Interview with James Greer

Greer, James. “More Parody Than Satire.” Interview by Andrew Gallix. 3:AM Magazine, 16 July 2022.

3:AM: In Bad Eminence, France’s most famous author, Not Michel Houellebecq (or at least one of them, as there may be two!) asks the narrator-protagonist, Vanessa Salomon, to translate his new novel before he’s even written it. In other words, he wants her to produce a copy without an original. To what extent did Baudrillard’s take on the simulacrum shape your book, and when did you hit upon the idea of the twin (Vanessa claims to have a “bitch twin sister”) as simulacrum?

JG: A Parisian friend once told me that she went to high school with the (now famous) actor Eva Green, and that Eva had a twin sister. Everyone at her school assumed that the twin sister was much more likely to become a famous actor, because she was outgoing and dramatic, whereas Eva was bookish and shy. No idea if that story’s true, but I thought it might make a promising start to . . . something. One of these days I’ll have to read some Baudrillard.

3:AM: Which goes to prove, once again, that you don’t need to have read Baudrillard to be influenced by him!

Not Michel Houellebecq’s impossible demand reflects the primacy of translation — the recurring idea, in the book, that all writing is already a form of translation (of ideas, feelings, the world, into words). As Kafka puts it (in translation!) in The Zürau Aphorisms, “All language is but a poor translation”. Do you share this view to a certain extent?

JG: I don’t know about “poor” — I might substitute the word “failed” or “inadequate” — but I do share his view, and would go further and say that all lived experience is a translation of sense perceptions into stories we tell (ourselves) about ourselves. There are good translations and bad translations, but you always want to read the original when possible. It’s just that it’s almost always not possible.

3:AM: The novel reaches a metatextual crescendo, when Vanessa parses a sentence she has just written: “I shut the lid of the laptop and headed back to bed”. She goes on to point out that this can only have been typed before or after the event. Does this remark reflect her dream of writing a book that would inhabit “the spaces between the binary code of our existence”? Are you also trying to occupy this liminal space?

JG: I don’t think Vanessa is that self-aware, honestly. She strikes me as someone who’s trying to pretend that she’s smarter than she actually is, and throws up a wall of superficial erudition to prevent anyone getting too close. But speaking for myself, yes, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do.

3:AM: Once the narrative has caught up with itself, the novel seems to implode in real time as it becomes increasingly clear that Vanessa’s translations have been contaminating the rest of her life: everything and everyone seems to be a copy — her world is awash with doppelgängers and simulacra. It is, in particular, the Robbe-Grillet novel she is translating at the beginning, which is seeping through, so I was wondering what relationship you had with the nouveau romancier’s work?

JG: An uneasy one. I’ve always been a fan of the way Robbe-Grillet and some of the other writers lumped under that clumsy but useful self-designation tried to expand the possibilities of the novel — not always successfully, but still. They tried. When I write films, for example, I have no choice but to adhere to a specific format, which can also be quite liberating in its own way (like trying to write a sonnet, or build a car); but when I set out to write a novel I can’t seem to help plunging ahead like I’ve just been freed from Making Sense jail, which is a real place that exists. I’m less enamored of some of Robbe-Grillet’s specific obsessions (for example, degrading sexual violence), but a book like Dans le labyrinthe was formative for me, almost comically so. I love a good maze. Of the nouveau roman writers, I tend to prefer Nathalie Sarraute. How I came to hit on Souvenirs du triangle d’or as the urtext for Bad Eminence is a thing no longer accessible by my brain. It just felt right at the time, I guess.

L to R James Greer, Vanessa Salomon. Copyright Thomas Early.

3:AM: Please tell us about the black-and-white photographs. They are obviously reminiscent of W. G. Sebald, who is namechecked several times, but is there also a link with Francesca Woodman, whom Vanessa is obsessed with (to the point of living in her former apartment)?

JG: In an ideal world, i.e. one in which money did not exist, the photos would have been in colour. The nod to Sebald is, as you say obvious, and as with the “sponsored content” both parodic and serious, depending on context. If I could compose pictures half as beautifully as Francesca Woodman did, I would absolutely claim a link there, but I can’t, so I won’t. Nonetheless, her work, which seems to exist in the liminal space you referred to earlier, very much resonates with me, and I hope that resonance is to some degree reflected in the text.

3:AM: Even though the novel is hilarious and very playful, it is also the study of a divided self, isn’t it?

JG: One of my selves emphatically agrees with you. Another thinks you’re crazy. Still another wants to sue, for some reason, but don’t worry, I never listen to any of them.

3:AM: In an age of earnest autofiction and misery memoirs, your novel seems audaciously — almost procatively — ludic and self-referential. Did you have the feeling, when writing Bad Eminence, that you were going against the grain?

JG: I knew as it developed tentacles and tangents that Bad Eminence would likely be swimming against what no one ever calls (but should?) the literary tide. That’s always been the case with me, a person who is not particularly good at swimming. Having said that, I do read more or less everything w/r/t contemporary literature, and enjoy quite a bit of what I read. I didn’t set out to write something in opposition to anything else. My brain doesn’t work that way. I wish I could just write something that people enjoy on a large and commercially successful scale, but — this could be my 90s indierock roots showing — I have an unfortunate tendency to sabotage anything that comes across as overly earnest. I think it’s because I am by nature a sentimental fool and I’m scared that people will find that out and make fun of me. As a result, I often end up writing novels that amuse only me, which is the kind of narrowcasting publishers live for.

3:AM: Why is Bad Eminence being released in the UK before the US?

JG: It’s not, in fact, unless something changed and I’m in the dark (not for the first time). The publication date is the same in the US and the UK, it’s just that And Other Stories, who is publishing the book in both countries, is based in the UK. Because I was writing in the voice of a French/British woman who’d been living in NYC for five years, I was very careful to mix in a confusing array of Anglicisms, Americanisms, clunky literal translations from her French brain into English, and a mishmash of different spellings and made-up words. The overall effect, if I’ve done my job, is to make you think the book was published in the UK before the US.

3:AM: Finally, could you please tell us about the “sponsored content”? At first, I thought it was merely satire, but now I’m not so sure!

JG: Singani 63 is a real brand of liquor imported by a real film director named Steven Soderbergh, with whom I have had a long and fruitful working relationship. Any suggestion that I included his brand in my “sponsored content” in exchange for a better deal on my next project with him is a fabrication. Also, not to pick nits, but I think it’s more parody than satire.

Laboratory of Narrative

Here is my review of Michel Butor’s Selected Essays, Times Literary Supplement, 8 July 2022, p. 25.

Michel Butor has never received anywhere near the level of critical attention in the English-speaking world accorded to his fellow experimenters with the nouveau roman, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute. His third novel, La Modification, is regarded as a modern classic in his native France, where it won the prestigious Prix Renaudot in 1957 and is regularly chosen as a set text at schools and universities. Even in France, however, few appreciate the full scope of Butor’s oeuvre, which encompasses countless poems, art and literary criticism, travel writing, translations and a libretto, not to mention more than a thousand artist’s books. It is to be hoped that the publication of his Selected Essays, carefully curated by Richard Skinner and elegantly translated by Mathilde Merouani, will kindle greater interest in the work of a true polymath, whose questing spirit — unlike that of some of his fellow nouveaux romanciers — never departed him.

Five of the eight essays compiled here, one of which is actually a 1962 interview with Tel Quel magazine, appear in English for the first time. They all deal with various aspects of the novel, which Butor regarded as the greatest of all literary forms. For him it was, at least initially, a way of overcoming a “personal problem”, enabling him to reconcile the poetry he was then writing at home with the philosophy he was studying at university.

This slim volume hinges on the notion that no account of human behaviour is truly complete without the inclusion of the imaginative and oneiric. Much of reality is apprehended through narratives (such as newspapers or history books) that exist on the “ever unstable border between fact and fiction”. Butor’s grand claim — that the novel is “the laboratory of the narrative”, where the way the world is experienced can be explored and, ultimately, transformed — is argued here most persuasively.

Butor makes light work of heavy themes, eschewing dogma and jargon despite the essays’ phenomenological tenor, in stark contrast with many of his contemporaries. Whether he is analyzing how a fictive locale may reconfigure the space in which a book is read, contending that travelling is the dominant theme of all literature or excavating old objects in the work of Balzac, his often exhilarating insights continue to come across as though he were charting terra incognita.

Behind this ever-inquisitive mind, there is a sense of a growing impatience with the constraints of the novel, even in its experimental mode. In the book’s concluding interview Butor discusses his failure to bridge the gap between poetry and philosophy, which may explain why he did not publish any novels after 1960. (He died in 2016.) After 1960 his fascination with the intersection between writing and the arts would take him beyond the confines of fiction into experiments with hybrid works and the book as object.