Between the Covers Podcast - Transcript
Between the Covers Daniel Mendelsohn InterviewBack to the Podcast
David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Jeff Alessandrelli’s AND YET. Published by PANK Books, AND YET is an innovative work of fiction that interrogates contemporary shyness, selfhood and sexual mores, drawing out the particulars of each through personal history, cultural commentary and the author’s own restless imagination. AND YET builds off the work of authors as disparate as Michel Leiris, Marguerite Duras and Kobo Abe, while quoting from and alluding to texts by Susan Sontag, Young Thug, Young Jean Lee, Cesare Pavese, Sylvia Plath and Louise Glück, among others. Patrick Cottrell calls AND YET “A profound and concise work of self-construction”, and poet and editor Garrett Caples adds that the book reads more like a thriller instead of a hybrid whuzzit investigating millennial dilemmas of sex, gender, and intimacy, one written in the grand tradition of poet’s prose. Jeff Alessandrelli’s AND YET is available now wherever books are sold. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Nina Mingya Powles’s Magnolia, a collection of poems that pushes the borders of language and poetic forms and journeys across shifting luminescent cities in search of connection through pop culture, through food, through vivid colors. Says Sally Wen Mao, “Rarely has a poetry book given so much to savor: in learning a language, in considering a film by Wong Kar-wai or Hayao Miyazaki, in biting a persimmon, in reading a subway map, in wandering the labyrinths of Eileen Chang’s Shanghai, flying through time and space.” Adds Chen Chen, “Nina Mingya Powles is a poet who writes with simultaneous elegance and wildness, opening up lyric moments from an astonishing range of sources. I so love this poet’s appetite.” Magnolia is out on August 16th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Before we begin today’s episode with writer, critic, classicist, and translator Daniel Mendelsohn, a conversation that at its core is about representation in art making and writing, about what methods—often counter intuitive ones—most effectively create works that just feel true and endure because of it, but also representation in other ways, how we represent memory when we memorialize, when we create a space to remember, and the political and ethical questions that arise with how we tell stories, whether on the page or restoring a monument, whether in a novel or a play, or how we tell the story of a historical violence, perhaps even at the site of its occurrence, before we begin this conversation—which is itself about digression and ring composition as technique—let me digress for a moment and say that if you enjoy today’s conversation or recent ones with Hernan Diaz or Ada Limón, or older ones with Alice Oswald who also, like Mendelsohn, deeply engages with Homer and the questions and gestures contained in his epics, consider transforming yourself from a listener to a listener-supporter. There is a true abundance of possible rewards and gifts beyond the conversations themselves. Every listener receives resources related to each episode. For instance, the most-interesting lectures, essays, or interviews of Daniel Mendelsohn that informed my conversation today with him, and the various things we reference while we’re talking, whether something from Proust, Sebald, Joyce, or Homer. There’s the bonus audio archive with contributions from everyone from Jorie Graham, to Rosmarie Waldrop, to Ayad Akhtar, to Garth Greenwell, and the Tin House early-readership program where you can receive 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public. This only scratches the surface of what you can choose. To check it all out, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with Daniel Mendelsohn.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is writer, critic, and translator Daniel Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn studied the Classics from the University of Virginia and Princeton University, receiving a doctorate from the latter, and going on to publish his dissertation, Gender and the City in Euripides’ Political Plays with Oxford University Press. Since 1991, he’s become one of America’s most dynamic and prominent critics, as a columnist for The New York Times Book Review, Harper’s, and New York Magazine, as a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure, as a frequent contributor at The New Yorker, and since 2019 as Editor at Large of The New York Review of Books. He’s also the director of the Robert B. Silvers Foundation, a charitable trust that supports writers of non-fiction, particularly long-form criticism and writing on art and culture. His essay collections include How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken, the National Book Critics Circle award finalist Waiting for the Barbarians, and most recently, Ecstasy and Terror: From the Greeks to Game of Thrones. As a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and after 12 years of work and study, Mendelsohn published the collected poems of the Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy, which included the first-ever translation into English of his unfinished poems. Daniel Mendelsohn is also the Charles Ranlett Flint Professor of Humanities at Bard College where he teaches literature and is the writer of several remarkable memoirs, including his debut The Elusive Embrace, a memoir of family, history, sexual identity, classical myth and literature, and The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million that chronicles Mendelsohn’s search for information about six relatives who perished in the Holocaust, again, interbraiding family history with the classics, this time, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, weaving his own drash on the text alongside medieval and contemporary commentary on its passages. The Lost became an international bestseller, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Jewish Book Award, and the Prix Médicis in France, was translated into 15 languages, and was optioned for film by Jean-Luc Godard. Mendelsohn followed this with a third memoir that weaves personal narrative with a sustained attention to classical texts, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic that chronicles his relationship with his father, a very non-literary retired research scientist who enrolls in Mendelsohn’s Odyssey seminar at Bard. An Odyssey was chosen as a best book of the year by National Public Radio, Library Journal, Kirkus, and The Christian Science Monitor, and won the Prix Mediterranée Étranger in France, so it would be an understatement to say it is a great pleasure to have Daniel Mendelsohn here to talk about his most-recent book Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate just out in paperback by New York Review Books. A book that isn’t easily or neatly classified along his collections of essays or criticism, nor his braided books of memoir and classical meditation, a book that feels connected to both and yet something entirely and compellingly its own new thing, Three Rings is winner of the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger or the Best Foreign Book of the year award in the essay category in France. Donna Rifkind for The Wall Street Journal says, “If Three Rings were only a survey of circular narratives, it would be interesting enough. But he’s after something more ambitious here. Adding memoir and biography, he reminds himself and his readers that books are vulnerable objects. They are all too easily banned, burned, buried among collapsing civilizations, and forgotten. Even if books engender other books, there are no guarantees for their own survival. A short but profoundly moving work, clings with the same tenacity to a belief in the regenerative power of literature.” Carmel Bird for the Sydney Review of Books adds, “Three Rings is a reflection on the composition of its own text, a confessional memoir, a conscious performance of a literary device, a memorial to a family destroyed in the Holocaust, and a journey through literature that concentrates, among a wealth of others, on three exiled and wandering authors: Erich Auerbach, François Fénelon and W.G. Sebald. ‘Wandering’ is a word that crops up only ten times in the text, but it is in fact a key not only to the lives of those three writers, but to the whole narrative.” Finally, Ayad Akhtar says, “Contained in the interwoven circles of this slim, labyrinthine book is a vision that encompasses the world. Part dirge, part memoir, part exegesis, all rhapsody — Mendelsohn’s anatomy of literature’s subtlest pleasures is itself that subtlest of literary pleasures: a masterpiece.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Daniel Mendelsohn.
Daniel Mendelsohn: Thank you, David. I’m happy to be here.
DN: One of the most remarkable and unlikely things about this book I think is that it is about digression and yet somehow results in your most-concise and distilled book. Also, that this, your shortest book, seems to contain all the others; that all these other books that are many hundreds of pages longer than this one, than this slim book, it’s almost as if this last book is the egg that gave birth to them all. I wondered if you had that feeling yourself as a writer; that somehow it contains the larger books and also this strange notion of digression being the topic and yet something feels very crystalline and distilled in Three Rings.
DM: Yeah. Well, thanks for a very provocative question. I have to think about this for a minute. To my mind, I feel that this book, rather than being the egg that gave birth to the others—although as you say, the others are contained in this new book, and in fact, they’re all referred to in this new book in different ways, both overtly and covertly—I’d like better to think of it with the other word that you used which is distilled. I think many writers, not all writers—and now I’m not going to speak as a writer but as a critic because I’m always wearing these two hats—when you look at the arcs of their careers, it’s often a process of refinement, one is always thinking about the same things I think, all writers are usually thinking about the same things. In each book, they go about it in a different way. But I think as you proceed through your career, the natural trajectory is one of refinement and distillation rather than expansion. I’m not talking about length necessarily. I’ve thought a lot obviously as a critic, but also myself as a writer, about style and form over the years and in each of my books, I’ve experimented it, one could say, with a different mode. My first book was a kind of lyric mode. I was thinking a lot about poetry, I talk a lot about poetry in that book, The Elusive Embrace which ostensibly is a kind of mélange of family history and inquest into the nature of sexual desire, I talk about myself as a young gay man in New York in the 1990s, and how one’s family history and how one’s family affects the way that we desire things, both specific and more generally. That was the first book in which I do this thing that has now become characteristic in which you describe very well in your introduction. I know that’s no easy task. [laughs] This intertwining I guess is the word that comes up most often of these personal, intellectual, or aesthetic reflections with analyses of ancient texts, whether classical, which, of course, is my background, or in the case of The Lost, as you mentioned, Biblical text. But the text I was thinking about in that book were largely poetic and I think that influenced the voice of the book and also its structure which is more fragmented than that of my subsequent books. The narrative is like a butterfly, a lighting on different passages, different moments, not necessarily in chronological order. The Lost is obviously a very big book, both in size and in subject, the Holocaust book. There I was experimenting with the kind of epic mode, I would say, rather than a lyric mode, and self-consciously—and a few critics caught this, people know that I’m a classicist—it’s a kind of expanded journey to the underworld which is a typical element of many ancient epics starting with the Odyssey itself. In An Odyssey, the book about me and my dad living the Odyssey together, it was more novelistic I would say. I think that the structure of it, the interrelationship between the personal narrative and the ancient texts, which in that case was the Odyssey, is more seamless. In the other books, I literally yo-yo back and forth. In fact, in The Lost, as you know, the Biblical analyses were in a different typeface to alert you to the fact that you’re now in a different mode. I think that of my books, An Odyssey is the most novelistic; it plays that way. In this book—and I’m already reminded that I talk the way that I write which is in circles, so now we finally get to your question but I think with some necessary prelude—the form imposed the nature of the book. This book started out as a series of three lectures that I was asked to give at my alma mater, the University of Virginia, they have a big annual humanities lecture. I, for years, had been thinking in a not-terribly organized way about what you might call some outtakes from the Odyssey book. While I was writing An Odyssey, which was published in 2017, there was a lot of material, so to speak, that ended up on the cutting room floor. At a certain point, in that book, I had delved into the history of people’s reading of the Odyssey, how have people read the Odyssey through the years? Who transmitted it? Who were the readers? What was the fanfiction that was generated by the Odyssey of which there has been a great deal as you know from reading Three Rings? It ended up not being right for that book. It was too digressive. The thing about digression is that sometimes, you lose the thread or it goes too far so I saved a lot of it. Then when they asked me to do these lectures at UVA I said, “I should revisit some of that. Maybe it’ll be handy.” While I was working on the Odyssey book, I had kept thinking of these three figures who I think of as Odyssean writers for different reasons: Erich Auerbach, the great German-Jewish critic who fled Hitler in the 30s and ended up in Istanbul (of all places), where he wrote his great magnum opus Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, which opens with a whole chapter that analyzes the Odyssey’s circular-narrative technique called ring composition. François Fénelon, this 17th Century French archbishop who was a tutor to one of Louis XIV’s grandsons and who wrote this crazy fanfiction based on the Odyssey which imagines a whole new set of adventures for Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, and wasn’t meant to be a kind of ethical instruction manual for this young prince. Then W.G. Sebald, as you mentioned, who is very interested as I am in rambling ostensibly meandering narratives. In fact, in Sebald, there’s a kind of over determination because as you know, many of Sebald’s characters are themselves wanderers, they’re literally taking walks, getting lost, and wandering. I just somehow thought that these three fellows were connected, mostly by the Odyssey, but the more I thought about them, the more I thought there were other things. But because these began as lectures, they necessarily were each whatever, 45-50 minutes long, not more than an hour, so I had to condense my own thinking in order to get what I wanted to say into the right time slot. That’s really why these lectures were greatly elaborated and re-written for the process of becoming a book. But I think for the first time, I was forced to compress myself in a way that I had never done before. Once I said, “Oh, I’m going to turn this into a book,” I had no desire to make it bigger really. It’s a little longer than the lectures and heavily rewritten with a lot of new material, but I just found that I was doing this thing which I began by talking about which is as writers get older, I think they want to strip away more, refine more, or distill more their basic subjects, and I found that, thanks to the form in which these thoughts had first germinated, I was able to do it in a highly-compressed distilled way that I had never really engaged in before. Even though it looks a lot like my other books, technically I think this is quite different actually, which goes to the heart of the question that you asked. It is different. You get to a certain point where you have more confidence in your ability to say what you want to say and you don’t need to reiterate, repeat, draw your reader’s attention, you start trusting your reader more and you start trusting yourself more and I do think that’s what happened in this book.
DN: To stay with what feels like still like a mystery even as you explain it, of how everything outside the books somehow is in the book at the same time, I wanted to start with a lecture you gave on the translations of Constantine Cavafy, who was never mentioned in Three Rings but obviously is a big part of your life as a translator. Yet in this talk you gave, you begin by placing us at his deathbed. He’s dying of laryngeal cancer. He can’t speak. The last thing he does before he dies is he draws this circle with a dot in the middle as his last communication. Then probably he also, you mentioned, dies on his birthday so in a sense, his death is this other circle like the one he just drew. You gave a lecture from this image talking about the three ways he tries to reconcile the periphery and the center; the circumference and the axis, those being the spatial, the temporal, and the erotic or the geographic, the historic, and the intimate. You talk about how geographically, Alexandria, his home, was once central and is now a backwater. Historically, you show how he focused on a span of time and antiquity that most people studying ancient Greece would overlook. In the erotic, you speak to Cavafy’s homosexuality, but you go on to say that he was a mediocre, over-perfumed poet who worked in these three spheres, but only when he had a crisis and figured out a way to relate the three—the spatial, the temporal, and the erotic—in a concentric way did he then become a great poet. In essence, you put forth a three-ring theory for Cavafy. It made me wonder about I guess this chicken-and-egg metaphor with regards to the Three Rings, the book. Obviously, Cavafy doesn’t make it into the book and yet understanding him and his greatness for you is through this lens of Three Rings; that your interest in ring composition must extend beyond the improbable amount of history and literature that does make it into your latest book. I just was hoping maybe you could speak to that a little bit.
DM: It’s a wonderful question and I’m grateful for it because it bespeaks the very deep reading of my various pieces. I hadn’t even made the connection between that Cavafy essay which I must say I had completely forgotten about or the lecture rather, and I can’t remember where I gave it but now I want to go back to it because there may be gold in them thar hills. [laughter] I just want to start with Cavafy. I want to start with a tangential consideration that nonetheless you’ve raised and I think is an interesting one when people talk about their own writing, which is when we study literature, particularly chronologically or diachronically as we said back in the 1980s, one invariably thinks about influences, X influence, Y influence, Z blah-blah-blah. The older I get, I write a lot about writers and I often do big pieces which are career overviews in many ways, so I’m always interested in how people develop. We’ve already talked about this a little bit. But influence often works in strange ways, not obvious ways. I might say as a parenthesis within a parenthesis, I just read an article about my own work by a non-American scholar which was about the influence of Puritan memoirs on my work. I’m mortified to say I don’t think I’ve ever read a Puritan memoir and I think this non-American critic had some notion that all Americans read a given set of literature. I mean, I may have read The Pilgrim’s Progress or some, I don’t even know, but I’m thinking about this in terms of Cavafy and the way that influence exerts itself in non-linear ways, let’s call it, and of course, non-linear is my middle name. When I was writing The Lost which, as you described, was an reattempt over many years to understand the circumstances in which my mother’s aunt, uncle, and four cousins were murdered in the Holocaust, I realized after the fact that I was thinking about Cavafy the whole time. I was working on this Cavafy translation as you mentioned for a dozen years because I was doing a lot of other things while I was doing that (I’m not that slow). A thing about Cavafy that had worked its way into the fabric of my sensibility was how history often erases the little people. Cavafy devotes a number of his so-called historical poems; poems set in the Hellenistic, late antique, or Byzantine worlds, about how he reverses the telescope and will look at history through the wrong end of the telescope, that’s the only way I can describe it. For example, there’s a wonderful short poem called In Alexandria, 31 BC. Now, if you’re a classicist or interested in history, 31 BC is a very big date, it’s the date that Octavian defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, which may be the single most-influential event in European history because it was a triumph of the west over the east and it really determined many, many, many things to come. Cavafy writes about the day that the palace, the palace spokespeople in Alexandria, announced the news of the outcome of this battle. Of course, like all PR people, they lie and they say that this is the palace in Alexandria, in other words Cleopatra’s palace, and there’s a great announcement about how Antony and Cleopatra have been victorious. But that’s not even the funny part of the poem. The funny part of the poem is all of this, which is, as I’ve described, an immensely important historical event, is narrated through the eyes of a merchant who just happens to be in town that day who’s trying to sell his wares at market and he doesn’t understand what the big hubbub is. He’s come from some provincial place. I always think about that because the way that history affects ordinary people is of great interest to Cavafy who’s also interested in the losers of history. Many of his poems, if not most of them, are devoted to the kings who had to abdicate, the losing generals, or the people, one could say, whom history has washed over, whether it’s “the losers” or “the insignificant” people. Of course what The Lost is about is trying to find out how this very vast historical event, the Holocaust, affected six particular people. I only realized after the fact that my thinking about what I was doing as I tracked down the last-remaining survivors and tried to get the story of what had happened to my six relatives, about whom we had only ever heard that they were “killed by the Nazis”, and nothing more, and I just realized that this year’s long reading of Cavafy had attuned me to a kind of story that I might not have been interested in telling if I hadn’t been reading Cavafy. Now that’s influence but not in the usual way you think about influence. To come back to this original material that you mentioned, Cavafy too, you’re talking about concentric circles and this brilliant, I mean, if I were a novelist, I could not have made up a better symbol, if I were writing a novel about the death of Cavafy, this business of drawing a circle and putting a period in the middle, it’s too good to be true, especially both for Cavafy and for me who I’m so interested in this so-called ring composition; the way that you start a story seem to digress within your digression, blah-blah-blah, always however returning to the point of origin with a greatly-enhanced story because you’ve gotten so much background through these digressions. That’s what ring composition is. If I may myself return to the image with which you began, Cavafy too, I realize after the fact, because he’s an ironist of history, he’s attuned to the ironies of history, the way that history makes fools of our expectations or our grandiose plans, he’s also interested perhaps in unintended coincidences, and I think that also worked its way into my mind. There’s a wonderful poem called Nero’s Deadline and it’s actually a true story which is reported in Suetonius, Life of Nero which is that he went to the Delphic Oracle when he was 30, which is to say a year before he was murdered, to ask the oracle about his life and the oracle said, “Beware the age of seventy-three.” This poem is in Nero’s head as he receives his oracle and he says to himself, “Oh, that’s great. I’m only 30. I’ve got years to worry about dying. Right now I really want to get back to the theater, the gymnasia, and all of that.” The last lines of the poem are meanwhile, Galba, who was the general who was eventually going to lead the rebellion that caused Nero to kill himself, was preparing his army, the rebellious army, Galba who was 73 years old. That punch line depends on a kind of coincidence or circularity, and I think that had to have also been working its way into my thinking, I’m just fascinated by this. As you know, Three Rings is particularly interested, or as interested, because its ostensible subject is, “Okay, here are these writers, all of whom has a certain digressive technique or who are interested in this technique of elaborate digressiveness,” and yet I would say the real subject of Three Rings is coincidence in a way. If you circle enough, everything becomes connected. My narrative is itself ultimately based on a very unlikely stream of circumstances that connects Homer through Fénelon to Auerbach in a most unexpected way, which I won’t reveal because it’s the punchline of the whole book. But even on a smaller scale, I’m interested in that circle with the dot in the middle, the perfect coincidence, the perfect concentricity in unexpected ways just to give people an idea of a small one. One of the main, or a main theme is the beautiful cover on The New York Review Books paperback of this book is a very dreamy moody photograph of Istanbul. Istanbul keeps coming up in my narrative in all different ways. As I mentioned, it’s the place to which Auerbach ran away because of Hitler, but it’s also the home of a very interesting Turk who translated Fénelon’s fanfiction, The Adventures of Telemachus. It keeps cropping up. It comes up in a discussion of Proust and a certain diplomat he had a crush on which becomes a very important point in my Fénelon chapter who was posted to Istanbul. Istanbul keeps popping up. It also pops as an important point in the history of the Jews which is another thread of my book because I do talk about the Holocaust in different ways in this new book. I talk about the fact how many of the Jews who were exiled in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella went east to the Ottoman Empire where they were welcomed. That begins a thread about religious persecution. Part of that thread is how Fénelon himself got a great start in life because he was a head of the school for Protestant girls who were essentially being forced to convert to Catholicism under Louis XIV. That gets me into a discussion of how all of the Huguenots, the French Protestants, who didn’t want to convert, ran away to Prussia where the king of Prussia who was a Protestant built a special school for these French immigrants called the Lycée Français. That turns out to be the school that Auerbach went to. Little things. Is it important? Maybe not. But when you start looking at things in the dot in the middle of the circle mode, you start seeing these connections. That leads to a larger narrative interest of mine that has to do with the nature of fiction, I would say, which is also a subject of this new book, which is what do we mean when something is too good to be true? If you say a coincidence is so amazing no one would believe it, we talk in these terms all the time, “Oh, if it were in a novel, they wouldn’t believe it,” but it really happened. All of the bizarre coincidences I talk about in my book are too good to be true. What about verisimilitude? Is it that it makes us want things not to be too perfectly concentric, not to be too perfectly structured because they seem to stop feeling like life? Which, so we often tell ourselves, doesn’t have a perfect structure, needs to be massaged into a perfect structure in order to make a good book. Yet what I keep saying in this book is sometimes life creates the most amazing coincidences that are themselves so perfect, you wouldn’t believe them if you were reading about them in a novel. I think to some extent, this book is an investigation of that problem.
DN: I love that. I want to return to that later after we unpack this question of optimistic and pessimistic in relationship to language. But one more beat with Cavafy that I feel like maybe is a stretch as the connection, but you talk about his crisis and then the way he’s able to set these things into Three Rings. There’s a greatness that comes out of these concerns somehow being united. I feel like you’ve just described all these coincidences. I’m sure if someone didn’t hear the first part of our conversation, they’d be thinking this book must be 3,000 pages long, not 150 pages, which is like a magic trick.
DM: Really? I think it’s 115.
DN: It’s a magic trick what you’ve done I think. It’s really remarkable. But in the Three Rings, among so many other things, you describe a crisis that you had, and I’m not saying it’s the same crisis as Cavafy, but after The Lost, after your book about the Holocaust, you describe your crisis as aporia, a lack of a path, that you couldn’t find a way forward in how to organize your book An Odyssey, and the irony in that being that the way you figure out how to organize An Odyssey is with ultimately like Cavafy with the Three Rings is with ring composition, which wasn’t the first thing you thought of even though in a sense, you were writing about the great example of ring composition, Homer. But tell us a little bit about, I loved the part in The Lost for instance where you recount Herodotus and how, in order to tell the story of the Greek victory over the Persian Empire, it feels like he first needs to tell the entire history of Persia, which in order to tell the entire history of Persia means he has to devote an entire chapter to Egypt because Egypt at the time was part of the Persian empire. But the Greek sense is that digression isn’t really digression because it comes back, but also that digression isn’t distraction, that somehow the circumambulation, the wandering that becomes a circling is enhancing something about the center.
DM: A couple of thoughts, David. First of all, when we talk about digression in a literary text, it’s always disingenuous to some extent because an author who puts a digression into work is not really digressing, the digression is there for a purpose; so it’s a purposeful wandering away from the ostensible topic but it’s not meandering. Digression is not the same as meandering, a kind of careless wandering in any direction you happen to feel like. Digression, when we talk about it in literary context, is always purposeful, well-thought out. The great example that I talk about, and in fact, that Auerbach talks about, is a climactic moment in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus is back home finally after 20 years but he’s in disguise because he doesn’t know who’s been loyal and who hasn’t and he’s testing everyone. He’s in his own palace and he, as a matter of ritual courtesy, is given a foot bath by an elderly slave, a woman. As she gives him this bath, she recognizes a scar on his leg which is a tell-tale scar, everyone knows that Odysseus, when he was a teenager, was wounded in a boar hunt and he has this very distinctive scar, so his identity is revealed. At that moment, instead of staging a tearful reunion between the old nurse and Odysseus whom she now positively identifies, Homer stops the action dead in its track and has not one but two very elaborate digressions; one is the story of the boar hunt, how did he get it, what was happening, and that digression about his teenage years goes back further, it turns out, to the moment when he was born which has to do with how he got his name, which has to do with why 17 years later, he went on the boar hunt. Then we go back to the boar hunt and then we finally get back to the moment where the nurse recognizes the scar. That’s a perfect example of ring composition so-called which is the term we classicists use. It’s like loops within loops within the narrative. Now that’s ostensibly a digression and in fact one for which Auerbach in his study of western literature has very little patience. But to come back to your point, what we the audience have heard by listening to this going back in time, not once but twice, is we get crucial information about Odysseus, who he was as a young man which is very different from the man we now know, why he got this very strange name that he has (which comes from a Greek verb that means to both cause and suffer pain), so we’re getting crucial information. I cite that example not only because it keeps coming up in my own work, as you say even in The Lost ostensibly about the Holocaust—I’m already interested in this business of how you tell a story and what you choose to include—but it’s very purposeful. I think when we talk about when we use these terms, we have to always keep an eyebrow raised. As I said, sometimes digression does go too far. If you digress too much and you get too far away from the subject or it no longer illuminates the main narrative, you’ve screwed it, you screwed it up. That can happen. Sorry, I got lost in my own digression here talking about the Odyssey, but remind me of the main thrust of your question that you were just asking.
DN: Well, let me just extend it a little bit because what you just described, Homer will use a formulaic line that he repeats that bookends the digression. It signals that we’ve returned. I think one of the great pleasures of reading Three Rings is that you do this too with the opening line of the book. The opening line being “A stranger arrives in an unknown city after a long voyage.” Something that we’ll encounter periodically as we read, and with a great amount of pleasure, every time that we return to this line, which takes on new resonances as the book progresses, and one of the things that you do that I don’t think Homer’s doing, which is similar I think to The Lost in the sense that The Lost is about relatives that are of little historical importance from a town of little historical importance and that you’re centering people on the periphery and this stranger arriving in an unknown city after a long voyage, you leave him as a cipher for a really long time. He could be any number of people from any number of periods. He could be a Jew or a Muslim fleeing from Spain, and you say this, he could be a Greek fleeing Constantinople. He could be any number of forced migrants at times of upheaval. There’s a way in which the book also in another way evokes a hundred other books it could be, that here we have the person it is, eventually it becomes the person it is, but this person is one of many people it could be.
DM: Yes. You’re right, it’s not quite Homeric, my use of this figure, but I knew what I wanted to talk about in the book for the most part. Sometimes you surprise yourself of course, but I knew I wanted to write about this as it were wandering narrative technique that looks like wandering but always comes home at the end so to speak. I wanted to write about these three particular writers who were also interested in this technique or used this technique. Auerbach studies it, and Fénelon and Sebald use it in quite different ways. I was also interested in the fact that each of my three authors was himself exiled or forced to wander, either a voluntary exile or an involuntary exile. Auerbach was a refugee from Hitler, Fénelon was finally exiled from Court because the book that he ended up writing, The Adventures of Telemachus, angered the king because it was a not too thinly disguised attack on Louis’s autocratic regime, and Sebald, as many listeners are probably aware, was self-exiled from Germany and struggled with the weight of German guilt after the war. I wanted to think of a figure—I think people also know who have read either the Iliad or the Odyssey, that repetition is an important part of Homeric technique, those stock phrases, stock epithets for the different characters or gods—I wanted to have a figure who was blank but could be applicable to any of my people starting with Odysseus. It really began as an attempt in a single paragraph to describe Odysseus as a kind of every man, either a wanderer, voluntary, or an exile. I’m thinking of this person who’s been wandering, washes up in some new country, he goes into some new abode where he now has to live, he’s waiting for his wife and child. The bare bones of that is a pretty accurate description of Odysseus. But the more I thought about it, almost surprising myself, it was also a good description of Auerbach, who in fact, like Odysseus, had one child and a wife that he was waiting for to be reunited with, and Fénelon and Sebald, but also the characters in these people’s works. I just decided that weirdly, the image that presented itself to me, I’ve been a swimmer all my life and I’ve just finished a new translation of the Odyssey for University of Chicago Press and because he’s always being shipwrecked, there’s so many wonderful depictions of him bobbing in the sea and sighting land and then losing sight of it. I wanted this little paragraph, “A stranger arrives…” that first line and the accompanying paragraph, to be like the sight of dry land to a swimmer bobbing up in the water. I wanted to keep reappearing. This is how ring composition is supposed to work. Every time that paragraph comes up, it is the beginning of each of the three sections of the book but it surfaces at other times too because of what I’ve been describing. By the time you get, for example, to the end of the first part, which is the Auerbach part, you think, “Oh, that’s not just Odysseus, it’s Auerbach,” and then by the time you get through the Fénelon chapter which ends up being about Proust because Proust is the ultimate digressive writer I think, you think, “Oh, that’s kind of Fénelon also.” I never wanted to name this person because his applicability would be limited in that case, but he becomes a kind of symbol. It felt right to me. It was very effective I should say when I gave the lectures as oral presentations. As you know, as a classicist who works on Homer among other things, orality and the tension between oral delivery and reading is something I think about a great deal, and we all know when we tell stories that it can be very useful, and I’m sure this is how this began in the dark ages when Homer was concocting this thing, it’s effective to keep coming back, to keep returning, to repeat, it’s a place that people can hang on to in a long oral narrative. I was thinking about all these things when I was writing this and it worked when I was giving the lectures and I didn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work when it became a written document.
DN: As you say in Three Rings, the great work by Auerbach, who is the father of comparative literature and a scholar of Dante’s poetry Mimesis, which is about the civilization he’s just fled, a book written outside of or on the periphery of Europe from Istanbul and a book that engages with the representation of reality in western literature, as you’ve said, it’s of interest to readers of the Odyssey because it opens with this meditation on Odysseus’s identifying scar that Homer digresses from and returns, and that he lays out the Greek argument that the exhaustiveness of this creates a vividness. But as you suggested, he’s not convinced by this, he compares this to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac from a storytelling perspective. He asserts that contrary to the Greeks who say by not leaving anything out, things become more vivid, that the exhaustiveness can be an obstacle to a persuasive representation of reality. Which also I think goes back to this mystery around too good to be true; how for Auerbach, paradoxically, obscurity is an advantage to mimicry, to literary mimicry. He remarks about just how much is left out in Hebrew storytelling. He finds this productive, the stuff that’s not said, that it forces the reader to probe, to think harder about motivations, and that it’s closer to life because in life, we also don’t know everything about events and people, even people really close to us, even events that have happened to us. You describe these two modes as optimistic and pessimistic, presumably I’m guessing, you’re calling the Greek optimistic because of their faith in the power of language to describe, and pessimistic for the Hebrew because language is by nature going to always fall short. But you’ve called yourself optimistic in this regard and I guess I wanted to know whether I’m characterizing this debate correctly, but also if you could speak to your optimism.
DM: Thank you. It’s a big question that connects a lot of dots. I think you beautifully characterize Auerbach’s problem with Homer. I should say, for the benefit of listeners, that I turned to Auerbach’s text which I had read in graduate school and actually read the first time as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia studying classics with Jenny Strauss Clay who was a great Homerist. I think as an undergraduate, I had read this at her urging the famous first chapter of Mimesis by Auerbach in which he talks, we contrast Greek narrative with Biblical narrative. You already have the establishment of Athens and Jerusalem as the two great poles which, of course, are my two great poles too as a Jewish family historian and as a classicist. I was having this great crisis writing An Odyssey, the book about me and my dad reading the Odyssey together, because I was having trouble organizing the narrative which originally was arranged chronologically: He took my course, then we went on this crazy Odyssey cruise together, and then he got sick and died all within a year. A friend of mine who’s an editor said, “You’ve got to reorganize this and you can’t have one thing after the other. It’s just not working. You have to find a way to weave it together.” I thought, “Oh, I’ll look at Auerbach and ring composition.” What I have forgotten—this is something else I’m interested in, the tricks that memory plays on you—what I’ve forgotten is that Auerbach doesn’t like ring composition given he’s interested in how literature makes things feel real, which one could say is his aim in this book. He says, “Well, this narrative technique of endless digression and nested digressions within digressions potentially can tell you everything about a given subject.” I just gave the example of Odysseus’s scar which is the example he uses as the great example of ring composition. You get the moment of identification but then you get this history of Odysseus and what he was like as a baby. Auerbach’s point is because of the potential of potentially endless rings within rings, you could say everything about a given subject. But he doesn’t like that because he said it’s essentially, and I’m going to compress a very complicated argument into too short of a space, but basically in life, you don’t know everything about everything. Omniscience only belongs to the deity. He doesn’t think that the Homeric narrative is as “realistic”, doesn’t feel as real as, and then as you said, he uses the example in Genesis of the description of Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac where he goes to the place of sacrifice, for example. But unlike Homer who would have told you every step of the way what hotel he stayed at, how was dinner, what their luggage looked like, who packed, who they met along the way, there are these omissions and gaps. We know that from reading the Hebrew Bible, that the style is often disjointed, there are great gaps, you don’t know a lot. Auerbach has a very interesting idea since representation is a very crucial element in Hebrew theology. The deity itself cannot be represented so Auerbach thinks the narrative avoidance of over description is a kind of function of the Hebrew distaste for representing the deity himself which I thought is fascinating. Anyway, in my book Three Rings, I’m interested in this because it is the poles between which I myself oscillate quite often, not just as a Jewish thinker and a classicist, a scholar of Greek literature, but in my own narrative. As you say, I characterize the Greek as optimistic, you beautifully described why, because of the faith and the power of language to represent which is a great Greek achievement, and one could say of which ring composition itself is a great example. You can describe everything if you had enough time, and paper presumably; and the Hebrew as pessimistic, you can’t, no matter how much you try to say, you’ll never depict reality in all of its richness. As a parallel to that, if you belong to a faith in which the deity cannot be represented, cannot be described, and in fact, whose name cannot be uttered in which the name, if you read Hebrew, when you see the name of God, you say another word so it’s a kind of a displacement, I describe that as the pessimistic view. It’s very interesting you raise this, David, because I got a very interesting letter, email from a smart reader who said, “I was very taken by the fact that you described the Hebrew as pessimistic and the Greek as optimistic because that’s not necessarily how I would see it.” I thought that was so interesting. It says something about me that I would think the Greek mode was optimistic, I guess, because I’m a certain kind of writer, and I do believe in—and I’m finally answering your question about optimism—I do believe in the power of literature to convey a real sense of what life not only is like but what it’s for. I would say that makes me an optimist about literature. In fact, if I may say and if it doesn’t sound too grandiose, I would say my whole career as a writer for almost 35 years now of publishing, my belief that looking at the literature of the past can reveal important truths about the way that we live and we conduct our lives, and I’m not just talking about classical literature about which obviously I’ve written a lot in which I always thread through my own writing, but I think of these many pieces I’ve written for The New Yorker reevaluating writers of the past, whether it’s Theodor Fontane, Sappho, or French poets, I’m very interested in what literature does for us and I believe that literature does things for us, so I do think I’m an optimist.
DN: One of the great things about preparing for this conversation is that both for the hardback and paperback, you were doing these incredible conversations for your book, ones that I’d encourage people to go seek out with James Wood, with Édouard Louis, with Ayad Akhtar, with Garth Greenwell, and many others. But there’s one comment that jumped out to me by Becca Rothfeld when she asked you, “Why do you consider the Greek style optimistic rather than paranoid?” which I thought was just a wonderfully provocative question to you. But I don’t know what she meant exactly by that.
DM: As far as I remember, she actually used that word also in her review. Becca reviewed the book, not at great length, in The New York Times Book Review. I think her point was that when, as was the case when I was writing this book, you’re interested in pointing out these strange coincidences in history in real life, it can make you paranoid as we know. I mean this is the whole history of the internet, if you’re looking for crazy connections, you’ll find them basically. I think it actually, all kidding aside, speaks to a phenomenon that most writers, and for all I know, other kinds of creative people, know about and we joke about, or even academics who were friends of mine talk, when you’re working on a project, everything starts to be about your project. Whatever you notice somehow has this amazing connection to what you’re working on. It’s something informally we kibitz about, but I think kibitzing aside, it speaks to a reality of how the mind works which is when you become attuned to a certain subject, theme, epoch, biography, or whatever, you start to see things that are connected to it that you would not have noticed before. I always use the analogy of tinted glasses. If you’re wearing pink tinted glasses, certain things are going to pop out in a way that would not have done so otherwise, and certain things also disappear I might add. I think I remember Becca—in her review and then again in the conversation we taped together for a book event about this book—mentioned this word paranoid because it can make you crazy. I think there’s a kind of truth to that when you start thinking everything is connected and nothing is random. It’s one definition of craziness. The question that the creative artist has to make is what is the line between art and madness. As we all know, that can be a blurry line sometimes. But I think her comment speaks in a different way about that thing I was talking about before which is what do we mean when something’s too good to be true? Sometimes a coincidence is like, “Oh, isn’t that funny?” and sometimes it’s scary and dark. I think when you start thinking about how, as it were, life writes circular narratives sometimes. I’ve referred to this before, at the end of my book, I point to a remarkable coincidence that I stumbled on really when I was researching the Odyssey book that connects Fénelon in the 17th and 18th Century ultimately to Auerbach through the medium of this fabulously interesting 19th Century Turkish guy who translated Fénelon and who himself, in a moving way, was connected to Auerbach, although none of these three people were aware of each other. That’s a kind of coincidence which you could say, “Oh, it has this pleasing symmetry that we would want from a novel that connects the dots.” To use an obvious example, Dickens, the way that in Dickens, every character turns out to be connected in some way and all the action is determined by these connections. I guess Becca, what she’s interested in is when does pleasing symmetry become scary over determination? In other words, paranoia. That I think of as a narrative question, just to say when is a narrative realistic and when does it just get crazy?
DN: That’s a great place, talking about over determination, to segue to a question I had about Joyce. Because with your great interest in Greek versus Hebrew storytelling, and this throughline in your work but also distilled in this specific book Three Rings, as well as your interest in the Odyssey and the Holocaust on the other hand, there’s the conspicuous absence of James Joyce’s Ulysses I think which would seem like the obvious, on the surface at least, the obvious book to think of around Greek and Hebrew with Joyce taking the 20-year journey of Odysseus and finding a way to make it a single day in Dublin and have it contain the entire epic, but most notably to take a heroic figure and replace him with the least-heroic one, a wandering marginal Jew in the most unjewish of places. Somehow, he too, is bringing the periphery into the center and he’s bringing the Greek and the Hebrew together. He seems like a natural fit as the person to be meditating on fanfiction around the Odyssey. But elsewhere you’ve said, I’m just going to quote you, “What spoils Ulysses for me, each time, is the oppressive allusiveness, the wearyingly overdetermined referentiality, the heavy constructedness of it all. Reading the book, for me, is never a rich and wonderful journey, filled with marvels and surprises—the experience I want from a large and important novel; it’s more like being on one of those Easter egg hunts you went on as a child—you constantly feel yourself being managed, being carefully steered in the direction of effortfully planted treats. Which, of course, makes them not feel very much like treats at all. The tip-off, for me, are the Gilbert and Linati Schemas, now included in most editions: the road-maps to the books that Joyce concocted for friends, minutely indicating the novel’s themes, its labored structures, the Homeric analogies, etc.—it’s as if Joyce were both the author of his book and the future comp lit grad student who’s trying to decipher it.” I love that. But I wonder, is this a different issue than Greek versus Hebrew or optimistic versus pessimistic? Or is this over-determinedness? Because it feels like maybe it is very much is Joyce being more Greek than the Greeks when he should have been more Hebraic? Or is this something else and is this the wrong framing for the failures of Joyce?
DM: No. I have to say, David, I think it’s the right framing. I’m grateful to you for pointing it out. I should say that I got into a great tiff with Joyce Carol Oates over that comment about Ulysses, who’s a friend of mine I should add, it was a friendly tiff. [laughter] All kidding aside, those comments were also in the larger context, although I didn’t mention this, that to my mind the Joyce of Dubliners to me is the greatest and most authentic Joyce. It seems much more natural to me. I think it’s his best work actually. I know most people don’t agree with me about that. But I think to some extent, thinking about my “problem” with Joyce—and I should say I’ve taught Ulysses and I’ve enjoyed it tremendously—but maybe it is a Greek versus Hebrew problem. It’s funny for me to say this, and you’ll appreciate the irony as a self-identified Greek and optimist, I find it too overdetermined. The ultimate achievement of the digressive narrative is to feel accidental but to be overdetermined, if that makes any sense. In fact, one could say that is the great agenda of naturalistic fiction so that things feel like they’re casual and accidental because that’s how we experience life. But, of course, you know the author is plotting all of this so that things will happen in a certain way. As a reader of and enjoyer of naturalistic fiction, I find that those works in which the determinedness, the structuredness, the authorialness is cleverly hidden so that when the structure, the determination, and the punchline happens, you have that sort of aha moment. As I said, in Ulysses, I not only feel but I see the structuring hand at work which is not something I enjoy. But I think what you’ve just said, David, is very helpful for me in analyzing my own Joyce issue, which I guess I do have while, of course, admiring the greatness of this object which is an indisputable fact as far as I’m concerned. To me, maybe the helpful analogy—and here I’m just taking a leap from your book because I think it’s an interesting question you have raised—is to compare Joyce and Proust who are contemporaries, interested in the same things at the same time, each of whom has created a monumentally-great 20th Century fictional object, each very different to the other, of course. See, I can enjoy Proust in a way that I don’t quite as much enjoy Joyce. I’m not sure I’m going to have an answer for you but it’s very interesting to think of the issue as a Greek versus Hebrew problem. Before I forget, because you’ve raised such an interesting subject, I think and I may be wrong actually because this is just off the top of my head, but I would say because Proust narration has the quality of an inner monologue that goes on and on and feels more accidental, although actually the second part of my book Three Rings, which as I said starts with Fénelon and The Adventures of Telemachus but ends up by discussing ring composition in Proust, Proust is very cannily structured and very tightly structured despite its unbelievably meandering look, that to my mind, he does a better job of hiding his hand so to speak. That may be part of why I enjoy Proust more. I don’t know. Anyway, go ahead. It’s such an interesting topic and it might help cure me of my problems. [laughs]
DN: I wasn’t trying to cure you.
DM: No, but I want to be.
DN: But thinking of you saying the irony of you being optimistic around language but wishing Joyce had been more pessimistic, let’s say, I like the way ultimately as we press further into this polarity between the Greek and the Hebrew, you end up finding the opposite in each other. They start to feel like they get confused or more complicated in nuance. For instance, that the absences in the pessimistic mode, as Auerbach says, require the reader to probe further, and this creates criticism. We could look at the Talmud in relationship to the Torah as being a very Greek-like text, a very digressive, associative, and ridiculously exhaustive accretion of language. I wonder I guess, I don’t know if this is a stretch, if we think of like you mentioned that weaving is the metaphor that the Greeks use for writing and maybe Penelope is the Hebrew force in the Odyssey who’s every day unweaving what’s being woven, but one of my favorite parts of the book, maybe you could just speak to this just for a moment in this spirit, is that when you’re talking about Proust, you talk about the two paths that go from the house. They represent polar opposite ways of being or potential life choices and strata within society, but they ultimately find their opposites within them.
DM: It’s interesting. But I wonder if it only works in one direction. Let me think about this.
DN: I think you only mention it for one of the roads, that one of the roads you get to the end and you’re discovering the other one in it.
DM: Right. The famous thing about his childhood memory is that when you left his aunt’s house in this little country town, you could go either to the left or the right. One was the way by Swann’s house which is how the first volume gets its name, Swann’s Way, or one was The Mezegliz Way, or the other was The Guermantes Way, the one that went by the grand place of the great Aristocratic family, and only in adulthood does he realize that it’s actually a circle and that it doesn’t matter which way you go. I do find that—and I’m just paraphrasing Auerbach—as you said, I wonder if it goes in both directions, so the Hebrew way, the opaque, the leaving out of things, the skipping over things in the narrative ironically creates more narrative because it leads to interpretative writing. What did he mean by that? What did she mean by that? Why doesn’t she explain this? Why doesn’t he talk about that? That’s where the job of the critic begins, which is one of my jobs. There’s a beautiful irony, or maybe even circularity, that these two modes which we’ve been talking about—the Hebrew narrative, the Bible, the Greek narrative, Homer, and everything that derives from each of those—are maybe, if not leading to the same way, it elaborately interconnected in a way. To keep the metaphor going, maybe the thing about the Greek narrative is that it’s as if the text contains its own critical apparatus through ring composition. In other words, it’s invented this technique of endless digression that can tell you everything you need to know about the action within it. Maybe the reason I like it is because I’m a writer and a critic. In fact, my own texts are both narratives and explications of the narrative through the use of these other texts. Maybe that’s why Proust appeals to me. It’s as if he’s writing his story but also giving you everything you possibly could use to understand his story. I’m just going to say because I thought of it as I said that, that both the Greek and the Hebrew, or the classical and the Hebrew are literary cultures famous for their commentaries. Both of these cultures you already mentioned, the Talmud, and there are many other things too which are endless commentaries on the ultimate text which is the Torah, the whole tradition is commentary. The Greeks also have a very famous, long-standing, and millennia-long tradition of commentary of which I am a part as a classic scholar. You have this limited set of texts, very limited actually, and all we do for a living is talk about them. Of course, the famous question is, “Can you say anything new about Homer?” Somehow, because I think you’ve raised such an interesting question, this relationship of the Greek to the Hebrew, of the optimistic to the pessimistic, may be a kind of maybe not opposites, maybe not continuous, but a yin and yang or a deconstructive dynamic. Each one needs the other to exist in a way. Maybe that’s somehow it. This is just me and who I am temperamentally and intellectually, I like these texts that seem to struggle within themselves to answer their own questions which is the Greek and the digressive mode. That’s certainly, I could say, what’s appealing to me about Proust and what was instantly appealing to me about Proust when I first read it before I was thinking about any of this.
DN: In the spirit of your book, I’m going to take another digression outside of it again. Because I think when we think about your writing life in terms of ring composition, I start seeing ring composition everywhere, not just with Cavafy outside of the book, or the three interwoven sections in An Odyssey—the classroom, the crews, and the hospital—about you and your father. But you’ve also talked about how this digressive circular mode of storytelling, you originally encountered it through the stories of your grandfather and it was a technique that for a long time you thought that he had invented; that your original interest in Homer rather than the Hebrew Bible was because you recognized the way your grandfather told stories, so that in other words, your grandfather who came from an Orthodox Jewish family in Poland is the inadvertent reason you preferred pagan texts to Jewish texts. But thinking of your book The Lost, I was also thinking of the way you intersperse the search for your family’s lost stories with passages from Genesis. This feels also like Three Rings because we get three commentators. We get the most-famous commentator of all, the medieval French rabbi Rashi, we get commentary from a contemporary rabbi, and then the third ring is you who more often than not is weighing in on which of the two in this specific instance is more convincing. But sometimes you add your own unique commentary yourself. Most movingly, I think about the story of Lot’s wife. But it just gets me thinking about could we find ring composition in the Hebrew also? Not just in your grandfather, not just in the way that you organize this three-part commentary in The Lost. But I think of the Torah scroll itself which is circular, it’s unscrolled, over the course of one year, a full circle of the earth around the sun, and then it’s rolled up again and then unscrolled again for another year. Or even the way time unfolds in the Hebrew calendar. Originally, there were four Jewish new years, four circles, and there are three that we still celebrate today. It’s weird, the Rosh Hashanah, the birth of the earth and the renewal of the soul, is the so-called head of the year and yet mysteriously it’s not the beginning of the calendar. Then there’s the New Year of the Trees when the sap begins to rise in the trees before anything visible is changed in the heart of winter, and the new calendar year, which is the exodus from Egypt and the birth of a people. These aren’t explicitly commented on in your book, but I was surprised you talk about your interest in the tree in the Garden of Eden in The Lost, the tree at the center of the Garden of Eden, and how it represented, in your mind, both the pain and the pleasure of knowing things. But I was surprised you didn’t connect this to rings. You say in The Lost, “As a child I always wondered why a tree, and not a rock or a bird. As an adult I realized it had to do with time, the time it requires to obtain knowledge and the effect time has on ordering and separating knowledge.” Of course while you don’t say it—though I’m guessing you’re thinking it—the tree records time and its own time in rings. Or as Alice Oswald would say, “Time itself is part of a tree’s singularity.” I wonder if that sparked any thoughts for you. This is an endless rabbit hole. I’m sure I could just keep finding rings if I look for rings.
DM: I wish I’d talked to you while I was writing The Lost. I would have had many better ideas I think, not the least of which, which I did not think about, you’re generous to assume I did but I did not. That idea that a tree is composed of rings famously, even children know that, as a marker of time. Certainly, there’s a kind of circularity, or maybe that’s not quite the right word, I want to say a notion of recurrence that runs through the Hebrew Bible both in large and small ways. I’m hardly a Biblical scholar so I’m going to preface everything I say with that. These motifs that really are light motifs as the arc of the Torah stories evolves, why I actually, one, I do talk about I think in The Lost, this recurrent motif of the younger son or the youngest son always triumphing which is counterintuitive, certainly in comparison to other kinds of myths. I think I analyzed this motif of the arc, babies being saved, deaths of the firstborn. There are many elements that people have analyzed, which despite its apparent gaps and opacities gives a compositional unity to the many stories told in the Hebrew Bible. I don’t think my own thinking about circularity, optimism, pessimism, and narrative were developed enough while I was writing The Lost, which remember, I was writing now more than 20 years ago when I was working on that book. As you say, there’s a certain point where I’m talking about the Tree of Life and the tree of knowledge, and what that means, why is knowledge a tree. I talk about trees actually in some of my other books, especially in my first book because I was obsessed with a relative of mine whose tombstone took the form of a tree which I thought was very interesting. I don’t know. Look, talk about time and evolution, if I could write now the books that I wrote before with what I know now, they would be different books, but then here we come back, fortuitously or not, to a point with which we began which is about writers, their careers, and their evolution. In that sense, it’s a weirdly grandiose thing to say but I’ll only say it because you said it first, I think that Three Rings for me represents both a culmination and a departure I think. It’s certainly because it braids considerations that I’ve dealt with from my first book on together and it does move between Homer and the Holocaust, and family history and world history, and all these things we’ve been talking about. But of all the books I’ve written—and this sounds a weird thing to say because I always tell people, “Your books are like your children. You know exactly what’s great about them and exactly what’s wrong about them but you love them anyway.”—I think this book most perfectly expresses what I wanted to do in the best-possible form. I do. I’m very happy with this book because it says everything, no more and no less, that I wanted to say about these very dense, complicated subjects in maybe the purest form. The Lost is digressive—some people thought overly so—because to some extent, I was mimicking my grandfather’s voice. Look, I would say if I were a critic writing about my [livre], or if you want to call it that, over the years both in these four narrative nonfiction books and in my critical writing too, I would say my great interest—even though the subjects look different: family history and sexuality, the Holocaust, the Odyssey, fathers and sons, literary techniques. What I’m always worrying about is what can a story do? How do we tell stories to each other? What we want them to contain, what work we think they ought to be doing, how they are shaped, how they are shaped both consciously and unconsciously. I’m already worried about that in my first book The Elusive Embrace which I wrote in the mid-90s and published in 1999, which actually ends—although it’s about me and me as a gay man and desire, literature, becoming a parent, and all kinds of things—ultimately, what it’s really about is the influence of the family story I just mentioned; this great aunt of mine who died tragically young and who has this tombstone shaped like a tree cut down. The influence of that narrative, that tragic narrative on my own thinking about many things—family, history, desire—and the fact that it turned out not to be true what I was told about this, I was already worrying in that book in which my grandfather has first introduced about what does it mean for a story to be true? As we know, stories can be true in different ways. The obvious cliché is fiction, which is stuff that did not happen, is not true in that elemental way but good fiction is true in a different way because it says things that are true about the world. That is something I was already worried about. I think my grandfather is the great figure in my life of the great storyteller, and of course, in that sense, he bears a lot in common—although I did not know this when I was four years old listening to him talk—with Odysseus who’s another famous storyteller, and if I may say, another famous b*llsh*tt*r who twisted the facts to suit his needs in each situation. We know that he famously tells a series of stories which are modeled on reality but also take great liberties when it suits him. I would say that my subject is narrative. It’s been a slight source of frustration to me that when you’re a non-fiction writer, people read you and critics certainly write about you attune to the subject rather than, I would put it, the theme. I think the theme of all these books is narrative and storytelling. The most recent one which we’re talking about today at a very patent overt level, it is a book about narrative, it has narrative in the freaking title just in case you missed the point. [laughter] I think I’ve been worrying about narrative from the beginning as someone who learned about narrative from a natural storyteller, not an educator. My grandfather is not an educated person to no fault of his own, but was a brilliant storyteller and that raises questions. It raised questions in a different way in the Holocaust book, which is—I think people understood this—really about orality. Here I am, running all over the world, tracking down these 12 survivors from this one small town asking them to tell me stories about my relatives who did not survive and then having to evaluate that. I very overtly in that book worry not only about the truth or distortions, or distortions of memory that may influence what they told me, but my own ability to then retell it and my own right to retell it. That’s a book that you could say, “Oh, well, that’s a Holocaust book,” but again, I think it’s really a book about what you can say about the Holocaust more than it is about the Holocaust. In fact, the smartest thing that was said about that book when it came out, which is already 2006, was this is not a book about the Holocaust, this is a book about how to write a book about the Holocaust. I thought that was very canny. I think these things are all very stimulating to me. As we all know, just to make an obvious point, we’re living in a world in which the power of narratives—true, false, deliberately false, accidentally false—is something of vital importance in our lives and that is our existential struggle now. How do you know when something’s true? How do you tell it to people? Will they believe it? I think these are rather urgent points.
DN: Let’s spend a little bit of time with representation in the form of models and memorialization because it feels like that’s another way a lot of this can be connected. In The Lost, Lot’s wife in a way becomes, in your view, a monument one made out of tears, a monument to grief and departure. In your Cavafy lecture, you said, “The role of the poet is to recuperate those things lost to time.” In speaking about Three Rings, you said that rings are particularly good form for writers dealing with what is lost, the actual thing has disappeared and all you can do is model or represent it by circumambulating the absence. This feels like it enters the book in many ways: Auerbach creating a model of Europe as he’s absented from it, there’s the question of Racine’s representation of the temple in one of his theatrical productions in your book, but most poignantly, you visit the models of many different synagogues in the Jewish diaspora in the museum in Tel Aviv, many which I presume are, in reality, gone or maybe they’re there and the active Jewish communities are gone. You say in all of your five years of traveling the globe for writing The Lost, it was when you were before the models, before the representations, not out in the world with the survivors that you cried. You talk about the impulse to create replicas having a poignant paradox; on the one hand, the belief in our ability to recreate and the acknowledgment that the original has been lost, which again I think we could endlessly make this about Greek and Hebrew. But talk to us about models and memorialization as it relates to this book a little bit more for us.
DM: Well, thank you. I think it’s an important part of the book although it’s a light motif that I don’t lean too heavily on, but I think the astute reader understands the issue that’s represented. I mentioned this model room in the Tel Aviv history museum, which had such a great effect on me, as I said because to have a room full of models of synagogues around the world is an implicit acknowledgement that the originals either are not standing or are not being used for the purposes that they were built. That becomes an important light motif for a number of reasons. As a person who’s written a large book about the Holocaust, this absence versus presence thing haunts me a lot. I actually talk about the synagogue of which there is no model in my family’s town in what was Eastern Poland and is now actually in Western Ukraine about an hour’s drive from Lviv, which of course is the city that’s been in the news a lot lately. After the war, when there were no Jews left in this town for obvious reasons, it became a deceit of the Leather Workers’ Union. I don’t even know what it’s used for now. The poignancy of history of buildings you might say becomes, to return to your point, David, a light motif that crosses the Hebrew-Greek divide. Then at one point, I talk about how I, as a nerdy kid already bitten by the classics bug, was always making models of the Parthenon in the basement of our suburban house on Long Island to the point that the table that I worked on is still referred to in my family—because my mom still lives in the house we grew up in—as Athena’s table. People will say, “Oh, go put that on Athena’s table.” [laughter] I think visitors to our house [inaudible]. But the Parthenon itself, which I talk about because it’s interestingly implicated in the histories that I’m discussing in this book, not least the endless conflicts between Islam represented by Istanbul and the west, is itself a building that has generated many models, literal and figurative, but also didn’t necessarily have the uses that it was built for, and as I always like to tell people, is actually a Christian church for longer than it was a Temple of Athena, which is what it was ostensibly built to be. Thinking about the fates of buildings is a kind of metaphor for the fates of civilizations which is something else that’s at the heart of this new book. You yourself refer to one of the most poignant examples that I use, which is Auerbach, writing his great opus about the greatness of European literature, has to write this book not in Europe but in Istanbul because Europe is tearing itself into pieces. I think this is a terribly poignant irony behind that. Models become one of those motifs that I develop in this book, and that both consciously but also as kept happening, things just kept popping up. One of the places that I talk about as the subject of many models is the Temple of Jerusalem, Solomon’s Temple which was destroyed not once but twice famously. It just so happens—and this is one of those coincidences—that a central theme of one of Sebald’s books that I discuss in the Auerbach’s section of my book, in fact, the book that’s called The Rings of Saturn (as if you couldn’t get it any better) is an Englishman who spent decades trying to make a perfect scale model of the Temple of Jerusalem, and he becomes a figure, I believe in my interpretation of that book, which is maybe the most digressive and the most wandering of all of Sebald’s books, I think it’s a figure of representation itself, that try as we do when here we get back into our optimistic versus pessimistic problem, as minutely detailed as we try to be, no active representation can ultimately equal reality. I think that’s why at a certain point in this narrative, the nameless narrator goes to visit this friend who for 20 years has been working on a model of the Temple of Jerusalem. Here I think, we’re very much in the territory of the pessimistic, the builder who’s a former pastor says that—it’s a sort of Zeno’s paradox—the closer he comes to finishing it, the farther he is from actually being able to achieve total representative perfection because as each new archaeological article is published with new details, he has to keep stopping and adjusting. It seems obvious to me that this model becomes a figure of the thing we’ve been talking about since we started talking in different ways, which is how do we represent reality, which is of course the title of Auerbach’s book, The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. What does it mean to try to represent? Models are like books, one could say, like the models I was building, the model of the metro by the incredibly detailed 4-foot by 12-foot model of the Parthenon that was in the in the coat room of The Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was growing up and I used to force my father to drive me in so I could stand there looking at it. These are all attempts to show you what something looks like which is literally what representation means, to present it again in a different form. That is why in Three Rings, I keep circling back to different kinds, the models I made, the models in the Israeli Museum, the model in Auerbach’s novel, all these different things. One kind of model, which I hint at, is a memorial. It’s a different kind. It’s a representation of something as it were by absence, by forcing you to think about something that’s not there because it died. In fact, just to quickly finish this thought because you introduced this idea of centers and peripheries which is inherent in our Cavafian drawing, the circle with the dot in the middle, itself alludes to the tension between the circumference and the center that I describe, and this is how I work The Lost and the Holocaust into this new book when I went to visit the memorial to Bełżec’s, which strikingly and not coincidentally, takes the form of a circumnavigation. There’s the site of this death camp and the gas chambers but you don’t go in it, you walk around it. I was very taken by that. As if to experience the immensity of this thing, you have to circumnavigate it. As you walk, the walkway, the name of each town that had a transport to Bełżec’s is in metal letters affixed to the walkways so you’re literally walking around it. But again, it gets at both Cavafian and Hebrew problems that you can keep traveling but you can’t get there which is also metaphorically the problem of representation ultimately.
DN: It makes me think a lot about how quickly politics is involved in questions of memory, modeling, and memorialization. Elsewhere as you’ve referred to, you’ve written about the restoration of the Parthenon which you say is a structure similar to the second Temple of Jerusalem, it’s built to replace a previously destroyed structure to begin with. But also as you also say, it was used for many things over 2000 years. It was a church but it was also a mosque with its own minaret so when it’s destroyed in the 17th Century and then rebuilt in the 19th, the question of what to rebuild it as isn’t an entirely empty question or obvious one or innocent one, it’s ultimately restored as part of a nation-building project, unsurprisingly, to enshrine a certain image that Greece wanted to have of itself. But that makes me think of all sorts of monuments. I think of how the Roman Colosseum was built with the looted riches of the Temple of Jerusalem, or how we learned just recently in The New York Times that the Eiffel Tower was built from the money that France took from Haiti that it extorted from Haiti for its lost property which the lost property being the newly-freed slaves who have revolted successfully to create a Black Republic in the Caribbean, that there are all of these erased stories behind all of these monuments. Here we have Eiffel Tower, the iconic image of France having this other story which made me think of this mesmerizing and equally-horrifying article that I read in Jewish Currents called The Many Oblivions of Babi Yar by Linda Kinstler. It’s about these various attempts to memorialize the site of the Babi Yar massacre in Ukraine which was a ravine where 33,000 Jews were murdered in a two-day period, and overall, 150,000 people over the course of Nazi occupation were murdered in the ravine. It’s been memorialized simultaneously in many incongruent ways. It’s this weird hodgepodge, and yet one of the people wanting to do something different, a person who was shocked by the sight of people drinking beer there, walking their dogs, mountain biking, playing paintball because of his horror around this, he wanted to do something very different. For me, he had the most-horrifying solution which was an almost live-action virtual reality game that would put you in the experience of what it would be like to be there in one-subject position or another. But even though I hated his answers to the problem, I felt very connected to his diagnosis of the problem around memorialization when he says the following, this is what he says, “When I started to walk there, I immediately got it. This is a sacred, dangerous, raped place. This soil, and this land, is a holy land. You cannot change it—you can only respect it.” Then he talked about how he read that the trees growing over the site of the mass grave were distinct from others on the terrain, that nature had made its own quiet memorial to the murdered. He continues by saying, “For me this place is a body. What can you do with a body?” Then he nods at the ring on the journalist’s finger and says, “You have a ring on your hand but you didn’t cut your finger,” sort of suggesting that somehow there was a way to respect it on its own terms, to preserve the finger while memorializing the finger. Here again with a ring. But I’m thinking about your Deep Frieze piece on the Parthenon which you write about in relationship to the 9/11 memorial also, one is a memorial and one’s a restoration, but I guess I wondered if it sparked any more thoughts. Because here we are with I think something about a rupture that defies language or maybe it’s more powerful, at least for this person who’s seen the way the memorial is being used as a park even as it’s over memorialized, maybe it’s more powerful to respect it as it is and walk around its edges.
DM: That’s what I thought. When I was on my final research trip to Ukraine and Poland for The Lost, which is actually July of 2005, so 17 years ago this month, they had just finished this Bełżec’s memorial. I was very moved and touched by the fact that it gestured towards the unapproachability. Something I harp on quite a lot as you know in The Lost is the limits of representation, that the people whose sufferings I was writing about suffered things that we literally can’t imagine. We can only imagine them from other representations; what you’ve seen in movies, what you’ve seen in documentaries, but we cannot actually imagine them. I wonder maybe we shouldn’t be able to imagine them. To continue a thought you started on about the obscenity of this place of memorial being a park where people enjoy themselves, notoriously, there are certain memorials that have become just that. These raise very thorny questions and I’m not going to claim to have answers because after all, I’ve gone for picnics in cemeteries as people regularly used to do in the 19th Century. Is that a desecration? I don’t know. Who am I to say you can’t have a picnic lunch in Babi Yar? [laughter] But they’re very complicated. Where’s the line, in other words. I remember being very offended, and I actually wrote about this in The Lost, that at a certain point, I don’t know if it’s true anymore, but at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, there was a point where you could enter a cattle car and I think that’s very problematic, I thought so at the time. You go inside the cattle car and what are you supposed to get out of that? That you “know” what it was like to be in a cattle car? No, you don’t know what it was like because those people were going into gas chambers and you’re going to go to the cafeteria to have the Asian chicken salad. I think what we’re both talking about ultimately comes back to this issue of representation and reality, the gap. Sometimes the model can only be a model. When you mistake the model for reality, you’re in very difficult ethical territory I think. Notoriously, in the gay community, there’s actually a funny website where this guy has posted pictures that apparently in Berlin, a lot of guys who go on Grindr and these sex apps photographs themselves at the Holocaust Memorial. You can’t make this up if I may quote myself. [laughter] Here they are trying to get laid with pictures taken in front of the Holocaust Memorial. The name of the website, which is darkly humorous, is They Did Not Die In Vain. These are very complicated questions and I don’t pretend to have the answers but I can only talk about my discomfort with this or that issue. To come back to a point I was making before, how all of my books are ultimately about narrative and what we do with it and what its nature is and its uses, I worried a lot in The Lost about my own role in this process. What does it mean to paraphrase other people’s tales of trauma? Do I have a right to describe them? Do I have a right to try to reconstruct the day of my great uncle’s death? Is that something I’m allowed to do? This book, which itself purports to be an act or an attempt at an accurate reconstruction of the lives and deaths of my six relatives, how far short of that goal does it fall? Very, I would say. That’s a problem of narrative is that it presents itself holistically. Here is the story of X, but I know it’s not the story of X, it’s a kind of a fragment of a story you might be able to talk about X. These things are worrying, particularly for reasons that I think are almost cliché at this point, it’s a great subject of concern for us. Now, look, here I’m going to talk as a classicist, Plato was worried about this. Plato was already worried about art. When you can make a very good picture of something, will it ultimately have epistemological and ultimately-ethical and moral consequences? What happens when people start mistaking the picture for reality? There’s certainly a lot of that going around right now.
DN: Let me ask you about that anxiety around mistaking the model for reality in relationship to Sebald. Whereas you say that Homer’s rings are designed to illuminate and enact the hidden unity in things, you say that Sebald’s rings are designed to confuse and entangle with trajectories that lead to disillusion and defeat, that is circling leads to a series of locked doors for which there are no keys. That perhaps in the spirit of the Hebraic mode, his theme is the failure of narrative. I wanted to ask you about Sebald in this light about the failure of narrative because as you just did frame The Lost and as you frame The Lost elsewhere, of being less about the Holocaust and more about the anxiety of narrative, more about when what actually happened gets replaced by the story of what happened, maybe irrevocably, when you were in conversation with James Wood, he started in a strange place I thought, wondering why there were no footnotes in your book when so many things, if it had been an academic book, would be citable. You answered that you wanted the book to be conversational. He feels like your choice preserves a certain purity of movement, even a purity of music within Three Rings. I’d add that you finished reading the book as a reader with a wealth of potential writers to explore, that the material from which your book arises still feels manifest in a broader sense to me at least. But I wondered about your thoughts regarding the recent Sebald revelations. I greatly admire his work, I know you do, but to learn that the whole arc of the fictional Austerlitz’s life, as well as many of its smaller details, is not only taken from a real Jewish woman’s life, Susi Bechhofer, but also from her published memoir where she describes her kinder transport experience but taken with that attribution, and an attribution that she sought, an acknowledgement where she writes an op-ed in The London Times called Stripped of My Tragic Past by a Bestselling Author, or that many other people’s lives that were appropriated without attribution in Sebald’s work were also resentful of how they were portrayed. One Jewish painter, whose life found itself in his work, called it a narcissistic enterprise. The author of The New Yorker article says, “The author’s deep, even hypnotic identification with his subjects—what Angier calls his ‘imaginative sympathy’—might also be called theft or German plunder.” I guess I wondered, because of his very different subject position than you, you as a descendant of Holocaust survivors looking to recover your family stories versus a non-Jewish German writer, both being positioned and positioning himself as the conscience of his country in some regards, if he owes more to his sources than to the purity of movement in his texts, the aesthetic qualities of his books, if he has a different responsibility to the material he took, Jewish material that takes what really happened and makes a different story from it. I wondered if you had thoughts about that. Not about whether he’s an amazing writer but I guess it becomes an ethics of memorial and archive and memorialization, and monuments, ruptures, and erasure.
DM: Right. It’s an interesting question, David, and a very difficult one. I haven’t read the Sebald biography although I am aware of the controversies that you refer to. I’m going to make a blanket statement about what I felt. I don’t know if you remember, but there was something weirdly parallel about a woman who complained because she had a story, this is a big thing on the internet maybe six months ago, the woman was ill or something and then she talked to her friend about it and the friend ended up writing a book, an essay, a poem, or published something. It may be more useful to think about that example because it’s not freighted by these radioactive subject matter like the Holocaust which is so radioactive that it makes it hard to look at, it’s like trying to read something on a very shiny page. My reaction to that story is, “Well, if your story is out there, it’s available.” My basic feeling, and this is very old-fashioned, is that art trumps everything at the end of the day. This may be because I’m a classicist, the stuff I look at is so old, nobody remembers any of the details, any of the hurt feelings, what crazy mother Euripides may or may not have based the Medea on, all we have is the product which is great literature. I feel that ultimately trumps every other consideration. I can’t speak specifically to this Sebald thing because I need to read the book and look exactly about what the details were. But the fact is at the end of the day that, to put it crudely, Sebald’s novels are great novels, I think by any reasonable measure, that will do their work irrespective of the details of him, his sources, whatever for generations and centuries to come. That’s the story of the history of literature, that the minds of great writers take stuff that’s out there and they turn them into useful products. A story I used to tell, this came up in a slightly different key, when I was touring when The Lost was published and I was on a very extensive books tour and I was talking to different audiences, I said, “Look, all of this in 2000 years,” because that’s a reasonable amount of time to think in if you’re a classicist, not a normal person but a classicist, “No one’s going to be reading my book in 2000 years.” I can guarantee that, if there’s a planet of course. But what culture does and what literature does is it creates useful narratives out of what happened and turns it into the story of what happened, which serves as a cultural function. The example I use—and this may be a sideways way of answering your question, David—is think of when the exodus from Egypt happened. Everyone was writing a memoir, how me and my camel and my mother-in-law crossed the Red Sea and it almost closed on us. Everyone was publishing memoirs. Everyone had a story to tell. All those individuals, those millions, hundreds of thousands, whatever the number of Hebrew slaves, everyone had a story to tell, believe me. Believe me. Now, there’s only one story that’s told which is the Haggadah. There’s one story that we tell and it becomes the emblematic story. In a certain way, it’s the only story we need to know. Because we’re local and we live our lives locally, it seems unbelievable and offensive to us that individual stories will be erased to be replaced by either the Haggadah or by Sebald’s book. Which is not to say there aren’t difficult ethical questions because right now, that lady’s still alive, her offense is real, but you’re in very murky waters and I’m not sure I have the answer to this, but I know that great art trumps everything at the end of the day, whether legitimately or not in ethical terms. That’s all that’s going to last. I had a very uncomfortable exchange when The Lost was published. A guy I went to high school with, who’s the son of a survivor, I knew them not well, he was really my older brother’s friend, and when my book was published, he got in touch with me and said that his father wanted to write a book and could I help them. I talked to some people I know and this happened more than once with many people. As you can imagine, I was contacted by many survivors or children of survivors, how they should get their book published and blah-blah-blah. One place that will publish all these memoirs is Yad Vashem. But as a commercial publisher, the answer that I got from many editors was that there’s a lot of these stories unfortunately and not everyone wants to read everyone. That may be a different way of framing. Are they important locally? Absolutely, because every voice of witness is important. But that’s a historical consideration, not an aesthetic consideration if you see what I mean. I think it’s a very complicated question. Of course, in Sebald’s case, as you rightly point out, it’s complicated by the fact that the great artistic storyteller happens to be a German as it were “even worse”. [laughter] C’est la vie. Here, we’re in a familiar territory in a different way which is about Wagner. Even Germans, even anti-Semitic Germans make great art that a lot of Jews enjoy. Go figure that one. But I think at a certain point, you just have to acknowledge that that’s the amazing dissolving power of very great art; it does dissolve these considerations for better or for worse. I’m not necessarily sure it’s better in every case but it’s a thorny one. But I want to bring it back to The Lost, not to my book but to a story someone told me which may be a good way to round this out, which is one of the survivors—there turned out to be 12 that I tracked down over a course of 5 years—who had known my relatives. This was 20 years ago. They were then in their mid to late-80s, they’re now all dead. She famously had never told anyone her story and she didn’t tell me either. No one knew how she survived. Everyone else was very free with telling me their tales of what happened to them, how they had managed to survive, where they had hidden. She never said anything. She had ended up in Australia where I interviewed her. She said, “I’m happy to talk about your family and what I know about them. But about my own experience, I refuse to speak.” I imagine it was very traumatic in ways that are not hard to imagine if you’re a teenage girl trying to get by in those times. She said something so interesting to me which I think speaks to the heart of this in different ways. She said, “My story is no different from the story of lots of girls. It’s not going to make a difference if you have one less story as part of this. It’s exactly what happened to many girls like me.” Of the many things I heard during my research and my travel, that lingers maybe the longest in my mind because it goes to the heart of this problem. Because the Holocaust is, so to speak, still a recent event, there are still people alive who were either victims, bystanders, or indeed, even perpetrators who were actually alive, not for long, but it feels unimaginable to us, because we do live life locally, that one story will never be told. It also anguishes our particular sensibility as information-age people in which everything is recorded, shared, and processed infinitely. Yet, in a way, it speaks to the reality of what I was jokingly referred to about the exodus. Everyone did have a story and none of them are known anymore except in the broad contours. The broad contours are what allow us to think about an event. We were slaves and then we were free. That’s basically the story of exodus. I was so frustrated because I was the writer writing this book and she represented one-twelfth of what it was possible to know in the entire planet at that moment about the events I was interested in that no one will ever know. Yet, I think in a larger sense, she was right. There’s very little that isn’t known about the Holocaust at this point. Will one girl’s story make a difference in the grand scheme of things? No. That would be pessimistic. [laughter]
DN: In the spirit of knowing things, before we end, I would like people to hear a little bit from the book.
[Daniel Mendelsohn reads from Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate]
DN: We’ve been listening to Daniel Mendelsohn read from Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate. As a way to end, I’d love to just hear a little bit about your upcoming translation of the Odyssey. You’ve said that you’ve been teaching it since the 1980s, but that having now translated it yourself, it has changed your relationship to it. But I’d also love to hear what choices guided you, for instance, I think of Emily Wilson’s translation note and introduction—which I really love—that situate us with a more complicated version of hospitality for instance, the rituals of hospitality that she looks at as a code not only of welcoming but of extending empire. But also, she talks about the constraints for herself that for her it would be the same length, it would have the same number of lines as the original, and having those constraints, maybe like the constraints you had with Three Rings, acted as guideposts. I’d be curious how did translating the epic change your relationship to it, but also maybe if you could share some of the choices, I mean, there are so many ways people have chosen that have been contradictory to each other over time.
DM: When I was asked to do this by the University of Chicago Press, who had an editor read my Odyssey book in which I translated short passages and had liked what I’d done there, I actually ended up doing something quite different in the final version. But in my Odyssey translation, as in my Cavafy translation, I’m particularly attuned to formal elements. For example, as I mentioned in an earlier conversation we were having, repetition is a very marked feature of Homeric style, epithets, whole lines, whole passages, or repeated verbatim. I believe that has both an aesthetic and a literary effect of great importance. Unlike many translators, I keep the repetitions almost I would say 99% of the time. Athena is always the goddess of the bright owl eyes because that’s what she is in the Greek text. The Odyssey is a very old remnant of an archaic culture and part of the archaism makes itself felt in these formal elements, the repetitions, the stiffness of the repetitions I think is a good thing. Many people don’t do that. I honestly can’t remember what Emily does, but I know that, for example, a translation that I admire a lot, Stanley Lombardo, in each instance when one of these repeated epithets comes up, I think he finds a slightly different way of expressing it. But I think that’s something I do. I’ve also found a much longer line, part of the grandeur, the heft in the Odyssey reside in the fact that it’s one of the longest lines of verse that Greek knows about, an 18-syllable line, that’s very long. I think the standard line is that the English equivalent of that Greek line is blank verse, the iambic pentameter we know from Shakespeare and lots of poetry. That is in fact what Emily Wilson used. The more I think about it, the more I think that’s not the right way to go about it, especially if you’re doing a line-by-line translation, which I also do, I have exactly as many lines as Homer does. But the dactylic hexameter in Greek is an 18, potentially 18, syllable line in a language that’s much more condensed and can say a lot more with fewer words than English can. Whereas the iambic pentameter line is a 10-syllable line, so it’s almost half as long in a language that needs more energy to say the same amount of stuff as Greek. Inevitably, you’re going to be compressing if you’re getting line-for-line, and Emily Wilson does that as do many other people of necessity. Sometimes that can be a good thing or an attractive thing. Look, every translator, when working on something, has an idea of what that author that you’re translating sounds like and feels like. I’m going to say feels like is even more important. What does Homer feel like? I’m trying to put on the page what the Odyssey feels like to me. Part of the feeling resides in its archaisms. I don’t try to translate things away. I don’t try to account for or correct Homer’s bad attitudes that we don’t like anymore because we’re so much more enlightened than the Greeks were. It is what it is. It’s a document of a primitive era by a culture many, if not most of, whose attitudes we would find abhorrent today. That’s what it is, take it or leave it. But mostly for me, as I say, it’s about the feel of it. The epic line is a long line and it has a kind of grandeur that I think it’s possible to reproduce in a long English line. It took me a very long time to work out an English line of verse that felt natural to speak or to read aloud, that got that sense of importance that the long-original line has. But it’s just one approach. Unlike many people writing today because we have access to social media, I’m not an agonistic translator. I don’t think it’s my way or the highway, or everyone else was wrong. I think any honest translator knows that you learn from every other translation, you’re grateful for what people do. Even translations you don’t like you learn from, sometimes because it tells you what to do correctly, but sometimes I don’t think there’s any translation which you can wholly dislike. Everyone has a good idea about something. I know it’s now popular to hash things out in social media about your opinions about everything but I’m always happy to have all these other translations to look at, to think about. I think it’s a collaborative venture ultimately because, here I’m going to end actually with the thing about models, as we know, no representation, as we know—no representation which is to say a re-presentation of something and that obviously includes translation—can ever be equal to the original. You have to acknowledge that going in. All this business of “My translation is the perfect translation and this is the only way to do it and everyone else is wrong,” I just think that’s preposterous. You want an idea of what the Odyssey was like in Greek? Read every translation and start triangulating. That’s the beginning of the sense of what the Odyssey is like. [laughter]
DN: Well, it was a pleasure having you on Between The Covers today, Daniel.
DM: Likewise. It was a great joy to talk to you. I thank you for such interesting ideas which I will now ponder to my great benefit I’m sure. [laughter]
DN: We’ve been talking today to Daniel Mendelsohn, the author of Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. More of Daniel Mendelsohn’s work can be found at danielmendelsohn.com. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, consider joining the community of Between The Covers listener-supporters who are ensuring the future of in-depth conversations like these. Supporters help shape who to invite next. They get resource-rich emails with each episode and there are many other things: collectibles offered by past guests, bonus-audio contributions from everyone from Alice Oswald to our new US poet laureate Ada Limón. You can find out more about subscribing to the bonus audio and the other potential benefits of becoming a listener-supporter at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.