Tuesday, July 26, 2005

a conversation with michal viewegh - part three

Q: What’s your most autobiographical novel?

A: I have to admit that I’ve never asked myself that question. Each book, in some way, documents a certain period of my life. The first book, Opinions on Murder, is about twenty years of living in a small town and the newest novel is about the relationship between a father and a teenage daughter, which I’m also experiencing. When I wrote the book Sightseers, I had been on fifteen prior sightseeing excursions. I don’t know how to find a different story than my own but I also can’t say which of my books has the largest percentage of autobiographical material.

Q: Which of your books is your favorite? If you could pick one book and have it translated in every language, which book would you choose?

A: It’s probably difficult for any author to pick just one of his works but I guess objectively I would choose The Wonderful Years of Lousy Living because that was the book that really started my career. That was the fateful one. That was the one that provided my entry into the literary world.

Q: I’ve only read the English excerpts from The Wonderful Years of Lousy Living, but if anything, that novel, or at least that excerpt, seems to be closer to magical realism than post-modernism. Does that mean I read it wrong, I read it right, or that the excerpt isn’t representative, stylistically, of the novel as a whole? I’m thinking, particularly about the multiple generations reminiscent of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and this one paragraph where, after relating how his mother is saved from a dog by a garbageman while pregnant, Quido says, “Of course, I’m not denying I was then like any other fetus in the womb, probably blind, but I must have had a way of perceiving all of this because how else to explain my being so strangely moved every time I watch the dustmen do their job.”

A: I agree that the principle of exaggeration - and exaggeration in some cases does mean more than realism - is most evident in that novel. There aren’t any miracles that occur in the book, like Marquez, but the irony with which certain characters are described is similar. For example, Quido’s descriptions of his grandmother Liba is founded on a real sense of exaggeration above reality. I would say that your assessment is correct. The exaggeration, or the “more than realism” or magical realism, is that which makes everyday or banal situations into something more interesting. For example, it’s not in this excerpt, but there’s a scene in which Quido’s father becomes a so-called political hypochondriac, and starts to feel that he’s being followed everywhere by the secret police. Because he likes woodworking he goes down in the basement and starts putting together a coffin. That’s one example of a gross exaggeration because my father did experience difficulties with the regime but primarily in the fact that he wasn’t allowed to travel to the West and had a limited pay ceiling, but he never, in fact, built coffins.

Q: Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia and the two small excerpts from Sightseers come across as strongly post-modern. Do you consider yourself, now, a post-modern writer?

A: I wouldn’t dare to speak about post-modernism as a philosophy. I can speak about it only in the literary sense. The two or three articles or books that I read about post-modernism which I understood - because most of them I just don’t even understand - for me contained elements or descriptions of things which I’d already, for a number of years, instinctively been trying to realize in my work, without knowing that they were labeled post-modernism. The thing that probably spoke to me the most is something I read in an article by John Barth who said that he understands post-modernism as a synthesis of the readability and the entertainment of the literature of the nineteenth century - for example Dickens - together with the experimental modernism of the first half of the twentieth century, like Joyce. Literature which is entertaining reading but at the same time contains something which captures the attention of a sophisticated, contemporary reader.

Q: But by that definition, you are a post-modern writer.

A: Yes. I agree.

Q: Besides Barth’s article, are there practical examples, a work or works of fiction, that you saw as models or inspirations before writing Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia?

A: Despite my best efforts, it’s not possible for me to name only two or three influential authors. I could name maybe eighty whom I liked a lot. Of course, I read them all in Czech translation. Perhaps a psychoanalyst would be more qualified to say which had the most influence on me. They are often really quite varied in style. German literature like Thomas Mann, Romantics like Turgenev, Raymond Carver, John Irving, Garcia Marquez and so on and so forth. From French literature, Raymond Queaneau.

Q: Can you read while you’re writing or does someone else’s work conflict your own?

A: I never felt it was a problem to read something else while I was writing. On the contrary, I write in the morning and in the evening I am quite happy to read something. For me it’s like replenishing the batteries because each author has to admit that when he writes he’s moving within a limited vocabulary, actively using maybe one hundred thousand words. You have passive knowledge of thirty thousand more that you don’t use. And so when I read other Czech authors, it activates the passive vocabulary as well.

Q: I’m curious about the variety of literary references you call up in Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia. I actually made a list of all of the references it contained. We’ve got Capek, Chekov multiple times, J. D. Salinger, John Fowles, Shakespeare, Borges, Kundera, Hemingway, Lustig, Proust, Kafka, Ken Kesey, William Goldman, Doctorow, Dostoevsky, Saul Bellow, Kurosawa, Updike, Gertrude Stein, Hodrova, Vonnegut, Woody Allen, and many, many others. I found the Woody Allen reference especially intriguing because even though he’s known as a filmmaker, there’s a similarity in the self-conscious humor. Do you just have a passing knowledge or are you a fan of Woody Allen?

A: First, just a note about the number of citations in the text. There is self-irony in there. It’s a story of a guy who’s supposed to help a girl who’s in a difficult life situation and the only thing he knows to call forth for help are books. That’s why there are so many, because in its own way it’s sort of comic or even embarrassing. But part of it is me.
As far as Woody Allen goes, yes, I’ve seen almost all of his films. His sense of self-irony is close to me. There’s something I identify with. When I published my book of literary parodies two or three critics did say that it was written in a Woody Allen style.

Q: Is there a particular film that’s your favorite?

A: In a lot of his films there are literary references or there are texts from literary works. It’s something I really admire, that he’s able to combine serious themes such as death, with a grotesque humor. By grotesque I mean exaggerated, the art of combining those two things so that the film holds together. For both of those elements to work is difficult to do. Not very many people know how to do it. I liked Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days. I could probably name ten of his films which I liked.

a conversation with michal viewegh - part one
a conversation with michal viewegh - part two
a conversation with michal viewegh - part four

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