Janet Hobhouse by Bruce Wolmer

BOMB 19 Spring 1987
019 Spring 1987

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

Hobhouse 01 Body

Janet Hobhouse. Photo by James Hamilton, © 1987.

Two contrary movements, like a kind of music, his and Anne’s. His desire insistent, repeating, to push further and further towards her, own and possess her utterly; hers to step away, camouflage and flee. The Englishness was at her service, the play and skip on the surface, the evasive phrases and moves that could make an evening an act of juggling, until Zach stepped in, silently, like a cowboy in a Marlboro ad, removed the props, stilled her, and took her over. He found the game hypnotic, intoxicating, like a snake with a rabbit.

from November

Bruce Wolmer You were born in New York and went to school here until going to England where you studied at Oxford. In the years since, your life has been divided between London and New York, making you appear more or less English to American readers and more or less American to the English. Do you think this split has influenced both the themes and the style of your writing?

Janet Hobhouse I think I would question whether I appear English to American readers and American to English readers. I suspect I appear as a hybrid to both, though November, my last novel, probably has more of the sound of American speech in it than the others, possibly because I’ve become less interior as a writer. I feel there’s more of the Other in this one. I think the influence of England was probably simply that when I was at Oxford I read English literature, and I have that body of work as the traditional structure out of which my work perhaps comes. In terms of the themes of my work, the issues in it of choice and freedom parallel the way I’ve lived my life—which indicates a possibly grave ambivalence to wherever I happen to be at any time—but also provides a notion that one doesn’t have to take it as given, whatever it is. In that respect, I was blessed but also cursed with this choice which maybe other people have not got—I had a British father whom I went to find when I was 16. And I had an American mother whom I left when I was 16. But then I came back to New York when I was in my early twenties, and I’ve been going back and forth ever since.

I think I talk about some of the larger cultural differences in this last book. Generally, whether it’s my projection or not, the lacks in New York seem to be filled in England. For example, a notion that one is part of a group and that, as such, one is given one’s identity. I was given an identity at 16 when I arrived in England. My father provided it, his class provided it, my education provided it, my sex provided it. And within that identity I was allowed to behave according to certain rules, and they’re not very tight rules, but they’re there all the same. In New York these rules don’t seem to pertain. Things here seem much more chaotic and anarchic. Remember, I’m speaking now not as a tourist because I grew up here. In that chaos there seems to me greater potential for freedom of action, freedom of thought. And also a greater access to solitude, curiously enough. In England one is always accountable. You cannot escape. Or I never could escape the well-wishes of friends, the expectations of one’s friends and one’s group. In a larger sense, this structure operates in England in a way which I find often unpleasant and constricting. For example, in England nobody is allowed to exist outside a determined class. There aren’t too many self-made lives. Perhaps this is an illusion, but I feel that one can live classlessly here. Which is to say that the issues of money are constantly present but class and social status are not costumes that one is issued with from the word go.

BW But at the same time, the leading character of November, Zach Quine, goes to England precisely to find that sort of emotional security not provided by New York.

JH Yes, he wants to “crawl back to the camp of human tribe” because it seems to him that the great bohemian adventure of New York of the 1950s and ’60s doesn’t exist any more. When I was growing up in New York there seemed to be a notion that the burden of the individual was to create his own life and to express that in work that was unique to him, that the adventure was, in a sense, a spiritual adventure and that one had to stay as loose as one could from any kind of social constraint and marital constraint and so on. My character Zach, age 40, his marriage having deteriorated, with his belief in his art at a dead end, suddenly finds this whole old New York thing apparently fraudulent, and he wonders whether he did not make a precipitous decision 20 years earlier when he left London after university to go back to America where this so-called freedom seemed to be in operation. His brother did not make that decision. His brother decided to become as English as you can be as an expatriate American. He married an English woman and he had a family and he’s got a job and he fits into the English life. And Zach wants to come and sniff around this family to find out what it might tell him about how to live. But of course something else happens when he gets there.

BW These values that you’re talking about that belong to a high Bohemia that seems to have gone into eclipse in New York within the past ten or 15 years are values that you’re very attached to. How do you view their replacement by the overriding emphasis on media visibility and money which have become the major terms of legitimacy within the artistic and literary life here?

JH I think at the moment the artistic and literary life is carried on in terms of visibility, as you say, or celebrity—so that nothing exists unless it is documented either in gossip or in the press. It’s the reverse, say, of the notion that held sway prior to Life magazine’s discovery of the Abstract Expressionists, which is that the two worlds of the public and the private go on simultaneously. There is the public world which is basically worthless and there is the private world in which anything significant gets done. Now, I feel an attachment to those values, and they are values which demand certain moral virtues which I also feel an attachment to, among other things a certain kind of courage and a headstrong faith about what’s important.

BW Members of your family were a part of that older Bohemia.

JH Yes. My grandmother was a sculptor. She eloped with another sculptor when she was 17, and left a very well-provided family to do so. My grandmother’s sister was a writer married to a theater critic. Not quite Bohemia, but … And then my grandmother had two daughters. One was my mother, who was a sculptor though she hated art because it was a gift that came from her mother with whom she had a life-long struggle. And her sister was a former Vogue model who became a jungle explorer, which is, again, not exactly Bohemia, but whatever it is, it’s going against the general notion of the wise way in which to live.

To get back to your previous question, I sometimes feel, like the anachronistic character in this book, the old drunk writer, Jack McCafferty, that there has been a horrendous invasion of—he calls them “Yurps and Yuppies”—Eurotrash and Yuppies—who have simply taken the city away from, as he felt, its true inhabitants. Well, okay, these people have always existed, but the difference is that now their values dominate. They dominate where you go to eat, what rent you pay—in fact, which borough you’re going to end up living in. There is a legitimate cause for complaint. These people aren’t innocuous playfellows in downtown New York. Actually, they have made New York a city for either the very rich or the very poor who, of course, have no mobility at all. And they are, therefore, making the city a very boring place—one in which art can only be made in the margins, in the cracks. And the cracks are getting further and further away from the center of the city which used to belong to us. This is a little bit of a histrionic view of it, but you know it’s changed. I haven’t spoken to anybody who has been in New York over the last 15 years who doesn’t feel that there is this alien horde that is taking over their home.

BW The moral concern that your books demonstrate is itself something that has become questionable in much contemporary American writing. Whether it be so-called Minimal writing, or what’s been named the K-Mart school of fiction, or whether it’s the more fabulist or ironized versions of Post Modernism, ethical and intellectual reflection is rather scarce.

JH Yes. Actually, it feels as though a lot of this recent fiction is being written by squeamish children. That is, there is a sensibility of protected kids who have had everything they wanted but who have now been thrown out into the world, and their stance vis-à-vis the world is one of horror. One of, “I don’t like the food,” or “I don’t like the company.” Everything looks weird to them. There’s a surrealist so-called Martian school in England and here it’s the K-Mart school. It’s about surfaces. It’s not about a sense of one’s self in a world interacting with other people. It’s standoffish in the extreme and is the kind of relation to reality which I think in the end is easy and cheap. Because in the end, we have got only these years that we have and we have got only each other. And we have, somehow, I don’t know how to say this … but basically that is the significant given of our lives—time and other people, feelings. Not things, not temperatures, weather, not brand names, not the latest thrill. Everybody knows this but they live as though—and these people that you’re talking about write as though—these other spiritual, ethical, intellectual concerns ceased to exist some time in the 1950s.

BW And yet, the perspective of these writers is very American in the sense that American life and culture in the past 20 years or so has emphasized the surface impression, the visual impression, the quick hit. A gross generalization to be sure, but one we intuitively recognize as valid. I wonder if the moral concern in your works, its meditation on structures, of thought and feeling, doesn’t come out in large part from your traditional education and from your experience in England of a more traditional order in which character, the result of constraint, choice, and memory, still has some meaning. In contemporary America, as in so much of its fiction, character is a function of image rather than of action.

JH You’re suggesting that, in America, the consumerism extends to other people, that people are there to be sampled and spat out and moved on from. And that isn’t the case in England. There are all sorts of explanations why this isn’t the case in England. One could be geography. It’s a small place. Everybody’s there. There aren’t escapes available, not since the Empire. So, an English reality is this little tribe that you’re a member of and the interactions of this little tribe. In American life, it seems to me, this great choice is expressed by changing cities, changing sexual partners, and so on. Which is a wonderful asset, this choice, but it has become a kind of habitual response. There’s a cult of the present and what happens in a cult of the present is that you don’t have to take anything seriously—not the person you live with, not the larger community. It’s the negative aspect to all these wonderful freedoms that we’re told about at various national anniversaries.

BW The sense of false freedom, of distinctions without ultimately any difference.

JH No, it’s an abuse of freedom. You’re not going to take anyone seriously in the present because you can always look over that person’s shoulder and move on. It’s Manifest Destiny gone awry, except there’s no destiny. There’s no California at the other end. One just goes on a continuous loop of more and more experience unexperienced. I’m giving an extreme version of an American disease, but that’s part of it. The thing is that the look of things becomes the whole reality. It’s as though there were some very cool philosophy at play. But you’re talking about ordinary people with ordinary lives in which they get hurt, they mourn, they make major decisions that can cripple them for five years, ten years, that can give them joy. And none of this seems to be … well, what this kind of fiction and this kind of sense of current life is about.

BW In each of your three novels—Nellie Without HugoDancing in the Dark, and November—marriage has provided the arena in which you address this question of what, if anything, binds us to others. In a sense, marriage becomes what it was for Kierkegaard—the arena of the ethical because the place in which one encounters the Other. Not only are you addressing the specific of marriage but, by extension, issues of freedom versus attachment, self and Other. Do you treat marriage as metaphor?

JH Marriage is a form of sustained intimacy and, as such, contains two: self and Other. In Melanie Klein’s terms, in Otto Rank’s terms, two is the significant number. It would have been three if humans had three breasts. But as it is—this is where ambivalence comes from—there is on the one hand an enormous desire to join, a desire for union and, at the same time, there’s fear of engulfment, fear of loss of the individual self. Obviously, in marriage, one is pushed up close if one chooses to look, if one chooses to be conscious which is always the big “if” in life. One is pushed up close to this ambivalence constantly, where the moral issue is: how do we treat others and how do we treat ourselves? I don’t go traveling with a sense of myself in a larger world because that is not the way I experience it. I’m not a reporter. So this is where those “moral” issues come to play, where they have come to play for me. Traditionally or sentimentally, whatever one wishes to call it, I think the only thing really interesting in life is human love—how you get in it, how you get out of it, what its values and costs are. But I also think that is the most significant arena. Now this is my viewpoint. Not mine alone, thank God.

BW How would you chart the shifts in your attitude to marriage as it’s developed since your first novel, Nellie Without Hugo, for there seems to be a very definite change in the nature of the questions, in the nature of the expectations. In November, one senses a kind of regret after the uncertain search for freedom of Dancing in the Dark.

JH In Nellie Without Hugo, there was a first inkling that one might have an alternative to this protected, loving set-up. I begin there. If I can say it, the question there was really much more a question of gender—what is female, what is male and can the two live together? I think I would say that for me in that book, men are Martians, aliens whose inner lives can only be deduced from their outer behavior. And that’s done with great bafflement and confusion. In Dancing in the Dark, Gabriella, the central female character is looking for alternatives to what I think of as the Dover Beach notion. You know, “Ah love let us be true to one another / For the world which seems … etc. hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,” etc. And she begins to befriend men. I think that’s the significance of setting the novel in the gay community. That it’s a non-erotic arena for her in which to experience men as friends. And then, of course, by the third novel, November, the central character, Zach, is a man and my empathy is entirely cast in terms of the man. So in these gradations I move from a point so far outside the male as to be scrutinizing him like a zoological specimen to a point inside the male. And the discovery is that the male sensibility and the female sensibility are alike in so many, many ways. So I have basically made a peace with this Other. And the last book represents a union, a union in the guise of mourning a loss of union.

BW But there is, as well, a modulation in the notion of freedom. Moving through the three books it goes from an untried, even naive notion of what freedom, so called, has to offer to a rather disabused, more hesitant affirmation of it in November. There seems to be a progressive chastening.

JH That’s one way of looking at it. The other way of looking at it is to say these three books all deal with “Enemies of Freedom,” to paraphrase Cyril Connolly, the things that get in the way of freedom. November is a book about regret, about paralysis of the will, about mourning. It seems to me that one of the things that keeps us from being free is the cost of these attachments and the pain of loss. In the first book, it’s fear of freedom, fear of going it alone. And in the second book, I would say that what gets in the way of freedom is one’s sexual needs, one’s erotic needs. So I don’t think the basic concerns have changed or that I have changed my position. It’s not that I’ve gone back on that—the city mouse notion that its life is the better life. I haven’t become a country mouse. I haven’t said marriage is the only loving safe place, but I do acknowledge loss as a real thing, and so it is.

BW I wanted to ask you, in terms of the question of freedom and alternatives to the difficult, usually painful encounter of men and women in heterosexual love, how you see …

JH May I just go on the record and say it is not always painful.

BW I said usually.

JH Not even usually.

BW Should we say usually difficult? I’m interested in the role that the gay characters in Dancing in the Dark played. Was that an image of freedom for Gabriella?

JH I think what I was impressed by in this particular circle of friends that I wrote about was the love among them. It existed almost by virtue of their ability to separate the trick from the friend. Because they were able to do this, to isolate erotic need from very close bonds that they had with each other, these bonds blossomed in a way that was unavailable to us struggling in the heterosexual world where this ambivalence operates in such a way that feeling is reduced. That is, one cannot love wholeheartedly where everything is at stake with the Other. It seemed to me that this was another model for behavior in which there could be more love. Which, at that point, I thought I was interested in. Where could there be more love? Not more sex, more love. But the character comes unstuck in that she is not one of them and for her to express this love which she had for these gay friends of hers, she had to express it erotically because she herself was unable to separate the two. Because in the end, I think, these things must be integrated, though therein lies, always, the problem. And so she has an affair with one of these gay men that she loves and it’s a disaster. And she goes back to her husband in a voracious sexual way and spits out this really better thing she was feeling for the Claudio character. The story is really a simple tale of betrayal, but I’m not sure that came across. I had some very strange reviews saying that she made this right and proper action by returning to the nest and so on. But I meant that ending to leave a taste of ashes, to be an expression of a failure, of human limitations or at least female, heterosexual limitations. I think my own views about love have changed, fortunately.

BW Just before when I quipped “usually painful” you said no. But isn’t there something, some final joining that’s impossible by the very nature of heterosexual love? The irreducible differences of men and women that always threaten to be the sources of pain and regret.

JH That’s what Otto Rank believes. The ambivalence is such as to cripple all human relations so that one only has temporary and neurotic affairs, one after the other. Unless you’re an artist, Otto Rank says. And I’m never sure what that means. He says by a triumph of will and deed. I think it means you just scrap the whole issue and write books about it. But you’re talking to me on this day and on this day I’m very cheerful about these things—and feel that loss is the price of admission but that one must willingly pay that price and not get stuck as though the bill’s been too big for the meal. Maybe that comes with a greater sense that one’s capacity for love continues, that it’s not finite, that it doesn’t get burnt out, used up. That the capacity for love remains in the virtuous Lawrentian life, that whatever its cost, that is the thing you ought to be doing. And I’m not saying that one is constantly in love or that one is constantly sexually engaged or any of these things. On the contrary. Probably quite infrequently. But you can’t regret the cost of love unless you have a sense that your love is finite or will stop suddenly. With a sense of movement in one’s life, the sense that one goes on and learns more and feels more if one is open to it, there’s nothing really to regret quite so much as perhaps I felt it in November. Anyway that’s the good news for today.

BW You mentioned a moment before that you felt that Dancing in the Dark was perhaps misread by many people. I get the impression both from reviews and from conversation, that Dancing in the Dark, and November as well, is regarded as a rather distant, cool stylistic exercise. That you’re a gimlet-eyed, novelist of manners with a “lacquered prose style” and the like.

JH The Ronald Firbank of the disco.

BW That seems very far from what you’re saying gives the books their core, their heart. Why do you think you’re read that way?

JH I think that, first of all, reviewers read other reviewers and that they tend in some way to review the last book that was published. I think in Dancing in the Dark the thing that was confusing was that I set up a moral tale, if you want, within a very style-conscious universe. And so the issue of style was a part of the narrative. I think this is not quite true in November, although there is a man traveling from one city to another and the different look of things affects him, obviously. One isn’t visually dead when one writes. But I think the other thing is, there’s some notion that my prose is mannered and I sit around polishing these damned sentences. I think actually that the manneredness of my prose mimics the difficulty with which I … the complexity with which I perceive the total truth to feeling in a given situation. The back-tracking, modifications, inversions really suggest a kind of stuttering because my books are always about asking questions not about giving answers. My books are about a kind of confusion which is the confusion with which I write. I don’t write books in which I know what the endings are going to be. I mean there are complete stories I can tell, but it’s because I don’t know what the stories mean when I begin to write them that makes me wish to write. I write to answer questions. I never do answer questions; I just go on to the next question. So this kind of querulousness … querulousness is the wrong word, but … reconsideration all the time perhaps appears as a kind of affectation of style, not that they call me affected and I’m not really arguing with them. I think maybe I have an okay ear, too, and I think the rhythms are quite nice.

BW Your first book was a biography of Gertrude Stein, and I think that one sees a certain muted Stein influence in the rhythms of your prose. It never appears to me self-consciously stylized and yet there is a fineness of ear. Has there been such an influence?

JH The thing about Gertrude Stein is that she writes a lot of things, but she also writes these arias. And they are arias of the self, sitting alone in a room speaking to itself. It’s a kind of access of solitude, to privacy, that enables you to sing in your own voice. The thing that most influenced me about Gertrude Stein was her notion that one has to do nothing but be one’s self, one’s conscious self. One did not have to please because one couldn’t please. Because for most of her life she was completely ignored and isolated. It gives you a kind of recklessness and a kind of courage to develop your own voice. I’ve been called Jamesian and I think in a sense she was Jamesian. Actually, in two senses: she was taught by William James. I think that the huge landscape of America, and the fact that you cannot run out of space, the urge to fill the void with the self, I think that is American and Jamesian. It is also very Gertrude Stein. And when you’re sitting in front of your blank piece of paper, if you can take it, it can also be yours.

BW That’s the best side of being American—having that freedom. Even if those horizons become cluttered with K-Marts and TV. Is the reason you find the enclosed personality England provides insufficient precisely this fact that Americans have, the dreck notwithstanding, an extraordinary freedom?

JH Yes. In this big American space, as Gertrude Stein might say, you can put what you want. You can either dump images of K-Mart, highway culture, whatever it is, or you can say, “But that doesn’t really make my life.” And then you can find that your life is made outside of the shopping mall in your chair, in the silence of your own head, in your memories, in your desires and you find that voice. Now that’s the opportunity, to fill the space with the voice. And the voice is not disembodied from the life. It has to be connected to the life and to the moral pressures, if you want to call them that, of the life. But the argument with this kind of fiction that is called K-Mart, is that this perfectly beautiful landscape is being littered with junk. And it doesn’t have to be littered with junk. It can be littered with truth.

BW I still hear in what you’re saying, though, an echo of the Bloomsbury ideal of a life lived almost wholly in personal terms—for love, personal ethics, the appreciation of art and ideas.

JH I think that the notion of Bloomsbury is hugely attractive in the concept and in the fact rather revolting. That the sins of Bloomsbury are as glaring as those of any other type of Utopian notion. Bloomsbury existed at a very significant remove from the rest of England. It was an elite. It was disdainful. I’m thinking in particular of Virginia Woolf. It was disdainful of the larger world which it inhabited. It was a “little us” program. I think in that respect I am not attracted by Bloomsbury. The belief in friendship as the basis for what I suppose we call the affective life I think was no bad thing. In a way, Dancing in the Dark is about that, it’s about a version of Bloomsbury that existed at a historical moment in New York in terms of the gay community. In terms of my life, I have my closest and most sustaining relationships with my friends and I think that that is something that happens to people in their mid to late thirties, if they’re lucky. So that aspect, sure. The belief in love depends who you’re talking to about Bloomsbury. If you’re talking about Lytton Strachey and his high-school crushes on Duncan Grant and Maynard Keynes or Virginia’s very troubled relationship with Leonard, then I don’t think that this can be much of a model. As for Vanessa and Duncan, well, who knows what went on there. So I don’t know about the erotic-love model of Bloomsbury. I imagine it’s a little patchy. I might just add that the feminist movement in the 1970s reestablished friendship, single-gender friendship. Friendship as a great social good. And that has to be taken into account on the other side of these gay friendships. Personally, I like it mixed. And I am lucky in being able to be as intimate with my men friends as I am with my friends who are women.

BW What is your relation to feminism? Obviously, you’re not a feminist in the politicized sense. But, on the other hand, your characters are all very independent.

JH Some more than others. I think the issue of gender has always been an issue for me and in that sense I share some of the feminist concerns. I don’t share a notion that what we learn about living with each other has to be done in these gender-separated groups. I’d like some little model of men and women together, conscious, loving, sweating it out, arguing. It’s just the Dover Beach notion of the man and the woman alone against the world that’s repellent.

BW Do you actually find it repellent?

JH I find it deeply attractive but that’s an erotic high. That deserted beach and just you and the other and it usually doesn’t last ’til morning.

BW So you find it repellent because it reveals itself to be a delusion?

JH Well, actually, that particular poem is a cri de coeur which comes out of a sense of despair at the failed promises of the world. The failure of the promises of religion, of the Empire, this, that, and the other. I’m not really arguing with the great Matthew, I’m just talking loosely about the notion that there is only us. Now, if that comes out of despair, that’s one thing. If it comes out of callousness and indifference to the greater us, then I would have to say yes, I find that repellent. And it’s not necessary to draw such bleak conclusions.

BW You’ve already mentioned Lawrence and James, Gertrude Stein. Are there any other writers that you feel were formative or that you reread as touchstones?

JH I admire Doris Lessing very much. I used to be thrown by her prose. She’s not a very easy or attractive stylist. But, especially in the Martha Quest novels, what I was particularly drawn by was her integrity, her moral intensity, her belief in the minutiae of actual life and the way in which the moral sensibility is engaged in the specifics of … as it happened the Communist Party in Rhodesia just after the war. But it was the using of reality, of an intensely felt and intensely documented reality of behavior and interaction as an anchor. I read her books after my mother’s death when I was really slightly in outer space myself, and I found her ability to connect so intensely with the specifics of her life as some kind of clue as a way to proceed. I like Philip Roth’s books very much because I think that, again, he’s asking the same questions. But they’re questions that are autobiographically predetermined for him. I like My Life as a Man most.

BW “Autobiographically predetermined,” how?

JH In the sense that he is dealing with issues of manhood, fatherhood, Jewishness. All issues which I do not deal with obviously. But again, it’s the seriousness. There’s urgency in Roth. The idea that these things matter, that they are the things that matter. Let me see, who else do we like? We like George Eliot, naturally. We like … look, we don’t think that writing is a form of making pictures. It is a narrative form and, as such, a moral form. So that a lot of contemporary writing which is about making pictures and staying at a surface doesn’t engage me except aesthetically. I like to look at pictures. It’s something else I do with my time, but I think that writing is a process of asking and answering questions. And the questions are about how do we live in time. The novel is a narrative form about acts, feelings and their consequences.

BW You are very involved in visual art as a critic, and have just completed a major study of the nude in the 20th century which will be published next year. You’ve written art criticism for ARTnewsStudio InternationalArt in AmericaNewsweek, and Connoisseur among other magazines. Your art criticism is characterized by a very deeply felt relationship to painting, neither academic nor critically trendy. What do you go to painting with? What do you find there?

JH Naturally it depends on the works of art. In my book on the nude there is an overlap between my interest as a fiction writer and my interest as a looker at art. I’m writing really about other forms of love, other forms of relationships. For example, the relationship between Bonnard and his wife, Bonnard and the woman he paints in his life-long preoccupation with the nude sheds some light on a lot of these issues of separation, of joining, and so on. The art itself expresses it, the paint expresses it. The painting is almost an act of insistence on a union which was unavailable to him in the life. Madame Bonnard was neurasthenic, a very private woman, or wanted to be a very private woman. She lead him quite a neurotic little dance in the south of France. And my chapter on him talks about a kind of revenge in the studio. I do think that much of art comes out of an attempt to compensate for what is missing in reality. Again, in Bonnard’s life for example—they lived in shabby little houses in the south of France without decorations on the walls, without the company that is depicted, without even trees in the garden, as one commentator said. Yet his art created a paradise which never existed and in a sense, becomes a comment on the absence of that paradise. Bonnard’s painting is also, in certain respects, quite a sadistic little exercise if what Madame Bonnard wished was to be left alone in her bathtub and what Bonnard wished was to invade her there. It’s quite a curious thing that there’s this huge body of work where he does just that.

BW Is there any contemporary work that engages you in a similar vein?

JH I’m interested in that sense in Fischl’s work and Salle’s. I like Longo very much. But I don’t want to suggest that I’m making vulgar moral tales of domestic life out of what are, of course, artifacts. I’m not blind to other elements in art apart from autobiography and so on. It’s the give and take between these things, between the demands of form and the demands of feeling which is interesting, and it’s where my interests as a critic lie.

BW You have remarked to me on occasion that the world of facts, the world represented in newspapers or magazines or on TV, while of some passing interest, doesn’t really engage you. That it palls beside the world of feeling, the world best captured in fiction. I’m wondering how you construe a contemporary fictional imagination that … how your fictional imagination works. In the way that ethics, introspection, and feeling come together and transform the givens of experience into some revelatory form, some revelatory object.

JH I’m not indifferent to what goes on in the world, I would like to say. I think that my position is similar to Saul Bellow’s when, in an interview recently, he was talking about the bombardment of journalistic crap, the inundation of information that cannot be sorted by one brain. There’s also the crap of the form itself, its conventions. In other words, there’s distortion of experience so grotesque in journalism as to make it no more real than a pop song is real. It’s not reality I have problems with. But there is a reality that is legitimately mine and there is a reality that is not. Vietnam is not legitimately mine except in so far as it affected people that I know. But I was never there. It would be arrogant of me to pretend my world is larger than it is. It’s large enough as I know it, as I try to know it. I have a sense of the limits of what I can speak of with passion, with conviction.

BW So what’s your sense of the transforming process, the fictionalizing process?

JH I don’t know. It’s a great mystery how you do it. You obviously don’t write straight autobiography. You don’t write abstract dialogues between philosophers of different positions. I think perhaps it is a process of attempting to make a kind of sense of something which is experienced as being without sense. If you are honest, if you are open, if you are conscious, what happens as you live occurs in a chaotic form, in a form that only later gets reduced to certain significant shapes and forces. And then maybe, in fiction, one reduces it or refines it or it refines itself. But that process of how the shapes come out of the chaos is mysterious so that one has often a sense that this stuff has been given to one in a new form. Not that you impose your sense of order on it, but that an order comes out of it when you realize fictionally what it felt like to experience it. I find that after I’ve written a book, the relationships between certain of the characters reveal themselves to be other than the way I thought they were when I either sat down to write the book or, if the relationships are drawn from the life, as I perceived them at the time or even later, that writing has things to tell me more than I have things to tell it, that it is a process of listening to one’s own words or one’s own feelings more than imposing form on that chaos.

 

Janet Hobbhouse’s novels include: Nellie Without Hugo, Dancing in the Dark, and November, published by Vintage Contemporaries. She has also written Everybody Who Was Anybody: A Biography of Gertrude Stein, and is currently working on a book about the female nude in the 20th century.

Bruce Wolmer, a contributing editor of BOMB was formerly editor of ARTnews and Art & Antiques.

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Originally published in

BOMB 19, Spring 1987

Willem Dafoe, Kathy Acker, Ross Bleckner, Janet Hobhouse, and St. EOM.

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019 Spring 1987