Absence of Beauty: An Interview with Richard Kalich

George Salis: The premise for The Assisted Living Facility Library involves the protagonist, you, having to whittle down 10,000 books to the 100 that the facility is willing to accommodate. My mind went to the possibility of putting all those books on a couple of e-readers. I’m wondering what you think of e-readers versus physical books and would you trade physical books for an e-reader if it meant you could keep your entire collection and then some?

Richard Kalich: No. Never. I was weaned on Books. The Book. For me it’s a holy relic. The holy grail. I’ve written a novel, Penthouse F, on the dangers and virtues of the digital culture. The present generation is making their adaptations now. What is gained is blatantly evident. Speed, efficiency, a near-miraculous leap to technological wonders. But, and it’s a big but, what has been lost or at least is attenuated is…Depth. Moral density. For example, I must have 7-8,000 books in my apartment. Many read. Most if not all annotated with my love notes, scribblings, underlined in red, blue, and green pencils and ink. That love…love of The Book. Love of The Word and Words that make up The Book. I sadly doubt if reading an e-book will call forth such a complete surrender. Yes, the smell, the aesthetic taste, the look, the feel of the binding and the pages, tactile and spiritual for lack of a better word is what a great book means to me. Can today’s digital reader experience the same?

GS: Since you’ve already written about your top books in that novel, I’m wondering which of your favorite films and records you’d bring with you to the assisted living facility or a desert island for that matter?

RK: The only records I would bring, (might bring) to the facility are my father’s who was a prominent Cantor in an Orthodox Jewish Synagogue in NYC. A child prodigy who sang in a choir with Jan Peerce (his lifelong friend) and who from the age of 8 supported his own parents and little brother, but at the cost of not being able to have a formal education. My mother was the one with brains in the family (not talent). A PhD at Barnard and later Columbia University, she instilled in us, my twin brother, the novelist Robert Kalich, and myself, a love of learning and books. Her daily recitativo: “I don’t want businessmen for children. I want scholars and artists, poets and writers.” When it comes to films, I love many but again my either/or dialectic would prevail. Comparing Hitchcock, for example, to Dostoevsky (not that one should compare) would be an insult to the preternaturally injured Russian; or Scorsese to Dürrenmatt likewise insulting. Still, I might take along such films as The Godfather I and II. On the Waterfront. The Verdict (a personal favorite). When Harry Met Sally… and An Officer and a Gentleman…that’s Entertainment! (Not everything has to be High Art.)

In our childhood, I remember my father waxing sentimental, reverential, playing our old RCA windup Victrola and listening to Enrico Caruso, Björling, and Galli-Curci. My twin and I listened but, really, we were more interested in the stickball, punchball, curb ball, and baseball games we would get to play in the streets and baseball fields of old New York.

GS: Among your favorite writers is Samuel Beckett. Can you reflect on his work and what you love about it?

RK: For me, and to be sure, I’ve spent my life reading great literature, no spinner of tales, no craftsman of words, has essentialized our human condition better, come closer to realizing our human predicament more fully, than Samuel Beckett when he authored his tragicomedy masterpiece, Waiting for Godot. Forget genres: play, novel, poesy. Godot is singular. And it’s not about Godot. Godot who might or might not exist. It’s about Time. About Waiting. About how humankind’s sole function is to Wait. Yes. We might make love and make war; build families and build empires; but according to Beckett, as characterized by his two prime characters, Estragon and Vladimir, passing time, keeping busy, while waiting for Godot to appear, to make himself known, is the supreme task and burden, dilemma and cul-de-sac, the terminal paradox of Human Existence. Of course it’s not that Beckett doesn’t know that we, all who are human, are not existentially impelled to meaning and purpose. And I would bet anything that it’s not that he doesn’t care. No. He knows and cares. But, as I foreshadowed earlier, Beckett knows more. He sees the big picture. And by not taking either himself or humankind too seriously, he might be the first major writer to have created his work around the entirety of Human Perplexity. Centered his attention around two clowns, two figures of fun, burlesque characters who, when all is said and done, have become two of the most prophetic, enlightened, noble, and heart-wrenching characters of Hope and Despair, but Hope never lost in literary history.

GS: Is there a novel you’ve reread later in life that turned out to be much better than you first realized? What about a novel that turned out to be much worse than you remember?

RK: I’m glad you asked me this one. In the past month or so I reread The Impossible Proof by Hans Erich Nossack. I first read the novel when it was introduced to me by the late Michael Roloff, probably around 1979, when he was editing for eventual publication Robert Kalich’s novel The Handicapper. In those days, Roloff was the publisher of Urizen Books. He already had established himself as a translator of Hesse, Handke, and other Europeans. We were excited and so of course I read Nossack, liked what I read very much, and even told several literary friends to read it. But liking is not loving. And…now, with my recent reread, I Love the book. So much so I immediately cojoined it with Camus’ The Fall and Par Lagervist’s The Dwarf on my favorite bookshelf to form a triage of my favorite books…ever.

Impossible Proof is a novel in the form of a transcript of a murder trial that a man conducts in his own mind. His wife has disappeared and the man it seems is the most likely suspect as he stands before the Judge and tries to explain himself, his wife, his life, but the more he speaks and explains, the more futile his efforts seem. And this is what Nossack is after. Hardly do Nossack’s concerns center around simple guilt or innocence. If it were only that the author himself would be a trial lawyer or a judge. What this great author has taken upon himself to explore is no less than our accursed awareness of the provisional nature of existence and the Tillichian courage demanded in the face of a godless world and our ultimate aloneness. There are no veils of flummery for Nossack. No defense mechanisms or oracular words or pieties of wisdom that can relieve much less save humankind from his/our fate. The only other book I’ve read that confronts this existential burden as directly is Sartre’s Nausea, and as I hope to have conveyed, I love Impossible Proof more.

As for the other side of the coin, I think Salinger’s novel on adolescence is ‘adolescent’ in more ways than one when compared to many other more worthy works of fiction.

GS: A wonderful surprise in The Assisted Living Facility Library is your friendship with David Markson, which was sparked later in his life when he was half-blind and sick with cancer. Can you talk about how you came to the works of Markson and what they mean to you as a person and as a writer in particular?

RK: I originally contacted him to write a review of my novel, Penthouse F, but as he told me he was sick with cancer, half-blind, and busy on a novel of his own and thus couldn’t do it, I immediately understood and bowed out. Still, as I was already familiar with his work and thought his earlier novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress was a masterpiece, I kept the conversation going and we hit it off, so our friendship was born. He was 70-ish at the time, I ten years younger, and with a smile and playfulness he always referred to me when age came up as a “baby.” We had much in common. Like him, I had become disenchanted with the traditional novel, was already on my way to envisioning writing plotless novels, was even beginning to feel that words were the enemy of writers in the sense that writers were being used by them instead of using them simply, clarifyingly, and not for the sake of their own vanity and self-aggrandizement. Additionally, Markson, and this surprised me though also gave me unexpected comfort, Markson was as self-doubting and questioning about his work as I was. Many times over the years he would ask me: “Do you think I should write another novel like my last three?” I would always answer the same, “Yes. It’s what you’re known for.” But more important than all was my preeminent respect bordering on reverence for this self-doubting and questioning man who was forging ahead and writing a novel by not writing it. Plotless, characterless, action-less. Even without a subject. David Markson was the quintessential problematic man. He explored comically and in profound seriousness the ongoing and endless questions, torments, and struggles of self-conscious Man.

GS: The Assisted Living Facility Library is a reflection on the death of the body as much as it is a reflection on the ostensible death of literature. This reminded me of what Martin Amis said, that a writer dies twice, first in the form of their talent, then the corporeal death. Do you believe this is true?

RK: Why stop with the Writer? Why romanticize or glorify the Writer in this way alone? I would think all who commit themselves fully, surrender themselves completely to their work, their art, their business, their loved ones, their country, their faith—all die a little or a lot just as Martin Amis poses for the writer when losing such ballast. I know I did. For certain I did. When the digital culture usurped the literary culture; when the image supplanted the Word; when the Spiritual dimension began to diminish and with it its concomitants: Depth and Interiority; and on a less abstract, more earthly, pragmatic level: when literature, high art, became second-class citizens as compared to Sensation, the Spectacular, Entertainment, Spielbergian blockbusters, the Superbowl, “Pop,” I died a lot. That’s when I first envisioned my novel, Charlie P, about a man who lives his life by not living it.

But Charlie P came later. First I had to make my own personal adjustments. Marion Boyars, my English publisher, always said “life is choices” and so I chose to continue writing and reading with even greater zeal to the exclusion of more and more ‘distractions.’ Whether this Kierkegaardian either/or was neurotic or pathological, that’s for others to say. But I will say I had been thinking and writing about just these concerns for decades, ever since my first novel, The Zoo, quickly followed by The Nihilesthete. Still, personally, emotionally, I was caught unawares. And so, as said and again as Amis forecasts, I, like my character Charlie P, I was and had lived half-a-life. Mostly, if not all, Mind and not Body. In other words, I chose art over life. And if that’s done to the extreme, well, that’s a form of Death too.

And with just as much vitriol and venom my twin brother would lambast me for decades, longer, for living “half-a-life” (no kids, no wife, no love). And make no mistake, my brother loves me. Despite sibling ambivalence, he loves me. If there’s one certitude I still believe in this problematic morass we call our World, it’s that. And, of course, that’s the reason for his frustration with me. One sentence of his is a Tolstoyan volume: “What you accomplished as a Writer is great, but it’s still only half-a-life.”

The Kalich twins

GS: You mentioned that the American novel is 50 years behind the European novel. Could you explain this claim? How does American and European literature differ in general?

RK: Notwithstanding that the European novel with Cervantes preceded our own American novel by centuries and has that advantage, I will respond to this question not empirically but by calling forth nothing more or less than my own aesthetic sensibility and ‘taste.’ After a lifetime of reading, I have never come upon an American novel to compare to the ontic depths that Dostoyevsky mined when speaking about the Individual in his Notes from the Underground. I would say the same about Par Lagerkvist’s The Dwarf, with regard to depicting the nature of Evil. From my perspective, the European novel has the advantage of time and history over us for having lived in a world where actual wars were fought on their land; where death, evil, famine, annihilation, human loss and human suffering have been experienced more directly, more profoundly, with greater immediacy than by the American. Consequently, as a concomitant of the above-mentioned, it’s my conviction that the European novelist brings a greater depth and understanding to the novel, arguably to life in general, than his American counterpart. And I might add this depth of understanding I have found in both the European novelist’s depictions of Tragedy and Comedy. But, that’s not to say the American novelist has not written and accomplished his own pantheon of great works. Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts is my own favorite American novel and it captures pain and loss greatly. But at its root center is the Great Depression whereas Dostoyevsky’s center, his pain, his anguish, is around the Individual, the human experience, the existential burden of merely being human.

GS: What about Latin American fiction? Something I’m particularly partial to.

RK: I am nearly awed if not awestruck by the ‘largeness’ of Márquez and I likewise love the wit and seminal intelligence of Saramago. But my own talent is far closer and somewhat like, if I have to compare…to West, to Kafka, to a small but metaphoric and focused look at our world. As for Márquez, I read One Hundred Years of Solitude and my brother said he was even more impressed with Love in the Time of Cholera. I’m saving that for the next life…it’s probably otherworldly. Still, when I say I love European fiction I mean the German, Russian, the East European fiction as published in part by Dalkey Archive.

GS: What is a novel you’ve read and think deserves more readers?

RK: I looked through my bookshelf favorites and found one unanimous winner and that is…The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories by Ivan Vladislavic. This novel has stayed with me, inside me, since I read it in 2012. Why? Firstly, there’s the way this South African author puts words together. Simple, concise, no ornament, nothing precious, as plainspoken as one would write a none-too-important letter and yet the prose is beautiful. Wondrous even. Not merely florescent-clear, but luminous, unforgettably so. It’s as if the author has turned words inside out, cut the fat off the bone, and left only what is wordlessly essential to say. Then there’s the concept behind the eleven short stories that comprise the book. Original, unique, part and parcel of every Writer’s experience and yet Vladislavic is the only writer I know who fashioned this malady into a work of art. His centerpiece story, “The Loss Library”, speaks unforgettably of all those shelves in his library crammed to bursting with books that have never been written. That he “could never write.” I, for certain, identified wholly with this loss. Contextually, the book also explores writing and the writers the author has admired (Walser, Perec, DeLillo, who would not?) and the various dilemmas and problems Writers confront and overcome or do not overcome in the course of pursuing their ofttimes ineffable visions. Yes. The Loss Library is the one book I would want to preserve for the ages and share with other young readers such as yourself.

GS: Do you still think that words have become the enemy of the writer?

RK: Yes. In fact, I believe this more than ever. As a youth, I was enamored of Thomas Mann’s voluminous word-laden Hi-German novels. I thought that was the only way to write a novel, Not until I turned 39 was I able to write a novel in my own voice, was I able to overcome my own terror of writing, my own self-consciousness, The Mind, and let go, give my words free rein. Today, in our modern, anti-literary, anti-intellectual world, ‘au natural’ writing for the most part is a prerequisite. And rightly so. Today’s reader has little appreciation for wordplay, linguistic gymnastics, complex and lengthy pages. The simpler the better. Our obligation, responsibility as Writers is to make each and every word count. Clarity and accessibility to a new and changed readership is our mandate. More than ever, today’s serious literary writer has to bend his words as well as his back to communicate his thesis to and for the Reader.

GS: Can you reflect on the conception of your Central Park West Trilogy and how the works compare and contrast with each other, especially considering there’s a 23-year gap between the first and the second and a 5-year gap between the second and the third? Do you feel there is a recurring, organic theme that has dictated the trilogy if not your entire oeuvre?

RK: Before I answer this all-encompassing question, let me say that my first response is the very strong feeling that after a life-long dedication to reading, writing, and deep thought, six novels do not seem like much. So many years in the making; so few novels to show for my labors. Still, when I factor in my terror of art; my fear of judgment; and the fact that I didn’t muster the courage to write my first novel, The Zoo, until I reached 39 years of age and that each novel I wrote since was more a product of courage and self-overcoming than talent…I will say I’m proud of myself. As for the novels themselves, upon reflection and with the distance of years the recurring, organic themes of my work are and have always been: Spiritual Diminishment. The Loss of Self. The ongoing and everlasting shrinkage of Transcendence; the existential possibility of Self-Surpassing; and the uniquely human capacity for the pursuit of art; beauty; truth; love; and at the same time and with equal fervor our diametrically opposed demonic pursuits. For example, in The Zoo, written in thirty days, I was afraid to stop, afraid my long-awaited well might dry up, its central tenet spelled out literally was The Loss of Inner life. Written as an allegory in the tradition of Orwell (which I regret to this day) I never changed it, rewrote it, I was so grateful I was finally able to get something out of myself I allowed myself to reduce, reify my lofty goals from animals surpassing themselves, from birds that can merely fly to birds that can soar, and settling on a simplistic, material architecture to demonstrate the brutish, evil leader in the form of the Hitlerian Wise Old Owl whose mission as Animal World’s Leader was to ‘zoo’ such bold and courageous animals. Immediately after scribing The Zoo, I went to work on The Nihilesthete which time has shown to be my most powerful novel. The one deepest in me. The Nihilesthete gestated in me for five years, cost me another year and three months to create—I collapsed after writing the first 75-80 pages and had to take nine long months before I was ready and able to continue writing—the miracle is there was no break in fluidity or style when I did resume writing even though the first half wrote itself; was dictated by my unconscious which woke me in the middle of the night, every night, all I did was take dictation. The second half was written cerebrally, calculatedly, with my Mind and yet, as said, there was no break or rupture in voice. The Nihilesthete established me as a Literary Novelist, and at present has been published in fourteen countries, including the U.S.

Kalich at his desk working on The Nihilesthete.

The Nihilesthete dramatizes the warring conflict between the aesthete, the Artist, Brodski, and the desiccated civil servant, Haberman. Haberman a man wholly removed from existential possibility, has nothing left but enmity toward such a person as Brodski. He reigns punishment and torture upon Brodski: punishments, small and banal in the tradition of Hannah Arendt’s Banality of Evil, these punishments and tortures in and of themselves show us the very nature of Evil; demonstrate Haberman’s impotence; evil rendered without passion, absent of the body’s own bloodlust; made and a product of a Mind severed and split off from its Body. The narrative continues until Brodski’s entire world is literally removed and he, the artist, has nothing left…nothing left to paint with, and yet his final brush stroke is made not by his brush, but via gesture. In his own mind, Brodski, the artist continues to paint. It is important to note that each brushstroke of Brodski’s, manifest or gesturally, serves as a revelatory mirror to all Haberman is not. It is equally important to note that I dramatized the relationship between Brodski and Haberman in extremis because in this writer’s mind the conflict is not merely between the artist and his enemies, but rather inside of us, all who are Human.

Charlie P tells the story of a man who lives his life by not living it. I should say I knew a person like Charlie P and only when seriously considering to write about him that it first dawned upon me that my twin brother, Robert Kalich, was right about me. I, like Charlie P, was living “half-a-life.” This awakening only added fuel to my fire and doggedly if not painfully I set out to write the novel: Charlie P. Written in the postmodern form I had evolved toward, fragmented sentences, paragraphs, or an episodic page or two, just as I understood our world as discrete and separated, incoherent and disconnected, my hope was that since I was so obsessed with my friend, the “real” Charlie P, the whole would justify the sum of its parts. At age three, when his father dies, Charlie P decides to overcome mortality by becoming immortal. By not living his life, he will live forever. Even when dead and called to Heaven for an accounting, he remains the eternal optimist. Now that he’s dead and gone, he has a real chance to start over. Having never lived his life, his life has not yet hardly begun. To be sure this comic figure is our tragic Everyman. In our world where existential possibility and powerlessness has exponentially increased over the course of my lifetime (just ask any informed young person), Charlie remains my favored creation and at the heart of the American Dream.

As with all the novels I’ve written, Penthouse F came to me as a metaphoric image on April 25, 1981; the same day I finished my novel The Nihilesthete. Still, as has been my lifelong challenge, I could not find the courage to write the novel (this time for a longer time than usual) in this case 25 years. Sept. 28, 2006. The metaphoric image I saw was of a man hiding himself in a closet observing a young boy and girl in his apartment. That’s all I needed to imagine, all that followed. (Please note at the time there was no such thing as a computer on the market, and for certain I knew nothing about computers.)

Originally I thought the title would be Transfiguration of the Commonplace, but when I finally commenced writing the novel and learned that the philosopher, Arthur C. Danto, had already coined the phrase, I changed the title to Penthouse F. The concerns of the novel never changed: The usurpation of The Word by the Image; the loss of Self; the merging of Fiction and Reality; the waning of Human Connection; and with the screen, the visual culture becoming all-pervasive, I became increasingly obsessed with the likelihood that the world as we had known it was fast losing its stability and certainty, that the Word Culture if not Reality itself was in for a ‘shaking of the foundations.’ And so I set about writing Penthouse F.

Penthouse F is a criminal investigation by a nameless Interrogator of the Writer, Richard Kalich, (real name) presented in the form of a dossier made up of the many and various people in the writer’s life: past girlfriends; doorman; friends; twin brother​; policeman; neighbors; as well personal notes; philosophical musings; tidbits from a novel the Writer has been endlessly working on, but has not yet hardly begun. The plot revolves around a young homeless couple, (always referred to as “Boy” and “Girl”) the Author/Protagonist has invited to stay in his Manhattan penthouse and have committed a Romeo and Juliet double suicide—or was it murder?—by jumping off his terrace. Thus, Kalich, the character in the novel, not the Author, is the suspect and the reason for the Interrogation. But not really. The Author’s concerns go beyond the solving of a murder case. They explore such themes as the blurring of distinctions between reality and fiction; cruelty; voyeurism; (Kalich watches the boy and girl’s every action and gesture as grist for his novel in the making). The narrative continues to progress in this fashion, but it is not long before the Reader senses that the boy and girl have become increasingly passive, almost losing all will and autonomy, and Kalich is observing them as if studying specimens on a microscope slide; as today’s watchers might watch a reality TV show. His manipulations of them continue and we begin to understand that merely by watching the boy and girl so closely Kalich has become figuratively and literally a God-figure and the boy and girl merely stick figures, puppets to be manipulated on a string by Kalich. In fact, the Reader is probably already asking him or herself the question: do the boy and girl really exist or are they only in Kalich’s mind? When questioned about this transfiguration of the boy and girl by the Interrogator, Kalich retorts: “Yes. I had become a Storymaker and was no longer a mere Storyteller.”

GS: Considering you have a twin who looks like you and is also a writer, Robert Kalich, did you ever have an affinity for the concept of the doppelgänger in literature?

RK: No…I’ve never had the slightest interest in this construct. Perhaps if you’re born a twin, or healthy, or rich, or with brown eyes or blue, you take it for granted and our interests sway to what’s buried inside our depths. To be sure, what I say has been true for me. My brother, a very different writer than me, has written about some of our twin experiences. On the other hand, I did write comedies which I sold to Hollywood.

GS: What was it like growing up with a twin in general? In The Assisted Living Facility Library, your brother claims that you’re “living half-a-life.” Does your brother live that other half on your, well, behalf?

RK: My twin brother coined the phrase and he coined it because he loves me and was exasperated for years that I could see no value in this world further or more important than…Books and Writing. For that reason I neglected to pursue such uniquely human requisites as love, intimacy, marriage, children, and dedicated the second half of my life, ever since my novel The Nihilesthete was celebrated by the literati in 1987, to writing and literature. As I’ve quoted my twin for saying earlier in this interview: “It’s great what you accomplished as a writer, but it’s still only half-a-life.” Would I live my life differently if I could? That’s not as simple a question as it sounds or reads. And the answer is…yes, I would. But with the proviso that I could change my nature first. In the course of my writing life I’ve met and befriended many intellectuals, literati, literary theorists, critics, writers, academics, men and women who have led a Deep Thinking Life. And for the most part I’ve envied these people for ostensibly not missing that other dimension of Life that I, as stated, neglected and inwardly possessed, that which my twin lived fully. In a phrase: “wine, women, and song.” Yes. I dedicated these later years to books and writing; to deep thought and living, if not half-a-life, then to not living my life as fully, as completely, as I might have. And, yes, it’s a little late for me, and I do regret it.

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Richard Kalich was born in New York and grew up on the Upper West Side. He’s the author of The Nihilesthete (The Permanent Press, 1987), Charlie P (Green Integer, 2005), and Penthouse F (Green Integer, 2010), published in 2014 in a single volume as Central Park West Trilogy (Betimes Books), which encapsulates Kalich’s uncompromising examination of the state of modern life, as well as his metafictional experimentations with form and language. His later works include The Assisted Living Facility Library (Betimes Books/Green Integer, 2019) and A Man Made Long Ago (Betimes Books, 2021). He has been nominated for the National Book Award and for a Pulitzer Prize. His website can be found 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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