Between the Covers Podcast - Transcript
Between the Covers Mark Haber InterviewBack to the Podcast
Today’s guest is writer Mark Haber. Haber is the Operations Manager and a bookseller at Brazos Bookstore in Houston Texas, and really one of the great literary tastemakers of our time, guiding writers, editors, readers and critics to some of the most incredible and often underappreciated writing happening today, writing that is often coming to us in translation from other languages and other cultures. He is the author of the 2008 short story collection Deathbed Conversions that was subsequently translated into Spanish and published in a bilingual edition in 2017 as Melville’s Beard by Editorial Argonautica. His literary critisism of Cesar Aira, Enrique Vila-Mata, Andres Barba, Guadalupe Nettel and many others can be found in many publications from LitHub, Music & Literature & The Rumpus to the Brazos Bookstore website itself. He has served both as a juror for the National Endowment of Arts translations grants and as a judge for the Best Translated Book Award. Mark Haber is here today on Between the Cover’s to talk about his debut novel Reinhardt’s Garden out from Coffeehouse Press and longlisted for this year’s PEN/Hemmingway Award. Kirkus Reviews says of Reinhardt’s Garden: With a philosophical bent and nary a paragraph break, the novel evokes Gertrude Stein, contemporary European and South American writers like Matthias Énard, Roberto Bolaño, and César Aira, with the Quixotic atmosphere of Werner Herzog films like Fitzcarraldo…the story is rich with stemwinders on the intersection of melancholy with lust, religion, debauchery, and more. In form and language, his story entertainingly evokes the mood it’s chasing: interior, mercurial, implacable.” Carlos Fonseca adds:. Reinhardt’s Garden simultaneously recalls the great tradition of nineteenth-century European travellers like Alexander Von Humboldt, Aimé Bonpland, and Charles Darwin, as well as the critical Latin American rewritings of seminal expeditions. The echoes of César Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Juan José Saer’s The Witness, or even Antonio Di Benedetto’s Zama resound with such strength that at times we can imagine Haber to be a Latin American writer. This subtle yet brilliant act of mimicry is perhaps the author’s intention all along: to take his characters’ obsession to the threshold where their fantasies confuse themselves with reality, to the limit at the end of the journey where Europe finds itself confronted, in the middle of the Gualeguaychú forest, not by the dreamed Eden it had envisioned, but the reflection of its discontents. Revising Goya, one dares to think out loud: the dreams of reason do produce monsters, but it is always better to face them through the lens of philosophical humor.”
David Naimon: Welcome to Between the Covers, Mark Haber.
Mark Haber: Delighted to be here, David. Thank you so much and thank you for that amazing introduction like “who is this guy we’re talking about?”
DN: Yeah. I particularly love the Carlos Fonseca description of your book.
MH: That was probably the favorite thing I’d read about my book so far. He really nailed it I think.
DN: Yeah. The intersection and the interaction of Europe and Latin America is the nexus of your influences but also the intersection and nexus of the plot and the characters in the book. I agree that the book to me reads very much like that of a certain strain of Latin American writer, but rather than calling it an act of mimicry, I might call it instead a love letter to literature, particularly, your own literary loves and influences. I think of something you said in your review of a book by Enrique Vila-Matas that made me think of you, even though you said it, “Vila-Matas belongs to that clan who believed literature is in constant conversation with itself.” He is a ‘literary’ writer in that he is absorbed with literature; writers and writing are the major preoccupations of his work.” I was hoping we could start here, not with the story but with how those writers you love have influenced the book whether that be its form and length or the type of sentences and its syntax.
MH: Absolutely. This book would not exist without translated literature. It just wouldn’t. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was seventeen but it would probably be some kind of diluted attempt at like Saul Bellow or something who is an influence, I think, as far as the mix of high and low culture that I try and do in my writing. But it’s one of these things where I think any art you steal, you steal which you love and then you make it your own, that cliche. Basically, the shape and the size of the style of the book itself is definitely influenced by Aira. Those tiny books that are compact but so much happens in them and, of course, very influenced by Thomas Bernhard, a European writer, an Austrian writer. I didn’t mention, or I haven’t since the book came out and I’m glad you brought that up, is Vila-Matas. I always forget what an influence he is. For him, it would be the playfulness, the really literary thoughtful playfulness. When I say literary, it’s not in a snobby way, it’s meant to invoke that sense of a love of literature in books and in books being in dialogue with each other. I wanted, if someone’s to read my book, to say, “Oh, I see you’ve read Bernhard” or “I see you like Bolaño,” and all that, that’s the biggest compliment in the world.
DN: I wasn’t going to go here but you mentioned Saul Bellow. I loved, in one interview, you talked about how you consider Bellow a foreign writer in some regards because he’s one of the few people that you name who is an American writer as an influence. Tell us why Bellow is also not an American writer.
MH: Okay, sure. Just a little bit about his life is that he came from Russian immigrants, his parents spoke Russian and Yiddish in their household, and initially, they moved to Canada. I think he was about seven or eight if I’m correct, they moved to Chicago. He grew up in a household that spoke Russian and Yiddish. That’s not just a language but a sensibility. It’s a sense of humor, it’s the way of looking at things. In a current example, Larry David’s sensibility is very, very Jewish, it just is. I was raised Jewish but it’s just in a cultural way, I see that, I can see Larry David, I can read Saul Bellow. I never met them but I’m like, “I know these people.” There’s a sense of cynicism of laughing at oneself, self-estrangement from oneself in a sense. That definitely is an influence. Saul Bellow doesn’t strike me even though his books take place in the Berkshires, New York, and Chicago, he is a very American writer and at the same time, he’s not. I think the two coexist.
DN: Yeah. To return to Aira and the shortness of the book, I love that Aira writes books that are 80 to 120 pages and that they’re called novels, they’re not called long short stories or novellas, and we see that also with Bolaño with Distant Star, By Night in Chile. We see that with Cristina Rivera-Garza, most of her books, we see that with Yuri Herrera. We even see it with some British writers like Max Porter but we don’t see that happening in the United States or very rarely in the United States. I guess I was curious, as a bookseller, maybe you have some thoughts on that, why is this novel-length, which we completely resist calling a novel and we diminish it in the United States if a length comes out like that unless it comes from somewhere else, why doesn’t that exist as a form when so many beloved people are actually writing in it?
MH: Yeah. I think part of it, and I could be wrong because I don’t have an MFA, but I believe it’s part of this MFA that says the book should be this length, it should have this look. When you walk right into Brazos, the first thing you see is the display of new hardcover fiction and that’s not going to have a lot of books like Cristina Rivera-Garza or Yuri Herrera. These books come out in paperback, they’re paperback originals. That, right there, in a customer’s sense, is already diminished. I think that the MFA programs, the impression I get is that there’s a certain way that you do think, there’s this box you stay in and the book should be between 270 to 350 pages unless you’re writing the big American novel. I think people getting these mind frames, I have good friends that graduated with MFAs and they’re writers and they tell me, “Mark, I’m still trying to unlearn the things that I learned in my MFA, my masters.”
DN: Yeah. I always presumed it was capitalism.
MH: [laughs] I think that’s part of it too.
DN: Because how many books actually come out that are between 250 and 300 pages? It’s weird.
MH: Yeah. And people want their money’s worth, I think you’re correct, that’s part of it.
DN: Yeah. Another noteworthy thing of your book that has a literary pedigree is that this novel is an all-in-one paragraph. There’s no place to stop, there’s the beginning and then we get kicked out at the end. That has a long and storied literary pedigree which is also uncommon in the United States. Maybe you could just touch on who among those people who have written in this form come to mind for you.
MH: Yes. I have two rules when I set out to write this book—this is a long way of answering your question—I wanted it to be an unbroken paragraph, maybe that’s just the one rule I had. I just finished reading László Krasznahorkai’s short double book novellas or a pair of stories called The Last Wolf & Herman. I have, actually, to this day, still not read Herman but I read The Last Wolf, and that’s actually a single sentence. I knew I wanted the book, those were the two rules, I wanted the book to take place in a jungle and I wanted it to be an unbroken paragraph. That’s, in a way, not really the challenge I set for myself, it was just an aesthetic choice that I wanted to do. This goes back to, of course, the tradition, probably the best-known is Thomas Bernhard whose novels are almost all just these diatribes, these monologues that are unbroken paragraphs. It’s a stylistic choice and it’s a choice of wanting the voice to be the main character in a story. I love voice-driven fiction. I love where the voice is his own character. Huge influence was By Night in Chile by Bolaño. I’ve had that book on my nightstand for probably 10 years and I always pick it up every couple of years and reread it because I learned, from reading that—By Night in Chile and The Last Wolf—how much you can do in a very dense but small space. I taught myself while I was writing Reinhardt’s Garden that by setting myself those boundaries, I actually liberated myself and I was able to go anywhere I wanted by not leaving the margins of the page so to speak.
DN: One of the ways I would characterize the way you really make this distinctively “Mark Haber” is that while I open the book and I’m immediately in this very strong voice like when we’re with Thomas Bernhard where we’re in a very distinctive consciousness. With Bernhard, who’s also funny, there’s also a sense of maybe sometimes gasping for air because you’re trapped in consciousness and it’s very recursive, interior, and hilarious, but at the same time also hermetic. Your book feels very much somehow to be a voice-driven book that hurdles its way forward that has a lot of outward-facing worldly eventful things happening. Even though it’s all coming through consciousness, we’re not in a traditional scene, it feels to me like we are also being told a globe-trotting story at the same time.
MH: Yes. You nailed it, David. The Bernhard influence is unmistakable, I wear it proudly. I wanted the book to be—and this is just my personality—sillier than Bernhard. Bernhard is hilarious but it’s also almost this gallows humor where you’re almost laughing from the void and I wanted there to be exterior action. In Bernhard’s books, it’s all in the mind really. If things happen, they’re mostly very, very psychological. In my book, it’s still voice-driven, it’s very interior but things are happening, people are being chased, there’s jungle, there’s Russia, there’s action.
DN: Let’s orient people to the story of Reinhardt’s Garden since we are in both Croatia, Russia, and in South America, what is the story in circumstance? What’s your elevator pitch for Reinhardt’s Garden?
MH: [laughs] My elevator pitch, which does not do it justice because they say keep it short, it was, “Oh, it’s a comedy about melancholy,” which it is but it’s many other things I think. It’s 1907 and you’re following really three, but essentially, two Croatian men. Some people, they’ve picked up along the way in South America looking for this lost philosopher. Today, he might have been called a self-help writer, you don’t know whether he wrote about melancholy or happiness, you’re just not really sure but they’re looking for him because—not the narrator, but the protagonist—Jacov is obsessed with melancholy. He’s looking for this man who wrote all of these fantastic books he believes in melancholy. The book opens in 1907, that’s the present time, they’re in the jungle and then there are many, many flashbacks to their time in Europe which brought them to the jungle and being threatened by local tribes, madness, starvation, and all those high jinks.
DN: The narrator is Jacov Reinhardt’s [0:14:22], his personal assistant.
DN: Sort of a Sancho Panza or Max Brod to Kafka.
MH: Absolutely. Oh, great, yeah, that’s a great analogy or great comparison. It’s being told through a person who may or may not be sick, he might be a bit of a neurotic, he may be sick, you just don’t know. It’s been told through his eyes and he absolutely idolizes Jacov.
DN: How do you say it?
MH: [laughs] When I started the book tour, I looked it up and I’ve heard that in Croatia, you can pronounce it like Jacob but with the V so then I said I would guess it’s not Ya’akov, it’s Jacov. I think Chad Post, from the Open Letter, when he was talking about it on a podcast said “Ya’akov”. I don’t think there’s any wrong way.
DN: Okay, let’s say it all the ways during the conversation.
MH: Yeah, okay.
DN: We’ll mix it up.
MH: All the different ways, yeah.
DN: Unless you have a preference.
MH: I have no preference.
DN: Okay. [laughs]
MH: Yeah. But when I started the book, the first two pages are really how you read it, it really didn’t change anything. I said, “I love this minor character, he’ll come up as a recurring joke.” He’s going to write a treatise on melancholy and every few pages, I’ll go to him and refer to him, “There he is, scribbling in his journal when all these bad things are happening,” but by the second day, I was like, “Oh, he’s the one to pay attention to. He’s the one that has something going on there.”
DN: There’s this weird issue of following because we have this character who’s telling the story, who is following Ya’akov or Jacov, or Jacob.
MH: [laughs] Jacov, right.
DN: Because he believes he’s a genius, he believes Reinhardt’s a genius who is in the progress of writing this treatise of melancholy that our narrators had never actually seen. But Reinhardt is also following the person who wrote the greatest work of melancholy, sort of the El Dorado or the Fountain of Youth quest that they go on in South America to try to discover this disappeared writer. We have our narrator following a possible genius following an established genius of melancholy. I know comedy is hard to talk about and how to write comically, but I think one of the places you really exploit comedy in this book is the difference between the way the narrator feels about Reinhardt and the way the reader feels about Reinhardt. Would you say that’s true?
MH: I would say that’s very true. What’s great is when you write a book and then people say things and they’re like, “Oh, I guess you’re right,” like someone said, “Oh, the book explores colonialism,” I’m like, “You’re right, it does.” What you’re saying is absolutely true and I haven’t looked at that but yeah, I think the reader is going to have feelings or does have feelings about Jacov that are not seen through the eyes of the storyteller, he absolutely idolizes him and really, Jacov can do no wrong.
DN: Yeah. I wanted to follow up on that a little because in your collection of stories, Deathbed Conversions later called Melville’s Beard / Las barbas de Melville, we begin with a note to the reader where we learn the narrator has written these stories “under” the observation of a doctor, [Dr. Heinrich Audubon 0:17:29] and that this observation is happening because the narrator has suffered “mental malady” and many of the stories that follow have characters who are obsessed, have a compulsion, or who are manic and you could definitely say this is true of Jacov Reinhardt that he’s obsessed, possibly, manic. I guess I wanted to hear about what attracts you to this type of person as a character and maybe as a writer, what it affords you, what allows you to explore by choosing characters who are both under observation and whose mental capacity is under question.
MH: Absolutely. I think writers find themes or themes find them and they find things that are just their obsessions, they’re almost unconscious. I love the idea of time periods like Kafka and sanatoriums. I love this idea of extremely obsessed characters that are maybe a little bit maniacal. I can’t really do subtlety. I wish I could. I see writers that do vary quite writing and what appeals to me and what I think my strength is is writing characters that are on the high end, they’re very obsessed, they’re very driven, and the reader usually is in the backseat going, “Wow, this person is not—” I think Saul Bellow called them “high IQ morons.” I love people who are really, really smart and intelligent but their entire obsession is almost like an act of self-sabotage where what they’re doing is to the detriment of themselves and obviously, in Reinhardt’s Garden, everyone around them. Of course, you can look at current situations where people have blind faith and so on and it’s not good for anyone. We can leave it at that, but those characters interest me. They really do. I like the extreme. When you go into that world, you find a lot of ways to explore comedy.
DN: Let’s hear a little bit of the prose.
MH: Sure. It’s about a little bit past halfway in the book and the reader knows very early on that Jacov has a love for cocaine. This is a bit of the story of how this happened, he was going through what in the book is called his gray period which is depression or something different than melancholy. I’ll just begin.
DN: We’ve been listening to Mark Haber read from Reinhardt’s Garden. One book we could add to the list of short books is The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
MH: Yes, and that was a nod to the novella to the short book. It obviously is a celebrated story, it’s world-renowned but it’s forgotten with the big ones, Anna Karenina and, of course, War and Peace. That was intentional. Some things, when you write a book, you realize, “Oh, that just happened, that was the magic of literature,” but that was intentional, putting a little book in there.
DN: Yeah. One of the things that I do love, which you also do, in this section you just read is blurring the fictional and the nonfictional in a way that is hard to parse as a reader. You play it straight. Jacov, he’s going to go off to visit Tolstoy and you also mentioned Jacov’s nemesis, the psychologist Otto Klein. Because you render these fictional historical characters in the same register as the real ones, I found myself with notes as I was reading Reinhardt’s Garden, I had a note to myself “Research Otto Klein” who later, of course, I learned is really invented but he also shares, I thought of Otto Rank who was the psychologist for Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, you have these names that have these resonances but then also made me wonder even though we’re visiting Tolstoy who’s reel was the plague of wild dogs that they encountered there which seemed like it might have been a significant event in Tolstoy’s life as it was destroying his estate. Was that true? But I guess I want to hear more about doing this, [do you think there’s 0:26:49] a general phenomenon? Then also if there are predecessors that come to mind because some come to mind for me and I would just be curious what came to mind for you.
MH: Yeah. Okay. As far as mixing the real and the fictional is something I love to do and it’s not meant to try and fool the reader or make people go down these rabbit holes looking up for things, but it’s part of the fabric of the tapestry of the story I’m trying to tell where I want these things that seem like almost be unbelievable to be mixed in with things that actually did happen or people that existed. Of course, all these wild, serfs’ mutts that are running rampant on Tolstoy’s estate was invented. When I was writing the book, that was something that when I wrote, I actually was laughing out loud. Looking at the book, that’s probably the part that tickles me most is this man trying to trap wild dogs on Tolstoy’s estate to me is so absurd. But back to that, I do try and mix the real and the fictional and I did that in my short stories and the new novel I have coming out a year or two from Coffee House also mixes that. I guess it’s a style but it’s definitely a choice I do because I like mixing the real and the fictional to just create a tapestry. It can maybe give nods or maybe finger pointing times to the reader that he’s not Nietzsche but he’s Nietzsche like or he’s not this person and he’s not Kierkegaard but he’s kind of in that realm. So I incorporated or I compared the painting where I want to use my own colors but I’m going to use a little bit of red or blue so you go, “Okay, that was Prague in the 30s or this was that” to give it some historical context even if it’s fictional.
DN: Are there books that you love that do this?
MH: I know there must be and when you mentioned that, I was going blank like I know, it’s not something I invented.
DN: I would mention a couple that I found that they’re not like your book in any way other than in this way, but I thought of Kafka’s Amerika which really is wrong in every factual way, geographically. Everything about it is wrong but it is all right. It’s like it’s telling us about Kafka’s imagination of Amerika and the way he imagines Amerika tells us a lot about Amerika even though it’s all not true. It’s true in a deeper way, in a weird way. But then I also think of Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas.
MH: As you were talking, that’s the one that’s the big influence on me. His tone in that is so flat and so measured that you’re like, “These people must exist,” and, of course, they don’t but, obviously, the subject matter is much, much more serious and dark but that is an influence absolutely.
DN: Yeah. In light of the imagined and the historical being narratively intertwined, I think of some of the things you’ve said about research, namely that you see reading literature as the main research rather than research. I’m wanting you to talk a little bit more, you mentioned a little bit about that with the idea of being like a painter. You’re writing a novel in 1907, it takes place in places you’ve never been. To imagine you’re reliant on literature is the way to render the book both the time and the settings, very varied settings, we’re in Croatia, we’re in Russia, we’re in Uruguay, talk to us about that.
MH: Yeah. What’s important to me is I definitely want to do research. This takes place in a world that’s real, it’s 1907. However, I was asked many times since the book’s come out, “Have you been to these places? Have you been to Croatia?” I haven’t been to anywhere where this book takes place because I’m writing about Uruguay and I’m writing about Croatia but I’m writing about the ones that don’t exist. I’m writing about if I’d gone and research Croatia, done these things, and written down the names of streets and the names of plants, that’s great and that’s fine but I’m trying to invent that third place so there’s the imagine Croatia, the real Croatia, and then the one that combines those two. I might have a landmark that’s real but I’m using my imagination. Like all fiction, it’s a leap of faith and you’re going in knowing that there’s the pretense, there’s the idea that what you’re reading is not real. I prefer that. I think it was Daniel Alarcón, who, a lot of his books take place in Peru. He was raised in Alabama but he’s from Peruvian descent and he says, “I might name a street or two but I like to do things that are off the beam path so that I’ve got the freedom to create whatever I want.” I wanted that freedom to create the imagined Croatia, the Croatia that I see that it’s not meant to be authentic. It is funny when I wrote the book and then suddenly, my wife was watching these tour shows and people are going to cruises in Croatian and Croatia’s gorgeous and I’ve got this character much like Bernhard who curses this place and it’s the worst and it’s like, “I gotta get out of here,” like his relationship, Bernhard’s with Austria and then you realize it’s actually probably, there’s a very scenic beautiful place. That made me happy, I’m like, “I invented this place that really doesn’t exist that just happens to have the name Croatia.” It’s really just having that level of imagination.
DN: Speaking of mimicking reality, tell us about the main influence on your work, the Swiss-Colombian-Jewish writer, Mila Menendez Krause, who’s you wrote the essay, The Writer You’ve Never Heard of That Made My Book Possible. Can you tell us not only all the improbable ways in which Krause, the little-known Krause’s life and work has influenced people we do know but how difficult it is to find her work? Talk to us about Krause and that essay.
MH: Yes. Krause is definitely my biggest influence and that essay was very, very influenced by Nazi Literature in the Americas and that I try and use a tone that’s very flat. Also, like Reinhardt’s Garden, I’m taking from Europe and I’m taking from South America. I’m mixing those two because there’s this beautiful tradition of writers that left Europe and grew up in South America. Clarice Lispector who is considered a Brazilian writer who wrote in Portuguese but was Jewish born in Ukraine and then, of course, grew up Brazilian. I think she always saw herself as a Brazilian and many other writers, I know Sergio Chejfec is an Argentine writer that lives in New York but he’s a Jewish writer from the child of Jewish immigrants. What I love is it’s weird, I do think of writing a lot as painting and that I want to embroider or something, I want it rich so I love mixing fictional titles, I love the italics of a fictional title mixed in with text. To me it’s beautiful, it’s fun to see and have fun with titles and things that are fictional. She’s this writer that, in a sense, I wish, exists.
DN: One of the things that I really loved, I loved how you charted Krause’s—so if anyone’s not clear, Krause does not exist.
MH: When you started, I was going, “I hope you know.” [laughs]
MH: I’m like, “You have to know.” [laughs]
DN: [laughs] Yeah. So Krause doesn’t exist but Haber wrote an essay as if she did exist but you do chart the influence on Nabokov’s Pale Fire which also is hilarious because of that book being about authenticity and about forgery and her intersections with Djuna Barnes and Miguel de Unamuno, a writer that I wish more people spoke about. But the thing that I really loved was “Krause was the first novelist to ever write in the fifth-person, entirely skipping the fourth, a rare feat that hasn’t been attempted nor replicated since. The Savage Detectives was Bolaño’s failed attempt, in fact, to write in the fifth-person, a subtle—though much overlooked—nod to Krause. His failure, of course, is a victory for us readers.”
MH: Yes, yes.
DN: That’s so amazing.
MH: Thank you. What I was trying to do, because I’m not trying to go, “Oh, I pulled one fast on.” I want people to get rid of going, “I don’t know if this is real or not,” but I’m not malicious, I’m not trying to make someone feel foolish but it was that love of hellfire in a Nazi Literature in the Americas and mixing those two together to make something wholly new in a way.
DN: Yeah. Tell us about 1907 why did you want to set the book in 1907? Was there an appeal, a mood, or something about your imagination of 1907 that it’s like “I’m going to set it then rather than 1957 or 1857”?
MH: Sure. Absolutely. This is one of those rare times when reality actually did dictate my book. I wanted the book to initially take place earlier. I want it to be in the mid-1800s. But Tolstoy’s life, he dies in 1910, it’s got to be an older Tolstoy when he, in real life, had these pilgrims come up and visit him and he became a very religious figure, a pacifist, and vegetarian, and all of these things. He was a hypocrite at the same time, I guess but because of Tolstoy’s life, I needed it to take place in 1907. I wrote it with the idea that it’s going to be earlier and in real life, actually dictated “Okay, it’s gotta be 1907.” When I realized, “Okay, that’s about going to be the date,” it’s a latter Tolstoy, then a lot of the things that the book happened followed that whether it was the intellectual trends that were happening, people doing Kierkegaard or [0:36:19] and Wagner and things like that, it just changed some of the tapestry of the book and what would be happening at that time. That time definitely appealed to me and I never considered myself a historical writer, but Tolstoy’s life dictated the year of the book.
DN: Yeah. One of the reasons why I imagined you picked this time period was because of melancholy.
DN: I had this whole narrative that I spun out which may not actually be true but you have several epigraphs and one of them is from Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy that begins, “A most incomparable delight it is so to melancholize, and build castles in the air…” which made me believe that you knew, either on your own, through literature, or through research that melancholy was once considered a disease. But I also thought about that time period because many actual diseases like syphilis and tuberculosis were considered to have psychological temperaments or miasms that could be passed down through families. When Jacov meets our narrator for the first time at a turn-of-the-century sanatorium and we learned that Jacov is working on a treatise of melancholy, I couldn’t help but think of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and how, at that time period, there was a tubercular aesthetic, tubercular temperament that was considered romantic, it was a disease of poets and that you got tuberculosis from having sorrowful passions and that tuberculosis would give you a refined physical charm or even a certain type of attractiveness. I was wondering whether this strange literary and medical pedigree—because melancholy also had a pedigree—whether that it attracted you to it for this book versus someone writing a treatise on anger or on frustration.
MH: Absolutely. Definitely, I wanted the book to be in an earlier time period to coincide with the study of the humors and Robert Burton’s book, I really did. My initial instinct was for it to be in that earlier time period. However, moving it up wasn’t a bad thing because, of course, the humors were still talked about, melancholy was still very much an issue and, of course, you can think of Kafka who is, I guess around that time, was young. That time period attracted me and I don’t know anyone who has read The Anatomy of Melancholy cover-to-cover. I think it’s a fun book to dip into and to have. I love it. I also love that you don’t know if he’s being funny or not, you really don’t know, it’s so scientific and yet you’re like, “Is this real research?” but that definitely appealed to me, the whole atmosphere around tuberculosis and it’s almost like maybe it’s the disease of suffering artists and things like that and that very much appeal to me as far as also the narrator of the story being very, very—and Jacov himself—being very in love with their own emotions in a way and being very melodramatic.
DN: Let’s hear another little section on melancholy itself.
MH: Sure. A part about melancholy, this is early in the book.
A Hungarian is the next best melancholic after a Croatian, he would famously say, for we all know there is no one on earth next to a Croat who understands or intuits or grasps melancholy more than a Hungarian, yet a Croatian remains superior since a Croat contains melancholy not only in their heart but in the very fiber of their being, and even at their happiest, most celebratory occasions, a Croat will halt, slapped and muted by their melancholic nature, by the sudden reminder that all is futile, and living with a conscience constitutes a merciless barrier to happiness, which is, of course, the pervasive and unassailable wall of existence, and though a Hungarian is very close to a Croatian, the Hungarian remains a notch or two lower, for I have seen, Jacov contended, perfectly miserable Hungarians lose themselves at baptisms and weddings, even at the victories of their favorite football club, which ever preposterous club it may be yes, suddenly forgetting themselves and the miserable lot that is life and genuinely enjoying themselves, and in the end, this disqualifies them entirely.
[Reading cont… 0:40:29]
DN: We’ve been listening to Mark Haber read from his book Reinhardt’s Garden from Coffee House Press. I think Martin Riker is right, at least for me, when he suggests this book is not about melancholy as much as it’s about hubris. I wanted to talk about it. I want to hear whether you agree but I also want to talk about hubris and relationship to gender in Reinhardt’s Garden because it feels like it’s something that the book is commenting on. The reason I think that the book is self-aware in this fashion is because the women in the book, Sonja, the Jewish retired prostitute who is Jacov’s lover and [Elsa], the German translator who are given very little air time, they seem to be portrayed in a way that suggests that they have the most authentically intellectual and artistic inner lives. Even as Sonja was a prostitute and is now a housekeeper for Jacov, she is, despite that and despite not being heralded as such in the world, a very talented poet and translator. Because Jacov is the main target of the skewing in the book, not by the narrator but he gets sent up for us to see the ridiculousness of him and his own self-image and, by extension, the men who follow him seem lampooned in association with him. It feels like Jacov, our narrator, and all these other people are manspreading and mansplaining the women to the margins of the story but whenever the women come through, there’s a suggested dimensionality to them and also competence and talents in a way that is never going to be recognized.
MH: Yeah. I think everything you said is exactly right. I think Martin Riker was correct. When people asked, “Why did you want to write a book about melancholy?” I said, “It’s not really about melancholy.” Martin, actually, through an email, when we were doing an interview, showed me what I was saying, I said, “I don’t think the book’s obsessed with melancholy or I don’t think it’s about melancholy,” and he said, “No, but Jacov’s obsession is melancholy,” he said, “That’s exactly it.” I wrote a book where the main character’s obsession is melancholy, not mine, I didn’t set out to go “I’m going to write a book about melancholy” but it is mentally lampooned, as I said earlier, as these high IQ morons and it is meant to be lampooned on hubris in the belief, I’m a big believer in admitting not knowing things. I think there’s nothing wrong with just going “I don’t know” and I think it’s definitely a trait, traditionally, of men who just claim to know everything or claim to know things that they don’t really know. You’ve got a lot of male characters in this book who either claim they know things or are following a man who claims he knows things. Then you’ve got the women who, in 1907, are in the background. I think Sonja, I try to give her as much agency as you could give a female character believably in that time where she is not scared to tell Jake of what she thinks and she’s not scared to take on lovers. She’s very, very much in charge of her own life as much as she can be, I know she does collect the dust in the mansions of Jacov’s but I tried to give her agency and then, of course, she has this little place that she writes poetry and translates. That was a nod to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own where when they find her later in the book, they’re like, “Why is her place so hard to find?” well, she’s trying to get away from you guys, of course, she wants to hide from the mansplaining. Those are all very, I don’t want to say super intentional, but when it was done, that’s exactly what I wanted it to be exactly, hubris.
DN: Yeah. So, Jacov’s nemesis, Otto Klein, the fictional psychoanalyst who he used to follow and now he’s his enemy, is that also a situation of hubris? Is that also him just simply being threatened by how much airtime Otto Klein has in the world?
MH: That’s exactly it. You nailed it. I was telling someone, I think of my event at Brazos when I did the book launch that the way I see Jacov is that he’s this failed intellectual, this failed academic, the thing that he’s got going for him is this money, this inheritance he has, and he’s very, very jealous of [Kleist] because [Kleist] got the airtime, he’s successful so he resents that. I think that’s it, it’s ego, it’s hubris, it’s all of that stuff. That’s how I see Jacov.
DN: Yeah. Jacov transfers his love from his nemesis onto a writer named Emiliano Gomez Carrasquilla and Carrasquilla is the lost philosopher of melancholy who has disappeared into the jungle somewhere in South America. This El Dorado like search for Emiliano seems like the ultimate hubris in a way because Jacov is projecting his own dreams and imagination across the South American landscape. He’s not interested in interacting with the culture or the place with South Americans for that matter as he goes on this quest for this possibly, real possibly mythical thing which, of course, has a long and terrible history to it. I think also of Laura Calaway at The Literary Review when she says, “It’s difficult not to compare the novel’s journey to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness––a jungle expedition, a tale of obsession. The comparison would be apt had Joseph Heller created the character Kurtz, Franz Kafka narrated the journey into the Congo, and Marlow been a cocaine addict.” But I guess what I find particularly interesting is the way you slip in these darker themes with really light touches. The book, on its surface, is comic. People, I’m sure, pick that up from your readings. But there’s this subtextual undertone that I think is pretty dark and yet quiet. I wanted to hear about that. I’m sure you’re saying a lot of these things are not coming intentionally, like you’re not sitting down like, “I’m going to write it comic and I’m going to slide in five percent dark,” but maybe you could talk a little bit about how that strikes you when Laura Calaway makes that comparison.
MH: Yeah. When anyone invokes these greats, it’s nothing but flattering and, of course, they’re big influences. I want the book to have the high jinks, I want it to have that silliness, but I also want it to be taken seriously. I think by taking it seriously and being about serious things, I want to have a little bit of philosophy mixed in. I love the idea that someone who’s a maniac, Jacov, for example, says things and the reader knows, “Oh, this guy’s a maniac. He’s obsessed. He’s insane,” yet twenty percent of what he says is, “There’s some truth in that though,” because that happens in real life, there are people that say crazy things or that are crazy but they say things that there are kernels of truth. I wanted there to be a little bit of a philosophy of things that maybe I believe in, of sadness, of maybe even Jacov’s absurd quest, he blames it being based on losing a sister. I wanted it to have little hints—I think unintentional but I wanted this—of loss, grief, and melancholy at the end because as funny as it is, the character is basically hypochondriac, the book is being told, he’s mostly on a stretcher, he thinks he’s dying, death is surrounding them at all angles so I want it to be that sense of darkness. I want it to be funny and dark but also almost in a Bernhard way where you’re grimacing like I’m laughing but this is dark.
DN: Yeah. Chad Post at Open Letter, he tries to parse your comic timing with syntax, with looking at your long sentences that end in these surprising reversal punchlines. I wanted to talk a little bit more about syntax, but a particular aspect of syntax where you really make the reader aware of what filters of consciousness we’re having to read through to get the story. But before we do, I’m hoping you’re going to read one last section which is an example of this and then we can talk about it. It’s on page 50.
MH: Of course, perfect.
DN: It feels to me like there are a couple of functions to these rifts that erupt here and there in the text where we get these rapid successions of “he said, I wrote” or some variation of that. It definitely adds to the comedy, it adds a certain syntactical music into the absurdity of these manic men and their philosophies “he said and I wrote.” But it also situates us in a different relationship as readers to the text. I think of Yuri Herrera who uses Spanish words that are sometimes archaic with Arabic influence. A Spanish reader would recognize the word is Spanish but wouldn’t necessarily understand what the word is or Cristina Rivera-Garza and The Taiga Syndrome where the detective and the translator that the detective hires, they speak to each other in a language that neither one of them has as their first language. On top of the translation that the translator is doing for the detective, they’re speaking in having to convey their feelings through both of their second languages. While all these approaches are super different, those are very different reading experiences than reading Reinhardt’s Garden. I think what they have in common is they foreground the [madeness] of the text in the language when we hear “he said I wrote” over and over again, we’re also aware that the “truth” is being filtered through multiple consciousness and it seems like it’s the opposite of trying to create the fictive spell. Maybe this returns also to your influences at the beginning and the pressures of whether it be corporate capitalism or MFAs, but instead of creating the fictive spell, these other writers I mentioned in you draw attention to the words and to the translational aspect of words. I guess this is a long-winded way of asking you about that intention of drawing attention to the mechanics of the text.
MH: Yes. I think you’re such a brilliant reader really because you’re seeing something that I didn’t consciously think this is going to show that the narrator is translating something to remind the reader that it’s not maybe the complete you that it’s being written. I did it for the aspect of the cadence, of the repetition, and of the comic timing. Those were the things I was thinking of but the fact that what you said, and I agree, it reminds the reader that this isn’t really being said, it’s being written as it’s being said and you’re getting a second or third hand is fantastic. That wasn’t an intention and luckily, I do think that works and thank you, but no, I really did it for the syntax and to remind the reader, “This is being dictated. Look, they’re in the room in the castle and this is what’s happening as he says this.”
DN: I’m going to argue with you a little bit because I feel like it feels also like a theme in the book. I don’t know if it’s an obsession, it may not be intentional but we can look at this as a book being about melancholy maybe, maybe not, a book that is a love letter to literature, a book that is interrogating the hubris of self-[importance], but it also feels like it’s a book about the translational aspects of communication which calls into question “how can we ever really know if we’re communicating at all?” For Example, Jacov loves the books of Emiliano Gomez Carrasquilla, books that are all about joy and happiness. This topic is so absurd on its face to Jacov that someone would write earnestly about joy and happiness that he is convinced, without a doubt, that Carrasquilla, his hero, is actually intending the opposite and has written a coded oeuvre of melancholy and that his translator, [Elsa] is to blame actually for misconstruing his intentions. Similarly, in the jungle, in search of Carrasquilla, which is where the story opens, they have hired a translator, [Javier], who is completely useless, either not understanding any of the languages or just bad at translating anything meaningful from them. Jacov’s huge project itself is being written in an invented language that only him and his dead twin sister ever spoke to each other. We have doubts, as a reader, whether this project actually even exists. There are questions of whether this great genius that our narrator is following and, thus, we’re following, is actually writing anything. But if he is, if he dies, it seems pretty unclear that our narrator, our hopeful Max Brod will be able to bring it to the world. That may not be intentional but it seems like it is a through-line of interest of yours.
MH: Yes. When I think of what the book is about, you’re the first person [who really know what I think it’s about] because I didn’t really know when I was writing it and I think a lot of times, that’s the beauty of it, you’re doing something new, I didn’t have an agenda. I don’t think a lot of fiction writers should have an agenda. I was just telling the story. But when I look back, I look at it as people not being able to communicate and it’s those examples you just said which really was just for the plot in the story, I was unconscious. Also, one other example at the end when he finds maybe Carrasquilla, he’s writing weird stuff on a stone, you don’t know what language it is like hieroglyphs. There are all those examples of people misreading each other, misreading each other’s written word or the spoken word. I think that’s really one of the main or the main idea of the book is people not communicating.
DN: Yeah. It also reminded me, I don’t know if this was an influence but I think of the menacing translators in Calvino. Calvino always has these translators who are doubted or who are translating things wrong and there’s an animosity between the writer and the translation.
MH: Sure. Actually, I’m very guilty, I’ve only read I think Invisible Cities.
DN: Oh, really?
MH: I’ve not read a lot of Calvino.
DN: If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.
MH: That’s the one.
DN: That’s the one that has a really great translator aspect to it.
DN: But he also has, this is not one of his better books, The Castle of Crossed Destinies. The setup is these travelers who don’t know each other all arrive at this castle and the rules at the castle are that you can’t speak when you’re there, you have to place a tarot card down on the table to express what’s happened on your journey up until now but it has to be in relationship to whatever other cards others have placed at the table before you.
MH: Oh, wow.
DN: Everyone’s at the meal and they have to figure out how to tell their story, so it’s all translation really. I don’t think the book fully works but I love the conceit [1:01:00]
MH: Yeah, the idea. It’s that and it’s also about people not being able to communicate and it’s also a love letter to literature but also a love letter to translation. It’s this idea that, in a way, and I’ve said this before, that the translators are the key holders. If you loved 2666, if you loved Clarice Lispector, et cetera, you have a translator to think. I thank them by having [1:01:26]. [laughs]
MH: Yeah. That’s me tipping my hat to the translators but it really is a love letter to language and how it can be misconstrued and it can become the thing that you wanted to be used hopefully for good but also as a weapon.
DN: Yeah. No, I love that because we have literal translators, we have Jacov’s mistranslation of Carrasquilla, then we have our narrator’s translation of both Jacov’s intelligence and his own words because he’s writing them down and then we have you.
MH: [laughs] Yes, exactly. Then whatever gibberish language Jacov invented with his sister.
DN: Yeah. In your review of a book by César Aira, you say, “Aira isn’t as concerned with starting and stopping as he is with going. A reader can feel this momentum in any number of his books, the ecstatic urge to move forward at any cost. Of course, as any writer is happy to tell you, this is a surefire prescription for writing oneself into a corner. Where are the plans, we ask! Where is the plot structure? And there once more is Aira, smirking, telling us not to worry, he’ll find a way out.” This description of forward momentum, that feels like an attribute. I don’t know if you’re in the corner smirking. I don’t know if that’s true. But other than that, it feels like an attribute of this book. There is a sense of it hurtling forward. As you mentioned in this interview and in others, you don’t organize storyboard, no schematics, and you’ve talked—I’m hesitant to say this because you’re going to alienate all of our listeners—you talked about how this was a very easy book to write that you saw what you wanted and you sprinted after it. Maybe to get our listeners back from cursing your name about how easy the book was, you’ll tell us your secret how you wrote it, but tell us about the momentum of the book and the momentum of writing the book and then maybe you can dovetail that with some of the ways in which you write as a writer that don’t involve schematics or knowing where you’re going.
MH: Yes. I think I’ve said that it was really, really easy to write and it was also really, really hard. Those two somehow coexisted. I wrote it in a really short span of time, less than a year like maybe eight months and I went back and edited but I wrote it not knowing exactly where I was going, I wrote it chronologically how you read it, how the reader reads it, and I would go back and tinker and edit as I went along but I really tried to move forward. Because I think a thing that gets a writer stuck a lot is to look back at what they’ve written and go, “Let me edit what I’m doing,” kind of in the fear of wanting to go forward into the unknown when you need to go forward or you can’t finish. There is that aspect. Also while I’m writing, and I don’t mean this like I’m an artist and all this, but my antennas are up so, in my unconscious [mind], I’m thinking about the book all the time. If I’m ringing up a customer at the bookstore, if I’m doing something, I may pick up a book on history and say, “Oh, this would—” so my antennas are always out. I’m always thinking about the book. I’m just like this unconscious buzz. I’m trying to pick up things as I’m living my life. Even though I might not be sitting writing at the time, I’m still spending time writing the book in my mind. Then, of course, I’m always writing notes, not [romantic 1:04:50], but in my phone maybe in bed at night, emailing myself the notes, and then using them the next day to work out what I’m doing. I don’t know exactly where the book is going when I wrote this. I didn’t know exactly where it was going but I had this faith that I would get to where I was trying to go. I think you know when you read that, there’s only really one or two ways it’s going to end. I don’t really [have a] storyboard but I have large swathes of ideas of where the book is going to go and things I want to make sure I include if that makes sense.
DN: Yeah. We talk so much about influence, do you feel like you read certain things while you’re writing things with momentum or do you feel like you need to avoid other voices while you’re writing simply to establish your own music?
MH: That is a great question. To answer a little bit more about the question before and then I’ll answer that one, another thing to do so that the readers and writers don’t get mad or upset at me is that the reason this came easily is because I wrote like three or four really bad novels before it and put them in the trunk.
DN: Yeah. That’ll help. Tell us about that period a little bit. Tell us about both the length and the struggles leading up to this burst of successful calm and aesthetic resolution.
MH: Oh, thank you. I wrote a book while I was teaching high school. It took about three or four years on and off to try and write this book. It takes place in Mexico and it’s about this famous fighting rooster, this fighting cock, it’s about the world of cockfighting, very fictional. You’re following this fictional winning. He’s the most victorious rooster in Latin America. There are attempts on his life, there’s actually a doppelganger so people killed the wrong chicken, he’s protected. I finished it and I kind of liked it, I shopped it around. When I say I kind of liked, it had great parts but it was uneven. In one way, I saw with this that as worthy as Reinhardt’s Garden is, there’s very little fad. If it doesn’t move the story forward, I would take it out, I would take it out. I failed. I did that and then in my 20s, I wrote two novels that are not good at all and they’re in my trunk. They’re unlike one of those old-school like floppy hard drives or floppy disks. That’s the stuff you have to do to be able to make this kind of seem easy. There’s a lot of sweat and a lot of failure. You’re going to fail more I think than you succeed. That’s part of it. Then the second question you had was—
DN: Around reading and whether you avoid or seek out certain things while you’re writing.
MH: Yeah. What happens is that I do both. I might start to read a book that’s maybe got a style. I love Thomas Bernhard, for example, maybe Roberto Bolaño, or someone like that. I don’t get very far because then my mind is triggered or I get that buzz and then I go and write. I was telling this to a fiction workshop I was teaching that sometimes, I can write three or four pages of a work, of a book I’m writing because I read a word, just a word and I’m like, “Oh, that’s a great word,” and that triggers this avalanche of words for me. Sometimes, I’m reading something in the cadence or the word, just a word from a writer or a style that I like triggers me and then I have to close the book and go and do something else my own writing. But in general when I’m writing, I try and read things that are not quite as similar because I don’t want to emulate or copy. However, if I want to be inspired or I’m having writer’s block, I think the best cure is to read, just read. Other books will inspire you.
DN: Yeah. Speaking of that, now is the time to put on your literary tastemaker hat on behalf of our audience. Tell us about some books that are not contemporary that are, perhaps, overlooked if you can and also some recent books or upcoming books that you particularly can’t shake, that you loved or that you’d like to share with us.
MH: Yes. A mentor friend of mine, [David Sudar 1:08:50] from Florida, is a good friend of mine but I haven’t seen him in years because I’ve moved away. I live in Texas. He introduced me to, besides Thomas Bernhard, a lot of good writers. There’s a French writer who I think was really popular maybe in the 90s and he’s just not talked about, maybe you’ve read him, Michel Tournier. His books I think, they come out by Harvard, they’re hard to find out, Michel Tournier wrote a book about twins called Gemini. It’s fiction, it’s really good. He wrote a book called The Ogre which is incredible. It almost feels a little bit like [Saybolt 1:09:24]. The Ogre I think is a masterpiece. I was able to get two or three from the bookstore and then they sold and it was hard to get more but I think Harvard Book puts them out. Michel Tournier is fantastic and I don’t think he’s celebrated enough in English. I think more contemporary that she is being celebrated but she’s absolutely rocked my world, Charco Press puts out that Argentine writer Ariana Harwicz. She lives in France and she wrote a book, she gets a claim that it was shortlisted for the Booker, Die, My Love. She has the second book that’s been out in England but will come out here soon called Feebleminded. There’s a third and it’s a thematic trilogy so you don’t have to read them, they talk to each other in theme but you can read them independently. I don’t know the title of the third one but she, I think, is extraordinary. Her writing, I don’t know if you’ve read her, is really dense, it’s very visceral, it’s very violent in a way, mostly violent emotions but it’s really about women and madness. They’re very slim. They’re sometimes just over a hundred pages, beautifully translated, and I feel embarrassed I’m forgetting the translators’ names. I think one of them is one of the co-publishers of Charco Press. Ariana Harwicz is just wonderful really, really. I think she’s going to become a big, big deal.
DN: Yeah. You have another book coming out from Coffee House.
MH: I do, yeah.
DN: Are you able to talk to us a little bit about it?
MH: I think so. Coffee House, they’re like my dream press, they really are. Anything good that happens to me is like gravy because I really wanted to get my book published through them and I don’t think they mind it. It’s about art, it’s about the art world, and it’s about two guys and they’re obsessed with a piece of art. What a surprise. But it’s about this piece of Renaissance art that they’ve built their careers on, I don’t want to say discovering but giving it the attention they think it deserves and the piece of art is called the Saint Sebastian’s Abyss. That’s also the title of the book, I guess tentatively, but I think that’s the title. It’s actually told in short chapters, it is broken up, it’s still the same style. The chapters are very unbroken and dense but they’re short mostly and it’s contemporary. It’s about these two men that make their career on a piece of art. The idea of who gets to decide what art is and what art isn’t.
DN: Is it a fake piece of art or a real piece of art? Or is that ruining anything?
MH: It’s a real piece of art that’s hanging up in Lisbon. I won’t give that away but it is about art, it’s about art movements. No one has studied art in their life, they’ve never gone to a classroom and talked about art and they see a painting and they start to weep who’s to say, “Well, your feelings are invalid, why do you get to feel that way?” which is obviously absurd.
DN: Are you working on that now or are you working on something after that and that’s in the pipeline?
MH: I’m working on something at the Zybècksz Archives at the Horner Institute. I’m actually working on something new and I will go back and start to edit Saint Sebastian’s Abyss with Coffee House but we’re not quite there yet because publishing is slow. I will start to edit that probably later this year but in the meantime, the news is good I guess I’m just writing because it’s coming, I’m not trying to force it.
DN: Can you give us five adjectives that describe this mysterious project?
MH: Oh, yes, absolutely, five words: Montaigne, duels, coffee, artist colonies, French literature.
DN: All right.
MH: Okay. [laughs]
DN: [laughs] It’s great having you on the show.
MH: This has been a real pleasure. I’m honored. I’m a big fan. Thank you, David.
DN: We’re talking today to Mark Haber about his book Reinhardt’s Garden from Coffee House Press. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.