May 16, 2014      

An Interview With Tsipi Keller by Cooper Renner

Tsipi Keller was born in Prague, raised in Israel, and has been living in the U.S. since 1974. The author of nine books, she is the recipient of several literary awards, including National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowships, New York Foundation for the Arts grants, and an Armand G. Erpf award from Columbia University. Her most recent translation collections are: Poets on the Edge: An Anthology of Contemporary Hebrew Poetry (SUNY Press); and The Hymns of Job & Other Poems, a Lannan Translation Selection (BOA Editions). Her novels include: The Prophet of Tenth Street (2012), Retelling (2006) and Jackpot (2004). Elsa (2014) should be available by the time this conversation is published.

COOPER: Tsipi, I’m going to begin here with a big generalization which you’re free to disagree with, of course. It seems to me that American writers, for the past several decades, have been for the most part quite insular, quite rooted to the U.S., not only as the setting for their writings, but also in their private lives. This wasn’t always so, as so many in the Modernist generation, for example, spent a great deal of time in Paris. And later writers like W.S. Merwin, Jack Gilbert, and Robert Lax lived for many years out of the U.S. More recently, though, I get the feeling that our writers barely recognize a world beyond our shores. You, on the other hand, are quite an exception to my presumption. Tell us something about your life and education.

TSIPI: Well, for one thing, I wasn’t born here, I was born in Europe, so living and studying in Paris was natural for me, especially since I spoke the language. Also, at the time I was there—late 60s early 70s–and, of course, during the early decades of the 20th century—living in Paris was relatively cheap, and artists and writers from all over made Paris their home. Still, today, too, there are American artists and writers who live abroad, but it’s no longer a “pilgrimage” or a “movement.” I do agree with your underlying argument that, for the most part, there’s a sense of insularity, and this may have to do with the fact that the Sixties transformed America, and American cities—New York, Los Angeles—became a magnet, both for American and foreign nationals, and the need to get away from a repressive, puritanical America is no longer pressing. (Interestingly, now it is the Zillionaire Class that is giving up U.S. citizenship and moving abroad.)

As to my life and education: I was born in Prague, raised in Tel Aviv, then moved to Paris, and later to New York. My education took years: first, Tel Aviv University, then the Sorbonne, and then Columbia and NYU. It occurs to me that another reason for the feeling of “insularity” these days is the quickened pace of life, and the feeling that one must have a “career” and be “successful”—no time to lose/waste, sitting in cafés, drinking and smoking and arguing. No time to try out different occupations (Orwell—a policeman!) Writers, for the most part, are no longer Bohemians. They are disciplined, they go to the gym, they drink moderately, if at all, and frown upon smokers. This, of course, is a generalization. I’m sure (hope) there are pockets of writers who keep the old traditions going.

COOPER: You touch on many things there. Let’s start with your education in Israel and France. Tell us something about Tel Aviv University in the ’60s–what it was like, if there were any of the signs of discontent there as in the US, anti-war protests, protest music, and so forth. And your time in the Sorbonne too. Were you there during the student riots?

TSIPI: Yes, I was studying at the Sorbonne when “Les événements” (that’s what they were called) took place. For me, as a foreign student, finding herself at the heart of it (I was living two blocks away from the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter) it was exhilarating to witness. General strikes were (and still are) frequent in France, people always march in the streets for various reasons/causes—always a sight to behold—but May 1968 was especially “grand,” but also a bit scary since foreign students had to be extra-cautious because the notorious CRS targeted foreign students, possibly because of Dany le Rouge who was actually born in France but held a German passport after his refugee parents returned to Germany. At any rate, students marched, more or less, 24 hours a day, the Sorbonne was “occupied” by the students, and so on, but the streets of the Quarter were filled with the CRS who had blockaded the streets around the Sorbonne, and you had to show an I.D. to prove that you lived in the “zone.” Nothing, of course, came of it, no major reforms, and the special elections in June reinstalled the Gaullist government.

As to Israel: I doubt there was a revolutionary stir in Israel during those months. I think the country was still in a kind of shock after the 1967 Six-Day-War. Also, Israel at the time was in the “dark ages” as far as TV news broadcasting; even telephone lines in homes were a rare luxury.

COOPER: Both Israel and Paris of those days present such stark differences from the US as we see it now: the communications limitations of ’60s Israel as well as the trauma of living through a war in one’s front yard, more or less, and the round-the-clock ferment of ’60s Paris, the willingness and fervor to “take to the streets.” The US in many ways feels both insulated and anesthetized. Because war is not just over the fence, is not a part of the experience of everyone’s life, we don’t think much about it. President Bush, after all, rather famously told us all a few years ago to contribute to the war effort by going shopping. And because middle class incomes have been more broadly spread in the past several decades, there’s been relatively little discontent of the sort that leads people to participate in mass rallies. Comfort displaces civil discontent, perhaps. How does this work itself out in contemporary literature or even in the arts more broadly? You mention that there was virtually no practical effects of the Paris riots. But were there intellectual or artistic ramifications?

TSIPI: I actually think that what was happening in the U.S. in the ’50s and ’60s—the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement—was possibly one of the triggers for similar movements and agitations internationally, notably in France, and later in Europe. The power structure remained more or less unchanged, but reforms were enacted, both here and in Europe, at least on paper. Women have equal rights, but are still paid less than men, and even though abortion is legal, in many states in the U.S. abortion clinics are defunded and shut down, and a crazy law such as “Stand Your Ground” is on the books. On the other hand, in France, and in a number of European countries, abortion is legal and usually free and is part of the national health care system. I think that the May 1968 events did open a “Pandora’s box” of wrongs and did empower people, if briefly. One benefactor was the nascent Feminist movement in France. Soon, they were demanding more access to power, to legal abortions, and so on, but it took a number of years for new laws to be adopted (1975). But, as said, I think that the real “instigator” were the events here, and especially the mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War through the ’70s. The Sixties, as a whole, inspired and empowered many, and some significant changes and laws were instituted. And, more recently, we did have, and possibly still have, the Occupy Movement, and lately we’ve seen Walmart employees strike, but did others march with them? The beauty of the ’68 events in France was that nearly the entire country participated and marched. And yes, I think that, in subtle ways, and sometimes in less subtle ways, the political/social environment does impact literature and the arts, it always has and always will, unless technology takes over and produces art for us.

COOPER: It is interesting how much ferment and fervor there was in those years, including here, as you note. And the Occupy Movement might in some way be a child of those times. In the US in the ’50s and ’60s, the social upheavals definitely spilled over into writing: “Howl,” On the Road, the Deep Image poems of writers like James Wright and Robert Bly–often inspired by their translations of Spanish and Scandinavian writers like Machado and Ekelof–WS Merwin’s involvement in environmental issues, Leroi Jones, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov. I wonder if any of these writers were important to you as a young writer and student of writing, or if your interests moved in other directions and toward other writers.

TSIPI: When I first arrived here, it took some time before I began to read American poetry, a learning and experiencing journey that was accelerated when I studied at Columbia and then NYU. I was also lucky to have great poets as teachers—notably, Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, Ruth Stone, Louis Simpson, and Joseph Brodsky. For a while, I even fancied myself a poet and put my fiction work aside and wrote poetry. Finally, I went back to my first love, fiction, but also began to translate Hebrew poetry into English; the more you’re steeped in language, the better for the working brain, and not only for authors. I want to say that if all politicians and army generals occupied themselves with literary language, the world would be a safer place, but… And so, to answer your question: Yes, absolutely, I was and am influenced by the poets you mention and, of course, many other poets, playwrights, and fiction/nonfiction writers. I think every line of good writing remains with you, even when you have no concrete memory of it. I also think that reading is more important than writing—and here I’m doing something I like best of all, quoting or paraphrasing another author, in this case, Arnaldo Momigliano. Or, Murray Kempton who liked to say that he was not a writer, but a quoter.

COOPER: That’s an impressive list of teachers you’ve had–with Simpson being the one who has meant the most to me as a reader. And of course there is a very real sense in which most of the best of his poetry brings fictional techniques and interests into verse, much as you are pulling yourself across genres by concentrating on writing in one genre, while translating in another. But I’d like to pursue your contention about the primacy of reading. This reminds me of Borges, who perhaps made the same idea a bit more personal by calling himself more a reader than a writer. And then there’s the remark–whose author I can’t remember at this moment–that history doesn’t repeat itself; historians repeat other historians. Tell us about your reading and how it has changed, if it has, from your university days to now.

TSIPI: I’m so glad you like Louis Simpson! One of my favorites is his 1983 collection The Best Hour of the Night—a gem. As a fiction writer, I’ve learned a lot from him and his poetry, and I hope he has devout readers still. Simpson (and Ruth Stone, too, by the way) touches at the core of things simply and directly and with humor. Here are a few lines (just opened his The Owner of the House — Collected Poems 1940-2001 at random):

Every month when he pays his bills
Jim Bandy becomes a philosopher.
The rest of the time he’s OK.

As to my reading: it’s kind of eclectic, I try to read all the books by a writer I like, and the books by writers they mention in their diaries or letters. I always feel I’m in a circle that keeps widening and growing. The writers and books I usually like do not focus on “plot” for plot’s sake. I’m more interested in states of mind of characters and thereby the author’s; I favor books that are driven by an “inner plot” where I get a sense of the author as writer and private being. Many of the books I read are in translation, usually from Europe, but also from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.

COOPER: On a number of occasions, you have pointed me toward writers I wasn’t familiar with: Veza Canetti, for example. Tell me someone who has really roped you in recently, in the past year or two, someone the rest of us might not have read.

TSIPI: OK, so let’s start with The Tortoises by Veza Canetti. I first read the novel when it came out in English translation (2007). I was absolutely mesmerized by it and therefore read it again a year or so ago, at which time I mentioned it to you.

I had a similar experience with Harriet Said, by Beryl Bainbridge, and Two Serious Ladies, by Jane Bowles—two books I read years ago, and am rereading now. These three books are different in style and subject matter, but they share a kind of mystery, or strangeness, that attracts me.

Here are a few of the books I’ve read these past two years or so, and which may have gone unnoticed and/or forgotten, so let me blow the whistle on them:

Landscape in Concrete/ Jakov Lind
The Class/ Ungar Hermann
That Smell & Notes from Prison/ Sonallah Ibrahim
Only Yesterday/ S.Y. Agnon
The Accompanist/ Nina Berberova
Curriculum Vitae/ Yoel Hoffmann
Pilgrimage/ Dorothy Richardson
Castle Gripsholm/ Kurt Tucholky
Life Goes On/ Hans Kielson
In a Strange Room/ Damon Galgut
Where We Once Belonged/ Sia Figiel
Let the Earth Tremble at Its Centers/ Gonzalo Celorio
Witz/ Joshua Cohen
A Spy in Amnesia/ Julian Semilian
Beside and Other Stories/ Uri Nissan Gnessin
Out of the Depths and Other Stories/ Yosef Haim Brenner
Khirbet Khizeh/ S. Yizhar

COOPER: Let’s hope this list will spur some of the Word Riot readers to branch out into new areas and authors, as your suggestions have often led me. I haven’t read the Bainbridge novel you mention, though I’ve read a couple of others by her. She has a kind of crisp concision, like that of Penelope Fitzgerald, but perhaps not quite as sharp, at least in my view. Or maybe it’s just that she is more serious, tonally, and less likely to use humor. And Yoel Hoffmann! What a find he is, don’t you think? Far too little known here. I discovered him on, of all places, a transatlantic cruise, in the ship’s library. I think Curriculum Vitae is perhaps the finest of his works–at least of those available in English. I have read some of the other authors and books you mention, but more are completely unknown to me. Only Yesterday is, I think, the one I’ve read most recently, at your recommendation, I believe.

Well, we’ve touched on quite a number of writers in these remarks. Now how about some discussion of your psychological “trilogy”, just about to be completed with Elsa? Did you plan a trio of thematically linked novels from the outset or did the idea grow as you worked?

TSIPI: Interesting that you discovered Hoffmann on a transatlantic cruise—Hoffmann would love this tidbit—and that we both discovered him while in transit. I was flying home to NYC from Tel Aviv, reading his very first book, The Book of Joseph (it was probably 1988 or 1989). Like you, I think that Curriculum Vitae is his best book, but The Book of Joseph is a very serious contender—I highly recommend it. And, since we are on the subject, Yaakov Shabtai’s two novels, Past Perfect and Past Continuous, are masterpieces, both published in translation in the U.S.

As to my trilogy, loosely titled “Women Ending Badly.” When I begin a novel, I do not plan ahead, let alone three novels. But, at some point, the title “Women Ending Badly” began to take root, possibly because the working title for Elsa was “Woman Ending Badly.” At the time, I discussed the idea of “Women Ending Badly” with a friend who said I had a trilogy in the making, and, indeed, this is how it turned out, as the two following novels also feature a woman in trouble at the center. The first to be written was Elsa. Then came Jackpot, and finally Retelling, but the publisher (Tod Thilleman of Spuyten Duyvil) and I decided to begin with Jackpot, then Retelling, and finally Elsa, possibly the darkest of the three.

COOPER: Book of Joseph and Kätchen, in one volume by New Directions, constituted my intro to Hoffmann on the ship. So I pursued his work from there. He ought to be more widely known. Shabtai is someone else I don’t know. More to pursue!

“Women Ending Badly” is a fine group title, and that’s quite interesting that you published them out of chronological order. The theme is obviously quite strong, but also entirely intrinsic and not ladled on. Not didactic or programmatic. I can imagine you finding yourself disturbed by your own writing as you worked your way through the novels, finding that the emotions generated by the books bleeds over into your “regular” life, much as actors talk about being affected by the characters they are playing. Did you feel this way, or are you more able to divorce yourself from your imaginary kingdoms?

TSIPI: When I work on a novel—and not only the novels of the trilogy we are discussing here, but any novel—I am totally immersed in it, in the characters, who, indeed, bleed into my daily and nightly (in dreams) life. Emotionally, we share the good and the bad; what happens to them happens to me. We have more or less the same routine. We eat together, we talk, we take long walks. Often, we read the same books, we borrow lines from one another, in short: a symbiotic relationship that lasts through the duration of the writing, and sometimes also beyond. As in every relationship there are ups and downs: the ups, of course, are nearly ecstatic, the downs are unbearable. My most intense rapport was possibly with my male protagonists, with Marcus in The Prophet of Tenth Street, and with Bruno in “Bruno’s Women” (working title), maybe because I made them in my own image…

In my short stories it’s the reverse: my affinity rests with the female characters. In fact, men make rare appearances in the stories. These days I’m reworking a novel I wrote a number of years ago and abandoned, now titled “Nadja.” The protagonist and I have a very strong rapport. I like her very much, I understand her, and I also like her lover, but she comes first. Just as I liked Gina—Marcus’s lover—but Marcus always came first.

COOPER: This is quite an intense kind of bonding you speak of, a kind that readers might tend to associate more with lyric poetry than with the creation of fiction. I remember reading, long ago, in John Fowles’ introduction to his Poems his agreement with the commonplace that one expects to meet the author himself in poetry, whereas fiction is something other. I recall thinking that I strongly disagreed with the idea, at least in regard to my own work. And of course it’s been argued that all the characters in any book are, in some way, versions of the author. Your strong identification with your male characters is an example of this, I think. And a reader coming to your work, after reading our conversation here, will inevitably approach the books differently, knowing of your feelings.

I suppose we ought, in deference to our readers, be drawing this conversation to a close. Is there anything else you’d like to say, something you’d particularly like to close with, perhaps about the trilogy or the work to come?

TSIPI: I think that what John Fowles may have meant is that, often, poetry is more nakedly the poet, whereas fiction writers have ways of camouflaging, but, like you, I believe that the author is always present through and in the characters s/he creates.

And so, to close, I’ll just mention that Elsa will be out in May. Official launch party/reading is on May 20, 7-9pm, at KGB on East Fourth Street, NYC. All are welcome.

And, what better way to end than with a quote about the creative process, this one from Julian Schnabel: “You take everything you know, and you get to that place where you do something you don’t know anything about. That confusion, the not knowing, is the nature of it.”

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