Psychic Surgery: An Interview with Louis Armand

George Salis: In terms of fiction about the pandemic, Vampyr came on the scene fairly quickly, like a bat out of hell (October 31st, 2020, to be exact). Some writers claim it’s necessary to let current events gestate for at least several years. How were you able to produce a book of such breadth and detail in what was relatively a short amount of time? Did quarantine help with your creative tasks at all?

Louis Armand: The pandemic widened a timeslip that many had not previously noticed. Large sections of the population have since disappeared into it & this will probably only encourage those who believe there is such a thing as Contemporary Literature (capital C, capital L). Most writers nowadays are probably computer programmes, for whom gestation is at best a metaphor. Most “people” are probably also computer programmes. Einstein, who may or may not have been a computer programme avant la letter, demonstrated “long ago” that there’s no time consensus. This sentence cld also be written: there will never be Time. Enough! Writing, on the other hand, occurs only in the absence of consensus, or by virtue of its improbability.

GS: Vampyr is not your first anti-novel. Are you attracted to this form because you lack faith in anything approaching a traditional novel?

LA: Monstrous or alien “forms” have always held a certain fascination, possibly because the world today is dominated by cultures devoted to their elimination or suppression. Such cultures have always “defended” themselves w/ the morbid austerity of “tradition”: repeat what you already know (“destroy all monsters”), reward awaits in the hereafter. Like every other instrument of “soft” ideological terror, the novel is a term that was invented yesterday to promise something that will only “exist” in untold tomorrows. As far as writing’s concerned, y’re always up against a wall, or if not a wall, yrself, which is to say “the other,” “the impossible,” “the void.” Ironically (?), Realism tries to suppress the faith-based elements of its ideological system by taking its own dogma for unarguable fact. Like a cold-blooded rationalist, it behaves as if it’s possible to know, to calculate, or rather predetermine everything in advance & simply make a secret out of it. It’d be easy to mistake it for the G.O.D. of revelation (G.O.D. is only an alien when it’s the enemy’s). But if there’s nothing new under this particular sun, it’s because the vista is pure diktat (as if the magic arrival of logos, once upon a time, somehow accounted for everything, including the sum of all ambivalence & indeterminacy, which it calls error). When people speak of the “traditional novel,” they’re really speaking in these terms: the one book, world-without-end. Well, you cld just as easily talk about faith in a one-party system. False choices always begin with the one: beyond its ritual significance, saying yes or no to the one amounts to the same thing, whether you call it G.O.D., Literature, an alien-hunting party or KOMMERZ UND PRIVATBANK. If the socalled antinovel isn’t just a dog chasing its own tail, or adopting a squatting posture of “negation” (if you can’t eat it, shit on it), this may be because the novel itself already has its nose firmly rammed up its own alienation, making it fair game for any stray mutt that happens along. That this particular stray mutt carries itself w/ a schizo-Švejkian attitude of deviously parodic insubordination towards all petty tyrannical superegos, brings joy, however ridiculous such joy may appear to the overly groomed & pedicured pooches fantasising about the great eugenic purifications to come. For what can be more joyful than a megalomaniac rudely stirred from the sweetest of dreams, swinging blindly at its antagonist’s dust? Of course, there are genuinely dangerous regimes of power operating in the world today that have refined the arts of oppression & exploitation by force of the word (though not only the word) – & it’s important not to forget that the culture of the book has never primarily referred to the valorisation of literacy, let alone subjective eruptions of literature. Will the “antinovel” topple dictatorships, end wars & bring the great injustices to account? Or merely get under the skins of a few hyperneurotic poodles? Stupendously irrelevant as such questions are, they’re never in short supply. But whoever thinks they’re of the party that owns the categories, under the pricetag it’s merz all the way down.

GS: Armand is a vampire in Interview with a Vampire, a film adapted from Anne Rice’s novel. Will we one day see you stumbling through the streets of Prague like Nicolas Cage in Vampire’s Kiss proclaiming, “I’m a vampire! I’m a vampire!”?

LA: I’ve always preferred Christopher Lee who in his first role as Dracula says nothing at all. Neither does Max Schreck, of course, but had synchronised sound been an option, wld Murnau have succumbed? Too often, movie vampires sacrifice libidinal force for verbosity – like neurotics w/ daddy issues: instead of sucking blood they want to spill their guts to the first sympathetic ear that happens along (blame Polidori, blame Le Fanu, hell, blame Karl Marx). In Vampyr there is a more or less conspiratorial affinity with the likes of Dreyer, Lugosi, Herzog & sometimes pornographer Jean Rollin (whose films are an ecstatic parody of gothic ritualism & neoliberal kitsch). Spencer Hooley, the singer in KLASS, who died under distressing circumstances just over a year ago, & who we recorded “Somewhere in the Aftermath” for, had a pronounced vampire fetish back in the day (he also exposed me to the corrupting influence of Borges & Lovecraft – I was 15 at the time). In the footage re-used for the video of “Somewhere in the Aftermath,” where Spencer appears to be singing the lyrics, he’s actually explaining to Glendyn Ivin (the man w/ the video camera) some halfbaked plan to hunt down a real vampire & get himself bitten. This was still during the AIDS epidemic & very ultragoth. When the latest bat disease came along in 2019, with its instant post-capitalist “Anthropocene” mystique, antivax mania, apocalyptic weirdness, etc., etc., it was like bad cinema déja vu (the black cat in Matrix). Out of this also came the Eddie Van Halen throwback that became a recurrent theme in Vampyr – speaking of anachronistic bloodsuckers stumbling through the streets of Prague (do you have any idea how many rotten vampire films have been shot here?). Funny story: I was at a flat-warming for the fiancée of a music producer friend, about 20 years back, on a rooftop overlooking the Natural History Museum – the one the Soviets strafed in ’68 thinking it was the Czechoslovak parliament. Anyway, I was working on exhausting the bar when some Aussie started twisting my ear about globally significant matters. “Is this where the drinks are?” is probably what he said. What brought him there? He was in Van Helsing, apparently. “Play guitar or something, do you?” I probably said. (We’re still not on speaking terms.)

GS: The Combinations has been referred to as the Ulysses of Prague. Do you accept this comparison? Could you reflect on your love of Joyce’s Ulysses and what you set out to accomplish with The Combinations?

LA: What I set out to accomplish w/ The Combo – which wasn’t called that at the time by the way (it was originally named after a mathematical theorem devised by Dedekind, hahaha) – was to see what a highly disciplined regime of virtually nonstop writing for a period of one month might produce. An additional constraint was that the writing should be predominantly narrative in form & that this narrative, or narratives, must somehow deal w/ the Voynich Manuscript, be “set” in or around Kelley’s Tower (where a friend of mine happened to be living), & compress historical time into the socalled present, through the figure of a complete nonentity (Němec – a name which, in Czech, has a very particular resonance). As I’d just completed a course of rehabilitation at the Teaching Hospital on Karlovo náměstí, this too became one of the narrative elements, as did the adjacent Faust House (named after, you guessed it). Central to the whole enterprise was the question of my own “foreignness” (& foreignness in general). The book’s numerology imposed itself from the outset, for reasons that are no doubt obvious, as did the noirish, conspiranoiac overtones. For years I’d been living in a kind of underground version of the city, one at odds with the Ripellino version of “magic Prague” – a topography I also later exploited in Breakfast at Midnight (published before The Combo, but written after the first draft had already been completed). Many of the characters had a real existence in this parallel polis (Curtis Jones, Viktor Faktor, Ivan “Magor” Jirous); places like the Patriot Club, the trans cabaret on Střelecký ostrov, the Barrandov Terraces, are “actual” elements of the urban archaeology. The aim became one of integrating these (factive) elements into a seriological (fictive) hyperspace, as in chess, where probabilities extend outward from the visibly finite space of the board as so many “possible worlds”: intersecting, diverging, concatenated; lines of development opening & closing; coordinates transposable from one schema to another, one tempo to another. In the end, it appeared that what I’d really set out to do was build a time machine within a time machine, somewhere between a Tardis & a Klein bottle. The city itself turned out to be a living involution, chronically anachronistic, adrift in the aftershock of the Habsburg defeat, Nazi annexation, Sovietisation, Velvet Revolution, capitalism-with-a-human-face, etc. On a personal level the whole thing was probably about coming to terms w/ alienation, a certain rootlessness, the realisation that, by 2008, I’d spent fourteen years living in a type of interzone, a Mitteleuropa of the mind, where everything was in flux & yet in certain respects nothing had fundamentally changed. The writing needed to “do” more than simply represent this: it had to articulate it, to play through the various combinations to the bitter end (one among many).

GS: Can we ever expect a Finnegans Wake of Prague from you?

LA: Expectation’s a funny thing. In the 90s, it was all about the Hemingways.

GS: Speaking of the Wake, you’ve written on it from a critical standpoint, specifically in your book-length work, Helixtrolysis: Cyberology & the Joycean “Tyrondynamon Machine”. Can you reflect on your love of the Wake? Do you think it’s the be-all-end-all of novels and language or just one beautiful and formidable current in the sea of stories?

LA: A current, maybe (the air surrounding a butterfly’s wings); or a currency (one mainstay of an entire cult/ural industry); or – as according to the great man’s biographer, Richard Ellmann – ineffably current (we’re all still learning to become JJ’s contemporary, apparently – a nightmare from which humxnity may never awake). Ambivalence towards the singular, if nothing else.

GS: Your prose often uses an equals symbol in lieu of a hyphen, much like the post=war experimentalist titan of German letters, Arno Schmidt. Are Schmidt’s shits n’ giggles an in=flew=ants on you sensibilly=titties?

LA: Do you know the song, “Fait danser les schmits”?

GS: You’re originally from Australia. Have your early life experiences there crept into your creative process in some way or another?

LA: It comes back to the language, to the sprawling contradictory idiom of the place. I’ve always been struck by the way in which a nation that might well consider Barry McKenzie one of the great unsung literary heroes of our time (& I’m not entirely opposed to this idea), cld also – despite one of the truly despotic immigration policies operating in the world today – find itself home to a writer like Ania Walwicz.

GS: What about the experience of living as an expatriate? What attracted you to Prague over any other city in the world?

LA: A throw of dice.

GS: How would you compare and contrast Australian literature with Czech or European literature as a whole?

LA: Exercises in portentous adjectivalism that do not denote anything in actual existence.

GS: Your novels feature wonderful graphic designs, mostly collages, that you created yourself. Could you talk about your experience tinkering and tailoring within this medium and how it enhances your writing?

LA: All writing is collage/montage; all montage/collage is writing.

GS: You’ve also created unique and striking covers for your books. The cliché of not judging a book by its cover is thrown around a lot. However, I think more stock should be put into cover creation, especially when plenty of presses big and small come out with ugly and uninspired covers on a regular basis. Could you reflect on this? What is one of your favorite book covers you’ve come across? What is one that stimulates the gag reflex?

LA: A publisher once proposed using a clipart graphic on the cover of one of my books, which almost ended our relationship right there. The fact that people will speak about a “book” but primarily mean just one element of it (the words printed on the page, which themselves are treated as a mere expedient of something whose true existence is metaphysical), is incredibly revealing about literary culture. “Illustrated” book covers are largely an artefact of the Industrial Revolution: the injunction not to judge a book by its cover first referred to the material & craftsmanship of the binding – until the 15th century, books were rare & highly valuable objects &, more often than not, the original owners themselves commissioned the binding. For some reason, during the course of the 20th century, a distinction arose between what are sometimes called “artist’s books” (where the object in its entirety is conceived as an integral work) & books that are treated as commercial products & packaged according to a marketing strategy (or budget). [Insert commodity critique here.] Personally, I have no interest in submitting to this farce, nor should any other self-respecting “writer” (a word not originally synonymous w/ one who sucks on the end of rotten contracts just because they need brand recognition). Of those books w/ especially enduring cover appeal is Asgar Jorn & Guy Debord’s 1959 collaboration, Mémoires, which came wrapped in heavy-duty sandpaper.

GS: What is a novel (or anti-novel) you’ve read and think deserves more readers?

LA: More? You wld want to have a sense of where such just deserts might be served up, & whether or not they might turn out to be poisoned. In purely numerical terms, what does it even mean? To appear on airport bookstands? To be talked about on Oprah? To become the property of third-rate academics whose every thought has been pregurgitated for them by the TLS & NYRB? Are these inevitable trajectories or just a parody of “literary fame” (the work of elective affinity that brings together a text & a socalled community of readers)? Is being a commodity desirable or simply a necessary evil of a “society” in which what we call Literature apparently exists? You’ve mentioned James Joyce repeatedly: the word “cringe” doesn’t appear in Ulysses, but “cringing” does, twice – the second occasion being: “BLOOM: (HIS EYES CLOSING, QUAILS EXPECTANTLY) Here? (HE SQUIRMS) Again! (HE PANTS CRINGING) I love the danger.” Could there ever be a Bloomsday that entails this? Or does the folklore of popular fame ineluctably lead to other (more public) forms of humiliation, ritualised kitsch (& its attendant boredoms), institutional entombment, etc? Moot considerations, perhaps. The history of small presses & little magazines is pretty much unanimous on this point, however: the economics of fame tends to poison everything on which the happy myth of underground culture is built on, including that of the socalled “antinovel.” Does the existence of the internet & PDFs magically ameliorate the destructive influence of “scaling up” & the active pursuit of a global audience? Or does it merely introduce another dimension of ungratified desire, whetted by the allures of instant “recognition” across the Matrix? As you can see, there’s a false opposition that grows out of this sense of a zero-sum game – & if anyone is reading this it’s unlikely that anything I say will tip the economic scales or produce a run on the market. The “underground” does pretty well being what it is & anyone hungry for it will eventually find what they’re looking for in their own time, whether they know it or not. That said… I’ve been impressed by the enduring obscurity of a number of writers (some of whom are cited in passing, or through their affiliation with various “movements,” but are rarely actually read), e.g. Francesca da Rimini (Doll Yoko), everything by Richard Makin, Ania Walwicz, Lukáš Tomin, various others… If the “novel” is a paradigmatic form of the Big Daddy Mainframe cultural-industrial simplex, the “antinovel” indicates perhaps its mutant homunculus, a kind of screaming mandrake for an age in which Literature has become “fake news that stays fake news.” Finnegans Woke? The fact is, it’s next to meaningless to speak of Literature in the abstract: first & foremost it’s logistics (i.e. ideology, but ideology in practice, even if you call it “anti” ideology).  What’s going on under the Big Daddy radar (keeping a certain kind of writing bad for business, as they say in the classics) is Amphetamine Sulphate, Inside the Castle, Alienist, Schism, Expat, Šum, Apocalypse Party, selffuck, 11:11, Prototype, Equus, Raw Dog Screaming, Paper View, Sweat Drenched, Orbis Tertius, Miskatonic Virtual University, Erratum, Centre for Experimental Ontology, Urbanomic, Anti-Oedipus [the list goes on, you just have to look for them].

GS: When I mentioned to you how I loved the Rabelaisian malaise in Vampyr, you said, “Now all we need is Rabelaisian mayonnaise!” Perhaps we need to go even further than that. Could you tell me what else would be included in a sandwich that contains Rabelaisian mayonnaise?

LA: Hamm & Clov!

GS: You’re working on a book titled Dark Seed, which you’ve described as “John Everett Millais’ pre-Raphaelite virgin suicide transposed into a fully-automatic electric ball Ophelia Botti donut machine à la Kafka’s penal colony.” What was the shiver of inspiration for such a bonkers work and what has the process of formulating it been like?

LA: No matter where you go, y’re never far from Lautréamont: Literature is a patient etherized upon a table. Did you ever see one of those “psychic surgery” routines when you were a kid? Where the “surgeon” retrieves various foodstuffs, a fishing rod, engine parts, yesterday’s newspaper, an umbrella, a sewing machine, bits of abattoir dreck, from the intestines of an unwitting volunteer stretched out behind a curtain? That’s what Literature is, something patently absurd yet still able, as Hegel once promised, to elevate the spirits to a higher plane. Or Robespierre: beauty will be a convulsive gut-laugh or will not be. Or Mary Shelley: a social body without scars is the only ridiculous kind of body. There are of course many other examples. I’ve always wondered what Ophelia, when not being deformed into regime propaganda, might’ve written had she lived & kept a diary & it’d escaped burning: what kind of inner gulag she might have exposed; what dispatches from the penal colony, bringing to light the sham of that whole spectacle of a poor muddle-headed child “suicided by society” & conveniently buried in the unconsecrated fringes. (A conspiracy theory does indeed point to a real conspiracy, but rarely to the one you’re invited to suspect.)

Feature image by Louis Armand.

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Born in Australia in 1972, Louis Armand is a writer, visual artist, and critical theorist. He has lived in Prague since 1994. He has published ten novels, including Vampyr, GlassHouse, The Combinations, Cairo, and Breakfast at Midnight. In 2004, Armand founded the Prague International Poetry Festival, and since 2009 has co-organized the Prague Microfestival. He is a member of the editorial board of Rhizomes: Studies in Cultural Knowledge and founding editor (1994) of the online journal HJS (Hypermedia Joyce Studies). He is the founding editor of VLAK Magazine and directs the Centre for Critical & Cultural Theory at Charles University, Prague. His website is here.

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 FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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