Tobias Carroll | Longreads | July 2019 | 14 minutes (3,601 words)
Since the 2009 publication of her first novel O Fallen Angel, Kate Zambreno has had one of the most fascinating careers in American letters. Her work has included harrowing explorations of alienation (Green Girl) and evocative forays into literary and cultural history (Heroines). The year 2019 has brought with it two new books from Zambreno: Appendix Project: Talks and Essays, an addendum to Book of Mutter, her 2017 collection of writing on grief; and Screen Tests: Stories and Other Writing, which places a series of short autobiographical fictions in the same volume as several longer works of nonfiction, mainly art and literary criticism. The bifurcated structure of Screen Tests hints at something profound and disorienting about the not-so-clear dividing line between narrative and reality: many of the short fictions, or “screen tests” à la Andy Warhol, in the book’s first half feature real people — Zambreno herself, as well as writers and artists ranging from Amal Clooney to Susan Sontag. The screen tests grapple with their subjects’ work while addressing questions of identity and community and continuity; the critical essays in the book’s second half seem to echo themes that emerged in the screen tests. That the lines between fiction and nonfiction are blurred here is precisely the point.
Zambreno’s work offers readers an intellectually rigorous experience alongside the thrill of discovery. She has several other books in the works which will also explore fiction and nonfiction in equal measure. Her next novel, Drifts, will be released in 2020, and she’s working on a book about writer and photographer Hervé Guibert, To Write as if Already Dead. Zambreno talked with me earlier this month about Screen Tests, the challenges and pleasures of writing about visual art, reading the same books over and over again, and satirizing her own role as a “minor author.” The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Tobias Carroll: The structure of Screen Tests brings together a series of seemingly autobiographical short stories with a group of longer essays on a host of subjects. What inspired this choice?
Kate Zambreno: When putting the book together, I was rereading Borges’ Labyrinths. I like the way you read Labyrinths; you move from stories that read like strange essays, to the essays and reviews that still have a speculative feel to them. The book as a whole feels like a library of a particular mind. I am drawn to the idea of a collection, also of assemblage and collage. I think that was part of a drive of the writing of [Screen Tests], the sense of drift and accumulation.
I thought about visual collections, too, like Nan Goldin’s slideshows of her friends, or Peter Hujar’s portraits of life and death.
I do think of the book as two distinct parts: there is the project of the screen tests, these digressive yet brief, sometimes very brief, pieces that were experiments in voice and form, and were written fairly recently over the course of a couple years; and then the longer essays, which were the only pieces of writing I finished for several years post-Heroines, which also encompassed my move to New York. With the screen tests, I was inspired especially by Thomas Bernhard’s Voice Imitator.
The essays, all written earlier, were mostly commissioned, in some way or another, sometimes just the invitation to write an essay, and I think I was trying to work through whether I could write discrete “essays,” what was an essay, my feelings of failure towards writing an essay. But what’s strange is within all of the longer essays I am thinking through some of the same figures as in the shorter screen tests. I struggled with whether I should chop up the essays and make them into screen tests, like cut them up for parts, or even whether I should just publish the collection with just the more recent pieces that I think have the distance of persona — the essays feel more directly intimate, more emotional. But if there’s anything I can say for sure about an essay, an essay is a document for attempting to think over a period of time,and I wanted to preserve the essays in the time period I wrote them in, these periods that were so fraught with doubt in terms of my relationship to writing.
I think writing about art for me … is a way to also write about paying attention, about seeing.
There’s an allusion, both in this book’s title and in the stories themselves, to Andy Warhol’s screen tests. What are the challenges of evoking a visual art like that in prose?
In this recent period of writing fiction I’ve been inspired by visual forms. This probably began with my interest in the silence and slowness, the gauzy quality, of Barbara Loden’s Wanda; and then also the early ’70s trancey films of Chantal Akerman. I have been drawn to thinking of the still, or the long take, in terms of writing; and Warhol’s screen tests as these barely pulsating, breathing, stills — these performances of persona and names but also now, watching them, of anonymity and disappearance.
It started when I wrote “Susan Sontag,” which is the first one in the collection, which was really me playing with digression, the rhythm of the repetition of the name “Susan Sontag” that moved into this meditation on names, on fame and persona. I wrote “Susan Sontag” in the margins of a notebook, when I was supposed to be working on a novel, and remember thinking how fun and free it felt writing it, and wondering what it was. Was this really writing?
The whole process of writing the screen tests was pretty playful; they felt like jokes, conceptually. I had this list of the titles I wanted to write — “Blanchot in a Supermarket Parking Lot,” or “Patty Hearst Wins the Westminster Dog Show,” or “Louise Brooks in a Mint-Green Housecoat” — and then finally wrote a lot of them last summer.
Oh, Louise Brooks’ collection of essays, Lulu in Hollywood, was a big inspiration as well, as was Shulamith Firestone’s Airless Spaces. I thought it was interesting that Warhol apparently filmed people for his screen tests he thought were going to be famous, or had some sort of star quality, but Shulamith Firestone writes portraits of the suicides she once knew, and Louise Brooks’ memoir is instead a series of vignettes about both the failures and then the really famous men she worked with.
What are some of the challenges that you’ve found in terms of writing about art from a fictional perspective?
I don’t know if I make a distinction between writing about art, when I write about it explicitly, in a space of fiction or a space that’s more of a talk or an essay. I think a model for me is the novelist Hervé Guibert, who was a photography critic and wrote about art constantly — so there’s his book on photography, Ghost Image, but also in his novel To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, he’s still thinking about painting, he’s thinking of his own drawing practice.
I think writing about art for me, in recent work, whether in the talks or the screen tests, or the novel that is coming out next year, is a way to also write about paying attention, about seeing. And also I long for writing to have the same permission of visual forms. In Screen Tests I’m especially interested in collage, like the playful collages of Ray Johnson and Sarah Charlesworth; I like the process and practice of a collage, as I write in “Pink Bunny Ears,” my Ray Johnson piece, and I thought of the screen tests like that, a daily collage I would send to a friend or famous person, like Johnson did. In my twinned Johnson and Charlesworth pieces there’s ekphrastic writing, about a specific collage — which is its own challenge, how language can conjure a work of art — but then the pieces drift and hopefully go to weird places.
Confronting and truly looking at a work of art can yield so much thinking and feeling, which is why in my novel Drifts, there are moments of encountering, say, Bouchra Khalili’s map project, or Sarah Charlesworth’s Stills, as well as thinking about Rilke being catalyzed by the fragmented sculptures of Rodin, but that’s also the experience of being in a city, and wandering into galleries and museums. And I think that’s why memories I write about are often saturated by experiencing art and being changed by it — like in an appendix essay remembering seeing Doris Salcedo’s “Atrabiliarios” while living in Akron, Ohio, her devastating alcoves of the found shoes of disappeared women in Colombia; or in a screen test, “On the Puppet Theater,” which goes from remembering Kleist’s strange essay “On the Puppet Theater,” to thinking about a former lover who was a puppeteer when looking at the puppets of Greer Lankton.
There is a challenge in writing about art in a commissioned way — like for a catalogue, like the Anne Collier essay, or an essay about Paula Rego I wrote for the catalogue for her UK retrospective that comes out this summer. It’s fun but daunting to be asked to spend a certain amount of time — sometimes many months, I’m slow when asked to do something like this — to consider an artist who I only encountered on a wall, at some time, and then to be expected to write an innovative essay about their work, so not as a critic, but as an essayist or novelist. And there’s the additional worry about writing as a form of promoting art as a commodity, or saying the things I’m expected to say, based on previous work, like expecting me to approach a work solely through a feminist lens — I find that boring. I always need to find a way for it to feel challenging for me. Actually, it’s the fact that I find writing about art challenging — I have no formal background in it — which may be why I’m drawn to it.
I like it when it feels like a collaboration. I loved composing the prose pieces B. Ingrid Olson commissioned me to write for her show at Albright-Knox with very open instructions for what was required. These were published in BOMB and appear in Screen Tests, but they were typeset by Olson and photographed as artworks included in the show. Part of the constraint of writing them was their visual dimensions, how they would look on the wall, and how she wanted them to somehow channel and introduce her work but not be explicit about it. They still took me forever to do. It’s a slow process for me, writing about art, because so much of the process is thinking and looking, and looking again, and again, and on another day, and struggling to find my own language for what I’m looking at. I like contemporary work especially like Ingrid Olson’s where when I first look at it I have no idea what I’m looking at, and it takes me a while to realize that slipperiness and opacity is the point — is it a self-portrait, how does it skew self-portraiture? I long for that in writing, that opacity and slipperiness.
Maybe this all has to do with failure. I keep on writing through the failure of writing. I desire to write about these certain writers and works of art in focused, elegant ways, and instead I drift, and I want to focus.
Late in Screen Tests, you write, “this is not my self-portrait.” Earlier in the book, in the fictional half, there’s a long discussion of the nature of the use of “I” in certain works of fiction and nonfiction. What about this book made you want to explore questions of identity, narration, and veracity?
In recent work, I’m really interested in the “I” as a slippery space. I’m drawn to how Barthes confounds his earlier essay on the death of the author for his later playful and opaque works, like Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, thinking of the self as a site of multiplicity. I think some of the screen tests and later essays play with the absurdity of what has been an obsession of mine in this period of work I’m currently writing — the existential crisis of being a writer, and also being an author. That line from Emil Cioran: “One only perishes by the self that one assumes — to bear a name is to claim an exact mode of collapse.” I think in the screen tests there are various names collapsing, including my own. I love that sneaky move in a story, where the narrator’s sense of self begins to erode and become confounded, as does the question of authorship, that speculative or spooky feeling, like in “Borges and I,” or the stories of Kanai Mieko or Gerald Murnane or Sofia Samatar.
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Screen Tests continues your ongoing project of writing about certain writers and works of art (Barbara Loden in particular comes to mind). Do you feel like someone reading Screen Tests on its own will read this differently from someone who had also read, say, Book of Mutter and Appendix Project?
I think there are certain artists and thinkers that repeat for me, because I keep on thinking through them. I feel right now like I won’t ever write about Barbara Loden and Wanda again. Like it’s enough! That marks a period of time for me across those three books. But Chantal Akerman — I’m still thinking about the films of Chantal Akerman, mourning Chantal Akerman, although now I’ve written about her in Appendix Project, in my novel Drifts, in a screen test. I’m still thinking about Ingeborg Bachmann. I’m still thinking about Barthes, about Wittgenstein. In fact inside of me there is a secret project where I finally write about the last two years of Barthes’s life, which I’m aware is absurd because that’s an important thread in Appendix Project, and where I’ll really write about Wittgenstein, also absurd, because I keep on writing anecdotes about Wittgenstein.
I like that movement in Screen Tests where a piece circling around the writing of an essay that very much resembles my essay on Barbara Loden’s Wandais at the front of the book, and then the actual essay is at the end. I think it’s funny and personally I enjoy it. Maybe this all has to do with failure. I keep on writing through the failure of writing. I desire to write about these certain writers and works of art in focused, elegant ways, and instead I drift, and I want to focus. I surprise myself with these returns, this refusal to let go.
I just finished a novel [Drifts] in which Rainer Maria Rilke writing Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is important to the consciousness of the narrator, and I thought for sure, I’ll never write about Rilke again. I’m done with Rilke! I’m sick of Rilke! Rilke — no more. I’ve said everything I want about Rilke. But then the other day when I was in this spirit of boredom or play — like I want to write something that’s not something I’m supposed to be writing, I wanted to write a very compressed form, like a brief essay or poem, which was a lot of the impulse behind the screen tests — I just started researching something about Rilke at Duino. I wanted to write a short piece, about Rilke acting as the personal secretary during séances with Princess Marie Von Thurn und Taxis, maneuvering the planchette … I guess obsessions are private and involved, and I nurse them over a very long period of time, many years, across notebooks and books, and these artists and thinkers and writers become a sort of ghostly correspondence for me. And inspiration as to form.
A lot of my recent work has also been inspired by my friendship and correspondence with Sofia Samatar, and I think we feed each other’s obsession and intense, almost spastic, referentiality; it becomes a sort of private language, and we keep on writing each other into each other’s stories and essays … with Barthes, with Rilke, with Antoine Volodine, with Hervé Guibert, with Sebald, Kanai Mieko … Sofia appears in the screen tests but like everyone else, she’s disguised and fictionalized. For example I just realized today that we’ve been mentioning Bolano’s Antwerp to each other for several years, and so that bleeds into both of our texts — I just edited a page of my novel last week where I write about it, and then just read an in-progress piece of Sofia’s yesterday that mentions it. It’s funny, people sometimes ask me what I’m reading, and I always say something kind of helplessly boring like “I read the same books over and over.” Really right now when I can read for myself I just read Hervé Guibert. Or Bhanu Kapil, whose work I write about so much in the appendices. Or Sebald. Or Moyra Davey, whose work is also so obsessed by Guibert and Akerman.
I can’t really know what someone reading more than one of my books will think about their relationship to each other — I feel once I publish them, I want to eventually disappear as an author. It does become about a reader writing into the texts themselves, but I can’t know what that space is like. I do think that the screen tests are different in many ways, tonally, from the grief work, although there is a lot of grief in the longer essays. For one, I think the screen tests are a lot funnier and lighter. I think they are all different from Heroines, and certainly from the early novels, mostly because I feel I am a completely different person and thinker in every way — like cellularly. But of course there’s a commonality with Heroines. Especially in the essays. But the screen tests are also gossipy and petty, they are awash in the anecdotal, they are alienated and full of doubt yet somehow also in love with the possibilities of literature and community. I also feel very different from the person who wrote Book of Mutter as well, actually, and the longer essays. I feel closest to the writer who wrote the screen tests and the appendix talks because I think they have some control and innovation to them, and a quality of thinking and feeling directly, that feels closest to what I want out of writing now.
I disappear and transform, and then the work transforms; that’s how it goes. But I am still writing these books from the same body, with the same set of memories or past, even if they feel completely transformed. There’s something uncanny about that.
I read a lot of rejection letters warning me against the petty indulgences of metafiction; that’s what they called it. Who knew publishing was full of so many Calvino haters.
In a broader sense, what sort of a dialogue do you hope to create among your books? Is fictionalizing certain elements of your life in the stories in Screen Tests a way of complicating this?
I remember when I first moved here, I became friends with another novelist, we had different ideas about what we wanted out of fiction, and he kept on asking me, “Why are you always so meta?” Which I thought was pretty funny. He was probably referring to Green Girl, which got rejected from every agent for that same reason, that it was a book that was actually about a certain type of book or character, kind of like how Jean Seberg’s character in Breathlessis referring to her character in Bonjour Tristesse, which I write about in Screen Tests. And also there’s the fictional author creating the character of Ruth in Green Girl.
With Green Girl I read a lot of rejection letters warning me against the petty indulgences of metafiction; that’s what they called it. Who knew publishing was full of so many Calvino haters. I think that the narrators in recent work, including Screen Tests, and the series of books I’m working on — Drifts, To Write as if Already Dead, then two other novels that are sequels of a sort to Drifts: Ghosts and Switzerland— are suffering from what I might call the feminist hangover of how they are read post-Heroines and Green Girl, as well as thinking through a literary sickness, after Enrique Vila-Matas, and a literary sadness, wrestling with the larger question of how to be a writer in the contemporary, within capitalism and publishing, and the role of friendship and community within this. I think I’m interested in slightly satirizing the position of the minor author in society … all of this work in the years post-Heroines and since I moved to New York.
I love it when a work references past books; it’s like a little thrill for me. At the opening of Wittengstein’s Nephew, Thomas Bernhard’s narrator reviews a bound copy of Gargoyles [one of Bernhard’s early novels]; one of the nuns puts it on his bed in the hospital where he’s recovering from consumption, and he feels kind of alienated and disgusted by it. I love that this is also the experience for me of looking at a book that I apparently wrote that has been published, like — who wrote that?
I think that’s why I’m interested in thinking of new writing within the space of fiction — whether or not a publisher chooses to classify it as nonfiction — because I like that narrative space of the real, when you’re not sure what’s real and what’s not real. Danielle Dutton calls this near-fiction. There’s a suspense there, a defamiliarization. It’s an uncertain and slippery space; that’s what I like.
I really do think, that when one writes, one enters the space of fiction; you are writing I and also not-I. I like how [Robert] Walser viewed his fictions as chopped-up and dismembered books of himself. I think of the shorts in Screen Testsas a mini-catalogue, of my obsessions, of all the works that came before, in a way. The joy is in the compression.
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Editor: Dana Snitzky