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Interview with the writer Radovan Brenkus (Slovak Perspectives 2009/5)

Why to write? Peter Pišťanek is said not to enjoy the writing. What about you?

Maybe, he realized that writing has no sense if it is only writing for writing. Writing is really not about writing. It is about the creation of fictional reality and the question is whether it can offer something also to the author. If writing fills him with the peculiar world where he feels it is stronger than he is, writing has the sense. Then comes the joy, although the writer goes through the despair of own characters. Since I write sporadically, in my case, this hobby relates to the joy. If it to be the contrary, I would not resort to it. Of course, there are so called deaf periods, too, when the author has the feeling that writing can not cross its shadow. Why to force oneself to write a short story, when the inspiration has not matured into the story? Literature does not vanish either in this epoch; poet simply lives by his poetry. His vision of the world is a curse and blessing for the whole life, although he would never write a single verse again. If the promising poet gives up the writing of poems and the way of life related to it, he has never been a poet. Need of devoting only to other activities is a simple consequence that can be used for hiding the failures and not the reason for excusing such a choice. Why to write? At least in order to record the epoch, its social space. To record it by the new vision, maybe as the testimony for further generations. There can be a lot of reasons, but no writer is in a state of giving a single subjective reason.

"It is not possible to find another story as one’s own," said (wrote) Ivan Klíma. Do you agree? Do you think your story is so urgent that you have to deal with it in poems and prose at all costs?

I agree. At the same time, you have captured one of the fundamental problems of literature. Generally, it is said that the concrete life itself doesn’t have the literary basis, although some extraordinary lives exist and they are more incredible than many fictions together. On the contrary, life is a basis of literature. What’s going on? If the story is to be authentic, it has to be own story. So is it able to speak to others? Yes, ironically, it is. Actually, various human beings have a lot in common. And when the survived experience transforms into impersonal attitude, the story can be urgent. Since the turnovers of personal experience don’t take place very often, I rather belong to rarely-writing authors. It is difficult to find the right degree of creating such a story that would not sound as fabricated. If the life inspirations are evaluated as the literary ones, it is for the writer an unquestionable sign that he hid the own experience very well. Naturally, it can seem as missing and the story as fabricated. But thanks to that, it can shock and surprise others by the unexpected end. So what means the author for the reader after all? Story of the event repeated among the millions of people on this planet, does not belong to the artistic literature, it surprises only the readers who have not survived it. The work of art is a deformed mirror that, on one hand reshapes the reality, but on the other we can see ourselves more truthful than we appear to be in the reality. I would say one example for all, in reference to urgency of the story. I have been speculating for a long time about how it would be if I lived forever, no matter in what kind of paradise. Man has always been fighting and dealing with death and he longs for immortality. When I wanted to point out this problem, the vampire type of main protagonist occurred to me and together with certain personal experiences, everything interlocked so it was more than necessary to create the short story The Thirst. It was the combination of several circumstances that inspired its formation. If I didn’t feel that it lives its own world, that dealing with the story is not already mine, but it also relates to others, I would not definitely write it. Anyway, I’m not obliged to write.

Slovak literary critic has rather criticized your short story debut Hell Returns. One or two positive responses came from "Czech Woods and Groves". Igor Hochel, Marta Součková, Dana Kršáková are the personalities who can’t be ignored in Slovakia. On the contrary, they represent serious literary-critical voices and what is more, the Hochels are the poetic authorities. How are you coping with this?

No how, because there is nothing I should cope with. In our country nobody is a prophet (laughter). Now, I’m going to be serious. There were some positive responses in Slovak media, when we drop incompetent critics who influence the public opinion. The author must have an overview of the period professional critics; otherwise he will get nowhere. I highly respect Igor Hochel, only few people have such serious approach to the literary-critical activity as he has. Basically, he noticed very well that my situation won’t be easy. Real personalities of Slovak literary critic are Matuška, Votruba, Hamada and Bžoch. They represent a science the questions and answers of which are unknown to me. Rakús knew how to inspire me in order to be more interested in the literary science. I appreciate the natural authorities, not the artificial ones. I don’t need to comment on other professional critics. Probably they didn’t like the fictive kind of prose; the art is undoubtedly the matter of taste, too. It would be ideal if the values were preferred to the taste. We can’t forget that there is a lot of intelligent readers. They create the opinion themselves by comparison of book with its review. The critic has the right to think that two plus two is five and I don’t disprove it to him. Since everyone perceives the work of art on the basis of own sentiments, thinking, experiences and life attitudes, it is normal that the Hell Returns couldn’t resonate in the born optimists. It is a severe book about our lowest weaknesses observing the helplessness in all its manifestations. Maybe, it is a controversial book, but I don’t demand the absolute truth. The author can not afford it. If the reader wants to relax and not to think, he definitely shouldn’t choose this book. On the other hand, nobody commands him to be the co-author, instead of possible tiredness from completing the text, which is supposed to occur at the artistic reader, he can manage with the excitement experience, atmosphere or the story itself. It is important to return to the book willingly, find something new, something what wasn’t found before. It is similar with the poetry, I can’t satisfy everyone. During one presentation, the participant stood up, swore and in protest, he left. Discussion about which works of art are better and which are worse is the same nonsense like endless arguments about who has higher value, Bach or Vivaldi. Of course, it has significance at another level, relatively in the relation to other existing works, in case they have a common line. Therefore it is interesting to observe in what way and on what comment the professional critics who don’t see farther as the author. What have certain critics done for Pavol Suržin so far? I believe that younger generation will change the situation, but I’m concerned that many of them are following the methods of the old generation. The evaluation of others in our society is also strange. When they see the bear fishing, they judge according to the fact that he is doing very well, that he consciously knows the law of the refraction of light and benefits from it. These individuals are convinced that the bear even knows how to mathematically deduce other physical laws. They interpret certain phenomena in their own way; actually, they neither can do it differently. If I were in their place, I would not emphasize the education, experience and position; it could throw the worse light on them. I already know the taste of many critics and I know exactly what they want. They are not the decisive authority who has the last word. If I did an experiment and sent my texts under pseudonym to the magazine where I have the closed door, they would definitely publish them. Does it make sense to write per order? Such editor-in-chief would come off like a sclerotic teacher who would be given his own work by the students and he would evaluate it as insufficient.

The reservations to your prose didn’t relate to the topics you have dealt with, it was something different. At least I understood it in this way: you are using the poetic language that is sometimes clumsy, ponderous.

Again, it’s a matter of point of view because several things were criticized. Also the topics I have dealt with, some people think that my works lack the invention, according to others, it is a new vision. Is the story descriptive, inauthentic, uninteresting, boring or does it have the secret that is, in tension, revealed into certain result? Some people say one thing, others say the direct opposite. Whom should I believe? Are the metaphorical descriptions in prose meaningless or are meaningless the lyrical compressions in a few places by which one can say more than by direct lengthy descriptions? Babbling the nonsense, verbalism, decadent ornamentalism or unambiguously formulated sentences that are understood by many readers and each short story is read at a blow? Convulsive or excellent stylistics? What kinds of values are found in the Hell Returns, if there are any? Answer yourself; you have your own reason. To find a critic who would be able to argue for the answers to these questions convincingly is like finding a needle in a haystack.

You are also engaged in the literary critic. What do you feel when you are dispraising a book of an author or even the author himself? Some great guys, literary critics, consider the cleaning of the literary space to be their sacred duty, but sometimes I have the feeling that literary cleaning does not fill their souls with sorrow (and it should, shouldn’t it?) but quite the opposite, it causes them the unadulterated bliss.

With this question you hit the right note (laughter). Hell Returns are also about the pain that causes delight. We are like this: we think something, say another thing and act differently. Our behaviour is not subordinated only to the consciousness. We realize and admit it rarely. The deprecation of my latest book quasi confirmed this fact. There are various periods in our lives, sometimes even the happiest people go mad and they don’t go out from the flat for weeks. Someone gets over the corpse apathetically and then the air annoys him in affect. Sometimes a small short circuit in relation to external circumstances is enough. The top-ranking man can break his hand against the wall, the self-confident, level-headed young man can make a suicide attempt or the rejected, independent woman can disfigure her body. Intellectuals, who hardly admit they could get into such situation, are more endangered. If they yield to a fit of weeping with a bottle in hands, they don´t want us to know how they were writhing on the carpet. Life is a mad movement in the contrasts. But I don´t want to generalize. Not all the people act in one way and think in another, the society wouldn’t get far like this. Although I have some reservations to Elfriede Jelinek, her novel The Piano Player represents something what can’t be passed over. Fortunately, the female writer pointed to this, man would be crucified by the feminists. Strong passions and fantasy, conflict of unfulfilled desires with social conventions and emotions of the exclusion from society, all these naturally contribute to interpersonal relations in a way that the literary critic great guys have to exist, too. At most I can say that I’m trying not to integrate among them. I’m really not aware of dispraising the author himself. I’m indifferent to him, I evaluate only the text. In the review, I talk about him formally. Since there are certain standards and I can’t afford to go under them, e.g. because of constant readers, I rather select the books about which I can write something more positive. I don’t want to torment my soul needlessly by making the enemies. I already have enough of them.

I have the best selling book titles on the shelf that I named the intelligent commerce, although in some cases I have doubts about the attribute intelligent. Do you read these books (I mean the authors as Hvorecký, Matkin or from the neighbours e.g. Masłowska, Denezhkina etc., in order to compress into a defined term for the shelf in question) or do you prefer browsing through Kafka or another metaphysics, physics, since you are a graduated physicist (and mathematician)?

The intelligent commerce can be included in a field of the non-fiction literature that also disposes of the pulp fiction. I have nothing against such literature, simply it exists, because the economic conditions of the market are adapting to the needs of inhabitants. As the popular music has its listeners, so has the non-fiction literature its readers. I personally do not belong to them. I appreciate my time to that extent that I won’t afford to waste a part of it on reading such a book. In a constant hurry, I’m glad to get to farther masterpiece of the world literature on the friends recommendation. I probably won’t manage to read a lot from the fiction, but it has its advantages. Actually, I’m still catching up on it, because in the past I focused more on the popular-science literature, non-fiction literature and monographs from the field of natural sciences and humanities. However, it doesn’t mean that, in literature, I’m not opened to any work of art. It doesn’t have to have the metaphysical basis. Yes, Kafka or Dostoyevsky are the world literature giants, but they don’t belong to my matters of the heart. Steinbeck or Bulgakov spoke to me much more, not taking into consideration the poetry. When we are speaking about Slovak intelligent commerce, I usually read its extracts in the dailies and literary papers. From certain period of time, it hasn’t occurred to me yet that I would resort to a book on the basis of its extract. I have the experience that in most cases if the extract itself is not interesting, the whole text won’t surprise, either. Since I’m working in the Institute of Experimental Physics of the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Košice, browsing through the technical physical articles and schoolbooks is the inevitable good for me. Of course, many people dislike the individuals like me, wondering why they push their way from the exact sciences to the art, as though the science was without intuition and fantasy, and not realizing that even a heart has its own rules. It can regulate the reason in order not to triumph over the America’s discovery. The authors themselves, who dislike it, are wrong about the trivial knowledge; they serve their own electrical goulash, often on the abstract-meditative level, to the simple-minded readers and critics, who consider it to be the basic course of Slovak philosophical poetry. Groch or Litvák set out for a journey on which they won’t catch up with Buzássy.

What do you have in mind with that not catching up?

I mean exactly what I have said. Buzássy realizes that there are too many pitfalls in the poetry in order to afford the pseudo-philosophizing. A lot of temptations exist and they can easily gain control over the author, it’s up to him whether he falls into a trap. I’m not going to specify them, they are generally known, not only among the erudite critics. Hardly any author knows how to judge own abilities and estimate what he can reach for.

You are signed under the literary (cultural) periodical WHERE. Its zero number was published, but others won’t be probably, because the project was not financially supported. In what way should have been this periodical exceptional or at least different from others at our literary scene of the established periodicals with similar orientation?

I would yield this matter to the editor-in-chief full responsibility and I would not interfere in his competence. Richard Kitta has experiences with the multimedia art; he knows what is done abroad. He has recently returned from Germany where people don’t sleep, they live by the art. He knows the alternative possibilities of interconnecting the literature with other kinds of art; he would certainly use his knowledge in this periodical. I think it would be different from other established periodicals of similar type by monitoring the relation between literature and other artistic fields. Personally, I was not very pleased with the creation of a new periodical, because in our small country we have a great number of literary periodicals. Anyway, each of them should create its own image clearly different from others, in order not to resemble like two peas in a pod. At the same time, I’m not against the creation of such all-Slovakia distributed periodical. It would be certainly unique in eastern Slovakia, because in this part of the country, there is no such periodical. The future will show whether such periodical project could be financially possible.

Why the publishing house Pectus? Several publishing houses of one man created in Slovakia after November 1989 have already resigned, concerning the top-ranking ones. Despite such situation, you have established the publishing house Pectus and you already have the first experience: through the grants, the Ministry of Culture provided you only with small amount of money and whether you have it or not, you are in the same situation – it is impossible to publish books for this money. Are you not loosing the enthusiasm?

No, paradoxically. I’m not going to cry that there is no money from the Ministry of Culture and that the state should support the culture. I’m better trying to find the financial means from other sources. Anti-cultural politics of the state in the literary field is a fact and the individual won’t do anything with this. And the taxpayers remain in the role of spectators clapping their hands to tricks for their money. I keep close contact with foreign publishing houses and institutions supporting the translations and with organisations which can draw money from other various funds. There is also cooperation with the cultural department of Košice self-governing region. Moreover, there is still an impenetrable private sector. The publishing houses resign from the simple reason – lack of financial means. They cease to exist when trying to spend more as they have obtained. Whether Pectus will publish one or twenty books a year doesn’t matter, there is no point to go against the common sense. Slovak publishing house Pectus was created with these two main objectives: the quality alone should determine the publishing of books from original and translation production and the beginning authors shouldn’t have problems with publishing, promotion and distribution of the book. The publishing house focuses on non-commercial literature. It should fulfil the functions of the literary agent, the existence of which was in eastern part of Slovakia really necessary. By the way, I don’t like to rank myself into the special position of the publisher. Pectus does not represent only the publishing house. It is a group of people focused not only on the production of books, but also on various literary activities.

Can you specify these activities?

It’s mainly about the public presentations, publishing of Slovak authors in the foreign papers. Other activities concerning not only the literature are in the phase of preparation, so I’m not going to reveal them. Let it be a surprise.

In our country, there is a lot of short stories, also thanks to the competition Short Story. Yehuda Amichai (an Israeli poet whom I have recently discovered for me) wrote the poem Advice for Good Love. Would you know to formulate (you have an easier task, it doesn’t have to be in verse) the instructions for the good short story (according to Brenkus)?

You are right; we have a great number of short stories here. And it is more difficult, from certain point of view, to write more valuable short story than to create a novel, although it requires more time. I noticed some kind of scheme in the contemporary Slovak short story; first a detail is depicted in the introduction, but then in the conclusion, it is marked out as something principal. Reader, interpret the point according to the core as you like! And the endless number of details is a salvation; it offers the inexhaustible possibilities of the short story!

Sorry, I have to interrupt you. In my opinion, the short story is a strongly concentrated form and I think that it is just the detail that makes a short story good, the art is to depict the detail in many different ways (ambiguously). Don’t you agree?

I do afford to disagree. The depiction of detail is only one of the factors influencing the result. Although it is the art, let’s put a question: Will be the creation itself sufficient? Why the short stories of many excellent authors remain cold, although the others see through the microscope something else? It is the path of lesser resistance which can be really taught! In addition to this, it is easy to be innovative if I know what others before me have seen! I’m not saying that it is not a creation, because the author creates in a fragment way of far-fetching the connections mentioned in the text, but e.g. Hrabal showed that only to create is not sufficient. The short stories lack the central and unexpressed life truth, metaphor, value; I would not rely on Dušek’s strategy any more. In most cases, there is a typical absence of problem in these short stories. Or more exactly said, it’s about seeing a problem where it is none. Or there is one, but I’m not able to believe it in the whole context. I’m not going to formulate the instructions for the good short story, because they basically do not exist. In the opposite case, it would be possible to determine which short story is better and which is worse. As I have already mentioned, this possibility is for the work of art absolutely meaningless, it would mean the end of the literature. But we can say that some kind of "instructions" for not creating the bad short story exist, in spite of the subjective character of the reader co-authorship. The quasi rules are indirectly pointed out by the literary science. I’m not going to name them; they are hidden in the relevant monographs. Keeping these rules can ensure that the short story won’t be bad, but it doesn’t have to be good, either. It can be lifeless, boring, without hot blood. The most painful responsibility for the text are the corrections of the final short story. If I evaluate, I mustn’t provide the interpretative keys. If I avoid the stylistic, compositional and subject schematism, I can go around it by the lyrical compressions, expressive parentheses, spatio-temporal variations, unexpected reversals in the epic line etc. With everything it is necessary to save like with the pepper in order to create neither a cocktail nor a drink with the same flavour as the previous ones. Dialogues have to be authentically colloquial and not copying, the short story should be neither short, nor long. When the connections are overfilled, the reader will get lost, in the opposite case, he will be bored. All the possible compromises are the essential matter of the internal logic of the fiction. The author doesn’t have to be stupid too, although for several critics he can look as though he knew nothing. Does every person have to have the thematic role fulfilled? If the solution of problems appears to be antinomic, is it not the solution? Although it gives the impression that nothing has been solved, as though the space of the short story was not sufficient, neither the solution of the linear equation in mathematics has to be a single number. Even more it is true for the artistic ambiguous solutions. Isn’t it sufficient if the required catharsis lies in the psychological effect of the literary text? Does it have to be for example in the short story space? There are a lot of questions; many of them expecting the answers. However one thing is certain, if I want to reject something in advance, I can grasp any details.

The interview was made by Martin Vlado