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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Interview From the Reading Room

Litlove is a lecturer in French literature whose blog, Tales From the Reading Room, explores the strange and beautiful links between life and art. Now she has taken a bold step outside the insular room with the publication of her first book, The Best of Tales From the Reading Room. Though a collection of essays that one may have already read on her blog, there is a tactile satisfaction reading a book which one holds in one’s hand that doesn’t exist when reading from a computer screen. And there is some connective tissue between the essays gathered in the book that forms an outline of the author that is more apparent than on the blog.

Recently, we were privileged to join Litlove in her Reading Room, and in front of the fire with a strong pot of tea we probed her to fill in those outlines. Here she comments on modern culture, the nature of fantasies, the blogger’s connection to Surrealists, and why her popular literary salon may soon be moving to southern France. She does go on a bit, but with enough good will you can almost see that as charming in its way. Enjoy!

First of all, is the Reading Room a real place, and can you describe it for us?

The Reading Room is so lined and insulated with books that even the door is disguised as a bookcase. It contains a sofa of supreme comfiness on which I lie, and a fire that blazes at night or on winter days. In the summertime its one picture window looks over a gently sloping Swiss meadow. It doesn’t have an external reality, but as the place I go to in my head when I’m mentally preparing myself for research or writing, it feels more necessary than any of my actual rooms.

You describe becoming a writer, and explain part of your process as taking the text inside of you and listening "to all it couldn't or wouldn't say." Please describe this further, and share how this act in particular helped you to write.

Just recently I read Kate Sutherland’s collection of short stories, All In Together Girls, and as I was making my way through them I realized that there were structural similarities that weren’t immediately obvious from the content. And so I watched my own internal reactions closer and found myself wincing, time and again, and I thought, ‘this writer is fascinated by vulnerability’. It’s hard to explain, but as a younger literary critic I kept too much distance from what I read, and so I just brought my own expectations to bear on stories. Once I’d learned to pay better attention to what happened to that story when it was inside me, I felt I was doing more justice to it, to its own unique character. There’s a huge temptation as a critic to try to be clever with what you read, and I just wanted to be truthful to the heart of the fiction.

You write about two inviolable regulations in fiction: bad mothers are unforgivable and loved husbands are untouchable. These seem more like the response of readers than the intention of writers. Tell us how deeply these ideas are ingrained in our culture.

I wouldn’t want to impose on culture at large a neat axiom that might just belong in my own warped mind, but bad mothers get a terrible press across the ages; we can forgive Emma Bovary all her sexual and financial excesses, but not her neglect of little Berthe, just as the media insist that no matter how she suffers, we must condemn Britney Spears for her perceived inability to nurture her sons. As for loved husbands, it seems to me that the love of a good woman is so redemptive in the masculine imagination that it frequently exerts the protective charm of a talisman. But that’s probably showing up the limits of my reading; I’ll bet there are male protagonists in works by 19th century Russian novelists who fulfill their death wish, regardless.

You suggest that "men fear that they will lead only muffled lives." What connections do you make to the modern cults of celebrity and voyeurism?

Good question. I remember about fifteen or so years ago the ‘docu-soap’ filled our television schedules. It’s premise was to take an ordinary workplace that could nevertheless produce anecdotal interest, like an airport or a driving school, and followed the lives of ‘normal’ people under pressure at work. I think that was the start of a trend to glamourise the everyday and bring celebrity to ordinary folk. It always struck me as a bit regressive, like the way that children are precociously aware of themselves acting in their own internal cinema. It also said, no matter who you are, you can be famous. That trend has gone completely over the top now; I keep waiting for something else to come and replace it, but it’s remarkably tenacious.

You describe a crush you once had on the writer Julian Barnes, and your inability to pick him up at his own book signing. I think fiction is at its best when it explores everything that otherwise cannot be. So tell us the story of Julian Barnes coming to pick you up at your first signing of The Best of Tales From the Reading Room.

It’s best I don’t say how long I’ve spent thinking about this question! First of all we’re so deep in fantasy that this could be science fiction, but anyhow. The only scenario that actually works in my mind is where he comes up to me and says: ‘I’ve been wondering why your face is familiar and aren’t you the woman who bored me rigid at that literary reading in Highgate back in 1993?’ This really brings back the experience of fiction writing, where I could only ever write failed encounters. Still, with a big effort I can imagine us having a laugh making up reviews of our books by famous authors (Flaubert: ‘Litlove, c’est moi’, Sartre: ‘This woman has some interesting ideas but they are spoiled by her essentially foolish disposition’) and as we’re busy talking, so we leave the bookshop behind, and find a taxi and then a train station, and hardly perceiving the changing landscape, we contrive to end up in the South of France. If this all sounds lame, it’s because in love I’m captivated when the other person surprises me, and in writing, I’m much better at analysis.

What happened to your thesis on Mr. Barnes?

It went the way of all beautiful and much-wanted dreams, in that translating it into reality altered it beyond all recognition. I do wonder what my life would have been if I had moved into an English department, but for better or for worse I will always be a European modernist now.

What happened to your crush?

It ended up as a kind of literary marriage. I have a deep, residual loving appreciation of Julian Barnes, so that when I read a book like Love, Etc, I think, Julian, you are such a delight to my intellect you still occupy a privileged place in my heart. But it’s tempered by the distance of a little cautious criticism, so I read Arthur and George and think, you had my undivided attention for the best part of twenty hours and this was the best you could think of to do with it?

I see in your inability to pick up Mr. Barnes when given the opportunity a streak of Romanticism. I see glimpses of this throughout your book, in particular when you describe your whole-hearted acceptance of "the vision of life peddled by The Thorn Birds." Do you think the Romantic outlook is endemic to readers of fiction?

You have no idea of the civil warfare that rages in my soul between my Romantic leanings and my analytical capacities. Literature is the only place where I can comfortably deal with them both at once. The classic Romantic is someone who wants to joy-ride with their soul, who wants to explore their emotions to the limit-point. I think if you love stories, you have to have a little bit of that, because voracious reading is about greedily hoovering up all the virtual experiences you can have.

You write that the books we like reflect the qualities of our best selves. What book reflects the qualities of your best self?

Proust. The marriage of analysis with transitory experience for the benefit of each, the reclaiming of all that is lost in beautiful stories, a lengthy, humble appreciation in the lessons of art, love as generosity and gift, endlessly given. He does go on a bit, but with enough good will you can almost see that as charming in its way.

You reveal a great deal about yourself in the essay "Things I Wish Books Hadn't Taught Me." You describe how we write and read fiction in order to make sense of our lives, and also how we live our lives in a fictional way in order to provide them with meaning. Do you think fiction is better suited to ground us or to realise unreal expectations?

That opening sentence makes me nervous. Fiction is very good at both. All narrative expectations – around resolution and meaning – are fundamentally unrealistic in life, but equally fiction is skilled at showing us what’s real and authentic and true. Hanna Segal says that art is effectively about breaking things, creating destruction and despair and chaos, and then putting the pieces back together to make something new and beautiful. Suffering is inevitable, art says, but equally reparation (in our own minds at least) is always possible. I think it’s going through that emotional journey in a work of fiction that’s the point.

What is a "three-hour one-off exam" and how does it favor males?

In arts subjects at my university there is no option to retake an exam if you fail it. You get one shot and that’s it. Most exams are three hours long and candidates are asked to write up to four essays. It’s a marked tendency amongst talented women students to try to remember everything they have read and learned. This is a disaster. No way can they reproduce everything in a scant 45 minutes and inevitably they fall prey to the temptation to regurgitate information in an undifferentiated, shapeless splurge. It’s not pretty. Male candidates have a marked tendency to make the most of the limited amount of material they have committed to memory, and make it relevant to the question posed. It’s not fair, but it’s a far better strategy.

In the essay "A Mini Guide to Surrealism" you write "Despite the fact that copious quantities of drink and drugs gave the Surrealists that delightful sensation of being the funniest, most inventive group of people on the earth...." Are you suggesting that Surrealists are not the funniest, most inventive group of people on earth?

Inventive, yes, without doubt. But some of those jokes are really showing their age now. The title of funniest, most inventive group of people on earth must surely pass now to book bloggers, don’t you agree?

Describe how you came to write "A Mini Guide to Surrealism."

This came about at a point when I was going through a blogging dip and feeling that I ought to try to restrain my verbose style. It occurred to me that I could write a series of mini-guides to various literary and artistic movements of the modern age. Surrealism came straight to mind because it’s full of good anecdotal stories about the artists, their relationships with one another and to the art they produced. Once I’d written it, and failed entirely to curb my word count, I felt back in the groove again, and went on to write other things.

Though you provide a broad outline of Surrealism and its influence on many different forms of art, you offer only a few lines about writing. What further insights can you give us into Surrealist fiction?

One of the elements of Surrealist fiction that has always enchanted me is ‘le hasard objectif’, or objective chance. What this means is that the random and arbitrary are in fact deeply significant; chance is in fact a product of our deepest desires. So, for instance, Breton wanders the streets of Paris, having fallen in love with his flaky muse, Nadja, and lo and behold he runs into her every time he thinks of her. According to Breton, it’s inevitable he should bump into Nadja because he wants her so. This is magically, supernaturally, delightfully mad, and oddly convincing despite its implausibility. But it also shows that for Breton at least, Surrealism was about extending the power of the mind beyond all constraints of reason, not celebrating madness.

How does the prevalence of the Rescue Fantasy correspond to a general erosion of personal responsibility in today's society?

I think we live in a world where we are increasingly encouraged to behave like children: our desires have to be instantly gratified, our narcissistic fantasies of power and glorification are taken seriously, and the legal system continually encourages us to place blame on other people’s shoulders. To be fair, I think the rescue fantasy has been around since the dawn of time, but if it’s more prevalent today, it’s because we are ever more alienated from our capacities to solve problems, tolerate suffering and take responsibility for ourselves. You know, I write that and I have to admit that I am appalling at tolerating suffering; I’m the least stoic person I know.

Describe the appeal of the powerful love affair between two artists.

I think there are two emotional strands in love, one that comforts and offers stability and security, and another that provokes dramatic change, alteration and creativity (although it can also be destructive, too). It’s probably a fantasy of my own, but in the stories I’ve been reading of artists in love, it’s fascinating to see how they take that latter strand and feed it into the work they produce in the heat of passion. Something extraordinary almost always results in both life and art, and I find myself drawn again and again to writing about it.

What essay elicited the most comments on your blog, and to what do you attribute the strong response?

The most comments for one post came when I had to take a lengthy blogging break last autumn after gastric ‘flu brought on a bad relapse of ME. I’ve always thought blogging was fundamentally about community, and I was so very grateful for those messages of support at that time. The post that caused the most immediate and engaged response from fellow bloggers was the one in which I wondered what to do about a graduate student who was pressing me for a lunch date. In both cases, I felt that my friends wanted to look out for me, and their protectiveness gave me the most immense feeling of tenderness and gratitude. The silly sneering from mainstream media about angry, attention-seeking bloggers just astounds me, as I’ve only ever encountered intelligent, generous and enlightened people in cyberspace.

What lies at the point of perfection in your heart?

A perfect act of communication: a sentence that is eloquent, elegant and meaningful and heard in its full and flawless richness. I don’t expect ever to experience it, but I’m prepared to spend my best years trying.

Finally, may we take you to lunch tomorrow?


  1. Wonderful interview! Quillhill you asked such interesting questions and Litlove, your answers were thoughtful and engaging.

  2. Thanks Stefanie. It's easy when one has a captive--I mean, captivating subject.