Interview with Fanny Howe by Justin Taylor
The Lives of a Spirit / Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken
134 pages, $16.95
Nightboat Books; 2005
Available from Amazon.com
Photo Credit: Ben E. Watkins
If you are a reader who is not also a writer you may not know that Q&A interviews are mostly faked. Seriously. An interviewee gives you a mess of quotes, musings, and one-offs which you must edit into something reasonable. You rearrange and trim. You rewrite your questions so they sound better, forward the narrative, and provide information that your readership needs but which your interviewee did not mention.
Fanny’s one request regarding this interview was that she be allowed to answer, “holistically” rather than question by question. I said that was okay, but warned her that I would hack up her words in the standard way. She said that was fine, and wrote me two wonderful letters.
I could not disassemble Fanny’s letters. (I should have expected as much from the author of a novel called Indivisible.) The flow of her writing was utterly unyielding to my Frankenstienish agenda; their holistic quality was a fundament of their content. To slice and dice such lucid, graceful thought would have been a disservice to everyone—her, you, me.
The interview has been split into two parts: my first set of questions to Fanny, more or less as I emailed them to her, paired with her response to me; and then my followup questions to her, paired with her second letter.
- The pieces in the book have very solid senses of scene—we can always see where we are—as well as abiding interests in memory and loss. I suppose my first question, put indelicately, would be to ask how much of the work is autobiographical.
- The bookjacket calls Glasstown a “coda” to The Lives of a Spirit, but Glasstown feels less like a pendant work than one which balances, perhaps a counterweight. How do you describe or envision the relationship between the two?
- Your interest in theology reminded me of Marilynne Robinson’s essays on what it means to assume and defend mantles like “Christian” (or, for that matter, “liberal”). I wonder how you perceive God as a presence or the Quest for God as a project—in your daily life and in your writing?
- Related: your spelling “G-d” is a conventionally Jewish expression of piety, and visually compelling, especially when linked to your unconventional spelling of “d—th.” It’s especially interesting since the poems orient themselves with Christian or anyway Judeo-Christian spirituality rather than an explicitly or singularly Jewish tradition. I know, that wasn’t a question, but can you answer it?
- Reading Lives of a Spirit / Glasstown, and also your novel Indivisible, I noticed that you use both first and third person and shift between them at will. Why do you do that?
- Are the scribblings (or imagetexts) in The Lives of a Spirit intended as illustrations or are they components of the poems in which they are embedded?
- Finally, I’m curious about how the concepts touched on by the title, Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken, relates to the recurring depictions of glass as a form of water?
I will try to respond to your questions in a holistic way, rather than piece by piece. The Lives of a Spirit was written in the mid-eighties when I was living in an apartment in Boston with my three children and some of their friends. I slept in the pantry. There was a Chinese restaurant that sent its flavors through the house day and night. I wrote the stories in bed when the children were at school. I was working at MIT as a lecturer. We were living at the poverty line. I had converted officially to Catholicism only a few years (1980) before.
“Onward Christian soldiers” was a song from childhood that I never could bear. I don’t like the implications of the word Christian, and I was introduced to the horrors of war by my father when he returned from Potsdam. So when someone applies the word “Christian” to me, I think of crusaders and Ku Klux Klanners and I shrivel and feel sick. At the same time my evolving theology is inseparable from anything I write. It is perhaps more Hindu than Roman and more Jewish than Christian, which is why I can only say I am a Catholic.
The Lives of a Spirit was written through the lens of nineteenth century fiction (the Brontes, Hardy, the Russians) because their brand of naturalism was radiant. These novels gave me access to Paradise through descriptive language. I was saturated in the darker visions of Simone Weil, but my Anglo-Irish mother had introduced me to 19th century literature at an early age and it would never not haunt me. So this set of stories was written in an effort to recreate a place of childhood, of happiness (Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales) that bounced through time like a body on a trampoline, and to face the hard parts of time too. Finally, to face the grave. If it was autobiographical, this was at the level of having lived in the world, having read some books, and having been disappointed in love, as they used to say.
My life was all children and our dog, except when I went out to visit friends. I loved being a mother, I lived for my children and we were happy enough in our little apartment in Brookline. Writing Lives was really an act of gratitude for being safe for a while. It was a pre-War and a post-War book. In Camus’ Notebooks you see that he quotes from 19th century writers when he wants to remember beauty. He also says, “My whole effort has been in reality to depersonalize myself.”
Spelling God with a dash instead of an o was an act too full of contradictions to make any sense. Yes, Jewish and respectful. But much more—the problem of the very word is huge. And I can only finally associate G-d with d—th (a word I fear and hate), when I have to spell it out. If I don’t have to use the word God, then I don’t have to use the other one. The difficulty of the word God is behind all my writing and revising, which I do tons of. In a sense I don’t write, I rewrite. The question of God is enacted in the effort of scratching at words to see what is behind them.
The Lives of a Spirit was a very independent act, separate from all my other writing. It is really a children’s book. The baby falls out of the sky and its spirit is sent spinning and bobbing over layers of time. It is a child’s spirit even when she is a woman eating a sandwich beside a grave. I returned to childhood, to writing in bed, to waiting for someone I loved to come home in that book. It was a process of self-salvation. Some dreams are there.
Glasstown was the name of a little world that the Bronte children created. But my Glasstown is the world that we live in as broken adults. It begins with a child again, but in this case the child is being nursed by a Nazi. (This is an autobiographical detail, by the way.) And it ends with a child in catastrophic circumstances with nuns as heroic beings, the only ones. The spirit inhabits both male and female bodies in Glasstown. Sometimes the voice is confident and sure of its purpose, and sometimes not. “I” is sometimes “She” and sometimes “He,” in the sense that I can appear to be she or he, and I can see myself as an I or a she or a he, I can remember myself as she, or he, and the world only sees me as she when I am I. In my other novels I often shift between I and she and he. Why?
I am seeking something solid at the center of a human life. It turns out to be something solid that is not known by the senses. The malleability (water into glass) and fleeting nature of the self is very hard to recapture in fiction or prose, easier in poetry, but I still keep trying, or did, until I concluded the search with my novel Indivisible. What is a human being? That only a human being can ask the question is bad enough, but it throws into relief the whole tragic dilemma of an intelligence lost in space. If my mind is not a continuum of consciousness that enfolds the earth and planets, etcetera, and if it begins and ends inside my skull, then how can I have children? Why continue this parade?
In other of my novels I have had layers of handwriting inserted to remind the reader of the chaotic scrawl from which the printed stories emerged. The chaos is just a fingerprint version of the problem that language presents, and how pretty it is. I write all my books by hand, re-write by hand, and I wish I could just have a book of mine printed in my handwriting. For me it is a form of drawing. Writing by hand is manual labor, but it also affirms one’s relationship to the mystery of one’s own presence and to the potential beauty abiding in the alphabet.
The fact is, I am a mother of children and it is inside this condition, above all, that The Lives of a Spirit was written.
- That you could be a lecturer at MIT and still be living at the poverty line touches on what I see as a huge problem in America—how poorly we treat/employ/support both our teachers and our artists. I think they’re related, since teaching seems to be the most reasonable employ for artists whose work alone does not support them, but it’s problematic because teaching (especially at, say, an adjunct level) isn’t necessarily enough to live on either. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?
- I noticed you called the pieces in Lives “stories,” yet they were released by Nightboat as poems (albeit with jacket copy to the effect that your writing bends/transcends genre and form, but still). How do you distinguish your poetry from your fiction?
- The “evolving theology” that you spoke of is well in evidence in Indivisible. Can you describe, or even briefly timeline, the evolution of your theology?
- You are clearly partial to the 19th century. Maybe the most current names were Weil and Camus. Who are some contemporary writers—poets in particular—whose work you enjoy, appreciate or admire?
- You said that “when someone applies the word “Christian” to me, I think of crusaders and Ku Klux Klanners and I shrivel and feel sick.” I think this is a common problem for would-be Christians today, especially those who are also progressives. Is your reluctance to be labeled Christian only personal preference, or do you think the term itself is so fraught with unwelcome implications that it needs to be abandoned altogether?
- What were the circumstances of your being nursed by a Nazi? Furthermore, since children, and childhood, are clearly central factors not only in your written work but in your life, I’d like to hear more about your own early childhood as well as your conception of what childhood is or should be.
- Back to Indivisible again: I was planning to ask you about your politics, then once I saw you had done a book with Semiotext(e) I figured I had a pretty good idea of what they might be. But that’s probably reductive, and anyway I think it’s important to talk about this. Do you vote? What sort of real change would you like to see effected this country, and more importantly—to what degree does real change seem within “our” grasp?
- It makes sense to me that your movement would have been from poetry to prose as the thing you are calling “the search” developed and advanced into stranger territory—a movement that seems to echo the metamorphosis of water into glass. Nonetheless, does some malleability remain? The shifts between he/she/I and also between the various theologies would seem to suggest as much, unless what we’re really seeing is a sort of multivalent presence or active synthesis.
Dear Justin: Okay, here’s the end of it.
The relationship between Glasstown and The Lives of a Spirit can be measured first by time (the years between writing them) and then by social change. For people my age, there has been a radical break between our post-Victorian and post-War childhood and the Gap-world we inhabit now. I wrote The Lives in a kind of delirium of hope that I could re-create a child’s view of reality that superseded specific time periods. I had a feeling no one would read it. So I was quite free, a state that liberated my ecstasy. Then the childhood fantasy ended and the world went on. For many of us the first Gulf War was the second in a series of shattering American moves that changed our sense of democracy and progress. The assassination period was the first.
Glasstown is made of separate prose pieces that I wrote, without any sense of their cohesion, over a twelve year period. Most of them were written outside of this country, when I was wandering around Ireland and working in the United Kingdom. They have no literary references, no nostalgia, no sense of a future from sentence to sentence. Each line erupted while I was in motion and seemed to be part of the motion, a footstep, an approaching but coincidental design. I can conjure up the sensation of writing them. One was based on an actual murder that was being followed in the newspapers in Ireland. I couldn’t stop thinking about the woman and the young soldier who killed her. Others came out of a slamming consciousness (in London) of what World War Two had done to the west, and the rupture that was created between a sacred and a secular text-world. The sacred world was in The Lives but no longer in Glasstown. I stepped over the border between two senses of reality in these two sections. However, The Lives contain the seeds of the error that is manifested in Glasstown
As for autobiography: When I was born, I was sick with a kidney infection and had to be nursed for several weeks, first in the hospital and then at home. A German nurse was the one in charge of me, and she was deported in the middle of her care-giving because she was a Nazi sympathizer. My mother thought this was a story worth repeating for its macabre overtones. My mother was Irish, she came to America in her thirties from Dublin. She had a different view of the world than my father, a true American, did. She had lived through the Troubles and had lost cousins in the Spanish Civil War. She was a skeptic to the bone. Who could blame her?
Her childhood was traumatized by war and poverty. Yet she was fun. She was at home when we came home, although she worked in the theater, and she was someone you wanted to report your day to. For these reasons I was a lucky child. Mothers should be fun.
I have to say I don’t make a distinction anymore between my prose and my poetry. It’s like playing with two hands instead of one and hearing the left hand as equal to the right, in that they are all the time music but the balance is shifting.
Contemporary for me is my generation. And I am sympathetic to all of us who struggled with economic issues, political disappointments, failed relationships, children, and the rise of the academic marketplace from our birth in the forties and fifties until now. As a result I resist stating whose work, among my friends and contemporaries, has meant the most or a lot to me. My preference usually comes down to a single book by each one of them. (like Oxota by Lyn Hejinian or A Midwinter Day by Bernadette Mayor). I follow certain people’s work and usually these are people who were friends first. I like short novels and long poetry sequences. There are some younger poets whose work I like; they come from Chicago, New York, California. (Terrance Hayes, Peter O’Leary….) Their work often arrives uninvited in the mail.
In the old days it was a single poem that survived into posterity; now it seems to be single books that stand for the person and the time they lived in. It’s hard to explain but in the end it is your generation, not the single individual works that you admire.
Nightboat is bringing out five of my novels together in one volume. The last one is Indivisible. It is my least despairing of the five, only because the questions are so demanding that they seem to assume there will be new and better ones to follow.
Questions, I mean. But all my main characters are failures in the social world who trail around after a hidden meaning that finally defines, rather than defies, them. What they seek becomes them as integrated beings. This is a very Thomist vision of reality that is also found in philosophies of culture everywhere. But I really care about failed American women from the 20th century, the anonymous saints and geniuses who couldn’t make a living. My pronouns shift because people are objects sometimes, subjects other times, and their minds can also leave their bodies and become joined with other minds that are out there with them. I feel there are actual spheres of consciousness, but I am also steeped in the 20th century’s tragic view of language as being a closed system.
It is very hard for artists to make a living now and for all people who are young. The conspiracy of the corporation has succeeded in creating a culture of citizens who make a living on short-term contracts like immigrant workers. They get no benefits, no health insurance. In the academic world it is the TA’s and part time lecturers who face this unjust situation. But corporations like Sony and Wal-Mart, as we know, hire people for fewer and fewer hours so that the long-term benefits can be withheld. This is not all that new.
For many years my children and I lived on $6000.00 per annum while I was a lecturer who accrued no pension and went to a neighborhood free clinic for health care. If I had been more competent in negotiating the institutions, I would have done better. The opportunity was there, but I couldn’t locate it. I suppose I didn’t want to, I wanted to be free, to stay at home with the children and play in our little utopia. It was always imperiled anyway… I know that people could say, “You chose to be a single mother of three children and therefore you deserve to be poor.” They would be right as long as money describes our entire value system. I have hoped to show that it doesn’t.
The main danger, as I see it, is the invention of alternate worlds made of theories and systems that work in the mind, but not on the ground. We all have this capacity and it can just involve a slight tip of the mind to change what is actual into what is true. Christianity has done this, as did Communism. The global marketplace is an imaginary place for those who sit in the offices arranging it. The internet increases the scope of the imaginary and brings it home to our desks. Maybe it is an inevitable stage in human development, the way deep atheism prefigures a new religion. It might be good. But at the moment I think the imaginary can go in a number of dangerous directions. It already has. Christianity is nothing if it isn’t an action in the world. The action of the eucharist preserves this truth. A mouth, a hand, a piece of bread. There can be a communalist village, where the actions determine what it is called. But the great theories are hot air if they cannot be tested in the body. The great novels prove this.
As usual Simone Weil said it right:
“The Gospel contains a conception of human life, not a theology.
If I light an electric torch at night out of doors I don’t judge its power by looking at the bulb, but by seeing how many objects it lights up.
The brightness of a source of light is appreciated by the illumination it projects upon non-luminous objects.
The value of a religious, or, more generally, a spiritual way of life is appreciated by the amount of illumination thrown upon the things of this world.
Earthly things are the criterion of spiritual things.”
And that’s it!
I will be interested to see what you make of it all, Justin. God knows what made me respond with such gusto. I must have been ready.
Thanks for the questions!