Desire to Disrupt: Nathanaël Interviewed by K.B. Thors

On the occasion of a new co-edition of Je Nathanaël, the author speaks about re-issues, the lie of the truth, and the limits of language.


Nathanaël writes and translates l’entre-genre in English and French, creating literature that exemplifies and challenges our uneasy relation to narrative and meaning. Je Nathanaël (first published under the prior name Nathalie Stephens) in French in 2003 and English in 2006, is a hybrid English/French text written and translated by the author. Re-issued by Nightboat and Book*Hug with a new postface by Nathanaël, the book continues to exist as an impossible echo of its own making. Spare prose, divided into sections that include an epigraph by André Gide’s Les nourritures terrestres, layers lyricism with a sense of analytic memoir. Intimate scenes are described, circled back upon, and interspersed with recurring address to the self and the erotic other—musings on what is happening, what could happen, what is already becoming past and what slips through the sieve of writing and recollection. 

To say anything is to be decisively trapped in one dimension, one language, a moment gone as soon as it is asserted. To write anything is to create an immediately outdated, inherently limited record. Yet Nathanaël does write, demonstrating the longing and impossibility of communication as well as the beauty that abounds. Through speech and what cannot be said, the text dissects the ways language circumvents the body, fettering the subject with gender and faux intimations of fixed identity. Now with an incisive afterword by Elena Basile, Je Nathanaël resumes its address, embodied in a paradoxical text of desire and assertion.

—K.B. Thors


K.B. ThorsIs there a way of looking at this re-issue as a kind of (full) circle, now that Nathanaël is both author and addressee? 

Nathanaël I can see how this might be a tempting way to conceive of this movement; I am not, however, convinced that Nathanaël is each and both, author and addressee. Certainly not one and the same, and this may be the lure (one of the lures) of the name. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to speak of a series of departures, from both the name and the text, neither of which arrive at itself, ever.

KBT What are your thoughts on how projects become realized?

N What is a project? Is it the text as it writes itself, the collaborative effort of bringing it to the form of the book? The desire or frustration that precedes any of this? I think immediately in disjunctions, syncopes, and breaches. In the fault lines that become apparent, and the silences that are insinuated. Perhaps this is enough evidence of the impossibility of anteriority. In this instance especially, but not only, the whole work is inscribed in the conditional, since Nathanaël does not exist, and language is incapable of providing a place for a body in its anticipated and belated absence.

KBT You wrote in the postface that the I “lives by its secret”—because the present does not endure, “An author dies of her book.” What does it mean if “the book itself asks to be disabused of its own history”?  

N The postface does propose that the present “resists endurance.” I am not sure this is equivalent to the unendurability of the present. Perhaps this is quibbling, but I suspect it evidences one of the problems of paraphrase, which is already the problem of the interview, which asks an author to speak alongside a book that has already spoken for itself, having detached itself from its author, and thus from any authority one may lay claim to. Even its own history is not to be trusted. It might be useful, in this instance to linger over Oscar Wilde’s assertion that “In art […] there is no first person.” 

KBT Is there a first person in an interview? Is it possible for this exchange to exist more as conversation about a text than authorial speech that must go alongside the book? What does that detachment of book from author mean for your experience/s of the book today?

N The body of the writer makes this impossible. It remains a vestige of the text or perhaps the text is its own vestige—this may be more likely. It functions as an imperfect memory, but of what? And to what end? Since the interview is set in place because of the book, the dynamic cannot claim autonomy from it, nor the writer of the book from the prior act of writing, even though the two no longer coincide. It is exactly the inscription of an impossible intimacy that is at stake. The position I am taking may simply be the articulation of an impossibility (for me) to make the necessary distinctions between myself and my dead—those before me and those to come. The book partakes of this, of course, and Je Nathanaël is particularly vexing in this sense since it is a form of summons to a body, never mind the name.


Photo of Nathanaël courtesy of Nightboat Books.

KBT This book highlights how we mistakenly treat books and people as collections of statements. Is there anything that this interview format offers—one conversation on a certain occasion—that the book cannot? Does responding to questions from an outsider offer something different from writing on your own?

N I doubt it very much, and am aware that my books have stood in silence, particularly in anglophone contexts, reliant upon my words to defend them, and the good graces of various interviewers over time. But it is an error to place too much emphasis on what I might have to say, since the book dies with its author, and it is not possible to retrieve the memory of its writing. The book is a risk in its writing, and in its reading, and while certain forms of exegesis which rest heavily in colonialist gestures of possession and exposure are repugnant, there are modes of encounter in thought—writing is thinking, la pensée s’écrit, se pense en s’écrivant, thought writes itself, thinks itself writing—the demands of which seem largely to exceed the patience of this continent. I don’t intend to be facetious, but suspect there is something in current compressed temporalities and preference for noise that makes it so. If time is long then so must be the book in its reciprocities. A time beyond a body, and in even the most rebarbative reception, not a consensus but an engagement, with its full conscience and political connotation.

KBT Is there an ideal way to read this book? Across editions, languages, etc.? How did the experience of translating your own French original compare to this re-visitation across time, rather than language?

N I have heard of a group of people who gathered together across both languages and read the book aloud, in one or the other language, following along in whatever edition one was holding. I don’t know what the results of this experiment were, but was curious to know about it. I couldn’t say myself, but would be inclined to throw the English out in favor of the French. As far as the English rewriting of the portions of the book that were initially written in French (some were first written in English), those were practically simultaneous with the French writing. This is also true of the English rewriting or (self-)translation of L’absence au lieu / Absence Where As. That proximity seems important to name. 

The work doesn’t arrive in English as an afterthought in these two instances in particular (however much, I don’t dispute the point, translation is always belated, but I would argue, also, that writing is intrinsically posthumous). The re-visitation was miserable. I say this without reserve! I don’t like to reread myself, and the large number of republished books last year (Five!—four in French, one in English) convinced me of the destructiveness (to my present, and perhaps to my sense of instability) of such activities. Perhaps it was a way of defending the text, and allowing it also its full authorship (even if this too is, in some senses, a lie). In order to accommodate this discomfiture, and hesitation, in each instance, the new edition benefitted from the presence of an additional voice—and this was a condition, for me, of republication. In English, Elena Basile; in French, Hervé Sanson.

KBT How would you characterize the differences and interaction between the French and the English iterations of the text?  There is mention of “corrections” made to this edition. How do you distinguish between amendments made and evolution, or differences over time, left to stand?  

N The postface does make mention of the “corrections [the book] seeks to set in place,” but these are not the simple copy editing changes one might bring to a work in its posthumous iteration. The book itself could be read as an attempt at making corrections (I think here, it might be useful to think of L.W.’s Korrectur) that include the body, as well as language and the translations vehicled by one and the other. In any case, the book is left largely as it was, with a few changes which perhaps demonstrate (to me) the degree to which French was indeed the language of the book (even though it has in effect no original language). Nothing was rewritten, only a postface was added to account for the distances you name. There is no point attempting to re-enter a text once it has been written—out of respect for the decisions made by the writer of the book, and recognizing what kind of stupidities one would risk introducing into it. It would be pure arrogance to attempt to do so. The French edition, also republished in 2018, was not at all modified.

KBT The postface sign-off expresses a wish “to tell the lie of this book,” and a final identification: “the lie has been told, and I am it.”  That I, all and nothing—speaker, book, contradiction. Do you find “lie” has a negative connotation? Beyond the impossibility of truth, it implies a deliberate move, a deceit. Does direct opposition to truth imply that truth exists? 

I’ll resist any attempt to solve the enigma of the postface, since I am in no position now to do so in any case—and besides which, it might be presumptuous of me to claim any such ability. But your question about truth and lie is well taken. I hope it is at least clear that there is a playfulness in the assertion, even if a deadly serious one, and an obvious desire to disrupt the usual points of reference. If these words that tend to form a binary—truth, lie—are to be taken at their face value (“the stagnant water of my face”—Aimé Césaire), then one must determine whether the face is lying, or whether it bears the mark of the lie it has been told! Perhaps all truth is lie, and I do not intend this in the simple fascistic sense of contemporary populist governments. The lie of the truth must be recognized and defended. And if language has anything to do with it, it is a least reliable guide, as Nietzsche certainly recognized in Das Philosophenbuch

The consensus of language is itself a falsification (it denies movement, which by its polysemy it evidences). But I could quote from Camus just as well, L’homme révolté, and the truth defended there is in direct contradiction with revolutionary discourse, the equivalent of murder, which so many postwar intellectuals fervently embraced in order to promote an ideology. (This is presented here precipitously, of course!) Instead, let me leave you with several words more from Aimé Césaire, from “Dit d’errance,” which enlarge the scope of this question, gesture toward broader geographies, and more grave histories, recognizing in this thinking something that escapes historical narratives, the very ones that made Caliban “[cry] to dream again:” All that ever was torn / in me has been torn / all that ever was mutilated / in me has been mutilated. 

K.B. Thors’ debut poetry collection Vulgar Mechanics is out from Coach House Books. Her translation of Stormwarning by Icelandic poet Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir was a finalist for the 2019 PEN Literary Award for Poetry in Translation and won the American Scandinavian Foundation’s Leif & Inger Sjöberg Prize. She is also the Spanish-English translator of Soledad Marambio’s Chintungo: The Story of Someone Else. Born and raised in Alberta oil country, she is now based in Montréal at work on a writing project about fracking, water, and mental health.

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