canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Robert Majzels

Robert Majzels is the author of Apikoros Sleuth (The Mercury Press, 2005), a novel. A Montreal-born novelist, playwright, editor, and translator, he won the Governor General's Award for Translation, for Just Fine, House of Anansi, from the French Pas Pire, by France Daigle, 2000. He is the author of two previous novels City of Forgetting (1997) and Hellman's Scrapbook (1992). He taught creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal for 13 years, before living in Beijing, China between 2000 and 2002. He now lives in Quebec.

Nathaniel G. Moore interviewed Majzels via e-mail in March 2005.


TDR: What would you say was the beginning of your writing career, what moment or writer or experience led you on this path if you will?

RM: My earliest memory of making fiction is of playing with toy soldiers alone in my room as a preschooler. I suppose, like most writers, I began as a teenager, writing nasty little stories as a way of avenging the humiliations I had suffered at the hands of teachers and classmates. At that time, I was under the spell of Salinger and Hemingway and e.e. cummings, and then, as an undergraduate, Joyce and Kafka and Marquez. After a lengthy detour into social activism, which I donít regret, though we failed to change the world, I returned to writing in the early 80's. Then I learned to appreciate the bitterness of Lowry and Beckett, and the clarity of Woolf and Stein. I have to confess I've also kept up a steady diet of philosophy, including the much maligned post-post stuff. Fundamentally, I think it was the realization of the failure of language, of the inadequacy of the tools at our disposal, to affect real change that set me on the path of writing and continues to drive me back and forth along it.

TDR: What are some contemporary Can-Lit writers you admire or recommend for readers of TDR?

I'm tempted to reply Cao Xueqin's Hong Lou Meng (The Dream of the Red Chamber). Okay, I know itís not Canadian, and it was written in the 18th century, but I think the book's structure and approach is more contemporary than a lot of intervening stuff. In any case, that's what I'm reading these days.

Nor can I say that Can-lit is more important to me, as a source of inspiration or reference, than are books from other lands. "Recommend" sounds a bit prescriptive and too much like CBC's falsely cheerful attempts to get us all to read the same book. But I have learned a great deal from and admire the work of a number of contemporary writers, some of whom happen to be Canadian. Without repeating the obvious ones, I can toss out a few names. Some of the current poets: Lisa Robertson, Catriona Strang, Nancy Shaw, Nicole Brossard, Roy Miki, Steve McCaffery, Erin Mourť. Among the prose writers, France Daigle, of course, and Marie-Claire Blais. I'm not a big fan of the historical romance that masquerades as literary fiction in this country, but there are intelligent historical novels I have enjoyed, including those of Robert Kroetsch and recently Douglas Gloverís Elle. Some younger writers that come to mind are Corey Frost, Ashok Mathur, Hiromi Goto. But there are many others doing interesting work, I'm forgetting.

Word Assocation:

TDR: Camus
RM: La Bataille d'Alger.
TDR: Catullus
RM: Celia Zukofsky
TDR: Genet
RM: The hypocrisy of the French bourgeoisie.
TDR: Rimbaud
RM: Writing is not enough.
TDR: Burroughs
RM: The hypocrisy of the American bourgeoisie.
TDR: Woolf
RM: The arrow-like stillness of fine weather.
TDR: Amis (either one)
RM: No comment. No, on second thought: exhaustion.

TDR: Can you talk about novel prepping, what goes into your process before sitting down and starting a 50 or 60 thousand word project. And has it changed since your last book, since City of Forgetting, and Hellmanís Scrapbook?

RM: Every book has been different for me, except in so far as they have all been a holistic process requiring total commitment. I mean a novel, for me, is the nexus around which I pursue my personal education and reflections over a period of several years. In that sense, I really can't claim to be a professional novelist. I mean I am not producing objects of the imagination with any kind of regular commercially viable frequency. The problems and possibilities raised in the course of my work on one book have led to the next project. I think, in Hellman's Scrapbook, I was at once teaching myself to write, and exploring the collapse of the emancipatory movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. I relied a lot on my own experiences for that book, but I had to do a lot of reading on critical theories, particularly feminist contributions to contemporary philosophy. City of Forgetting was a continuation of the exploration of the exhaustion of all the grand narratives of Western civilization. But, by then, I was trying to get beyond the conventions of the bourgeois novel with all its attendant devices; I wanted to turn the form inside out. I continued to read philosophy and literary theory. In addition, the book's characters drew me into extended research, for example, on Le Corbusier and modern architecture, Che Guevara and the Latin American revolutionary movements, de Maisonneuve and the Jesuit Relations, Aeschylus and Greek drama, Rudolf Valentino and early Hollywood idolatry...

With Apikoros Sleuth, I wanted to pursue the idea of the Jew/Greek dichotomy at the heart of Western thinking. I wanted to find a way of breaking out of the prettiness of literary language, and the predictability of linear narrative. That's what drew me to the Talmud, the philosophical possibility of a non-binary ethical thinking and the form of the book. At first, it was the digressive narrative and multiplicity of voices on the Talmudic page that attracted me, but I soon became more excited about the language. In the plasticity of the ancient sentences of the Mishna and Gemera, I found what I believe is an absolutely contemporary sound, a break from the stifling lyricism of what passes for good prose. It was only once I had captured that voice that I was able to begin the book. As always, of course, I continued to study as I worked on the novel. But I couldn't get started until I'd found a way to break the literary language. The whole process required a long time, seven years, and a lot of study. But that's my way of writing. So, to answer your question, I don't look at the research so much as "preparation," as part of an ongoing process of reading, thinking and writing.

TDR: You are also known as a leading translator in Canadian Literature, can you talk about the differences in working on other people's work versus your own, is it just as creative or less so, what are some of the side effects from translating other peopleís work if any?

RM: I would object to the "leading translator" part, not out of humility, but just because I don't see anyone following... Itís the nature of prizes like the GG, that they create the illusion of worth, or success....

But seriously, the major benefit of translation is that you can forget about all the unimportant aspects of writing ó plot, characters, themes, meaning, etc. ó and concentrate on the music of the words. That, in itself, is a liberation. Beyond that, whenever I read closely another language, which is what translating is all about, I feel as though something of the other culture, its difference, enters into my own language to disrupt it, to stretch its possibilities. Finally, translation is a form of dialogue, which is always beneficial, and to the extent that the translator is generally perceived as serving the author, it constitutes a healthy exercise in humility. Humility is an excellent attitude to cultivate as a writer.

TDR: Earlier you wrote to me "There's something unethical about writers who try to create the illusion their characters are "real" people." Are you suggesting that writers should treat the creation of the character as a living thing within the context of the story, but not in their actual theory of existence, or whatever. Perhaps there is something daring or irresponsible even about a writer pretending the character is real, and not in the control of the writer.

This question is related to the issue of ethics and the techniques of fiction. There are a set of devices novelists use to create the illusion of fullness in a character. These include providing at least one significant physical detail, and a degree of consistency in behaviour (since it's through their actions that we come to know characters). But really, no matter how complex we make them, characters in a book remain, as Apikoros puts it, "nouns in dresses." I'm not saying we shouldn't try to make our characters believable. I feel I owe each of my characters the respect I would accord another human being, regardless of how small a part they have in the particular story I'm telling. But in the double operation of inducing the reader's willing suspension of disbelief, what interests me is the aspect of suspension. Something else is going on in the reader's head, even as she or he allows the character to take shape. The reader does not entirely believe the character is a real person. He or she knows the writer is using that character to advance plot, or theme or some other ulterior motive. And the reader too uses the character for his or her enjoyment, edification, cathartic or otherwise. Just as we too often use "real" people in our lives outside the books. I'm interested in allowing this ethical problem to rise to the surface of the text. That doesn't mean I don't care about my characters. The challenge is to care about them without concealing their invention. In Apikoros Sleuth, for example, one way I do this is by introducing information about, giving flesh to Mustapha and Legrand, after they have already died in the book. Still, if you read carefully the Mustapha-Legrand sections in chapters 75 to 77, I think you may come to care about and for them. You may even question the ease with which you accepted their deaths before you got to know them.

TDR: For your new book Apikoros Sleuth, did you have the intense design in mind from the beginning? How did this format come about?

The format of Apikoros Sleuth is based on the Talmud. Each page of the Talmud is made up of a central box, two columns surrounding that core, and marginal notes. The core contains the Mishna, a transcription of the spoken teachings Moses is said to have brought down from Sinai (along with the ten commandment tablets). These teaching were passed down orally until the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem prompted the great Rabbis to write them down, along with their commentary on the Mishna, which is known as the Gemara. The columns surrounding the Mishna and Gemara are further commentary on those texts made by great sages in subsequent generations. The notes are additional cross references, comments and explanations added even later. The result is a page of many voices stretching across many centuries, and contending over the meaning of an extremely dense and difficult text. Often the disagreements between rabbis are left unresolved.

The resulting polyvocal effect and range of voices, from the poetic, philosophical to the hyper-rational is what interested me in that structure. I wanted to work toward a new way of writing and reading ó halting, repetitive, spiraling ó that breaks with the linear progress of the eye and mind across and down the page. Of course, as I was writing, it became necessary eventually to shift the position of the voices on the page (placing the more poetic, denser material in a side column and the narrative voice in the middle, and so on), and even to disrupt the very structure of the columns. This is because any structure gradually coalesces into a hierarchy. In Apikoros Sleuth, I think a reader gradually adapts to the form and learns to read, doing the work of negotiating the push and pull between the columns. Interestingly (at least to me), once again we discover an old, largely forgotten form offers a highly useful model for contemporary writing, more emancipatory (at least in my opinion) than the now fixed models of postmodern experimentation.

Initially, then, it was the structure of the page that attracted me to the Talmud. But, as I began to study the text, I was struck by the plasticity of the language itself, the density and ambiguity of the syntax, the repetition and startling combinations. Here, I discovered, was a kind of language writing dating back thousands of years. I tried to imitate the style of writing, as a way to break away from the prettified conventions of literary prose, and even transgressing what seem to me to be outdated divisions of genre, including the categories of poetry and prose. It was really a case of relearning how to write. Of course, my Hebrew and Aramaic being very rudimentary, I had to rely on translations. Luckily the recently completed Schottenstein edition of the Talmud includes both the original text and a quite literal translation, without the heavy-handed normalization we find in most versions.

Finally, you will have noted that Apikoros Sleuth operates in a palimpsestic relation to the Sanhedrin Tractate of the Talmud. I chose to work with this particular volume (3 volumes in the Schottenstein translation) because, where the Talmud as a whole can be said to explore the ethical question, "How should we act?" the Sanhedrin Tractate is more specifically concerned with the World to Come, i.e., what will heaven on earth be like? When will it come? Who will gain admission? and What must we do to hasten its advent? I felt these questions were particularly interesting, living as we do in a time when the great emancipatory narratives have more or less exhausted themselves (including the romantic ideal of literature). Apikoros Sleuth is one way to explore the issue. Philosophically, it's no accident that I chose the ancient Hebrew texts as a foundation for the book. In contemporary theory, the rabbinical world view and method of interpretation, long repressed in the Western dynamic of Hellenic and Hebraic thinking, has been making a kind of comeback. From the rabbinical tradition we can learn a metonymical method of reading, stressing differences, multivocality, contiguity, juxtaposition, the accent on concrete images rather than abstractions. Rabbinical thought returns us to the body, the thing itself. In that sense, my interest was not a return to my roots so much as a reexamination of the roots of Western thinking. Hence the Talmud offers a philosophical and structural alternative for the book, as well as a very old, completely new language practice.

TDR: How did you forsee the sidebars or footnotes working within the reading experience? Were they there in earlier drafts?

I guess I've answered this above, the marginal notes are part of the Talmudic page. In the case of my novel, the notes occasionally provide intertextual references, or point to other sections of the novel, or qualify in some way the claims to which they are attached. What I might add here is that the way I worked in writing this book, I completed each page, formatting and content simultaneously. In other words, I didn't begin by writing the text and then inserting it into a page layout. I felt it was necessary to let the form of each page determine the content as much as the reverse. The format placed limits on the content even as the content demanded alterations in the form. So the notes were there from the start. I could only go on to laying out and composing the next page once I had completed the one before. Of course, I went back, adjusted, reworked, etc., and a lot of fine-tuning went into the layout at the end, but the formatting and writing were not two distinct stages in writing the book.

TDR: What projects are you working on next?

I've been studying Chinese, the language and culture, for a few years now, and I'm now working on a related project. I believe, from a historical perspective, the East-West dynamic is on the point of coming to the fore. The coming century is not going to be American, as many people seem to believe, but Chinese. Sadly, centuries of orientalism have ill-prepared us for the future. How to prepare the face to face encounter with each other is an issue I'm interested in exploring. The enormous differences in language structures and underlying cultural contrasts offer avenues for opening up our ways of thinking.

Nathaniel G. Moore is TDR's features editor.







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