Postmodern "holocaust" novelist, Raymond Federman, was born in France in 1928, Federman emigrated to the USA in 1947. He holds a Ph.D. in French Literature from UCLA and is the Melodia E. Jones Chair of Literature at SUNY-Buffalo. Here, in what I think is his first interview in the British media, he kindly answers a few of my questions, throwing some poems in along the way.
Mark Thwaite: Your favourite writer, and huge influence on your work, was your friend Samuel Beckett. What is it that makes Beckett so hugely key for you? Is he, for you, the greatest writer?
Raymond Federman: Yes Beckett is my favourite writer. But one cannot write like Beckett. His writing cannot be imitated. It can only inspire you to write better. And so Beckett has been present in my writing, and my life too, for the past 50 years. I am, in fact, presently writing a book about those 50 years I spent with his work, and with the man himself. A kind of free-flowing memoir entitled The Sam Book. I first encountered Beckett’s work when I saw Waiting for Godot in New York in 1956. I never recovered. In 1959, at UCLA, I proposed Samuel Beckett as the subject of my doctoral dissertation. Some professors on my doctoral committee tried to dissuade me, saying that Beckett was a charlatan. I insisted, and told them that he was a very great writer who will win the Nobel Prize in ten years. I hit it right on the nose. Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969. For the past 50 years I haven’t stopped reading his work, and writing about it. Beckett is present everywhere in my work, and in my house. Here I’ll include a poem I wrote about that. I warned you that an interview with Federman can become very critifictional.
your eyes are on me all the time
even when you’re not here
you look at me all the time
you’re everywhere here
in my house and in me
since you changed tense
I am surrounded by you
your photos your portraits
your letters your books
your words your traces
all that observes me
watches over me
that in your absence
I will not manage alone
to go where I must go
remember it began
the day when you said
nothing to be done
and I looked at you
in despair and asked
are you sure that there is
nothing to be done any more
you shrugged your shoulders
in a gesture of indifference
as if to say well I don’t know
and me dumb as I was then
I proclaimed to myself
in an interior monologue
well if he’s isn’t sure himself
of his nothing to be done
then there is hope
isn’t he the one who once wrote
tant qu’ il y a de la vie il y a de l’espoir
and so since that day when
you shrugged your shoulders
I haven’t stopped doing and doing
and doing some more even if
what I do will inevitably lead nowhere
But let me tell you why Beckett is so hugely a key for me: when I saw Waiting for Godot for the first time something slipped in me. Very much like the slip Arsene explains to Watt in the novel by that name. Suddenly somewhere some little thing slipped some little tiny thing ... It was a slip like that I felt ... millions of little things moving all together out of their old place, into a new one nearby, and furtively, as though it were forbidden.
When Lucky walks on stage with that rope tied around his neck, that long rope extending off-stage and one hears Pozzo shout, Go Pig, I was horrified. Who is this writer who has the guts, the courage to show us something so horrible, so inhuman, and yet make us laugh at the same time. I was horrified, and yet like the rest of the people in the audience, I too laughed. That’s when something slipped in me. This was about the time when I was starting to write. And I told myself, if I write the story that I have in me, the story of a survivor of the Holocaust, then that’s how I must tell it, in the tragicomic mode. With a mixture of sadness and laughter. Or what I eventually called Laughterature.
Beckett taught me how to write sad laughter. But he also taught me how to escape the imposture of realism and naturalism.
There is no doubt that Beckett is a great writer. The second greatest writer of the 20th century. The first one? And I am sure Beckett would agree: Marcel Proust.
MT: You say in your wonderful and provocative essay The Necessity and Impossibility of Being a Jewish Writer that to "be a Jewish writer today is not merely to be a good story-teller, but someone who questions and challenges the very medium of story-telling, or what I have called elsewhere ‘the arrogance of story-telling.'" What do you mean, here, by "arrogance"? How do you avoid it yourself in your own writing?
RF: There are some stories that cannot be told. Should not be told. Only those who died in the camps have a right to tell what happened. But of course they cannot. Those who were there and survived – Primo Levy, Paul Celan, Jean Amery, and so many others – have a right to tell their story. The rest of us, marginal survivors, children of the Holocaust as we have been labelled, can only appropriate these stories, and to do so is a form of arrogance. But we must do it anyway, for as I wrote at the end of Aunt Rachel’s Fur ... my role as a survivor here or over there, in the cities, the countries, in the books I write or will write, my responsibility is to give back some dignity to what has been humiliated by the Unforgivable Enormity ...of the Twentieth Century.
MT: Your work is quite manic, playful and very energised; you are often called a Holocaust author: is there a contradiction here? Does the energy of your work come from the horror of the Holocaust?
RF: There is certainly a contradiction in writing about the Holocaust in sad laughter. But am I writing about the Holocaust? Not really. What I write is what it means to live in the post-Holocaust era. To live one’s life with this burden, this responsibility, this ugly story, and above all with this absence in you. To live with what has been absented from your life - your family, your history. Many have lived with that, and then one day, unable to bear it any longer, they commit suicide. The three names I mentioned above did that. Instead, I chose laughter to energize me, so that I can attempt to write what refuses to be written, even if I must fail – fail better, as Beckett put it.
MT: What are you trying to achieve with your work?
RF: I am trying to invent a language appropriate for my experiences. A way of telling what I have lived without tumbling into the imposture of realism and the banality of sentimentality. The Holocaust was an obscenity. One cannot write about it with Belles-Lettres. One must invent an obscene language. A language that implicates the reader rather than pacify the reader.
MT: Are you a postmodernist Raymond? What does this mean to you? Is this all about being playful/provocative with form?
RF: The label postmodernist was imposed on me. I never considered myself a postmodern writer. I am a surfictionist. One who writes fiction on top of the fiction of life. For life itself is a fiction. A life gains meaning only in its retelling, and since everything that is written is fictive, as Mallarmé once put it, we are all fictitious.
MT: Who is Moinous and who is Federman!?
RF: They are interchangeable. Moinous is the alter ego of Federman, and Federman the alter ego of Moinous. They are reversible. They are Namredef. Or perhaps this poem will explain it better than I can.
I play hide-and-seek hide-and-seek with myself
I cry and decry in two languages
I me me I
I see me seen see
I use the THOU FORM with myself
I cut and recut myself
I remand myself with red thread
I dis-perse- dis--perse
I am moved
I put myself in myself
I me we me we me we
I unknot reknot and unknot again
I me too too
I play ping-pong alone from both sides
I split in several
I mask my mask
I concentrate towards the open side
I add up add up add up and add up again
I redouble and redouble and redouble
I redouble some more
I demultiply by two and remultiply by four
MT: Is Federman: From A to X-X-X-X your definitive book?
RF: I did not write Federman: From A to X-X-X-X – it was put together by Larry McCaffery, Doug Rice, and Thomas Hartl. I merely contributed a number of texts and photographs to this casebook. And yet, one could say that by its scope, its unusual and original shape, and the new genre it creates by mixing biography, autobiography, literary criticism, reference, bibliophilic, fiction, poetry, non-fiction, anthology, analecta, case history, and more, it becomes a recyclopedic narrative of my life and my work.
MT: Can you explain the terms surfiction and critifiction?
RF: I have explained those two terms so often, that over the years [I invented the word Surfiction in 1973, and the word Critifiction in 1976]. I have given so many contradictory explanations, I can no longer attempt to explain what they mean. But those interested should read the two books I published under the titles Surfiction and Critifiction. Or else consult, when it is published in the near future, the new edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in which these two terms will appear.
MT: Do you write in English or French Raymond?
RF: I write both in English and/or in French. I translate my own work from one language to the other. Or rather I should say, I transact myself freely from one language to the other. The essay in Critifiction entitled A Voice Within a Voice discusses how I function as a bilingual writer. But perhaps, this text will illustrate how I function.
to answer the question I’m always asked voyons réfléchissons no I do not feel that there is a space between the two tongues that talk in me oui peut-être un tout petit espace on the contrary plus ou moins si on veut for me the one and the other seem to overlap et même coucher ensemble to want to merge oui se mettre l’une dans l’autre to want to come together jouir ensemble to want to embrace one another tendrement to want to mesh one into the other n’être qu’une or if you prefer ça m’est égal they want to spoil and corrupt each other autant que possible I do not feel as some other bilingualists have affirmed that one tongue is vertical in me the other horizontal pas du tout iIf anything my tongues seem to be standing or lying always in the same direction toujours penchées l’une vers l’autre sometimes vertically de haut en bas other times horizontally d’un côté à l’autre depending on their moods or their desires elles sont très passionnées vous savez though these two tongues in me occasionally compete with one another in some vague region of my brain normalement dans la partie supérieure de mon cerveau more often they play with one another des jeux très étranges especially when I am not looking quand je dors I believe that my two tongues love each other cela ne m’étonnerait pas and I have on occasion caught them having intercourse behind my back je les ai vues une fois par hasard but I cannot tell which is feminine and which is masculine personnellement on s’en fout perhaps they are both androgynous c’est très possible
MT: Do you read any literary websites!? What are your favourites?
RF: I do browse the net regularly to see what is going on in literary sites. I visit: Electronic Book Review, Electronic Poetry Center, ALTX Online Network; also the French sites: sitaudis.com and remue.net. But I also like to spend time in my own blog which is administered by a young fan of mine in Portland, Oregon. There one finds all kinds of links to other literary sites.
MT: Who is your favourite writer/book? What is the best thing you have read recently?
RF: Beside Beckett, a whole list – Italo Calvino, John Coetzee, Céline, Proust, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Stendhal, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Diderot, Laurence Sterne, La Fontaine, Racine, Shakespeare, Rabelais, Dante, Homer. But the best book I have read recently and which I highly recommend. Patrik Ourednik’s Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century. An amazing book – not history. A kind of novel that defies categorization.
MT: What are you working on now?
RF: A new novel called Out of the Foxhole/Hors du Trou. Yes, a bilingual novel. I am writing it in two languages at the same time.
MT: Anything else you'd like to say Raymond?
RF: I think I have said enough.