ELISA'S QUESTIONS FOR THE MADEIRA LITERARY FESTIVAL MAGAZINE
1 - You wrote two essays on literature, Sisters and Strangers, and Writing on the Wall, regarding the way you read authors that question you, but you have also published your own short fiction and novels. Which one is the most important Patricia Duncker, the 'reader' or the 'writer'? Can one live without the other?
The two go hand in hand, but the reader comes first, definitely the reader. I began to read and to write around the same time when I was a child, and can remember all my childhood books, which were either histories of World War II, sinister adventures in the desert by T.E. Lawrence – that’s Lawrence of Arabia, or creepy religious detective novels. One of these was entitled The Footprints of Satan, and the other We Would See Jesus.
I don’t usually write fiction every single day, although I do keep a journal. But I read or re-read my books, fiction or poetry every day. I’ve just read Denise Riley’s sequence of poems, A Part Song. You can read this on the London Review of Books website. This is wonderful poetry: a ferocious lament for her dead son, powerful, haunting, unsentimental. And now I’ll re-read it, even learn some of the verses. I feel unsettled if I don’t read. Reading is essential to me. I need to inhabit my language. If I didn’t read I couldn’t write.
2 - Which writers have influenced you the most?
It’s not so much a question of the entire work by a single writer, but individual books. I was once very ill and read Primo Levi’s If Not Now, When? This is his only novel, which is about a band of homeless Jews, resistance fighters, making their dangerous way across war-torn Europe. And the courage and joy in that book gave me the courage to live on and fight back. The other book I read then was Jane Smiley’s masterpiece, A Thousand Acres, her adaptation of King Lear. I cannot forget either of those books. I love the rage in Charlotte Brontë’s last novel Villette (1853), which Kate Millett described as one long meditation upon a prison break. Among the Americans I am a great admirer of the savage religious writers, especially Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy. No Country for Old Men is a masterpiece. I love books that have an uncompromising, complex agenda, an argument, a passion driving them forwards.
We are living through an amazing period for poetry in Britain at the moment – two writers I would single out are Alice Oswald and Michael Symmons Roberts.
I’ve been very lucky in that I read for a living. My job as a university professor in English Literature means that I read and re-read many of our classic texts every year. At the moment I am re-reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch with my students, many of whom are reading that great work for the first time.
My other languages are French and German, although I read more prose in French, and more poetry in German. But if you are a writer you need to wrap yourself in your own language, breathe it in, smell its perfumes and stenches.
3 - At the moment, only two of your books have been published in Portugal, Sisters and Strangers and Hallucinating Foucault. Let's start with the former, Sisters and Strangers, a long essay presented as an autobiography of your readings. If you had to re-write it today, almost 23 years later, which authors and books would you add? Or would there be so many names that it would be better to just publish a continuation work?
I would now write a completely different book and I would call it Whatever Happened to Women’s Writing? Women’s writing, when I was first arguing for its existence and legitimacy over thirty-five years ago, was a raw and savage thing, a register that smashed the old forms, all the old structures which could not contain a woman’s anger, vindictiveness and rage. Poetry smeared the pages with subjects never seen before – the rank stench of women’s desires and women’s dreams. Novels contained mad lists, rhetoric on a Biblical scale, denunciations of politics, philosophy, religion, all religions, linguistics, literature and history. Sacred cows lay in delightful shattered heaps. The unthinkable got said, or rather shouted. Marriage was institutional masochism, children were bloodsucking vultures and the sooner we dashed their brains out on rocks the better. Lesbianism was infinitely sexier than heterosexuality and didn’t give you cervical cancer. Women should cease to be the carers of the nation. We should belong to and take care of no one but ourselves. All across the world we should beat our ploughshares into swords, rise up and slaughter all opposition, obliterate the lot of them.
I still like the sound of all this.
One of the essays I read over twenty-five years ago was Audre Lorde’s 'The Uses of Anger'. Anger, she argued, is a fruitful, necessary thing, for it gives you information and energy. And that’s what writing by the women who were dismantling conventional femininity once had in spades: information and energy. These were new ways of thinking, being, writing, an entire literature and cultural engagement, which once amounted to an heroic adventure into consciousness. Has all this been abandoned and lost? Audre Lorde’s book of non-fiction essays, Sister/Outsider, in which I first read The Uses of Anger, was published in Britain in 1981 and Around 1981 was the year that Jane Gallop identified as the moment in which feminism and the literary object it was supposedly defending – women’s writing - took its place in the academy. Assimilation is never a good development in the case of opposition movements. So what happened to all that excess information and energy?
Two things: theory and therapy. Two self-protective and self-justifying discourses provided a cocoon for anyone who might previously have described themselves as activists. Theory was associated with male academic registers of power and also proved relevant and necessary to create a rational nest for work by women in universities who weren’t drawn to the dottier wings of feminism, now firmly occupied by goddess cults. Therapy, the 1980s variety, practised by more or less anybody, took on board the fact that it was banal sloganeering to go on screeching DO NOT ADJUST YOUR MIND. THERE IS A FAULT IN REALITY. Adjust your mind. Take the world in your stride. Open the door to the dangers of pleasure and the pleasures of danger; the roller-coaster world of sexual difference. We laid out the red carpet for queer theory in all its (by now) hoary glory. We are now inundated with ‘affect’, or the ‘affective turn’. And what happened to women’s writing in all this?
Welcome to the world of women’s interest fiction.
I don’t read much ‘women’s interest fiction’ beyond the odd foray, to see if it all remains as disappointingly dull, melancholy, depressed, domestic and linguistically flat as it was when I last called. For this is the writing - usually constructed out of unexamined naturalism and exhausted realist cliché - which offers up a vision of women as perky and game, but emotionally inept, dominated by ideologies of desire, obsessed by their relationships with men, or lack of them, pathetically apolitical, handicapped by the children they nevertheless adore, and faced with tiny dilemmas which assume enormous proportions. Which cushion cover should I purchase? Hard not to dismiss the lot as vacuous late-capitalist claptrap. But this is what most people - women readers as well as men, think that women’s writing is. And it sells and sells and sells and sells. Some of this fiction is actually about what we used to call ‘the double burden’ or ‘the double shift ’- how to have kids, be a sex goddess, manage the domestic front and hold down a full-time, high-flying job. These books are serialised on BBC Radio 4. They are relentlessly middle-class and middle-brow.
4 - Hallucinating Foucault, your other title available in Portugal, has been re-published with a new translation by Nova Delphi in 2014. In it one of the characters loses his mind because he loses his secret reader, the one to whom he secretly wrote all his books. Do you have a secret reader? To whom does Patricia Duncker write?
Reading is silent, private. I often feel that I read in secret. It’s a way of closing the doors around you. Anyone who reads my work is my secret reader. Hallucinating Foucault is all about reading, but there is more than one reader in the book. The ambiguous heroine, the Germanist, who holds all the threads, reads with a passion that gives her the right to reply. She writes back in the margins of all her books. The unnamed narrator, the student, is a real academic. He reads the texts in a cold, objective way. He reads for style, themes, language, influences, signficance. He detaches the writer from the text. The writer, Paul Michel, wrote for Michel Foucault, who – he imagines- is his secret reader. But is he? Is the secret reader in fact an imaginary connection? The clue is in the title – was he hallucinating Foucault?
5 - You're a feminist interested in feminine (and feminist) writing, but this first fiction book of yours is all about masculine characters. Why?
My first two novels were both gender-benders. Neither femininity nor masculinity are secure or stable categories. In Hallucinting Foucault (1996) I created a very masculine woman – the Germanist- and a very feminine man, the unnamed narrator. The American editor of my novel was most uncomfortable with this gentle man of feeling and tried to cut out all his emotions. I refused, point blank, to change the text. I wonder if gender determines sex, rather than the other way around? How can you move through the world if you don’t conform to conventional boundaries? You will always be in trouble. My second novel told the story of James Miranda Barry (1999), a famous nineteenth-century colonial doctor who may, or may not have been a woman. I imagined him as a genuine gender transgressor, a person who was neither man nor woman. Part of my ongoing project as a radical feminist is to challenge existing preconceptions of sex and gender.
6 - Although Foucault is not a character, his presence is felt throughout the whole book, almost in a phantom-like manner. Why did you chose him?
You’re right. He does haunt the book. I wrote the first draft of Hallucinating Foucault in the summer and autumn of 1993. Two biographies of Foucault were available at that time. One was by a Frenchman and very respectful. The other was by James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault (1993), which I devoured. Two things remained with me when I finished Miller’s book, one was that Foucault had longed to be a ‘real’ writer, that is a poet or a novelist, and not a theorist or a philosopher, and the other was his conviction that he was not handsome, and would always find it hard to attract young men. I was touched by these strange insecurities and invented a Doppelgänger for him, a young man, glamorous and handsome, a famous writer, who embodied his themes and desires. And who adored him. Paul-Michel was Foucault’s real name. Paul Michel is my gift to Michel Foucault.
7 - In your writing, what's your starting point? Is it the character that leads you to a story or the story that leads you to a character?
Usually the two will arrive together, hand in hand. But they take time to grow. Sometimes a story will take years to take shape. Writers learn to wait. I believe in stories, and the old-fashioned pleasure of story telling. My characters rarely exist separate from the particular stories they inhabit and create for themselves. So I never imagine sequels or prequels.
8 - What do you think (or hope?) is the fundamental trace of your writing?
So much work is completely and utterly lost. Think of Sappho. Everyone agreed she was the greatest lyric poet of the ancient world, and yet think how few poems we have by her. No one ever knows what will last. Some writers live to witness their own eclipse, and see their work go out of print, vanish, and sink into oblivion. The Victorians were convinced that Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton would be read forever. I am the only person I have ever met who still reads him! I loved his tirade on decadence and destruction, The Last Days of Pompeii, but his work is an antiquarian taste.
What do I hope will survive of my work? I am content never to know. Writing by women is infected with the trick of vanishing. We are more easily suppressed and destroyed than the men. But I’m glad to exist for now in hard copy, and not just in E-books. The E-book will vanish without trace, when the machines stop. And, sooner or later, they will stop.
9 - You have a new novel coming out soon (Sophie and the Sibyl, to be published next April (9th April 2015). What can you tell us about it?
My story follows the last triumphant years of George Eliot’s writing life, from the autumn of 1872 in Homburg through to her death in London in 1880. This novel weaves fictitious characters, both George Eliot’s and my own, into the recorded histories of the writer and her entourage. I wanted fiction and history, as the historian Richard Holmes once put it, speaking of the biographer and his subject, to shake hands across time. I intended to write a Neo-Victorian comedy of manners, which had, as all comedy must do, a darker and more sinister set of shadows at the edge. For what would it be like, as a writer, to be forced by someone else, someone in some future time, to spend years in the company of people you invented purely for your own pleasure, and to be answerable to them?
The ambiguity of my relationship to George Eliot becomes clear in my novel. I have always adored her work with a passion, but I doubt that I would have much liked Marian Evans Lewes, the woman behind George Eliot. I would have fallen in love with the novelist George Eliot in the 1870s, just as I did one hundred years later, and revered her power, both as a writer and as an intellectual. I began reading her last great books first: Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda and then, in the summer of 1973, Romola. I have read all she wrote many times since then, and I have had the honour of teaching her work to generations of students. But the grain of resentment one writer always feels for another whom she hails as ‘Master’ – and I use that word advisedly - would not dissolve. I have not loved her unchangeably. This book is also about the love of a reader for a writer, and the end of that love affair.
My starting point was the coincidence of my name being the same as that of her German publishers. Duncker Verlag of Berlin, the publishing house which appears in the novel, did and still does exist. I first noticed the connection while I was reading George Eliot’s Journals. She recorded the thirty pounds paid to her by ‘Duncker of Berlin’. Duncker is not an uncommon name in Holland and Germany. At that moment I was merely amused, but then the seed began to grow. If someone who bore my name had been so closely connected to the writer I loved, why should I not take his place? Eliot was as fascinated by the relationship of mentor and disciple as I am, both as a subject for fiction and as a personal drama in the drawing room. It is a relationship that recurs in her novels and one that she cultivated in her personal life. She set herself up as a Great Teacher. I have always been one of her disciples. But it is in the nature of the disciple to question and challenge the Master, even as you fight alongside her throughout your writing life.
Patricia Duncker, February 2015
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