Relationships Require Fictions to Sustain Them: Jonathan Baumbach with Charles Shafaieh
The Pavilion of Former Wives
(Dzanc Books, 2016)
“He couldn’t remember when it started or even precisely how it started or if it had always been this way,” states the narrator of Jonathan Baumbach’s “Seattle,” the third story in his beguiling new collection The Pavilion of Former Wives. Baumbach’s writing, which he has called “formally audacious,” often features passages that—like memory—often twist around and even negate themselves, leaving the reader unsure of what, if anything, has happened as well as who exactly is populating the narrative.
“Serious” and “experimental” are both applicable, and likely appropriate, ways of describing his prose, but Baumbach has made a career out of resisting classification. Not dissimilar in this way from his father, the painter Harold Baumbach (1903–2002) who drew inspiration from Bonnard and Vuillard rather than follow his friend Mark Rothko into abstract expressionism, he left commercial publishing after his third novel, Reruns, was rejected thirty-four times by major presses. It would eventually be published in 1974 by The Fiction Collective—the first cooperative in America for fiction writers, which Baumbach cofounded with Peter Spielberg. On the website for the group’s newest incarnation, FC2, he is quoted about its origins: “At our early meetings, we analyzed the commercial publishing scene by sharing negative anecdotes . . . Fiction that redefined the rules, innovative and experimental work, was having the most trouble finding a home in what was clearly (though unacknowledged) a publishing establishing increasingly attuned to the bottom line.”
Now eighty-three and living in the Berkshires, Baumbach seems just as disinterested in the bottom line as he did decades ago and instead writes what is necessary, not what is popular. With sixteen fiction and two nonfiction works, his oeuvre is sadly little known to even those “serious” readers who would find in his writing similarities to Samuel Beckett, Kazuo Ishiguro, and George Saunders but also a unique and provocative voice. Witty, genre-bending, and keenly observant and understanding of the subtle nuances of memory, identity, and—especially in this newest work—love, Jonathan Baumbach deserves our attention, whether again or for the first time. I was lucky to engage with him for the first time recently, first by email and then phone, and learned a little more about how he views his work, the publishing world today, and the art of fiction writing.
Charles Shafaieh (Rail): There are repeated claims and moments in your writing that suggest that our experiences and our stories (if the distinction matters at all) are few and that our lives are filled with—and perhaps are doomed to be filled with—subtle, or not so subtle, variations of the same events, the same stories, the same tragedies, the same happinesses. "Every loss seems the same loss, the first loss, the only loss," the narrator in "The Reading" states regarding falling in and out of love with someone multiple times in one evening. Elsewhere, a narrator asks, “But hadn’t all stories, in a certain sense, been told before,” and your almost explicit borrowing from films—be it La Strada or Eyes Wide Shut—suggests a similar economy, or limit, of possible narratives. If so, should we consider this tragic? Or if not, wherein lies the possibility for novelty? Or, perhaps a third option, optimistic in a Beckettian fashion, where do we find the hope despite this inescapable reality that seems closed to novelty?
Jonathan Baumbach: I don’t think of my work as tragic—surreal, perhaps, and playful. As you say, I am concerned with form and language in all of my recent work.
Rail: Speaking to the same question but about memory: regarding our relationships, the story “The Pavilion of Former Wives” might be said to suggest that we can always only fail to remember and thus cannot avoid the possibility of making the mistakes of the past with new loves. What are your thoughts regarding this subject?
Baumbach: I don’t actually know what I’m thinking until the particular fiction I’m writing discovers it for me.
Rail: Do you consider your writing, broadly speaking, as focused on memory, narrative, or fictionality? Or do you consider those three as indistinct from each other?
Baumbach: Outside of my first two novels (and perhaps “Separate Hours”), all my fictions are concerned with imagining a world that didn’t exist before.
Rail: You have called your fiction “formally audacious.” I would add “playful” to that description—an effect of which is comic, again like Beckett. “He meant no more than he asked and perhaps even less,” the narrator states about the protagonist of “The Pavilion of Former Wives.” Can you speak to the indeterminacy or, put differently (and perhaps incorrectly), the multiplicity—of place, time, identity, thought—that seems a pressing preoccupation of your fiction?
Baumbach: Each fiction discovers its own preoccupations.
Rail: On the subject of indeterminacy in this story collection specifically, your writing prompts questions about love without answering them. “He wondered if it was possible to love someone and at the same time want desperately to get away from them,” the narrator states in “The Pavilion of Former Wives.” If you agree, as I believe, that prescriptive fiction is boring—and if not, please tell me why—then how specifically does your writing style, your formal playfulness that often involves these ambivalences, fit the examinations of love in your work?
Baumbach: In “Pavilion,” in particular, the love relationships are complicated by ambivalences.
Rail: On the subject of love, your work features epistolary correspondences, fantastical means of connecting with past lovers, chance encounters, online matchmaking services, and other means for two people to form a relationship. How do you feel that the amorous relationships between people have changed and what do you think might be the fate of relationships as the twenty-first century progresses?
Baumbach: I have no idea how amorous relationships have changed in the real world.
Rail: How do you feel reading practices have changed over time? How do you see your writing fitting into the new paradigm (if it is indeed new)? And do you care whether or not your writing fits into this paradigm?
Baumbach: I write, that is, invent, what pleases me to write.
Rail: Can you speak to the ethics of fiction writing, both the fictions written by writers and the fictions believed or spoken/acted out by people in reality? How real is the real world if we can live through and communicate with others mediated by fictions? (I’m specifically thinking of “Office Hours.”)
Baumbach: The ethics of fiction writing is determined by being true to itself. The ethics of the real world is its own business.
Rail: Would you call your meditations on love optimistic? I get that sense, from the endings of stories such as “Wizard” and “The Night Writer” (the latter in particular, which suggests that despite our fantasies, our dreams containing the ideal—the ideal sentence, the ideal love—we nevertheless should, or even must, risk accepting them/bringing them into reality, despite losing their perfection.)
Baumbach: My meditations on love are inventions, sometimes optimistic, sometimes pessimistic.
Rail: “I’m not sure honesty is what I want from you at the moment,” a character says in “Walking the Walk.” In “Seattle,” a marriage becomes stronger over the course of potentially fictional stories told. Do all relationships not only have without our trying but consciously require fictions—even lies—to sustain themselves?
Baumbach: The relationships in many of my stories seems to require fictions to sustain them.
Rail: How has your fiction changed as you have progressed throughout your life, specifically throughout new infatuations and marriages?
Baumbach: No doubt the changes in my life have influenced the changes in my fiction.
Rail: In 2009, you wrote that the “media is a system of mirrors that tends to discover and honor whatever it offered for discovery and honor in the first place. We are a culture in which the perception of something often counts for more than the thing itself.” In the era of Trump’s election (which was in part the result of many voters who did not care to believe facts but rather championed whatever they believed was true or what they desired to be true, regardless of reality), how has your position of the media changed, if at all? And how does what the OED and others are defining as a “post-truth” era relate to the realm of literary fiction?
Baumbach: I was as shocked by Trump's election as most everyone else in my part of the country. Narrative fiction could be called lies but not necessarily. Trump is merely a liar.
Rail: In the same piece quoted in the previous question, you argued that “if one reads books at all, shouldn’t one go for an experience one can’t get from TV or movies or anywhere else? Taking the trouble to read, perhaps we ought to go for something that throws our whole way of seeing into question. Art permits the dangerous in the comfort zone of the imagination.” This echoes filmmaker Peter Greenaway’s assertion that we are overwhelmingly in an age of text-based cinema—a waste and a tragedy in his mind—and that we should make cinema an image-based art, separate from literature specifically. How do you see your writing fitting within this clarion call of yours?
Baumbach: It’s kind of paradoxical: My novels are literary, and they’ve been influenced by film. I’m thinking particularly of Dreams of Molly, Reruns, and Chez Charlotte and Emily. And I think my writing has a lot in common with film in the way it moves. I started writing about film when I submitted to The Partisan Review—it’s so far back that the dates elude me—a piece on Breathless, which has been the piece of mine that has been anthologized the most. It’s in about six different places. I think that especially Godard was a big influence on me.
Rail: Which filmmakers do you think might be well-suited to adapting your work? And would those filmmakers be different from the ones who you consider your work most akin to?
Baumbach: I suspect my fiction is too cinematic to be made into a film.
Rail: What do you consider the state of film criticism to be today?
Baumbach: I like Manohla Dargis’s work as a rule, as well as A.O. Scott’s. But I kind of miss Pauline Kael. It’s funny because in The Partisan Review I had written a piece called “The Kael Book of World Records” which sort of mocked her use of hyperbole. We both belonged to the National Society of Film Critics, and when I was leaving a meeting someone asked her who I was, and she said, “That’s Jonathan Baumbach, who wiped the floor with me in The Partisan Review.” You couldn’t not like someone who said that, and we became friends.
Molly Haskell is a very good friend of mine too, and we’ve discussed film extensively. I’ve long thought that if someone was interested they would collect our e-mails and release them as a book.
Rail: Who do you consider your literary influences? Beckett comes to mind first for me, as some of these questions suggest.
Baumbach: That’s for others to say. It’s hard to know who influences you because it’s so internalized, but I like the idea of having been influenced by Beckett.
Rail: What do you believe is the state of literary publishing in America today?
Baumbach: What I wrote in my piece on publishing still seems applicable. Commercial presses have not been doing what I think of as serious fiction for some time now. It’s small presses who have taken over that job, and I don’t think there are a lot of people who are getting to read what is being published by small presses. For example, it always surprises me when I’ve heard from someone who says they read Dreams of Molly. I don’t think the book got around that much. To the same point, it always surprises me when I’m referred to, in one context or another, as “well-known writer.” It makes me wonder, Who are these people who know me well?
Rail: What needs to happen so that more readers might discover your work and other serious, often experimental, fiction?
Baumbach: They read what they want to read. The New York Times Book Review is such a piece of crap these days, and it’s hard to say why. It seems much more interested in mainstream stuff. And it isn’t so much “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” but that they have their thumbs in their mouths. The New York Review of Books isn’t particularly good for fiction. It’s people like Lauren Cerand who believe in what I’m doing. People have to take chances.
Rail: You also seem to have had more than a bit of bad luck in your career too, yes?
Baumbach: When my first novel came out in 1965, I had been blighted in some ways. The newspaper strike in New York City at the time meant that the review of it didn’t show up until the book was no longer in the bookstores. Later, the press that originally did my novel You, or the Invention of Memory folded before the book came out. It ended up selling quite well though because my agent connected me with the publicist Lauren Cerand who did a lot of work and a very interesting campaign for it, trying to get the book around. Now my collection of film criticism was supposed to have come out several months ago, from a small press, which may just be one person. It’s now scheduled for the spring. I can’t even get any news from the publisher. Amazon had it listed for October, and now it’s listed for February.
Rail: Who are you reading lately that you’re enjoying?
Baumbach: The Brunists Day of Wrath by Robert Coover and a biography of Éric Rohmer.
Rail: What are your predictions for the state of fiction in the future?
Baumbach: No predictions.
Rail: Do people read short stories differently than did they did in the past?
Baumbach: I don't think so. It’s hard for me to speak about what’s happening in other places, in other rooms in other houses.
Rail: Do you enjoy speaking about your work?
Baumbach: I’m not particularly disposed to talking about it, but I’m open to it. I feel that it is what it is. Things don’t mean, they are in a way.
Charles Shafaieh is a writer and editor living New York City. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications.