Kate Briggs is a writer and translator based in Rotterdam, where she teaches at the Piet Zwart Institute and co-founded the publishing project ‘Short Pieces That Move!’. She is the author of This Little Art, an essay, and The Long Form, a novel, both published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo editions.
Lisa Robertson is a Canadian writer who lives in France. Her novel The Baudelaire Fractal, first published by Coach House Books in Toronto in 2020, has just been reissued by Peninsula Press in the UK. She is the author of three books of essays including the recent Anemones: A Simone Weil Project (If I Can’t Dance, Amsterdam) and Nilling (Book*hug, Toronto). Since 1991 she has published ten books of poetry.
They spoke to one another about becoming novelists, description as a political tool, and endings.
We first met almost a decade ago, teaching writing together at the Piet Zwart Institute (PZI) in Rotterdam. We would meet first thing at Gare du Nord to get the 6 a.m. train from Paris to Rotterdam. At the time I was working on my book This Little Art and I remember running the title by you – not on the train but in a cafe, where we’d sometimes meet between our teaching days. Recently, we’ve been exchanging emails under the subject heading NOVELNESS, but I can’t remember either of us, back then, talking about the novel as a form, or a common concern. Yet, if I’d been pushed to admit it, for myself I am sure it was already there. Was this also the case, for you? When did the novel enter your own space of thinking and writing?
It’s difficult to put my finger on the beginning. While we were working together in Rotterdam I was definitely not working on a novel or thinking about writing one. The mystical reading glitch that ignited The Baudelaire Fractal came without warning the following year, in 2017 I think, and I wrote the book in the two years that followed, choosing to enter the delusion that a young girl in 1984 could wake up to become the author of the works of Baudelaire. Though the sentence has always been my unit of passion and the form of the book as a compositional space has never stopped being a mystery and a motivating obsession, I lacked an interest in narrative or story in the traditional sense. It’s funny . . . although my life as a reader of novels has unfolded in the zone of the modernist and the experimental – Sterne, Melville, Woolf, Stein, Djuna Barnes and Beckett have been key writers for me since the eighties – it wasn’t until recently that my technical curiosity as a prose writer, not solely a reader, really absorbed their stylistic blasting open of the form. Until then writing poetry had fulfilled my appetite for experiment.
For thirty years I’ve defined myself as a poet. I’ve been stimulated and supported by small-press poetry communities. At this point in my life I’m less interested in self-definition, and the move from poetry to the novel feels like an immense, unexpected opening to new thinking. The challenges are very different: sheer duration, for one, at a time of life when duration takes on intimate dimensions, and also the question of voice or tone. That and the simple yet bottomless query – what is a life, formally, linguistically, spiritually and socially? Are these things different from one another? How can a life be written? What is style, in relation to voice, and temporality? The writers I’m loving now work in that zone. You, Clarice Lispector, Gail Scott, Gerald Murnane, Fernando Pessoa, Robert Glück, László Krasznahorkai, Susan Taubes, Jean Genet, Chateaubriand . . .
Kate, one of the several things we share as novel writers is that we have each moved towards novelness from deep and already formed engagements in other genres and interests – poetry, art, translation, essay – to what has been framed since the nineteenth century as the major genre in literary tradition. Barthes called the novel ‘the long form’, and you borrowed this phrase as a title for your new book. But, in The Preparation of the Novel, Barthes talks at length about short (or little) forms, like the note, or the haiku poem, in his oblique movements towards novelness.
And in your novel, which narrates one day in the shared life of a mother and infant, intellectually, kinaesthetically and domestically, the intimate living constraints of mothering become the active limits for structuring a novel. It’s very funny– your almost slapstick insistence on working with the awkwardness of daily life, a mother’s and an infant’s, as the structuring principle for a major, often philosophical work. Philosophy happens while trying to untangle a baby’s squirming limbs when tying on a snuggly. I recall our conversations together about Georges Perec, and his exhaustive gamelike descriptions of predefined domestic and urban spaces.
What you do with constraint is funny, and it’s also very generous. Endlessly varying thinking unpleats from the most mundane enclosure – the space of a playmat for example. I see this formal generosity in The Long Form – there’s a very tender and curious opening of the kinds of spaces that tend to go unrepresented – the spaces of infancy, of the labour of care, of intellectual inquiry as kinds of housework. Curiosity seems to be a very underestimated value, generally. One of the tasks of novelness could be to see what happens if we shift the site and scale of value. To a certain extent that shift happens through description. What and who gets described, and how? You begin by describing the fourfold division of a baby’s playmat – it’s a cosmic description that establishes a grounding for everything that follows. I have sometimes thought that my goal as a writer of prose is to discover ways to make description move. Can we talk about description, maybe even an ethics of description?
Ah, it makes me happy to learn that you found The Long Form funny! It is intended to be, at least in parts. I wanted to draw out exactly that order of strange physical comedy you describe, active in the gestures of holding, or waiting for, or sleeping with, or washing, or just putting your own body in new and unexpected positions. None of these movements are exclusive to childcare – they’re all part of having a body – but it struck me that the first weeks of caring for a baby are quite an intensive initiation into inclining, holding, carrying, bouncing. The protagonist, Helen, experiences these movements as awkward, sometimes even humiliating. But also bizarre, and a bit silly; in her they also seem to incite improvisation and playfulness. They actually give rise to new ideas. This is something I became increasingly interested in as I was writing: how bodily repositioning changes what it is possible to do, or feel, or think. It’s an obvious point, maybe it’s just a way of restating the work of ‘point of view’, but the world looks different, and you are given cause to think different things about it, when you’re holding someone else, or pushing them along.
Incidentally, I also see humour as such a rich seam running through your work, and I am now wondering if this doesn’t relate to what you identify as our shared project of redefining, by actively relocating, the category of the ‘serious’. Perhaps it’s always a bit funny – in the sense of being a bit unusual and therefore also provocative – when something typically considered unworthy or minor is given fully-scaled, major attention? I’m thinking of that extraordinary moment in your book The Baudelaire Fractal when the narrator, Hazel, stands up from her restaurant chair to discover she’s bled out ‘a map of the arrondissements of Paris’. I heard you give a reading of this passage at the PZI and remember the audience laughing, then also doubting – we were laughing nervously, as if also in that moment asking ourselves: can she be serious? Is the girl’s menstrual stain really going to be taken this seriously – as an image, as a site of inquiry, as ‘an operating force’? The answer, of course, is gloriously, emphatically yes. I respond very deeply to your take on novel-work as a chance ‘to see what happens if we shift the site and scale of value’.
You asked about description – when I think of it, the phrase that comes most immediately to mind is ‘for the record’. E. M. Forster famously noted that babies only very rarely appear in novels. They’re introduced, then put into ‘cold storage’ until they’ve grown up and are capable of participating in the action, which is interesting. What does this say about who or what the novel has typically tended to count as a participant? What forms of action has it counted as meaningful or consequential? For me, the project of writing in The Long Form not only a mother character but also a baby character, hopefully with her own rich, inner world, came from wanting to resist that exclusion of the very young, the non-verbal, or the otherwise vulnerable or different from the sphere of active life. And so, for the record, for literature – that living archive of our times – here is the baby Rose, and an effort to describe her experience. I believe very strongly in the emancipatory potentials of description and redescription. I think we have both experienced this in teaching settings: what it is to be given an alternative phrase, or a new word, for what you’re doing. What it is to observe someone receive this – and observe how in real time it seems to be releasing new meanings, showing familiar things in a new light, in such a way that a work or a person or an activity can now be talked about, thought about, and valued differently. For example: ‘Intellectual inquiry as a form of housework.’ I receive that sentence, to borrow a line from The Baudelaire Fractal, as ‘a little tool towards freedom’.
And acts of description can act as little tools, capable of effecting minor or major adjustments – re-presenting the trivial as vital, the exhausted terrain as barely contemplated – it follows that description is important work. It’s not just padding work or embroidery work. (I say this with my tongue firmly in my cheek, aware of your lifelong interest in dressmaking, knowing very well that you’d never characterise padding or embroidery as unimportant). I would locate the ethics of description in taking this work on, by which I mean, in taking this emancipatory potential seriously, as part of a writing practice, and a teaching practice.
My sense is that this impulse to set things down ‘for the record’ has been important for you, too. ‘These things happened, but not as described’ is the first line of your novel – or does it sit just outside of it? On the step: a sentence placed there, preparing us to enter, suggesting the kind of attitude a reader might want to adopt in order to best receive what’s to come. Could you talk to me about that attitude? And therefore about fiction? This slight (is it slight?) separation from the ‘true’ record, the ‘real’ diaries, which gets effected by description?
A fiction is made; in the simplest sense it’s a falsework. It changes the status of a description by shifting its context, by adding an ‘outside’ to it, something not necessarily observed: maybe this outside is intuited, or borrowed. Or perhaps it enlarges or augments an aspect of the observed or the experienced in order to make a site for thinking otherwise. The poet Stacy Doris called this ‘delusional space’. My sense is that fictive description is ludic. It enlarges the space of what is possible in several ways. One is by giving weight to an underrepresented margin, making a record, as you say, of the experience of those traditionally omitted from descriptions of the world. Another possible vector is the addition of a virtual threshold to the description. What if a girl in 1984 discovers she is the author of Baudelaire’s works, through a sudden cognitive illumination during the consciousness-enlarging game of reading? What if a menstrual stain becomes an augury for the transformation of a life? What if, as in Genet’s Prisoner of Love, an observed game of poker played in Jordan by soldiers by candlelight in a tent at night, without cards, before a riveted group of spectators, in playful contravention of the camp rule against games of chance, becomes an image of the stateless passion of Palestinian self-determination, but also an image of the construction of the book, and, accordingly, a speculum for the structure of consciousness? What if there is no terrain, no site, no card deck, for the necessary freedom of collective being and continuing? We make this needed terrain with descriptions in the work of fiction, which is to say by lifting and turning or shifting an image in order to activate it as a portal to the necessary and impossible community consciousness to come. In the fictive description, the real is transformed to the necessary; by the addition of a ludic outside, the description becomes a psychic image, a political image of transformational potency.
How do we recognize the potent image as we make our descriptions? Sometimes it feels that the image chooses us. We’re both now involved in writing second novels. Mine returns to the site of the first, Paris, this time to the disappeared Bièvre River, and adds a query about female aging, and yours returns to a character of your first, Rebba, this time to her childhood, and enters a thinking about colour theory. We’re both returning to core aspects of completed works to find in them what’s incomplete, to create a new structure for that incompletion. But in a sense, description is always incomplete. It has the unknown at its core, the unperceived lights and shadows, Genet says, that make perception possible. To choose afresh, to lean into this unknown, actually feels insane to me. But at this point it’s the only thing I want to do. Beginning again is the mighty wager of writing – the next sentence, the next morning, the next novel. What happens in this lateral shift that beginning is? How do you begin, Kate?
What a question! What a sequence of insights leading to this major question. I want to say, before getting at beginnings, that so much of what you share here about fiction as a ludic space, and also as a necessarily speculative space, resonates with me. I say necessarily, because if this is indeed what fiction especially can do, if this is its powerful resource – to open up a space not of what did happen but what could have happened or still might happen, and to imagine out from there – then why not use it? Is it not our responsibility to use it, to find ways of working with it, testing it, playing with the seriousness of it? When asked to describe The Long Form while it was in progress, I’d usually say something like: I know it sounds a bit unlikely but what if the everyday description of interacting with a newborn, and all the creative and critical questions that activity brings in, were set alongside some pages of John Dewey’s aesthetic philosophy, or the process of reading a long novel? What would happen, how might those different forms of experience speak to, illuminate, or complicate each other?
I’m starting to think of my ‘own’ books (I mean the ones that aren’t translations) as project spaces set up to re-situate and re-describe (in order to work further on) some of the questions carried over from translating other people’s work. It’s exactly as you put it: an impulse to return ‘to core aspects of completed works to find there what’s incomplete, and to create a new structure for that incompletion.’ But given the pulse of that impulse, and if that is indeed where we both start, where does this process end? How do you know, Lisa, when and how to end? I’m thinking of the extraordinary present-tense closure of The Baudelaire Fractal, which made me gasp both times I reached it . . .
I saw a meander map of the Mississippi River at my friend Andrea Brady’s house. The image of the meander map became an operating figure for me. A project space maybe? I want this new book to map a space for digression, fluctuation, transgressed limits. But since I want it to actually become a physical book that can be passed around, lost, marked up, it needs to end. The Bièvre River once joined up with the Seine; it now ends in a nineteenth-century sewer. Accordingly, I’m learning about the construction of the Paris sewers as part of my research for this novel, but I think I won’t end it in the sewer. I’ve very often approached the problem of endings by using some pre-determined constraint, which is one of the excellent technical and formal resources of poetry, and of Oulipo writing. In The Baudelaire Fractal, I decided I would end the book with the encounter with Manet’s painting of Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s lover, as soon as I heard this work was travelling to Paris in Spring 2019, as part of the Black model in French painting show at the Musée d’Orsay. Duval is one of a small group of women that I keep circling back to in the book – she’s a sort of absent character. Each chapter contains, among other things, a description of a nineteenth-century French painting, which serves to link Hazel’s narrative to the story of Baudelaire’s younger years. I decided I would continue writing until I was able to sit in front of Manet’s portrait and have an encounter with Jeanne Duval, and that I would end with that encounter.
Now, for my next book, I work by expanding the text internally – I don’t add to the end of the previous day’s or week’s work, I reread until I find a site internal to what’s already there, where I can go further with the thinking, interrupt what’s materially present, or open a new problem within it. So I proceed by diversion, much as the Bièvre River has. I keep the entire text laid out on a very long table, divided into parts I call ribbons. The ribbons each lengthen to dangle and even pool on the floor as I use scissors and tape to splice new material into them. There are fifteen ribbons because lengthwise the table can just hold fifteen strips of printer paper if I overlap them a little. The ending has been there for some months – I describe Hannah Arendt’s face in her last television interview in 1973, two years before she died, as she explains her concept of historical freedom. I want to end with the incredible conceptual spaciousness of her maturity . . . My task for the coming year of writing is to defer that ending by repeatedly writing into the interior of each ribbon.
I typed that out last week and it felt true, but I feel my projected ending shifting already. I believe that the end will arrive as an image, all at once. That image won’t close the inquiry – it will deepen it, reloop it. The last line has been: We’re always thinking in somebody else’s words, in somebody else’s cadence, without necessarily understanding them – there isn’t another way to do it. Now I would like to repeat that sentence as a beginning to the sixteenth ribbon.