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Literature : Interview

Ben Ryder Howe on Charles Newman

by Scott Esposito

Ben Ryder Howe speaks about the amazing mind of Charles Newman and how he managed to reconstruct the American avant-gardist’s last novel.


Ian McAlpin. Botiga de Món, 2010. Courtesy of the artitst.

The American avant-garde author Charles Newman is perhaps best known for two things: first, transforming TriQuarterly from a little-known literary journal into a cultural force that broke the news to US readers on many of postmodernism’s leading innovators—including Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, William H. Gass, and John Barth—and second, writing books that challenged and rebuked that very postmodern literature at every turn. A notoriously hard-living man and extremely fastidious writer, Newman hewed out an idiosyncratic oeuvre of four novels, two book-length essays, and a number of critical studies (as editor) across three decades. He did not publish a book between 1985 and his death by heart attack in 2006, though he did leave behind an apartment's-worth of boxes full of manuscripts for a massive, uncompleted project that was to comprise a nine-volume cycle taking place in a fictitious Eastern European nation. Its theme, Newman once wrote, was to be "the great un-American novel."

After Newman's death, his nephew, the author and editor Ben Ryder Howe, got to work shuffling through the mountains of papers that his uncle left behind and discovered in them the overture to Newman's massive project—a substantial novel called In Partial Disgrace, subsequently published by Dalkey Archive Press this year. An exceedingly strange work that combines an account of Sigmund Freud (never named and always referred to as "the Professor") with a World War II era spy narrative à la James Bond, the book revels in aphoristic sentences, absurd humor, and the intricacies of dog breeding, among other things, while beginning to chart an alternative history of the twentieth century. Although it is incomplete and frequently maddening for the coherence it promises but does not quite deliver, the book is nonetheless lavish with ideas, show-stopping scenes, and rhetorical excess.

I interviewed Howe by email about Newman, his mysterious project, his rarefied writing style, the process of sifting through all those thousands of pages, and the literary tastes of a man who seemed to disdain all literary traditions equally. Our conversation ranged from the "critical nukings" Newman could dish out to his unique creative process, the European equivalent of the American Midwest, and what authors, if any, Newman did esteem.

Scott Esposito You've written that you discovered the manuscript for In Partial Disgrace dispersed across several Federal Express boxes in Newman's apartment about a month after his death. When did it become apparent to you what you'd found in there?

Ben Ryder Howe Charlie seemed to be operating a FedEx drop-off center out of his office when I opened it up. There were so many boxes and envelopes, so much packing material, and so many blank address forms that I wondered if he was preparing to send out a manuscript to publishers. But then I looked in the boxes, and while some of them indeed contained a manuscript for In Partial Disgrace, it wasn't the same version in each one. Some had markings, some did not, some were missing pages. I saw nothing to indicate which was the latest draft. Moreover, Charlie seemed to be sending them all to himself—that is, to his office in St. Louis, where he reluctantly spent a few months of the year teaching. Later his assistant told me he just kept tinkering and tinkering, rewriting sentences, restructuring sections, inserting new paragraphs, changing the font. Charlie had always liked using multiple typefaces in his books and, after learning how to use computers late in life, found the ability to switch fonts irresistible.

For me it was discouraging. I already knew the book was a challenge, having read a version of it years earlier. As Tom Bissell recently reminded me—I had told Tom at the time how depressed I was about it—ideally it was a combination of Solzhenitsyn and Tolkien, a mixture of fantasy and the cold war told from an Eastern point of view. But the execution was much weirder and darker, and the Borgesian puzzle in the office compounded the mystery. You know the Elizabeth Hardwick quote, “Two pictures puzzles dumped in one box”? That’s how I felt.

SE What was the process like of putting it back together?

BRH I couldn't read all the manuscripts, but using Charlie’s computer I was able to compare the most recent documents with what I found in the boxes (and in the closets, and in the drawers, and under the tables). Eventually I just picked one and started reading.

At first I couldn't connect with the book—the narrative wouldn't let me inside. From everything I knew about Charlie’s project—meaning either what he had told me about it himself, before he stopped talking to family, or what I’d read about it in his papers—it was meant to be a more or less conventional, if very long novel with characters, scenes, a story, et cetera, not a work of experimental literature, like most of Charlie’s other novels. But the first few hundred pages were not hospitable. He could write in any voice he wanted, any style, but in general he did not have the patience to make his characters do the small, ordinary things necessary to build out a conventional narrative. His imagination was drawn to ideas and speculations, or to glances of humor and painful hideousness. Moreover, the narrative had become so dense over the years that it was completely inert. It wasn't until I read it for the third or fourth time that I suddenly broke through and said, “Whoa.”

SE So far you've tossed out the names Solzhenitsyn, Tolkien, and Borges (albeit, that last one more in relation to the puzzle of the boxes than the book itself). That's quite a range, though I think it's appropriate: I'll definitely vouch for what a multifaceted book this is. On a single page you might find observations on life reminiscent of Proust, humor like Pynchon's, a way of telling history as in Gunter Grass, and prose as aesthetically fastidious as Nabokov's. What do you think holds this all together?

BRH Charlie’s greatest gift as a writer, and maybe what keeps him from being read more often, is philosophical acuity, a vision of history and the self that he fleshed out with rigor and consistency over the length of his career. It’s not a particularly nice vision—it’s humanistic but in a perverse, misanthropic, and grotesque way, not to mention hostile to the type of educated reader who is likely to pick his novel up. But if you are looking for the sort of intelligence capable of holding all those things together, that’s it, in my opinion.

SE In what way was his vision humanistic?

BRH I hate to bring up yet another writer, but people familiar with George Trow may notice similarities with Charlie. Both were eccentric, flamboyant, incomparably charming men who nevertheless died alone and somewhat short of old age. Both wrote in the same heavily stylized manner in which they lived. Both suffered from and wrote about a painful estrangement from their times and a longing to reconnect with history. In Charlie’s work, that estrangement could come out hatefully—he was a great hater, in a way. But it was because he felt that the self, the individual, was being poisoned. All of Charlie’s books are about “the lost self, a bit of sugar in the gas tank.”

SE In your editor's note you discuss how In Partial Disgrace was supposed to have been the overture to a cycle of maybe nine books forming the "great un-American novel," which would have also been the history of a made-up country in Eastern Europe called Cannonia. Because Disgrace would have been the beginning of a very long story, this meant Newman could take certain liberties that an author wouldn't normally. This might contribute to why the book, as a standalone novel, feels so sprawling, or narratively inert, as you put it. Do you think this sort of a book would have been possible if Newman hadn't conceived of it as a part of a larger work?

BRH It’s interesting to wonder. I should say that for all the time I’ve spent editing this book, I’m still a long way from understanding how it developed, although the more I go through Charlie’s papers, the closer I get. For now I would say this: the novella that comprises the bulk of In Partial Disgrace is interwoven with Charlie’s previous books, to the point of plagiarizing his own scenes. The ending, for example, when Felix brings out his piano-weapon, mirrors the ending of “The Five Thousandth Baritone,” and the chapter on leaks syncs with the aesthetic philosophy spelled out in The Post-Modern Aura. By contrast, the Cannonia project—all these books devoted to the fake-but-real country he wanted to create—seems like a break. Not only are there fewer connections to Charlie’s previous work, but the writing itself has changed. That said, it will be hard to tell what relationship In Partial Disgrace has to the trilogy as a whole until we've seen how much of it Charlie finished. I just recently found a box of floppy disks that contains . . . well, I’m afraid of what it contains. I haven’t looked yet. It’s sitting on my shelf. There are about fifty disks.

SE So you're planning on trying to bring more of the books from this project into being?

BRH If I find more of them, no question. I believe there’s at least one more installment.

SE How do you feel in general about the editing and "completion" of posthumous works? It seems like with authors like Nabokov, David Foster Wallace, Bolaño, et cetera, all publishing some rather high-profile posthumous titles there's been quite a lot of this lately.

BRH A book of this kind is such a tricky enterprise that I wouldn't want to speak too broadly. However, my guess is that for most executors the job is a labor of love, if not worship. Executors are as likely as the most devoted fan to regard the author’s compositions as sacred, and if they alter the text in any way, it would only be from a feeling of responsibility, however misguided.

Unfortunately, so many posthumous works are written when their authors are not at the height of their powers, which I assume is why, say, The Original of Laura, which I have not read, was supposed to have been burned. Charlie did not want In Partial Disgrace burned, but the fact is, he was not in good shape cognitively as he wrote and rewrote it in his last years—he was not the same human being, let alone the same author. That made some amount of editing necessary.

SE You've mentioned previously that Newman's writing process was very intense: if he got two or three good sentences in a day, it was a big success. You've described him as working sentence-by-sentence longhand and having the results sent to an assistant for transcription: the final product would be strips of paper bearing single sentences. I'm reminded of Don DeLillo, who supposedly writes a single sentence on a full, empty page of paper and then goes from there. Did Newman ever give any idea as to where this process came from or what he got out of it?

BRH Charlie hated talking about the writing process, his or anyone else’s. I suspect he thought it was for MFA dweebs and therefore part of everything that had gone wrong with American literature—to dwell on whether authors used typewriters or pencils or wrote wearing yellow-striped socks. As a result, I know a lot less than I want to about how he worked.

I do know that as he got older Charlie became more of an aphorist and a mystic. By the time he got to In Partial Disgrace he was doing metaphysics as much as anything. So the goal of the sentences wasn’t just to be as expressive or beautiful as possible; the content was equally important. That process of distilling longhand drafts into single scraps of paper with nothing more than a couple of typewritten words—“A philosopher is one who has lost his coat but has no fleas,” “Beauty tends to distort everything around it”—reminds me of a comparison the novelist Richard Stern once made between writing and the making of fissile uranium: all those hours of labor, all that refinement, for what, a couple of ounces?

SE At any point in the process would he begin working in a more traditional manner?

BRH Once he had an actual manuscript assembled, he’d mark it up in the usual way, scribbling in the margins and so on. Except he frequently seemed to lose track of which manuscript he was working from—there was no master copy. Overall, the disorganization was epic, although occasionally he would obviously say, “Today I’m getting on top of everything once and for all!” and undertake a heroic effort at systematizing and purging. The next day it would be chaos again.

SE This reminds me of B.S. Johnson's novel (or "novel") The Unfortunates, where the book comes in the form of unassembled signatures in a box. Did Newman show any interest in experimentation of that kind?

BRH No, Charlie’s experimentation was pretty tame compared to that. The boldest thing he did was create a kind of paratext in the margins of his 1974 memoir, A Child’s History of America, which looks and sounds like Douglas Coupland’s Generation X—you know, with all the stuff in the margins defacing the author’s own words like graffiti. It works well if your publisher is willing to print a book with the dimensions of a pizza box . . . . White Jazz is also somewhat experimental with the formatting of the text—it has sections that are supposed to have been written by a computer, which Charlie put in an old dot matrix font, à la Tandy. It’s hard on the eyes, but that book is amazing—Charlie was writing about selves dissipating into computers fully a decade before the Macintosh, and despite being technologically illiterate himself. I don’t know how he did it.

SE Let's talk about the narrative a bit. One narrator is Iulus, son of Felix, who more or less tells the story of his father's relationship to the Professor (aka Sigmund Freud) as a memoir. This memoir, which we are reading, is discovered by Rufus, an American counterintelligence agent at the end of World War II who narrates his own sections of the novel as a sort of report. Rufus gets a lot less stage time than Iulus, despite having one of the all-time great entrances—parachuting into a fake country as a spy in the middle of an enormous war to be greeted by two killer hounds. Do you wish there was more of Rufus's narration?

BRH I do, and I’m hopeful that whatever material comes next will include more of him. After parachuting into Cannonia, Rufus is pretty much a passive observer, which isn't his fault—he's too dazzled by the country. However, that’s not a Charlie-esque character, and I suspect there’s more to him.

SE I was struck by one of the things Rufus says—well, really, many of them—but here is one: "For in truth, a spy's essentiality is this—a dedication to forever escaping the clichés of one's contemporaries. And, after all, who can you trust, if not such a spy?" This sounds quite a bit like a description of an author. Do you think that part of Newman's intense pursuit of originality came from a desire to earn trust?

BRH I’d never thought of it that way, but it rings true. Charlie saw through people too easily for his own good, especially other writers. His best-known book, The Post-Modern Aura, was a vivisection of American writing styles, so effortless in its dismantling of the Barthelmes, the Bellows, and the Gasses that it left you wondering how this person suspends disbelief in anyone, including himself? Authors need to be stupid enough to believe their own characters. Charlie kept looking for a voice he could believe in, a voice that would wring the language for all it was worth but also remain human, a voice like Faulkner or Melville. He was trying to earn his own trust, in a sense.

SE I'm glad you brought up The Post-Modern Aura—"vivisection" is a good word for it. Maybe the aspect of this book that has gotten the most attention is Newman's willingness to critique virtually anyone, even people like Gass or William Gaddis, who are usually lionized by the avant-garde and beyond meaningful criticism (unless someone is purposefully penning a hatchet job to gain notoriety as the person who took down Gaddis). In fact, this book is so thorough and wide-ranging in its critique that one review I found basically said, "At least we know Newman doesn't have an particular agenda, since he pretty much attacks everyone." Do you feel like that kind of intense skepticism is a good thing for a critic?

BRH No. Personally I’m as uninterested in critical nukings as I am in boosterism, and The Post-Modern Aura is truly a nuking, or an anti-personnel bomb, as another critic described it. But there’s something else going on besides sheer leveling. The book is a critique of rhetorical excess, of hyperbolic discourse! Coming from someone who calls dirty realism "a low grade infection of the banal" and dismisses contemporary poetry as "the monotonous grammar of a precocious child," that’s either insufferably hypocritical or the apotheosis of the very phenomenon it's describing, a way of saying, “Jesus, look at us—can’t we stop calling this artform dead or that movement bankrupt? What are we trying to prove?” That’s how Charlie would say it, as sparks shot out of his pipe and his shirt ignited—“WHAT ARE WE TRYING TO PROVE?!” Then he’d laugh so hard you would have to pick him up off the floor.

The book is also a very specific takedown of the postmodern movement Charlie did as much as anyone to create as editor, writer, critic, and teacher. Maybe he should have had the humility to include passages of his own novels when he dissected the movement’s failures, but to me it feels like the indictment does not conveniently exclude himself. He understands the blind spots, temptations, and pathologies of the avant-garde because he’s fallen victim to them himself. That makes it way more interesting.

SE Beyond Faulkner and Melville, were there any other authors Newman would have counted as successes?

BRH I made a mistake once. I made some stupid snarky comment about Sylvia Plath, and Charlie jerked around and made my ears burn. Another time, when I asked him if there were writers he was proud to have had as students, he said Louise Erdrich. He was a fan of Joanna Scott’s Arrogance, and W.G. Sebald. However, I suspect his favorite authors were the ones whose work he assigned in class, which also happen to be the ones he most resembled: Cioran, Sontag, Schultz, Fermor, Rezzori, and Kis.

SE Given Newman’s stated goal to write the “great un-American novel,” I have to note the prevalence of Eastern European writers (and a major sympathizer in Sontag) on that list. There’s a certain kind of American reader who really responds to the literature of that region, particularly the modernists. Did Newman ever talk about any affinities that part of the world might have held for him?

BRH Directly, never. Charlie was incapable of answering a question straight. If I said, “Charlie, why are you obsessed with Central Europe, and why are so many other writers?” he’d grunt and grumble and blow smoke, and you’d get nothing. Which didn’t stop me from asking him several times, and I believe the response was, “Where fuckin' else?”

A big part of it, as Joshua Cohen has noted, is that Charlie was spiritually a Midwesterner—by which, of course, I do not mean he was a cheerful, don’t-rock-the-boat, all-American kind of guy. The opposite really. Charlie grew up on the edge of the Illinois prairie, watching in disgust, bemusement, and agony as it was subdued. Every novel he wrote afterward recapitulated this experience, from the efforts to preserve Peacock Prairie in The Promisekeeper, to the father of the disabled child in The Little Ed Stories who bricks over his backyard so his kid can spend time outside, to the enveloping blob of concrete and circuitry in White Jazz—until you get to In Partial Disgrace, where Felix’s triumph is that he knows these things will fail: they’re temporary, man loses, the primal abyss that the prairie represents comes back. These things made Charlie a Midwesterner (not to mention a healthy dose of competitive rage toward the coastal elites) and created an affinity for the European counterpart to the Midwest, the steppe. In his mind both places were unspeakably soiled by mankind yet still the best places to live.

SE Do you know if he appreciated Sontag more as a novelist or an essayist?

BRH He liked her refusal to get sucked into academia, that’s one thing I know, but aside from that I’m not aware of what he thought of her work. Given how much he got off on pissing on friendships, I’m assuming he was either scared of her or genuinely respected her work, because I’m not aware that he ever criticized her.

SE It's interesting that you mention Sebald in there. In the book's introduction you say that the feature of his apartment that Newman was the proudest of were "cubbyholes spanning one entire wall," which he used to organize his work. When I read that it immediately reminded me of that eerie photo from Austerlitz, of a Nazi office whose walls are nothing but cubbyholes filled with information. Do you feel like the idea of the archive was important to Newman's literary vision?

BRH Oh, yes. For an incredibly disorganized person, Charlie was obsessed with systems, lists, charts, and the paraphernalia of organization, such as file cabinets and the way computer memory is stored. One of the best scenes in In Partial Disgrace is when the Professor comes upon Felix’s “chamber of imponderables,” a lattice of cubbyholes filled with a macabre collection of “unfit” organisms, creatures that should not have survived evolution but somehow did, and others that did not. He loved the idea of hierarchies and graphs. What I can’t tell is whether he believed in them. I found a scrap of paper in his files a few months ago that read, “The greatest illusion of our time is the vertical file cabinet and its rich cousin, the computer.”

SE A prophetic sentiment, many might say. And yet Newman obviously felt very differently about another method of organizing information, namely the novel. Even though he clearly disagreed with many of the shapes novels took, it's obvious that he loves the form. What kind of a relationship do you see between the two, the novel and the archive?

BRH For me it always comes down to seeing how another person’s mind puts things together and leaves things out. Maria Bustillos had a piece in The New Yorker a few months ago called “Reading Writers I Can't Stand” (it was mainly about Waugh) in which she wrote, “For me, the pleasure of reading is concentrated in . . . a mind not my own making itself entirely intelligible, manifest, and articulate. Take me for a ride, as far away from myself as I can go.” For me that’s what a novel does, and not an archive. It’s what I love about Charlie’s writing—his alien mind.

 

Scott Esposito is co-author of The End of Oulipo? (Zero Books, 2013) and a contributor to The Washington Post, Bookforum, Music & Literature, and numerous others.

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