Joshua Cohen, “Four new Messages: Six Questions for Joshua Cohen” by Ramona Demme, Harper’s Magazine 31 August 2012
In “Emission,” I include that brief quote about Raskolnikov: “His face was pale and distorted, and a bitter, wrathful, and malignant smile was on his lips.” That’s the most notable physical description of him in all the hundreds of pages of Crime and Punishment. If you read through the history of literature, it’s difficult not to note this slow, but seemingly inevitable, seemingly even conscious, accretion of detail. Characters in the oldest literature — Sumerian lit and the Bible, fables and folklore — are almost never physically described, and, of course, God “Himself” is never physically described. But then as you approach Antiquity, you encounter characters described by epithets, where one quality, frequently not even a physical quality, distinguishes them, rendering them an archetype for same. As you read on and into “fiction,” you find increasing physical description — archetypes profaning into types, characters aware of their own bodies (which is to say, psychology: mental or emotional description) — and with that comes, seemingly inevitably, seemingly consciously intended, a perceptible decrease in the reader’s imaginative opportunities. There’s just less space, less of a place, for the reader to co-write the book by filling in the blanks — the blanks have all been filled.
Take one of my favorite describers, Nabokov — who hated Dostoevsky, and regarded him as incompetent. Lolita prevents you from imagining Humbert Humbert and Lolita, and compels you instead to just see/hear/synestheticize how Nabokov himself intends them to be seen/heard/synestheticized—not just that, but Nabokov gives you “his” Humbert, and “his” Lolita, alongside “Humbert’s” Lolita and even “Lolita’s” Humbert. The reader, then, is exiled if not from the book then from his or her own importance to the book. Forget becoming involved with characters; the reader’s better involved with the author: the true hero, and heroine, turns out to be Nabokov — naughty Volodya!