Georgi Gospodinov by Jeffrey Zuckerman

Empathy in literature, public reminiscence, and the long half-life of socialism.

Joshua Simpson 1

Joshua Simpson. Red Hill Trail, Pocatello ID, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Here we have an author whose “immodest desire is to mold a novel of beginnings, a novel that keeps starting, promising something, reaching page seventeen and then starting again.” An author who incorporates flies, pseudonyms, minotaurs, and nested memories into his unclassifiable books, and who has hoped critics might say, “this novel’s good, because nothing’s ever certain in it.”

Georgi Gospodinov’s astonishing debut, Natural Novel, was published in 1995, just after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and immediately went on to be translated into twelve languages. On the face of it, the novel described a marriage’s dissolution, with a backdrop of Bulgaria in the ’80s—but its pages contain more: a chapter about the language of toilets, a consideration of whether the alphabet’s letters have sexual characteristics, a bit about Linnaeus and whether man should be the measure of all things…

Gospodinov is a rara avis, authoring texts as faceted as an insect’s compound eye and seductive enough to pull in the most reluctant of readers. His newest novel, The Physics of Sorrow, translated by Angela Rodel, has, among its many disparate stories and themes, a real minotaur (“Nature had hesitated. And just dropped everything right in the middle between bull and man”) and lists of all sorts (“let’s have a minute of silence for the souls of: the pagers of yore; Tamagotchi; videocassettes and the VCR; cassette-tape players, which buried eight-tracks, which buried record-players; audiocassettes; telegrams”). It’s a verbal labyrinth as dizzying as the one dreamed up by Daedalus in the Greek myth.

Jeffrey Zuckerman The Physics of Sorrow is every bit as deep and complex as anything else you’ve done so far. Appropriately enough, at the heart of the book is the idea of the Minotaur within a labyrinth. What makes complexity and intricacy particularly compelling for you?

Georgi Gospodinov There’s no way it could be otherwise when you are talking about a labyrinth. Every story is a labyrinth. Language is a labyrinth. And the essence of every labyrinth is to be complex and intertwining. Otherwise, it would simply be a road, a highway that takes you from Point A to Point B. I wanted to pass through all the details, the side corridors of the story, to set off and come back again, to get lost. This seems to me the most natural model for storytelling. On the other hand, I think I have left enough of Ariadne’s threads for the easily distracted reader. Every so many pages there are small “places to stop,” where we can wait for readers who have gotten lost. The novel doesn’t hesitate to address the reader directly. I wanted it to be easy to read, and for the reader not to realize how he had reached its depths.

JZ Yes, it’s wonderfully easy to become lost in your book. In another interview, you mentioned that The Physics of Sorrow was one of thirty-five possible names for the book.

GG Yes, the novel was lying there all ready to go, but no title had come to me. I jotted down possible titles on a piece of paper. It turned out to be a long list. Now, I think I should have added that list at the end of the novel itself, since it’s swarming with lists in any case. I’m a very hesitant person, and my inability to make a decision about the title had already grown menacing. The book was late going to the printers. I had one public reading already scheduled in advance, and since the book hadn’t come out yet—due to the lack of a title—I read the audience excerpts from the manuscript, and at the end took out the list of titles and read it to them. Some of the people, but far from all of them, liked “The Physics of Sorrow.” This was my favorite as well. Afterward, the list disappeared somewhere. But what I remember of the other possible titles include: “We Am,” “Time Bomb,” “To Be Opened after the End of the World,” “My Brother, the Minotaur,” and so on.

Nevertheless, “The Physics of Sorrow” struck me as closest to the spirit of the novel and, at the same time, sufficiently cold. Why shouldn’t there be a special science of sorrow to study its quantum particles? As I was finishing the novel, they had just discovered the Higgs boson, which I took as a good sign.

JZ That’s right, the “God particle.” Throughout your books, actually, I’ve noticed a systematic, organized way of thinking about the world that we could perhaps consider a scientific manner. Almost as if you’d been a scientist before picking up a pen.

GG I am a naïve scientist. In my previous novel, Natural Novel, the main character seeks salvation from his disintegrating marriage in natural history from the seventeenth to the eighteenth centuries. There, the world seems, as if for the last time, to be described as a unity, whole and complete. I discovered Linnaeus. If you read his work Somnus plantarum (The Sleep of Plants), you will see this is high literature—Linnaeus as Andersen. Since it was a novel about the end, I decided to study beginnings, panspermia—all of those wonderful theories by the ancient trio: Democritus, Anaxagoras, and Empedocles. Also, the structure of the fly and its faceted eye gave me a good idea about how to tell the story.

This also happened in The Physics of Sorrow. The physics of elementary particles is buzzing with stories. But a classical physics of sorrow would be interesting as well. The main character mulls this over. What is the aggregate state of sorrow? Which fluids does it most closely resemble? Are there migrations of sorrows? No matter how much we think science and literature may differ, they make use of one and same body—that of language. Science steals metaphors from literature and vice versa. And yet another common trait—literature and science are tools against our limited bodies and time. An attempt at consolation and meaning in what, without them, would seem to be a meaningless world.

JZ So, that’s the “physics” part of the title. What about “sorrow”? There are hints in the novel that sorrow could actually have its own geography. Or is there a migration of sorrows, as you suggest?

GG It’s no coincidence that every language has its own word for sorrow. The Turkish hüzün, the Portugese saudade… There’s no way to be sure that “sorrow” is translatable at all. In any case, it is one of the most untranslatable things. Is there anything like Bulgarian sorrow, which is different from the Turkish, German, or Russian ones? The character in the novel describes and tastes the physical condition of sorrow, its history and biography. From the ancient sadness of the Minotaur who, at least in my interpretation, is an abandoned child, to the feeling of today. And there is a lot of accumulated sorrow here to be articulated. The consumerist culture of recent decades does not like to speak about sorrow. Sorrow is not suitable for the market, or for advertising. Nobody would sell a melancholic Mercedes, says one of the characters in the novel. And yet, sorrow itself is not the topic here but rather consolation, empathy. In fact, this is literature’s classic role—to give voice to what has been suppressed and to cultivate empathy, to console and to produce new meaning. Those are the whales the whole of literature lies upon.

JZ Empathy is one of the main topics of your book. It seems you think this is a vital question of our time.

GG Yes, this is exactly what I think. And what is more, we have a global deficit of empathy, not just a European deficit. And since we are immersed in a corporate culture where the language of economics and the values of capital override the language and values of culture, I will have to say it this way to be clear for everyone: the production of empathy has been depleted, the reserves of empathy have been exhausted, the gross domestic product of compassion and mercy is crucially low. And this is not a minor problem. It is no less important than the economic crisis or the exhaustion of the oil reserves. We simply are used to noticing some crises and underestimating others. But sometimes these invisible crises are much harder. Literature knows more about them. The production of empathy comes mainly from culture, and from literature in particular. There are serious research studies on how novels cultivate empathy. Do not underestimate literature. It is a slow medium, but it generates long-lasting meanings.

JZ I think that drive for meaning in a seemingly meaningless world is one of your most persistent themes. The Physics of Sorrow spans nearly the full breadth of the twentieth century, and the entire Socialist moment. At this moment, twenty-five years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, I’m reminded of your work in editing the many voices in the anthology I Lived Socialism. What have you seen changing in people’s public reminiscences and private recollections of the Socialist era? Did this influence the various components of Physics of Sorrow?

GG The project I Lived Socialism arose from the idea that every small, personal story about that time is important for us and should be heard. For me as a writer, biography will always be more important than capital-H History. Because socialism was not merely an abstraction, no ideology is solely an abstraction if it changes human destinies, if it breaks human lives. For this reason, a few friends of mine and I initially set up a website and announced that we were collecting personal stories from all sorts of people who had lived socialism. And the people spoke. At first I couldn’t believe it because here in Bulgaria there is a particular “culture of silence” or “culture of hushing things up.” Actually, every totalitarian system gives rise to such a culture. But miraculously, the stories started rolling in, more than 500 of them, while I, as editor, read them and chose 171 stories for the anthology. Indeed, the question of how the attitude towards socialism has changed over the years requires a long answer. In brief, since we still don’t have a shared, cultivated memory, very often nostalgia gains the upper hand with elderly people. Those ideologies that manage to interiorize themselves within a person and become a part of him, sometimes without him realizing it at all, are dangerous. The Physics of Sorrow tells of this period precisely through personal sensations. Through the viewpoint of a child who feels abandoned. A child who has a sense for the funny and absurd things in socialism. Here we’re talking about the skipped-over topics, such as the deficit of erotica and how to solve that problem, what happens if we’re attacked by the West and how many seconds you have to react, whether your first fumbling sex in the park has anything to do with the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl, and so on. Overall, socialism has turned out to have a very long half-life.

JZ There’s something poetic in your talking about so many individuals in contrast to the numerous characters named Georgi Gospodinov in Natural Novel and The Physics of Sorrow—and Gaustine, that character from And Other Stories and The Physics of Sorrow who takes on hundreds of other names and identities. That idea of one person kaleidoscoping into many names and selves, as well as multiple people refracting into a single name, seems to run through your books. Do you see a relationship between yourself and these characters—Gaustine, the various Georgis—that goes deeper than mere naming?

GG Jokingly and in the spirit of Flaubert, who said: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” I could say the opposite: “Georgi Gospodinov, ce n’est pas moi.” At the very least, that was the name of my grandfather, who is an important character in The Physics of Sorrow, as well as in my other books. When at meetings with readers they ask me (and this question always comes up at the end) to what extent are you the Georgi Gospodinov in your novels or Gaustine, to what extent are those your true stories? I always answer with some random percentage—usually 78 percent. And actually, that percentage is quite accurate. (laughter)

The Physics of Sorrow is built on the phrase “We am.” In that sense, I can easily say that We am all of those characters. But on a more serious note, all of my characters feed on my life, on my personal stories. Some day they will gnaw me down to the bone and I will dwell in them completely. While sometimes, the names simply crop up here and there.

JZ I’m hardly the only one who’s enjoyed reading the life (or lives) of Georgi Gospodinov. You’re often cited as Bulgaria’s most translated author. What has the process of being translated been like for you?

GG When I wrote Natural Novel I had no idea that it would be translated into more than twenty languages. When you write, you’re only thinking about how to tell a story in the best possible way. I have travelled thanks to my books, and, I must admit, it is a pleasant feeling. The books always arrive in a given country ahead of me, find their readers, then I come after them as if to an already familiar, friendly place. I am always amazed at how a personal story, tied to unfamiliar Bulgarian realia, can become close to people with a different history. The translations of The Physics of Sorrow have allowed me to meet people like Alberto Manguel, the director Volker Schlöndorff, writers such as Michael Cunningham and Dave Eggers (who has a character in The Circle named Gospodinov), but also readers from a small Italian town, for example, or from cities in Switzerland. When I meet my readers abroad, they already know my most personal stories described in the novel. It’s like meeting close friends whom you are seeing for the first time. The best part is when people from the Swiss capital, or from the island of Sardinia, or from Sora, a small city in Italy, come up to me and say: “I was that lonely boy who spent his afternoons pressed up against the window. This is my story.”

JZ The Physics of Sorrow is an attempt to return to childhood. Your character Gaustine says, “There is only childhood and death, with nothing in between.” Do you remember how you began to write? What prompted you to start?

GG I began writing exactly in my childhood. I was seven when I had a terrible nightmare, which repeated itself with methodical precision for three nights. I dreamed I was standing by the well in my village, crying. My mother, father, and younger brother were all down in the well. The water was about to cover them, I could hear their voices as if in a funnel, and I started crying even harder. My fear was doubled—first because of my loved ones, who would die in the well. And again for myself—how could they abandon me like that? What good is being alive, if I’m alone in the world? And that second fear was even stronger than the first one.

My grandmother was the only one I dared tell my dream to. I remember how she stopped me as soon as I opened my mouth and said that you shouldn’t retell bad dreams, because they’ll come true. She expressed this far more figuratively. She said: “They’ll become flesh and blood.” The following night, I had the same dream again. I couldn’t tell it to anyone, yet I couldn’t keep it to myself any longer. Then I got the ingenious idea (we are only geniuses at age seven) that writing it down was my only escape. That way, I wouldn’t have told the dream to anyone, yet I would still be free of it. Fear is the basic reason for writing. I had learned to write the year before, thanks to my grandfather, boredom, and a chemical pencil. You have to spit on a chemical pencil, then it writes moistly and clearly while your tongue is left bluish like a goblin’s. So with that very same chemical pencil, I wrote my dream down in the blank pages at the back of a book. That’s how we wrote back then, in the empty margins of books like medieval scribes daring to leave some personal message. There must not have been enough paper in the village.

That nightmare was the first thing I wrote. Or rather, “recorded” would be more accurate. Did this first recording save me? Yes and no. I never had the nightmare again. But I was also never able to forget it.

JZ So your dreams became the beginning of your writing! There are many influences, evidently, that bear upon your work. The nine epigraphs for The Physics of Sorrow come to mind, of course, as well as the fly’s multifaceted eyes, which you mentioned being part of Natural Novel; it’s become a motif that recurs across all your writings. Which authors or books would you recommend to those hoping to see the world through some of your thousands of tiny eyes?

GG As a child I chaotically read everything I came across, mixing and matching Andersen’s fairytales with Maupassant’s Bel Ami and a thick textbook about criminology, with which I spent hours studying the techniques for taking fingerprints, the trajectory of bullets, and traces of blows with heavy objects. In The Physics of Sorrow I have shared some of that experience—with the use of invisible ink. What I’m trying to say is that even now, my chaotic or “multifaceted” style of reading has not changed much. I always keep Salinger’s stories close at hand, as well as something from Borges, The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon, a Handbook for the Amateur Gardener and all sorts of poetry. I love etymological dictionaries. As well as the old authors such as Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Pliny the Elder—that’s where I get my sense for language, a mellowed language, and my holistic thinking about the world. I love reading old newspapers and magazines. There is an unbelievable calmness about them. I would subscribe to a newspaper from 1968, say, and wait impatiently every morning for the latest edition.

JZ Before we finish this conversation, let’s go back to what you said at the beginning: “I wanted to pass through all the details, the side corridors of the story, to set off and come back again, to get lost.” How did you finally find the way out of the labyrinth of your own writing?

GG Actually, I’m not sure I have found my way out yet. I’m trying various things. I wrote a libretto for an opera. I’d never done that before. I sent the characters, the perfect couple, to Mars in a rocket ship as small as a washing machine. I’m writing poetry again. I stroll around aimlessly. I’m planning for my next novel to be cold, short, with terse phrases, and clear from beginning to end. But I don’t think I’ll stick to these plans. Because the labyrinth is truly in language. Sometimes it’s not simply that the Minotaur is in the labyrinth, but that the labyrinth is in the Minotaur.


Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

Georgi Gospodinov lives and works in Sofia, Bulgaria. His second novel, The Physics of Sorrow, is forthcoming from Open Letter. Natural Novel was published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2005, and his short fiction collection, And Other Stories, was published by Northwestern University Press in 2007.

Jeffrey Zuckerman is Digital Editor at Music & Literature Magazine. His writing and translations have appeared in Tin House, The New Inquiry, Best European Fiction, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The White Review.

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