Münchhausenian Hypotheses: An Interview with Pierre Senges

George Salis: Whereas Borges writes about eldritch documents and apocryphal literary sequels, you don’t just reference them, you write them into existence. Do you consider the works of Borges too minimalistic, or do you just have a penchant for maximalism and perhaps even, manuscript by manuscript, world-building?

Pierre Senges: “Un pedacito de tiniebla griega” (small piece of Greek darkness): that’s what Borges called the tale of the perpetual race of Achilles and the tortoise; small piece of labyrinth, that’s how we should name some of his fictions – or “labyrinth in a nutshell”. I don’t consider the works of Borges too minimalistic, their brevity partakes of their beauty, for it’s not a Polonius-like concision (see below), it’s a tiny compendium of many thoughts, a vanishing point to which the whole world is attracted, as to a black hole. Borges folded a large map to the size of a palm, the reader has to unfold it. Maximalism of pseudo-maximalism, wannabe maximalism, is another kind of joy: the fallacious but joyful idea that a book could be as rich as a world: full of inconsistency, of sublime and crude things. The question is: how to write this sort of maximalist book without the ordinary (and suitable) looseness of the roman-fleuve, the chattering, in many ways delicious, of Sterne, Grass, or Murasaki Shikibu? Is it possible to write a long novel made up of small fragments? The answer is: nice try, schlemiel, but Borges the Brief and Szentkuthy the Copious are still the best.

GS: Is there an ultimate unwritten book out there that you are unable to write, only able to reference in a story or perhaps only in the depths of your mind?

PS: Bouvard et Pécuchet, as Flaubert envisaged it: a mammoth novel, assembling the long form of the story of the twin copyists, the Dictionary of Received Ideas, and Le Bêtisier (Collection of Howlers), hundreds of pages of quotes, some moronic, some ridiculous, some bombastic, extracted from the universal library.

GS: Like Italo Calvino or William Gass, you love lists and even work them into your fiction, such as your list of shipwrecks in Ahab (Sequels) (forthcoming from Contra Mundum Press, translated into English by Jacob Siefring and Tegan Raleigh) which was inspired by the catalog of ships in The Iliad. What are some of your favorite lists in literature? Perhaps you can give us a list of lists?

PS: You’re the first to notice that this list of shipwrecks is the tragicomic parody of the catalog of ships. One can read a list not only as a catalog of items (the most elementary tool of knowledge), but also as a succession of facts, or acts: i.e., a kind of dramaturgy. You can find a very delightful list in the foreword of The Candlestick, Giordano Bruno’s comedy: it sounds like an announcement just before opening curtain. Sei Shōnagon, of course, has given readers all across the world the most remarkable and moving lists, the perfect example of what poetic strength a list can show; at the end of her Pillow Book, or at the beginning, depending on the publisher, the reader will find a list of lists: like the Song of Songs or the crème de la crème, this list of list is the pinnacle of literature. There’s nothing left to be done but a list of lists of lists.

GS: You also love digressions. Do you rage against Shakespeare’s Polonius and agree with Ray Bradbury who said, “For, let’s face it, digression is the soul of wit. Take philosophic asides away from Dante, Milton, or Hamlet’s father’s ghost and what stays is dry bones”?

PS: Polonius succeeds in being both tedious and dry (the Polonius acceptation of dryness). I don’t blame him, he’s Shakespeare’s puppet, I don’t even blame those who, in France, praise dry-bones literature as the quintessence of art: restraint, clarity, balance, as if literature was informative. They forget that Marcel Proust, patron saint of literature, was an athlete of digressions, sometimes a gourmet and gourmand of adjectives, the exact opposite of dry bones

(“toute une vie secrète, invisible, surabondante et morale que l’atmosphère y tient en suspens; odeurs naturelles encore, certes (…), mais déjà casanières, humaines et renfermées, gelée exquise, industrieuse et limpide de tous les fruits de l’année qui ont quitté le verger pour l’armoire; saisonnières, mais mobilières et domestiques, corrigeant le piquant de la gelée blanche par la douceur du pain chaud, oisives et ponctuelles comme une horloge de village, flâneuses et rangées, insoucieuses et prévoyantes, lingères, matinales, dévotes…” Du côté de chez Swann: 25 adjectives). For the same reasons as the entertainment (see below), digressions are a necessary detour: literature shouldn’t be frontal, it has to have the Hamletian “bias,” it shouldn’t be tautological, or transparent, it has to walk around. Dry bones of a text often are the fallacious core, frivolous digressions are the real thing; perhaps they follow the serpentine line of Hogarth. (One thousand and one Arabian nights inserted between a death sentence and the full pardon are a kind of very long digression, usually seen as a victorious struggle against death; we can also consider it as a stratagem to loosen the link of cause to effect: digression is a requirement for mild justice – that’s why Polonius doesn’t like it.)

GS: You talk about the relatively demanding research your writing requires, even though the process can be out of order, such as writing first, then researching, or vice versa. You also mention fairly rigorous corrections to your manuscripts. Should there be any leeway in fiction, even if it’s a mistake of the imagination?

PS: The demanding research for my writing was a lie, I’m glad to see it succeeded. I do research, but it’s not as demanding as the research done by true historians, for example: not as exhaustive, but frivolous and wandering, looking here and there through different keyholes, and proceeding by analogy, by associations, as did Jean Paul Richter. In the end, there is a huge amount of facts and notes, many bookmarks; I do my best afterwards to classify these notes, but confusion and disarray are somehow fertile, because of unlikely analogies. Historians have to be careful, working step by step, they’re not allowed to make absurd assumptions (I mean, serious researchers – the other ones, fake scholars, make assumptions every morning, in the newspapers); by royal decree, writers have permission to make Münchhausenian hypotheses, they pick up a detail and enlarge it, they take advantage of a blank in a chronicle or a calendar – it means that they have actually read the chronicle. Sometimes, it’s a lot of work, a great many books, but it has to remain a pleasure: the pleasure of the discovery must never turn off the pleasure of the research (the secular version of the consummatio gaudi: a never-ending joy revived by satisfaction), otherwise the book will be dull. The tricky part, precisely, is to combine information in a fictional shape; that’s why a writer must be part historian, part crook, part joker, part philanthropist. “Leeway” can be translated in French by “marge de manœuvre” or “jeu”: loose, but also game. Game is the key word of research: every single detail found in a book, for instance, can be kidnapped to take part in a novel, which is a game.

GS: The Major Refutation is a fictional document by Don Antonio de Guevara which denies the veracity of discoveries relating to Columbus, Cortés, and others of that time period. What is something in our modern world that you majorly refute?

PS: For a long time, I wanted to refute the Proto-Indo-Europeans, the hypothetical group of Eurasia, and their language, from which apparently almost every tongue of Europe is descended. Of course, I was too lazy to do such a refutation, and I lacked knowledge; Jean-Paul Demoule, archeologist and prehistorian, did the job, and did it well, with determination, in a 2014 book, “Mais où sont passés les Indo-Européens?” (“But where have the Indo-Europeans gone?”). Shortly after, Jean-Paul Demoule was refuted as an impostor by the linguistic group of European Scholars: that is usually the kind of fate that refuters deserve: they can consider it an honor, a disgrace, a metamorphosis in a figure of legend. Having said this, the invention of the Proto-Indo-Europeans arouses admiration, as if one could deduce an entire population by speculating about phonemes. (Several years ago, scholars from different fields met to discuss the “lugar de la Mancha” of Don Quixote, the place “whose name I don’t want to remember”: they searched for it, and found it.) But I must admit that the Indo-Europeans are not exactly “something in our modern world” – maybe I should refute the supremacy of Heidegger’s philosophy, or the supremacy of Heidegger himself (in France, anyway), and replace Heidegger with Blumenberg. Sometimes, I feel that it’s just a matter of years, and pretty soon the moustache of Sein und Zeit will become a museum piece, just like Cicero’s wart. But it’s 2021 already, and Martin is still here (Derrida said something like: one can refute Heidegger only by Heideggerian methods – impossible to get by).

GS: You’ve described yourself as a sort of clown writer. Do you think your books are merely entertaining, that there is no substance that could, say, alter a reader’s life even in the most minute way?

PS: In the very first verses of his Inferno, Dante wrote “mi ritrovai per una selva oscura / ché la diritta via era smarrita”: losing the straight way and going astray are at the beginning of a long journey through Inferno to Paradise, let’s say rather through words, names and poetry itself. Entertainment can be rendered by “divertissement” in French, like the Italian divertimento, literally diversion: there is a hidden but strong link between entertainment and the kind of Dantesque, artistic journey everyone should make, writing a book or reading one. By entertainment, I mean, of course, good and clever ones, this kind of entertainment or enchantment Nabokov often praised: the high, delicate, and refined joy a book or a chapter can offer to the insomniac reader. Entertainment as a going astray does alter a reader’s life, in the most minute way, as you say, or in a more decisive one; above all, even if they don’t move us dramatically, books of clever joy give us one of the most precious and rare presents one can expect, they consider us with esteem. Entertainment as complacency or connivance is disgusting; we can find both of them, complacency and smugness in many novels full of pseudo-seriousness and self-importance, politically committed but ostentatiously so. Zazor is the Russian word that Mérab Mamardachvili used to name the fact of stepping aside, of making a detour; Mérab shows us a Swann’s way, a literary path, a way for us to take a look at ourselves or (more relevant) to be another person, as were many of Shakespeare’s characters (from Iago to Benedick).

GS: What is a novel that deserves more readers?

PS: One reader is far enough. All that matters is in the reading, the wonderful fact of reading; beyond one thousand readers, the question is not artistic anymore, but economic. Regularly, we regret of course the invisibility of some writers whom we are firmly convinced are important; and that’s a real pain, because we have the intuition that even this one and only reader is still missing. For almost thirty years, a handful of aficionados have been trying to promote the work of Miklós Szentkuthy, without substantial success; there are brave publishers (in Brussels, in New York), some reviews and sincere admirers here and there – but in lieu of a murmur, there should be an acclamation. Hilda Hilst deserves a large welcome; Joseph McElroy too (there are still zero French translations of McElroy; his name is a legend spoken by translators when they meet, like the name of Sebastian for the Portuguese).

GS: How would you describe the current state of French literature or the literary community in France?

PS: I’m not sure such a thing as French literature exists, in one piece, one head, one voice, and one color. There are almost one hundred thousand writers; the most interesting are the less known and the less common. Some are old poets, some are young stars from YouTube, some are meticulous authors of historical novels, some are narcissistic maniacs, authors of six-hundred-page diaries, telling us how their intestines work, some are young students or academics who write very clever novels that are not really simple novels but reflections on novels, some are wealthy male authors of books that are half-romances, half-studies of poor African girls, some are middle-aged men or women eager to recount everything about their youth (whether it was happy or dramatic). To be praised, a novel often has to be “inspired by a true story,” and to wonder about our modern world: maybe this is the current state, not of French literature, but of French literary criticism. This is the visible part of the iceberg: not far away from the “desertic and broken ideologues” (as Giorgio Manganelli said), a few “acerbic Visigoths” are camping: they write funny and witty books, plays, short stories, novels full of tricks and inventions, or poems that are blends of forged oracles, pillow talk, and very brief Kafkaesque apologues, they wait thirty years before setting down in writing the account of an event, and their account is not simply a report, it’s a fiction (for the straightforward way has been fortunately lost), the fiction is a piece of art, not an effect.

(Borges often said that English literature is made up of books; French literature is made up of schools, currents, cliques, clubs, old and new generations. Obviously, we still appreciate the idea that these kinds of cliques still exist; some writers do all they can to maintain them, but more often, currents are nothing but fashion, opportunism and mimicry, as everywhere else.)

GS: In an essay titled “Suite” (translated by Jacob Siefring), you end with this coda: “As long as the storyteller keeps on telling his story, God doesn’t exist (said one storyteller, who had enough wisdom to precede God in his disappearance) — in other words: for the entire duration of his reading, a reader is no longer a prey to priests, nor to advertisements, nor to appeals directed at the public: because during that time, only when he is reading, he consecrates the better part of his credulity, his most cunning credulity, to the story, and the subtle mechanics of its logic: insofar as he gives himself over to reading, he immunises himself, facetiously.” Do you think that, in the case of reading, the reader can end up deifying the writer, or at least become some kind of studious apostle to the Author God, studying the Scripture, as with fans of Finnegans Wake?

PS: At first glance, I read “defying the writer” instead of deifying, and maybe it’s a more relevant option. We should cross the Defying Reader with the Deifying Reader to obtain a perfect creature: he would walk on the body of the writer (if it exists), trample it, and as the theologians did with their God, send the writer far away from the place where the honnête homme is reading quietly with a dash of joyful profanity. This apotheosis is necessary to get rid of the author; the only way for a writer to act like a god is to disappear, as Flaubert said, to erase himself and leave his creation alone. No zealots, no apostles, no gospel, no large portrait of the genius in the bookshop, no picture of his desk; a text, a reader, that’s all, and the legibility (of the world, to quote Blumenberg, or of a book).

I thank Jacob Siefring for proofreading.

Pierre Senges (born 1968, Romans-sur-Isère) is a French writer. His work includes fifteen books, often collaborations with illustrators, and over twenty-five plays for radio. His books are sometimes noted for having a baroque style reminiscent of Borges or Calvino. They frequently combine erudition and invention, as in Fragments of Lichtenberg (translated by Gregory Flanders), or play with the relation between the true and untrue Veuves au maquillage and La réfutation majeure (The Major Refutation, translated by Jacob Siefring). Senges’ radio plays (fictions radiophoniques) have been produced by France Culture and France Inter. His many prizes include the Prix Wepler, the Prix SACD Nouveau Talent Radio in 2007, the Grand prix de la fiction radiophonique de la SGDL in 2008, the Prix du deuxième roman, the Prix Rhône-Alpes, and others.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus 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 FacebookGoodreadsInstagram, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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