The freedom of the novel

An interview with Javier Cercas

‘The novel enjoys a freedom that no other literary genre enjoys. This is a privilege, and perhaps also a guarantee of its sustainability, on condition that we know how to make the most of that freedom.’ The novelist Javier Cercas talks history and fiction, and his influences in the Spanish language tradition.

Ag Apolloni: As a Spanish author, how does it feel to write novels knowing that Spain – in the shape of Cervantes – invented the prose novel form? What is your relationship with this tradition?

Javier Cercas: Spain doesn’t have a substantial tradition of novels – I mean to say, compared with the English tradition, or the French – but there’s Cervantes, who is almost a miracle, not only because he creates the modern novel more or less out of nowhere, but also because he practically exhausts it, to the extent that in Don Quixote we find, in embryonic form, all or nearly all the future possibilities of the genre: we novelists who have followed after him are confined to fulfilling him, to completing the colonization of the territory that he founded. I don’t know any comparable case in the history of universal literature. Happily, though, my tradition isn’t only Spain but – as well as the universal tradition – Spanish. That’s to say that the Argentinian Borges belongs to my tradition, and the Mexican Rulfo, and the Colombian Garcia Márquez, because they all write in my language. In this way, I count myself privileged, because the narrative tradition in Spanish has been enriched immeasurably thanks to the great Latin-American storytellers of the twentieth century. In fact, I think that what those great writers have done – starting with Borges, for me the greatest of all – is to restore Spanish narrative to a place of privilege in the western tradition, which it had previously only enjoyed with Cervantes.

In the 20s and 30s of the last century, modernist philosophers such as Ortega y Gasset and Walter Benjamin talked about ‘the death of the novel’. Then post-modernism removed the purity of the genre. How do you see the novel today?

Well, people have been talking about the death of the novel almost since its birth, or at least since its birth as a serious genre comparable with the other classical genres; in the mid-nineteenth century the brothers Goncourt were already talking about it. I’d say that the novelists who talked about the death of the novel are dead, or half dead as novelists. Compared with poetry, or with theatre, the novel is a recent genre, which is still in its nappies, and it’s certain that its future depends on what we novelists do with it: if we restrict ourselves to the repetition of stale forms – starting with the avant-garde form – then the novel will surely wind up dead; but we don’t have to do this. In truth, the guarantee of the novel’s endurance is in its own nature, a nature endlessly free, malleable, adaptable, which means that the novel can change continuously, at the same time as it is nourished by other forms. In fact, the history of the novel can be read like this: with Balzac it assimilated history, with Flaubert poetry, with the great German novelists of the first half of the last century it assimilated the essay, and recently it seems as though it wants to assimilate journalism, and so on. Such is the novel: an omnivorous and mutating monster, which changes when it assimilates other genres and stretches its own boundaries. Without wanting to go too far, they tell me that my novels have something of chronicles, of philosophy, of history, of biography, of autobiography; and that’s all true, but it is because the novel allows within its own breast the co-existence of all genres that feed off each other. The novel enjoys a freedom that no other literary genre enjoys. This is a privilege, and perhaps also – I stress this – a guarantee of its sustainability, on condition that we know how to make the most of that freedom and to be continuously refreshed.

The narrator in your book The Impostor often repeats the phrase “Fiction saves, reality kills”, which sounds like an echo of Nietzsche’s saying: We have art lest we perish from the truth. What about you – do you see literature as an escape from the tempests of reality?

Definitely, yes; but also as the best way to understand reality. Literature is an escape, but also a weapon, an instrument of understanding. In any case, literature isn’t always fiction. I’d say about the phrase in The Impostor that it changes its meaning during the course of the novel (my novels, like Rock’n’Roll, or the music of Bach, are built on the basis of repetitions and variations, and with leitmotivs that are sustained while changing their meaning on the way). It’s clear that we need fiction, because reality is always insufficient – when it is not terrible or overwhelming. ‘Human kind cannot bear too much reality’ runs the line in Eliot, and it’s true. But it’s also true that we need reality; we can’t survive with fiction alone. This is what the protagonist of The Impostor cannot understand: he invents another life – a heroic, epic, sentimental life – to free himself from the cowardly, mediocre and dreadful greyness of his own life, in the process transforming himself into a kind of monster, into the greatest impostor in history, as Mario Vargas Llosa put it. We can’t live without fiction, but nor can we live without reality.

A character in Soldiers of Salamis says: it seems to me that a civilized country is one where a man doesn’t have to waste his time with politics. Your thinking about the relationship between politics and civilization, is it the same as this character’s, or something different?

It’s a little different. I’d observe that the word ‘politics’ comes from polis – meaning city – and the city belongs to us all and depresses us all; we’re all obliged to participate, in whatever way, in politics. But I’d also say that a civilized country is one in which politics doesn’t invade private spaces, doesn’t go too far, doesn’t become dramatic and doesn’t require us to put aside all the other dimensions of life because it is all-absorbing. When that happens, I’d say that a country has serious problems: it loses civilization and falls into barbarism. Don’t forget the Chinese curse: ‘May you live in interesting times’. I don’t want to live in interesting times; I want to live in a boring country, with a Swiss boredom, or at least a Scandinavian; I’m a big fan of public tedium and of the political system that, for the time being, protects you best – that’s to say democracy. Entertainments, passions, adventures – I enjoy them, but in my private life, not the public one: in love, in literature, in the cinema or in music. In the other part, a fatal boredom.

When I read your works, I see two methods: the investigative method (which follows the example of Enric Marco) and the auto-reflective method (which reveals the dilemmas, problems and quests of the narrator who has borrowed your name). Is this linked to your background as a journalist?

I was never really a journalist – although many people think so; I think they confuse me with one of my protagonists. It’s true that for some years now I’ve been writing a column in El Pais every two weeks, but for me this doesn’t mean you’re a journalist. However, it is true that some of my books use the methods that journalists use – but also the methods that historians, essayists and philosophers use (and musicians, or painters). It’s what I said before, about the omnivorous character of the novel. In truth, I was formed above all by philology – for several years I’ve lectured in literature in a small university near Barcelona – and I believe that philology has taught me a number of things that have subsequently served me well in my novels. And, certainly, I’ve also learned a great deal while writing for a newspaper: for example, how I can say more complicated things in the most transparent way possible; or how to use a prose that’s synthetic, fast, direct. Montaigne tells us that nothing is achieved without joy; I strive for this, and so I strive to learn everything – including how to answer interviews.

The French theoretician Jean Ricardou has said that the (modernist) novel isn’t the writing of an adventure, but the adventure of a writing. How would you contrive to adapt that theme into a pretext to explain the story of the creation of a novel?

It’s born naturally. I often say – and the formula recalls Ricardou’s, which I didn’t know – that I write adventure novels about the adventure of writing novels. That’s to say, novels in which a story is told, or several stories – often from the past, from a recent past that hasn’t finished yet – but at the same time show the process of making a novel: my doubts, my perplexities, my anxieties, my investigations and so on (or, more precisely, those of the narrator); and the latter is often more important than the former, and is always what gives the full meaning. I think that what happens, among other things, is that I don’t want to protect the reader from the novel-making process itself, because it is part of the novel itself. I also think that this method is entirely the opposite of that of the realist novel, which aims to hide the fact that it’s a novel. My novels do the contrary: they reveal their mechanisms; they display their character as novels and from that starting-point they create a new bond with the reader. And now I recall that Italo Calvino – one of the literary heroes of my youth, whom I continue to respect greatly – says in a letter that there are books in which to show the process of their making is almost a moral obligation. I think that that’s what happens in many of my books.

According to Faulkner, whom you often cite, the past is never dead – it’s not even past. Is this the pastime of past time, as Linda Hutcheon defines the post-modern, or do you strive to find the moral of things that have happened and to open closed issues?

I strive to tell the truth, or at least to seek it (which unavoidably also means opening up issues that are, in theory, closed: Walter Benjamin says that this is what memory does; I believe that literature, which is another form of memory, does the same). I want to say that we live in a kind of dictatorship or tyranny of the now, in large part raised by the overwhelming and growing power of the media (this power has very good consequences, but also very bad ones). For the media, the now is only today, in this instant; what happened yesterday, what happened this morning, is the past, history, and what happened a month ago is verging on prehistory, something for the archives and the libraries and which appeals to certain curiosities such as my works, but which has nothing to do with the now. This is an utter falsification of reality, which stops you from understanding it (or at least understanding it in its full complexity). The past, and above all the past for which there is still memory and evidence – which is what interests me and is what appears in my novels – is not the past but the present; that’s to say, it’s a dimension of the present, without which the present is crippled. For this reason I don’t write historical novels: I write novels about the present, albeit about a present broader than what is usually considered present, a present that also includes the recent past. And from this perspective, many of my novels – without always being conscious of the fact, especially at the start – are a kind of battle against the dictatorship of the now.

Cesare Pavese said that what we remember are not days, but moments. You wrote a novel titled Anatomy of a Moment. What value have moments in history?

Decisive, in some cases. That was true of the moment around which Anatomy of a Moment is set, the moment on 23 February 1981 – six years after the death of Franco – when some soldiers nostalgic for Francoism entered the Spanish Parliament shooting, aiming to put an end to democracy, and three men decided to stay in their seats instead of lying on the floor like everyone else (which was the logical thing to do: when there’s shooting, you protect yourself). In that moment it wasn’t only the fate of those three decisive figures that crystallized, but also the fate of my country: this was the real end of the dictatorship, the real start of democracy and the end of three centuries of civil war and military coups. I certainly didn’t know any of this when I started writing the book; I discovered it while I was writing – or better to say when I finished, because literature is always an exercise in understanding (if it’s not, it’s not literature). Here’s the truth: there are moments when it seems that history is being decided, personal and collective history, moments full of meaning. The issue is identifying which those are.

Where does it come from, this desire to write novels without fiction?

More than a desire, it was a need; or at least that’s how I felt at one particular time. For me, writing a novel consists of posing a complex question, in the most complex way possible (and not answering it, or at least not answering it clearly, unmistakably and abruptly, but in an ambiguous, contradictory, multi-faceted and essentially ironic fashion: in truth, the answer to the question is the question itself – meaning, the novel itself). And because every question is different, the way of formulating it should necessarily be different. To put it another way, every novel should establish its own rules. Well then, at a certain point you come to understand how in some of my novels it was necessary to abandon fiction. For example, in Anatomy of a Moment. As I said before, that book concentrates on the last attempted military coup in Spain, on 23 February 1981. It’s more or less the Spanish equivalent of the assassination of Kennedy – I mean, the exact moment when all the demons of Spanish history converge – and, because I was working on it over three years, I understood that like the killing of Kennedy this attempt at a military coup was a kind of collective fiction: and just as there is no north American who doesn’t have a theory about the killing of Kennedy, no Spaniard doesn’t have a theory about the coup of 1981; and in fact, as with theories about the killing of Kennedy, it’s been literally buried under a collection of fictions, lies, ridiculous hypotheses, etc. So, when I became conscious of this (three years after I’d started the book), I realized that there was no point writing a conventional novel about this issue, that there was no point writing a fiction about another fiction, that it would be just too much, literally irrelevant, and that it was much better to try to disinter the reality hidden under all those those fictions and to use it to write a history without fiction, interwoven with reality, although this doesn’t mean that it’s not a novel. Well, that’s Anatomy of a Moment. Should a novel always be a fiction? My answer to the question is: why? Cervantes himself gave us novelists complete freedom to do the best we can for our novels, and if it’s better for a novel to avoid fiction, why not do it? Perhaps that’s the problem with novelists: we have such enormous freedom and we don’t always dare to use it.

Javier Cercas at the Göteborg Book Fair 2014. Photo by Albin Olsson. Source: Wiki commons

Authors, in truth, need a mask. Your mask is the narrator. But this mask has some of your features, including your name. Why?

Again, because my novels require this, or so at least it seems to me. But if you look at if closely, that mask isn’t always exactly the same, it’s always different, though it’s true that it often resembles me, sometimes greatly. The first time I used the mask of Javier Cercas was in The Soldiers of Salamis, because at some point I realized that all the figures in the book had real names – in fact, the book could be read as a false chronicle – and I realized that the narrator-investigator should have one too, and this name couldn’t be anything other than my own. Put simply, it was necessary for the book to be consistent with itself, with the rules that it itself had created. And beyond that, though it’s true that a mask is what hides us, above all it’s what reveals us – ‘mask’ is what ‘persona’ means in Latin – such that those Javier Cercases of my novels are probably more me than I am myself.

I know that many writers avoid the question of influence, and indeed in place of the term influence critics have started to use the term ‘association’? Reading your works I’ve discovered that you associate with Borges, Bolaño, Roth, Coetzee and so on. Based on what criteria did you establish your ‘association’?

This business of influences is truly complex, because we authors aren’t always conscious of them (when we’re not dissembling or deviating from them). As for the writers you mentioned, undoubtedly for me the most important for me is Borges, whom – like Kafka – I started to read when I was fifteen and whom I haven’t stopped reading – like Kafka: he is, for me, simply the best writer in Spanish since Cervantes, and one of the two of three best of the twentieth century in any language. Philip Roth is a great writer and I’ve read many of his novels, but he seems rather uneven and I don’t think he’s been very important for me. I very much like Coetzee, who seems to me one of the best living writers; and as for Bolaño, well, he was above all a friend, as well as a brilliant writer. But I’m afraid that, as with Coetzee so with Bolaño, I came to know them too late for them to have an effect on me. I wish they had done! As Picasso put it, originality doesn’t consist in resembling no one, but in resembling the whole world.

Published 21 February 2019
Original in Spanish
Translated by Robert Wilton
First published by Symbol 14 (2018) (Spanish, English and Albanian versions)

Contributed by Symbol © Javier Cercas


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