Daily Postings
literature : interview

Helen DeWitt

by Mieke Chew

“If you don’t like a language, you can go write your own.”

All photos courtesy of Jesse Ruddock.

Helen DeWitt’s personal library is on display as part of The Library Vaccine, an exhibition of six distinctive collections at Artists Space in Soho. The books, shipped from DeWitt’s home in Berlin, are exhibited on one side of the gallery. The facing wall is covered in Xeroxed passages of books in different languages, printed emails, and screengrabs of her works in progress. Between, there are books on five large, white tables.

A viewer might wander around this space with the impression that to see “The Library of Helen DeWitt” is to see inside the mind of a writer. One might think the point is to view the books she holds most dear. This would be a mistake. Many of the books are included precisely because they represent a failure in DeWitt’s eyes. Without her guidance, it is up to the viewer to decide which contain great poetry and which are examples of what not to do with a book. This is not a test, but rather an argument expressed through objects.

When I arrived at the gallery DeWitt was sitting at a table in her exhibition preparing a letter from Vincent van Gogh for the display. She had bought the Dutch paperback of his letters and treasured it, she said, because it meant her first Dutch words were those for color used by van Gogh of Starry Night. But she had just discovered that, in fact, van Gogh wrote the letter in French, not Dutch (he began writing to Theo in French after moving to Arles). Dewitt said she felt foolish for succumbing to the glamor of what she took to be the Dutch original, but the truth, she thought, was more remarkable: van Gogh adopting a new linguistic palette upon encountering the shocking colors of southern France.

Mieke Chew Is it strange to have your library here in New York?

Helen DeWitt No. For some reason, if you are a writer, the place where you have a meeting is always a café, bar, or restaurant—a place where surfaces are taken up with drinks or food. Frequently when I would come to New York I’d bring along a little suitcase of books so I could try to talk to people in the industry about the things I'm interested in. I’m always scrambling around to find a place to put things, and I never succeeded in having the conversation I felt I needed—a conversation very alien to normative publishing’s idea that a book is something that starts out as a double-spaced manuscript you can easily send as an email attachment. Last September, I gave a talk at Artists Space and they gave me a wall to spread out on, but I still felt I had not been able to draw out everything that mattered. This exhibition seemed like a chance to do that. Except, as it turned out, most of that time was taken up just with the business of getting stuff up in the space. These books and things already exist in the world, whereas the things in my head, you know, they’re not. And so getting those things out in an intelligible way is a much bigger challenge.

MC What did you originally intend to get out?

HD One of the things I’m very interested in is the work of Edward Tufte. He’s this genius of information design. He’s sold over a million copies, but he self-publishes. He talks about the use of the page, which is not just about putting down words on the page. It’s also about things like small multiples. He’s talking about the rich use of the page and the complexity of information. In other words, you want to have as much data as possible communicated by as little ink as possible. It’s not about the actual amount of the page that’s covered, but how, just by using different colors, you can make different elements of information visible. The eye can take in a lot of information. For example, me talking to you—that is a very slow way of communicating anything. Obviously, ahead of time you can’t see what might be involved and then fit in little bits of information. That’s not the way it works. The eye is much better than the ear. A lot of different combinations are possible. The reason Tufte’s books are so compelling is partly that he is very scathing about bad information design, what he calls “chart junk.” Here is a typical quote: “The interior decoration of graphics generates an amount of ink that does not tell the viewer anything new, it’s all non-data ink, or redundant ink data, and it’s all chart junk.” He’ll look and say: Crap! This muddle is not telling you anything. It’s just cluttering up the page. He’s very rigorous about it, and when you read him you think: Yeah, actually, this is radical. This is something different.

Tufte hired people to work on his books. He hired a producer and designer at the top end of their fields. He’s a very smart guy, but the point is that he did not do this single-handed. He had very gifted people answering to him who made it possible. When I started these conversations with publishers in New York that’s what I was trying to get. I thought if I could talk to editors, if I could talk to agents, if I could show them the kinds of things you could do if you were making use of the page rather than just using words, then people would understand there has to be a way of approaching a book more like a film. With film, yes, you start out with a screenplay, but the director is given resources with which to realize that film. And everybody understands you can’t know from the beginning what that film is going to be in the end. You are not expected to submit an already completed film in order to get funding. But that is the way publishing works. It’s constrained by a specific restricted idea of what text is, which is this: text is word. You hand in your text, and then it’s handed over to the designer, but you have no contact with that person. The white space is theirs, the fonts are theirs; they just do whatever they want, and you have no discussion with them about how the presentation actually relates to what the text is about. So that was, generally, what I was trying to communicate—unsuccessfully.

MC Did you consider writing the book you would have written for a literary publisher and then going to an art book publisher to produce it?

HD What that presupposes is that you can write the book first and then plug in the design after. My first book, The Last Samurai, was about this boy—he’s precocious, whether he’s a prodigy is another question—who learned many languages before he started school and was ahead of everyone else. What was supposed to happen was that he would go to school and be horribly frustrated and bored. I was trying to think of how to present that, which could be very banal. Then I thought, What if we have his diary? He goes to school and writes: Today was my third day of school. I decided to practice using the distributive principle of multiplication. The distributive principle of multiplication is in chapter one of Algebra Made Easy using the number ten, but it was my own idea to use it with nine because nine is almost ten … So he’s doing all these things: if you know how to do nine times nine, then you can do 99 times 99, and he keeps going. The thing is, as a reader, you do not need to work out every single sum. Having them on the page actually speeds things up—the boy, of course, is spending a lot of time on this—but the pace at which you read his sums is different from the pace at which you read sentences. All you are doing is taking in, at a glance, that this little kid is horribly bored in first grade and coming up with all this stuff. You start to see his behavior. He is becoming obsessed with doing something different. You see that instantly—it just leaps off the page.

The whole point is that, with my little pathetic word-processing program, there are little things I can do. You don’t need somebody else to help—that is exactly the point of the program. But you could do more interesting things if somebody else was solving these technical problems. How many people in the world are up to speed in Adobe Illustrator? New York is crawling with them, and Berlin. But I don’t have that. If I have an idea, I have to send somebody a book that is already a book. Then you have me spending hours mastering the Adobe pen tool so that I can try to convey to people what I want to do. Instead of me, it should be somebody else who can actually already vectorize images, who can just do it, and do it fast. I was trying somehow to convey what the possibilities might be if those resources were put at the disposal of the author early in the process rather than just bringing somebody in at the end who doesn’t even talk to you. It’s this kind of vicious circle, because most of the fiction we see is texts that fit comfortably within this idea of the text as words. There isn’t very much out there to show what can be done if one conceives of text in a wider framework. I kept bringing my little suitcase along and failing.

MC Could you meet with a designer—find your book soul mate—and do a project together?

HD Of course. Edward Tufte took out a second mortgage on his house. It’s not like people have all worked for him for free. Sure, if I had $100,000 in the bank, of course. What I was trying to convey was precisely that there is space for something no one has seen before. I couldn’t understand why people were so fixated on this idea, on one concept of editing: an unexamined concept. The word “submission,” that’s not an innocent word. If you’re a painter, whatever it is that you painted, if somebody decides to give you a show, they’re not going to take it into a backroom and then have all these people you know nothing about touching it up. We can agree that some texts need work, could be improved, but the same is true of painting. Surely we are not going to say that all painters are per se superior to all writers, and that it doesn’t matter where you are on the scale, so that some person making little paintings in their bedroom is better than Don DeLillo.

MC Most of this wall is dedicated to clippings of texts in different languages. Why did you do that?

HD When I was in high school I was very bored all the time. I was a typical girl. You just did what you had to do to get good grades, then you could go to college and lead a life of the mind. Then it turned out college was the same. Halfway through my sophomore year, I took a leave of absence. I went away, and I was working as a chambermaid in Provincetown. Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu is one of the things I bought there. I’d studied French in school, so I thought: I can read Proust. I was able to do this precisely because I was not in college. There was such irony. The only way I could find time to read Proust was while working as a chambermaid. Or Pound. Or Eliot. Pound thought that if there was good poetry in a language, then you should learn enough of that language to read the poetry. Your typical language course is completely misguided. You go through all this stuff about what your hobbies are, and you are not interested in what people are doing, chatting amongst themselves about their jobs, their golf. No! You want to read the great poetry and start there. Pound was single-minded about that. And that was inspiring because surely if you want banality, you don’t have to go looking for it in another language—you have your mother tongue.

I did the entrance exams for Oxford and got in. I left Smith and life was not perfect, but it was better. It was a place language was taken seriously. The thing is that this realization had to come from a book—for me, from Pound. In school, we read books, but nobody ever said: obviously we’re reading this in English, but Greek is one of the great languages. Greek was never mentioned. You had to know for yourself. I mean, who are you going to trust, your twelfth-grade English teacher or Ezra Pound? He was nasty, but he was a genius.

MC I wish someone had told me to learn ancient Greek when I was in high school.

HD Exactly! When Nabokov was a young boy, he started learning English. He would start with these very simple words, three letters apiece, creating these blundering English characters with three letter names, doing three letter activities, and gradually work up to actual stories.

I had this idea for a project—here is a passage from Calvino’s Invisible Cities. In a single-lesson hour, you could completely enable someone to engage with this text in the original Italian. I don’t just mean looking at it side-by-side with the English translation. English is the embarrassment of the world, the JavaScript of orthography. But Italian spelling you can learn in a few minutes. Once you have those rules, you would have enough equipment to go on and explore further. You would have enough even to read it aloud. I imagined we could conceive of a different sort of world. Now, of course, Greek would take two hours, or Japanese, maybe three or four hours, but you’re still not talking about committing from the veil of ignorance to a year, two years, or three years, after which point you have no idea what you might be like or interested in. There could be a completely different system where, say, in seventh grade, over a period of a year, you were introduced to various texts and languages so you could see what was of interest to you. Let’s say you’re going to read War and Peace or Anna Karenina, there seems no reason why you couldn’t engage with one single passage to see whether you liked Russian or how different it was—to see what was being done in Russian that was impossible in English. There’s no reason you couldn’t do that. To me, it’s a question of design. If you use Tuftian methods, you could present the linguistic features in a way that’s apprehensible. You’re not getting dragged down into this huge mess of material; you’re just getting some idea of the patterns. That’s not the way it’s done. But why? 

MC Is there such a thing as ideal design? Or are there ideal ways design might be implemented or attempted?

HD There are ways design could be used so languages, especially those with alien scripts, are not just walls of ink going back and forth. There are ways to do that. A script shouldn’t be a barrier, though it often is. That is a design question not normally addressed with much passion. In terms of fiction, it has more to do with exploring different ideas of the self. It’s very easy to internalize and to have an investment in the emotions and structures of your own society, which are made to seem natural. That can be very toxic. One of the things I hope to show with this exhibition is that we tend to think of, say, Borges or Nabokov as geniuses, but really what we’re seeing is people who from an early age had access to knowledge that is completely off the table in schools. The presumption is that children couldn’t possibly cope with all this. We don’t even give them the chance. We decide on their behalf what we will dole out to them. The self is a product of choices and individualisms, but there is actually a very narrow range of choices. One does not have the chance to choose, and yet one is meant to invest so much into the path that one has chosen among this very small number of paths. It’s not about making a point—I thought this could be changed! There’s nothing mysterious about it. If you look at the world of computer programming and programming languages, it is a world where people are open to multilingualism. In fact, you have to be. You can’t really get by with one language and everybody knows that. There’s a wealth of resources to help people learn from scratch and to get them doing interesting things quickly. Not to say it’s perfect because it’s kind of a free-for-all, but nevertheless it’s embracive. And if you don’t like a language, you can go write your own.

Literary languages are something different. Natural languages have evolved. They have not normally been engineered for efficiency. They’re crazy in some ways, but they offer these possibilities of engaging with the world. It seems to me a travesty that you spend twelve years in school without one little hour in which someone introduces you to ancient Greek. But it’s a natural consequence of assuming that engaging with a literary text is the reward for a couple of years or so toiling at conversation and basic grammar. This country is so wealthy, in linguistic terms, but only French and Spanish are widely studied in school, with a scattering of others occasionally deemed worthy. Why not offer a taste, early on, of the best of not just of one or two languages, but of a very wide range? By all means offer Spanish, the language of Cervantes and Borges—but the first thing the student should do is read the “Lottery of Babylon,” which is such a wonderful piece. Why would you not start with that? Why wouldn’t you start with something that good in many languages, and then decide which you wanted to pursue? You go to Pittsburgh, and they celebrate diversity by putting Welcome to the neighborhood in different languages on the side of buses. I think we can do better.

MC Where should we start?

HD Originally this was supposed to be about social machines. That’s what I was thinking about, starting there. Think of the social machine of the restaurant. There are 20,000 restaurants in New York. If you want to sample a cuisine, you can just walk in off the street. It’s been commodified. The same goes for gyms. You sign up for a membership, walk in, and start participating. You can go off and use a machine to practice some specific muscle. You don’t have to invent it from scratch. So how can it be that there are 20,000 restaurants and there isn’t one single place where, if you would like to read a passage of great poetry, to see what it’s like, you can just walk in off the street and do it. Why? We take it for granted that there are Starbucks everywhere, and we forget that twenty-five years ago there were very few places in the US where you could get espresso. It now seems natural, but somebody made it happen; somebody had real espresso and thought it was great. They Americanized it in this weird franchising way. How come you can’t get Thomas Bernhard or Orhan Pamuk? What I was trying to do was to make visible the possible. Right now, it is beyond the horizon of expectation. I see that, but I don’t believe it has to be that way.

MC Isn’t that the premise of Lightning Rods? The idea that if someone thinks of something and follows it through, anything is possible? Even glory holes fitted out in office spaces?

HD The mechanisms for getting something to happen are similar whatever the commodity. I used to be a fundraiser for a charity in London. We engaged in women’s development projects, and one of the offshoots of that was a movement for enabling girls in sub-Saharan Africa to continue their education. The thing is, the mechanisms for fundraising are largely the same whatever your cause is. You can do events, organize volunteers, apply for grants—whatever the cause the mechanisms are almost always the same.

MC What would it take to commodify languages?

HD Well, in an ideal world we might have language restaurants, language gyms—places where you could just walk in off the street. But that does look like a big leap from what we have to what we’d like to see. The easiest thing, always, is to see if you can piggyback on an existing institution. Or so I thought. Surely we could try something like this out in a college. I wrote to a few academic contacts and they were all very pessimistic. Their intuition was that it would not sit well with departmental territories and that it would be very difficult, in consequence, to get funding for it to bring somebody in. It’s not that they weren’t enthusiastic; they just didn’t think it would work within the political structure. Nobody was able to find a way of sliding it in.

Another possibility is simply to ask more of texts. The Last Samurai enabled people to envision possible selves they had not previously imagined. I’m interested in the difference between texts that do that and texts that appear to somehow acknowledge the reader as a cultivated person while in fact keeping them at a distance from anything that might change. For example, this anthology of Arabic poetry is alongside the French translation: all you can do is look at the script on the page. This is the kind of thing Tufte complains about. They’ve used muddy colors. There’re huge swaths of space that are just ornamentation. Page after page after page. If you don’t know the Arabic script, fine, you can read this in translation, and say: Oh well, that’s what it looks like. It’s a children’s series, which I suppose well-meaning parents are meant to buy for their children. You just kind of leaf through it and think: What? As an object, this book is insane. The rhetoric of the object is that if you don’t already know Arabic, we are not going to tell you, and we’re not going to disturb the decorum of our beautiful décor by actually condescending to share an alphabet with you. At the Frankfurt book fair in 2004, the Arab world was “guest of honor.” They brought tens of thousands of books from the Arab world to display. Anybody who did not already know that script was just going to look at that wall, those books, and say: Oh, that’s nice. I mean, there was nothing to help people cross the barrier.

MC Can you imagine what these books should look like?

HD No. I think that is what one should be exploring. I have this horrible little book here, I mean really ugly—an English introduction to Hebrew. It’s just short English words written in Hebrew script; it’s not very nicely designed, but it will give somebody that skill. I think ideally we would have a combination of the two. We would have something that was an attractive piece of design, something not offensive to the eye, but that also imparts information taking you from where you started to some different place. There is something powerful about overcoming an initial resistance or an initial nervousness. Maybe precisely because we learned to read so early, and because normally such an enormous amount of time is devoted to teaching you, that when you imagine doing it again you don’t think of it as something you could do in just a couple of hours. It’s learned helplessness.

MC When I was learning German I asked my teacher how long it would be until I could read Thomas Bernhard. She said: a very long time, and maybe never. I wondered why I was bothering at all.

HD Why not! Why couldn’t you read Bernhard? The way we are encouraged to approach literature is very much the idea that words are these semantic entities carrying their little cargo of meaning. In translation, the idea is it’s carrying across this little cargo of meaning and something may be lost. Is this actually the way one thinks? This is the Catalan translation of The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt. It doesn't offer the English speaker the chance to engage with one of the great works of Catalan literature; why would someone who can read the book in the original want to read it in Catalan? This seems absurd. Which is why I put it on the wall. Because in fact, if you've ever studied a Romance language, you find you can work out what it means—but it's captivating to see the way Catalan ditches a lot of Latin endings, the direction taken by the language. This might happen to be the only text in the language you happen to have—and still, simply by allowing you to engage with the language, it offers a glimpse through to something you didn't know existed.

Languages are arbitrary. They are arbitrary systems of difference, arbitrary differences of sound, that are permitted to distinguish words, distinguish meanings. We know that intellectually. Every child can become a fluent speaker of his native language; that’s the way the brain works. A school is not necessary for that. What the school does is impose a system of legitimacy upon this pre-existing capacity. Written English is divorced from the spoken language. You go through this very long period of having the capacity to be at fault, or you can’t easily read texts because they don’t correspond to what people say, and you can’t easily work out how new words should be pronounced. In order to appear a civilized person, you need to have this mastery of a stupid system of spelling. Hundred of hours are spent mastering something that is stupid. It’s a historical accident, but nevertheless this is what you need to do to prove you are educated. I don’t know if it’s like that for people of every culture, but actually being presented with the arbitrariness of other languages is like a release.

You know those experiments Stanley Milgram conducted about obedience to authority? A person from a certain socioeconomic class is told by a person representing authority to inflict electric shocks of increasing severity on an experimental subject who gives incorrect answers to questions. One of the things that emerged was that if there were two people running the experiment and they disagreed, then the subject would typically stop enforcing the shock. I think, in effect, if you were immersed in other languages, the arbitrariness of your own linguistic world would become visible—the authority of its conventions would no longer be uncontested.

This might matter more than we think. For instance: America places such a premium on friendliness and spontaneity. It’s completely unsurprising that, in this culture, we would suddenly diagnose a certain subset of the population as having Asperger syndrome or being autistic because these are people who like order. They do not respond well to apparently effortless social interaction. But Japan is a much more ritualized society. If you are writing a letter in Japan, one convention is that in the first paragraph you mention the weather and the changing of the seasons. This character [gestures to a text taped to the wall] is returning from overseas, and says: I’ve returned to this country when the cherry blossom was at its height, but now it’s already completely fallen. This is just the convention. It’s not about looking friendly through a performance of unstructured spontaneity—there’s a convention for how you begin, other conventions for how you go on. And there are grammatical rules marking the social position of speaker in relation to others. Someone who coped poorly with intuiting social nuances might find this a better environment—simply observing a system of linguistically marked regularities suffices, it seems, to satisfy a wider range of social requirements. And there is a wealth of other linguistic possibilities: the more you see of this extraordinary diversity, the more you see that, though you may feel a misfit in the place you started out, there may be somewhere in the world where you’d feel at home.

Helen DeWitt is the author of The Last Samurai and Lightning Rods. The Library Vaccine ends Sunday, November 16, 2014.

Mieke Chew is a writer and the founding editor of Higher Arc magazine. She lives in Brooklyn.

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