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June 22, 2011

The following interview was published by Fric-Frac Club, a French-language collective that is dedicated to literature and entropy. The translation was provided by Christie Craig.

Fric-Frac Club: What will you do when people stop reading books?

Sergio Chejfec: Hard to say, especially because I think I live in that time. People are always on the brink of stopping reading, but what withal, they do go on reading. So to say, there are books that get read. Many titles or a few, each so in its own measure or not : but they do get read. And still, I have the impression that there are a great many more books without readers. Titles forgotten, authors forgotten or else unknown, and so on. It’s as if reading sustains itself precisely by ‘non-reading’, as if it needed ‘non-reading’ to cast its own silhouette and to go on choosing books to rescue or discard. This is why I don’t suppose I’d go about things very differently than I do already, if the whole world stopped reading. I think I’d only react by a change of emphasis: when everyone has stopped reading and when that day comes as premised by the question, just as well, the time to begin to read will have come.

FFC: First literary memory (or emotion)?

SC: My first literary emotion is of a private and defeated sort. I was a very and consistently bored child (I think this was a common thing for my generation, at least it’s what I’ve got to think). One day, it occurred to me to send a fictitious postcard to my mother : it would be written by a sister she had never heard of, who would announce therein that she had numerous revelations to disclose : a dark and scandalous family past, a very sad past, and so on, a real melodrama. In order that the story seem truer, I had to send the card from another country: Paraguay. During my childhood, Paraguay had been for me an exotic country (it was by way of Paraguay that my parents had come secretly into Argentina, after the Second World War). The text was written and I was ready to go buy the postcard at the corner bookstore, on which to to copy it out. But once there, I realized that they didn’t sell postcards for Paraguay, and more problematically even, that I could not send a card from Paraguay! These obstacles proved insurmountable, I had to resign myself finally to the plan’s failure.

I don’t know if there’s some lesson to be taken from this story, or whether to consider it a major defeat. I think that today I would not assign so much importance to details, which seemed so essential then to the making of a credible story. But it was the first time I wrote a fiction and I still remember my anxiety on the walk to the bookstore, in search of a postcard for Asunción del Paraguay.

FFC: What are you reading at the moment?

SC: At the moment, I’m reading a good many of Adalbert Stifter’s novels. Just one after another. They’re very strange novels, simple plotting, with perfectly archetypal characters, practically fairytales even. But the landscape within which the stories develop (almost always a natural landscape, whose depiction occupies nearly the entire narrative) is described in such meticulous detail that it becomes completely anti-bucolic, counter to the author’s apparent interest in the bucolic. It’s just this stupendous attempt at converting natural landscape into a kind of artificial copy of the natural.

FFC: What authors are you ashamed for never having read?

SC: There’s a batch of authors that I’m ashamed for not having read, or else for not having read with greater attention. I can cite Dante, Leopardi, Céline, and a number of 20th century North-Americans. In fact, as I’ve said, there will always be more unread authors than read ones. But when it’s to do with authors, so to say, concrete bodies of work that one supposes to be systematic, one always fears having “missed something”.

FFC: Recommend a book that I’ve likely never heard of.

SC: “I know of no book that is unknown to you”. This has got be the first maxim of a literature in the Socratic custom. Not to demonstrate knowledge, even less so learning, nor ignorance even, but hospitality and willingness.

FFC: A book you’ve read that you should have like to have written?

SC: There are many. I would have liked to have written Le Roi des Aulnes, Le Jardin des plantes, many Argentinean books by different authors. Above all, more so than to have written other books, I should have liked to be a writer from another country, a European writer for example. The Latin-American writer is European in a very particular way. He is less so and more so ; and what is European about him is his abstraction or accentuation : never anything of a regular sort. The Latin-American author is stuck within such exceptional precincts, and this is exhausting (like work).

FFC: What’s the worst book you’ve read?

SC: What’s surprising is that one happens upon such books with relative frequency (but not so often as one should think on first thought) that must be considered unsuccessful, but which, invariably, offer a lesson. I don’t mean a technical lesson. I mean a reading experience ; something we incorporate as knowledge, bad or good. In such a way, it becomes difficult to consider books on a scale from best to worst, because best or worst can also be bound to taste, resonance, experience, usefulness and so on, so that all of it blends, and very different valuations emerge for the same book or the same author.

FFC: What’s the book that seems to you best adapted to film?

SC: I’ve not seen many adaptations. The one I remember best and which was marvelous to me, precisely for its arbitrariness (in the best sense of the word) in relation to the original novel, is L’Homme de Londres by Bela Tarr, a Hungarian, who made a film version of the novel by Georges Simenon. On reading the book, one enters a realist and human drama, very well structured, particularly where social stereotypes are concerned. But in the film, this becomes a metaphysical drama, or more like pre-metaphysical, since the characters are slaves to their materiality. I admire Bela Tarr.

FFC: Do you write on a typewriter, on a computer, or by hand?

SC: I usually write on a computer. When I don’t have one, I write by hand. But I should work on my equilibrium, because I notice that my relation to writing, and to its result, changes depending upon whether I write by hand or on a computer. When I abandoned the typewriter for a computer, around 1991, after my early learning stage, I started to sense that writing with a computer was much closer to writing by hand. Both eliminate the more obvious, material mediation of the typewriter. And movements of eyes and cursor are proximate to the movements one might also make before a set of handwritten sheets. What one loses, on the other hand, is the sense of the writing as a sculptural or material composition. This is why it’s necessary, now and again, to write by hand, as a humble tribute to the god of craftsmanship, if he exists.

FFC: Do you write in silence or with music?

SC: Both. It all depends on the moment and circumstances. There are some texts for which I’ve attended a certain type of music in particular, or a disc, a song or a composer, and so in my memory they are forever linked to some feeling or anguish felt when first I wrote, hearing that music. And in such cases, to listen again to the music always involves the recuperation of a sense of the writing.

FFC: Who is your first reader?

SC: My first reader is the person I love and live with, and who always appears, if barely or roughly, in my writing.

FFC: What is your secret passion?

SC: My secret passion is actually a weakness of sorts. I don’t know if it’s for shyness but I’m a totally addictive person. It’s so that I’ve got to keep myself at a distance from everything, for the fact that I feel myself always on the point of distraction by anything. So, my secret passions are multiple and I count on this diffusive, redemptive multiplicity.

FFC: What have you never dared do, that you would like to?

SC: Many things. Innumerable things. But I should mention one that’s in line with literature. I’ll say that I would like well to write a book that sells a million copies. A best-seller on a cosmic scale. Not necessarily a “good” book, but a success in the purest sense, magical even. Because this is one of the most miraculous things that can exist. Literature, from the beginning of Modernity, has always been linked to money, capriciously so. These spectacular best-sellers are like bank bills printed in other shape. I’d very much like to take part. Not to become rich, no, well not just for that…but to be also enthralled by this magic of the mass market and thus able, for some short time, to see literature from that angle.

Sergio Chejfec
interviewed by
Fric-Frac Club

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