George Salis: Many people consider Darconville’s Cat ‘revenge fiction.’ As I understand it, you believe that revenge is not only the main theme of world literature but also a primary impetus for art. Is the notion of revenge the ‘best’ impulse when pursuing art, or are there others you deem worthier? What are some great novels that bypass the revenge impulse?
Alexander Theroux: Writing itself is in a very real sense about revenge – see George Orwell’s 1948 essay, “Why I Write.” So, the preoccupation, it would seem, follows suit. It would be much easier to answer your question about which great novels do not center on revenge. Why don’t we go ahead and simply list Moby-Dick, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Les Miserables, The Scarlet Letter, Hadrian VII, The Great Gatsby, Lorna Doone, Kidnapped, The Custom of the Country, Jude the Obscure, Tess of the Durbervilles, The Portrait of a Lady, The Golden Bowl, The Little Sister, The 39 Steps, Absalom, Absalom!, The Snopes Trilogy, Nightwood, Murder on the Orient Express, True Grit, Lolita, Carrie, Blood Meridian, and let others make their own additions.
I remember being stunned at 8-years-old hearing read aloud “The Cask of Amontillado.” All of Poe’s tales. So many of Robert Louis Stevenson’s stories. Shall we not add Hamlet and The Iliad and The Odyssey?
To take on the subject of love as a theme in a book, one cannot avoid the ancillary themes of jealousy, disappointment, and revenge.
GS: Among other achievements, Darconville’s Cat (and your work in general) is known for a verbosity that goes beyond what some might call word drunk and enters a realm of linguistic euphoria. How did you procure and/or invent the universe of words in that novel and your work in general? What medieval manuscripts did you pore over and perhaps get a little high sniffing the papyrus dust?
AT: Words are to a writer what paint is to an artist. I studied Latin for nine years, Homeric and Attic Greek for six, and so thrill over language and the universe of words. No true student of the encyclopedic novel is not a co-religionist. Juvenal. Aristophanes. William Shakespeare. All the Jacobean playwrights. Laurence Sterne. Baron Corvo. James Joyce. Jorge Luis Borges. Raymond Queneau, Vladimir Nabokov. Julio Cortázar. Georges Perec. They are in the same tavern somewhere, all hoisting drinks.
GS: What are some of your absolute favorite words and why?
AT: No, all colors of the palette matter, as do all words. Then again, maybe I would leave out iPad, bummer, no biggie, there you go, don’t hassle me, at the end of the day, tweet, Twitter, and Yiddishisms like “Enjoy!”
The fundamental quality of art is the pictorial, the power to arouse aesthetic emotions in a person, whether you are talking about Raphael, a Persian carpet, or the B Minor Mass. A writer’s palette should be filled with all available colors.
GS: Can you lift the veil on these words from Darconville’s Cat? “Digravidicals,” “nookshatten,” “gongoon,” “lupanarette,” “ovabain,” and “scrubiculate”.
AT: Too much work. Every literate person should own the chubby Webster’s New International Dictionary (Second Edition) – notice, the Second (the company pusillanimously shortened it for the Third Edition, because dunderheads complained of the former’s length) – and the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
GS: As words metamorphose with time and use, how important is the consciousness of etymology with respect to writing, or even speaking?
AT: We live in an age of supreme scruple as far as political correctness goes. Problems are now ‘challenges’; garbage collectors are ‘sanitation engineers’; caretakers are ‘site engineers’; vomiting an ‘unplanned re-examination of recent food choices’. We must avoid all passive, victim words. Christmas and crippled and manpower are now forbidden. Euphemisms are a comfort to the dumb and the diffident. Using the word ‘genius’ is considered unfair. A hospital consultant was recently accused of sexism after praising a father for “manfully” stepping in to bring his daughter for an appointment when his wife was unavailable. Nowadays the word impact is almost always used incorrectly, same with hopefully. All very fine. But at the same time, we are living in one of the crudest, least articulate periods in all of world history. It was once the case that newspaper reporters or TV and radio broadcasters would be embarrassed – mortified – to appear biased. Now it is standard operating procedure. What about gender madness? It is almost a cartoon world in this department, right out of Jonathan Swift. I have never seen manners and mores and mercy so widely disregarded by so many.
GS: The presence of wordplay invites (or forces) the reader to become conscious of the words on the page. How vital is this lingual awareness when it seems that most people would prefer the words to remain supine and not play any tricks so that they may see through them and the clichés into the comforting story?
AT: The appetite for wordplay is at a low ebb. Literary fiction has very little purchase in the market today, from all that I can see. I blame TV, movies, video games, lack of reading, computer trolling, a paucity of good teachers, libraries rarely open.
GS: I’ve heard you make the claim that, to paraphrase, it’s doubly difficult for women to make art because their genetic makeup all points to childrearing and related maternal duties. You emphasize that they are fully capable of creating great works of art but that it’s biologically more difficult for them and, because of that, those artistic works should be even more admired. If you apply that same evolutionary perspective to men, they don’t seem designed to make art either but are here to inseminate as women are to pullulate. Furthering that natural point, once a man successfully inseminates, his genetic job is to continue to inseminate with, theoretically, as many females as possible. Is art-making easier for a man because it stems from that base insemination need or do you deny the insemination need as part of the genetic makeup? If all our genes point to copulation, is male art the human equivalent of a peacock’s tail feathers?
AT: I will ask you, if you would, to choose a characteristic passage on this subject from “The Controversial Essay” chapter I wrote in Laura Warholic:
“Men who have remained inexorably the fighters, knights, and warriors in history have been conditioned that way quite simply because men as a sex are disposable, dispensable, and quite depressingly unnecessary in their large numbers, whereas women have to be protected to keep the race going. Our planet can casually afford to lose men. Wars remind us of that, along with the male love of war: that achingly dumb, indefensible, and repeated compulsion to crow and to snarl, to challenge, to fight. It is the incubators alone that matter. A single male can literally inseminate a hundred, indeed a thousand women. Man as a member of the superfluous gender, just as much as he needs to be a creator, can freely afford to be one, can afford to feel the psychic freedom, that is, to conceptualize what he is, decide what he wants to make, needs to fashion, yearns to see, hopes to realize. A man who creates is nothing less than a man seeking to prove himself valuable, worthwhile, acceptable, but also validated.”
GS: The character of Darconville, and you by proxy, roasts plenty of philistines, dullards, and the like. A kind of misanthropy that’s perhaps at the heart of the best comedy. I recently saw a post on social media in which someone suggested, among other activities, reading books during quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic instead of spending inordinate amounts of time on social media. I found this comment on the post and I would like to invite you to react to it, roast it, or anything else that comes to mind: “Reading books might be the most overrated activity I see suggested by ‘intellectuals’: books are, after all, words spoken by people. Same words, therefore, you can find on social medias – that you, instead, suggested to avoid. Books have a high status symbol due to the past, in which owning books was a sign of wealth (books used to be really expensive, and, above that, only nobles could afford to have time to read them – in other words: leisure consumption).”
AT: What may be “the most overrated activity” is trying to educate willfully obtuse and pig-ignorant morons. Once, on the opening day of a semester course I was to teach – with limited enrollment – on Paradise Lost, a student put up his hand and, with disdain in his voice, asked why we should be reading the epic poem. My answer was to kick him out.
GS: Aside from your own, of course, what are some books you think deserve more readers so that we can all engage in some further “leisure consumption”?
AT: Thoreau’s Journal. The Jacobean dramatists: John Webster, Thomas Kyd, Tourneur, Middleton, Rowley. Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Paul Scott’s novels. Henry James. Wallace Stevens’ brilliant poetry. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Shakespeare, of course.
GS: Speaking of book lists, the villain Dr. Crucifer in Darconville’s Cat has a well-stocked ‘Misogynist’s Library.’ How did you curate this library and are there any books you would now add?
AT: I love lists. For that chapter, I buttonholed many literate friends for help. When I was teaching at Harvard in the mid and late 1970s, where I had access to Widener Library, I also took the opportunity to pick up the telephone and freely cold-call any number of professors from the Slavic department, the Spanish department, etc. to make inquiries about arcane misogynistic books. Everybody was happy to offer titles, I recall.
No, I would add no other titles. I covered the waterfront.
GS: Conversely, what books would be essential to the misandrist’s library?
AT: Throw in all ancient and modern feminists, excluding none.
GS: On more than one occasion, you’ve played a game with your brother Paul Theroux in which you come up with Pynchonian names for people. What are some of the most memorable names that have stemmed from those exercises?
AT: E. Prothero Cheesewring. Elias Burdock. Wally “The Big Mealness” Meandering. Rev. McMinistry. Winnie Pineweevil. Philistina Uhle.
GS: Could you do me the honor of anointing me with a Therouxian name? This is a picture of me at a spa in Greece in 2013. Do your worst.
AT: Richard “The Splash” Popple Bottom.
GS: You’re working on your collected stories. What kind of evolution can you discern from looking at your early stories all the way to your most recent efforts?
AT: My Collected Stories were just rejected by McSweeney’s. A tendentious woman that works there tendentiously told me the other day, quote, “[The recent pandemic] put us in a position of having to look at our finances and capacity through a new lens and I’m afraid that in the end we’ve concluded that it’s not possible for McSweeney’s to continue considering publishing your work.” I believe she was lying.
What, McSweeney’s is going broke? The truth is, my stories are too politically incorrect.
GS: Have you finished the epic novel you were working on, titled Herbert Head, Biography of a Poet? If so, have you been working on another novel? You told me that your best work is sitting unpublished on your desk. What can you tell me about it?
AT: I work on Herbert Head daily. I am too far into the woods to be looking for a trail out. [Theroux is also working on a novel with the tentative title of either Fried Hippo or Roast Hippo and it begins with the following sentence: “One sunny autumn day as Henry Simile, who never wasted a minute, sat reading the newspaper in the periodical section of the branch library of rural Eggemoggin, Maine, where, waiting for a flat tire to be fixed on his battered old 1953 Chevrolet at a local garage, he came across, not with surprise, a small article telling of the ravages of an invasive plant that was now clogging up many of the ponds and lakes of the South.”]
GS: I saw a video of you doing a reading with your wonderful Bostonian accent at Texas State University in 2009. You made the prediction that, perhaps not in your lifetime, when writers stop being competitive in merciless and nasty ways, your works, such as Laura Warholic, will get the recognition they deserve. Some people might perceive this as haughty yet when you have the linguistic powers to back up the prophecy, and you do, it doesn’t strike me as haughty but simply earnest. It also strikes me as hopeful. Do you have hope for humanity vis-à-vis its relationship to literature and art in general? Or are we approaching, or even amidst, the apocalypse of “Wordlessness”?
AT: My students used to mock me and tell me that I spoke like a character – I cannot remember who – on The Electric Company, a program that came along far after I began watching television.
The barbarians are at the gates, no question. But I hold out hope for the godly, the merciful, the good, the kind and charitable.
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“Alexander Theroux is a writer who resists classification. His first book, Three Wogs (1972), is a triptych of novellas that examined the class and racial conflicts that occur between the archetypal Londoner and the inhabitants of the British Isles, the “wogs,” who are “not one of us.” This exceptional debut received a nomination for the National Book Award. Theroux’s second novel, Darconville’s Cat (1981), is widely considered his masterpiece. Anthony Burgess hailed it as one of the best 99 novels written in English since 1939. Darconville’s Cat is an exquisite novel of revenge and thwarted love. It too was nominated for a National Book Award. An Adultery (1987) is a detailed, fictional character study of the sin in question in a contemporary New England that still manages to evoke the echoes of its Puritanical past. Theroux has also published two widely regarded books of essays, The Primary Colors & The Secondary Colors (1994 & 1996), along with a collection of poems, The Lollipop Trollops & Other Poems (1992), as well as two monographs and several books of fables. Laura Warholic, or The Sexual Intellectual, published by Fantagraphics, [was] Theroux’s first novel in twenty years.”
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.