Photo by Philip Schedler.
I should probably confess that I came to Ivan Vladislavić’s writing late. I can recall the exact sequence in which I read his books, out of chronological order, or rather in a chronology that remains personal to me. First The Folly, then Double Negative, The Restless Supermarket, Portrait with Keys, 101 Detectives—a succession of radically different texts, each defying categorization.
I had the sensation of making a true and immediate acquaintance with a writer whose work occupies the territories of fiction and nonfiction, as well as the no man’s land between. The writing has a quality of unpredictability, a wildness that seeps through the fabric of Vladislavić’s peerless linguistic control. He works like a sculptor, with a deep sense of the material capabilities of language—in some places the prose is dense and opaque, in others near translucent.
This precise verbal manipulation facilitates narrative experiment, casual eruptions of form. Perhaps because of this, I don’t really know what to expect from his next book—I expect only to have my expectations overturned, my sense of language transformed. A public reading at the Community Bookstore in Park Slope formed the basis for the following conversation, which was subsequently expanded in writing.
Katie Kitamura As soon as I finished The Folly, I ran to the nearest bookshop and asked for whatever Vladislavić they had in stock. The book I came away with was Double Negative, which was written almost twenty years after The Folly and is in many ways very different. But it struck me that the common thread between the two books—and maybe even across the entire body of your work, published over roughly two decades—is the idea of an encounter with a neighbor. I wonder what neighbors, both literal and symbolic, mean in your work and in the context of apartheid South Africa?
Ivan Vladislavić The apartheid system was always about relations between people, about determining the nature of those relationships, and very often about disrupting them. I grew up in the most oppressive period of apartheid: I was at school in the ’60s and I went to university in the mid-’70s, just before the first cracks really began to appear in the system. My imagination was shaped in a period of extreme rigidity in the social and political systems. The apartheid system was about putting physical space between people. The idea is there in the word itself. It’s about setting things apart and setting people apart. So an encounter with the other, with the neighbor or the stranger, has always seemed central to me; first to understanding the system as it is, but also to unlocking it, to changing it. It’s really on that level—the encounter with another person, closing the space between two people—that the system has to be undone.
KK Your books don’t simplify the complications of that encounter. The characters don’t walk away with some sentimental notion of shared humanity. They encounter the other and there are all kinds of differences that have to be negotiated, differences that are sometimes intractable and even dangerous. As you said, the novels are really about contested spaces in a charged political situation. Space operates in very interesting ways in your books. For instance, Portrait with Keys has an observational, documentary eye—as if you’re traveling through the spaces of Johannesburg with Frederick Wiseman’s camera eye. But then in The Follyor The Restless Supermarket, space has a more clearly allegorical function. How do these different kinds of spaces operate in your fiction and nonfiction?
IV I am fascinated by how the political system gets reflected in the physical space and how the space, in turn, shapes the kinds of social relations that are possible. These concerns are central to Portrait with Keys. In the transition period, when South Africa began to change rapidly, it was very hard to understand the big processes and to see exactly what was happening. You knew that there had been a huge shift in the political order, that a new dispensation had been negotiated and so on. But what effect it would actually have on the society was difficult to gauge, because you could not easily grasp those big abstract processes. For me, a way of understanding what was happening was to look quite closely at the immediate surroundings. It seemed to me that you could understand large, complex processes by looking at what was going on in your neighborhood. So that was when I began to document things—Portrait with Keys is a sort of documentary fiction, or documentary nonfiction. Documentary something or other. Let’s say I began to document, in a more conscious way, these small shifts in the environment as a way of trying to understand how the society was changing.
In Double Negative, I was influenced by the particular technique or approach to space that the photographer David Goldblatt uses. As you know, the novel was generated in response to some of his work. One of the things that intrigues me about Goldblatt is how he’s used space to understand movement and change, by returning to particular sites and rephotographing them over long periods. The photograph is normally thought of as this fragile moment that disappears, and also as a frozen moment. Goldblatt has found a way of putting the photograph into motion, by somewhat obsessively circling back to places that he’s photographed before. So when you look at the photographs beside one another, you get an extraordinary sense of change, captured in just two or three images. In Double Negative, I tried to employ a similar strategy. The narrative is structured as three cross-sections through time, and it returns to some of the same spaces in different periods as a way of gauging social change. So I’m not sure I’m answering your question, but it’s a way of looking at social processes and abstract processes by spatializing them.
KK In your second novel, The Restless Supermarket, you do a similar thing with language. The character of Aubrey Tearle is a proofreader who obsessively documents the changes in language in a newly post-apartheid South Africa. There’s a real density to the language in The Folly and The Restless Supermarket—and to me, both those novels have a lot to do with charisma. Aubrey Tearle has a kind of linguistic charisma. By contrast, your later work is often first person, and that first person is somehow more receding, taciturn—it’s not front and center in the same way. Can you talk about that transition in your work?
IV It probably has something to do with writing more, and growing more sure of what you’re doing. There are a lot of effects in The Folly—visual and verbal effects. And that’s appropriate for a young writer, in the sense that you’re trying to discover what you can do, and demonstrate this, to yourself as much as to the reader. I think it’s an astute connection you’ve made between the two novels, because there are passages in The Restless Supermarket that I think of as an elaboration of things I was trying to do in The Folly. In The Folly, a house is imagined into existence, and there are sections in The Restless Supermarket where suburbs and cities are produced in a similar way. In the years between the two books, I was working as an editor, working with language, spending a lot of time in dictionaries and paying very close attention to words and their meanings. I guess that’s partly why I chose a proofreader as a narrator, so that I could find somewhere to lodge all of the peculiarities I’d noted over my years as an editor. I think I’d become aware that words have histories. If you spend a lot of time wandering through dictionaries, thinking about words in the precise, detailed way that editors do, your sense of the language changes. It starts to feel like a more malleable, more physical medium than simply a linguistic system. Some of this gets into The Restless Supermarket,anyway. The later books are simply sparser, because my own sense of language has changed. Although I did write a short book called A Labour of Moles quite recently, which feels to me more like my first fictions. I’m not really sure where that came from.
KK That was for the Cahiers Series?
IV Yes. It’s a remarkable series jointly published by the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris and Sylph Editions in the UK. The series is loosely tied to the theme of translation and tries to create productive connections between writers and artists. A Labour of Moles has a denser texture than some of my later work, and there’s a more physical and material sense of language. I haven’t thought this through before, but maybe these qualities come from having worked with visual artists who use their material in a different way. I’ve often felt frustrated with how resistant language is, how hard it is to immerse oneself in the medium. When you’re writing a novel, putting one word after another, you seldom feel lost in the flow. When a sculptor or a painter works on something, there are periods when they’re simply dealing with physical material, when they’re doing rather than thinking, or thinking through the doing. It’s hard to get into a similar state as a writer.
KK An artist friend once described to me the experience of sitting in the studio and waiting for something to happen. I think writers have that experience too—at a desk, in front of a laptop. It’s a little less picturesque. But more seriously, it’s true that the physical abstraction is hard to match.
IV If you’re a painter, you say, “Okay, let me paint this all blue.” And then for the next half hour you’re painting it all blue. I imagine that’s a nice thing to be able to do. “Let me lop this bit off. That will take me a week.” So there’s this physical aspect to it. Edmund de Waal, who works with porcelain clay, conveys this material sense beautifully in his new book, The White Road: Journey into an Obsession. With writing, you’re always having to come up with the next phrase. It’s conscious, and to get into that zone where you’re manipulating a medium more immediately is very hard. In some parts of The Restless Supermarket, I began to feel that. When I was drafting passages, the language had become more physically available. I suppose it’s different for poets: they must have this feeling of sensory engagement most of the time.
KK Earlier, you said that words have histories. There’s a wonderful piece, called “all of a sudden,” in The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Storiesthat illustrates the tension and possible connection between etymological density and the physicality of language. To some extent, this passage is also about faith.
“When I was a schoolboy, I came upon this innocuous phrase in a storybook one day and found myself teetering over a void. Between one word and the next, the line unraveled before my eyes. ‘All of a sudden?’ How could such an odd sequence of words possibly mean ‘quickly and unexpectedly’? How could it mean anything? …
I looked in the dictionary … for assurance and saw that ‘sudden’ goes back to the Latin subitus, from subire (to come on, to steal upon), from sub (secretly) and ire (to go). ‘To go secretly.’ Knowing the derivation gave me no comfort. The archaic formulation was no help either: ‘all of a sudden’ made even less sense than ‘sudden’ or ‘suddenly’ on its own. The longer I pored over the phrase, the stranger it seemed.
My equilibrium was not ruined forever. After a momentary panic, I stepped cautiously over the gap and carried on with the story. Behind me, those four words settled back into the surface of language and lost their power to alarm. Here I am, I go on reading and writing, trusting ‘all of a sudden’ to bear my weight.”
IV The passage you’ve quoted is the postscript to a story, or rather a failed story, called “The Gravity Addict,” and that idea belongs to the same period as The Restless Supermarket. The speaker here, wobbling along a line of text like an acrobat whose nerve has failed, seems like a version of Aubrey Tearle in The Restless Supermarket with his “lexical gymnastics,” all the fancy maneuvers with etymology to demonstrate that he’s in control of the language rather than the other way round. It’s amusing that people turn to the dictionary for evidence that meanings are fixed, when the dictionary demonstrates the exact opposite. As a child, I was both exhilarated and terrified to discover that the sensible language we use is always a misplaced letter away from nonsense. In later years, I had the same mixed feelings of delight and dismay when I studied linguistics. A technical understanding of things isn’t necessarily reassuring, as my doctor once told me. But we proceed, as you suggest, in good faith.
KK At the end of your most recent short story collection, 101 Detectives, there are two intriguing pieces. One consists of a series by Neville Lister, who is a character in Double Negative—a work of text and photographs that was actually shown in a museum context. And then, there are the “Deleted Scenes” from all the short stories the reader has just read. These pieces made me think of the end of Chekhov’s “The Lady with Lapdog,” when the story suddenly enacts a pivot. The entire time the story appears to be tending a small and particular universe, indicating its fictional terrain, and then suddenly it opens up in this very radical way.
A lot of your work seems to have a similar concern. It’s about insisting on the contingency of what we’re trying to make in fiction, which is something writers can be nervous to do. Is it the case that you are trying to open up your fiction?
IV I hope so. Again, I don’t mean to harp on the past, but my work comes out of a literary tradition in which things were closed off, in which meanings were very certain and people knew exactly what they thought about a whole lot of things. From the beginning I was interested in trying to write in a way that would open up rather than close down meaning or association or whatever. I hope the “Deleted Scenes” work in that way. I’ve become interested in the stuff that gets left out of the book. This is something I should probably keep to myself, but I’m aware as an editor and as a writer of how much writing never fits into the book—how much is lost, if you like.
Anyway, I got the idea from watching DVDs that include a set of deleted scenes at the end. You can see exactly why some were left out of the movie, but every now and then you see one and you think, Well, that’s the whole movie right there! Why didn’t they put this in when it’s the key to the movie? Perhaps they’re the scenes the director left out because they’re the most obvious expressions of the themes. There are all these different possibilities. As a text editor, I’m aware that something similar happens with books, but in the written world we’re more likely to pretend or insist that the thing is perfect, that the text is inviolable and unalterable. And actually it could always be different. So the “Deleted Scenes” in 101 Detectives are there to get the reader hopefully to rethink some of the stories, and also to call the stories to mind at the end of the reading, because I like to think of the story collections as books with proper connections between the pieces. Readers and publishers tend to approach a story collection as a haphazard gathering of whatever the writer happens to have written, whereas I like to structure the books and write pieces specifically to make the sequence coherent. “Deleted Scenes” includes one outtake from each story and this requires you—if you’re this kind of obsessive reader—to go back and identify which deleted scene belongs with which story. You’re kind of being strong-armed into looking back at the book, and hopefully constructing it in a different way.
KK The Loss Library, the book we mentioned earlier, is a whole collection of unfinished story ideas or germs of ideas that you then revisited.
IV I keep notebooks as a central part of my writing process, and I go over them from time to time to find a new idea or to kick-start something. Some years ago I was between books, and in this process of looking over notebooks and unfinished drafts, I made a couple of interesting observations. The one thing that I found extraordinary was to come across ideas in my notebooks that were almost identical to ideas that had occurred to me ten or fifteen years earlier. I had forgotten about them or simply never got around to writing them. The uncanny thing was to find the same idea recurring almost word for word. So I became interested in why I was unable to write certain things, especially those that appeared to insist on being written. This must be an important idea to me if I’ve come back to it ten years later, and yet there’s something that prevents me from pursuing it. The idea for the book grew from that desire to treat these unfinished works as the centerpieces of a set of essays exploring the different reasons why you might not be able to write something. And in the process, some of them turned into stories.
KK You’ve collaborated with many different people, and more recently with visual artists in particular. How has that affected your practice as a writer?
IV I’ve found these joint projects really valuable. It’s an approach I was drawn into rather than something I theorized or thought through beforehand. It started with artists approaching me to write for their exhibition catalogues. There was a period when the art community got wise to the idea that you could make yourself a really snazzy catalogue by getting writers involved and giving them an open brief: “You don’t have to write a critical essay, you could write a poem or just give me a story to put in my catalogue!” I was resistant because I didn’t like the idea of being commissioned in that way. But then the approaches got more interesting. For instance, I have a close friend, Joachim Schönfeldt, who is a Conceptual artist. He had a set of illustrations and he said to me, “These are the illustrations for a book that hasn’t been written yet. Are you going to do something about it?” (laughter) It was a kind of game. I think he would have been satisfied with a few extended captions or a short piece of prose, but I used his work, which interests me deeply, to produce a novel of sorts, which is The Exploded View.
KK Which is forthcoming from Archipelago Books.
IV Yes, I’m very happy to be publishing with them. I’ve worked with a couple of other artists in the same way, where they give me a body of work and I write something in response to it. It gets me out of my habitual patterns as a writer and prompts me to find other ways of thinking and writing. I guess it’s a bit like the language games that the OuLiPo writers engaged in, creating a constraint of some sort and then writing against that constraint just to see what the outcome would be. Some of those constraints—like never using the letter e—I would find tedious for writing a novel, but having a set of visual references works if you treat that material with a particular kind of intense scrutiny; it does feed into the work and change it fundamentally. That’s what happened with Double Negative, the work that I did with David Goldblatt. I had a structure for a book, which was the cross-section idea that I spoke about earlier, but I didn’t have content. I didn’t have a story at all. He approached me at a time when I was casting about for a story, and through engaging with his work, it became a book about the relationship between two photographers. If I had been left to my own devices, I would have written a rather different book based on that structure.
KK Do you think it would have still been about space and visual language? Or, for example, could it have been about the way language in South Africa has changed over those periods?
IV I can’t answer that. It could have been about almost anything, because all I had was a concept—the idea of taking three cross-sections through time—but I was still completely in the dark about the characters and settings. Is there a central character who’s living through these periods? Or is it a third-person narrative with a large cast of characters? I hadn’t even asked these questions. At the crucial point he raised the possibility of working together, and as a result I began to think about his Johannesburg, the kind of city that emerges in his photographs. Then, as I began to think through my relationship to him, the story morphed into something about a young photographer and an older photographer. If all these concerns had been absent, the book would have been totally different.
KK I read somewhere that there’s an earlier version that’s called a collaboration and then there’s the novel, Double Negative. Are they two different texts or are they the same text?
IV It’s the same text. Initially we published a double-volume set for the art and photography markets. This was David’s photo book called TJ, containing a selection of his work on Johannesburg; and my novel Double Negative, written in response to these images. Once both elements existed, we were confronted with the question of how you publish such a thing. I had banked on the fact that David would make it happen, and his reputation was the key. It’s not something I could have done. Partly, it was a design problem. How do you present a novel and a book of photographs—a coffee-table book—together? With the book designer Cyn van Houten, we were looking at formats of an in-between size—scale it down a bit so that you could read the novel, but make it just big enough to satisfy people who look at photographs. And it was really uncomfortable. At some point Cyn said, “The only way to do this is to work with the scale of the photo book.” But how can you print a novel at this scale? It just didn’t make sense. And then she had the idea of a dummy book, something like a book safe that you open and it has a space inside where you keep your cash or whatever. So the design is very much like that. There’s a dummy volume that matches the photo book and then you open it up and the novel is inside at the normal scale. (laughter) The kind of thing only a specialist art publisher like Contrasto would dream of doing—although Umuzi was also bold enough to do a run under its imprint for the South African market. It was called TJ/Double Negative, after the two components, which were packaged in a slipcase, intended mainly for the art market. Then the two books were separated after a year or so, and published through the conventional channels.
KK We’ve talked a bit about opening your text to other influences and processes. How does the editorial process factor into this?
IV I’ve worked as a text editor for thirty years, so I know the other side of the writer-editor relationship. I’ve worked with the whole range—from writers who are extremely open to editing and who will let you do almost anything with their books to writers who won’t let you change a comma. I’m quite open to editing myself, because I believe that the editing can make an extreme difference in the book. So I try to trust the editors that I work with. I need to find someone whose perspective I trust, and then I am very open to changing things. It happens that, because I work as an editor myself, the texts that I’ve presented to publishers are quite finished. But writers often present work to publishing houses that isn’t really finished, and then they’re unable to defend the text. That’s when you get a situation where editors do what they like. On the whole I’ve been edited quite lightly, but I’ve always taken the editing seriously, and unless I’m strongly opposed to a change, I try to go with what the editor suggests.
KK A lot of writers I know are working in a similar way. Do you think this is a more recent phenomenon? We hear about the great historical relationships between editors and writers, which require sharing and working through a more open and unfinished text. At a certain point, the problems in a book can calcify and then become intrinsic—when that happens, it’s too late.
IV I think the skill itself has been drastically devalued. This is certainly the case in South African publishing. I suspect that it’s a bit better in the US where you have a particularly strong tradition of editing and of editors working with one writer—the writer-editor relationship being a strong thread of continuity that lasts through a career. In South Africa, some publishers are saving money by cutting corners on the editing. Perhaps the changes in technology, where books are delivered digitally and don’t have to be reset and carefully proofed, have also made it easier for publishers to eliminate skilled production people and to do the absolute minimum. But there is a bit more to editing than running the spellchecker on your computer. (laughter) Readers are also less demanding than they used to be, because our reading habits have changed so much. People have gotten used to reading bad copy in the newspapers and on the Internet and they’re not as exacting as they used to be. Readers used to complain if there were five typos in a book and now most people will live with a typo every five pages.
KK That’s the lament of your proofreader in The Restless Supermarket.
IV You noticed the connection! I really think it’s a devalued skill. Editing is an important part of bookmaking. People should take it much more seriously. If you’ve had the amazing experience of going to a museum and seeing the manuscript of The Waste Land before it was edited, or of seeing unedited versions of Thomas Wolfe’s novels, you’ll appreciate what an incredible difference an editor can make.