Interview: Raymond Federman
in conversation with Charles Bernstein
for the radio program LineBreak from PennSound
This piece was first published in Journal of Experimental Fiction 23 / Writers Club Press, 2002, as ‘The Laugh that Laughs at the Laugh: Writing from and about the Pen Man, Raymond Federman’, ed. Eckhard Gerdes.
Charles Bernstein: Ray, what’s the use of fiction? What’s the use of stories?
Raymond Federman: The use of story. The story for me is what gets you nowhere. I’m not a story teller. I am one who denies storytelling as I try to tell the story. So everything I write is a screen behind which the story is at play. When you read my books, when you look at the pages, when you look at the language, you are first looking at a screen which is trying to prevent the story from coming out. Why? Because all the stories have been told. The same old stories.
Bernstein: So what’s the use in telling them again?Federman: Ah! Well, it’s fun, Charles, it’s fun. It’s the story telling. It’s the telling of the story. The great Samuel Beckett had the Unnamable say in The Unnamable, ‘How can I tell the teller from the told?’ I’m not interested in the told, I’m interested in the teller, the voice, the rhythm, the music of the teller.
Bernstein: Well, how about historical memory? How about collective memory? Does fiction serve to make memory possible, to make sure that people don’t forget things?
Federman: As I have often said, as my characters have said in my novels, I make no distinction between memory and imagination. I don’t think we really remember that — that is, I don’t think I remember — I imagine what I think has happened to myself or to others in the past in history. I reinvent.
Bernstein: Well, you’re a survivor of the Holocaust — your family was killed during the systematic extermination of the European Jews during World War Two. We have many memories of this systematic extermination project. What do you think that such a memorial should represent?
Federman: If they were really memories, I don’t think I could have survived with these things inside of me. So what I have to do is deny these memories, these evils. I have to still believe, as I often do, that one of these days around a street corner I’m going to meet my sisters. I still believe that. Strongly. I doubt my father will be there, because my father was something else, but I have to believe that somehow they are still around. Memory closes things. Imagination opens up.
Bernstein: In the last years there have been many monuments to the systematic extermination of the European Jews, and yet your work, which I would say is one of the most significant memorials to that historical moment, in many ways veers into abstraction and digression. It does not represent those events. It refuses to represent those events. Are you evading history? Do you contrast facts and memory?
Federman: Oh, I have been asked that question so often, am I evading? Yes, I think on the one hand I am evading, on the other hand I am transgressing and exorcizing. I don’t know exactly the word. Let me go back to your museums and your memorials. What has happened to the Holocaust is that it has become a tourist attraction. People go there as tourists, and that bothers me a great deal. Just as there are people go and visit concentration camps, and they have been remade into nice, hygienic and — and they have removed the drama from them and you go and visit them. I found myself doing that too, unfortunately. I don’t think I would want to visit the one in Washington, the new Museum of the Holocaust, because that’s what it is — it’s a tourist attraction. I prefer going to the Guggenheim.
Bernstein: You have a wonderful passage in Smiles on Washington Square which sort of speaks to this issue.
Federman: Oh yes, my old Moinous. You have to understand that Moinous is situated in all my novels and of course one understands Moinous—‘me us’—we are all implicated in this.
Bernstein: That’s the character’s name, Moinous.
Federman: It’s the character’s basis, of course — the French word moi, ‘me,’ and nous, ‘us.’ ‘Me us.’ It’s also my e-mail name. It’s also the license plate of my car.
Bernstein: You make light of facts rooted in history, but shouldn’t we be solemn in the face of these horrendous events that occur historically.
Federman: Yes and no, because there are so many ways to look at these facts, many ways of distorting them, of revisiting them, of retelling them. I learned this when I was a student at Columbia University taking a course on Medieval French literature. In Medieval French literature we were reading these texts by these two — I forget the guys’ names — who went on the Crusades with the Crusaders. And each one wrote an entirely different version of this thing. One was glorifying it in the name of God and in the name of whatever, and the other was showing what a stupid kind of adventure this was, which was all greed, it was all to get rich, to obtain, to find women or carpets out there, to find gold and so on — it had nothing to do with the original idea. And this struck me at the time — I was still young, relatively young — that indeed you can take the same fact and give it two, three, as many interpretations as you want.
Bernstein: But also you’re very funny about it as opposed to the terribly solemn and serious memorials that we are perhaps more accustomed to. Your work seems to mock not only the possibility of accurate representation but also the idea that mourning should be a solemn affair. Should mourning be funny?
Federman: As you know, my work has been extremely well received in Germany, of all place — the great irony of my life — and I’ve been asked that question over and over again: ‘Mr. Federman, how can you laugh—’ Well, the kind of laughter that I laugh needs to be defined also ‘—about these things, about these events?’ And my answer is very simple: I am a survivor. That I survived this is a very happy occasion. I am still alive. That is an occasion for, well, if not great laughter, at least some kind of joy… I hope you can — that you hear that… the laughter and the nonseriousness of what I do.
Bernstein: But I can also hear the sadness and great seriousness, too.
Federman: I just received a marvelous letter from a cousin of mine who was also a survivor. She was three years younger than me when her parents and brothers were deported. She now lives in Israel. She’s the main character in one of my novels, To Whom It May Concern, and she’s been working on a kibbutz for the last 50 years. And she just read the novel I just finished in French, called La Fourrure de ma tante Rachel, and she wrote me. I was afraid to send it to her because it deals with our personal history to some extent — very much distorted, reinvented, reimagined. And she wrote me a splendid letter that says exactly what you say. ‘It’s so funny,’ she says, ‘and yet so sad.’
Bernstein: ‘Black humor’ isn’t really quite the right word for it, because it’s something other than black humor.
Federman: I think in the same way, and probably I hope I’ve learned it from my great mentor Beckett the same kind of sadness and joy and laughter you find in Beckett.
Bernstein: Yes, but unlike Beckett, you are actually more sort of hysterical and more histrionic.
Federman: Well, I describe it this way. You remember the marvelous passage in Molloy where Molloy is trying to work out his system to suck his 16 stones and so on. You have there the Beckettian acrobat who does a beautiful set of somersaults and then falls back on his feet and everything is erased. I am the acrobat who falls down on his face, and so you don’t remember the somersault. You remember the failure of the guy flat on his face. And that’s where you laugh — when the acrobat or the clown does that, that’s where the laughter is. That’s the kind of laughter I think I am trying to achieve. ‘And therefore all good storytellers go to the Beckett gate on their way to heaven…’
Bernstein: Ray, what is ‘the voice in the closet’? Whose voice? What’s the voice saying?Federman: ‘The Voice In the Closet’, for those who don’t know it, is a twenty-page text. Some people have referred to it as a prose poem, others as nonsense, as an unreadable piece of fiction, as a novella — I don’t know what it is. I wrote it both in French and English. What it is, it is probably the core of my entire work, and in it, the voice that speaks, the voice that you hear… is probably the voice of the fiction that ‘federman’ has written, the voice that is rebelling against the author, the voice saying to the author, ‘federman, you have failed over and over again to tell my story.’
Bernstein: Now is ‘federman’ you? Because you refer to yourself in the third person.
Federman: Yes, because in the text the word ‘federman’ is inscribed, and the moment you inscribe your name in a text it’s just a word, it’s another word, it’s a fiction, it’s a fictitious word, just as the pronoun ‘I’ or the pronoun ‘he’ is a word, as Kafka of course taught us when he wrote K. So, ‘federman’ with a small ‘f,’ by the way.
Bernstein: This is a series of words without punctuation, isn’t it?
Federman: No punctuation, written in a form that each page was originally typed on a typewriter without ever hyphenating a word. I didn’t use a computer in those days that could justify left and right margin. It’s a perfect squares — I used a ruler to make sure it was a perfect square of words— and it’s twenty squares of words within themselves, you might say. The only way one could really read ‘The Voice in the Closet’ perfectly would be if you could set down and composite twenty pages on transparent paper and look down on it and see this perfect cube of words, and which of course would make no sense.
Bernstein: And would be very dark and dense.
Federman: Well, dark and dense it will be. It kind of — really, it’s a prison, it’s a cell, it’s a box — it’s of course, it refers to that box where my mother pushed me, the little closet where I was hidden when they were being taken away. I wanted the box of words not say what it was, but to be what it was. I should point out that there is more than one voice in the closet. The main voice, the one that says ‘I’ is probably the voice of also the little boy who has been pushed into the closet. It is a voice of— it is history, it is the voice of his story, of his fiction, but one can also hear the voice of the typewriter, which the writer mistakes as his and probably the voice of the parents and other voices which the speaker mistakes.
Bernstein: You mentioned before that your work was well known and well received in Germany. Do you think your work is better understood in Germany or in Europe than it is in the United States?
Federman: It’s not really the question of understood. It has been read there. I doubt that it has really been read in America except by a few fanatics, including yourself, perhaps. But the books, because some of them played with a lot of typography and others were considered unreadable because of the syntax or whatever or the mixture of French and English, they were looked at, but I don’t think they were penetrated. I don’t think they were assessed. They are beginning to. There have been a couple of interesting pieces written lately, but I think they were looked upon more as a curiosity and therefore declared experimental, innovative, whatever, and shoved aside with all that other stuff we call experimental. So they really never — when the first novel was translated in Germany, which happened to be Double or Nothing, which is very difficult, an unreadable book to most people, it was immediately read. I was convinced of that by some seventy-five reviews, articles that appeared as soon as the book came out and read intelligently. Yes, they paid attention to the typography, to the madness, to what in America they called the gimmicks, but they took them seriously and saw that they were an intricate part of what these books were doing.
Bernstein: Are you a poet or are you a fiction writer? Or does it make any difference?
Federman: I wanted so badly, Charles, when I was much younger, so to be a poet, and for years — and I have written a lot of poetry — but gradually realized that my poetry has a quality to it not unlike my fiction which is that it does not put those who read poetry at ease, who find, ‘Is this poetry? This is not how poetry should be.’ I mean, you are aware of that because your poetry also raises the same questions. A lot of people must say that — does Charles, does he really write poetry or is he writing some kind of a new recipe? And this has puzzled people.
Bernstein: Actually it puzzles the people who try to make the food based on the recipes. They’re the really puzzled ones.
Federman: On top of that, as you know I work in two traditions — the American Anglo-Saxon and the French. I remember years ago sending some poems to Robert Bly, who had a magazine called The 60s — remember The 60s? — Robert Bly. I had no idea what it was. He wrote me a very nice letter, encouraging me, said he thinks if I stay with it there’s hope for me but he couldn’t publish my poems because they were too numeric in the French fashion. He hadn’t any knowledge that I was a French-born writer. There is a bell of that French tradition, whatever — Speaking of ‘the French fashion’, In his Second Manifesto published in I973, F. Le Lionnais declares: ‘The effort of Oulipian creation deals principally with all the formal aspects of literature: constraints, programs or structures which are alphabetic, consonantal, vocalic, syllabic, phonetic, graphic, prosodic, rhythmic, numeric, and rhyme related.’
Bernstein: There is not enough outdoor virility in your work, I think, for Robert Bly. Not enough male bonding.
Federman: Yes, but I continue to write poetry. Some of it gets published in magazines. But I don’t think anyone, including yourself, ever thinks of me as a poet…
Bernstein: There is a lot of jazz rhythm in that. Is that important to you.
Federman: Very important. Jazz has been, I think — it’s been said and I have said it in interviews also that — you know at one time I thought of being a jazz musician — I played and fooled around with the saxophone and even played a little bit — not professionally, but with various gigs — but jazz is — just as before when we talking about the importance of laughter and my existence, the importance of jazz, that jazz is giving me — and I listen all the time and I play all the time — this sense that in jazz there is a certain freedom, the sense of being able to improvise, to go anywhere you want, and the same time the same sadness that is buried deep into jazz.
Bernstein: Or the blues.
Federman: The blues. But every jazz piece has it, even when it’s bornbastic you sense that at the bottom of it that is —
Bernstein: How about improvisation? Because your work plays a lot with a feeling of improvisation, of just going on and the pleasure of the telling of the story. At the same time your work is remarkably composed.
Federman: It gives the impression on the surface of pure chaos and of digressions all over the place, but yes, I work very hard at it, page after page, screen after screen, reshaping every word to put it in place in order for it to achieve why I hope it is there. Perhaps even more so with the early work with the music — Take It or Leave It as it was described once on the radio as a long tenor saxophone solo, and it has this quality, kind of Sonny Rollins kind of screeching.
Bernstein: One double image is male / female. Lots of the women in your work are the subject of sexual pursuit by the men. There’s lots of stuff that would be disturbing I think to contemporary readers, in terms of what’s now called gender politics. Lots of stuff that might strike people as sexist, lots of sexist behavior recounted and recounted again in those novels. What do you think about that?
Federman: This has been pointed out to me not only by people but by my daughters themselves when they were old enough to read the book, ‘Pop! This is sexist!’ The early works, I no doubt that Double or Nothing and Take It or Leave It — and I was able to when I redid recently two years ago a new edition of Double or Nothing to tone down some of the words. Yes, but look, I was born in that generation of those who were sexist in the 1940s and 1950s — it was in our language, it was in our attitude, it was the way we ‘conquered’ women in those days, and I think gradually, if one follows the work, yes, under the influence, in fact, of my daughters, and this is strange — I think of myself as a great feminist, in fact, very aware of it. But I’m also aware that it’s part of my make up, part of my history, and it’s there. And I’ll assume all the blame if there’s blame to be assumed.
Bernstein: Well, I wasn’t so much asking you to assume blame as to think about what the desperation of the kind of male sexuality in the work represents, especially the kind of coming of age in the army, this person, dislocated, who literally drops down by parachute into an army barracks in the South, and just recounting the kind of sexual politics there, in the South at the time, in the army anyway.
Federman: There is also the fact that it is not always specific when the action of the novels are taking place. Most of my novels are situated somewhere in that post-World War Two period that goes to about the middle of the 1950s, that period when I was myself lost in the great belly of America, so this is how this young protagonist, persona, etc., that is in those novels acts. It was also that the sexual aggressiveness was part of the survival, you might say.