quality but to be revisited only occasionally as one would visit a museum to catch another glimpse of an intriguingly unusual, different and excitingly strange object.
Andre Breton once observed “the centre of the world has moved to Bucharest”. To me and some very few others outside of Bucharest, this “centre of the world” has not necessarily shifted in certain respects.
One of the facts that we noticed while reading your Letters is about the significance of building networks to the avant-garde cultural production in the Twentieth Century, with publishers and magazines constantly connecting authors, readers, reviewers, etc. In this sense, Les Éditions de L'Oubli is exemplary. To what do you attribute the success of this network of connections in the case of a Romanian small publishing house in the 1940s, during the Second World War?
The success here is very much attributable to the owner of the publishing house highlighted in Letters from Oblivion and his wife. It was this small team and their connections with the writers of the Romanian avant grade, printing presses, stationary suppliers, the postal system, the various "secret societies" that formed etc that allowed the publication and distribution of the works. With an extraordinary level of effort, stealth and ingenuity they accomplished what could be viewed as almost impossible. Certainly what they undertook was very brave especially within the context of an extremely dangerous and evolving environment. In addition it is important to acknowledge the preceding Romanian Symbolist movement (involving Minulescu, Macedonski, Maniu, Bacovia, etc) and the connections and structures they established which was an essential base for the interconnections that were evident during the subsequent avant grade period.
Although Gherasim Luca became a relatively well-known author, translated and published, the same is not true with many of his fellows (Trost, Teodorescu, etc.). In this sense, the language would not be an impediment, since Trost – as Luca – also wrote in French. What, in your opinion, was the reason for this unjust oblivion?''
Of the five Romanian Surrealists only Gherasim Luca and Gellu Naum have gained some form of international recognition. Dolfi Trost, Paul Paun and Virgil Teodorescu have remained relatively obscure. This is true. However, even in the case of Luca and Naum, their earlier works remain to some extent obscure or neglected. For example, in the case of Luca his pre-war works in particular have been subject to a surprising level of neglect. Almost all of these works are written in Romanian hence language may have had some influence. For instance, there are a number of extraordinary works written during the 1930's that were contained in the various journals and magazines of the time some of which have been completely forgotten (some of these journals are referred to in Letters from Oblivion particularly within the context of The Outlaw). A more obvious example is the relative obscurity of his first two publications, the infamous (at the time) Roman de Dragoste and Fata Morgana published in 1933 and 1937, respectively. However this theory that language may have been a factor is discounted by the attention afforded to his two Romanian books published by Editura Negatia Negatiei Negrata. In Luca's case (and also Naum) I would argue scarcity of the works in question as the main factor for neglect of the earlier works.
In the case of Dolfi Trost, the neglect afforded to him cannot be attributed to the language he used since (as with Luca) he predominately wrote in French during and post the Romanian Surrealism group period. Today he is predominately known for one or two artistic techniques rather than his writing (apart from the co-authorship of The Dialectic of Dialectic) which is unjust given the quality and importance of the works he produced (in particular those published by Les Editions de L'Oubli and Infra Noir). A possible reason could be that he lacked the level of connectivity within the Parisian circles that others such as Luca had. However this is relevant only to a limited extent especially given he published two works in the early 1950's in Paris (Visible et invisible and Librement mécanique). I think ultimately, Dolfi Trost's obscurity predominately relates to a combination of his decision to settle in the US and cease writing (unlike Luca who continued to write and publish in Paris until his death) and the scarcity of his early works published in Bucharest. It is my belief that Trost’s obscurity as a writer may have been significantly less if one particular extraordinary work mentioned in Letters from Oblivion that he co-authored with Luca did not “disappear”. [Note: the title of this book would be L'Invisibilite d'une reve, "The Invisibility of a Dream"].
Paul Paun and Virgil Teodorescu's neglect is most probably attributable to the fact that they never published outside Bucharest (with the exception of Paun's last work published in Israel) although again, scarcity of their earlier works would have some relevance. Virgil Teodorescu however would not be considered obscure within Romania given his ongoing output and decision to remain in Bucharest.
It is my sincere hope that the three neglected Romanian surrealists do become discovered and translated since their powerful works are an important contribution to the Surrealism movement. Arguably, Trost, Paun and Teodorescu had written at least one work that could possibly be designated to be amongst the masterpieces of Romanian avant garde literature in the first half of the last century.
Something in your book brought to my mind the narrative form of a documentary film – a fact recording, but also a meditated formal construction. This form makes your work a variance with the editorial line taken by Ex Occidente/Zagava Press, focused on fiction, though curiously keep a close relationship with other equally unique books in the catalog of this publishers (perhaps the best other example in this historical/fictional crossing ways could be At Dusk by Mark Valentine). Do you intends to retake this approach in future books? What are the possible subjects? Or try perhaps fiction?
Yes I do intend to take such an approach but in varied forms. Currently I am writing a faux essay incorporating the fiction and theoretical works of Maurice Blanchot pursuant to a future homage on this author to be edited by Dan Ghetu and Dan Watt and published by Zagava / Ex Occidente.
In addition I am also in the initial stages of a couple of other ambitious projects. One involves the topic of cross-fertilisation or cross-pollination of the European and Latin American avant garde and surrealism movements. In this work, each chapter will be dedicated to one Latin American or European author that was physically located at some stage in both Continents. It will be both a trans-continental historical survey and analysis but infused with a fictional account. As the book progresses, the level of obscurity of the author in question increases.
The most important and challenging book that I am working on will be the second volume dedicated again to the procurement or extrapolation from "Oblivion". It will consist, as a central concept, a unique and unprecedented approach to the works of Fernando Pessoa. It will be called "Fictions from Oblivion".
Below, a "entoptic" engraving ((in other words, a picture made from the color irregularities present on a sheet of paper) by Dolfi Trost, illustrating his book Vision dans le Cristal, Oniromancie obsessionelle (Et neuf graphomanies entoptiques), published by Les Éditions de L'Oublie in 1945.
During 2007, Romania joined the European Community. In a way, the last, true and correct statement, embodies one of those curious ironies of modernity because Romania has always been something like a nation off to the obvious central axis of whatever civilization, especially the orbit of the West. Starting with its language, whose core structure is derived from the Latin vocabulary and surrounded with other Slavic elements besides the Hungarian resonances – that many Romanians would say, not without reason, are barbaric. Perhaps because of this the early twentieth century avant-garde, when arrived in this distant country, were recognized as new forms of decentralization – ex nihilo, new languages, new possibilities of life and new continents arose in the picturesque and beautiful Bucharest. In order to explore this new universe that unfolded within a daily life with plenty policy fierce (and subsequently oppression), a publisher, Les Éditions de L'Oubli, appeared. In a very brief period of activity (1940-44) this publisher launch some art objects as a book form, pioneering works in incredible editions – authors directly linked to the Romanian surrealism, as Gherasim Luca, Dolfi Trost, and Virgil Teodorescu.
Perhaps an example could be useful: the first book published by Les Éditions whose title was Poema in Leoparda, written by Virgil Teodorescu with Dolfi Trost illustrations (using a technique discovered by him, the "stilamancie", which produced images similar to those employed in the Rorschach test). The two authors/illustrators unveil a wild and peninsular territory In this poem, inhabited by fantastic animals and complex mirages. This territory has, besides a cartography, a language – the poem has a bilingual shift between a phonetic language invented for the leopards, full of polysemic possibilities, and Romanian. Little remains of this unique book - the title page, some sections of the poem and two illustrations. The titles produced by Les Éditions have a melancholy fate that created a projection of these lost books in the free and wide field of imagination, which reappear as objects of dreams and nightmares, utopias evoked by the historical record that paradoxically feeds the myth and cheats oblivion. Indeed, the historical record, when articulated with skill and art, allows the reader to the establishment of relational webs that make the balance between myth and history even more complex. Thus, it can be stated that the Teodorescu/Trost Poem in Leoparda is near, for his phonetic construction poetry and imaginary invention in Imago Mundi style, to the Dadaists and Surrealists; but it is not absurd to imagine this work near to the unusual poetic and narrative forms like Los San Signos by the Argentine Xul Solar, another avant-gardist on the margin who invented a language.
In this sense, Letters from Oblivion by Andrew Condous (a mysterious character, much like the publish house that he seeks in the past) emerges as a powerful reading: a blend of historiographical surrender and esoteric novel that reworked the story of these mythical books. Thus, we follow Condous through the destiny of each published book and also those that existed only in project never materialized, with careful reconstruction of narratives, poetic creations and concepts this feverish production. The discourses of memory, history and fiction intersect but do not dissolve, maintaining some autonomy. There is no some deep historical context analysis of surrealism or avant-gardes in general. Also there is no Romania socio-political examination during the Second World War, when Les Éditions has been active. The central axis of Coundous is the publish house and its books, deviating the focus only at the end, in the long and elegiac chapter entitled "The Outlaw", which tells the fate of Victor Valeriu Martinescu, aka Dalombra (The Shadow), aka Marele Contemporan (The Great Contemporary), aka Haiduc (The Outlaw) aka VVM, the great Bucharest avant-garde articulator in the years 1930-40, as well as a Les Éditions propelling itself. Poet and illustrator/painter, his work has spread to various periodicals (including those belonging to the Romanian fascist group Iron Guard, which had terrible consequences to the author after 1947), published only one novel and a book of poems illustrated by him. The Stalinist oppression that crushed Romania reach Martinescu, who was arrested in 1947 at the Covasna station, the first main stop out of Bucharest. After intense interrogation, he was sent to the Jilava prison, where he spent some time confined in the infamous Chamber Zero. In this cell, whose name seems designed by a science fiction pulp author, there were only beds and a powerful central bem of light that prevented the strange comfort provided by darkness. Sentenced to death, was pardoned and released in 1964. Then he lived thirty years, mostly in Bucharest, communicating with his Surrealist group friends and maybe writing texts that have been lost or ignored, in some secret place. His death in 1994, remains a mystery. Seems understandable this choice, the biographical final chapter for a book about a publish house whose production today is almost invisible – Martinescu somehow materialized in his life and death the progress of the Les Éditions books, a destination that remains open for all and any Work of Art in the vast world and somehow for every one of us.
Letters from Oblivion is a carefully crafted book: a purple jacket shows the title, author and other information because the book itself, made of purple fabric contains no marking or information. The internal art – photographs and illustrations – as well as the typography is exquisite, the usual in the Dan Ghetu and Jonas Ploeger editions, which recovers in the twenty first century the name and tradition of Les Éditions de L'Oubli. This is a mysterious object without its protective covering, a distinctive feature of the new Les Éditions releases. The two publishers (from Bucharest and Dusseldorf) dedicate themselves to the unusual, poetic, complex, contradictory and decentered. Hopefully this partnership will be much longer and less painful than its first incarnation.
In the Ex Occidente Press – a publish house with some works by D. P. Watt in its catalogue – web site, unfortunately nowadays deactivated, we found a small, but subtle and intriguing description about the author: “D.P. Watt is a writer living in the bowels of England. He balances his time between lecturing in drama and devising new ‘creative recipes’, ‘illegal’ and ‘heretical’ methods to resurrect a world of awful literary wonder. Recent appearances with Ex Occidente Press include his collection, An Emporium of Automata, in 2010, and tales in both Cinnabar’s Gnosis and The Master in Café Morphine. His first fiction collection, Pieces for Puppets and Other Cadavers (InkerMen Press) was first published in 2006 and reprinted in 2010.” The Watt’s fiction, in which the usual or unusual object appears as an element of amazement and uncanny, is very close to the heretical and illegal, in fact. The first steps in this unsound but fascinating universe can be followed at his Interlude House.
Your fiction (I take as an example your The Ten Dictates of Alfred Tesseller, a wonderful novella full of transformations), has an ingenious structure, in which there are moments when the reality seems stable with moments of full transfiguration – that's the best word I can find for your fiction effect –, with several elements of that reality changed in new and complex forms. This process/mechanism is the narrative itself, in same way. Surrealism seems to be the initial reference, but not the only one. There is a shift to the free form narrative, more freer than what we see in some cyclical narratives like in Alain Robbe-Grillet, but your narrative reserves a clear plan, far from cut ups or free association that we found in William S. Burroughs. Could you comment a little bit about this process of composition and the references that uses in it?
It is difficult to comment on Tesseller, as this novella is a very particular case. There I was attempting to experiment with different perspectives of narrative from a position of flux. The being narrating it is engaged with the reader directly, claiming to have known them in youth, but also they are our connection to Tesseller, himself a consciousness in flight, beyond the grave. Each section is driven by its attempt to create that sense of another transformation without losing the overall coherence of the plot around Tesseller. In parts it succeeds, in others it becomes a little mired in some of the more poetic aspects I was trying to introduce. The transformation of reality is important to me, yes, but this comes, in many ways, more from the theatre than it does from literature. The process of composition changes with each story, and I have no particular allegiance to any movement, nor indeed anything as well-formed as a technique that I can deploy. My writing seems now to be more driven by scenes that emerge as I am working. Sometimes these can develop relatively coherently and chronologically, at other points they are very separate and can take many months to piece together, sometimes even swapping over from one story to another.
I mentioned in the previous question, the terms "ingenious structure" and "mechanism" and, in certain way, your fiction seems fascinated by these elements. But it seems to me that your focus is not gigantic engineering works, openly devouring humans (which we see in certain fiction of the 1970s, as the mobile city in the novel The Inverted World by Christopher Priest or the highway infernal maze in J. G. Ballard's Concrete Island), but the works with subtle engineering, the smaller scale employed to deceive the perception postulated by everyday reality: the effects of prestidigitation, the cinematographer, the praxinoscope, automata, ventriloquist puppets, etc. What would be the source of this fascination?
Yes, this is right. I am not that interested in timeless monsters from the nether regions of space or zombie apocalypses—although they can be fun. I find there are far too many monsters and apocalyptic tendencies within each of us. I am interested in how the ‘everyday reality’ you mention and those smaller moments contribute to a larger effect though. The strange, weird, supernatural, whatever you would like to call it, is happening all around us. Not as a manifestation of something, or somewhere, else, but rather as an example of our own otherness; those hidden and devious methods through which we manipulate, control, hurt and subjugate others. Puppets, vent dummies, magic tricks etc. are means by which to explore self-deception through that sliding, fading, or failing perception of the world. As I mentioned above it is the world of performance that has influenced me more than anything—Strindberg’s Dream Play, Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Gordon Craig’s uber-marionette and Kantor’s bio-object. In the puppet theatre and the carnival, or fairground, we find an alternate reality that seeks so hard to entertain through showmanship; just by twisting the performative slightly one can distort the real and explore our relationship to those things that we seem to find so fascinating and frightening; sex, death and nostalgia (or dreams). That all sounds very grand. It is not meant to be—quite the opposite in fact. It is from these minor, devalued things, slight experiences, supposedly unimportant ‘entertaining’ events, that I think fiction can comment upon the world with humour—by disrupting the real, playfully and experimentally.
In this sense, the cinema seems to occupy an interesting place: the moving picture appears to broaden the infinite possibilities of deception and this is replicated in your fiction. I have in mind, in this regard, especially your short story "Dr. Dapertutto's Saturnalia". This impression has some basis? In this sense, what author or cinema style often useful as your inspiration?
I’m intrigued there by your use of the word deception in relation to cinema. It seems to me that writing is also manipulative and it must be aware of the timeframe it operates in just as much as cinema. This is what interests me most about the relationship between author and reader. As much as you may work at the pace of writing it cannot deliver this in the same manner as a work for the screen. Pace might be manipulated in minor ways, perspectives shift back and forth, but it requires more control and patience to generate something that is not simply a confused wreck. Film can, as in many ways the theatre can too, always rely upon its visual aspects to further control meaning and, as you say, “deceive". Where lengthy descriptive elements in fiction intervene they can be either revelatory or calamitous, by that I mean unnecessarily disruptive, especially in short fiction. The form of film work that most interests me is animation, especially the works of makers such as Starewicz, Barta, Svankmajer, Norstein and the Quays. Its artifice is obvious, its materials frequently poor; rubbish, broken wood, discarded toys, rusted metals, meat, dust and dirt. From this they elaborate magical transformations through a painfully slow process.
Charles Patin, in his letters to the Duke of Brunswick, describes a magic lantern show, patenting the famous phrase "l'art trompeur" to characterize this strange spectacle in which convergent images "rolling about in the darkness". That expression reminds me quite your fiction, in which visual and descriptive elements seems essential as structuring the plot, however these visual artifacts soon proves fallacious. How about the relationship between visual, descriptive and literal elements in your narratives? You use some visual procedure (image or object found, for example) in preparation?
Often the writing starts from a particular object, or image. At the moment I am very interested in cartes-de-visite and have just completed a story, "By Nature’s Power Enshrined", based upon a chance find of a particular card. The staged environment of the early photographic studio fascinates me. The patience to produce something quite akin to a painting, and the careful balance of components that give meaning, such as the backdrops, the props etc. Now that we merrily snap away every second of our lives and then distribute the images widely to those we know neither well, nor closely, seems to lose some of the care of the staged image. I suppose a scene in a story also goes through processes of ‘rolling about in the darkness’, both in the mind of the writer and the reader. Its coming to clarity is not guaranteed on either side. If it survives as an image that intrigues and provokes thought, much as the magic lantern, then that may well be enough. There is certainly nothing as elaborate, or controlled, as a procedure. Sometimes an object, or image, may be too close or too known, and that can be difficult to work with. I prefer things that call a little to be reworked, or explored, through a piece of writing.
One of his last works, published by Egaeus Press, was this narrative piece about the transfiguration of the Mr. Punch, this strange and curious theatrical plot on violence and crime for children. In fact, it seems to me that your fictional universe is very close to the spirit of this ancient popular work. Your approach to the ancient sources is often more intuitively, transforming them into symbols, or you prefer an approach based on historical research and some archeology?
Yes, Mr Punch is close to me, as are all puppets, but there is something especially enduring about the way that Punch has travelled, popping up in his various guises around the place. His violence speaks of the drive to become oneself, at the expense of other selves, and maybe some of my stories explore that tension between an ethical compulsion to eradicate self and the relentless urge to make one’s presence known to the world. Certainly there is historical research, but again this occurs rather chaotically and I attempt rather to draw out, maybe ‘intuitively’, maybe through ‘symbols’, those aspects of a particular historical incident, life, or span of culture, that—through fiction—might be seen to be grotesque versions of our reality.
Are there any plans in adapting your work for the cinema or another audiovisual, theatrical or multimedia expression?
There are no current plans for adaptations of my work in any format. Well, nobody has approached me about it anyway! I would enjoy seeing some short films of stories, especially those that might evoke some of the strangeness of objects that has always fascinated me.
As a final question, it would be interesting to know the authors, past and present, that you admire or consider important for the construction of your narrative style.
When I began writing prose I attempted something along the lines of Beckettian narratives, but without any of the skill to extract and edit to the point of absolute purity of expression. At the point that I relaxed and no longer attempted to emulate the works of those I admired I think I began to enjoy reading again—when it was no longer about learning, but appreciating the work for what it did, rather than how I might attempt to deploy it. Given that, I wouldn’t know where to start in charting what might be important in how my narrative style has developed from other authors. Perhaps it is enough simply to cite some of those authors whose work has particularly struck me. My main interests focus upon European writers, particularly E.T.A. Hoffmann, Maurice Blanchot, Stefan Grabinski, Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz. My interest in “weird" writers is fairly predictable, including Arthur Machen, Robert Aickman, Sarban and M. John Harrison. There are so many contemporary writers whose work I have been enjoying, including Michael Cisco, Jonathan Wood and Derek John’s work in particular.
This interview was conducted with the support of FAPESP, as part of my post-doctoral research.
mong the narrative tools universe, the dialogue stands as one of the most complex and fertile: this interaction between the characters through communication devices (immediate or not) allows the oscillation between the said and the unsaid, expressed and hidden, true and false, intentionality and involuntary. At the same time, the dialogue connects the flow of human existence in narrative terms mimicking the numerous discussions that impart (or not) our existence with meaning. The drama, no doubt, places this tool at its center, but it arises in other conceptions of plot; for example, the philosophical dialogue since Plato, who knew how to put the dialogue in the service of philosophical exposition and irony, the element that dialogue facilitates and enhances. In this sense, the playwright, biographer, short story writer and novelist Reggie Oliver captures both the theatrical tradition and the use of dialogue as a tool to improve the irony impact, and it is one of the most skilled contemporary writers using the powerful tool of dialogue in his plots. Accomplished atmosphere builder both in short stories (in collections like The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini or The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler, both by Tartarus Press) and romances (The Dracula Papers, Book I: The Scholar’s Tale by Chômu Press and Virtue in Danger by Ex Occidente and Zagava Press) endow his ghostly plots of fierce urgency and complexity – unfortunately rare in contemporary literature.
The theatrical universe arises in many of your stories, some like elements essential to the atmosphere and ambience. However, there are plots such as, for example, "The Black Cathedral" or "Evil Eye" which, although far of that theatre atmosphere had some theatrical aspects and complex scenes. It seems to me that in this sense, the dialogues appear as the key element in such a process, the dialogue as the way to the revelation small or big details. You could talk about how is the development of dialogues in your plots.
I began my writing career as a playwright, although I was writing prose fiction as well, but my first professionally published works were plays. I have continued to write plays and have had some success also with translations or adaptations of French plays. What I enjoy about the use of dialogue is that it can show or suggest without stating. This sets up a relationship with the reader who can pick up on what is happening without being told. To give a simple example. I could say simply X was very angry but pretended not to be. Or I could suggest it by dialogue by having Y saying: “You’re not angry, are you?” And X saying: “No, I’m not angry! Of course not! I’m not angry at all.” That way, you not only make the scene more alive, you manage to suggest all sorts of things without spelling it out, like X’s irritability, his hypocrisy, his possible self-deception etc. etc. It is a primary principle with me that readers should be given the space to have their own views of events, to work things out for themselves. In “Evil Eye” which, as you perceptively point out has theatrical reverberations, I was concerned with ideas about spectators and participants. A spectator merely by spectating can alter the character of what happens. Perhaps one could go so far as to say that there are no such things as spectators, only active or passive participants.
Also, the theatre universe appear as a backdrop for some of your stories seems so detailed to the reader that suggest a profound experience with such a universe, a deep knowledge about the daily out of scenes dramas and questions. It is a reflection of your personal and professional experiences, or a matter of search/retrieval literary backstage narratives and plots? In any case, what about the maturation process and research in plots like “The Copper Wig” or “The Skins”?
My mother was an actress and I grew up around theatres. I have always loved everything about the theatre, particularly this interplay between illusion of reality. Stories are derived partly from my own experience, partly from stories I have picked up from my mother or old actors and actresses I have worked with. Performers, when not acting, are great story tellers. For example “The Copper Wig” which is set in the 1890s, derives from a number of sources. I talked with various actors who had been in the profession before this first world war and they gave me odd little details which bring the story to life, like the theatrical Sunday trains which were often met by theatrical landladies touting for custom. The detail about lying in bed in the morning and listening to the clatter of clogs on cobble stones as the mill workers went to the factory I got from my mother. On the other hand the copper wig itself I got from my own experience. I once shared a dressing room with a bald old actor who had a variety of wigs which he had neatly arranged on wig blocks, looking, from the back, like a row of neatly severed heads. The one that particularly fascinated me was a bright copper colour which gleamed under the strong dressing room lights. “The Skins” derives partly from playing the “skins” part in pantomime of King Rat in Dick Whittington, partly from the memory of a husband and wife variety act I once worked with. I am interested in the “quiet desperation” of most lives lived in the theatre: not the stars who achieve fame and success but the moderately talented people who just keep going. I am interested in how we bear our own mediocrity.
One of your stories that impressed me most was "The Boy in Green Velvet", because there is in it a universe of suggestions which we have only a vague perception, a human vileness so terrible in which the supernatural element appears only as a catalyst. The same impression astonishing, indeed, I had to read another of your flawless narratives towards construction aspects, "The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini". Both plots, moreover, using unreal objects or almost unreal (paper theatre toy, memories of a lost book) in the construction of the narrative. In your opinion, this suggestive effects would rises from the objects in the scenery? As a note, when I visited the Benjamin Pollock's Toy Shop in Covent Garden, his short story "The Boy in Green Velvet" appeared, materialised before my eyes.
The toy theatre – a very English phenomenon, though it has been picked up on the continent – has always fascinated me. I think it was because of the very peculiar and strange world it evoked of 19th century theatre before the advent of “realism”. In “The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini” I used various manuscripts and documents to give us a glimpse into worlds very different from ours, strange and terrible ones, which throw back a strangely distorted image of our reality. Human beings can be very responsible for the world in which they live: the worlds of Alfred Vilier and Cardinal Vittorini in “The Boy in Green Velvet” and “The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini” respectively are fearsome and not like our own, I hope, but they have the power to infect our world, and this is interesting to me. A persistent theme in my stories, very much taken from life, is the way people with powerful egos can, if one is not careful, take over another person’s life.
What difference do you feel in terms of building between shorter and longer plots, like the tales of the collections by Tartarus Press and the novels like Virtue in Danger (whose subtitle is quite suggestive, The Metaphysical Romance)? Have you any preference among these formats?
My tendency has been towards the form of the longer short story or the novella in which there are several “acts” but where a single theme or image can be held to without tiring out the reader. In my two novels The Dracula Papers and Virtue in Danger I have created a world, a microcosm, in which the events occur. In the case of Virtue in Danger I have created quite a narrow and circumscribed world – the headquarters in Switzerland of a religious “cult”, but to populate it I have created a large cast of characters and a wide range of action from tragic to farcical. The short story is the most powerful medium for evoking a mood, an atmosphere, a character. In the longer form of the novel that mood or atmosphere becomes dissipated or simply too oppressive for the reader. Chekhov, Maupassant and Walter de la Mare, to name three of the greatest short story writers of all time, are all masters of mood and atmosphere.
You seem comfortable in working with phantasmagorical elements associated with contemporary gadgets, from TVs to video-game consoles, which is curious because many imaginative contemporary authors (as Mark Valentine or D. P. Watt, for example) seem to prefer older gadgets or objects of another nature. How did this your resourcefulness with these new phantasmagoria objects?
I believe in a metaphysical realm. I prefer the word metaphysical to supernatural because I do not see it as somehow “super”, that is above nature, but rather working “meta” alongside the physical world. In my view it is a living reality, and therefore just as likely to emerge from a computer as from an ancient grimoire. Modern technology moreover is constantly trespassing on the ancient world of magic. A few hundred years ago something like a television would have been seen as a “magical” and deeply sinister object. Equally Dr Dee’s “scrying stone” might be looked on by us as a kind of primitive television. All technology, moreover, is a two edged sword. The surveillance equipment, for example, in “Evil Eye” can be used for good or, in the case of the story, utterly malign purposes and can therefore be imbued with the evil of its abusers.
In your most recent novel, Virtue in Danger, there is a quasi-religious movement and a rich row of characters, both seem emerging from a film by Luis Buñuel. Some critics, as D. F. Lewis, speech in some Hitchcockian ambience and complexities in this novel as well. Could you talk about the building of this characters in particular? Is there any cinematographic influences?
Interesting you should say that because I have also written Virtue in Danger as a film script. It’s promising but far too long and I am consulting with people who are more expert in film than I about it. I naturally see story cinematically - in other word in “scenes” with close-ups, wide shots, montages, “dissolves” and the like. When writing for me really works it is often like simply describing and transcribing the dialogue from a film showing in my head. Many of the characters in this book are very loosely derived from actual historical figures most of whom I never met. But I got an impression of them from their writings and anecdotes about them told by people who met them. The key for me with characters is always speech. If I can hear them talking, then I know they have come alive. With the central character of Bayard, for example, it was that weird mixture of public school heartiness and quasi-religious pietism in his speech which unlocked his character and its inherent contradictions. People often inadvertently reveal most about themselves when they are being insincere.
One of the elements that makes your stories remarkably is undoubtedly your work in graphic illustrations that dialogue with the fictional universe of the text. In this sense, moreover, is not just to “enlighten” the text, but use the visual element as a meaning boost to the expressed in the plot. In this sense, how is your illustration construction work? You write the story and then leans over to synthesis it in images or vice versa?
The image is always made afterwards when the story is complete. The business of making illustrations for the story collection is done when all the stories are written and a table of contents drawn up. I enjoy doing the drawings very much because I can listen to music while working on them. I cannot possibly listen to music while writing. I never make the drawings simple illustrations of an event in the story; rather they are an impressionistic rendering of one or more of the story’s images. They therefore provide a reflection on, or an insight into the story. Here is my idea of the story, I am saying. It may give you a further insight, but it is not definitive; it is no more valid than yours, the reader’s. The chief means for understanding the story should be the reader’s imagination; my drawings are simply a little additional spy hole onto it. I have come to value them increasingly as part of the experience over the years, and I am aware that they have helped to distinguish me from others working in the genre!
The irony is an effect that seems to me to arise from varied and complex ways in your short stories and novels. The way it appears, for example, in “The Golden Basilica”, “Lapland Nights” or “The Complete Symphonies of Adolf Hitler” is almost like the philosophical work towards the destruction of apparent meanings towards new possibilities – something close to the idea of irony in Kierkegaard for example, that stated about the “life worthy of man” starting by the irony. The effect of irony in his plots possess an imaginative or philosophical source?
Jules Renard in his journal wrote: “Irony does not dry up the grass. It just burns off the weeds.” I agree. Irony is the conscious expression of a realisation that there exists a gap between human illusion and reality. No truly serious writer can lack a sense of irony, but that should not preclude compassion. We should be aware of the “vanity of human wishes” and the emptiness of most human achievement, but this should not prevent us from feeling sad about it. “Life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel,” wrote Horace Walpole. To a writer it should be both tragedy and comedy, and often simultaneously. To put it another way, both detachment and empathy are necessary. My aunt, the novelist and poet Stella Gibbons, would often discuss these ideas with me. She derived this from her reading of the writer she most admired, Marcel Proust.
Is there any interest in you towards the creation of imaginative/strange/weird fiction for theatre or film, for example? How would you believe his plots will work in audio-visual or theatrical fields?
There is. I began life after all as a playwright. It is an area which I hope to explore more fully in the coming years.
This interview was conducted with the support of FAPESP, as part of my post-doctoral research.
Mark Valentine is a remarkable author who works the contemporary tradition of a kind fiction whose name is legion – fantastic, imaginative, visionary, weird, strange, uncanny, supernatural and so on. He is also had biographical works about important contemporary writers of imaginative fiction (Arthur Machen and Sarban), a scholar of the fantastic genre at the magazine Wormwood and blog Wormwoodiana. Valentine built a fictional universe full of details, filigree and subtle shifts of everyday reality in books like Secret Europe (with John Howard), At Dusk (both by Ex Occidente Press) and Seventeen Stories (Swan River Press). It is not absurd to say that this elegant fiction would be dredged by the attraction power of poetry, and it is possible to see in one of his latest books, Star Kites (Tartarus Press).
One of your latest books is a volume of poetry, Star Kites. The poems presented in the book have a tendency to disintegration of elements on the perception of reality – objects, shapes, even raw materials like marble – seemingly simple but impenetrable (as in the poem with the so suggestive title, "Marble"). This effect was obtained without tricks like objets trouvé or another surrealist intervention. Moreover, this work with the object seems inscrutable feed your creation as a writer. Could you talk a little about your relationship with this usual object, with the same matter, which suddenly turns into a fantastic element, unstable and unpredictable.
In my childhood, toy marbles were usually not made of marble, but of glass: real marbles were very highly regarded. Nevertheless, though of glass, they were still shining talismans. In the poem “Marbles”, I try to evoke what these “little beautiful lost planets” meant to me as a first sign of wonder. The swirls in the marbles were mysterious: their colours were a delight. The game involved, of course, rolling these precious spheres along the gutter, to try to strike against your rival’s marble, which meant you won it from them. So there was always an edge of peril and a chance of plunder: you might at any moment lose your own favourite or gain another. And there were other risks: your marble might, as it rolled, disappear down a drain forever. So to this boy’s mind, beauty and wonder were also fraught with fragility and loss. But that did not stop the game, any more than we, mirrors of wonder, can avoid the dust.
There is a noted quote by Arthur Machen to the effect that we are made for wonder, for the contemplation of wonder, and it is only taken from us by our own frantic folly. He also noted that “All the wonders lie within a stone’s throw of King’s Cross”, a busy railway station. He did not mean, of course, there was anything special about this area of London: he meant that “all the wonders” may be found anywhere. And so I have found: when we take the chance to stop and look, then a stone, a leaf, a shadow, rust, moss, rainwater, can seem to us strange and beautiful. There are also moments, rare enough, where what we see seems to tremble on the edge of becoming something else: as Pessoa said, “everything is something else besides”. I try in my writing to suggest these things, as best as I can.
In the second part of Star Kites there is a work of recovery, and reconstruction, of the poetry traditions (and the poets as well, in the verge of the narrative representing some kind of authentic seer or metaphysical witness in the World) represented by a sort of opaque language (Esperanto to Portuguese, represented by two great authors of modernity in Portuguese, Fernando Pessoa and Florbela Espanca) and style (Ernst Stadler, known as German Expressionism prototype recovered in its most symbolic and mystical) to the point of view of usual reader. Not exactly a translation, but a task of essential and singular visions recovery of these authors, expressed in the poems. Thus, this part of Star Kites brought to mind the stories about poets of your At Dusk. Was there really a relationship, a joint project between the two books? As observation or curiosity, I add that "The Ka of Astarakahn" was one of the best stories I've read in 2012.
Yes, both At Dusk and the versions in Star Kites come from the same inspiration, the modernist poetry of the first half of the 20th century. I think that even the most canonical figures in this field can be too little-known amongst English-speaking readers. Those who are further out, on the horizons, are even less known, and yet there is so much to discover here, so much subtle, strange, visionary work.
I wrote the versions in Star Kites first, as a way of getting to know the work better: the act of translation is also an act of homage and respect. I am sure that other, better, versions than mine could be made, but quite a few of these poems had never been translated at all, so at least I have made a start. Then, after these, At Dusk is an experiment in a new form. Most of the passages mingle my own phrases, attempted epitomies of the poets, with allusive (rather than direct) quotations. This was an attempt to try something different in the way of "translation" in the broadest sense - the next step further on from the idea of "versions". As with the selections in Star Kites, I chose poets both from the acknowledged canon of modernist poetry and from further out: lesser known poets and lesser known languages. Many of those I chose were cosmopolitan in outlook, using several languages, and choosing (or being forced into) exile: their very lives and work question the validity of nationalism. The modernist poet has no nation but the library, and no language except the images of the spirit, glimpsed.
Another front of your fictional creations was, apparently, the empire's twilight: there is in many of his narratives attempting to retrieve a particular universe, these crepuscular atmosphere of empires in the early twentieth century, notably the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Tales like "The Dawn at Tzern", for example, capture something of the atmosphere of this fascinating historical moment on the edge of the World War catastrophe, orderly and traditional, but carrying unthinkable chaos in its structure. Tell me a bit about your job in recreating this historic moment, if would be some consult to historians texts, for example (or, if it is the case, movies, photos, etc.) essential in recreating that subtle feeling.
There has been a tendency for history to be viewed from the centre, the capital. In “The Dawn at Tzern”, I asked myself how the news of the death of the very long-lived Emperor of Austria-Hungary would be received further out, on the edges of the Empire, in some remote village. I wondered both how the news would reach the village and what effect it would have. The story tries to explore this through several characters: the diligent postmaster, the radical cobbler, an exiled priest (for what other sort would be sent here?), and soldiers in retreat from the war. The visionary youth Mishael is a shadow thrown by one of the three Jewish youths condemned by Nebuchanezzar to the fiery furnace, who came out unscathed, due to angelic protection. He is still safeguarded, but he remembers his protector in a changed way, as a form from Jewish folklore, a strange great bird. The story tries to convey the different ways open to the dying empire; duty, faith, magic, revolution, retreat. The details are mostly imagined, but it has a little of the influence of Bruno Schulz's story "Spring" and Herman Hesse's novel "Demian". Of course, I do not say it aspires to these.
In the previous questions I mentioned historical issues about universes and unique traditions rebuild or evocation, in fact, this is an important facet in your work as a whole, I think. In this sense, your work as a biographer (of authors such as Arthur Machen and Sarban) and as an editor and critic (in the journal Wormwood) would be directly related, would impact their sphere of fictional production or the reverse would be correct?
Yes, I was once asked why I devoted time to forgotten authors when I might be writing fiction instead. The answer is that the two fields often work well together. For example, my story “The 1909 Proserpine Prize” imagines a strange episode in the judging of an Edwardian literary prize for dark fiction, partly inspired by my reading of such work. Also, I like to write pieces where the line between story and essay is not always clear. “White Pages” seems to be about a series of authentic Edwardian novelty books issued by a certain publisher, which were mostly ways of making books of blank pages seem more interesting and exciting. Almost everything in the piece is factual, drawing on my research here, but there is a slight turn towards the end which changes the essay into a story. I may also add that when I am writing about a lost or forgotten author, and dwelling upon their life and work, it often seems that some unseen presence or semblance of the author is about, as if they are keen to see their story is told.
There is a type of character that you worked a few times: the detective in themes about the occult and the supernatural (for example, Ralph Tyler and the Connoisseur, in collaboration with John Howard). However, your narratives constructed around these character types retain the visions and obsessions that could be found in many of his plots and poems. Apart from the obvious references and tributes, which would be more around these occult detectives peculiar that you invented? Are the narratives based in some historical events, facts and people?
The Ralph Tyler stories, which were mostly written in the Nineteen Eighties, are usually set in my home county of Northamptonshire, an unregarded area, essentially a crossing place. They sometimes draw on authentic local history and folklore, but more often the inspiration is the landscape. It has rightly been noticed that this country reveals its mysteries more to the dweller than the visitor: for on the surface it seems pleasant but unremarkable. When I grew up there I would often walk or cycle along lonely lanes to remote villages, and I hope some of my sense of this “lost domain” might have found its way into the stories. The Connoisseur stories, by contrast, often have beneath them the idea that certain properties may be found in art or craft that will offer us a hint of the numinous or magical, and that these may be found at times in everyday objects too. The effect of sunlight or shadow can transform how we see a piece, and I sometimes wonder if there are other transformations possible too, either in how we see, or in how something is.
A famous partnership in crime fiction (and film as well) was that of french authors Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, creators of plots that gave rise to such films as Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and Henri-Georges Clouzot Les diaboliques (1955). The partnership between of the two authors worked as follows: Boileau came with the plots and Narcejac, atmosphere and characterization. In the case of The Connoisseur, I believe that the way to creating was another, was not? How did working in partnership with John Howard?
The first volume of Connoisseur stories, In Violet Veils, was written alone. In the second volume, Masques & Citadels, there were two of the stories, one about interwar Romania and the other about the first crossing of Spitsbergen (Svalbard), where I had made a good start but did not see how to go on. John was able to rescue the stories. This worked so well that we shared all subsequent stories in the series, so that John is rightly now a co-creator of the character. We also wrote a shared volume, Secret Europe, set among the cities and remoter places of interwar Europe: however, in this case, the stories were written individually and are simply published together. John has also, of course, published several volumes of his own work, most recently Written in Daylight (The Swan River Press, Dublin), which ought to be read by anyone who enjoys subtle, finely-shaded supernatural fiction.
Are you working on some new narrative or project (there are many characters and plots like The Connoisseur or the poets life of At Dusk that would be fantastic in the Movies) at the moment? Talk about some of your future plans.
I don’t know very much about film. I have never owned a television and rarely go to the cinema. Among current projects, a few turns of chance have recently led me back to some sound recordings I did in the early Nineteen Eighties. I was much impressed then by the do-it-yourself spirit of new wave: like many others, I published a zine and wrote for others, and issued my own tapes and contributed to others. That restless sense of just getting on and making things, even if you weren’t trained or proficient, has probably been a great influence. Recently, an experimental musician has been working on pieces based on crude reed organ tunes I recorded then: and a field recording I made (with others) of the sea and a lighthouse foghorn in West Cornwall has been broadcast regularly on an online radio station. I’m also started to look at old, time-stained book covers as a form of abstract art: how the chance markings can seem to have mysterious forms. With my wife Jo, under our Valentine & Valentine imprint, we’re also issuing handmade books of pieces that wouldn’t find larger publication: rare lost literature, translations, obscure essays and prose sketches.
This interview was conducted with the support of FAPESP, as part of my post-doctoral research.
This short narrative had a curious name, "The New Fate" – is it possible a new version of a fate? So, the cryptic nature of the story arises from the title. About the author, Jonathan Wood, I know nothing unless this is your first book (previously there are only some participations in compilations) and its publisher, Ex Occidente Press from Bucharest, published one of the most beautiful books I've ever had in my hands. Typography, design and workmanship of the edition are tastefully decorated, with interesting details: the book cover is a fabric, probably a type of plush, reminiscent of the animal, warm and soft to the touch. In fact, the whole collection which The New Fate belongs, titled "The Last Thinkers", has this level of artistic book mastery (the series motto had this feral and subtly acuteness: "The Seer is Never Thanked").
Besides the beauty of the book, the narrative itself, patiently fabricated by Wood, is extraordinary: part philosophical digression, part fantastic tale, part hallucination or dream, we see a bestiality that throughout the narrative proves to be the Nazism, transfixed from a singular point of view, the delirium. We follow a hallucinatory perspective in a work of expansion of the usual meaning to the concept of Doppelgänger by moving the point of view of the same for the otherness, the threatening spectrum had its gravity displaced to the viewpoint of the other. The outcome reminds us that totalitarianism, whatever its range and even when supposedly declares the triumph of the myth and the supernatural, is only a destructive force to the myth and the supernatural, preventing the possible interactions with the Other, the most powerful fuel to the myth continuous reconfiguration. One side of the double, Pieter, seduced by the fierce routine of the totalitarianism universe; his double, the second " I" that is Karl (or Klaus) however, had the perception of this new reality reacting in a simple and emotive (perhaps disturbed and disturbing) way. The plot also has strong resonance in speculative and philosophical knowledge arena, focused on a philosophical experience that not only reflected in the description of concepts but includes the visionary aspect of a dissonant being-in-world. The complexity of concentric comings and goings (one of the recurring images of the plot is the spring , the spiral) not detract from the powerful outcome of something moving. This is one of the best narratives of our newborn century, something that can not be questioned.