A style, ultimately, is a compromise between what you might jot down in a diary and what the reader is expected to understand. You have to come up with a language that mirrors what you want to say and that will be understood, emotionally, by the reader. Style is a manufacturing, or compromise, of what your vision is.
Your cosmopolitan identity is connected, in certain ways, to the sense of homelessness and exile you experience. How does that foundation—or lack thereof—inflect your writing?
You don’t know where you belong partly because you can’t build roots anywhere. You also don’t want to make roots. I don’t want to belong to America; there are many things I don’t like about it. I like New York up to a certain point, but there is nowhere I like better. I like Rome and Paris, but I couldn’t exist in them beyond two weeks. Ultimately, I always long for 110th Street. In Enigma Variations, I wrote about not wanting to be on either bank of the river but in the little island in-between that doesn’t exist.
The place I live is on paper—but then I call one of my essay collections False Papers, as if to undercut whatever presumption there is that a writer can live his whole life in books. That’s why my other essay collection is called Alibis: You don’t belong anywhere, just alibis of places. I don’t belong in the 21st or 20th centuries, and I certainly don’t belong in 4th-century BC Athens. I don’t know where I stand nationally, sexually, religiously. They’re all mobile. I write about this as a plea to resolve it in one way or another, but I’m unable to. I don’t know how. I don’t know where I belong. Or who I am.
I do know that I cannot deal with people who are totally French or American—people who are fully immersed in their culture. I need people who are slightly off, slightly unhinged, interested in something else. If you’re just one thing alone, I can’t deal with you.
The Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci wrote that a person is “a product of the historical processes to date, which has deposited in [them] an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.” Is your writing a constant attempt to compile that inventory?
I’m very careful about this because, on one hand, the attempt to find ligatures between X, Y, and Z and create a kind of narrative around them is the compulsion to write. But you have to be distrustful of writing’s power to create this sense of order—again False Papers. Paper will automatically want to create order, symmetry, harmony and meaning. You have to distrust that about paper. There’s no order. I always end up untying what I have tied up because I don’t trust it. Paper will always try to bring you home, but I will remain rootless and eradicated forever.
Is your fiction also imbued with this archeological project and its paradoxes?
Or are you writing as a means of distancing yourself from the past? You don’t know whether you’re writing to see better or in order not to see at all—to stop seeing.
When writing about the past—as in my memoir and my fiction—you’re trying to resolve or repossess the past, to take hold of it so you can say, “Now you’re in my pages.” It’s not true though, because why am I then writing another essay about the past or about being elsewhere? I haven’t solved it yet. I don’t think I can. I keep writing because I’m still trying to come up with the right key, so I write the same book with a different plot, voice, characters.
Writing is allegedly the means of burying the past. But the next thing you know, it just comes back up. It’s like writing a book about somebody you loved very passionately. Sure enough, you wake up one morning, after you thought that book got rid of them, and you’re in love with them again. Possessing and dispossessing are the same gesture.
I’m writing an essay now that I’ve written many times before. I rewrite it because the resolutions promised by writing give me the slip each time. I’m trying to ground myself in time or place, or even on paper, and yet find that the very devices that allow me to do so are the very ones that undo what I’m attempting to do. That’s why I think I’m a pure ironist, because everything I do is already being undercut. As I’m writing a sentence, I’m already rewriting it before I’ve even finished it.
That awareness of the task’s impossibility is always there, but you’re still going to keep at it in whatever manner you can.
I’ve devoted my life to paper, and yet I’m constantly demoting and derogating it. I refuse to take it seriously, because of my father’s injunction: “Don’t keep writing all the time—go out and get laid!” If I lie in my writing, so what? If I’ve changed a few things, who is to know and who cares? There’s nothing sacred about paper. At the end of the day, one wraps fish with paper.