George Salis: Your latest novel, 2013’s Lurianics, explores the notion of a “true work.” Do you believe Lurianics is your true work or does that signifier belong to something else you’ve written? Perhaps you’re forever striving to manifest the true work?
Michael Brodsky: “True work” is a somewhat solemn term I’ve used many times over for a product—a process—an outcome—that affirms the potency and inexorability of a real vocation. Solemnness notwithstanding, I like the term for its pathos—its stab at universality, abstraction. For everybody has a true work—a vocation—buried in them somewhere. Life is all about bringing to birth one’s true work, which can take the form of a book, a ballet, a cake, or a neurosis.
GS: What can you tell me about each of your unpublished works, such as the novels Flesh Is Flesh (1976) and Theme and Variations (1979)? Is there a particular work you most want to find the right publisher for over the others?
MB: These two were to have been published (the second in three volumes since it was about 1,200 pages in length) by my first publisher, Michael Roloff (Urizen Books). Urizen unfortunately went bankrupt before this could happen. The only other unpublished works are my plays and a first novel written when I was about 19. Bulletins it’s called. I have the manuscripts for the plays and all three novels. Maybe they’re slated for a posthumous life.
GS: I know you’re not a fan of paraphrasing, but I’m itching to know what we readers could expect from Flesh Is Flesh, Theme and Variations, and Bulletins, if you could indulge in at least a little lifting of the curtain, as it were.
MB: All three books are pretty much far away and long ago. I of course have all the manuscripts in one or two of my trunks. My recollection of them—the books, not the trunks—is somewhat hazy. I did want in the last few years to reread Bulletins, which I wrote in college, but fate and ill fortune kind of intervened. I remember a camp counselor and a camper embodying the eternal theme (at least for me) of (mad) doctor and (less mad) patient. Flesh is Flesh was written under the spell of Patricia Highsmith’s novels. It’s a pseudo-thriller using Those Who Walk Away (one of her weakest productions) as a template. Dyad (for those who care about such things) goes it one better by recruiting the plot of the more accomplished The Talented Mr. Ripley as its driver and goad. I wear my badge of inept thriller writer with honor by the way. I think of Godard who goofily, clumsily, pressed American thrillers into service as pseudo-engines before abandoning them entirely in midstream in order to devote his full attention to doing what he does—did—best. I.e., trading in plot twists for ostentatious “philosophical” texture. By the way, I love crime novels/thrillers/whodunits (idiotic term)/novels of suspense and hold their creators in the highest regard (not that they need my regard). Theme and Variations is a 1,200-page “mystery” which disintegrates—or flowers—into a 1200-page meditation on life and language. I’ve cannibalized it for observations, analyses—anything I could get my hands on—to transfuse into one or two of the books that came after. I like to think that Theme and Variations carries on the “tradition” of Emilio Gadda about whom I know very little. What I do know is that he couldn’t keep the name of his detective straight in his crime novel whose title in translation is That Awful Mess on Via Merulana. In other words, if one has lofty literary ambitions then one should at least have the decency to wear one’s inadequacy as a Master of Suspense on one’s sleeve for all to savor in disgust. The title of my 1,200-pager was also a homage to the choreographer George Balanchine who created a (great) ballet with the same name. (Ballet, like a certain kind of writing, is mathematics in motion.)
GS: Not long after Lurianics came out in 2013, you mentioned another work, Invidicum, about an experimental drug for “Envy Disease” and the group involved in its clinical trials. Has this been completed and when can readers expect it to be published?
MB: Invidicum was to have been issued by the small company—or to use the antiquated word favored by my father, the “outfit”—that’s recently reissued seven of my books. Which didn’t happen.
Michael Hafftka and Che Elias of Six Gallery Press had expressed interest a while back in collaborating to bring out the book as allied with Hafftka’s extraordinary artworks. We had all worked on Limit Point (2007) and I’ve had a long relationship with Hafftka, starting with Detour. We have now agreed to collaborate and I hope the artworks and the book will together be brought to birth this year. The book is ca. 1,500 pages in length and I consider it to be my most important book (not that the world is necessarily interested in that personal angle). No matter what, I must do my best to find a home for Invidicum—a hospitable home—in the real world as well as a home for the book I’m currently trying to write. But I’m willing to sacrifice everything to ensure that Invidicum is published, all 1,500 pages.
[Since conducting this interview, I recommended Invidicum to Richard Schober at Tough Poets Press and now this mega-sized novel will see printed life soon, along with illuminations by Hafftka.]
GS: Why do you consider Invidicum your most important book?
MB: Balanchine (see above) described his mini-ballet (Allegro Brillante) as representing all he knew about choreography in 14 minutes (I may have gotten the number of minutes wrong). Invidicum embodies everything I don’t know about life in 900 pages. Anything I say about it will have the odor of immodesty. Nothing more repellent than an artist or a pseudo-artist letting his guard down and singing his own praises to the skies. I guess for those who hate my books there’s lots there to hate. Or maybe I’m flattering myself.
I tried to present a broad cross-section—as broad as possible without sacrificing shape for size—of vincible humanity in a very troubled time. Since somebody who writes books is—to misquote Fitzgerald—one person trying to be many people.
GS: As a writer, have you ever needed a drug for Envy Disease?
MB: Envy is reputedly the sin everybody is least willing to confess to. Why? Because it attests to a rankling emptiness at the core of the self. But that emptiness, if properly examined, can be a fruitful subject of study. Privation—as I said—or should have said—in my long story “Southernmost” is chock-full of meditational goodies and dividends. Friendship is in some ways—at least for me—an impossibility (Proust, Ibsen, Nietzsche, have disheartening things to say about it) precisely because friendship without envy is like buttered toast without marmalade.
GS: What is a novel you’ve read and think deserves more readers?
MB: There are many books I love that I’m sure deserve more readers. I just can’t put a quantitative ticket on any numbers. And I try to steer clear of speculations on what’s neglected, overrated, and underrated. Whatever strength I have left must be focused on my own books.
[In a later exchange, Michael felt compelled to answer the question with specifics:] You’d asked me awhile back about books that I valued and that might be underappreciated. Hard for me to determine whether the titles I came up with are underappreciated, overlooked, under-read, but here they are in any case (you may of course be overfamiliar with most or all of them): Gissing, New Grub Street (a deliciously grim masterpiece); Jean Rhys, Good Morning Midnight (same comment applies); Italo Svevo, A Life (less impressive than his masterpiece, Zeno’s Conscience, but very moving and funny still); Melville, The Confidence Man (chock-full of thought packets soaked in misanthropic cackles); William Godwin, Caleb Williams (another case study of innocent man, or woman, against a venal world: I can’t get enough of these though you might find Caleb a bit antiquated and overdrawn); Nathanael West, A Cool Million (picaresque, deadpan and delightful, goaded me into starting a new book: hope I get to finish it); John Cowper Powys, Wolf Solent (impressive though I haven’t reread this in many years: a bit timid in dealing with dark subjects; I might mention that a small measure of the book’s therapeutic charm lies in its length, which makes Invidicum feel less likea freak in a garden of anorexics).
Last but not least: Toni Bentley, The Surrender (a shamelessly courageous and very eloquent slice of what, I guess, could lazily be called “eroterica”; however, by defiantly throwing its unsolicited badge of membership in that category out the window it gets to qualify for a more transcendent sort of status: miniature masterpiece). I know I’m using “masterpiece” a bit too often here. Please ignore my late-night grandiosity.
GS: Perhaps you’ll allow me to ask this instead: what is a novel that has had the most profound impact on you, whether in your personal life, writing life, or all of the above?
MB: I’d have to say it’s Proust’s novel whose title I’d translate as In Quest of Lost Time. Conrad pays tribute to the boundlessness of its demonstration of “the power of analysis.” I’ve already made my feelings known on the subject of analysis. I won’t bore you by bringing it up again. If I want to be flippant—there are worse crimes—I’d say that MP shows us that a novel can flourish and go on flourishing while being everything it’s not supposed to be and while endlessly seesawing between (of all things) “the maudlin and the tragic” (Edmund Wilson’s phrase). Oh, and did I forget to mention that Marcel has a definite “flair for language” which makes so-called “stylists”—whoever and whatever they are—sound strained, tinny, irredeemable?
GS: You’re no stranger to verbosity and the resurrection of dead or dying words. Alexander Theroux is another writer who is adamant about fighting against the apocalypse of wordlessness. Why do you think a seemingly significant amount of readers are appalled or bored or offended by words they’ve never seen or heard instead of being delighted by them?
MB: Not to be ornery but I have trouble with the word “verbosity.” I prefer at least in my case to speak of “word hunger,” say. If a work has value then its defects must be swallowed together with its virtues. I have little patience with veterinary surgeons who want to reduce word count in the name of…what precisely? If giving in to my word hunger will alienate almost everybody, well, then, I have to chalk up the outcome to self-sabotage—an honorable affliction. In my case, so-called self-sabotage is a strategy—a process—baked into the pie. I consider it one of my many sidelines to preserve words that resonate. Certain words are artifacts, sacred vessels. I’m their champion. I rescue words. I’m a lifeguard. Many readers are appalled, offended, bored, outraged by my books whether the words are big or small—or four letters long. Might as well try to be true to myself. That’s all I’ve got to run with. The animus must have something to do with the American experience—the premium put on telling a story with all the artifice rendered as invisible as possible. But there’s more to writing than telling stories. Lots more. Let’s just say using a word—learning to use it in the process of living it—is a kind of self-improvement, self-transcendence, and hopefully the reader who’s along for the ride will get self-transcended as well.
GS: What are some of your favorite least-heard words?
MB: Stretto, plausibilize (self-invention), eristic, shibboleth, apotropaic (wonderful), nisus, terebrate, haecceity, angekok, anastomosis. These words are all one-of-a-kind. They are beautiful in themselves and are the vectors of a unique meaning. There are many more. Don’t have them at my fingertips at the moment.
GS: A 1987 review of your novel Xman, published in the LA Times, had this to say: “Brodsky abandons traditional narrative to run words in and out of their meanings until, exhausted, they can no longer perform their function and are exposed for what they are—empty signs.” Do you believe words are empty signs? As a writer, this would seem to be a kind of paradox if true.
MB: To be honest, I have little patience with the prison-house-of-language, death-of-the-word, death-of-the-author schools of thought. I hate slogans. I trust only what comes out of analysis—analysis of phenomena out in the world and deep within. That’s one of the writer’s prime duties. Though I don’t know if I am a writer. I trust only what comes out of attempts to fix the meaning of events—events in the head and events out in the world—through language. The debasement of language—the ostensible distrust of words—these are for me among the least attractive crotchets of Beckett. It all seems so facile—so portentous—portentous without underpinnings. I need clear-cut proofs—fruits of analysis—of how and why language is a prison house. I’ve tried to do that, in fact, at many points in my writing and in Invidicum surely. But without the prison-house melodrama.
GS: Aside from your unusual word choices, you also craft sentences with unique structures. Is this mostly an instinctive phenomenon or do you often labor over your writing on a sentence-to-sentence basis?
MB: It’s instinctive—it’s driven by a deep sense of urgency. The notion of crafting sentences or, worse, “honing one’s craft” is alien to me. I do rewrite and revise but the tumult of discovery—the power of analysis—the generation of bona fide thought packets—are what count. I can’t imagine Dickinson or Hopkins agonizing over “how to say it.” They are assaulted by insight—insurrections of thought—and of course there’s some refinement after the fact. But the precious hub—nisus—is the assault of the phrase—the thought—the thought packet.
GS: You have extensive experience working as a scientific/medical editor. Did this have an effect on your fiction? Perhaps an overlap of precision if nothing else?
MB: I’ve never been a medical editor though I did go to medical school for two years. I like the precision of medical terminology—mathematical terms—anthropological terms—terms used in ballet and film and philosophy—because I can immediately convert them to a metaphorical use. Or maybe the perceived precision is a lovely illusion. Or they give me the illusion that I can convert them to a personal use—that they’re all about me and my defects and failures and triumphs and sicknesses. An obvious example is the medical phrase “stigmata of the intrinsic lesion.” This phrase has stuck with me for many many years and I’m still trying to figure out how to use it—metaphorically with respect to my life struggles. Like so much of technical language the phrase seems to be intrinsically biographical though the phrase itself knows nothing about my biography and was not born to serve the particular crisis I call my life.
GS: Can you talk about your interest in Isaac Luria and Kabbalah? How has Kabbalah influenced your creative impulse, something that could be categorized as the opposite of medicine and science? These concepts appear in Lurianics (2013), of course, but also in your novel We Can Report Them (1999).
MB: I have no religious affiliation and I’m no expert on Kabbala as a popular therapeutic practice. What interests me is the life work of Scholem on Kabbalah, specifically the “philosophy” of Isaac Luria. How could I not love and parasitize the notion of the cosmos being generated through a contraction—a constriction—of the Godhead? My life is all about contraction and constriction and constraint. Hence the long love affair with Scholem/Luria.
GS: You translated a play by Samuel Beckett into English, titled Eleuthéria. Despite some of the harsh criticism from Beckettheads, have you wanted to translate any other French literature? What about writing your own fiction in French?
MB: No desire—or time—to translate. Some criticisms of my translation of Eleuthéria were justified. But I’m still very proud of certain passages of my work on the text. Would never dream of trying to translate my own work. I’m hardly bilingual and my productions would probably ignite the wrath of Nabokov for being both too literal and too fanciful.
GS: How would you compare and contrast the English and French languages?
MB: I’d say French is more parsimonious and constrained, perhaps by the national character about which I have lots to say. English allows for much greater inventiveness in my view.
GS: You said you have lots to say about the national character of the French. Can you give us some of your views on this?
MB: Given my personal connection, it’s better that I keep my big mouth shut. I clearly have a bone to pick. But with respect to my own analysis (that word again!) of the subject in Invidicum (remember her?) I clearly believe there’s some choice meat on that bone. Let me just say that in the case of this particular culture there’s at all times a characterological quest afoot for originality at any price and at the same time a perverse pleasure in trafficking—wallowing—in the most abject and unoriginal tropes (to invoke a word that’s everywhere and is already starting to outlive its usefulness). The message of the culture is: Transcendent originality is lonely and exhausting and warrants from time to time a vacation—a communal vacation of like-thinkers—and such a vacation entails a kind of herniation—into trafficking in tropes. The message is: I’m so original that the only way I can manifest my originality is by going one better than mere dime-a-dozen originality—by proving transcendent originality is perfectly compatible with mass—lumpen—Think. The message is: when all is said and done I’m unlocalizable, unbracketable, Beyond Good and Evil.
GS: Michael Hafftka illustrated your early fiction and later Limit Point. Can you reflect on these collaborations in particular and also on your beliefs about illustration in general? For instance, Tom Phillips is an illustrator who is often against directly depicting characters. [Phillips passed away in November of 2022, RIP.]
MB: I’ve just had a discussion with Michael Hafftka regarding this issue when he agreed to collaborate with me on Invidicum. I had to make it clear that I would never dream of asking him to “illustrate” my book. Especially given that the work doesn’t follow a strict narrative path. The hope would be that whatever he read—whether he liked it or not—would stimulate—conduce to—a certain kind of meditation. Ideally, the response to the work would drive him to get as far away from it as possible—reunited with his own genius but in a different, unique way as a result of contact with my book. I would never have dared suggest to the person who staged a few of my plays how to bring the text to life. Collaborators should go their separate way within the context of some kind of agreed, hopefully agreeable linkage.
GS: Working on a true work, or any work for that matter, involves dodging and subverting distractions. Yet many of those distractions can end up being the stuff of life itself. In my interview with your friend Richard Kalich, he expressed regret at having lived half a life, in which he sacrificed the potential for long-term relationships, among other things, for reading and writing. In general, what do you think about this? Is living more important than reading or writing or are these things inseparable?
MB: To write is what I put myself on earth to do. I live to write and write to live. Thinking is…unthinkable if it doesn’t end up in a book. As for regret, I steer clear of it—never touch the stuff—I’ve trained myself to be temperamentally unsuited for it. The grass always looks greener in hindsight, etc. Or rather, regret is a waste of time except as a literary strategy. Henry James “performed” that strategy better than anybody.
In the right hands, or in the right brain, “half a life” can be infinitely richer than a so-called full life. In my case, I learned pretty early on that there is no escape from continuous suffering but also, pretty early on, I learned to extract some kind of benefit, dividend, primary gain, from that suffering. Through the act—the art—of thinking—but the right kind of thinking. Torment—and, yes, delight, too, but delight only of a certain kind (aestheticized delight)—drive self-protective attempts to analyze why I’m tormented or delighted and analysis generates thought packets and thought packets bundling together the fruits and failures of analysis end up as the only viable armature for…a piece of writing. In other words, the packets—stigmata of collisions with the world within and the world without—are my dividend. But they’re more than a dividend—more than primary or secondary gain—more than a fringe benefit—they’re the very “stuff of life itself” (to use your phrase) as I’m compelled to live it. So, as it’s turned out, torment is my bread and butter, my cat’s meow, my be-all-and-end-all, since it generates thought packets.
The packets started out their life as vehicles for handling and manhandling pain but with time they became the sole reason why I put up with—no, welcomed—pain—frustration—distraction (to use your word). As it turned out, pain was the price I had to pay in order to amass and amalgamate and go on amassing and amalgamating thought packets—thought packets as the framework—armature—body and soul—godhead—of my writing.
And just to put things in context: Proust and Kierkegaard are the two great masters of the thought packet.
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Michael Brodsky, born in New York City on August 2, 1948, is a novelist, playwright, and short-story writer. He is best known for his novels, including Detour (1977) (for which he received the Ernest Hemingway Foundation Citation from PEN); Xman (1987); and *** (1994), as well as for his translation of Samuel Beckett’s Eleuthéria.
He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and received a B.A. degree from Columbia College, Columbia University, in 1969. He attended Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland for two years before leaving to devote himself to literature. Apart from some teaching, he has worked most of his life as a technical editor. He lives in Manhattan, on Roosevelt Island.
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.