An Interview with Chloe Aridjis
With the recent publication of Asunder, her second novel, Chloe Aridjis has reaffirmed her status as a painter of estranged atmospheres, of disrupted tones and latent fears. Asunder, a beautiful novel which subtly weaves together the life of a museum warder to that of Mary Richardson, the Canadian suffragette who famously slashed Diego Velazquez's Rokeby Venus, comes to confirm what many of us had already intensely felt while reading her first novel, Book of Clouds. Not only is Aridjis a talented writer -- a hypnotic writer, as Junot Díaz has so well pointed out -- but, more than that, she writes with the gracefulness of those artists who remain unaware of their talent.
Both of her novels remain subtle explorations into the ways in which the familiar fabric of reality can be disrupted by the historical irruption of a spectral past. Working within the legacy of W.G. Sebald, with whom she shares more than the melancholic tone that has come to characterize the prose of some of his recent disciples, her novels achieve what many try without success: they grasp the latent violence that palpitates behind our familiar present. With the publication of her second novel as an excuse, we sat down in a small coffee shop in East London to talk about some of the recurrent themes that characterize her writing: the influence of history and art, her fascination with the spectral qualities of the city, as well as her academic background, her globetrotting years, and her decision to finally settle in London.
Your first novel, Book of Clouds, deals with the historical aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In your second novel, Asunder, you return your gaze to history, this time under the pretext of reconsideration of the figure of Mary Richardson: the Canadian suffragette who in 1914 slashed Velazquez's Rokeby Venus. Your novels, however, are not historical novels. Rather than representing history, they seem more interested in sketching historical atmospheres. How do you see, work, and think this relationship between history and literature?
With Book of Clouds the more I worked on the novel, the more Berlin became a character, and the more it encroached on the character's psyche. In the case of each narrator, Tatiana in Book of Clouds and Marie in Asunder, they tend to resist spectres from the past -- at least at first. In Book of Clouds it isn't until T has been in Berlin for five years, until she starts working for the historian who comes to embody the past [for her] and the many things she has been resisting, that she starts stumbling on materializations of what she's been transcribing. With Marie, who works as a warder at the National Gallery, she has been working there for years and what she has inherited in this case has less to do with collective history than with the legacy of her great-grandfather who was a warder there decades before.
In any case, I would describe both as psychological novels with mental atmospheres somehow impregnated or overcast with the weight of the past, felt at certain moments within the spaces through which each character moves. For both novels my main work process was to wander the streets of Berlin or the rooms of the museum with a notebook and seek places where I detected some sort of tension or site of disturbance, and pause there to imagine what effect it could have on the character's psychology. I've never been interested in writing historical novels. I am more interested in focusing on one modern individual's relationship to the past -- and to myth -- on a very personal, almost visceral level.
Also in relation to the theme of history so prevalent in your novels, I wanted to ask you about the presence of the spectral. Asunder begins with a very beautiful epigraph related to spectrality: "If one hundred dogs bark at a phantom, the phantom becomes reality." Your novels, I feel, function a bit like the dogs from the epigraph: they attempt to conjure the historical spectres. To what do we owe that effort to conjure spectres?
Yes, the more weight or space we give to a notion, an idea or a story, however apocryphal, the more substance it acquires, the less of a fantasy it becomes (and the more greatly a part of us). I have always been convinced that there's something beyond the present, beyond the reality before us -- and everywhere, not only in cities that have a traumatized topography or where the past is still very felt. It relates in some way to the strong attraction I have towards metaphor, in the belief that there's an alternate reality or at least another way of seeing things, some kind of symbolism that can always be evoked. At any given moment there's a shadow being cast: a parallel existence to the one experienced at that moment. And within the genre of the Gothic novel or the horror story lies the return of the repressed. I'm interested in how that which has been repressed returns and is reenacted and finds embodiment in strange and surprising ways.
It reminds me of that expression you use to describe the death of one of your characters in Asunder: "He quit the real."
Il quitta le réel: I once read a French biography of Hölderlin who lived most of his life in a very rich poetic madness, and it was within that biography that I found this line. I liked it so much that I thought about using it, but realized that translating it into English would lose the poetry. I loved the thought of quitting the real.
I think my favorite character in Asunder is the chatelain, and his chateau is what happens to culture when it is left unguarded and unprotected, a sort of counterpoint to the museums in the book. He lives outside official culture. He has rejected it and to some extent with that he has also rejected the real. Both he and Marie are wrestling with the trauma of inheritance -- she with the gallery legacy of her grandfather and the chatelain, Marc Cointe, more acutely with his own lineage. In a way, from very early on in his life he decided not to form part of the real. But it's interesting; I hadn't made the connection between him and the epigraph: "If one hundred dogs bark at a phantom, the phantom becomes reality." Now that I think about it, it's the reverse, because in this case the phantom doesn't become reality even though his existence is taken in by several people who go see him that day; he very much enters into their presence and yet, doesn't become real. He remains a phantom. He is the ghost haunting his own home.
Both Book of Clouds and Asunder takes as their point of departure the perspective of characters at the margins of culture. In Book of Clouds the young Tatiana starts working doing transcriptions for a famous historian. In Asunder, Marie works as warder in the National Gallery of London. You work, so to say, with characters in a transversal relationship with respect to official culture. What fascinates you about them?
This focus on marginal, distanced characters probably has its origin in an attraction towards the less visible and more overlooked aspects of any place, alongside a long interest in more introverted, solitary characters. Most of my favorite books and the literature I grew up reading is inhabited by misanthropic, somewhat detached individuals. It's a natural impulse; I probably identify more with that type of psychology myself. But in these novels I also wanted to set up some sort of dichotomy between the captivity of the institution and a creative drive outside the institutional setting. So with Marie, within the Museum, she is a custodian of culture but at home she creates her landscapes and eggshells outside of the hierarchy and classification of the exhibition space. Even her best friend Daniel, who writes unpublished poems, and, toward the very end, the pavement artist who works beyond the steps of the National Gallery: they are all operating outside institutions. There is a freedom that comes with this, although existence is more precarious.
Even the character of Jonas Krantz in Book of Clouds who plays with metereology as if it were an art. Your characters seem to belong to a strange space where conceptual art confuses itself with daily tasks.
Yes, I like there to be a fluidity between concrete practicality and an unharnessed reverie that can lead anywhere. For Jonas Krantz meteorology is his profession but it also serves as a metaphor for the city's troubled history. As for the historian in Book of Clouds, he becomes increasingly alienated and distanced from his colleagues and every kind of public forum. It is not clear whether he even publishes what he writes, whether his voice is still heard by anyone apart from Tatiana listening to the transcriptions. I guess I'm interested in portraying people that get completely caught up in their own endeavors and do so distinctly; their professions become for them an elaborate system of signs that dictates how they move through the world and interact with others.
Your two novels are novels that not only happen in central cities -- Berlin and London -- but novels that explore what it means to live in a city. Asunder finishes with the image of the protagonist observing a street artist rolling up his copy of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper before losing himself in the tumult of the city. What interests you in this relationship between literature and the city?
Certainly an inspiration for the first novel was a book of Joseph Roth's brilliant essays on Berlin, written in the 1920s and the deepening shadows of the early '30s; although he was writing about what he observed around him, they of course reveal a great deal of the author himself. The same could be said of Robert Walser's and Walter Benjamin's Berlin. The more infused a city's portrait is with the author's own spirit, the better. There are plenty of sources one can turn to for straight reportage. There's of course a whole modernist tradition exploring the relationship between self and city. In both my novels I was interested in doing this, and even the narratives I tried to structure in such a way as to echo some sense of meandering. The National Gallery is of course a very rarified sort of microcosm in contrast to the more urban Berlin, but there too I try to somehow have the narrator's mental processes mirror spatial layout. When you're writing about a city you're both there and not there; you inhabit it fully yet at the same time maintain the necessary degree of detachment for observation and contemplation. It's more of an ongoing dialogue with oneself than with others.
As for the pavement artist at the end, with his copy of da Vinci's Last Supper which he displays daily outside of the steps of the National Gallery, I was thinking about this kind of freedom versus the captivity of the institution and all the paintings that will remain forever within this quite rigid classification of the museum. At the end of the day he can roll up his scroll and walk away. I was interested in the freedom of the more mobile image, issues of captivity prefigured by the visit to the Jardin des Plantes and the animals there, admired behind glass. As John Berger has written, like paintings they rarely seem to return one's gaze. Cities can offer freedom but they can also very quickly become prisons of structure and routine.
You have a PhD from Oxford in nineteenth-century French literature and have published a book on magic and poetry in nineteenth-century France. Your novels move at the margins of official culture, almost at the boundary of academic culture. And it just occurs to me that many topics of nineteenth-century literature make an appearance in your fiction: boredom, flânerie, the city. What relationship do you have with academia and how does it relate to your fiction?
That is very true: ennui, the flâneur... it wasn't a conscious decision. Now, with your question, I am more aware of the fact that there is a very direct correlation, but at the time of writing I wasn't. I guess my habitation of Paris is so related to nineteenth-century French poetry that when my characters go there, especially since one of them is a poet, it all comes out. The spirits of Baudelaire and Nerval, the two poets I feels closest to, are always present. Both were in my mind while I was writing the Paris section. Also, I wanted the scene with the clochard to be a Baudelairean moment: entering what seems to be an idyllic space and suddenly spotting a clochard peeing behind a tree. There is often an element of monstrosity within any picture of beauty. If you look closely you will find, on the flip side, some sort of monstrosity or glimpse of the grotesque.
I have read elsewhere that being your father a famous Mexican poet, you decided very early on that you would write in a different genre and in a different language. What is your relationship with Latin American literature? What young Latin American authors do you read?
I have to say that most of my interests and studies and even geographical movements have been very eurocentric. There are many Latin American writers whose work I love: Horacio Quiroga, Juan Rulfo, and of course, Borges and Arreola.... I don't read much contemporary fiction in any language but am rather fond of Valeria Luiselli and Guillermo Fadanelli in Mexico and Mercedes Cebrián in Spain.
Mexico appears sporadically in Book of Clouds: the protagonist, Tatiana, is Mexican, and she finds a Xolo, the Mexican dog that was sacred to the Aztecs, while the historian mentions that he once knew a Hungarian that had been in México, the husband of Leonora Carrington. But in Asunder, it completely disappears…
Yes. That was a very conscious decision. The only mention is of a group of Mexican kids in rock T-shirts. First novels are often more autobiographical, an exorcism of sorts. I wanted a narrator with whom I could somehow identify. Having said that, home is now England and I feel a greater affinity with English society than with Mexican. Having all English characters in this new novel came quite naturally, even more naturally than having Mexican characters.
My next novel, the one I'm currently working on, will be set in Mexico in the late '80s, so it will have all Mexican characters. It'll be like revisiting the past, but a past that is frozen in time, the Mexico of my adolescence before I went abroad. It will be written in English and thus strange to resurrect the atmosphere and people from those years in another language. But I feel ready. I realize there has been some sort of resistance to writing about Mexico although I spend nearly two months every year there and continue feeling very close to the country; sometimes you circle the most important things for a while before plunging in.
You have lived in many places. You mention, however, that to some extent you now feel that England is your home. Why did you chose, among so many places, England? How has the reception of your books in England differed from their reception in the United States or in Latin America?
Yes, of the cities in which I have spent extended periods of time -- Mexico, New York, Paris, Berlin and London -- there is no doubt that London feels most like home. I've always loved England and although I no longer romanticize it the way I did when I was sixteen and reading Romantic poetry and listening to the Smiths and the Sisters of Mercy, I feel I've arrived at a deep and very realistic appreciation of the culture. The nomadic days are over and here is where I want to stay.
And somehow the reception of my two novels has confirmed that this is the place for me and my work. Both were much more appreciated here, and generously reviewed, whereas I feel no connection to the literary scene in the US. The authors with whom I feel the greatest affinity are all European. With Asunder it was even more marked: here the book was widely reviewed and happily read on its own terms; the critics understood the way it operated via patterns and metaphorical links.... Whereas in the US the book disappeared without a trace, and to date the only review seems to have been by a young employee at an auction house. As for Mexico, it's complicated since I write in English and live abroad, and in many people's eyes am still above all my father's daughter, which as you can imagine comes with its own set of difficulties.
What young Anglophone authors would you recommend to the Spanish reading public?
I would recommend one of the leading psychoanalysts here in London: Darian Leader, who has written around nine or ten books. His work is a fascinating dialogue between psychoanalytic theory and art and social observation. He wrote a book called The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression and another called What Is Madness?, a fresh and extremely illuminating take on madness. He has been working as a Lacanian for thirty years and never ceases to astonish with his ideas.