What’s your view of literature today?
Literature is dead, of course. It has been imprisoned by the universities, gutted and filleted by the Good Gray Ladies of Art, and walled off by the bottom line mentality of the publishing houses. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but all the great, quirky authors of the last century are either dead or dying. Marguerite Duras, Camilo Jose Cela, Robbe-Grillet have all passed recently. Has anyone risen to take their place? Is there another blind librarian in some South American town ready to continue the tradition of Jorge Luis Borges? Marquez survives, last I heard, fighting cancer in Mexico City. Are Durrenmatt, Max Frisch, Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, and Bohumil Hrabal sipping coffee in some remote European café? Juan Goytisolo ran off to Marrakesh, where he doubtless sucks on hookahs and drinks mint tea as his life winds down. Beckett and Joyce, Faulkner and poor Hemingway, Kafka and Apollonaire, Jacov Lind and Gunter Grass, my friends Ron Sukenick (who was stolen away from us much too early) and Curtis White (who seems to have traded his novels for a beach in Costa Rica)—there were always such writers, it seemed to me as I grew up and then grew old, writers of great individuality and imagination. One might pass away—his passing might even be noted—but there were always others on the rise, each different, each uniquely themselves, writers who made their words dance on the page. Yet today as these writers pass into history, where are the new authors to take their places? Where is a young Andre Breton when we need him? Or the Beats? Kerouac and Ginsberg howling on the road? Another Henry Miller, even, or Par Lagerkvist, Knut Hamsun. Djuna Barnes. Gertrude Stein. Ionesco. Manuel Puig. Characters, all of them. Unique voices.
No, literature has died. Occasionally a voice seems to rise, but these are only emanations from a corpse, a bit of gas bubbling from the cadaver.
What killed it?
Several nasty things. Book publishing companies became corporations. Corporations have only one job: to make money, whether selling books, Chevy Volts, or sanitary napkins. Publishers protest that they really, no, really, want to find good, well-written novels; but what they really, yes, really, want to find are good, well-written, popular novels—and the only criteria of importance is popular. Literary novels are seldom popular. Grass’s The Tin Drum did well. So did The Sun Also Rises, long ago, though arguably Hemingway’s early popularity destroyed him. But no one wanted to publish Ulysses, widely accepted today as the greatest novel of the 20th century. And this was even before corporations conquered the world of publishing. Imagine a young James Joyce sending his new Ulysses to Random House. Imagine the lack of interest on an editor’s face—an editor with an MFA tacked behind his name—as he checks off the many flaws: Confused, Muddled, No Plot, No Focus, Turgid Prose, No Audience….
But what about Universities? Aren’t they keeping literature alive?
I have a friend who’s a math professor—now emeritus—at UCR. He loves it there. Where else could he spend his time contemplating Fibonacci numbers or obscure combinatorial problems? But for a writer, a university is a prison. They turn out MFAs by the thousands, a self-perpetuating process, all dressed in the same prison stripes, and all of them—well, ok, only most of them—trying to write the same novel, in the same way. The ones who succeed are the ones good at networking. MFAs go into publishing, or use university posts to run lit mags and small presses. They go to conferences, publish each other, write wonderful blurbs, seek tenure. They have nothing to do with literature.
Real writers are dangerous, even criminal, and can never obtain tenure. Joyce was perhaps the greatest criminal, peering through his magnifying glasses in his Vienna café. Imagine Finnegans Wake! Only a murderer, a thief, a saboteur could have written that book!
Who are the Good Gray Ladies of Art?
Once I was wandering around outside of San Francisco and found an art museum. I was young then, and doubtless naïve. I entered expecting to see art. Instead I saw the most insipid display of paintings and pottery. All technically well done, and all inescapably bland. The museum was run by women of a certain age and style, with their short gray hair, plump faces, and pleasantly meaningless smiles. I imagined the syphilitic Gauguin bursting in there with Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? What a reception he would be given!
Is there no hope for literature?
I’ve wondered if the e-book revolution would produce a revival of literature. Think of Beckett with a Kindle in one hand and a PC on his desk! Instead it seems that everyone and his sister has published a romance novel or a sci-fi saga or a vampire tale. There are millions of these, literally millions. If there is a piece of literature somewhere in that swamp, how do you find it? There is no winnowing process. But still, this is a really tumultuous period in publishing. E-books and publishing-on-demand and the internet are opening possibilities. Perhaps some good will come from this. Just don’t hold your breath.
I look at the names I’ve mentioned here. I can add many more. Genet, Nabokov, Elias Canetti, Kobo Abe. It is impressive, this list of names. Will there be a similar list for the 21st century? I doubt it.
Tell us about your own work.
I decided when I was a kid that my university was going to be the world. As soon as I could I began wandering. I worked my way through the south seas on a fishing boat. I was a dynamiter in Australia. I lived with Moro pirates in the Sulu Sea—they smuggled me into what was then British North Borneo, where I ran a small mining company. I was a smuggler myself in India, a black market money-changer in Ceylon, a magician’s assistant in Africa. All this while carrying with me an old standard Underwood typewriter. In Bombay I used it to drive away an angry taxi driver. A beautiful red-haired girl—a Parsi, it turned out—watched. Do you carry that with you, she asked, everywhere you go? Yes, I said. Then you are always armed! she cried. And indeed, the typewriter was armament. I could bash out a hundred words a minute. I struggled to translate what I saw, what I experienced, into prose. What form would literature take, confronted with this cacophony of humanity? How could I translate these long, hard days on the road—sleeping in culverts, hitching rides on trains–into prose? While working for the magician, I was thrilled to see how he used misdirection to fool his audience, how he preyed on their preconceptions to trick them. Art and magic, magic and art—they were the same. I started my first novel there, between acts, so to speak, levitating women and vanishing show girls. (The magician, incidentally, was John Calvert who last year celebrated his hundredth birthday with a show at the Palladium in London.)
It was an education. I kept moving. I kept writing. I canoed jungle rivers in Guatemala, slept in Maya ruins and Indian villages. I drove a small motorcycle to Panama, went down the Amazon from Pulcallpa to Belem. I caught malaria on a copra boat in Fiji. Rode a bicycle through Tahiti and Samoa, Bali and Java, the Malay peninsula. Lived in a village in Spain. Tangier, in Morocco. Art was an adventure, so life had to be an adventure. And it wasn’t simply a matter of acquiring exotic locales for my books. The process of exploring countries, rivers, islands, was the same process that I needed to use in my prose, if only I understood how.
I’m an old man now. I shall be passing into history myself one of these days. But my adventures continue to puzzle and entice me, My memories, all crowded together within my skull, demand to be explored too, just as if they were another country. That is what I am doing with my new novel, Evidence of a Lost City (which will also be an animated movie, if I live long enough to finish it). Memories become dreams, dreams become archetypal dramas. It is no longer clear what is, what was, or what will be reality. Perhaps our lives here—and the art we struggle to create—are forms of misdirection. It is like taking the canoe down the Rio de la Pasion, in Guatemala. The current swung me to the shore, where I found half-buried steps leading to a small Maya ruin called Altar de los Sacrificios. I had been looking for this site, but had finally given up finding it. When I looked away, there it was, magically. I slept there that night, in my jungle hammock, under my shroud of a mosquito net. This is life, I remember thinking. This is art. This is death, and birth. Crumbling stones. Mud sucking at my feet. Tree roots coiling around carved faces. What does any of it mean? We cannot say. But if we are artists, we explore.