Between the Covers Podcast - Transcript
Between the Covers Georgi Gospodinov InterviewBack to the Podcast
David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Oindrila Mukherjee’s The Dream Builders, a debut novel that Kevin Wilson calls “a marvel of a structure, built by a great talent.” Written from the perspectives of 10 different characters in a fictional city in contemporary India, The Dream Builders explores class divisions, gender roles, and the stories of survival within a society that is constantly changing and becoming increasingly Americanized. Says Tiphanie Yanique, “Written from almost every angle imaginable, the novel demonstrates how each of us might be a hero in our own narratives while being the potential villain in someone else’s.” Adds Jericho Brown, “Mukherjee allows full life for these characters who are often real enough to remind us of ourselves, even as they betray one another … even as they betray themselves.” The Dream Builders is out on January 10th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. Today’s guest, Bulgarian novelist and poet and storyteller Georgi Gospodinov is a perfect guest to usher in the new year with. For as you’ll soon discover, he’s a writer obsessed with beginnings and with endings, with questions of time as they relate to both the future and the past, to imagination and memory, and what exactly telling a story does to time or does for us within the passage of time, what are its gifts, what are its dangers. His novels emerge from a deep stream of oral storytelling within Bulgaria blended with influences also from fantastical writing of writers like Marquez and Borges. As a poet first with a background in philology, he’s a lover of language and of languages. His care around story is also a care around lines and sentences and individual words. In that spirit, his translator into English, Angela Rodel joins us for this conversation for moments when Bulgarian is a better vehicle for what Georgi wants to say than English. But as an American who has long ago adopted Bulgaria as her home, Angela also gives us her own perspective on the way Georgi is examining history and time through a Bulgarian lens as well. For the bonus audio archive, Angela Rodel and I have a second long-form conversation about translating Time Shelter, about Georgi’s work within the Bulgarian literary tradition, about the textures of Bulgarian as a language, and about how Angela’s other pursuits as an actor in Bulgarian cinema and television, as a performing musician on stage and more, how they interplay with her work as a translator. This joins other long-form conversations with translators of past guests in the bonus audio archive whether Beverley Bie Brahic about translating Hélène Cixous, Emma Ramadan about translating Abdellah Taïa, Megan McDowell about translating Alejandro Zambra, or Ellen Elias-Bursać about translating Dubravka Ugrešić. There are many robust conversations in the archive to explore as well as contributions by past guests themselves who happen to also be translators; whether Philip Metres reading some of his translations from Russian, or Arthur Sze from Chinese. The bonus audio archive is only one potential benefit of joining the Between the Covers community in the new year as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of who to invite going forward as guests. Every listener-supporter gets a resource-rich email with every episode, with the various things referenced within the interview and the most noteworthy things I discovered as I prepared for the conversation. To find out more, you can check it all out at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Happy New Year, everyone. Enjoy today’s episode about time and about Time Shelter with Georgi Gospodinov.
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. Today’s guest, Georgi Gospodinov, is a writer who often plays with alter egos. But nevertheless, he shouldn’t be confused with the Bulgarian Olympic water polo player of the same name. Today’s guest is the poet, playwright, essayist, librettist, short story writer, and novelist Georgi Gospodinov. Considered one of the foremost European writers today, he’s also one of the most translated contemporary Bulgarian writers. His first books were poetry, the poetry collection Lapidarium won the National Debut Prize, and his next, The Cherry Tree of One People won the Best Book of the Year from the Bulgarian Writers’ Association. He followed this with Letters to Gaustin and his collected works Ballads and Maladies. His poetry has been found in many international anthologies; from Graywolf’s “New European Poets” to “A Fine Line: New Poetry From Eastern and Central Europe.” It was however his first book of prose, Natural Novel, that gained him international acclaim. Published in 1999 and then in English by Dalkey Archive Press in 2005, it has since been published in 23 languages and called everything from a small and elegant masterpiece to a machine for stories. He’s also published many story collections including And Other Stories which was long listed for the Frank O’Connor Award and contains the story Blind Vaysha, which was adapted into a short animated film of the same name, a film nominated for Best Animated Short at the Academy Award. Gospodinov has also written screenplays for short feature films including Omelette which won the Sundance Jury Honourable Mention at the Sundance Film Festival. He’s also been a columnist for one of Bulgaria’s daily newspapers, written several plays including D.J., which has been staged in Bulgaria, France, and Austria, and won the prize for Play of the Year in 2004. And The Apocalypse Comes at 6 pm, which won the national award for the best dramatic text of the year was chosen by the European Theatre Convention for an international theater festival in New York City and was adapted to Bulgarian National Radio. He also wrote the libretto to Space Opera, co-wrote the graphic novel The Eternal Fly, is the author of the essay collection The Invisible Crises, editor of the collection I’ve Lived Socialism: 171 Personal Stories, and co-author of the Inventory Book of Socialism a catalogue of everyday Bulgarian objects from 1956-1989. Despite this impressive inventory of his own literary accomplishments here in the anglophone world, Gospodinov is likely best known for his two most recent novels: The Physics of Sorrow, which won the Bulgarian novel of the year, and the 2012 The City of Sofia Award for Literature, was a finalist for the Strega Prize in Italy. Called extraordinary and restless in Berlin, won the Central European Angelus Award and Jan Michalski Prize, and which arrived in English in 2015 translated by Angela Rodel for Open Letter Books, and was shortlisted for the PEN Translation Prize and the Best Translated Book Award. Garth Greenwell for the New Yorker said, “The real quest in ‘The Physics of Sorrow’ is to find a way to live with sadness, to allow it to be a source of empathy and salutary hesitation,” “Chronicling everyday life in Bulgaria means trying to communicate Bulgarian ‘sadness,’ which is—to the extent that these things can be disentangled—as much a linguistic as a metaphysical dilemma.” The occasion of our conversation today is Gospodinov’s latest book also translated by Angela Rodel called Time Shelter. Winner of the Strega Prize and a New Yorker Best Book of the Year, Publishers Weekly calls Time Shelter “Electric and fantastical. Thought-provoking and laced with potent satire, this deserves a spot next to Kafka.” Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk says, “Georgi Gospodinov is unique in many ways. I’ve been reading him since the beginning and I know that no one can combine an intriguing concept, wonderful imagination, and perfect writing technique like he can.” And Yuri Herrera says, “Gospodinov writes like a botanist of the soul: he knows the effects of the pretty mushrooms and the hidden herbs within ourselves in spite of what they look like from afar. The living beings he studies are our versions of our past, the unretrievable, the recreated, the future versions of our past, and how we imbue them with the fantasies and poisons that we cultivate in silence.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Georgi Gospodinov.
Georgi Gospodinov: Hello. Nice to be here. Thank you for this introduction. I think we could stop here because [inaudible]. [laughter]
DN: We also have today Angela Rodel herself, one of the most prolific and accomplished translators of Bulgarian literature into English, a much acclaimed and award-winning translator who I will be having a separate conversation with for the bonus audio archive about questions of translation in relation to Time Shelter as well as about her background in ethnomusicology and linguistics and her multi-varied artistic life in Bulgaria as a performing musician, as an actor in Bulgarian cinema and television. But today Angela is with us mostly to assist whenever English is not up to the task of describing things that Bulgarian can describe better. As fellow Bulgarian translator Izidora Angel says of Bulgarian, “Translating its rich grammar comprised of nearly forty tenses and moods into the far softer and grammatically unremarkable English, is, for lack of a more ostentatious phrase, hard goddamn work. And Rodel carries Gospodinov’s grand, flowing Bulgarian sentences, with their maddening rivets and sometimes antiquated turns, into vivid English.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Angela Rodel.
Angela Rodel: Thank you so much. Glad to be here.
DN: Before we talk about Time Shelter, I’d like to talk about both time and shelters as themes that run through your work before this book. You’ve talked about two of your main influences being Borges and your grandmother, and that writing for you began because your grandmother was the only one you dared to tell your dreams to. But that when you had a nightmare, she forbid you from telling it because if you did, it might come true. But because you continued to have the nightmare with no one to tell it to, you came up with the idea when you were seven years old that only if you wrote it down would you be able to escape, and when you wrote it down, you never had the nightmare again. You’ve said that fear is the reason you write. It seems to me that the writing then provides a shelter, perhaps a shelter from fear. You have this great essay called “Tripe soup, Scheherazade and Nightmares or What Can Literature Still Do” where you talk about another childhood memory where you were disturbed by a sign at a snack bar that read “Writers are surgeons of the human soul they must cut out all that is rotten and decayed.” And you say, “What could a sign like that mean here? I would spell it out every time I ate my soup. One spoonful—’surgeons,’ a second—’rotten,’ a third—’decayed’… Strange was a taste of that soup. I should list five things that influenced me to do what I do, that sign would be right there after Borges, the Bible and my grandmother. It saved me forever from the pretence to cut human souls. That was the moment I killed the literary surgeon in me for good.” This story about your grandmother and this story about the sign, to me they seem related to each other. I was hoping you could talk to us about stories themselves for you as shelters rather than surgeries.
GG: I always say thank you to my grandmother and this sign because this was the way I really believed the stories could save us. The nightmare was a true nightmare that repeated night by night and when I wrote down, as you said, I never had it again but also I never forget it. So this was the price when you write something. [laughter] It just stays in the shelter. I think that everything started from my childhood because my grandparents, I used to live with them for seven years of my life and my grandparents were great storytellers. I think they had this magical imagination. They were magic realists without knowing this. They never heard about Marquez or Borges but the stories they told me, the stories about my neighbor that had wings here and was very super powered person, I knew this, my neighbor, and I always try to see where are his wings. These are the stories that I grew up with and they really influenced me. I think that these oral stories, this storytelling culture was very important for my writing. In Bulgaria, we don’t have Big Apple or big novels or something like this but I think we are quite good in storytelling.
DN: Well, one thing you do a lot in your work is you hold up the ordinary and the every day alongside the larger moves of history. You do this with language and literature too. For instance, as we’ve already seen, your grandmother and Borges, you put side by side, this weird blue snack bar sign and the Bible side by side. I wanted to spend a moment with the influence of oral storytelling on you and your style. Your stories move much more like a mind moves than like we expect a novel to move I think. The Bulgarian translator Izidora Angel in her review of Time Shelter says that you and all Bulgarians are students of the oral tradition of storytelling after five centuries of Ottoman subjugation and literary suffocation. You yourself, in interviews, have lamented oral storytelling as disappearing and you’ve called it anti-monumental. I would love to hear both about the appeal of oral storytelling and how it might shape the way a book happens but also what you mean by anti-monumental when you talk about stories.
GG: You said that my first book, which showed stories, was called And Other Stories so we have this missing first name, it’s just And Other Stories. I’m really interested in And Other Stories because I’m coming from Bulgaria which was a communist country and we were fed up with the monumental stories, with monumental ideological things. That’s why when I started to write, I wanted to tell stories of the people who are on the dark side of the moon that are not on the first pages; my grandparents, people like them. Another thing, I don’t care about the pyramid in Giza or a big monument because they will stay, they will remain anywhere, but I really care about the perishable things, the small things, the things that will not live forever. Also, another reason for my storytelling and interest into small stories, every day things comes from this that I’m really believing that literature should be on the losing side. I’m coming from the country which was called by economists in 2010 the saddest place in the world, this rank of happiness. The only time we were champions was in this time when we champions in sorrow. [laughter] That’s why I really think that writing is something like saving the perishable things. Also, maybe it’s a bit romantic or old-fashioned but I believe that with our storytelling, we always gain one more day of our life. We know this from Scheherazade, of course. She’s telling one story and she gained one more day and one more day and so on. Another thing, the last thing is that people always said that, “Okay, the big History is written by victories but the people who are on the losing side, they tell the best stories. They write the stories of the world.”
DN: Yeah. I want to ask you, and you sort of already started to answer this I think around perishable things, I want to ask you about time both on its own and also in relation to shelters. Even before Time Shelter, time was at the front of your mind. Your story Blind Vaysha is about someone who has one eye in the past, one eye in the future simultaneously so they can’t experience the present. They’re functionally blind as they can’t see what is before them. It’s a condition that I’m convinced that I have. I also wonder if all humans have this Blind Vaysha syndrome actually. But in Physics of Sorrow, there is the notion that if you describe the past accurately enough, time will reverse. One of the alternate titles for Physics of Sorrow was Time Bomb, and the center of Physics of Sorrow is a section called Time Bomb, and in the center of Time Bomb is a section called Time Shelter, which is the name of your new novel which describes a narrator living much of his life in the basement, which is also a bomb shelter. This is sort of an impossible question I suspect, but why time as a subject and our stories a shelter, not only from fear but I think as you’ve already suggested, potentially a shelter from time?
GG: Yeah. Three of my novels are really connected in a way and they are connected with a different field of the science. Natural Novel was connected with natural history, The Physics of Sorrow was connected with the quantum physics, so physics of elementary particles, and of course, Time Shelter was connected with medicine, with Alzheimer’s, and so on and so on. But why time? Because I think that now, we are living in this moment of the time where we have the past, the future, and the present one in the same second, one in the same minute. When we described apocalypse, when I was young, I imagined that the apocalypse was like the end of the space like [inaudible] or horses and so on, fire, but actually, if we read carefully the last chapter of the Bible, we will see that the apocalypse is not the end of the space but the end of the time. But what does it mean? What we mean when we say the end of the time? This is the period where the time is completed, when we have everything in one present. This is not something generous. Anyway, I think we are living now in this period where it’s in this schizophrenia with the past, the present, and the future at one in the same moment. What else? Now, during the war, because we are in the war, the war is the canceling of the time. It’s not just we’re living in a period where we have the future canceled. We have this situation, we’re sitting in this situation with the canceled future. But also the war is like a time machine bringing us back to the past, especially this war. Actually, it started at the same time like the Second World War with difference of four minutes. The Second World War started at 4:47 in the morning, this one started at 4:53 in the morning. This is really the repetition, repetition in a strange way. Two wars started with tanks, anyway, there are many, many similarities in this. What else about the time? As you mentioned, in The Physics of Sorrow, I have a chapter called Time Bomb. Also, this is a novel about time capsule so I made this combination between bomb shelter and time capsule and that’s why it became Time Shelter. It’s a shelter against time but also it’s a shelter into the time, in the time. We could say many, many things about the time but I think that exactly now is, I believe as I wrote in the novel, they are periods, they are separate years, even months, or even days when something just make into the time and the mechanism was broken and something changed into the time. I like very much this Virginia Woolf sentence that around December 1910, something in the human character changed. I think that now around February 2022nd, something in the human time changed.
DN: We’ve also suggested the possibility that stories are not just shelters from time but also from death. You mentioned Scheherazade for instance. But also in your first novel, you have the desire to mold a novel of beginnings, a novel that keeps starting, promising something, reaching page 17, and then starting again. At the end of the novel we’re discussing today, you say, “The end of a novel is like the end of the world, it’s good to put it off.” Then in your essay about the Tripe soup, you say that one of the things literature can do is save a life and you say, “How does it do that? To put it simply, it tells stories and thus postpones the end. This is clearest with Scheherazade. One doomed woman tells story after story to gain night after night. Inside the stories she tells, the most frequently tendered coins to buy someone’s life are again stories.” Then my favorite part, I must have known about this instinctively as a child, because I always used to pick up the books narrated in the first person. I knew that their characters could never perish at the end of the book, because it would be impossible for them to utter the sentence ‘I died’. I tell a story, therefore I am.” That’s just brilliant.
GG: Thank you.
DN: [Laughs] But do you want to speak to, I mean it’s a large question but you’re also tackling large questions in these books, but about death? In a sense, a bomb shelter is a space against death also and a time shelter, it sounds to me, is another word for a story and that maybe a story is a shelter against death.
GG: Yes, and all my books are written in the first person also.
DN: So you’re never going to die.
GG: Yeah. [laughter] It’s a small tweak, yeah. In Time Shelter, there are some pages about the death and the more dangerous monster, growing old. I think that this is the real monster, growing old, and the death, of course. I will tell a funny story from my childhood. When I was five or six years old, I used to live with my grandmother. Then I had a terrible pain in my hearing, in my ears and I was crying, “My Grandma, I will die! I will die!” She told me, “Be quiet. You will not die. No. First, I will die. Then your grandparents will die. Then your mother will die. Then your father will die and then you will die finally.” It was postponed to say, a consolation based on that. Postponing the death. [laughter] This is Bulgarian way of consolation.
DN: Yes. [laughter]
GG: But yeah, I think our stories are just these empty moves of the play which, of course, we know the end of this game. But we need of this empty moves just to postpone the end, to postpone them because it’s not fair to live just 70, 80 years. It’s just not fair. That’s why literature is a kind of time machine. Our story is a kind of time machine traveling back to our past or multiplying our lives. This is because of the fear of death and the fear of growing old. It’s so natural. I really love the people who have fears and sorrows. I think they are really normal people. It’s to be a human being. I think that Putin never had fears or hesitations. No, it’s only for normal people. [laughter]
DN: Yes. Well, as we move closer to talking about the book, I did want to spend a moment talking about Bulgaria, and perhaps orienting people better to Bulgaria. I’d love to hear from both of you about Bulgaria, in specific, around these questions of time and history. Angela, you co-wrote a piece meant to highlight contemporary Bulgarian writers with the tongue-in-cheek title Make Bulgaria Great Again that goes, “Let’s make Bulgaria great again! We hope that got your attention. Why Bulgaria? Why great? Why again? Just think about it: What do you know about Bulgaria? Do you know anything about its history, where it is located, do you know any of its great figures, heroes, myths? Do you know anything interesting about Bulgaria? Do you personally know anyone who comes from Bulgaria? It’s very hard to get someone’s attention when they’ve never given a moment’s thought to you, when you don’t exist in their everyday life, when they don’t depend on you for anything. It’s very hard to get them to look over, to peer in, to understand you, to see things the way you do.” I guess I wonder if this sense of Bulgaria outside the discourse connects it all for you, Angela, around Georgi’s Notions of stories sheltered from time. Is Bulgaria also a place that has been overlooked in such a way that its history, its time, its specificities, that all those things for others, these histories, these stories, they don’t find themselves intersecting with the histories and stories of other people? I guess I wanted to hear a little bit about your perspective as an American, who’s now a Bulgarian citizen living in Bulgaria and carrying all these books over into English language, certainly you’ve thought about Bulgaria in relationship to some of these questions that Georgi is raising in his books.
AR: Absolutely. I can start with a little bit of a personal story and then try and connect it up to literature writ large. But when I was first a college student—and please forgive the naivete of the story because I was literally 18, 19 years old—the reason I got so interested in Bulgaria was that I heard The Yale Slavic Chorus and I heard Bulgarian folk music and I thought, “Oh, my God, that sound, it sounded so primeval to me. It sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before.” This was before the internet, kids, believe it, there was a time when there was no internet, you can just get on YouTube. Just from listening to the music, I think I made a very romanticized picture of what Bulgaria was. It was this place where there was still this tradition. I think coming from middle-class white suburbia, many of us Americans don’t have a deep sense of connectedness or belonging to a certain community or a certain tradition and so it’s really attractive for me to find and get into this kind of music that had a very strong tradition. I don’t even know, I guess I go look at up, like my great-grandparents’ names, whereas most of my Bulgarian friends know that their family’s been living in a certain village for the last 500 years. Every other generation has the same names, you always take your grandparents’ names. It’s this really interesting, very intense sense of connection. I think the first time I went to Bulgaria in 1995, I wouldn’t have admitted it, but looking back now I think I had a very romanticized version idea that Bulgaria was this time capsule where people still wore native costumes and performed a pagan-sounding music. I wasn’t disappointed. I went to a folk festival and was like, “Wow, all these little old ladies running around in aprons and scarves. This was great. I’m going to come back for a whole year.” [laughter] I got a full ride, came back, and it was like 1996, there was an inflationary crisis. Nobody in Sofia was wearing native costumes and I realized, “Oh, wait, there’s a [inaudible].” I had known that but I guess I hadn’t been forced to engage with contemporary Bulgaria until that time when I was living here in Sofia for a year. But I think it was good for me to have that introduction because I think history is such an important part of the way Bulgarians see themselves and how they understand their place in the world. I think one of the great pains for Bulgaria literally is that it was overlooked in the 90s when it was a very intense interest towards Eastern European literature. The novel is the vehicle for world literature. Bulgaria, as Georgi was saying, is a storytelling culture so the strongest elements of the Bulgarian canon were its stories, short stories, poetry, many fantastic poetry being created including by Georgi in the 90s. But there wasn’t the great Bulgarian novel yet, Natural Novel came out in 1999, but to really jump on that train and so I think there’s been a sense that Bulgaria has been a little bit outside of the global literary conversation for some reason and so now we’re trying to send our own time capsules about why that is and what was going on in Bulgaria. I think Georgi is one of the leading voices trying to send that message in a bottle. I think finally, we’re getting some traction with interest in what has been going on in Bulgarian literature and why it’s only now becoming as visible as it is in the global literary scene.
DN: Well, Georgi, you’ve written about how the first two decades of your life were lived under communism. How prior to 1989, 80% of Bulgarians hadn’t been to other countries. Speaking of time, you say in the latest book that you or your unnamed narrator, who’s very much like you, were born at the very tail end of the 60s but you nevertheless remember that decade clearly from its beginning to its end because those years arrive 10 years later in Bulgaria than everywhere else in the 70s. You get the 60s and the 70s. You’ve written about the non-eventfulness of recent history in Bulgaria also. How, unlike its neighbors, there was no revolution or mass protests that marked a clear end of the communist era. When the fall of the regime happened, you’re simply told on TV that it’s over and you’re now free, because there was no clear break from the past, perhaps also the sense of governmental corruption extending forward into the post-communist era. Izidora Angel mentions that Bulgaria became very good at exporting Bulgarians as well with a million Bulgarians leaving Bulgaria since 1989. When I think of all of this and I think about you saying stories are anti-monumental, it feels like perhaps Bulgaria is also anti-monumental. Yet to go back to Angela’s essay Make Bulgaria Great Again, you’ve spoken about how a lot of Bulgarian literature is, in your mind, monumental and conservative or trying to be monumental and conservative. Looking toward a past greatness, for instance, romanticizing the failed April Uprising of 1876 against the Ottomans because the notion of a future greatness, it seems closed off. But I also wonder if you’re interested in the trivia of daily life, of insisting your grandmother belongs next to Borges or, as you said about your first novel, “I want to write a novel that ‘contains everything (that doesn’t go into novels)—a natural history of the toilet, personal stories and Ancient philosophy, overheard conversations, flies and everydayness, lists, beginnings of novels’—everything ‘inside a person’s head who is trying to narrate his own impossible story.’” I wonder if creating a story out of so-called non-events and making them into the events that they really are, if that novel better reflects the life of Bulgaria than these other monumental novels. If perhaps, to really represent Bulgaria, you have to work against the novel as a monument itself, maybe work against the novel form to reflect what true experience of a Bulgarian life is like.
GG: Actually, when I published my first novel, Natural Novel in 1999 in the last year of the century, it was quite a shock because it was a very strange crazy novel with three characters, all of them were called Georgi Gospodinov and with a really non-linear structure with domestic flies. The domestic flies gave the structure of the novel. The novel was for setting like the eyes of the flies and so on and so on. In the beginning, it was quite a shock, “Okay, is that a novel?” That’s why I decided to give the title Natural Novel to be clear that this must be a novel. Of course, novels are never natural. [laughs] But anyway, I follow the strategy of storytelling as the structure in my novels also with The Physics of Sorrow, with the Time Shelter. All of my novels are full of lists like in the Natural Novel, like the first novel because making lists is a specific way of storytelling. It’s not the usual way of storytelling where people are making lists when they have to leave someplace, when they are in danger, when they have anxiety, when they’re hurrying up and they don’t want to forget something important. That’s why the list is another way of storytelling, anxious storytelling, emergency storytelling. This is all of my novels. What else? You mentioned, for me, the very important line in all of my books are the things that never happened. I really believe that the things that never happened sometimes are much more important than the things that happened. In Bulgaria, we are full of unhappened things, non-happen things. I could make a huge list with things that never happened to us. Like during the communist time, we were not allowed to travel abroad to the Western Europe and so on. This was a really big drama for us. [inaudible] had a sentence, he says, “I never wanted to travel to India but if someone tell me you’re forbidden to travel to India, I will be the unhappiest person in the world.” It was like this. I remember how I promised to my grandmother that one day I will pick her to Paris to see Notre Dame when I was for the first time alone in Paris in 2000 exactly, she died the same year two months before that. I remember how I was staying in front of the Notre Dame watching the church, the cathedral not only for me, for myself but watching through her eyes. It’s another way of watching. It’s another way of watching the world.
DN: And similarly, you look through the eyes of your grandfather in Physics of Sorrow also.
GG: Yeah. When I travel abroad now, I could imagine the whole line behind me with my grandmother, grandfather, my mother, and father who are traveling with me invisible. This is another way of traveling.
DN: Well, one of the main things your latest book Time Shelter explores is both the consolations and the dangers of memory and the mysterious boundary I think between memory and the imagination. There are many paradoxes that we discover. The paradoxes in Time Shelter remind me of something that you said earlier in this interview and you also say in an essay about the nightmare and your grandmother where you say about the writing of the first nightmare and your first foray into writing, “Did this first recording save me? Yes and no. I never had the nightmare again but I was also never able to forget it.” Time Shelter also has these very nuanced, sometimes contradictory ways of looking at memory. Here are some of the lines in Time Shelter that I loved: “The past differs from the present in one essential way – it never flows in just one direction.” “The past is not just that which happened to you. Sometimes it is that which you just imagined.” “Happened stories are all alike, every unhappened story is unhappened in its own way.” That one’s just brilliant. Something that seems true and paradoxical to me: “The first thing that goes in memory loss is the very concept of the future, the ability or the capacity to make plans.” You’ve also said in interviews that it is mysterious how the more you lose your memory, the more prominent the past becomes in your mind, which seems very mysterious and also paradoxical. In light of this, talk to us or introduce us to the project that our unnamed narrator and the geriatric psychiatrist Gaustine undertake at the beginning of the book. There’s an epidemic of Alzheimer’s disease and they create clinics of the past. This gesture, at least at first, feels like a gesture of kindness and consolation, maybe the way you describe the shelters of stories. What are clinics of the past at the beginning of the book and how are they supposed to help people who are alive but without the ability to remember their lives?
GG: Gaustine invented the clinics of the past with a very good intention. The idea was that when you’re losing your memory, you’re living in another decade, I mean 1970s or 1980s when you were 20s, 30s, and the idea was to put in sync this internal time with the time around you, with the time in one room. If in your head you are in 1965, let the room be also in 1965. This could give consolation to the patients. Actually, it’s very close and very logical in the therapy because, in this way, people really start to tell their stories, people with dementia, with Alzheimer’s, there is something that can solve them and they could start to tell their stories, they could feel a kind of happiness, let’s say, or rest. Of course, you couldn’t cure them but you could give them that chance to be happy for a moment. But there are some problems in this because—and this question is discussed in the novel—could we bring back all the past? I mean what about the period of the Second World War? Do we have the right to remind these people with Alzheimer’s or dementia the years of the war? By the way, it’s a real problem. I make some research and I found that in some clinics just now, the big problem is that people who were in Auschwitz or in some of the concentration camps when they were young and now they are 90s, 90 something, they come back and they start to remember now clearly the period when they were young and they were in the concentration camps. It was a problem, they refused to have dinner in a big house, they are afraid, they are really scared when they see the doctors or the sisters or they refuse to go into the bathroom because all this remind them of other times. There are many, many things that could be discussed when we try to come back in our past. Past could be dangerous. Of course, after these clinics of the past developed, because of the future canceled situation, many of the people who don’t have dementia try to come back, they try consciously to lose their memory because they want to live in these clinics of the past. In the end of the novel, the things go in a dystopic way. But the clinics of the past are really made with a really good intention. Actually, it became part of the real medicine now.
DN: Well, I wanted to ask you about the real medicine because I looked into the clinics of the past and there are real clinics of the past. The first one I think is a nursing home in Dresden that recreated communist East Germany for its dementia patients. I was listening to a thing on National Public Radio in the US, they feature one of the dementia patients, a 93-year-old woman, and she loses her memory and she has fading eyesight. Life is scary to her. She is full of fears. She says over and over again, “Where am I supposed to go? Where am I supposed to go?” Then the director takes her by the arm, not very far away from where she is, to the government-run store that’s built like a government-run store from the former communist East Germany. It’s a chain that no longer exists and her face lights up every time she recognizes something on the shelves. A certain type of laundry detergent. The lightweight East German pennies that are made out of aluminum. She has a copy of a former East German television guide to look through. The furniture, the wallpaper, the appliances are all recreated. According to researchers, like you suggest in the book, these memory rooms aren’t cures but they do improve brain function and they do improve morale and independence. That same article said that there was a dementia village happening in San Diego or being planned in San Diego to recreate a 1950s main street experience. I wondered if you knew of these places. They might have happened, I don’t know when they happened in relationship to you writing Time Shelter but were they inspirations a little bit for what you wrote or something you might have discovered?
GG: Actually, the idea came 15 or more years, 15 years ago when I read the short note in a newspaper, it’s the same like in the novel, yeah, about the doctor who realized that people who are listening Beatles, let’s say, music from there, they became more talkative and more quiet and so on. After that, I imagined, “What would happen if we make these clinics, if we make the streets, these cities, and these countries of the past for not only dementia people but all people who want to live in 1968 just to move there?” [laughter] Lately, I’ve read in New York Public Library when I wrote my novel there, I read about this idea for the San Diego. But anyway, in my book, it’s really exaggerated, of course. Usually, in these places set in 50s or 60s, there are such places in Denmark, also in Netherlands, usually they are like museums of the 50s or 60s and twice a week, they bring their people from the nurses homes for two hours, for three hours, then they put them back. I think this is a bit dangerous because you move between times for a very short time. That’s why my idea of Gaustine was that you could live for your whole life in this building, in these cities, in these countries and you could put the time back. In a way, in the novel, it’s really not to say exaggerated.
DN: Well, I have one last question for you before we start talking about how this idea gets out of control. First, I wanted to ask you something about memory and metaphor. When you describe, as you’ve already described today, your first novel, you mentioned the structure of the fly and the eye of the fly, a very different eye than Blind Vaysha’s eyes, that the multifaceted eye is an inspiration. In your second novel, you said that the physics of elementary particles, that those particles buzz with stories, and you also use the structure of a labyrinth. You said in interviews that the personal past is a river and a labyrinth and that the labyrinth is truly within language itself. It’s not simply that the Minotaur is in the labyrinth but also that the labyrinth is inside the Minotaur. I guess I wondered if these structures from these previous novels and these metaphors, the fly’s eye, the labyrinth, and elementary particles, are they useful metaphors for memory as well, or is there a different metaphor or different structure that influences Time Shelter with regards to memory?
GG: In a way, the labyrinth in the time is really similar. I mean, this is the structure. But in Time Shelter, the structure is more like [izprazvashti se pamet].
AR: Like the memory that’s emptying itself out.
AR: Fading memory, we should say, yeah.
GG: Yeah. Either way, it’s connected with this empty memory, also with the time capsule of stories because if you want to create this space in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, as Gaustine said, “You need to smell music,” because smell of the music is really like Proust madeleine but also a lot of stories, a lot of small personal everyday stories, the stories about afternoons. I really believe that the past lives in afternoons in small moments that are not significant. This was important for the Time Shelter, to collect all these stories, to make a time capsule stories, that’s why there are many stories here. Also, the last chapter, the book is about this memory going empty. This emptiness, this forgetfulness is important for the structure of the novel. Of course, as you said, one of the epigraphs is about in the past time never flow in one direction. This is also a part of the structure of the novel.
DN: Well, as you’ve mentioned also, at some point, these clinics of the past, they became popular with healthy people. So much so that ultimately, each country in Europe decides to hold a referendum to decide which decade their country will live in as a nation. Eventually, each country will be living in a different era, one to the next based on their own memories perhaps but also on their imaginations regarding what time period would be most appealing to live in. You’d mentioned earlier like, “Oh, maybe these healthy people would want to live in 1968,” but many of the choices of these countries are actually, at least on the surface, a bit surprising. For instance, France and Spain choose to live in the 80s, and the Scandinavian countries mostly choose to live in the 70s. I wondered how much of this was purely imagined on your part and speculated by you or did you do some nation-by-nation research?
GG: Oh yeah.
DN: You did research?
GG: Yeah, I did. It was the hardest part of writing this novel. I did some research and I asked many people from these countries, all of my translators. [laughter] Also, I read many statistics and history of the countries but also the history of popular culture because choosing some specific period for one or another country, it’s not just a logical, statistical, or political move. It’s connected with illogical things like the history of emotions, sadness, the feeling of happiness, and popular culture. The Swedish group was very important for choosing 70s [inaudible] [laughter] These kinds of thing. Also, I’m very bad at mathematics but I made a kind of calculation. I had one country, like Spain and I checked, when they have votes, how many of them usually vote and which age is more active. If it’s the age between 50s and 60s, they were young in the 80s. When you have a referendum for the happiest decades, everybody was happy when he was in 20s. That’s why I made this calculation. Most of the countries actually voted for the 80s but there are also other reasons as you mentioned. It’s not [uyutna].
AR: Cozy or comfortable.
GG: It’s not comfortable to live in revolutionary years and decades. That’s why 1968 is a good time just to visit this year but not to live in it.
DN: Not to live in it, yeah. Well, it feels like everyone, regardless of nationality, not just the Bulgarians are feeling like there’s no future or that the future is not a place of possibility, progress, or hope. That perhaps like Alzheimer’s patients, everyone wants to now retreat into our own versions of a golden age. You don’t tell us necessarily why we feel there is no future in Time Shelter. Though I don’t think you really need to tell us, some of it is surely the trajectory of each nation’s politics. But in The Physics of Sorrow, you also talk about colony, collapse, disorder, and bees, how we as humans could only survive 4 years without bees, about white-nose syndrome and bats, 90% of bats in New York and San Francisco dying suddenly in one year, about 2,000 dead black birds falling from the sky one day in Arkansas, 40,000 dead crabs in England. None of this is mentioned in Time Shelter though I think we feel it in our bodies now as humans, as readers, even if we haven’t read The Physics of Sorrow. Even though you wrote Time Shelter before the pandemic, it feels like a pandemic book with all of us sheltering at home, hiding in our shelters, wondering what the future is going to look like. There are good versions of the absence of a future. For instance, when you say in The Physics of Sorrow, “Spring has gone berserk, as if the world has just been created, without a past, without a future, a world in all its innocence, before chronology.” But in Time Shelter, this is a world where the EU ministers, now faced with a deficit of future, want to buy time by going back into the past to get some second-hand future. In the acknowledgments of Time Shelter you say the following, “For a person who loves the world of yesterday, this book was not easy. To a certain extent it was a farewell to a dream of the past, or rather to that which some are trying to turn the past into. To a certain extent, it was also a farewell to the future.” I guess I was hoping you could talk about what it means to be saying farewell to the future, especially as a writer who, yourself, likes to avoid endings.
GG: Yes, it wasn’t an easy book for me. As you said, we could feel with our bodies what happened before the pandemic. I think if you ask me when I had this feeling for the first time, I remember exactly the month and year, and when I decided that I must hurry up to finish this book, to write this book. It was in the autumn of 2016. Do you remember what happened in the US in the autumn of 2016?
DN: We do.
GG: I’m in Europe. I didn’t care about, “Okay, it happened in the US. They had their problems.” I used to live in Vienna during this period. My daughter was 10 years old. I remember it was again in the early morning in Europe when the final results were ready, like the worst. Every bad thing happened early in the morning around five o’clock. When we realized that Trump won the election, my daughter was sleeping in the bed and my wife started crying. Then I realized how politics is a very personal thing. I realized that something happened in the world. That this election will trigger all the nationalist, populist movements in Europe as well, in Bulgaria as well. This feeling that what happened in the US will affect in a very personal way my daughter, my wife was something that put me to hurry up with the finishing of the novel. I had this idea that I wanted to write this novel but this idea was 15 years old so I get, “Okay, I will have time.” It was November as far as I know, November 2016, something changed. I think that the anxiety was in the air. It was in the famous poem by Wystan Hugh Auden, September 1, 1939. It was the same feeling. “I sit in one of the dives on Fifty-second Street uncertain and afraid,” uncertain and afraid. It was the feeling. That’s why I started to write this novel. Also, I wrote this novel because of the teacher of nationalism because of the dangers of the past. Why is the past dangerous? The past is not dangerous for the separate person. You could go there into the room of your past. You could stay one or two hours. It’s important to keep the door open, then you could come back. But if you want to put in this room the whole nation, then the path becomes an ideological thing. I like very much what Brodsky says in an interview. She says, “The future is propaganda.” Now, we are living in a time where the past is propaganda. I don’t believe in these empty checks of the past and the future because I used to live 20 years in the times of communism, and I remember clearly how they promised us the bright future. Now, they promised me and my daughter the bright past. I don’t believe in both of them. This was the idea of the book. Nationalism actually, all this kitschy nationalism, it’s like a vampire. Nationalism is like a vampire who [piya krŭvta]
AR: Drinks blood.
GG: Drinks blood from the past. He is alive because of the great past.
DN: Well, could you speak to the referendum with regards to Bulgaria? What were the decades that were most popular for the Bulgarian referendum of where they wanted to live? How were they different from each other and which one ends up winning?
GG: It’s a specific country, a very specific country. Our choice was very specific. We didn’t choose one time, one decade. We chose two of them. [laughter] That was nationalistic choice from the late 19th century. It’s connected with the April Uprising and all these national history, national liberation, and so on. The second choice was with the late communism in the 1970s, 80s, the nostalgia of communism which is really alive now in our society. The things that happened now in Bulgaria and in the last two years when I published the novel, unfortunately, they proved this referendum of the past. We had this nationalism, we had this kitschy nationalism with all these re-enactments of the April Uprising. Also, we still have this strong nostalgia to the 70s and 80s. These both powers are very important to Bulgarian policy now.
DN: Angela, what is your impression of what Bulgaria chooses from your vantage point? Were you surprised by the two most popular eras? Would you have imagined it would have been a different era that Bulgaria would choose?
AR: It’s brilliant that he thought to put them together because I think the whole national liberation movement is so much a part of everyday discourse. It’s really amazing, I mean how much it’s alive to people. I guess as an American, I’ve never been super patriotic but to feel that connection to the narrative of our country is really different. But I thought it was really interesting how those things are often fused. They use the rhetoric from late socialism to enshrine these heroes. It’s like the iconography of both of those periods becomes somewhat blended. I thought it was really brilliant in the book that he thought of a way where they could co-inhabit in Bulgaria in that way.
GG: It was maybe one of the most difficult parts of the book for translation because it’s connected with Bulgarian. Angela made in a great way one of the very important key scenes in the novel, you could tell about this scene with the flag.
AR: Oh, with the drones, yeah, with the flag. [laughs] To have this, you need some old-fashioned archaic language but you also want a little bit of the overly highfalutin socialists speak. It was a really interesting register to strike to get that sense of the pomposity of that moment and also the ridiculousness of it without.
GG: So it’s a scene, but maybe Angela will tell better, it’s a scene with the biggest Bulgarian flag–
GG: Ever. [laughter] Like the Guinness Book.
AR: It’s supposed to fly over a reenactment of the first shots of the unsuccessful Bulgarian Uprising but, of course, like many things involving technology, because it’s drones that are carrying the flag over, the drones lose power and start popping or somebody gets excited and they fire a shot of their rifle because they’re so overcome by the emotion of the moment. [laughter] They shoot down one of the drones and it sinks and turns it into a big fiasco. Basically, this reenactment is being smothered by this patriotic biggest flag in the world. It’s a really brilliant way of tying those problematic discourses together in a humorous and very metaphorical way.
DN: To stick with this notion of a national memory and national narratives, that’s definitely the scariest part of the book. When you were in conversation with María Dimitrova, you talk about this within Bulgarian fiction, the trend toward historical fiction that confirms a past greatness now lost. When that intersects with nationalism, then the notion of Bulgarian can become sacred where you might end up with a story where Roma people are robbing and pillaging Bulgarian villages until a Bulgarian hero rouses the nation against the other. Then you’ve also written about the Museum of Totalitarian Art in Sofia and you talk about this with her, and how you were criticizing it for having a historical presentation and curation of what was inside. When everyone in a given country decides on a decade and starts dressing from that time, there’s all of a sudden this pressure to conform to how you’re supposed to appear and behave. It’s really terrifying to me. This idea of returning to an imagined past, it’s definitely what motivated the Nazis. It’s what has motivated the Republican Party under Trump in the United States with Make America Great Again. It’s nostalgia that does create fear I think. I looked up thoughts on nostalgia from a Russian-American cultural theorist as Svetlana Boym has this piece called The Future of Nostalgia. She argues that nostalgia is not actually anti-modern but coexists with modernity and also that while nostalgia appears to be a longing for a place, it is actually a yearning for a different time, the time of childhood or the slower rhythms of dreams. It’s a rebellion against the modern idea of time and wants to obliterate history, turning it into a private or collective mythology. In her words, “The nostalgic wants to revisit time as space. The past might not even be the past but a slower time or outside of time.” She even suggests that nostalgia isn’t always retrospective but sometimes sideways when someone feels stifled by conventional time and space. But she also makes a distinction between two types of nostalgia, restorative nostalgia and reflective nostalgia. For her, restorative nostalgia is at the core of national and religious revivals, and reflective nostalgia doesn’t follow a single narrative or plot but explores ways of inhabiting many places at once, many time zones at the same time. That restorative nostalgia loves symbols, emblems of homeland in an attempt to conquer time, but reflective nostalgia loves details, shattered fragments and it demoralizes space. Restorative nostalgia has no humor. Reflective nostalgia is ironic and often humorous. I think of the lines in Time Shelter by our unnamed narrator, “There were two Bulgarias and neither one were mine.” I think of that when I think of Svetlana’s idea of reflective nostalgia, her love of details being in two times at once or outside of both times. Because your books are these collections of details, they’re often funny. There’s a clear sense of care and tenderness. But I guess I wondered, do you agree with the idea that there are these two types of nostalgia and perhaps there is a healthy nostalgia and there’s even an evil nostalgia? Or is nostalgia just bad all around?
GG: I absolutely agree with this reflective nostalgia and the other kind of nostalgia. Actually, I think that maybe we need a new word for this because nostalgia is connected with the place, etymology of nostalgia. Nostos is a kind of place. Maybe we have something like tempostalgia, I don’t know. [inaudible] [laughs]
DN: I like tempostalgia. Maybe it’ll start today as a word.
GG: Yeah. Also, it’s connected now, we must say, this changing of the longing for the time, then into the space, most of the time is connected with the new media, of course, with social media. Also connected with the COVID pandemic because we had a small space and a lot of time so we could travel only in time, not between spaces. The same with the internet, with the social network, it doesn’t matter where you are. The space is not so important now. Time became much more important. Yeah, I suggest this new word. About this reflective nostalgia, yes, populism, populist politics, they’re using this simple kind of nostalgia. That’s why reenactment of the past is a part of this simple attitude to the past, simple nostalgia. But when you start to reflect, to narrate your past, then you realize that it could be different. It could be more complicated and full of other ideas, let’s say. This is the question of what kind of memory we want to develop. Storytelling and literature suggest this reflective nostalgia, of course, the visual simple explanations and reenactments on the other side of the nostalgia, on the dangers, on the dark side. That’s why I really believe that literature is one of the antidotes to all these fake interpretations of the past and the present that we have now because literature is a very slow media. We need slow media. For many years, we were obsessed with the fast media, with news and everything just to come faster. Now we need the slow medias.
DN: Well, very frequently in your non-fiction and in your interviews, you point out how ways that Bulgaria is being characterized are often something that’s actually affecting all of us around the world. Bulgaria reaching to the past because they have no sense of a future is one example that we are all feeling. In your essay Invisible Crises, you talk about living in a state of perpetual crisis. You name many of the crises that you lived through and have lived through in Bulgaria, large and small. But the essay ultimately becomes about a global crisis and a metaphysical crisis that is humanities crisis, not Bulgaria’s crisis. I think you do something similar with sadness and you’ve mentioned Bulgaria’s World Cup victory and sadness. Garth Greenwell’s piece about you for the New Yorker, he references the article from The Economist in 2010 on the geography of happiness which is the one that declares Bulgaria the saddest place in the world. Izidora Angel says, “Bulgarian is a language possessing an inherent porous melancholy.” But you’ve talked about how so many languages have an untranslatable word that approximates sadness. You’ve even said that you go back and forth about whether the right word in English for Bulgarian sadness is sadness or sorrow, whether it should be The Physics of Sadness or The Physics of Sorrow. Because this match isn’t a match, there’s not a perfect connection between the languages. But you’ve said in interviews, perhaps in the spirit of your Borges epigraph that goes, “The world is no longer magical.” That you have been abandoned. You’ve said that the saddest place is the world. Melancholy has gone global. I guess I’d love to hear from both of you, is there a unique Bulgarian sadness or sorrow that’s different? I know we have this global sadness now. I think there are ways in which we’re all sad in a similar way now. Is this Bulgarian sadness real or something that people outside of Bulgaria are describing about Bulgaria? I’d love to hear both of your thoughts on Bulgarian sadness.
GG: Yeah, the sadness is global now. We could realize this. We could see this. We could feel this but there is a Bulgarian [tŭga]. This is the Bulgarian word. I really love this word because if you’re trying to say it slowly, you could try now.
GG: Yes, you could see how your adam’s apple is moving, like you want to swallow something that you don’t want to say. There is something very personal that you want to swallow. The sorrow has a phonetic side and this is the phonetic side of Bulgaria tŭga, sorrow. But also Bulgarian sorrow is connected with the things that never happened. I think that Bulgarian sorrow is a sorrow on the second degree. What do I mean? When you have üzgün this is the Turkish sorrow or saudade, the Portuguese sorrow, these are the sorrows of the big empires. They owned half of the world and they lost this half of the world. This is the sorrow that the big empires that lost what they owned. In Bulgaria now, we never owned half of the world, even more, we never have the world but we have this sorrow to the world that we never had, that we never traveled to the world. This is really a second degree of sorrow. My father and mother have never been in Paris, let’s say, or London but they have their nostalgia for these places. They have their sorrow to these places. They imagined these places. They know about them. They invented them. That’s why their sorrow is really strong. This is the Bulgarian sorrow. This is the difference of Bulgarian sorrow.
AR: I think it’s important when Georgi and I were talking a lot about the titles of physics of what it should be. I think that guttural moment of something almost sounding like a sob, we don’t quite capture it in English with sorrow but at least, it’s a little bit more like from the back of your throat whereas I feel like it has an element of melancholy. I remember Garth and I have discussed this on a number of occasions. [laughs] He was pushing for physics and melancholy but to me that’s a borrowing in English. It’s French. It’s too associated with Freud. You think of upper-middle-class ladies being hysterical and that isn’t at all Bulgarian. It’s something very native. I felt like we needed a good Germanic word in English that would give that sense of gravitas to the way that it isn’t something that only the upper-class elites suffer from. It’s like a very human, very primal sense. Also the rhythm of the title, The Physics of Sorrow, [Fizika na tagata] we wanted this almost like a heart beating. That was part of a lot of the conversation. There are elements that no English word is going to capture at all.
GG: It was a big problem to translate this title in different languages. In German, it was schwer. Schwer is something very heavy. Maybe the most difficult title we chose was in Greek and it was strange because physics is a Greek word and melancholic. But it was not easy to translate in Greek because physics means something else there. We use the old Aristotle version on the physics of something.
DN: It’s fascinating. I love that. Well, I want to return to something you mentioned earlier about literature being on the losing side. In your Tripe Soup essay you say, “I find this to be an important feature of European literature. This is literature that avoids easy explanations of the world. Literature is not afraid to speak of life’s weak points, of sin, sorrow, guilt, and transience. Literature gives us a few important rights. The right to hesitate. The right to be weak. The right to fail. The right to sympathize with others. The right to be somebody else, somewhere else, at least while reading. The right to feel sorrow, one of the most human conditions. The right to have a personal story with all of its fears and nightmares.” We see this in The Physics of Sorrow, with you taking the side of the Minotaur who in your story is an unfairly maligned abandoned child. But another creature that goes through a lot of your work is the fly and we’ve talked about the fly a little bit but I wonder about the fly uniting the sense of being on the losing side, being unloved, being perishable itself but also a creature associated with death. As we’ve mentioned, your first novel is structured based on the fly’s eye. You’ve talked about how, when your grandma would read the Bible, you’d watch the flies on the ceiling. You’ve also said that your grandmother used to say that fly’s consciousness is people’s consciousness. That were equally unimportant flies and people which doesn’t seem fair to flies, honestly. I suspect they’re more important than we are. You have a graphic novel called The Eternal Fly told from the point of view of the fly. There are flies in your first poetry collection. Your opera libretto Space Opera has a fly in it. It’s an opera that’s a tribute to Laika, the first dog in space, a story that haunted you of this dog being sent into space when you were a child. But flies were the first being sent into space as you say in 1947 because of their perishability and because they’re transient. There was even a special issue of the newspaper you were involved in dedicated to the fly which apparently is the opposite of the bee because the bee is organized, builder, focused on the collective so it becomes this natural symbol of communism. Is the fly the secret union of your concerns about time and perishability, death, the unloved, and the forgotten? I’d love to hear you talk about flies and literature in relationship to literature and losers.
GG: Also, flies are part of this very important, for me, non-anthropological point of view because actually, flies, many years before us, inhabited this world. Flies appeared some million years before the human being. We are just guests of their home. They are the real hosts. This another point of view, it’s very helpful and healthy for us because our anthropocentrism is really dangerous, especially now. That’s why I like to talk about flies because nobody likes flies, nobody loves flies. I’m really obsessed with this topic because flies are always with us. They are always in our afternoons. As I said, I really love afternoons and afternoons are made of flies. They are like a hidden camera in our rooms. Actually, they are flying in all of my books and also in my poetry and my Space Opera as you said. I believe in flies. I want to tell their stories in a way because I’m sure that flies and other animals also have their stories. In The Physics of Sorrow, I’m suggesting, what about if you narrate all the classic literature or the canon through the eyes of different species? Let’s say The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway to be narrated from the point of view of the fish because destiny is much more dramatic.
DN: Yes. Well, let’s stay with this question of inhabiting different points of view. Another thing that Maria says is that your novels don’t have a precedence in Bulgarian letters and that what unites them for her is what she calls your atomized style which we could connect to the eye of the fly but also to the pre-socratic philosophers in Natural Novel and their theories of atomization but also to quantum physics in The Physics of Sorrow. But I wanted to talk about atomization in regards to selfhood and identity. Your books have narrators that are versions of you but they also have this invented character Gaustine that goes all the way back to your poetry. There are often epigraphs in your novels written by Gaustine among other epigraphs by Pessoa or Borges and they fooled people, smart people into thinking that Gaustine is actually a real historical figure. Gaustine, unlike the unnamed narrator that’s suspiciously, like you, travels across books and he seems to be able to defy the laws of normal physics of time and space. He’s a mercurial person who’s setting up these clinics of the past in the new book and you’ve called him an alter ego. In a sense, we have an atomized self here. We have Gaustine, we have the narrator who is “you,” and we have you, the author. I liked how Izidora Angel described it, “Gospodinov blends the meta with the auto and the non in his fiction, and while his books are filled with memorable supporting characters, they often remain unnamed, their stories peripheral. Ultimately, Gospodinov himself is the alpha and the omega.” I guess I was hoping you could talk about self and self-representation in relationship to your narrator and Gaustine.
GG: Ah, very, very good question but sometimes, questions are more important than the answers. [laughter]
DN: That’s a good answer.
GG: Especially these kinds of questions about self-presentation and so on. I think I am the supporter character of Gaustine. Gaustine is much more monolith in a way, even when he is traveling through space and time but he shaped much more than me than the narrator. He was invented as an invisible friend but actually, the narrator is much more the invisible in this situation. This famous sentence by Flaubert, “Madame Bovary is me.” That was the pretentious of classical literature. I must say in the opposite way, “Georgi Gospodinov, that’s not me.” [laughter] I don’t know who I am, of course, like all modern people, that’s why I needed a Gaustine. I need someone that I want to be beyond the limitations of my body and my times. This is our dream, the dream of modern people, to be everywhere. This is our anxiety, that we are not everywhere. In this second, in this minute, I’m missing from New York, from Reims, from Napoli, from Reykjavik, from the moon. The whole world is full of my absence, that’s why Gaustine was invented. Gaustine is my dream, my dream to have unlimited bodies, flies, and time. But in the last book, he really changed, Gaustine, because he appeared in all of my books, but in the last books, he became a bit dangerous.
DN: Yeah, he did.
GG: He pretended he invented everything, that he invented me. He’s a person who is obsessed with money. He’s monomaniac at the time in the past. That’s why he became, I don’t know, no, I couldn’t say a dictator but like a very dangerous figure. I’m not sure if I will meet him again. [laughs]
DN: Oh, it’s interesting. [laughter] You might kill him. Well, one of your many alternate titles that you had for The Physics of Sorrow, speaking of point of view and identity, was the title We Am. It is another one you said that you’ve gone back and forth about whether it should be in English, We Am or I Are. But either way, it seems to point to something about identity, an identity that’s collective but different than a national collectivity. Two quotes from that book I think of are one about newborns where you say, “They still know the secret of paradise, but they have no words for it. When they are given language, the secret has already been forgotten,” then another line that goes, “There’s only one true identity—to be a living creature among living creatures. To be ephemeral and to value the other, because he is ephemeral as well.” Does that provoke any thoughts for you about We Am and I Are in relationship to what it means to be a self among other selves?
GG: Yeah. I couldn’t be more clever than my book that I wrote. [laughter] But yeah, this is part of this collective identity but environmental identity, not national identity, of course. It’s connected with empathy, of course, with empathy. When I say I Are or We Am, this and this and this, you should say after that that I died like this and this and this, that I were or we, we also, how it was translated on the internet?
AR: I can’t remember. Maybe it was I were.
GG: I were, I died like a ginkgo biloba, like a fish, like a snail, and so on and so on. This is a question also of mortality and the knowing of mortality, even if you are not yourself, even if you are part of the whole world. The whole world is a mortal world, that’s why it’s precious. It’s valuable because it’s mortal. That’s why we started with the Giza Pyramids and that I don’t care about them. We should care about mortal words but this is environmental identification, this is important.
DN: Well, it’s interesting also, when you were in conversation with Maria and you were talking about how you thought a lot about mortality when you were a child, that she suggested perhaps the Bulgarian connection here is so many Bulgarians grew up with their grandparents in the house so they saw older people, aging people, and people dying while they were young. You told this great story about your grandmother always taking you to the wardrobe once a month and saying, “When I die, you will bury me in this and in this and in this,” and that in between those monthly visits to the wardrobe, it felt like death was living in the wardrobe within arm’s reach. There’s a certain generosity in the way you tell it because it makes your grandmother into this mythological figure I think also. She becomes this really amazing source of storytelling, even the wardrobe becomes this terrifyingly magical place. But I wonder if somehow this environmental identity, it seems like it’s probably also connected to connecting ourselves to generations as well, to people of other generations who are still alive, who are much older than we are, and caring for them.
GG: Yeah, they had this let’s say even pre-modern type of imagination like our grandparents. They had this kind of environmental imagination. When you’re a child, you also have this kind of environmental imagination. You know that everything is alive. I knew this was true. I could talk with all these flowers, with the bottles, with the birds. The first book that I read was Waiting on Tables by Anderson and you could realize because of this book, and because of the stories of your grandmother, that everything is alive. My grandmother had this ability, she talked with the bees. As a child, it was so strange for me how she talked to the bees. She says to the queen bee, because we had bees in our village, in our yard, and when the queen bee was flying away, she had to pick this queen bee back to the other bees and she started to [da vika].
AR: That’s a keening, some kind of like crying. It’s like calling it back, to beg this queen.
GG: She started to beg this queen back with the word “Mat’, mat’, mat’, mat’, mat’, mat’” Many years later when I was a student, I realized that this word mat’ is actually a European word for mother. She is trying to talk in the Indo-European language. [laughter] She was the last person talking in Indo-European language with the bees, to the bees. It was such a normal way. It wasn’t a miracle. It was important that for her or everyone, it was such a normal way to talk with the animals.
DN: Well, in the spirit of this knowledge that exists before language and a notion of identity that connects us to others, I was hoping we could end with a reading of one paragraph in both Bulgarian and in English.
AR: Well, I think the Bulgarian should go first.
GG: Yeah, okay, we will start with the Bulgarian one.
[Georgi Gospodinov reads from Time Shelter in Bulgarian]
[Angela Rodel reads from Time Shelter in English]
DN: Thank you both for spending this time with me today on Between The Covers.
AR: Thank you.
GG: Thank you.
DN: We’ve been talking today to Georgi Gospodinov and Angela Rodel about Time Shelter. 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. You can find more of Georgi Gospodinov’s work at georgigospodinov.com. For the bonus audio archive, I talked with Angela Rodel, Georgi’s translator, about translation, about her life as an actor, as a performing musician in Bulgaria, about how her love of Bulgarian music is related to her translation work, and much more. The bonus audio archive is just one potential reward and one possible reason to join the Between The Covers community as a listener-supporter. Every supporter can join our brainstorm of future guests. Every listener-supporter receives the supplementary resources with each conversation and you can choose from a wide variety of other potential enticements, whether becoming an early reader for Tin House receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public to any number of gifts and collectibles from past guests; out-of-print chapbooks by Ursula K. Le Guin, writing consultations from past guests to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more 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, Alice Evelyn Yang in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle 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.