Books In Conversation
Marc Estrin with Ben Mirov
According to his website, Marc Estrin is “a writer, cellist, and activist living in Burlington, Vermont.” However, in a secondary biographical note, he calls himself a “Biologist, theatre director, EMT, Unitarian Minister, physician assistant, puppeteer, political activist, college professor, cellist and conductor... baffling, even unto himself.” Or, in a third, alternative note, “...was hired to teach theatre at Goddard College, but in his departmentless utopia, wound up also teaching music, writing, Finnegans Wake, math, physics, medical self-help and “crazy courses” like Philosophy for Dishwashers, an audio–based lecture/discussion series to sweeten the life of cafeteria volunteers.” There is an even longer, fourth biographical statement that mentions growing up in “a small apartment so full of books you had to walk sideways in the hall,” giving up “literary virginity to Franz Kafka” at the age of 16, and reaching “back into a past life to study and practice medicine.” Much like his newest book, The Annotated Nose (Unbridled Books, 2008), Estrin is a composite of raconteur-like embellishments and factual fictions, who challenges the idea of being hemmed in by terse description.
Estrin is the author of four previous novels: Insect Dreams: The Half Life of Gregor Samsa (2002), The Education of Arnold Hitler (2005), Golem Song (2006), and The Lamentations of Julius Marantz (2007). The Annotated Nose continues in a similar vein as his previous work, blending elements of fiction, non-fiction, and biography into a humorous novel that doesn’t shy away from incisive political or social critique. According to its cover, The Annotated Nose is based on a cult classic called “The Nose,” a biography written by William Hundwasser about the strange life of a man named Alexei Pigov. Estrin’s annotated edition includes Hundwasser’s original biographical text, Alexei Pigov’s corresponding critical notes, illustrations by Delia Robinson, and an editorial introduction and appendix by Estrin. I contacted Mr. Estrin via email to ask him a few questions about The Annotated Nose:
Rail: On the back of The Annotated Nose, there’s a list of authors: Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz, William S. Burroughs. Included in this list is William Hundwasser, the original author of “The Nose.” Many of those authors fall within a tradition of alternative/experimental writing. Is The Annotated Nose a part of a particular alternative and/or experimental tradition?
Estrin: I was not the author of that list, nor did I suggest it as text for the back cover. Nevertheless, I do tend to enjoy very much authors who are in your face AS AUTHORS. Not everyone on the list writes that way, but Swift and Sterne certainly (add Fielding), and I would add even unlisted authorial discourses such as those found in Thomas Mann. But all those folks are found on my shelves, and I enjoy them for reasons as various as they are. I don’t tend to think of them as alternative or experimental since I consider the novel itself as an ongoing experiment since Cervantes, alternative only to itself as it varies and evolves. Fred Ramey, my editor, knows that this is a collection of “my guys” (since we at one time or another have discussed them between us), and he is good-naturedly tweaking me (us) by putting the fictive Hundwasser among them.
Rail: Your book makes use of footnotes, illustrations, differing typefaces and blank space to create a somewhat labyrinthine atmosphere. Did you set out to write a book that would have this quality, or did it come about as a result of your work?
Estrin: I actually don’t see it as labyrinthine at all. It is simply two novels, one third person, and the other first person (in the form of notes) facing one another on left and right pages. Stay in your place. No mixing, even of presentational styles. The illustrations, all except two, belong to the original edition of Hundwasser’s book on the left, while Alexei just writes text on the right. The typefaces are used only for chapter headings, as in any book. The complexity simply results from the fact that the two novels contradict one another in certain key parts of the story. The reader is left with the sense of two unreliable narrators, and must decide what is more likely to have actually gone on. Don’t ask me. I don’t know. I just edited the fight. The one other complexity, internal to Hundwasser, is that Delia Robinson is both the illustrator of and a character in “The Nose.” But she is also the illustrator of The Annotated Nose. But not of its dust cover. What the...? Even Fred and I can’t figure this one out. Delia is a very foxy person, diegetically speaking.
Rail: In Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne, a person’s nose figures greatly in the unraveling of their destiny. Your novel is also nose-centric, but in subtly different ways. Can you tell me a little about the importance of noses in The Annotated Nose?
Estrin: Gogol’s “The Nose” played a crucial part in my giving myself permission to write my first novel, Insect Dreams. I figured that if he could have a nose walking around the streets and praying in church, I could have a six-foot, talking cockroach as my hero. As Gogol says, excusing his story, “It doesn’t happen often, but it happens.” With that warm and fuzzy (for me) permission always permitting, a gift that keeps giving, I simply seized upon nose-masks as characterizing a hero beyond his particulars—a character who has been trapped in a novel, and whose life has been pigeonholed thereby, a character distrusting and hating his author. (I have a good friend who was involved in that kind of a situation, and I thought I’d write about it in terms other than his.) I used to have a string quartet, The Flying Flonzaleys, and we wore Groucho nose glasses when we played wedding gigs. So the Groucho mask came up first, and brought forth the Alexei strategy of making things better by making them worse. Physically, his masks have longer and longer noses, and each takes over his personality more and more. I also know a guy, an accordion player, actually, who has been trying unsuccessfully for fifty years to get a girlfriend. So he crept in there too with very bad pickup lines. But the nose in “The Nose” was pretty accidental to the larger conception, the nose who came to dinner.
Rail: The novel’s central character, Alexei Pigov, goes through a series of masks or disguises throughout the course of the novel. Could you talk about what this progression means in terms of Pigov’s character?
Estrin: They generally follow Alexei’s situation—his becoming Max Schreck, the monster, when he feels angry at one girl, or coming accidentally upon Scaramouche in the park, and transforming Scaramouche into Pantalone, when he feels tired, or hawking crazily on the street as St. Punch when he needs work. The only crucial formulation is Hundwasser’s scheme that Alexei become a plague doctor—the longest nose yet. While Hundwasser comes to this image only as potentially good merchandising, Alexei takes his transformation into a plague doctor quite seriously—at last he has found his authentic role in life, diagnosing and organizing against the contemporary plague. This is yet another fight between character and author—one is serious, and the other is in it for the bucks.
Rail: You write yourself into the novel as the editor of The Annotated Nose, so that the work inhabits the realms of fiction, biography, criticism, and nonfiction. Was this your intent in including yourself?
Estrin: Once I conceived the annotated book format—text and notes—I realized that annotated books must have editors who make editorial comments. Because Alexei chose the texts he would annotate or dispute, and wrote the disputations, he didn’t leave me much room for those editorial functions. But to earn my keep, and to contextualize the annotated edition for the reader, I added a regular introduction at the beginning, and tried to fill out the end, after Alexei abandoned the project.
Rail: By the end of the novel Pigov has transformed into Paphnutius, the plague doctor, covering himself in a medieval suit and mask meant to protect its wearer from the black plague. To some extent the suit is a comment on discourses of power; the power of the biographer over his subject, the power of government over its citizens. Do you think The Annotated Nose is ultimately a political book with a political message?
Estrin: Absolutely! All my books, though they have their comic aspects, have political thrusts, commentary and analysis of the nightmare our culture is going through and heading toward. Alexei says the contemporary plague is having your text written for you by someone else—like we are all characters, whether we like it or not, in Bush & Co.’s little world-play. Or all of us playing consumers in the marketed media marketplace. Or closeted into stupid gender roles of pursuit and submission. The trick—and this is something Fred and I toss about all the time—is how to make something political generalizable beyond place and time. How to make my books relevant years from now—as are the books listed on the back cover. (Not to compare myself (or Hundwasser!) to that collection of geniuses.) I have no talent for “political thrillers.” So then what? “Then what” turns out to be the kinds of books I have found myself writing about the ongoing problems of Western culture. The next two books I have (one written, the other planned), may be the first which are not comedies. I don’t know if that is a step forward or backward for me, or just reflects my being that much closer to the grave.
It’s good to know there are authors out there like Mr. Estrin, authors who, as he put it, “...consider the novel itself as an ongoing experiment since Cervantes, alternative only to itself as it varies and evolves.” Whether his next book is funny or not, it’s a safe bet it will be a mind-bending, unruly, highly enjoyable piece of writing.
Mirov is editor of pax americana. He is also poetry editor of LIT Magazine.
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