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).