The Unknown Writer

Here is my interview with C. D. Rose for 3:AM Magazine, 30 June 2021.

C. D. Rose is an award-winning short story writer and the author of three palimpsestic books that recall the likes of Calvino, Perec or Borges.

The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure from 2014 celebrated the lives of writers who had ‘achieved some measure of literary failure’. Naturally, they all turned out to be fictitious with CD Rose (or some homonym) masquerading as the book’s editor.

Who’s Who When Everyone is Someone Else, which appeared in 2018, revolves around a British academic who, having written a book entitled (what are the odds?) The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure — is invited to deliver a series of ten lectures on lost or forgotten works in a provincial university located somewhere in central Europe. This academic is an authority on Maxim Guyavitch, a cult author so obscure that his very existence is contested.

The Blind Accordionist (Melville House, 2021) is subtitled ‘Nine Stories by Maxim Guyavitch’. It appears to be the long-lost manuscript that the academic was looking for in the previous novel. These nine tales often revolve around their own telling and seem to occupy a liminal space between potentiality and actuality. Beautifully written and exquisitely crafted, Rose’s fables are, by turns, surreal, hilarious, poetic, poignant, allusive and elusive.

So, to begin with, could you talk to us about your interest in ‘Pseudo and Crypto Bibliography’ and, more generally, ‘parafiction’ — a term you use to describe works about fictitious books or supposedly by fictitious authors…

CDR: Pseudobibliography is the study of fake or non-existent books; Cryptobibliography that of hidden or lost books. Parafiction is neither of these, though may have a pint with them from time to time.

Parafiction is a mode of literary enquiry which seeks to examine the truth status claimed by both fictional and non-fictional tropes, strategies and discourses. Unlike metafiction which lays bare its workings, and is ultimately interested in showing itself off, parafiction lies quietly alongside the established tradition, neither true nor false.

Do you feel a bit like an actor when you assume someone else’s identity to write fiction, as you do here with Maxim Guyavitch?

CDR: No disrespect, but I mistrust actors. The process of adopting a different identity in order to write is sometimes described as ‘ventriloquism,’ too, but I’m not sure about that either. When we sit down to write, we all become someone else. (It may, however, simply be that the word reminds me of nothing more than Keith Harris and Orville the Duck, or Rod Hull and Emu.)

Being Guyavitch allowed me to shed the layers of self-criticism, hyper-awareness, judgment, over-editing, over-caution, self-censorship, doubt and worry from beneath which so many of us attempt to write. It’s a good strategy. I’d recommend it.

You even turn yourself into a fictional character of sorts with the fake critical apparatus (the introduction, the afterword and annotated bibliography). This adds an extra layer of fiction. It also means that the book contains its own exegesis. Could you talk to us about these two aspects: the proliferating ontological uncertainty and the mock-scholarship?

CDR: I am a fictional character. Don’t we all make ourselves up? (That might account for the ontological uncertainty.)

The book contains its own exegesis partly in order to pre-emptively fend off any critics. You want to criticise this book? it asks, Too late — many have been there already.

It’s also there, this ‘mock scholarship,’ not in any way to mock scholars (heaven forbid), but because of Eco’s idea of the ‘open work,’ a work which can engender its own multitude of interpretations, responses, offshoots, parodies. The Blind Accordionist already includes a few, with the hope that the reader will create more.

Is Maxim Guyavitch a kind of Unknown Writer like there is an Unknown Soldier?

CDR: Yes, I think that’s exactly who he is.

That said, I’m not sure he can stand in for ‘all’ writers, but only for one particular strand. What could represent all unknown writers? There should be an abstract sculpture somewhere. Not a solitary flame though. Maybe one of those Sarah Lucas overflowing ashtrays.

There are many recurring images and motifs in your new book — the compression of time, railways, card games, cartography, ghosts, doppelgängers, dreams, pears (especially pear brandy), etc. — but the most obvious and most enigmatic one is the eponymous figure of the blind accordionist, which recurs in various guises in all the stories. Where does this figure come from?

CDR: André Kertész’s photograph of a blind accordionist, from around 1916. It’s a haunting, disturbing picture, as many of the best photographs can be. George Szirtes has written a really good poem about it, but I first came across it in Geoff Dyer’s book The Ongoing Moment. Dyer lists many of the other photographers who have taken pictures of blind accordionists, tracing it as a kind of trope, an ongoing homage or response to Kertész. I was interested in how it persists through time, both as a photographic subject, but also simply in the number of blind accordionists there actually are!

More simply, I thought ‘The Blind Accordionist’ would be a good title for a book. So I wrote it. With no blind accordionists in it.

(I like the sound of accordions, too, and a lot of accordion music — though I realise many object!)

You point out that great art — from Petrarch to Cindy Sherman — is often based on a pattern of repetition with minor variations. In Who’s Who, there were references to the Goldberg Variations, for instance. Here, we have the figure of the blind accordionist (which appears in each story but always under a different form), the two almost identical villages, the doppelgängers who are not ‘quite identical’, the warder’s day which is ‘as similar and as different’ as any other, the card game in which ‘each card should have its twin, although the twin card was not necessarily identical’… Why are you fascinated by this pattern?

CDR: It’s a way of putting order onto chaos, structuring the random happenstance of the world. Categorising and listing, while still allowing for difference, change — chance even. I mean, random chaos can be fascinating, thrilling, especially in an artistic context, but it can also be scary. And it’s bloody difficult to turn into fiction.

The Blind Accordionist is a collection of short stories and a novel. It’s both at the same time (like a rabbit-duck), isn’t it?

CDR: Exactly that. It’s a collection of short stories pretending to be a novel pretending to be a collection of short stories.

In the Introduction, you write that all we know about Guyavitch is that nine stories were published under his name between the beginning of the 20th century and the 1930s, but you then go on to mention a tale you have chosen not to include (admittedly on account of its ‘dubious authenticity’ — but still!). Is this missing story a bit like the missing chapter in Perec’s Life A User’s Manual? Is it an act of sabotage, or a dose of potentiality that has escaped actualisation? Is it one of the ‘volitional’ errors you describe as ‘portals of discovery’?

CDR: It’s a sabotage into potentiality, perhaps, both a hole and an escape route. It refuses the closure of the completed volume. There’s still more, out there somewhere. I like to think it will turn up, one day.

In your brilliant Afterword, you conjure up a lineage for Guyavitch — mainly authors from central or eastern Europe — a kind of School of Kafka. Why this attraction to Mitteleuropa?

In the 1970s — when I was a child — short animated TV programmes were sometimes broadcast between the more popular shows. Many of these were Czech or Polish. During the school holidays there was also morning television, where you might see imported European dramas for children, either badly dubbed or with one single voice telling us what was going on, the actors speaking mutedly in their own language. There were often flutes on the soundtrack, and sometimes a zither.

In the 1980s — when I was a teen — central and eastern Europe seemed as distant as the moon. Prague, now a city of mini-breaks and lads-on-tour stag weekends, I knew of then as little more than expressionist shadows and rumours of dissidents. Music might reach us from Berlin, its eastern part occasionally visited by the intrepid who always returned with a story. Few of us knew that Leningrad was St Petersburg. I listened to side two of Low a lot, perhaps too much.

In the 1980s — when I was a student — I read Kafka’s grey-spined Penguin Modern Classics, then moved on to white-spined translations of Kundera, Hrabal, Škvorecký, and Schulz.

Now I am an adult, and I know that some things which happen to you when you are young never go away.

In the bibliography, you feign to quote from David Kingston’s ‘Notes on the Whimsical’ (unpublished — of course!) in which he supposedly lists the mise en abyme as one of the genre’s attributes. It seems to me that the mise en abyme is your work’s guiding principle. The best example, here, is ‘At the Gallery of National Art’, where many of the paintings depict other stories in the book (the two villages, the man who decides to become a bear, etc.)…

CDR: The idea of framing something, then putting that thing in frame, then putting another frame around that thing becomes addictive — it’s similar to the process of repetition and variation mentioned above, and it becomes vertiginous, dizzying. It calls everything about perception and representation into question. I think it’s funny, too.

Your books have an encyclopaedic quality: they are full of literary references as well as cross-references to your own works. But they are also frequently attracted to nothingness: I’m thinking here of the desolate landscape painting which is ‘a picture of nothing, if that is possible’ or the mirror, in another story, that fails to reflect anything (and could well be the aforementioned painting rather than a mirror)… Tell us about this oscillation between everything and nothing.

CDR: The abyme mentioned above is the abyss. The mise en abyme is the process of piling things up on the edge of that abyss, or over it. It’s about amassing plenitude in an attempt to cover the horror of the void, or to avoid staring into the abyss too long. The Neapolitan actor-director Enzo Moscato claims the baroque as a style is based on a hysterical fear of the abyss, thus acknowledging the inseparability of the two. I think there’s a useful generative tension between the minimal and the baroque.

Do you see your three books as a trilogy now?

CDR: In that they are three connected books which all talk about each other, yes. You can read them in any order, mind, and The Blind Accordionist might actually be the best place to start.