Writing a new realism
John Holten interviewed by Karl Whitney.
John Holten is an Irish-born editor and curator who runs the Berlin-based publishing house Broken Dimanche Press. He has just published his first novel, The Readymades. (Read 3:AM’s review of The Readymades here.)
3:AM: You begin The Readymades by quoting one of Felix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines. How important is this quotation – both in terms of its connection with the events depicted within the novel, but also on a more conceptual level?
John Holten: I guess it is the first readymade of the book. Without getting into how I started writing the book too much, I used it as a narrative constraint: I wanted to fill out the ‘reasons unknown’ of Fénéon’s micro-story. It’s proleptic for the novel, but also for me as a writer, by roughly 100 years. In its presentation, and the person of Fénéon, much of the novel’s modes of operation can be guessed at and intuited – so in that sense it is fairly important.
3:AM: What’s the importance of the Dada movement to the LGB group? [Holten's novel centres on the LGB, a fictional Eastern European art group]
JH: You can’t call a novel ‘The Readymades’ without engaging with Dada. For the group I created, it was extremely important : a tradition, a lineage, a conversation. The history of neo-dada is also of great importance : the original Dada gestures resonant still today in contemporary art. I used the rather straight forward conversation of : Dada – Yugo-Dada/Zenitism – New Realism – Neo/Retro-Avant Gardes of Eastern Europe – relational aesthetics and Nicolas Bourriaud’s ongoing drive for modernist movements and totalisting art historical categories. The hand of dada is over each of these conversational points. Other important things would be the international movement of the dada group – the LGB group were international, travelling and rhizomatic – as well as the homo-social nature of ‘the gang of boys being brazenly bold’.
3:AM: Your novel plays with factual elements, to the point of creating a highly plausible art movement and attendant characters, and presenting some of the real art works by fictional artists within its pages. Do you think that fiction can present something more complex and satisfying than the proponents of ‘reality hunger’ suggest?
JH: I’m not sure how to feel about David Shields’ book Reality Hunger, but what I do know is that he makes a good point : literary fiction, lyrical realism, a la James Wood just feels somehow out of touch with the time. Fiction is always, and must, represent something more than just a made up story : it is predicated on the world the reader brings to the work. If I create a neo-avant-garde art group, as I do in the words of The Readymades, then why shouldn’t I also extend the fiction to its logical conclusion : concrete art ? Fiction is everywhere, from four minute pop songs to films; I like the idea that my words can show the conversation they are having not just with the literary tradition they’re coming from, but also the many other forms too : visual art, film, music and indeed, other less glamorous things, environmental science, history, engineering. Maybe my next book will be illustrated with the designs of oil rigs. Or the social history of the German train network…I’m just talking about realism here: The Readymades is a realist novel, realist fiction changes with the age, many novelists today fail to realise this and write books like Dickens or Balzac, or even worse, Evelyn Waugh. That’s what Shields and company are saying, and I’d agree, the guys making Grand Theft Auto, today they’re real fictional realists.
3:AM: Talk about some of the problems of representing yourself as a character in fiction.
JH: The prologue to the novel is a reworking of a Borges piece, itself a reworking, called ‘Ragnorak’. His ghost is there from the start. I love the opening line of ‘Borges and I’: ‘It is the other one, the one they call Borges, that things happen to’. Writing can be a little boring or lonely, so this was one way of having fun. I just finished La carte et le territoire by Michel Houellebecq, who I find interesting in his depth of understanding of both the Anglo-Saxon and French worlds. In this novel he writes himself into the story – as so many writers have done, from Sterne to Will Self – and he has a lot of fun doing it. But it raises interesting questions, fun aside, and again perhaps it comes back to this ‘reality hunger’ idea. They’re all real, the characters in The Readymades, in one form or another, they’re composites, building blocks, of people I’ve come in contact with, rearranged and labelled with made up names, nationalities, professions. One more interesting thing, is that Houellebecq not only wrote himself into his latest novel, but that its ostensibly also about an artist and the art world and partially set in Paris. A funny coincidence.
3:AM: Your novel is rich in detail (I’m thinking especially of the description of the courtyard outside the central character Bojic’s apartment). Did you work from memory, take notes or photos, or simply make this stuff up?
JH: I worked from memory. The truth is, I lived in Bojic’s apartment when I lived in Paris. I mean: I just used my old address. It was a strange place to live, making as little money as I did at the time. It’s the first arrondisement, the Louvre and the Opéra Garnier were just next door. My editor wanted to change it, rue Danielle Casanova just seemed too easy what with the sex and death, but it just had to stay, the market square, the restaurants, the avenue de l’Opéra – they were all places engrained in my memory and Djordje [Bojic], as an artist interested in the everyday, details them carefully in his narration. Berlin, where I wrote almost all of the book, also fed the details: I’d go out at the weekend to all these bars and clubs and meet people from all over the place, all of that went into the book too. I just changed the setting (Paris is not as exciting as The Readymades probably makes out, whereas Berlin does a passable job). The same for Belgrade and New Belgrade: I stayed in New Belgrade when I first visited the city, in the apartment of a Serbian friend, who was coincidentally, a translator.
3:AM: The Readymades presents translation as a dangerous act (at least, the act of being entrusted with the manuscript imperils the translator character, Thomas O’Neill). Do you think translation is important?
JH: Translation is not just important: I would go so far as to say that without translation we wouldn’t have literature, not as we know it. I think a good form of torture for any serious writer would be to deny them reading anything other then works produced in their own language or country. For eternity. Translation is the lifeblood that sustains the conversations crucial not only to literary creation, but cultural understanding and development. The act of translation is full of potential pitfalls and difficulties; writing novels is a strange act of identity polymorphism; translating is this and by extension polyphony, driven by empathy and sympathy and is a task that is demanding to the utmost. One thing I worked at, and perhaps failed to succeed in completely doing, was to mimic the tone and contours of a translated text. My big hope is to see The Readymades translated into other European languages, translation is a key trope after all of the book itself.
3:AM: You’re an Irish-born author whose work is set in European locations (but not Dublin, not really). Is there any significance to this? Do you just find [mainland] Europe more interesting?
JH: Ah, Europe and Ireland. Or is that, Ireland versus Europe? I’ve lived most of my adult life in the cities of Paris, Oslo and Berlin, with four semestered years in Dublin. The conversation of Europe is huge, vast, unruly and on-going, and its cultural matrix is never ending. Bloody, genocidal, troubled. Irish writers of late have, for the most part, wholeheartedly embraced an American perspective, which is natural all things considered, but for me, Europe is, and always has been (just think of the Joyce-Beckett-Higgins nexus) an exceptionally rich zone in which to write. I have no interest in writing ‘Irish novels’ that in a way become, by sheer force of numbers, little more than politely-tolerated, admirable younger brothers in the UK, or the in-law’s adopted younger children in the US (mostly this comes down to the fact that I wouldn’t know how to do so anyway as I have no idea what an Irish short story is for example, other than a version of ‘The Dead’ it seems, and besides the Americans have been doing the Irish Short Story better than us for a long time now). Irish writing needs to remember that there is nothing scary or difficult about ‘Europe’: we have political and economic ties with Europe that are taken for granted now, and a literary lineage that is celebrated the world over, as well as officially in Dublin, and I’m not just talking about setting. The Irish diaspora, it is true, is tied more to the Anglo-Saxon world than mainland Europe, but it really comes down to form and language, which in turn influence content. Sometimes it’s just sad and pathetic, this official celebrating of Wilde, Joyce, O’Brien and Beckett – not just because the country screwed them over when they were alive – but because their true artistic projects never really had a life in the domestic life of the island, they’re convenient tourist attractions now that they’re mummified, but to actually take their influence seriously today as a young writer? Forget it – but then maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong.
3:AM: The LGB artists vehemently reject nationalistic chauvinism. What’s your opinion of nationalism in the current European climate?
JH: I think it’s very unfortunate and very grave, but not a huge surprise. Since 2008 when Lehmann Brothers collapsed (the very same week I started writing The Readymades) it was clear that populism would raise its head. What is surprising is that the left have made so little inroads in Europe during this recession. Serbia suffered at the hands of history: just as the rest of Europe decided, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, that nationalism was démodé, it did what so many European nations did before: set the border, created a nation. But this is somewhat different in reality to the rise of nationalism today. In Europe today some of it is to do with the markets and the bail outs, some of it is to do with immigration (what happened in Oslo really shocked me this summer and is a wake up call if we think that rightwing nationalism or indeed any populism is inane and a passing fad) and The Readymades and by extension the LGB artists who leave Serbia behind, gets caught up in these strands of European rightwing bogholes. Jörg Haider plays a considerable part in The Readymades and I think I included him because he represented all that is wrong about European notational politics and shows no signs of disappearing. There can be no room for complacency.
3:AM: What is it about the representation of exile in literature that appeals to you?
JH: All my favourite characters have been in exile, in one form or another. The novel is good at this, from Defoe onwards. When we pick up a book, and this picks up what I was saying earlier, we imagine a world we’re all foreigners, even just for a day. I think that’s my dream: a day when everyone is a foreigner, or feels like one, because conversely the word would then lose its signification. Exile as a humanism, I think that’s what I’m trying to say!
3:AM: Your book is also a collaboration with the artist Darko Dragicevic – how did this collaboration work? Did you give him guidelines for the creation of the artworks?
JH: Ah, one more coincidence! I was half way through the first draft of The Readymades when my Icelandic friend Eirik Sördal invited me around to dinner one July evening. There was one other guest, a Serbian artist Darko. I didn’t tell him anything about the content of the novel I was writing that night, but we had a nice chat about Serbia and Ireland (where he had recently just shot a movie). Like a lot of people I found while writing the book, he was very keen on reading it. Half a year later I sent it to him, really nervous that he would flatly proclaim that it was a failure and was a complete misrepresentation of a Serbian and Belgrade. He read it in one weekend while in Milan and wrote back saying he was deeply impressed by what I had achieved. Since then we collaborated on making it a viable novel in terms of language, names and other details of the cultural context, with a book within its covers apparently written by a Serb – Djordje Bojic – who is, in so many strange, beautiful ways, close to Darko. When I realised that Broken Dimanche Press would publish the novel, I knew I had the chance to extend the fiction I had created with the establishment of Galerie Gojkovic and the inclusion in the book of artworks. I felt very keenly that this is something that I both wanted to do, and needed to do; I contacted Darko with my idea about maybe finding a Serbian curator or so, and quickly we realised that he was already well placed, what with his experience as a film director and personal biography, as well as his knowledge of the book, to carry out his own polyphony, i.e. the realisation of the missing oeuvre of The LGB Group! The only guidelines were what I wrote in the novel. His catalogue of work, like I said, weirdly and wonderfully, mirrored Bojic’s output. I had clear ideas about art and language, the philosophy of the everyday, and the artists who influenced LGB artists, but ultimately it was Darko who set the works, conceived them and with a little chaotic help from me, executed them. It’s been a pleasure to work with him and take the work on a tour of Europe, starting first in Oslo and going to Brussels, Berlin and, all going well, to Belgrade. I wanted to write a novel that dealt with ‘a missing art group’ and to clarify some of the ‘reasons unknown’ for Imre Warmann’s death – with the help of Darko, Broken Dimanche Press, Galerie Gojkovic and FUK Laboratories (they’ve made, if I may say so, one of the most beautiful paperback novels I’ve held in my hands for a long time!), I’ve had the pleasure to give such a misguided ambition my best shot.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Karl Whitney is a writer and 3:AM editor based in Paris. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 27th, 2011.