Interview with Michal Ajvaz
15. February 2010 14:18
Erika Zlamalová: The 20th anniversary of the Prague Writer’s Festival will carry the motto “Heresy and Rebellion” – how is this theme represented in your work?
Michal Ajvaz: In its own way, rebellion is the theme of every artistic work, because the essence of literature, and perhaps all art, is to see things in a new way, to liberate vision from familiar schematics. And there is always a moment in art containing rebellion and heresy, though such freedom must be in the first place something positive, by discovering a new sense: I think that that is more important then some kind of proclamative demolishing of taboo. My books have the form of different stories intertwined, and in many of them can be found the forms which live on the border of the majority community or in direct conflict with it, their non-conformity intensifies from different forms, reaches into one’s own core brimming with armed resistance…
EZ: Are you close to any of the other Festival guests?
MA: I really like Fernando Arrabal, who shows, by the way, that imaginative creation does not have to be in conflict with personal engagement.
EZ: What books shaped your childhood and adolescence?
MA: As a child I was a big reader and to this day I remember the experience of reading adventure novels and travelogues, told by sea-farers and discoverers. I remember how I was unhappy when I had to stop reading…and I think there can be seen in my own books that much of that childhood fascination for adventure and the unknown remains in me; most of my books are always rooted in the framework of the adventure novel…Concerning adolescence, the period from my fifteenth to eighteenth year, when I was in high school, was the time when I was perhaps the most sensitive to literature. It was the second half of the sixties, the era when a lot of new books started to arise, when Kafka, Mandiargues, and Gracq appeared…that time was simultaneously the age of my most intense sensitivity to the world, and my writing up to today is somehow wedded with that which revealed itself then on walks around the city or on trips with friends. My vision is now more tired, but through writing, something from that perception of the world still always returns.
EZ: You are an author of prosaic books and scholarly texts dedicated to philosophy. By writing prose do you rest from the scholarly texts, or do the two disciplines supplement each other?
MA: It’s foolish to say that I could rest by writing prose. Writing fiction is just as difficult work as writing theoretical books, even though they represent a different kind of difficulty. But that difficulty of course also produces a great joy, just as the difficulty of negotiating a mountain brings the rock climber joy. I rather try to keep separate the writing of theoretical things and fiction; I don’t like novels written according to the expression of some philosophical ideas, nor a philosophical work that attempts to be art. To start to write a story or a novel with a head full of ideas that I want to import is always dangerous – as they say, from good ideas arise bad books. On the contrary, I need to have an empty head at the beginning of writing - not only that I don’t have any ideas which I would like to express, but also that I don’t know either the theme or the plot of the novel which I am preparing to write.
EZ: And so then what is there at the beginning of writing?
MA: Usually only some feeling, often tied to some definite space – for example at the beginning of The Other City was a feeling that I had in snow-covered Pohořelec, and at the beginning of Empty Streets the feeling that I had one hot summer day when I walked along an empty street in Nusle from the Vršovice train station. These feeling recall for me a white fog, in which tens of indistinct shapes and individual stories flicker, and those shapes and stories challenge me to liberate them from the fog, to give them some kind of form. It is true that my belletristic books are also ultimately given some ideas, but that is because from the first feeling gradually develops a definite world that to which all those ideas belong –in that world also belongs, aside from shapes, space, and plot, ideas. But ideas do not have to govern the novel; they must not be, compared to other components of the novel, in any way privileged.
EZ: You are concerned with the way the author is read. Does contact with readers influence your creation?
MA: Even though writing is fundamentally a solitary action, surprisingly, meeting with readers is interesting and important to me. Interesting for me is, in what context are my books perceived? Connections can arise which I didn’t think of while writing, perhaps the connections with science-fiction authors that I don’t know…Sometimes it demonstrates a national mentality, for example, when I read one of my story in Switzerland, it surprised me how this darker audience took an explicitly humorous work. I don’t try to explain away the readers understanding of the books, I think that my books don’t have a singularly correct interpretation, and for me it is interesting to get acquainted with this, how they are understood by whom. Different literary receptions are also interesting for me in another respect: I like to meet those first perfunctory perceptions in foreign cities, where the city shows itself to me and then subsequently hides, when it reveals its mood, indicates approximately how one lives there. These impressions from a foreign city play a quite important role in what I write; as I already said, at the beginning of a story there is a meeting with some space and its mood, and many of the stories in my books spontaneously ensue from the spirit of foreign towns.
EZ: In your last novel there are such cities, about ten, in which the plot takes place, where we look around from imaginary cities. Did you visit all of these in reality?
MA: If I remember well, from the real cities in which the novel occurred, I have not been only to one, Boston. I actually don’t particularly like to write about a city in which I have never been, but the plot insisted on some such city as Boston. So I at least looked around that city which I wrote about well on Google-Earth (one of the scenes that took place there was a chase between an evil female scientist and a woman android, which was distinctly inspired by adventure literature or adventure films). Otherwise I sometimes even use Google-Earth to remind myself of how cities where I have been look.
EZ: Do you give your books to someone to read before they have been published?
MA: No, the first person that reads my manuscript is the editor of the publishing house. Writing is a complicated and long process for me; I work through many variations to reach the ultimate creation, and if in the final phases of writing someone started giving me observations, I would start to doubt everything, and everything would most certainly crumble under my hands.
EZ: Is anything in your writing taken from your dreams?
MA: People often ask me that, but that has never happened to me, that I could use something from my dreams in my writing. Though dreams as a phenomenon interest me, in their construction, and Ivan Havel and I actually published a book about that. By the way, my dreams are quite realistic and boring. As I have already said, there is definite running order to my writing – I start from a shapeless feeling and gradually from there I extract shape and plot – and I don’t very well know through what action and with which dreamlike themes I should begin. Indeed, people often think that dreams are a singular sphere from which it is possible to extract imaginary and fantastic plots, but I am convinced that if whatever is submerged came into one’s consciousness and could be properly explored, if it could be traced down, then all that is concealed could be found as the subject in tens of fantastical novels.
EZ: What feelings emerge after the completion of a book? Do you return to your previous books?
MA: When a book is published, some months later I read it – a person comes to know what he really writes from the published book; before that it is just reality and notions knit together, written on paper and the ideas are more the components of my mind and body than of an independant work, and I must have the book in my hand as a finished and unchangeable thing, like it is someone else’s, so that I can become ultimately conscious of what it actually is. Sometimes this brings a pleasant, other times an unpleasant, surprise, usually both. That doesn’t mean that I read the published book from beginning to the end, but rather I always reread some number of pages. That lasts about half a year, with the readings ever shortening, until I lay aside the book altogether and no longer return to it, and I start to think about another book.
EZ: Do you read the reviews or critical reception of your books, and do they mean something to you?
MA: Before, it completely didn’t matter to me what the critics wrote about me, I was even entertained by it, so that I put things into a book for which they had rebuked, in order to tease them. One critic was perhaps bothered above all else that one character in The Other City is like a Prague divinity, so I immediately put in the next book the character of a sea goddess. Another critic got stuck on a detailed description of how the hero eats a crepe in one Prague bistro, so in the next book there was a similarly described character consuming fried cheese in a restaurant on the Vltava causeway. As I grow older, a bad review bothers me a little more; more precisely said, criticism frustrates me in the cases when they seem to somehow chime in with my interior doubts. When I read something that I think has no sense – for example when I read about Journey to the South, which is without a doubt my most personal book, a book which is most of all born from my personal anxieties and joys, that it is only art for art’s sake without any personal experience – it seems to me like a waste of time to reflect on that.
EZ: In your texts overflowing with fantasy one could at times lose the story – how is the story itself important for you?
MA: I like the story, such as the stories of adventure or fantastical literature or stories from old myths, more than the stories of realistic and psychological novel. And I think that the plots which appear in my books, though fantastical on whole, remain classic stories that have a plot line and a dénouement. Today there has arisen anti-modernist crusaders for the story, which unfortunately typically identify with the story of the realistic novel, even though the realistic novel is rather new from the perspective of a long literary history, which doesn’t have to have a long duration. For me, in interesting stories there are are miracles, adventure. To read a psychological story about the unhappy marriage of two people who are getting divorced is to me deathly boring; I would rather reread a good detective novel by Chandler. On the other hand, a book doesn’t have to have a story so that the book is always absorbing and never boring: for example, one of my favorite books, Mandiargues’ novel On the Border, is a description of that which he sees for three days as the hero loafs about Barcelona without destination, and that is for me more interesting than perhaps some long family saga.
EZ: Do you follow contemporary Czech literature?
MA: I have to confess that I don’t know it well. This is also to do with the fact that I mainly read theoretical books and don’t have much time for reading fiction. I like perhaps Ivan Wernisch, who is a real poet, in how he reveals the magic in seeming banalities. But I am not particularly close to Czech literature as a whole. Czech prose was always written to be in a popular, colloquial spirit, or it attempts a “high” style in the baroque sense; neither the one nor the other is close to me. In Czech literature we don’t find any analogous authors to those whom I like, Conrad, Proust, Gracq, Nabokov, or even Franze Kafka…and so it seems to me that the one prosaic book to which I feel somewhat close is The Big Novel by Ladislav Klíma: that is close to me in its inspiration from adventure literature and by the way it mixes estranged, disparate genres.
EZ: Your father translated from Russian. Did you grow up in an environment that fostered literary creation?
MA: My father was educated as a chemist, but at the same time he was a very literary and erudite person. He was born in the Crimea; Russian was his mother language and his whole life he was interested in Russian culture, even though he wasn’t an ethnic Russian, but a Crimean Karaite. The home environment and my father’s large library definitely was by large measure an influence on the whole of my life…That doesn’t mean to say that I was lead to be a writer, or that in childhood I was thinking that over. I liked to paint, and everyone, including myself, expected that I would be a painter. Then somehow in high school that changed, and I started to be more interested in literature and philosophy, and I also became aware of the bounds of my artistic aptitude…But I think that from that time remains in me a visual perception of the world, which expresses itself in that which I write.
EZ: You published your first book relatively late. Did you write something beforehand?
MA: My first book was published when I was forty. I did write before that, poetry and prose, but I never tried to offer any of it to a magazine of publisher. They were surrealist texts, and it is apparent that they did not come about from any consideration of being published somewhere. I sent a manuscript to a publisher in the year 1988, already in that era when, under the influence of Russian “perestroika” some liberalization in literature was possible even for us, and when they again started to publish at least some previously banned writers. Ultimately it came to be that my first book was published in 1989, during the week that the November Revolution started. Today I am particularly happy that my older things were not published; I think that they were quite immature. Perhaps I still have something somewhere between all those papers, but I don’t want to look for it – like I said, I really don’t have any relationship to those old things.
EZ: How do you look at the changes following the year 1989?
MA: Even though I am, like a lot of people, sad about the quality of contemporary political culture, I do always still feel on the other hand that it is a miracle that I live in a society where I can buy books that interest me, where I can freely travel, and say and write what I want. In the totalitarian age I was rather certain that the regime couldn’t hold forever, but I thought that I personally would not live to see its fall.
Interview by Erika Zlamalová, Prague Writers´ Festival, February 9th, 2010
Translation from the Czech by Meghan Forbes