Krzysztof Jarzebinski speaks with Aris Fioretos, Writer and Counselor for Culture at the Swedish Embassy in Berlin.
Krzysztof Jarzebinski: You grew up in a very international family, didn’t you?
Aris Fioretos: It wasn’t worse than others. My father is Greek, my mother Austrian; I was born and raised in Sweden. Discounting one bigamist, a faked Ariernachweis and the outcome of one or two extramarital liaisons, that’s the extent of our genealogical corruption.
KJ: What’s home for you?
AF: “Home” is one of those bewildering notions that offers no difficulties only as long as you don’t scrutinize it too closely. Your query seems to suggest that it ought to be thought of in the singular. I can’t say that corresponds to my experience.
I’ve never been forced to leave a country or a culture against my own will, as so many exiles have. “Home,” then, for me, isn’t fraught with social or political tension. Nonetheless, I suppose I belong to the category of people who have no (notion of) “home” at least not in the sense of one single and defined one. That doesn’t mean that I don’t feel at home. I spend most of my time here in Berlin, with my wife and child. What else should I call my present living situation but “home”? Still, we tend to while away the summer in Greece, and during the year, we spend at least a month in Sweden. Added to that are several sojourns abroad, especially in the United States, where I’ve spent many years in the course of the past two decades, studying and then teaching. This geographical instability, shall we say, is really only a nuisance in terms of airfare.
KJ: Which language did you speak with your parents?
AF: Since my parents didn’t have much Swedish at the time I was born, my first language was German. It continued to be the family language for my first, oh, four years or so. I didn’t look particularly like a Swedish kid, however, and I didn’t have a name like “Ingmar” or “Benny” or “Bergman” or “Andersson.” Pretty soon, I developed a sense of being different. There wasn’t much I could do to alter this, assuming I felt the need to do so, but at the age of four, I realized I could change the language I spoke. That’s when I requested we speak only Swedish at home. My demand came with all the trappings of a boy in the obstinate age. Somehow I must have felt a need to reconcile my family with the environment surrounding us, or at least to smoothen the transition from inner to outer circle. From then on, the language of our new “home” country became my language. It’s still the language in which, today, I write mostly. I’ve published a few books in English, and the odd text in German as well. But for better or worse, Swedish has become the tongue I don’t seem able to avoid when I open my mouth.
KJ: It’s your mother language...
AF: Strictly speaking, German would be my “mother tongue,” just as Greece would be my “fatherland.” Whatever you wish to term Swedish in my case, it soon became the language I embraced partly, I suspect, out of a need to assimilate, partly because neither of my parents were native Swedes. In other words: the language was uncontaminated by previous experiences. In yet other words: I’ve always felt Swedish to be more my language than my parents’. Still, the fact that we spoke this foreign tongue had comical consequences. For example, my father would often give lectures, and I was usually asked to correct them becoming the lingual authority in the family at the not too versatile age of ten. You may imagine what his papers sounded like once I’d gone over them with my red felt pen. I’m sure I was able to correct the odd glaring error, but I prefer not to think about my remaining alterations.
KJ: When did you become interested in literature? Can you remember a point when you decided to become a writer?
AF: There was never much of a conscious decision. Already as a child, I experienced this absurd need to express myself. I would get absolutely mad if I wasn’t being understood (and just as mad if I was being understood only too well). Obviously, such frenzy doesn’t need to translate into a taste for literature. There is expressiveness in music, too, in the visual arts and so forth, and I doubt it mattered much to the ten- or twelve-year old I once was which form of artistic articulation I would have chosen. But I had this violent, almost abstract urge to express myself no matter what, no matter how. I suspect the flip-side of this need, or rather greed, might have been the fear, and feeling, of not being heard, of not having a voice, of not leaving a trace.
I grew up in a family where culture mattered. The great passion of my father, who was a professor of medicine before he retired a few years ago, was not and is not anatomy but literature. Being the oldest child, I felt a certain obligation to follow in his footsteps. But once I had identified his true love, it wasn’t difficult for me to abandon the idea of becoming a doctor. There was never much drama involved in my decision. Perhaps it didn’t even amount to a decision, but simply was feeling easing into fact. I don’t trust psychological explanations much. Still, it’s probably safe to say that complications would have arisen had the language of my parents been Swedish. Since that was my turf, however, or at the very least the turf with which I was most familiar, sometimes to the detriment of my parents, unclaimed territory spread out. In a manner of speaking, Swedish became my promised land.
Long before you transform into a writer, however, you’re a reader. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read. It began at the age of four or five, and for a long while, I read only children’s books and stories. Then, slowly, came crime stories and detective fiction, after that the usual adolescent fare: Hesse, Dagerman, Salinger and Kafka, at which point there was no turning back. Having read Kafka in high school, I was infected with literature for life. Poe, whom I read earlier, at the age of ten or eleven, also made a tremendous impression to the point where I lay awake, desperately trying to make out whether that wasn’t a heart, after all, thumping underneath the toys scattered about my bedroom floor.
Reading is a manner of cultivating one’s loneliness. When you read you’re alone. Yet you share this loneliness with somebody, through and thanks to the text. You partake of a community of solitary people a fact, or rather condition, I like to think has its aspect of grace. In fourth grade, my teacher forbade me to borrow more than a handful of books per week. She had seen me running in and out of the library, and must have thought I ought to stay outdoors, imbibing the fresh air while kicking the living daylight out of the other boys on the soccer field. I had no intention of having any of it. But how could I get my hands on the books now that I was prevented from perusing the stacks? It took me a while to figure out a strategy. Then I enlisted the help of a few friends, who received instructions and borrowed the titles for me. In my childhood, there really never was anything that could match a long afternoon, stretched out on the bed with a stack of books next to you and a pile of ice cream cones nicked from the freezer.
KJ: So, it’s very easy for you to read books.
AF: Ease has little to do with experience. Since the time when I read five or seven juvenile novels a day, I’ve become much slower at reading to the point of stumbling. Those days when I used to devour books are long over. If anything, today, I sample texts. When I’m working on a book of my own, the only stuff I manage to read is that which doesn’t interfere, or rather compete, with my own intentions. It tends to be crime fiction, I fear. I’m looking forward to the day when I can chunk Lucarelli, Vachss, and the others, in favor of reading children’s books with my daughter. What better way of musing at the marvel of reading while distracting yourself?
KJ: You studied in Stockholm then went to Paris, after which you moved to the United States. What was the reason you went abroad?
AF: Apart from the opposite sex and (European) handball, the only thing that mattered to me in late puberty was literature. For a long time, I labored under the impression that I needed to know this will sound very pathetic that I needed to know the truth about literature. Having finished the gymnasium and having spent a year in Athens, acquiring a working knowledge of Modern Greek, I thus set out to study comparative literature in Stockholm.
At that time, in the early 1980s, the most significant contribution to the understanding of literature generally was referred to as “deconstruction.” I became interested in the work of Jacques Derrida, the French philosopher who once coined the term. As soon as I had my degree, I left for Paris to study with him. From there, I made a detour by way of Stockholm, before I began graduate studies at Yale University, where much of the American version of deconstruction had been cultivated since the mid-1970s. Because of these interests and because of the way in which Derrida, Paul de Man and others were demonstrating, with graceful cunning and infinite care, that the border between literature proper and (philosophical or aesthetic) discourses about it was never certain, always porous and in dispute it took me a long time to understand that whatever truth about literature I managed to attain as a scholar was likely to be different from the truth I learned as a writer. As this distinction, this divided truth, finally dawned on me, I realized I had spent a decade and a half in the academy. It came as an utter shock.
KJ: What happened?
AF: By then, I was teaching at the Johns Hopkins University, and had already published a few books both fiction and scholarly monographs. One of them, entitled The Gray Book, had been an attempt to explore, or rather to celebrate, the gray area between literature and criticism. Now began a period of restlessness. I no longer saw the literary need to investigate the conundrums on which writing tends to be founded. Literature is so much more than language. In my head, there were too many stories waiting to be told, and I needed to find a way of articulating them in the manner they seemed to require at whatever theoretical cost. In a way, the books I wrote in the late 1990s, between The Gray Book and my first novel, Stockholm noir, were attempts to reprogram myself. Quite frankly, I had lost my taste for exegesis. I no longer felt the need to learn more about the mechanics of hermeneutics. Knowing all there is to know about a car may be admirable; personally, I’m more interested in driving.
As a writer, you must rely on instinct. The only thing that truly matters is the first impulse. Yet you can only ever trust the “second” word, that is, you have to find the word behind the word discarding one word for a better one, then that word for yet a better one. For the critic, the opposite applies. When engaged in interpretatory adventures, you can never trust your first impulse. You always have to rely on the second impulse, that is, on reflection. Yet more often than not, the first word will do. (I’m not saying this to put scholars down, many of whom are fair writers. But look at the record. Most academic texts will bear my impression out.) If you wish, this difference is something like the genome of literature. It’s a rather pedestrian formula, I admit, and embarrassingly easy to deconstruct. Still, for me, it engendered two distinct truths about literature. And once I realised that, it didn’t take me long to figure out that academic life, in its traditional form, was not what I’d like to set my heart on.
KJ: It must take you a long time to write a book, if, all the time, you have to re-write it, re-read it, then re-write it again.
AF: Regrettably, I’m not able to shake aces out of my sleeve every so often, on command. I put together sentences the way birds pick grain on the ground. At times, I suppose this disposition has led to moments of, well, anguish. But rewriting is integral to any writer’s work. And it’s not about complication, really. Ideally, you begin simply, or simple-mindedly, writing whatever corresponds to what preoccupies your thoughts. Inadequate is only the first name for the text thus produced. Full of contorted characters and tormented twists of phrase, it has little to do with that to which the alphabet ought to be used. After a while, however, the text gathers momentum. Or at least a certain complexity. You may lose the thread; you may never regain it; you may be sidetracked and end up in an impasse neither calculated nor cherished. But if you’re lucky, you manage to work your way through this maze to whatever serves as your text’s end. Then you’ll discover another kind of straightforwardness, a sort of second-degree simplicity, which, for those who are careless, may seem almost like what you started out with, but never is.
For me, it would be lethal to throw up the hands and say, well then, why not be content with what you began with? Surely there is no need to complicate things, no need to exert yourself, if the result is so bewilderingly close in appearance to what you started out from? The difference, or saving grace, is that the “second” simplicity is soaked in complexity. Oddly, the text will ring hollow if you avoid this process.
Nor should one underestimate the importance of the time spent being inactive. I think it was Flaubert who once termed “the marinade” those countless hours that you while away spread out on your couch, seemingly impassive and dejected, not doing much of anything, certainly nothing of social use. And yet, afterwards, when you’ve finished your text, you realize those protracted moments were not only vital but essential to where you were going.
KJ: Reading your books, I had the impression the text flows flawlessly. Your novels don’t give the reader the impression of struggle or effort. Whence does the initial idea come to you?
AF: It arrives on the slithery belly of worms. Ideally, it should depart on the soft feet of angels.
KJ: How do you know what to write about?
AF: I’m not convinced it’s promising or, at any rate, wise let alone desirable to trace the genealogy of your obsessions. As a writer, thankfully, you’re often the last person to realize that your mind is set on a particular item of ideation.
I think no book of mine was possible to write until I had collected enough impressions, ideas funny or futile, as well as a generous helping of short-circuits to prevent me from sleeping. Once these gems and germs have gained a certain critical mass, what’s needed is to introduce a magnet into the force field. It could be anything from a quirk of temperament to an unplanned character flaw or simply a particular tone of voice. As soon as it has been found, however, these fibs and fragments of imagination, seemingly unconnected, begin to relate to one another, creating a certain pattern. At that point, I know there’s a book demanding to be written.
KJ: Is there a development in your writing?
AF: My early work was about intermediary zones. I was interested in vagueness and the gray area between, let’s say, word and image, fact and fiction, life and death. In short: instability. Later, I realized the books formed not a trilogy, that would presuppose a preconceived plan, but something more modest, perhaps a “trio.” The first part was about the loss of a dear person in a traffic accident, a Trauerarbeit of sorts, entitled The Book of Imparting. It dealt with the ways in which a loved person, though dead, lives on. The second book, which I’ve already mentioned, was about “gray literature,” a technical term used by librarians to designate work that belong neither among fiction nor among fact. In essence, it told and dramatized the story of a lead pencil this volatile writing implement characterized by finitude and forgetting. The third book, A Book about Phantoms, dealt with spooks and revenants in film, in life, in literature. All three titles try to make transitory states or frames of mind stylistically physical and sensationally palpable. If you want to describe and create an impression of imprecision, you better be concrete. In my experience, being vague about vagueness won’t do.
In a technical sense, to me, the most important of these texts was The Gray Book, which I translated or rather transmogrified into English a few years after its Swedish publication in 1994. It was written at the time when I had started to take seriously the fact that my literary interests were stronger than my academic ones. Since, understandably, this preference produced pangs of guilt in a young assistant professor, who had just gotten his feet up on the tenure track, I needed to understand how my two inclinations interacted. Having worked things out and realizing that the trail in front of me was about to bifurcate, I proceeded to write a book of short texts termed “vanity routines,” in which voice was the vehicle of narration. This was literature by an author who was no longer on track. It had shed its theoretical crutches and begun to test its wobbly legs. Having gotten away with that, I developed a taste for prose not guided by argument but by plotline, supported not by footnotes but by characters. Now there was really no return to the main line of academe. Finally, I wrote my first novel the Swedish title of which was Stockholm noir.
KJ: “Die Seelensucherin,” as the German title has it...
AF: The German title was a tad too esoteric for my taste. I prefer them dry and non-sentimental. But never mind.
KJ: ...relates thematically to your latest book.
AF: Yes. Both novels deal with different notions of the human being as they evolved and circulated in Europe around 1900. That doesn’t necessarily make them “historical.” I’m not interested in retro prose or old-fashioned poses. The books use a certain amount of historical material, but they undermine, sometimes liberally, what we assume are facts by testing, through fiction, the limits of the believable. Also, they’re written with contemporary concerns in mind. I’m hardly the only person to have observed a certain congruence between our modern fascination with the body as well as with what constitutes human agency and similar discussions a century ago. While very different, in both periods you can detect a tendency to use biological models of understanding. Or take our obsession with sexuality. Today’s belief that the truth about a human being may reside in his or her sexuality was, well, if not invented or discovered, at least firmly established some hundred years ago. I find such assumptions productive for a novel.
The two books are part of a “biological trilogy.” Each volume takes a different bodily organ as its point of departure. The first, Stockholm noir, deals with the brain. In it, a young woman from Berlin travels to the capital of Sweden in order to find her father, whom she’s met only once in her life. At the same time ¬¬(the novel is set in December 1925), a “soul biologist” by the name of H. H. Schaumberg, who has devoted his entire career to the question of where, exactly, the soul is located in the human brain, is leafing through old files pertaining to his most famous, or rather infamous, case. The patient, obviously, turns out to be the father of the woman. Slowly the two plots lines of the book begin to converge. For example, the scientist, modelled on a famous Swedish neurologist of the time, advocates the theory that the typology of the human brain corresponds to that of Stockholm. When my female protagonist arrives in a city covered in snow, she enters a white maze, creating a path that may or may not correspond to the way in which the soul supposedly travels in the human brain.
I wanted the manner in which Stockholm noir was written to have similarities with the way in which the brain operates, that is to say, with reflection. Thus the narrator, who’s identified on the last page, speaks from a certain distance, observing what happens without really participating. Since the book dealt with the brain and with reflection, in a manner, it was also about freedom of thought. Without giving the plot away, I suppose you could say that, at the end, the female protagonist liberates herself from her past.
KJ: And the next book?
AF: The second part of the trilogy, The Truth about Sascha Knisch, which appeared in German translation in 2002 and will be published in English next year, deals with sexuality, especially with the male sex, and even more especially with the testicles. Since it’s a book about sex, it also deals with instinct. Its hero, or rather anti-hero, Sascha Knisch, does a lot of things without reflecting, instinctively, which puts him in some delicate situations. If you read between the lines you’ll realize he’s the boyfriend of Vera Grund, the girl in the first book. But that’s not important to know; it merely adds an aspect to the story. Just like the organs in our body, the three parts of the trilogy are interrelated but must function independently of each other.
Knisch, who works extra as a projectionist at a cinema, is a transvestite. Although I have no first-hand experience of cross-dressing, I believe I know a fair amount about it metaphorically speaking which connects with what we began to talk about. If you grow up as the child of immigrants in a culture where the language spoken is not that of your parents, you quickly learn that language is a way of dressing-up. It certainly functions as the conveyor of semantic ware, but it’s also even before you understand it a costume, a manner of figuring, configuring and disfiguring your persona.
In my experience, as an immigrant child, you’re governed by two impulses. On the one hand, you want to speak the language of the culture in which you live like a native in order to “pass,” as they say. You don’t want people to hear you have a foreign background. You want to be indistinguishable and gray. On the other hand and this is certainly a strong impulse if you’re a writer you wish to demonstrate that you can speak the language just as well, or even better, than the natives. There’s this opposite tendency to display your lingual precociousness, to show off. This creates a tension, which may be benevolent in some aspects, but which also has its tragic-comical effects. I suppose it’s a little like trying to camouflage yourself as a peacock. In my understanding, transvestism has a clear affinity with such ambiguity. Transvestites are people, who feel as if their true self can only be displayed if they dress up in the garb of the opposite sex. They cover themselves in order to reveal themselves; they’re peacocks in hiding.
Just as the first novel dealt with the discipline of neurology, the second dealt with sexology. The book is set a few years later, in the summer of 1928, in a city not named but akin to the capital of the Weimar republic. At the time, Berlin was the home of Magnus Hirschfeld, often referred to as the “Einstein of Sex,” who figures in my book under a different name. Hirschfeld ran the Institute for Sexual Research in the Tiergarten, which was situated about where the Bundeskanzler now has his offices. It functioned as clinic, museum, library and think-tank. An untiring advocate of liberal values, Hirschfeld helped people afflicted because of their sexuality. He gave advice, performed abortions, tried to de-criminalize paragraph 175 which prohibited “sodomitic acts,” believing that the field of sexology didn’t belong to the faculty of medicine proper.
AF: Because “deviant” sexuality ought not be considered a sickness. If there were problems, they were likely to be neither yours nor pathological, but those of society. Hirschfeld had a large library, containing over 20,000 volumes. Two thirds of the books scorched during the ignominious book burning in May 1933 are assumed to have come from his library. His museum, which contained a great array of medicinal instruments, fetishes, masturbation machines and the like, was visited by people like Charlie Chaplin, Sergey Eisenstein and others gefundenes Fressen for a novelist.
KJ: Was Hirschfeld a Jew?
AF: Yes, and a homosexual, and a Social Democrat pretty much as wrong as one could be only a few years later. Fortunately, Hirschfeld was on an international lecture tour in January 1933. He died a few years later, in Paris, of poor health. The Institute was raided as soon as the Nazis had won the January elections. Several former patients had become party members and had advanced in the hierarchy. Obviously, they didn’t want their files to fall into the hands of uncomprehending colleagues. After the war, the people who wrote the history of modern German sexology were former party members. They had no interest in rehabilitating Hirschfeld, which is why it wasn’t until the early 1980s, with the emancipatory gay movement, that the Institute was given proper historical due.
I wanted to write a book that dealt with sexuality in a way that wasn’t pornographic. On the one hand, I wished to avoid the tiresome kind of novel that paints the late 1920s as a golden era, booming with artistic freedom and social promiscuity. (Isherwood, who stayed at the Institute for a while, did a good job in portraying the period; there’s no need to try to repeat such an accomplishment.) On the other hand, I wished to steer clear of the no less tiresome belief, in much of today’s literature, that the only way to break with taboo is to flirt with pornography. I wasn’t interested in an avantgardism that attempts to épater le bourgeois while feeding him whatever his kinky soul might crave. Rather, I wished to deal with the problematic of privacy and sexual expression, as well as the belief that the truth about ourselves resides between our legs. In short: why is it important to have testicles?
Also, I wanted to construct a story in which the narrator was put in an uncomfortable even ambiguous position, poised between the urge to lie and the need to come clean. Thus the book begins by Sascha literally coming out of the closet, dressed in full female regalia. What could be more embarrassing for a male? Lying dead on the bed, Sascha claims, is Dora Wilms, the woman with whom he has been involved. What should he do? He doesn’t want the world and much less “mastermind” Manetti, head of the city’s Homicide Squad to know what he has been up to. On the other hand, how can he prove his innocence without revealing the embarrassing facts of his intimate life? Gradually, the plot of the book becomes something of a cover-up story, in which Sascha tries to prove what didn’t happen and thus to clear his name while disguising his sexual practises. Ultimately, as a reader, you begin to wonder whether he is really revealing the truth and if so, what kind of revelation that is.
The third part of the trilogy will deal with emotion. I’m a bit superstitious, so I prefer not to tell you which organ will serve as the organizing trope. But perhaps I may point out that we don’t feel with our hearts alone, but with other organs, too. If Stockholm noir dealt with reflection or, if you prefer, with freedom (of thought), and The Truth about Sascha Knsich dealt with instinct or with brotherhood (the testicles have a tendency to show up in pairs), the third book will deal with the remaining item of the revolutionary trinity: equality.
KJ: Is it true that you once said a writer should write books that combine science and fiction?
AF: I don’t think so. Still, there are interesting areas where science and fiction intersect, and I’m sure it’d be worthwhile to pit, in a novel, their respective methods of perceiving the world against each other.
Conventionally, science is understood as a method of acquiring knowledge about the world. In order not to influence the object of scrutiny unduly, the scientist must maintain a discreet distance from it. Literature, on the other hand, tends to be not about observation, but about involvement with the world. I realize this distinction between control and participation is flat-footed. But let’s go with it. Goethe once spoke of “soft” or “tender empiricism,” suggesting that, as a writer, one must make oneself “intimately one” with the object of one’s reflection. To use an image: you have to walk into the woods. Only then will you be able to observe the individual tree, the single leaf, the particular character of the bark. What you can’t do, however, is to abstract yourself from your surroundings to the point where you’re able to perceive the whole as a “forest.” That’s the method of science and philosophy, where you attempt to establish rules or concepts that may master and cover the plurality of singular expressions. Instead of perceiving each deviant detail, you step back and conceive of the whole.
Especially in Stockholm noir, I tried to investigate these different methods of engaging with the world. One the one hand, there’s the young woman without prior notions of Stockholm, who enters the unknown territory of the city, attentive and always on the move. On the other, there’s the old scientist, well acquainted with his hometown but cranky and immobile, who tries to map the activities of the brain onto the city. I suppose you could say that whereas the former method is warm, a way of embracing the world in all its bewildering detail, the latter remains cold, a manner of freezing the world into a pattern. The text weights these two strategies against each other, in order to achieve a balanced temperature. If you will, it’s about the 37 degrees Celsius of the living human body.
KJ: You’re also a translator. Why did you choose to render books by Paul Auster, Friedrich Hölderlin and Vladimir Nabokov into Swedish?
AF: Out of love. I’m not, and am not likely to become, a professional translator. My only excuse for turning books into Swedish is that I’ve fallen in love with them. Perhaps the act of translation is about understanding that attraction; perhaps it’s an attempt to sober up. I’m loathe to tell.
Mind you, I’m a chaste lover, having translated only seven or eight books, plus a smattering of poems, essays, and short stories. Of the writers I’ve given Swedish identities over the years, Nabokov is the one who has kept me most busy. I’ve done three of his books, and just agreed to do a fourth: Lolita. The attraction is different in each case. For example, what fascinated me in Auster’s oeuvre was a slim volume entitled The Invention of Solitude, a meditation on the loss of his father and the potential loss of his son. I was quite taken by the book, and since I discovered we shared several literary preferences (for Mallarmé’s poems about the death of his son Anatole; for the work of André du Bouchet; for Nadezha Mandelstam’s heartbreaking memoirs; for Collodi’s Pinocchio, etc.), it almost felt as if I had written the book myself. Obviously, I needed to understand why hence the translation.
As for Hölderlin, well, I once wrote an essay on his rendition of Sophocles’s Antigone, especially the way in which his translatory practice relates to his adjacent notes on translation. I chose to render Hölderlin’s so-called “patriotic hymns” into Swedish, the twelve odd poems he wrote around the time he was working on the Antigone, in the years just before he went mad. Some of them were translated in the 1930-40s, a period perhaps not known for its sober tonalities of voice, but most had never been rendered into Swedish. I wanted to present a different Hölderlin less lofty and pathetic, more grounded, yes, even prosaic at times.
In Nabokov, what I’ve always admired is his delight in the confluence of memory and language. He has the ability, as few writers do, to make something happen in your mouth when you read him. Also, I suppose what appealed was the fact that English wasn’t his mother tongue. Some critics consider this the weak point in his prose; supposedly, it makes his books artificial. I don’t mind; in fact, I think that’s one of their saving graces. Nabokov has an ear for things within the English language, which you don’t necessarily observe if you’re a native speaker matters pertaining to the shape, sound and texture of words. I wanted to see if there was a way of doing the same in Swedish, a language which is sedate and doesn’t tend to take to fancy of many kinds.
KJ: Have these writers taught you anything?
AF: Nabokov once claimed that, as a novelist, you must perform three different roles. First, you need to be a storyteller, that is, you should know how a story functions and have the knack to tell it right. That’s largely a question of timing. Second, the novelist must be a teacher, that is, his text ought to tell the reader something about the world. Call it a question of morals. Third, the novelist must be an enchanter, charming the reader with the way in which a world may be wrought out of mere words. That can only be a matter of magic.
When Nabokov is at his worst, he’s overdoing the enchanter bit. As a reader, you’re quickly full with his beatific language, and stop reading after five to ten pages. But when he’s good and Nabokov’s good more often in one book than most writers in their entire career the three roles, coordinated, are kept in splendid balance. At that moment, you experience that telltale thrill coursing up and down your spine; you literally shiver from reading. As far as I’m concerned, this quiver may be the only reliable proof of good literature. It produces a biological sensation.
KJ: How many languages do you speak? English, German, French, Greek...
AF: Stop, stop. My Swedish is all right. Although no foreigner to embarrassment, my English and German are, too. But since I speak Greek only in the summer, at the beach taverna or at the local post office, it’s no longer of much educated use. And as for my French, well, it has become something of an embarrassment. I can raise mon verre and accompany the gesture with appropriate words. I suppose I can even still sort out the philosophical complexities of notions such as “la différance” or “la tradition historico-métaphysique.” But that’s about it.
KJ: Do you have a yearning?
AF: A yearning? For what?
KJ: For your country?
AF: My country? You must be joking.
KJ: You don’t have one?
AF: I’ve never been able to understand why the question of one’s national loyalty requires a single-minded answer. I suppose I could reply I consider my spine Greek, my nerves Austrian, or rather Viennese, and my tongue Swedish. But I’m not sure that answers your question. Stronger than my loyalty to these three countries is the feeling of not belonging. If anything, I feel like the difference between being Greek, Austrian, Swedish.
KJ: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure talking to you.