The Rumpus Interview with Tamas Dobozy
Tamas Dobozy opted to read a comic story from Siege 13 for his first public speaking gig of 2013. The choice drew loud applause. Stuck in a windowless, subterranean box painted in variation-on-a-theme beiges, as well as having heard two previous authors speak about death and genocide in the Canadian prairies and the unfathomable hardships of working in a west coast salmon processing plant circa 1880, the audience at the Vancouver Public Library appeared grateful for unbridled levity and a chance to laugh at the human affinity for foolishness.
With several “Best of 2012” nods for Siege 13—a collection of otherwise-brooding stories centered on the Siege of Budapest in 1944 and its multigenerational aftermaths in pockets of North America—and placement on Canadian literary prize shortlists (eventually winning the highly-esteemed Writers’ Trust Prize for Fiction), Dobozy has become celebrated in the past few months as a wunderkind, a dark horse, and a kind of overnight success. All this, despite the fact that he’s published two other story collections (2005’s Last Notes; When X Equals Marylou in 2002) and Doggone, a novel (1998).
At the panel Q&A period that followed the readings, Dobozy responded to a woman whose front row note-taking suggested the dedication of an aspiring, market-conscious author. His matter-of-fact account of readying the manuscript involved an extensive backstory—pressure from a former publisher to produce a novel rather than short fiction; resultant years of failed attempts shelved at the 100-page mark; and a plus-size collection of short fiction rejected as “boring” by every publisher he’d striven to contact. With this lengthy stream of words, Dobozy—who is also an English professor at a university in Ontario—collapsed the illusion of complete effortlessness implied by his lighthearted story and spotlit appearances on literary prize stages: “Creative writing is damned hard work, and publication is anything but assured. Brace yourself for a battered ego.”
Three days later, I sat down to lunch with Dobozy. Over soy lattes and huevos rancheros, we finished a conversation we’d begun in December.
The Rumpus: Let’s start with setting, a short story basic. What’s your writing environment?
Tamas Dobozy: I have two. One is my office at work, with high windows, lots of light, and a view of The Hawks’ Nest (not literally; it’s the name of a room on the upper floor of the building next door), and of the concourse roof below, with three whirling fans that frequently mesmerize me. My other writing environment is a cave-like room in the basement corner of my home, an old Victorian yellow-brick wonder, with stained glass and falling masonry and old-fashioned storm windows. The room is carefully outfitted with lights and white wallpaper, because there’s only one tiny window that lets in almost no sunshine. I like both places well enough, though in an ideal world I’d work at home, because it’s more tucked away. Though in the end my kids interrupt me in the latter, as much as colleagues and students do in the former.
Sometimes I’ll go out to write, to a café usually. There’s a great place in Uptown Waterloo called DVLB (Death Valley’s Little Brother) that sells coffee and whiskey—pretty much an ideal place for a writer. There’s another coffee shop, Balzac’s, that I also like (though I’ve only read one book by Balzac, and that was so long ago, I’ve forgotten everything about it, except that it dealt with the French Revolution and some people called the Chouans, I think). I have answered this interview in both offices, as well as an Air Canada jet, a hotel in Vancouver, and the bedrooms of friends and relatives—too many places to describe.
Rumpus: Do you consider yourself an autobiographical writer?
Dobozy: A lot of writers object to this term, as if it’s an insult to the imagination. I don’t mind it. A lot of what I’ve lived through gets transformed in one way or another to make it work for the writing (i.e. to make it more interesting). Max Frisch tried to write a book that purported to tackle the day-to-day of his life, Montauk. It’s a good book, but a braver one than I could ever write, not because I’m afraid to bare myself, but because I’m not good enough to make the quotidian so readable. I have a great deal of respect for writers such as Frisch, or someone like Alice Munro, and their fearlessness in telling it plainly in all its plainness, and then somehow in that process, arriving at the sublime. Me, I always need a magic trick or two. I’m trying hard to change that, but it’s not going to work, I know it.
Rumpus: You don’t mind it, okay, but you’re not writing exclusively about, say, an English professor with a wife and four children and their daily lives in southern Ontario. Some autobiographical bits are better than others?
Dobozy: Well, obviously quite a lot of what I write about in terms of Hungary, emigration and emigrants, suburbia, having kids, marriage, professors—some of the other places, conditions, and people who populate my work are areas I’m directly involved with in my life. The truth is—and I’ll tell you the truth—I really hate doing research, hate it with a passion, have zero interest in spending two or three years “immersed” in a single subject. Can’t do it. So I fall back on things I know directly from experience, or that I have a nice bit of anecdotal fact for. I love the kind of research that involves “interviewing human subjects,” to put it into ethics clearance language, and that’s the place where I gather most of my ideas (or from the wayward reading, listening, and viewing I do of books, music, media of one kind or another). Ninety-nine percentage of your research you never use in a story anyhow, unless you’re James Michener, so the trick is to only do that one percent. Ha! It’s impossible of course, but it’s an ideal to strive for. We all need our ideals.
Rumpus: Do you often choose against writing what you literally know?
Dobozy: Sometimes I like to stretch. The act of writing is imagination, after all. I think most work is a combination of both what is known and what is imagined, and I can’t see it being any other way. In fact, this might be a good definition of fiction itself to an extent. I think the whole point of fiction, ethically speaking, is to open the door on what’s not known, on what can’t be known (which is pretty much everything), and to leave it there, ajar. Hopefully what the reader sees in the story is not only the particular instance of imagining that is a story, but also just how particular it is—to a certain writer, a time and place, a set of ideologies—in a way that leads him or her to imagine the infinity of ways that story might have been (and often is) otherwise. The short story is great in this regard, because the ending, if done well, always calls to mind the ensemble of possibilities, the unexpected turn, the other ways things might have gone—turning each reader into a writer.
Rumpus: Do you see yourself writing within a national or stylistic tradition? A person reading your latest story collection might be tempted to jump to the conclusion that you grew up steeped in exclusively Hungarian culture and traditions. And yet you grew up in a British Columbian pulp and paper mill town and attended university in Montreal and Vancouver.
Dobozy: Yeah, it’s true, there’s always that danger. But I don’t think anything can be done about that in any ultimate sense—other peoples’ expectations. I hope people read all my books, and not just the latest one, to get the full picture of what I do, and even then don’t jump to any hard and fast conclusions, because who knows what books are to come. Reviewers have been trying to slot me into one category or another since my first book, and it’s not going to stop, because that’s what reviewers do: they have no other choice, they have to say something, and that’s a necessary way to fill up several paragraphs. I’d do it myself if I wrote book reviews. So it’s a genre problem we’re dealing with in this sense—the conventions guiding the particular form of the book review—like so much else in life.
I see myself as adrift in national or stylistic traditions. My influences are pretty diverse: American, Canadian, European, Asian, South American writers. I read these people, get ideas, narrative tricks, and then they’re invariably mashed up and transmuted and turned into something particular to my needs as a writer. It took me a long time to develop, I think, or at least relatively speaking, unlike those writers who kind of burst out of the gate fully formed (or more fully formed, at any rate)—having been at this for twenty-seven years now. I think a lot of what makes my writing mine is that I have so many limitations, there are so many things I can’t do very well, that writing around these pitfalls has created the kinds of stories in my books. It’s all that can’t be conceived that somehow defines how I write. I do know that I took a big leap about twelve or so years ago when I decided I couldn’t be a stylist and I wasn’t going to bother trying. I made it my mission to try and avoid having a style. I was just going to write interesting stories that readers would like to read (hopefully), and strive for clarity in the sentences, so that the narrative and characters were presented as transparently and in as problem-free a manner as possible.
Ideally the writing would be unnoticeable, a series of words important only for what they conveyed rather than how they conveyed it, but this might be a bit utopian if not outright delusional. Oddly enough, I think this is what liberated me to write as I do. It’s a bit Zen, I guess, the idea that you only find your style when you stop looking for it. As a result of this I’ve gotten to a place where a lot of the writers I used to admire now irritate me. There’s this gorgeous glittering surface of words, but nothing beyond that, as if the whole point of the writing was to show off the writers’ facility. I now think that this kind of writing is wrong, narcissistic, driven by a kind of vanity that’s everywhere in our culture—look at me, buy my product, it’s unique, no one else can do it, that’s the whole point of it, don’t you wish you were me? It’s a symptom of a kind of anxiety regarding anonymity, facelessness, atomization. Again, I keep coming back to Alice Munro, whose work is so devoid of this. Have you read her latest book? The sentences are so generous, given over entirely to the reader, not at all intended to make us reflect back on how virtuosic she is. That’s true virtuosity.
As for the other part of this question, it would be nice not to be pigeonholed as a Hungarian or Hungarian-Canadian writer, but the truth is I’m not going to stop writing the stories as they come to me, and if they continue to focus on this area of my experience, then so be it. I’ll get nowhere if I try and stop, or redirect the flow. Besides, I don’t see this kind of criticism—over returning constantly, even obsessively, to a certain kind of ethnic, national or social experience—hampering the creative output or reception of Philip Roth, or Rohinton Mistry, or Junot Díaz, or Louise Erdrich, or Alice Munro, or Thomas King, or Toni Morrison, so I’m not going to let it hamper mine. Ultimately, this “return” is invariably a means of, or tool for, engaging with certain thematic, theoretical, political, and narrative ideas, and it’s the originality of these—which means the way they all come together aesthetically—that matters. Obviously, the whole thing scares the shit out of me.
Rumpus: While a character clearly based on you appears in one of the stories of Siege 13, your stories do not, in general, refer to hometown experiences. Neither are many middle-class “campus stories” founded on locations where you’ve spent the majority of your adulthood. Do you find those settings or the themes they typically raise uninteresting?
Dobozy: Nothing in that one story, “The Atlas of B. Görbe,” actually happened. There is no Görbe. I did live in New York with my family [for] a while, but that’s it. I just liked the idea of screwing around with expectations, so I left everyone’s actual names in place. There’s this whole movement now, championed by David Shields, to present nonfiction as fiction, whereas I’m interested in presenting fiction as nonfiction.
As far as the other parts of the question are concerned, I’ve written a book about my hometown, Doggone, which I regret publishing. It was too raw, too early, and now I wish I could round up every copy and destroy them. I’ve written some “campus” or “professorial” stories as well (see: “In Embers” from When X Equals Marylou, or even “The Laughing Cat” from Last Notes, not to mention “The Atlas of B. Görbe,” “The Beautician,” “Rosewood Queens,” “The Encirclement,” and “The Selected Mugshots of Famous Hungarian Assassins” from Siege 13, all of which deal with professors and scholarship), and also some “fictional essays” as I call them (published in journals but not my books), where I both glorify and lampoon the pursuit of scholarship and present fiction as nonfiction. But I’m always looking for a new slant, so once I’ve written a few stories on a subject, I often feel played out. It’s not that a given subject is uninteresting, but rather that once I’ve written three or four stories about it, I find I don’t have much more to say. I’d like to do something with suburbia, which is more or less where I live, but its secrets and pleasures, while evident to someone living there, are somehow elusive when it gets to the page. I do think that almost anything can be made interesting if the writing is carefully done, if there’s a story in place. At the very least, it can be made funny. I think it’s important to say here that the stories that appear in my books are a fraction of what I publish in journals, so there’s more to my output than may be evident just reading the books. But that leads us in another direction…
Rumpus: As a professor, reading for research and classes is a necessary part of the job. What do you tend to read extracurricularly? You’re going camping/to Hawaii/to hibernate in your study for a month…what are you likely to read?
Dobozy: This relates back to question number two. My answer there may have given the impression that I don’t read, which is not the case at all. I’m reading constantly, but it’s a wayward reading, completely unsystematic, driven by whim rather than design. I think this might be a reaction to my job, where I have to read in such a focused and targeted way to teach my classes, that I’ve reserved for my private reading the right to not be responsible in any way.
Mainly I read fiction; that is my preference. I just finished Mondo and Other Stories by J.M.G. Le Clezio, and have started The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories by Don DeLillo, after which the next book on my stack (I do have a stack beside my bed, but it doesn’t mean I necessarily read them in the order they come up) is Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector. After that, The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt. We’ll see what floats to the surface. I also always carry around a book of poetry in my bag. I think right now it’s Fredrick Seidel, Ooga-Booga. With poetry, I almost never read the whole book in a focused way. I’ll read a poem, put it away for weeks, read another poem, and sometimes it takes years to finish, but I’ve found it’s the best way to read poetry, at least for me, since it’s so distilled, so condensed—whatever word you want to use for it—that I need the space between in order to receive each poem as fully as possible.
Beyond that, I have books everywhere in the house. I have back issues of Agni and The Literary Review in the ground floor bathroom; I have Harper’s in the one upstairs; and the basement bathroom is filled with old copies of The New York Review of Books. I have a book hidden in the living room by Victor Sebestyen called Twelve Days, about the 1956 revolution (which I’d like to make the topic of my next book, but we’ll see). I’m reading all of this stuff simultaneously, and the reason for this is that I have four kids and zero downtime, so I make sure that when I’m standing around (as you frequently are when you’re stuck at home), there’s always something for me to grab and read a few snatches of (I’ve actually done pretty well with the Sebestyen), if only to keep a pulse in my brain (again, very hard to do with that many kids). So my reading habits are sort of wartime, done as the moment and place permit. At work, you’d think I would have more time, but I don’t. It’s one meeting and paper on policy development to the next, so I’m almost as scattered there, though obviously there are longer stretches.
Rumpus: On that tangent, we tend to think of the scholarly mind as somehow distinct from the creative mind, or at least operating at differing levels. As a PhD whose day job includes interpretation and analysis of literary works, do you see this scholar’s mind as being complementary or contrary to the creative acts of writing fiction?
Dobozy: I’m glad you asked this. Complementary, definitely. I think it’s a very North American (minus Mexico) aberration—this belief that somehow one cannot be intellectual and creative at the same time, that one exclusively involves the mind while the other exclusively involves the heart, or guts, or some other metaphorized organ. It’s bullshit. The mind has passions; the heart is always reasoning. There’s no divide. They’re part of the same single, undivided unit.
Anne Carson once told me that she used to have two desks—one for creative work and one for scholarly work—and one day she took the title from a poem and put it at the head of an article, and took the title of an article and put it at the head of a poem, and then the two desks merged into one. Something like that. I do think that the essence of being a human is contradiction itself—not just conceptually but in actual process—and in this regard I can’t see how anyone can write without taking into account the entirety of the messy, chaotic, self-defeating system that all of us are. Besides, we have so few resources as writers, why would anyone want to deny him- or herself any one of them?
I definitely tend more toward the European attitude toward artists in general—that it’s okay to immerse yourself in the culture on all levels, that it’s okay to read philosophy, science, to think deeply and rigorously about the act of creating art—and not just “okay,” but necessary. In many ways my writing didn’t really take off or find its necessary means until I started reading literary theory, believe it or not—until I managed to get my head around that stuff, it was like weight-lifting for the brain, and suddenly I realized that I could apply an equal amount of mental rigor to constructing the stories. That was a big breakthrough moment for me—understanding the level of work required. (There was also what literary theory did—breaking things down, exposing gaps, trying to find a language that liberated itself from itself—which became very literally what my stories dealt with.) I’m very grateful for that. I also realized, around the same time, that I’d learned much more about writing from my literature courses than from my creative writing workshops, where the quality of the work read was so much better (and that includes my own, of course), the level of scrutiny so much more intense, the stakes so much more clearly defined. The creative writing classes were good for putting me in touch with peers and working writers, but the literature courses taught me what writing was.
Rumpus: Your first published book was Doggone, a novel. Since then you’ve published stories exclusively. Why?
Dobozy: Well, you’ve read Doggone, so you should know! No, that’s facetious. This is a complicated problem for me. Part of it is that I’m simply impatient. I get bored writing a novel. There’s too much space, too much latitude, and I get lost in it. You can do everything! And so I do nothing. The strictures of a short story keep me in check.
So that’s one thing. Another thing is that short stories are safer. You don’t—at least in most cases—spend three years working on them, and even if you do, chances are you’re also writing or have written other stories during that time. So if one story fails (and they fail pretty often, at least for me, though sometimes they get resurrected and sorted out years later) it’s no big deal, since you’ve got others that didn’t. If your novel fails, then you’ve just lost three or four years. I couldn’t take that. Also, you get to publish stories in journals, so there’s a means of feeling validated and thus refreshed as a writer along the way, and publishing in journals is the best publishing there is, since the editors are only interested in the quality of the work, and none of the other considerations that come with books enter into play (demographics, past reviews, subject matter, prize juries, etc.). I also have kids, and they obliterate your brain, they really do, with the endless requests and yabbering and schedule details you need to keep up on, so what’s left of my concentration is incredibly small, certainly too small to contain a novel.
Most importantly, though, beyond all of this, is simply that I love writing short stories in a way that I don’t love writing novels. It’s what excites me, makes me feel fulfilled, keeps me interested in writing.
Rumpus: What was your very first publication, and when? When you think back to it, how do you see your writing changing, both in terms of style and content?
Dobozy: My first real publication was the poem, “On The Back of a Cow,” in The Dalhousie Review. My writing has changed utterly, though I think that anyone reading that would still find some of my fixations there—the folkloric, the parable, the grappling with the magic of the everyday, the tug-of-war between the simplicity and complexity of language—but it was very superficial then, not going much beneath the surface or style. Many of my early publications happened despite me, I think. I’d accidentally hit upon what I am better at consciously producing now. The sheer volume of material I produced then that I had to throw away is terrifying. Of course, there’s a similar volume now, so maybe nothing has changed, maybe I just think I’m better at consciously producing this work, but I am as out of control as I ever was.
Rumpus: Beryl Bainbridge claimed that she didn’t write short stories because, in essence, they were finished by the time she was getting started. She also regarded her earliest books ambivalently, dismissing them altogether at one point and later rewriting and republishing them. I noticed that your first book, Doggone, is absent from the publication history listing in Siege 13. How do you feel about that novel?
Dobozy: I think I like short stories for the same reason Bainbridge didn’t like them. I find writing so hard that it takes a lot, especially these days, for me to get up the nerve to do it—it has gotten harder and harder over the years as I’ve realized what it takes. I think Doggone is just badly conceived and executed. It’s an immature work, more interested in self-revelation (and -flagellation) than art. I don’t include it in my list of works because I don’t think people should read it.
Rumpus: I noticed that you’ve published four books with four different publishers. Is that a subject you’re interested in discussing?
Dobozy: Sure, I’m happy to talk about this. I could turn this into an entire essay, but I’ll try and keep it focused. Six Canadian publishers rejected Siege 13 before Thomas Allen took it. One of them (you know who you are) never even bothered to get back to me after requesting the manuscript, despite several follow-ups. I’ve had to find a new publisher for every single book I’ve ever published, and have now accepted that this is simply the way things are going to be for me, partly because of the nature of the industry, and partly because of how I work, with so many crappy rejected manuscripts in between the ones that get published. I am a great believer in practicing a kind of honed indifference, a great non-attachment, when it comes to publishing. You should never want anything too badly, for the cosmos is watching, and the cosmos is not only sentient but also malevolent, and it will deny you. The cosmos only gives you stuff when you don’t expect or necessarily want it.
Apart from that, I’m not a big fan of publishing books and dealing with publishers. My experience has pretty consistently been that you are never really entirely secure, there’s always stuff going on behind the scenes, and nobody will ever drop their “professionalism” to tell you anything but what they think you need to know, which has more to do with their anxieties than yours. This is why my favorite publishing is still in literary journals, where the whole thing is so clear and straightforward: the majority of an editorial board likes your story and wants to publish it. Period.
Rumpus: When it comes to organizing a volume, what does your process usually entail and, seeing that there’s a degree of thematic unity across Siege 13, what was different this time and why? I read somewhere that there were two previous versions of this project that went unpublished…
Dobozy: Well, first of all, I now see collections of stories as more than just a grab bag of what I happen to have published in the last several years. In other words, I publish more stories than go into a given collection. I really wanted to do a book on the siege, and there were several organizing principles I tried: the first manuscript was a phony nonfiction book, where each chapter told the story of historical recovery involving a family; the second book was a reverse chronology, starting in the present and then moving backward into the life of the same family to understand why they did the things they did during the siege; the third attempt was a chronological (more or less linear) tale of three men who endured the siege and how it affected them; and the fourth attempt, the one that actually got published, was a work of counterpoint, where each set of successive stories dealt with some idea in relation to the siege, starting from friendship (“Görbe” and “Animals”), moving to faithlessness (“Sailor’s Mouth” and “Restoration”), to loyalty (“Beautician” and “Orphans”), etc, etc. I wanted a really careful kind of dialogue between the stories, and I also wanted the siege to become an increasingly positive force as the book moved on, where characters start to become enabled rather than disabled by it. I continue to write stories that are simply one-off pieces as my interests and obsessions demand but I have no doubt my next book will also have some kind of cohesive principle behind it.
Rumpus: War-as-trauma is a commonplace. When portraying heavily-trod literary territory and an event about which you have no first-hand knowledge, how conscious were you of repeating the tried-and-true, and of ethical obligations to the historical record? Did you prepare with great reams of research?
Dobozy: I always try and come at this stuff from an off-kilter approach. I’m lucky in the sense that I am writing about Hungary, a subject few people know about, and so I am able to avoid, at least in the detail, a repetition of hundreds of other writers’ work (in English, since I’m sure there’s a million books on the subject in Hungary). Beyond that, I’m not really interested in writing of mass troop movements or the standard stuff about life on the battlefield. That’s been done far better than I would ever be able to do it. I was interested in this book in the intersection of military and civilian life, the collision of these two worlds, which is perhaps less written about, though I can immediately think of two books that do this with real brilliance (Viktor Serge’s Unforgiving Years and Camilo Jose Cela’s San Camilo 1936). But, really, I think the thing that was in my favor was first of all Hungary; second of all, the siege; and third of all, the way in which the collection moves away from the immediacy of the siege to trace its effects through subsequent decades and generations of émigrés. Maybe the last of these is the most significant differentiating factor.[As for ethical obligations], this is a trickier question. I feel an obligation to get it right in the overall tenor of the moment, and in the details as much as possible, but without becoming lost in either. I think that history presents a different record than fiction does. History is monochrome: all facts and events. Literature is multicolored: all nuance and difference and the unexpected. It’s sometimes hard to bring these two things together, since it’s possible—entirely possible—to imagine someone for whom the siege, the Communist takeover, the entire shift in the world, never really happened. Let’s say this person is very poor, from a generation of subsistence farmers, always subjugated to one person or another. Provided he was left alone by AVO [the Hungarian State Protection Authority], how much would register as change for this person through all those tumultuous years? Not much, I would suspect. Or, more importantly, it would be possible to write this story in complete defiance of history, which insists on momentous events. I might yet try that.
Rumpus: Nearly seventy years have passed since the Siege of Budapest in 1944, and for many North Americans, the conflict is likely regarded as an obscure and/or unimportant episode and as such of scant interest, a mere footnote. In your stories, though, American and Canadian ancestors of Siege victims and victors remain in many ways affected by this event. And, to a degree, the Hungarian community you depict in present day Toronto, for instance, appears to be carrying the trauma of a long ago event in the present. Is this relationship to history particular to these characters, or is this a view of history and our relationship to it that has a broader application?
Dobozy: I think what you’ve hit on here is the difference between a European (or at least Central and Eastern European) view of history, versus a North American one. For us, history is always the thing that’s over. We study it that way: “Here is a list of all the things that have ended.” The contemporary moment is never historical in North America. We have a great optimism and liberty in this, as if the now were governed only by the new. This is connected to the American Dream, and “Protestant work ethic,” and “level playing field,” and other capitalistic belief systems, whose social efficacy absolutely demands a religious faith in this optimism and liberty, this freedom from determinism. It’s false, of course, but it’s the illusion most of us have chosen to maintain (if voting preferences are any indication).
It couldn’t be more different in Europe, or at least the Europe I know. In Europe the now is almost always the then. It is made necessary by the past. That’s why over here we just can’t get our heads around things such as the Balkan Wars, or what’s happening in Greece, or why the British Pound still exists, much less help solve some of these problems when called upon to do it. “Why would those people want to kill each other when they had peace?” There was never peace. Every second of every day was filled with acts of war on a microscopic level, then gradually the microscopic became the macroscopic, and this transition was not as enormous as we would like to think. This notion of the past, of course, is false in its own way as well, since there’s no reason why history has to be quite that deterministic other than by force of habit (the continuance of anti-Semitism over there is just one example in this regard). But over there this hyper-determinism is the preferred politics. Or maybe not—I actually think that over the last sixty-five or so years, Europe has done an amazing job of balancing history with accountability, much more so than over here.
Rumpus: In his history of the British novel, John Richetti proposes a model of the novel  as charting a positive progression. To my eye, the stories in Siege 13 suggest generations of characters repeating mistakes, maintaining prejudices, and, generally, failing is to become wiser or, in Richetti’s terms, signaling their progress and evolution…
Dobozy: Well, I like “evolution,” because it just means (at least to me) that things are changing rather than getting better. “Progress” implies betterment. Are Don DeLillo’s or Joan Didion’s novels more indicative of a “more nearly complete or more complex form of consciousness” than Henry Fielding’s or Jane Austen’s? You could argue the opposite, especially if you took a nostalgic or sentimental point of view (which are as good as a hyper-rational one, for all the good it does us). I don’t really believe in the promise of resolution contained in the word “progress.” There is material necessity and mass desire and there always will be, in one form or another, so that we will always be “in process,” constantly becoming, never arrived.
What I love about Hungary, or at least many of the Hungarians I know (and I have to be careful with this distinction), is that they’re so driven by passions, in a primary color kind of way—lust, rage, love—that their contradictions are much more visible and at the same time, forceful. My father, for instance, believes absolutely that people are born both with free will and natures they are incapable of changing. Both of these things at the same time! He will argue passionately for both of these things (not simultaneously, of course) depending on what he wants to put across or accomplish.
I think Aristotle, or whoever it was, made a big mistake in defining humans as tending toward or being capable of rational consistency. What makes us human is, in fact, our constant dwelling in contradiction. It’s what keeps us moving and productive. It’s our “natural” state, by which I mean it’s completely artificial. It might even be what in some way we strive for. I think that our technological apparatus “progresses” in the sense given above—more efficient medicine, communication, tools of every kind—but the same old contradictory creatures wielding these to conflicting purposes. The short story as a technology is similarly a scene of these contradictions—wanting to say it all, wanting to keep it short; wanting to be universal, wanting to be particular. The failure of this operation—it must always fail—is the engine that keeps us trying again, and reading again, after that elusive perfection, not realizing that the point of it all is precisely the “elusive,” the “starting again,” the act or process of doing, not the attainment of whatever it is we’re after. Blanchot charted this very nicely in The Book To Come.
Once we achieve some kind of harmonious perfection humans won’t need to exist anymore. And maybe that’s for the good, since, after all, this way of being has caused a lot of trouble—it’s behind the need not just to be profitable but always more profitable than last time; it’s behind countries always needing more people doing more things; it’s behind the approach to finite resources as if they were infinite. But we can’t rest content. I certainly can’t. I’m sure I’ll keep writing long after I’ve exhausted what I’ve got to say. I could be there now!
 Of the novel, Richetti writes, “In most novels that come to mind, particular persons in their individualized immediacy are presented as being more important or more immediate than communities or cultures with their long traditions and accumulated ways, and the novel is most often about the clash between such individuals and the larger social units that necessarily produce them. The novel presupposes that clash, even if it often records an eventual reconciliation or reintegration of the individual with the surrounding society. The novel thus implies, as the literary and cultural critic Edward Said has remarked, a universe that is necessarily unresolved or incomplete, a universe in a process of development, evolving or progressing toward a more nearly complete or more complex form of consciousness as it records the multiplicity and infinite diversity of individuals.”
Featured author photo © 2012 by Mathew McCarthy.