After the Nouveau Roman: an Interview with Writer Donald Breckenridge

What most immediately impresses me about Donald Breckenridge’s novel And Then is how remote his predecessors are from our contemporary moment, yet how immediate the book feels regardless. Most writers form themselves in relation to more or less familiar contemporary figures (David Foster Wallace’s legacy seems particularly large in younger writers these days, for example), with the result that, for better and for worse, readers immediately see where they are. But Breckenridge cut his teeth on more distant literary traditions—largely foreign, specifically French—which makes his writing wonderfully strange, both in its challenges and its gratifications.

And Then is a book about death and haunting. It is an oddly but subtly constructed dance of storylines that only tangentially overlap—some more tangentially than others—organized around resonances between the stories, ideas or feelings that haunt the book through recurrence. One storyline follows a young woman, Suzanne, who becomes involved in a small town crime and ends up in New York, where she drifts through the art world but gets “mixed up with the wrong people” and disappears. Another follows a student in New York years later housesitting for a professor who’d once been Suzanne’s roommate. A third is an autobiographical account of Breckenridge’s father’s health problems and eventual death. The book is a brilliant example of dramatic restraint, building characters and complexities gradually and quietly, ultimately coming together with unexpected coherence and effect.

Donald Breckenridge is the author of three previous novels as well as being the fiction editor of the Brooklyn Rail, co-curator of the website InTranslation—which features works-in-progress by translators around the world—and most recently managing editor of Red Dust, a landmark small publisher focusing on, among other things, mid-20th Century French writers. I interviewed him by email in late May 2017.

—Martin Riker

THE BELIEVER: The introduction you wrote for NYRBooks’ most recent Emmanuel Bove translation starts by calling Bove a “master of hyper-objectivity” and goes on to cite his influence on Nouveau Roman writers Claude Simon and Nathalie Sarraute. In the tradition of establishing lineage, I want to start by asking what you mean by hyper-objectivity and what this literary value—maybe in particular as it relates to the Nouveau Roman—has meant for you in your own work?

DONALD BRECKENRIDGE: By hyper-objectivity I mean that everything is equally relevant and yet you have to do a lot more with much less. Emmanuel Bove’s writing is incredibly rapid and deceptively simple—especially in the early books. He is always direct in thought and expression and possesses a cinematographers’ eye for detail and composition. He has extraordinary empathy for his characters and that gives them an immediate timeworn granite-like substance, but they are never portrayed in a sentimental light. He is unforgiving and yet he is never malicious or unnecessarily cruel. You get this profound sense of decency while reading his books, and that lingers.

I think Claude Simon shares many of Boves’ abilities—that hyper-objectivity. Bove and Simon certainly have a similar eye for composition and a richness of detail although Simon’s sentences do occasionally run on for pages. Unlike Bove he can be deliberately and beautifully opaque when it serves the narrative. His finest books possess an incredibly vivid rapidity. Simon is forever present. He employs a breathtaking mechanization of multiple narratives that are in constant motion. Whereas Sarraute and her microtonal interiors, her deft observations and deliberate silences lend a nearly bottomless depth to her close narratives, which is also something that you find in Bove’s writing. Her dialogue is also incredibly precise and remarkably urgent so if you listen closely to her work you might hear a muffled yet determined beating heart.

Reading Bove taught me how to write fiction. In my early twenties he opened a door that I did not know existed and that enabled me to consider the possibility that maybe one day I could put something down on the page that someone else might be interested in reading.

BLVR: The thing is we don’t see many contemporary writers coming out of that tradition (Nouveau Roman/hyper-objectivity), and if I had to make a guess why, I would say it’s because as a culture we’re very drama-oriented, and hyper-objectivity in some ways resists the dramatic.

DB: Yes, this hyper-objective approach does willfully resist the flourishes of typical commercial American storytelling. Also the authors who have influenced me, the western European ones we’ve been discussing at least, are way out of fashion in academia and as a result of that, they are not being taught in schools so aspiring writers are not being exposed to them. Bove’s work literally vanished after he died, and while he has had a few revivals both here and in France, the vast majority of American readers who would actually really love his work if they were given an opportunity to read him might not ever get that chance. Many of Claude Simon’s finest novels are long out of print so how is a professor going to assign those books? And the same can be said for Natalie Sarraute.

I think my embrace of Bove, Simon and Sarraute has a lot to do with the fact that I discovered them myself. I am self-taught so my reading—like my attempts at storytelling—has always been unsupervised and I don’t know how conscious I was in making this choice when I began writing, you know, what deeply unsentimental angle to approach it from.

BLVR: And Then goes about making these emotional/narrative spaces in its own ways. For example through simultaneity, which occurs both within individual sentences (“Suzanne was sitting beside John in his VW, “All I want to do,” with a six-pack nestled between her handled feet, “is get out of here”) and on the level of time: the simultaneous occurrence, in the narrative, of stories from different decades. What is it about your concept for And Then that made simultaneity the organizing principle?

DB: I wanted the reader to be aware of the present at all times, or rather, I wanted to present the characters to the reader as they existed in their own time and to make the reader a compliant witness while the characters and their multiple stories reverberate throughout the book.

All the stories in And Then share similar themes of abandonment, dissipation, and regret. The stories with Tom and Suzanne both happen in the same place a little over a decade apart. Outside of the individual scenes, as the book quickly shifts through the decades, I think that the multiplicity of stories and their similar themes lend themselves to this simultaneity.

BLVR: On the surface it makes me think of Joseph Frank’s idea of spatial form. Frank’s thesis as I remember it is that Modernism was the move from a linear to a spatial experience—Woolf and Joyce and the plumpness of a single moment rather than a thin linearity. What’s different here is that you have this coexistence of different times within the same space, and they perforate one another (both through thematic recurrences and, within the narrative, the presence of ghosts).

DB: That is exactly right. It is like having a pair of retrospective eyes contained within your own eyes. This multiplicity of juxtaposed narratives as a swollen slightly off-kilter double vision. When I started visualizing this book back in ’08, when I set out to create a novel that was going to act as a buffer for myself from what I knew was going to be the last few years of my father’s life, I was carrying around this sentence, “The vertigo of failure on a grey felt blackboard,” for months while trying to figure out what that would actually look like—maybe it was circuitous, was it a vortex, what would a vertigo of failure sound like, it could reverberate but very quietly, and how on earth could that possibly become a narrative? I gradually came up with that scene of a young Tom playing in the snow when he discovers a body on the shore. A few weeks later I realized that the vertigo of failure was the infinity symbol—two joined circles—on a grey felt blackboard and that is how Suzanne and Tom eventually came to share the same apartment at different points in time, and that is why her spirit returned to that place to visit him because he was the person who discovered her body on the shore.

BLVR: And Then ends up being a ghost story both literally and structurally. When the ghost—two of them, actually, in different storylines—arrive toward the end, they provide a vehicle for the larger concept that the various narratives haunt each other, or echo each other (depending on whether you are the in the narrative of the haunting or of the echoing). Early on in And Then you recount the plot of a film (Jean Rouch’s 1965 Gare du Nord), and unlike other strains in the narrative, this particular piece never circles back, and yet it seems to stand as a sort of theme out of which the other strains are variations. Was the idea that the film establishes an Ur-story or premise that hangs over the book, or is it rather the disappearance of that narrative that matters most to you? Or it’s the presence of an absence—another ghost.

DB: Appropriating the Gare du Nord narrative provided me with an overture for Tom and Suzanne’s stories. So the principal overlying themes of the novel are in that sequence but have absolutely nothing to do with the characters of the book. It’s like a short before the main feature that was made by a different director who happens to be working under a similar banner in another country during an earlier era.

BLVR: As you mentioned earlier, there’s also, running adjacent to these adjacent-running narratives, the autobiographical story of your own father’s death. The danger of including such charged memoir material, it seems to me, is that the memoir will assume the role of primary narrative, to which everything else is window dressing. And Then avoids this but I’m not sure I can articulate exactly how.

DB: If I had approached the autobiographical narrative with a sensational or self-pitying tone, I think that would have destroyed the book. What happened to my father in And Then is exactly how he chose to live and how he chose to end his life after an ugly protracted fight with cancer. Witnessing that was my reality for decades, and while I wouldn’t want to see him suffering anymore, I would cut off my left hand immediately if that meant I could spend another afternoon hanging out with him—playing cards and smoking his cigarettes. I know that sounds sensational and melodramatic and I suppose it is but so be it.

What I set out to do with And Then was to create a book that would act as a filter while witnessing the end of his very deliberate demise. I wanted to write through what I strongly suspected would be his last few years. I began the book in the winter of 2008 and he died in September of 2010. Tom and Suzanne counter-mingling in that East Village apartment was my ballast. I finished the book in ’12 and the publication was delayed for awhile. It was during that time, the summer of ’13, that the autobiographical narrative took shape—telling my father’s story. I somehow acquired the courage to attempt it, and what you see in the book, parts of that were actually taken from the eulogy I wrote for his funeral. So you get this emotionally honest and urgent yet really clear-eyed autobiographical take that I wove into the fictional narratives and everything sort of alternates and reverberates like a souped up jalopy.

BLVR: Do you find these two kinds of writing (autobiographical and fictional) very different? This is a novel and in a sense you have fiction in fiction and reality in fiction. Is reality in fiction more real than fiction in fiction, or are they both just different translations of life?

DB: The autobiographical and fictional are very different and yet I think they compliment each other so yes, they are simply different translations of life, that’s a nice way of putting it. This book was inspired by an actual encounter with the ghost of a recent suicide whose spirit or life force passed through me late one night in the spring of ’06 and the novel I spun from that extraordinary interaction was my filter through which I experienced the death of my father. All of it was process—none less realized—this was a clear-eyed awakening and a supreme act of love.

BLVR: Before we wrap up—you do a lot of other work in the literary community—you’re a good literary citizen—and I want to make sure we talk about that. As fiction editor for the Brooklyn Rail you founded InTranslation, a web space for translators to share works in progress. Why did you focus in on translation in particular? What was your goal in starting this site and has the goal changed over the years?

DB: Jen Zoble and I founded the site (10 years ago!) because we wanted to publish a lot more work in translation than I had monthly page space for in the fiction section of the Brooklyn Rail—which has always been very translation heavy—and to give translators a web-based bulletin board so they could showcase their sample translations in progress to hopefully attract the attention of editors, potential publishers and readers that are interested in literature in translation. I’ve always been a reader of literature in translation, nearly exclusively, and yet I’m seemingly incapable of reading or speaking any languages aside from English, so my work there has been a natural progression of that interest.

BLVR: You’re also now working with Red Dust Books. What’s ahead for Red Dust? While I’m at it, what’s ahead for Donald Breckenridge?

DB: In my capacity as managing editor of Red Dust we published a novella by Emmanuel Bove, A Raskolnikoff, that Mitchell Abidor did a remarkable job of translating and we’ve two books forthcoming this fall: Alyson Waters’ translation of I Am Not a Hero by Pierre Autin-Grenier and also Jonathan Larson’s translation of Francis Ponge’s Nioque of the Early Spring. Both books are really extraordinary. I’m trying to get the review copies out by mid-July with an October or early November pub date.

In my own writing I’m slowly working on a retelling of the Sophocles’ Theban plays and that has been incredibly challenging and also very rewarding.

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