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Adam Morgan | Longreads | November 2019 | 11 minutes (2,861 words)
The deceptively slim Reinhardt’s Garden, Mark Haber’s astonishing novella, is composed of a single paragraph, one that meanders across 150 pages and several hemispheres, from the ramparts of an oddly constructed German castle (it’s full of fake walls and trap doors) to a fictional jungle in Uruguay (Uruguay is, in actuality, a country of rolling hills called the Pampas). At the center of this web of fun-house geographies and architectures, lost in that fictional jungle in the year 1907, Croatian scholar and megalomaniac Jacov Reinhardt is searching for his lifelong obsession — not a city of gold or a fountain of youth, like in the doomed adventurers of Aguirre, the Wrath of God or The Lost City of Z, but a man: Emiliano Gomez Carasquilla, “a lost philosopher of melancholy” last seen somewhere in Colombia or Brazil. Melancholy, as Jacov’s long-suffering servant (and the book’s narrator) explains, is “not a feeling but a mood, not a color but a shade, not depression but not happiness either,” an elusive emotion Jacov has pursued to the ends of the earth.
Haber is a bookseller and operations manager at Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas. We corresponded via email about melancholy, place, style, structure, and one of the novel’s most memorable passages — Jacov’s meditation on dust, “not its eradication, but its preservation, dust being emblematic of melancholy and the harbinger perhaps of a deeper, more divine melancholy . . . which would be akin to finding a new planet.”
Adam Morgan: How did you come to write about the concept of melancholy?
Mark Haber: Melancholy wasn’t something I sought to write about. Typically, I don’t begin knowing what the themes of a book will be. It’s more a sort of feeling, more mysterious and, dare I say it, organic. I see things aesthetically. Meaning, I wanted it to take place in a jungle and I wanted the book to be unbroken text. I see in large swathes, but always in general, never specific.
I had just read [Laszlo] Krasznahorkai’s The Last Wolf and was mesmerized by the story, not only the story but the style. I admired the way he could go back and forth in time, between this man talking to a bartender in the present, to being in Spain, in the past. Also, I’ve always been an enormous fan of Bolaño’s By Night in Chile and love slim, dense books. So it’s all about aesthetics for me. The way the story is told. So I knew what I wanted the book to look like before I knew what it would be about. To me, many of my favorite books are [notable] not [for] what the book is about, but what the book manages to do, a feeling or a relationship to language. If that makes sense. I’m a big fan of not knowing, writing to find out what you know and don’t know.
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I began writing the book and very early on, probably the second day after I’d started, I had the idea for this very minor character, a person working on a treatise about melancholy, sort of a running joke, a character I’d refer to sporadically throughout the story. But almost instantly I realized he was the one that was interesting. My mind said: this is the guy to watch. It just sort of clicked.
Also, I wasn’t certain yet what the voice of my narrator would be like, but once I had Jacov it sort of forced the tone of the narrator, or at least shaped it.
Would Jacov consider you a “true melancholic”?
Me? I’m not sure if Jacov would. I’m guessing he has some high expectations for someone to be considered a ‘melancholic’! I am a melancholic though, as I think we all are to some degree. I consider myself good-natured and generally a happy person, but there’s always a tinge of sadness, always a sense of things, I don’t know, ending. Even in the best moments I have this voice that tells me, “This won’t last. As good as it is, everything ends.” I know, dark! But part of my sadness is how rich and short life is. It’s a cliche, but the older you get the faster time goes by and I see it going by. I feel it. And life can be horrible and sad, painful and unfair, all those terrible things, but it’s also so sweet and so short.
Also, like a lot of people, I’ve had my struggles with depression and I think melancholy, in a sense, is the same thing, or at least a flavor of depression. They weren’t throwing around the word “depression” during the time of my book, and there’s certainly a difference, but they’re probably neighbors, right? Or siblings? So I struggle with it sometimes. I consider myself at times to be melancholic, but not in general.
How did bookselling influence you as a writer? And then how did you make time for both?
I don’t think bookselling has influenced me as a writer. I’m forty-seven and was forty when I began bookselling. I’d written a book of short stories about ten years ago, a couple novels that I shelved in my twenties. Being a bookseller has made me much more aware of the business of publishing, more aware of books and presses I wouldn’t have come across if I was, say, in a classroom teaching, but my tastes, preferences and influences were already firmly in place when I began as a bookseller. I had no intention of staying as a bookseller either, I really wasn’t sure I could afford it. I just needed an escape from teaching public high school because I was pretty miserable.
Making the time for both work and writing was difficult. Although, to be fair, I see writers who have children or are full-time professors or public defenders (hello, Sergio De La Pava) and that can’t be easy. You just make it work. If you have the drive and the compulsion to write you find a way to do it. I had to write this book. I think any writer that finishes a book would say the same thing: they didn’t have a choice. I remember telling my wife I had this novel I’d started and I saw it so clearly and she understood. She allowed me to spend most of the time on my days off working on it, as well as writing in the morning before I went to work. It was hard, but obviously there’s writers who’ve had it much harder. I work best with a routine, just working bit by bit, consistently, mostly in the mornings. If you do that, and have the inspiration of course, you can get anything done.
I see writers with fellowships or grants and that two weeks or month of unbroken time — it almost frightens me how liberating that must be. If I had a full month to write, I can’t imagine what I’d get done. But, everyone’s situation is different and I have electricity and health insurance to consider, thus working while writing is simply surviving. Also, I’m not in academia so I can’t take extended periods of time off. Retail waits for no one.
Why set the novel in South America of all possible wildernesses? And then why Croatia?
Anyone who knows me would say how could it not be in South America! It’s sort of a joke, how much I love Latin American literature. I read writers from everywhere. I love international literature, but the last fifteen, closer to twenty years, I’ve been obsessed with Spanish-language writers, especially from Latin America. It’s so rich and varied and I don’t feel like they’re so indebted to tropes, at least not as much as writers are in the United States. Look at a writer like Borges: I don’t think he could’ve come from Michigan or South Carolina, I just don’t. Geography is huge for me, hence my love of translated literature. Place shows us what we have in common but also the differences.
I’d read some Garcia Marquez when I was in my twenties and really liked it. Then I moved on and life happened. A decade or more later Bolaño showed up and it was like an alarm. I owe a lot to New Directions [the publisher]; in the early 2000s they were putting out a ton of great Spanish-language writers: Bolaño, Aira, Catesllanos Moya, Lispector, Vila Matas, Rey Rosa, Rosero and Marías. Just amazing stuff and I think other publishers, especially after the success of Bolaño, started following suit. Also, a lot of these writers wrote very slim novels and this was also an enormous influence on the book.
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Later I revisited Garcia Marquez and it’s funny because he’s always such a given, right? He’s so enormous that he’s almost discounted, almost taken for granted. Like he’s part of the background now with all the other “Latin Boom” writers, but I dare anyone to wade their way through The Autumn of the Patriarch and not see unmitigated brilliance. Popularity is cyclical and I know there was a reaction to the ‘boom’ writers from the generation after them, and I suppose that’s an advantage to being in the United States, you’re not involved in these generational or regional disputes from other countries, unless, of course, you try and insert yourself.
I knew I wanted the book to take place in South America; however, if you look at the amount of time spent in the jungle in Reinhardt’s Garden it’s really only a fraction of the book, probably twenty percent. It may feel like much more but only because the South American parts are the present, whereas Europe is looking back. The book definitely straddles both the Old World and the New World.
Croatia was simply spinning the globe and pointing a finger really. I can’t remember the exact origins of Croatia, but I wanted it to be a smaller, more obscure country in Europe, not Germany or France. Of course later I find out how absolutely beautiful the country is. But that makes it better in a sense; Jacov ranting against this absolutely stunning landscape that he destests but is actually quite lavish. But places and locations, like the names of my characters, are very arbitrary. I use a name or a place while I’m writing and I know if it fits or it doesn’t. I can always go back and change something. Jacov wasn’t “Jacov” until about halfway through writing the book when I didn’t like the name I’d had.
Why structure it as a single paragraph? Was that part of your original vision of the book or did it evolve?
As I mentioned earlier, the single paragraph was my original idea for the book. I had to bend things or teach myself things as I went along, but I wanted a book that had propulsion, a fast pace that moved back and forth in both time and place as well as in the mind of the narrator. I wanted the book to be sinuous and winding but also highly readable. Opening my book, at first it might seem daunting, but if a reader gives it a couple pages I think they see it’s not meant to be “difficult” or “challenging” as much as joyful, with a love of language. And hats off to Chris Fischbach and my editors at Coffee House for not wanting to break it into chapters or seperate anything. It never even came up. They saw what I was doing and absolutely respected it.
What kind of research or travel did you do? What surprised you?
I visited Mexico City a few times while writing this book, but Mexico doesn’t figure in the book and the trips were for pleasure. So travel? None. I haven’t been to any of the places written about in Reinhardt’s Garden. Most everything I did concerning history and geography was simply research and imagination (and very little research). Reading literature is my research, honestly. When I was writing, I wasn’t worried about accuracy in regards to what people were doing in the coffee houses of Prague and Berlin or what did a building in Stuttgart look like. Not even the particular politics of the era. My true research is literature, it’s other books. I may have read a few pages of Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest or Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers and been inspired and gone off and written. I certainly did that more than reading about popular philosophical movements in Europe at the time. Reading other books are my biggest inspiration.
I think research is good up to a point, but I see writing as painting; I’m not a realist, I’m not trying to mimic reality or be hyper-sharp and realistic, so knowing too much can be a hindrance. Broad strokes, put a dash of green here, a detail there, and let the reader fill in the rest. I want to suggest more than describe. I mean, the Croatian village where the narrator grew up — I don’t think I described it even once. There’s all sorts of writers and styles and that’s simply the way I like to do it, probably from the books that I’ve read and admired. Obviously there’s no right or wrong way. But I don’t want to spend a page, not even a few sentences, talking about a character’s expressions. The reader, if I’ve done my job, will see their expressions from their words and actions. Also, I didn’t want the story to be weighed down with lists of things that [are there just to] show how much I know.
That being said, I’m an enormous fan of Saul Bellow and his physical descriptions of characters are the greatest! It’s one of his strengths. He’s a huge influence on me, just not in that respect; I admire the blend of high and low culture. Bellow is a master of that.
I couldn’t help but wonder if the meditation on dust was inspired by working in bookstores! Where did that come from?
What’s really surprising is seeing what parts people gravitate to. The dust part has had the most reaction! My father loves that part. Readers have told me they love that part. But I don’t know where it came from. It was probably written in the flurry of writing the book, as John Steinbeck once said: “the indescribable joy of creation.” And I liked it and it felt like something Jacov would say or feel strongly about. Who knows where it came from?!
Incidentally, my favorite part is the dogs running slipshod over Tolstoy’s estate. I remember being absolutely tickled by that when I was writing it. Just reading it back and laughing at the sheer absurdity of a notorious dog catcher getting called up by Tolstoy’s wife to round up and dispose of all the serfs’ mutts. It still cracks me up. But people love Jacov’s treatise on dust and/or Sonja collecting it and I’m fine with that.
Since the book is partially set in Latin America in 1907, did you try to align your writing style with a particular aesthetic?
I didn’t feel like I had to align my style as much as be sure certain details rang true, if that makes sense. I wanted the characters to be in a carriage if carriages were used more than cars or horses, etc. I like stories that have a sense of place but can always stretch and become something other. Barton Fink, one of my favorite films, is set in 1940’s LA but it has very little loyalty to the specific details of the place. The audience knows it’s LA but it’s the Coen brother’s LA, not one rooted in reality. To me, that’s the beauty of fiction and storytelling, that freedom. Even the scenes early in my book, in Montevideo: I mention the cockfights and I’m not sure that city or country ever had a history of cockfighting. But it was important because it stressed the difference between the world of Europe where they came from and the world they’re in, what they consider a backwater.
Also, it never occurred to me to have the book feel as if it were written in 1907. I always wanted it to have the outlook or dark humor of a contemporary sense of things. I wasn’t interested in the book feeling like it had come from that time, like a diary found in an attic or something. That would’ve felt forced to me. I’m absolutely happy if a reader reads the book knowing what they’re reading, in fact, is a book. Does that make sense? The artifice of a novel is better (to me, at least) if everyone sort of agrees, yes, this is made up. Because then you can actually, truly lose yourself. You’re not as concerned with: “did they wear those clothes or eat those foods?” Nothing is forced. We can all agree it’s make believe.
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Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books. He writes about place, books, and the arts for The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere. He now lives in Charlotte, NC.
Editor: Dana Snitzky