A Conversation with Aleksandar Hemon
Aleksandar Hemon is the author of four works of fiction, including the novel The Lazarus Project (Riverhead 2008) and a short story collection, Love and Obstacles (Riverhead 2009). He was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he lived until he ended up in Chicago, where he lives now.
Colum McCann is the author of seven works of fiction, including the National Book Award–winning novel Let The Great World Spin (Random House 2009), Zoli (Random House 2007), and Dancer (Metropolitan Books 2003). He was born in Dublin, Ireland, and now lives in New York where he teaches in the Hunter College MFA Creative Writing program.
This conversation is an email continuation of a series of conversations between Hemon (a.k.a. Sasha) and McCann. The most memorable one took place in Lyon, France, some years back, which ended in a bar with an unreal collection of whiskeys, with both men singing “Waltzing Matilda” to the accompaniment of a choir of humming Frenchmen. That much is recalled—the rest is supplied by the imagination and the whiskey’s after-kick.
COLUM McCANN: What are we doing here? Why aren’t we in a pub?
ALEKSANDAR HEMON: Because you live in the provinces, far away from everything.
CM: So, we’re here… to talk (as the bishop to the hooker). The next question is: why are we here? That, of course, is easy to answer. But, seriously, sometimes I wonder if we—I mean, we, us, as writers—have to increasingly justify ourselves, you know, like visual artists, whose primary mode of entry into their art seems to be the painstaking explanation of it. Forget the painting. There’s a whole business built up around it. The artists have to acquire a specific language. Have you read any of those “statements of purpose” (!) by some of the contemporary artists? It’s like stepping through acres of fresh tar. You pick one foot up only to find the other sinking further.
AH: Actually, I have not read any of those statements of purpose, but I can imagine what they look like. I wouldn’t be so hard on artists, though. On the one hand, every artist, writers included, have an ethics and an aesthetics, whether they can formulate them or not. I happen to think that it is good to be able to formulate—it is good to know what you are doing and to be able to talk about it. On the other hand, art is so widely (and often thinly) spread, that anything can be it. A lot of it is nothing but a gesture, not an object, not a thing unto itself, and it literally does not exist without interpretation. I am all for interpretation, but for the past century or so, an interpretation can be slapped on everything and anything. Literature, on the other hand, is always something—it is either story or poetry, ideally both. That is, you always know what it is and even if the interpretation is not available, the experience of language is. Language is so inherent to humanity, so necessary for even basic thinking, that stories and poetry are available to anyone who can process language. So it’s easy for us.
CM: I happen to think that an ounce of empathy is worth a boatload of judgment. A writer can disease himself or herself with his or her own position, thinking about it too much. But, that said, I’m slightly off-put by our world getting increasingly rarefied, like the world of art, where we must justify ourselves with our meaning. Imagine constantly explaining ourselves. Like a football commentary or something…
AH: What do you mean our world? You mean literary world? What is that? I don’t know what that is.
CM: A book that matters.
AH: Many books matter to many people.
CM: I love finding one that matters to me. It doesn’t happen every day.
AH: What I do know is this: I spent the day reading books that are out of print. I read them as part of my research for a future project. And then I spent time staring out the window imagining people and situations in places I have not visited (and probably won’t), at the time I did not experience. It will be a while before I put the pen on the paper, if indeed I ever do. But I will continue obsessing about these people—they have names already—and I will keep imagining landscapes, their lives and deaths, and I will love them. I will spend years doing that, not really talking to anybody about it. It is crazy, there is no reason to do it. But that’s what I’ve been doing all these years and it is well past any need for justification. And once I write the book, and it gets published, if I’m lucky, then it exists and it will keep existing. And that existence is well past justification. And I am not sure who it is you think we must justify ourselves to?
CM: Well, to our children, for one. To ourselves, for another. I never knew my great-grandfather, but he walked the streets of Dublin on June 16, 1904. I can understand my great-grandfather now, and the line of fathers that came after him, so much better because I happen to have read Ulysses, because I have walked through those pages. Those small corners. The odd riff. The jaunt down from Eccles Street. Davy Byrne and Blazes Boylan. The National Library. Literally my great-grandfather (whom of course I never met) becomes flesh and blood for me in the pages of a novel. The novel (a “fiction”!) invents his human form for me.
As you yourself say, in The Lazarus Project, “All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is what the world is.” That to me is the essence of literature, and why I used your quote as the epigraph (I almost said epigram) of my own new novel. We become alive in bodies and geographies and times not our own. That’s the justification. That’s enough purpose because I think what it does is it expands our ability not only to justify, but to criticize that self-justification.
I want to delve into your novel a little more. For me it’s the best book I’ve read in years. On the most basic level it just opened me, continually, opened up the synapses and the veins too. Literature is not an Olympics, but my god, I really think you created something lasting and purposeful here. When I think back on my first experience of reading it—and I’ve read it now twice—I recall thinking that it restored my belief in the possibility of literature and what matters, the music of what matters.
AH: Thank you. That is a beautiful thing to say to a writer.
CM: It’s a great contemporary novel. It cross-weaved in the most extraordinary way, in the sense that it is European and American also, it went right to the dusty corners of the twentieth century, then jumped right up to present-day Sarajevo, went into the kitchen, opened the can of sardines (or “sadness” as Brik says), excused itself to the street once more, and a few pages on found itself in Abu Ghraib before circling back to Chicago in the early part of the twentieth century. It had such access, it was like a Whitman poem. In fact, I was reminded of a line from Mandelstam that goes something like, “I desire this thinking body— / this charred bony flesh, / alive to its own span— / to turn into a street, a country.” A question, then. I detected a necessity, if that’s the right word. And a necessity that required anger. So, how much anger did it take to write that novel?
AH: I want a book to contain a world—indeed the world. Writing is my main means of engagement with the world and I want the scars of that engagement to be left in the language. I write and read with the assumption that literature contains knowledge of human experience that is not available otherwise. Rilke said that art can come only out of inner necessity. I write because I must. Or because I cannot not write. Danilo Kiš said that he started writing only after he overcame his disgust with literature. As for anger—unfortunately, it constitutes me. I put a lot of anger into Lazarus when I was writing it, then I took out a lot of it when I was editing it. What is left is no longer my anger. But I have plenty more in me for future projects.
CM: The anger is still there. It’s so necessary to the book. It propels it. Another question, not too distant from the first: we don’t seem to have a lot of anger in us, our own generation of writers, the forty-somethings—we seem rather tame and afraid of upsetting one another. I’m not necessarily advocating a scrap, but we all seem scared, mea culpa. Shall we have a fistfight?
AH: Get your hand back first.
CM: Yeah, being just out of hospital (a hand/wrist problem) I realize we need a lot more than a good fist for a fight. I want to engage on a level that lets me know that my blood’s boiling.
AH: Not living in New York, I am sure I miss a lot of literary spats and mouth-offs, but I still think there is a lot of conflict. The problem is not the shortage of writerly conflicts, the problem is their irrelevance. The ones I caught, though I can’t remember a single one at this time, seem so personal, petty and inconsequential. They’re like upstairs neighbors fighting: noise, drama, someone else’s life. I don’t know what your model for a productive scrap might be, but I think that a necessary ingredient ought to be something that matters—there ought to be something at stake: an aesthetics, an ethics, a world—so that confronting another writer is related to some kind of vision, or, if you wish, a future. For a fight to be productive, or at least relevant, writers should fight over different demands they put upon writing (as an individual, private act) and literature (a network of relations in which we are all involved). There is no shortage of conflict, but there is a shortage of ethics and aesthetics. I am itching to criticize some well-regarded writers’ works, but I am not doing it because I am perfectly aware that my critique could easily be reduced to envy or just plain meanness.
There is also the fact that literature seems so fragile these days (What is happening to reading? What is happening to books? What is happening to publishing?), so there is instinctive solidarity among writers as professionals—you don’t want to get someone fired. We are all swimming in the same sea of shit.
CM: Well, something poisonous has certainly been let loose in the past several years, and I suppose the idea of having a spat against an individual means nothing in the larger scheme of things. The English call it “handbags,” as in slinging handbags at each other. A lot of it went on in previous generations of writers (nothing as good as fifth-century Greece, I suppose) but now we’re backed up against a different wall, and perhaps the fear is that nobody’s watching and so we need to make noise. I think this prospect of irrelevance is what we buck up against, and perhaps that brings us together. But I’m worried. Here we are, post-Bush, but still in the middle of a national regression to the robber-baron mentality, the continued opposition to enlightened social legislation, the ongoing kowtow to the lowest common denominator. There’s an idea that Obama’s going to save us all. I danced as much as anyone the night he was elected, but we’re in such a deep swamp I’m not sure we’re going to get out of it that easily.
AH: I agree, but at least I don’t feel that I’m living under occupation any more. It’s like we’ve been fucking liberated.
CM: No kidding. I can actually go back to Ireland and not be embarrassed about living in America. When thinking about America the line returned: “You can’t go back to the country that doesn’t exist anymore”—I’m so glad. It was torturous living here. Imagine having to be tortured here. But speaking of legislation and enlightenment, I’ve a question about books, the country of books. I’ve been reading a lot about Émile Zola, the French writer in the nineteenth century, and his rage, his belief in the novel as a social tool, the possibility of a novel restoring the value of a life which has been devalued by others. He was interested in the notion of “living out loud.” He wanted to dilate the nostrils of the young French writers, get them fired up. He brought the novel out into the streets, the mines, the brothels. It’s all rather dizzying stuff and whenever I talk about him I just watch people’s eyebrows beginning to raise, up up up. But he had cojones. He didn’t want his audacity to be pardoned.
AH: Yes, but he was writing when there was not only a possibility of revolution, but a few had taken place. Workers would go on strike, the army would shoot them, cities burned. Social conflict and political war were daily occurrences. Europe—and the world—was rife with serious revolutionary movements. Zola did not invent or own that rage, nor was his agency limited to writing. For Zola’s work to have social impact, there had to have been a movement or movements, and for him to have any agency he could not stand outside of that. Having grown up in a socialist country—moribund as it was—I still caught the tail end of socialist realism understood as a legitimate aesthetics. You could find a Stalinist novel in the library, in the classics section. In college, I read interpretations of Chekhov and Kafka that claimed to have discovered revolutionary spirit in their works. I’ve read books in school that were written by ideological rote—they were brainwashers. Therefore, any art, any literature, that has a clearly defined political goal is repellent to me.
If I may offer a critique of your position as I understand it, you are a romantic, attracted to noble individuals, far too noble, far too beholden to their inner necessities to be respected and cherished by the world. Zoli, Rudi, Petit, et al. They are heroes, in the Greek sense: the people with hubris, perhaps even saints, inasmuch as they are infused with some divine spirit. That is great stuff for literature, but the worst stuff for political change. (And Obama is a perfect example—he is seen as a hero, someone above politics, but he is a first-class politician, if we are lucky.) Therefore you are fascinated by Zola’s hubris, by his noble stand, but only because he had the balls. The balls do not make a writer, and I believe this is where we might disagree.
CM: But I’d say that I was interested in using that hubris not to talk about hubris, which is uninteresting, but, again, the music of what matters. In writing Dancer I didn’t care one whit about Rudolph Nureyev nor his very obvious hubris. I cared about the shoemaker, the rentboy, the smaller characters at the edges. In this new novel I want to use the obvious arrogance of something like the [tightrope] walk across the World Trade Center towers not to talk about the walk itself, but all the people who live below the walk. The novel starts out big, but ends up being very intentionally local, on a little Bronx backstreet. The forgotten thirty-eight-year-old grandmother is the heart of the novel. It pretends to be a novel about a tightrope walker, but it is absolutely nothing of the sort. What is at stake here is so much more. It’s an intentional critique of how we order our stories. If that doesn’t come through, then I have failed.
AH: It does come through, gorgeously. But Petit’s presence, walking up in the sky, allows for the space in which Corrigan and Tillie and all the other beautiful people you create will exhibit their saintly hubris, much like Rudi’s presence, like a flash of lightning, illuminates all the other characters around him. They are pseudoprophetic presences, who allow the others to come to light.
CM: Tillie commits suicide, she loses her family, but yes, still she has a purpose. Like your Rora, she is able to grieve. She discovers the ability to grieve. And yes, I think we do disagree, though not as much as some might think. I have the obvious visceral reaction to being called a romantic. I can feel my skin prickle. Might it be as easy to call me a cynic? I’d prefer to balance the contradictions. The political is in the local. You say that writing is the only thing you can do. You cannot live without it. And I understand that. But, Sasha, I can live without it, I think. I mean, I could survive. But if I can tell my kids a story that shifts their world sideways a little, then I will do it. And, by extension, therefore it is the only thing I want to do. Which is not only romantic, but hopefully fierce, or hopelessly fierce.
AH: I admire that. On the one hand, it latches on to a worthy tradition, including the actual Romantics. On the other, it takes belief, a willingness to die for the cause, so to speak. Don’t die, though.
CM: Robert Stone said something along the lines that we have to make sure we don’t die. At least not yet. Of course, elementally, one of the functions of writing—even if unread—is that it lasts. But so much writing in the past few years—so much of what seems to garner praise—is housebroken and mannered and so very well-behaved. Want to say a couple of bad words? Say social novel. Want to say a really bad word? Say lyrical. Want to sell a lot of books? Write about the prep school. Or the creative writing program. There seems to be an exhaustion around the narrative form, at least until recently, when it seems more and more young writers are taking the bull by the horns. I’ve been noticing more of an engagement, an excitement in the air. But in general I think it’s true that a lot of writers are taking on less of the world and sitting back in stunned submission to the publishing execs. I may be overreaching my claim here, and there are notable exceptions, of course, but I think we as writers suffer from a reduced moral authority, and a lot of the blame has to do with us, because we have been so fucking well-behaved, no Guantánamo novels, no Katrina novels that I know of yet, no Grapes of Wrath. There’s a fashionable modesty of idea, a banality of language, an acceptance of the ordinary.
AH: Here is the news, Mr. McCann: novels do not solve problems, though ideally they cause some. And if a Katrina novel would be a noble effort, that does not mean it would be any good—and if it is not good, then the pain and suffering and humiliation would have been misused for a literary tryout. You don’t practice your craft on other people’s tragedy. Moreover, the tragedy of Katrina was broadcast live. Painfully so. You also seem to demand immediacy. That is, you need a Guantánamo novel, and Guantánamo is not even closed yet. What’s the rush? It’s not that war crimes stop as soon as a novel about them is published. Literature operates slowly, it is always inching toward bliss, never quite getting there.
CM: But I’ve never even dreamt that novels can solve problems. If they could we’d have no problems, or more likely no novels. And you’re right, the Guantánamo novel will probably take twenty years. But here is the flipside of the news: Stories have to be told over and over again, lest we forget them. Here, I think you make a mistake. You’re assuming once told is always told. Which I fear is the problem of how history is presented.
AH: Some are told over and over again, I know. I’ve heard a lot of them. And stories will not be forgotten. There is something called narrative paradigm. It is a term from psychology and, for me, it boils down to this: people understand their own life as stories. They see themselves as characters in the stories of their life. Storytelling is a cognitive framework. But the models for those stories often come from the outside—they used to come from books (Emma Bovary imagined her life as a romantic novel, but lost control of the plot), and these days come from movies and television. As long as there are living human beings, there will be language and stories. What you demand from storytelling is a moral—even political—import. I tend to shun that didactic aspect.
CM: But I’d hate to think that you or I or anyone else would tell people how to think. The space to undergo experience, or empathize, is a different space from the didactic space. Allowing space for change is allowing space for grace. That’s what I get from good writing. That’s what I get from your books. And I have to agree, I have nothing to say that will change anybody’s mind. Nothing. Being didactic is uninteresting. But allowing space for people to remake their minds about things, to change—or to get angry—is a viable literary purpose. That I fail at this over and over is my reason to continue. Failure is edifying. We break the lights.
AH: I like the idea of a book being a democratic space which readers enter, carrying their own thoughts, and participate in a conversation, or experience of grace. But what’s important here is that there is no “we.” There is no inherent solidarity—of purpose, of ethics or aesthetics—among writers. There may be some shared experience of irrelevance, but that just makes people pissy and lonely. We are not engaged in a common project. There are a few writers I could loosely define a common project with—the project being the kind of literature that respects the individual sovereignty of human beings—and with them I can talk and argue, but that does not mean we may not be in conflict beyond repair in some other field. And there are many who are engaged in entirely different projects, aesthetical or political.
CM: I agree, I agree, I agree. But I hear you favoring the lonely outpost, which is in itself an acutely romantic idea. There’s a real danger in flying the lonely flag. It reinforces stereotypes of the writer, and it suggests, to the reader, that it doesn’t ultimately matter.
AH: Whatever solidarity I have established with other writers individually, it is usually organized around books. We connected as readers, as it were, not writers. To me, the solidarity of readers is far more important than the solidarity of writers, particularly since readers in fact find ways to connect over a book or books, whatever they may be. And no book will get all the readers, not even books like the Bible, which strives to get all the readers. Books with a fashionable modesty of ideas will find the readers who respond to banal language and accept the ordinary unquestioningly. And some other readers will carry a book of Brodsky’s poems in their pockets at all times. And there are readers who engage with books in both of those modes. It was always clear to me that I would have to earn my readers, some I would have to find, some to create. No reader owes me anything—I am owed nothing for my noble efforts, because my writing was always unconditional, always coming out of inner necessity. Another way to say it: I don’t care what other books are like, bad or not. I am going to keep doing this. I cannot be stopped.
CM: Yes…. breaking the traffic lights. I love it! It’s never too late to let a reader finish a book for you.
AH: Let me ask you something about Let the Great World Spin. It is clearly a book about the city of New York, a celebration of it. But it is entirely devoid of fashionable glamour that taints so much of writing and art and whatnot coming from New York. Could your book have been written for and/or in any other city?
CM: Oh yeah, I hope so. Chicago. Dublin. Paris. But New York is where it felt right. And I know New York pretty well now. But I also wanted the under- and over-current of the towers, which come down, which fall. And then there’s something about New York and just what an international city it is. I love it here. And I have to say that I had so much fun doing this novel. When I found the voice of Tillie I felt that she had a kinship with Molly. Just like when—as a reader—I found the voice of your Lazarus I thought I had entered a breathing space that I’d always wanted. Come forth Lazarus, and he came in first, or fifth, it doesn’t matter. I have to say I enjoy every inch of it, even the slow painstaking parts, the building up and smashing down. The touring. The teaching. I love teaching. As I said earlier, I spent a period in hospital recently and—apart from my own family, Allison and the kids—I missed my students the most. So I’d have to say that I like the life. And even the parts that other people sneer at, like the New York literary parties. I actually enjoy them, why not. If it’s no fun I’ll just leave. It’s easy. How about you? How much do you enjoy it, the writing life? The work, the territory, the travel?
AH: I hate traveling and being away from my family. But I like meeting my readers, as what I write is actualized in them. Those encounters are exhilarating to me. I was in Sarajevo recently and had a reading attended by my parents and my sister and family friends and my friends of thirty years and kids young enough to be my children and professors from whose books I studied language, etc. It was like a perfect funeral, except it was a fulfillment of something—a community reconstituted. And after I was done, it broke apart.
CM: Pub now, come on. Let’s go!