The Rumpus Interview with Gonzalo Torné
Novelist Gonzalo Torné has received wide acclaim in his native Spain, winning the Premio Jaén de Novela as well as a finalist award for the Premio National de Narrativa for his previous works. Divorce Is in the Air, his third novel—and the first to be translated into English, by Megan McDowell—features one of the most exasperating, engaging, and opinionated narrators I’ve read in a long while. Set in Barcelona and Madrid, the story not only investigates presumptions about class and wealth, it also develops an intriguing and fully rounded protagonist, Joan-Marc. The writing is precise, the humor is sly, the narrative stance risky—all of which work to form a thoroughly engaging novel.
As the story begins, Joan-Marc is at the end of his second failed marriage. He attempts to explain himself to his soon-to-be-ex, not to apologize or to prompt a reunion, but simply to be heard. Beginning with a trip meant to salvage his first marriage and moving forward and back in time, the narrative reveals Joan-Marc’s lackadaisical way of moving through the world as a (seemingly) financially secure member of the upper-middle class. Much of the story centers on this first marriage, which afforded him a bounty of sex, but little else. As he recounts one reckless incident after another, Joan-Marc’s bravado peels away, leaving the reader with a stunned middle-aged man, alone.
The Rumpus: The narrator Joan-Marc offers his life story to his estranged second wife. While he does address her, we learn very little about her. Would you say he is trying to woo her, or to exculpate himself, or perhaps he has some other motive?
Gonzalo Torné: It could be said that the ex-wife is a ghostly addressee to whom Joan-Marc directs a very long letter. One thing that I like about the epistolary-style novel is that it doesn’t allow language to be neutral. It’s not about showing “objectively” some concrete facts as in third-person narrative, since its discourse has a very concrete end: to seduce, to shock, to make fun, to distract, to inspire love, or to move a concrete addressee.
I’m not reanimating the epistolary novel, but I tried to take advantage of its strong discourse. All the novel could be read as a tool of Joan-Marc, whose vanishing point is this ghostly woman about whom we’re told nothing, and in whose place (the place of the listener) we’re forced to sit. Part of the attraction and discomfort that the novel generates comes from the fact that we spend three hundred pages listening to a speech that is neither directed to nor thought for us, so the reader has all the right to imagine this woman as he or she wants. I’ll introduce this new element: her name is Clara.
Rumpus: As a narrator, Joan-Marc is something of a wild card. He’s fascinating, in that we pity him (the father’s suicide, the caustic sister, the failed marriages), and yet we are enraged by him (the fortune lost by way of neglect, the lack of sympathy for his former dear friend, the failed marriages). My feelings towards him changed with every page. What was the experience of writing such a character?
Torné: The reader is sovereign, in that they can think almost anything about the character, but in my own fantasies, the ideal reader of the novel will be very close to what you’re describing: someone who is open to the attractive elements of Joan-Marc without stopping to be shocked by his meanness. Joan-Marc had appeared as a secondary character in my previous novel, Hilos de Sangre (Threads of Blood). He was meant, as a character, to create the worst impressions, but, to my surprise, the readers told me that it was such a magnificent subject and that they would like to meet him. I started Divorce Is in the Air (half-jokingly) to prove them that they were wrong, that he was a repulsive creature. It’s obvious to see that I’ve failed, but a novel with a single, flat idea can’t be written.
So I tried to filter, in the midst of the mental filth of the character, an intense yearning to live. I think that as the novel goes on, the reader still finds the ideas and particulars actions by Joan-Marc to be pretty mean, yet can find a certain empathy in the general frame of his problems—life is serious, and getting old and dying are the real plot of the story.
Rumpus: I’m so curious about this strategy of Joan-Marc’s. He spends much of the book talking about the history of his failed first marriage, particularly the bad behavior (drinking, laziness) of his first wife, Helen, but also the great sex. What are we to read into this odd mirror that he offers his soon-to-be-ex second wife?
Torné: I think Joan-Marc cannot stand contempt and silence. His idea is to provoke her and to get an answer. He doesn’t care much about what she’s going to answer. He is willing to say anything to get her to talk to him. After the “transformation” in Doctor Bicente, when Joan-Marc makes her react, the novel moves toward a calmer phase.
Rumpus: I was struck by this line from Helen’s father: “A girl in love with her problems, which to be honest have never been that serious.” Talk a bit about how you develop the shape of these characters both by how they view their own problems, and, in turn, how the narrator takes his shape by how he regards other characters’ issues.
Torné: My inspiration for Helen was Sylvia Plath, not the real one, but the character that appears in Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters. In the end, Helen doesn’t look like her because she’s devoid of the talent and intelligence that make Plath so attractive and admirable. What’s left are the problems, shared by millions of women, without a masculine counterpart who strives to understand and temper them. Helen represents the kind of character that novelists usually ignore.
Joan-Marc brazenly uses [his first wife] to provoke his second wife—only at the end of the book does he speak directly to her. Perhaps with this change of tone it’s easy to understand the complicity that happened between them, and that the story could be told from a very different perspective. After all, stories belong to their narrators in a circumstantial way, so any story could be told in a different manner.
Rumpus: Joan-Marc’s family, the Miró-Puigs, and Joan-Marc in particular, are caught in a downwardly mobile slide. He is rather ill-equipped to take care of himself, and in fact, acts as if the situation will go away if ignored. I can’t help but think that you are authoring a larger statement about society—but I’m ashamed to say I don’t know enough about the economy in Spain to know for sure.
Torné: The crisis in Spain has been devastating. The degree of corruption and inefficacy of the two main political parties is almost unheard of in the First World. The consequences have been tens of thousands of evictions, thousands of suicides, a lengthy rate of 20% unemployment and a generation without any hope of living better than their parents. The disaster has been so immense and so covered-up by newspapers and televisions that novelists could not stand by mute. Writers of my generation have addressed the situation from the point of view of the most disadvantaged, and some really good novels have come from this—but a tone of denunciation or the direct approach simply doesn’t work for me.
I think that in Divorce Is in the Air, the Miró-Puigs (among other things) allow us to see, at least laterally, the selfishness and the impasse of a high class generally more predisposed to ask for sacrifices than to become useful. My purpose was to expose all of this in a very subtle way. Many Spanish readers do not relate Divorce Is in the Air with the novels about the economic crisis.
Rumpus: The novel is set largely in Barcelona. Tell us a bit about your relationship to the city and its importance as the site of the story.
Torné: From an administrative point of view, I guess I’m a Spanish writer, but I could hardly write about people who live in Bilbao or Andalucía. I really don’t know what their aspirations are, the implications of living in this or that neighborhood. I barely use biographical material in my novels, so I guess I need solid ground, and a clear view on life conditions. Barcelona is the scope where my imagination works. I’m a Barcelona writer.
In Divorce Is in the Air, the city operates, on the one hand, as a scenario. On the other hand, it works for exposing social tensions that otherwise I’d need dozens of pages to explain. Another advantage of writing about Barcelona is that, it being a city less literarily exhausted than London or Paris, it generates lots of mainstream speech from people who want to live there, people that love it, visitors who try life in the city, and fail. All these fantasies about the city are in the novel as mere imaginations, criticisms, exaggerations. The choice of a narrator that isn’t a native was very deliberate, it allows to me incorporate external speech.
Rumpus: Joan-Marc reunites with his old school friend, Pedro, who appears happy to be eschewing financial security for the pursuit of art: “He told me that there is a living thing within each of us, and we have a chance to feed it.” Joan-Marc cannot believe that his former comrade could be happy with this life. Later in the novel, we see him refuse to believe that his mother could be content, although the evidence clearly shows that she is. Talk a bit about writing a narrating character who has so little insight into the desires of others. It seems like a challenge, but also fun, in that you have essentially written each character twice, first the version as reported by Joan-Marc, and then the version that the reader intuits.
Torné: To me it would have been incredibly easy to write this book in the third person. Staying at a distance where I could have been nuancing and even “quarreling” with the character. But my idea was to get the reader into a mind out of control, to leave the reader alone in this dense atmosphere without any indications as to what to think (this is one of the reasons why the book lacks any chapters or rests). My problem was how to stop the point of view of Joan-Marc took throughout the book. I found the solution in my own narrative material that acts (specially in the last third of the book) as a denial of most the things that Joan-Marc gets wrong or deliberately fakes. The narrative operates as a method of correction and dam for the point of view of a character that in any other way would be very invasive.
Rumpus: That narrator comes off as being quite unpleasant, a holder of grudges, sexist, and too confident for his own good. Despite this, I found him intriguing and magnetic. I suspect this is because of the way he is written, so very smart in all of his judging and misery. I’m curious to know how Joan-Marc developed. Why are despicable characters so much more interesting?
Torné: I’m not interested in negligible characters or the evil as it is presented in the television shows or genre novels—to me they’re banal. The character is the result of imaginatively articulating a series of questions. What if a white male heterosexual is to complain as if he belonged to a minority? What if a boy educated to succeed started to go wrong? What if we listened to a voice that speaks without retaining its prejudices? What if someone were willing to betray all to recover the person he loves? What if we take seriously that the dead can only “live” in our minds? What if someone is really angry against the first signs of aging and rebelled with all his might against death? Through these clusters of questions, one begins to form the character.
Rumpus: While Joan-Marc is not very clever in finance, is terrible at love, is a neglectful son, and a rotten brother, he is, in the end, very good at realizing his own mortality. This heartbreak of a line changed my perception of him entirely: “Of course I wasn’t fooling myself, the heart has its doubts but there are lessons we must learn: when we come into the world our parents are there to teach us how to live, but then they die before we learn the painful reverse birthing by which we leave the Earth.” Does this late insight, this crack in the façade, redeem him?
Torné: Yes, right, I don’t know if it’s enough to redeem him (nor what would be the implications of that in this context), but I do think that, beyond the humor, the readers connect with the character because he’s something like a very intense witness of the complaints that are representative of the whole humanity: the physical frailty, the body’s alterations, and suppressions. The book is about the individual experience of two marital separations, but the divorce of the title also refers the separations that we all experiment with: with our youthful body, with our health, with the relatives that are dying. I wouldn’t lend Joan-Marc the keys of my apartment or the use of my laptop, but if I had to express my discomfort with the deterioration that we, the living, are put through, I wouldn’t mind picking such a vital and incensed person as him to speak in my name.
Rumpus: I feel you name the crux of the novel early on in a small line, one that reverberated throughout the novel: “How do people lose one another?” While the narrator asks this somewhat rhetorically during the time he is reuniting with his friend from his schooldays, is this perhaps the great question of this story? Of all stories?
Torné: If life had a prevailing substance that would be it: the number of things that we identify with us and that we only retain in the memory. Or if you prefer: the amount of beloved world that can only be found in our erratic and fragile head.
For a time, the book’s epigraph was two verses of Rilke: “that’s how we live, always saying goodbye.” At the end, I was more inclined toward the [Ted] Hughes quote because it has a shade of moral aggressiveness that suited me and because it’s impossible to think of this poet without thinking of marital disasters. If Divorce Is in the Air had a secret substance, I think it would be this: The moment that speculations about the future take precedence, in turn subordinating the past—without which we would not be able to explain ourselves—this past that has faded from the common world must last in us.
Rumpus: Thanks so much for your time, and of course, for this elegant and muscular story.