Poet, translator, and fiction writer Yuriy Tarnawsky is a founding member of the New York Group, a friend to the surreal, and a fond misanthrope. His newest collection, Short Tails (JEF Books/Civil Coping Mechanisms), from a festival of grotesquerie and the existential struggle, is populated by characters who, variously, absorb Lenin’s verbal and gustatory tics, shed skin and limbs and ligaments until reduced to a single eyeball, or discover that a long-dead father is pulling them into the grave by the jowls. In this fourth and long-overdue installment of “The New Xорошо,” I learn to read less deterministically and Tarnawsky invokes the absurd, leaves us with a phonological riddle, and reminds us that we’re all going to die.~T.M. De Vos
The phrase “Contact with yourself—awareness of your material nature” was a phrase that resonated for me as a background note in many of the stories in Short Tails. I deeply admired the physicality of the stories in the collection, and the way the characters’ bodies enacted their psychological perceptions and transformations. As someone who tends to sit out rather than act, I find it to be an ongoing challenge to write fully embodied characters who aren’t suspended in vitro, like the brain in “The City of Lost Children.” Craftwise, I’m curious about how you make your decisions about how much of a character’s inner life to let into the story.
I have no idea how it happens. I seldom plan out in advance what or how I’m going to write, but follow my instinct, or taste, in other words, do what feels right. Just about the only thing I have learned over the years about writing is that if something isn’t coming out and doesn’t feel right, don’t force yourself to do it. Drop it and try something else. It may refer to the topic or to how you’re treating it. Relax, and start anew. Every time I look at drafts of what I rejected, I see distinctly that not only were there in it problems I struggled with, but that there were all sorts of other problems which disappeared in the new treatment of the piece. When I do something the right way, then everything is done right. It’s like a plant in which all components belong together, are organic, and essentially inseparable from each other. One more thing I have learned about writing, which is actually part of what I said above, is that, since I don’t write for money or fame, if what I write doesn’t please me, I shouldn’t do it. So it’s the feeling that I am doing the right (and pleasurable) thing which is the mechanism that permits me to write as I do. I suspect it works with all writers, although not everyone follows it.
More philosophically, I’m also curious about how you see the self—fictional or otherwise. I thought of Calvino’s Cosmicomics (Tutte le cosmicomiche, that is) a few times, and not simply because of consonant-heavy names like “Rk.” Rather, there seems to be a story about the identity of a creature becoming itself through various evolutions—viral, reincarnate, geologic, tissual—and, even though the characters are modern humans, there is a sense of the primordial about them, as if they’ve been isolated in a flask and their stories are going to tell us something about our own history.
This is probably due again to what I said above. I do sort of sink into a trance when I write, and live in the space I have created and am the characters I find there, so that when I describe them, I feel everything they feel and am capable of describing their most detailed feelings and experiences. The process is exhausting but also extremely gratifying, as if I were permitted to live multiple lives. I remember distinctly that when I was writing in Three Blondes and Death about the main character Hwbrgdtse’s visit to Caracas, when I finished the scene, I felt as if I had been to a fresh-air, high-altitude place, as Caracas is, which was wonderful, because it was a hot and muggy day in White Plains at the time. I think, once again, that my reliance on dreams in my writing is related to this. I seem to have learned to create dreams in my waking life so that these deliberately created scenes have the essence of dreams about them. At least they do for me, and I hope I’m right about this.
We observe, through that flask, the characters’ wish to be consumed by something larger than the self—to become one with rock, to be ravaged by AIDS—and, again, begin to understand something about our species through the disturbing idiosyncrasies of the characters. The beautifully austere tone does not change with the destruction: enacting these bizarre desires is only one kind of behavior among many. An amoeba may dash itself against the flask wall; no one thinks to give an account of its psychology. I don’t mean to say that there is a lack of respect for human life; in fact, the refusal to dramatize Rock’s or Rk’s destruction ultimately feels respectful of the fundamental unknowability of another creature. What we can recognize and relate to, though, is the attraction to one’s own destruction. What can we learn from these characters about the human wish to be annihilated—or at least to merge with something larger than the self?
I am almost embarrassed to write about this, as if I were confessing to having a death wish and were abnormal in this sense. It is true that I have been obsessed by the notion of death since at the least my late teens, and death was the topic of my first book of poetry (Life in the City, 1956, in Ukrainian), but I don’t think it’s the sign of my having a death wish but rather of having an unnaturally strong lust for life. The prospect of death which hovers over it is disturbing and I think I write about it as a way of chasing it away, exorcising it. But it is also undoubtedly part of training myself for the inevitable event, inoculating myself to it, so that when it comes, it isn’t surprising. “Know yourself,” Socrates said. I think this is part of that process. And I suspect that all mature people go through it, although each in his or her unique, individual way.
I’ve had a similar obsession with death, possibly exacerbated by being scolded for bringing up the topic or people who had died, or asking about what, logistically, happened to the dead. I don’t think it’s particularly macabre or perverse to take an interest in death—even a great deal of interest— rather, I think that we’d better investigate it pretty thoroughly since it’s the major condition of life. I don’t mean just learning about the science of death, though apoptosis and senescence at the cellular level are pretty fascinating, but learning about it through people who can make sense of it for us. Like Rilke. Rilke calmed a lot of my anxiety about death—not all, but a lot.
Yeah, it’s like reconnoitering the place where you’re going to fight (literally) the battle of your life tomorrow, so as to be better prepared for it. Most people, at least on the surface, pretend they don’t worry about death, but, guys, don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about it, that you think it’s not coming. But investigating it, exploring, makes the prospect of it less traumatic and improves your life, makes you live it better. There is a wonderful scene in Dovzhenko’s Earth, at the very beginning, where the old peasant dies in the orchard, eating an apple. He lies on his back, picks up an apple, wipes it off on his sleeve, eats it, says he’ll die now, closes his eyes, and dies. It’s a wonderful illustration of the passing away of a person bound to earth, who understands that death is part of life. It reflects the philosophy of the ancient Ukrainian agrarian society linked to the eternal process of birth, growth, death, and birth again.
Despite the literally—in the case of Rock Peterson, anyway—crushing physicality, sensuality seems largely to be absent from many of the characters’ lives. Some, like Rock or Wally Uhland, seem entirely to have sublimated their libido in pursuits like becoming rock or turning into Lenin, respectively. For others, like divorced Rooke, sex is a thing of the past, or simply sporadic and conducted only with strangers. For example, Rk thinks of breaking his long celibacy only upon meeting an emaciated prostitute under a bridge, and the character in “the albino inside you,” seems more disrupted than gratified by his one-night stand. In other cases, sex is just creepy, as it is for the homophonous couple Bobby and Bobbi. As I cringed through their mother-son role-play, I found myself wondering if, and fearing that, all of the costuming and pretense were necessary to make an aging couple want to touch each other. Are these experiences of sex idiosyncratic to these characters, or can we take away a more general statement here about the nature of intimacy?
This is probably due to my concentrating on the dark, negative aspects of life and eliminating the positive ones, which sex is. I guess I am saying indirectly that no matter how wonderful sex, and love in general, is it isn’t enough to make any real difference. In the end death trumps everything. But the reason for this is that I am essentially a misanthrope, I find people, that is the whole human race, including, and especially including, myself, funny, ridiculous, laughable, grotesque, and am trying to represent it in my writing. And this is true of Short Tails.
I think this misanthropy is what kept me under the spell of Short Tails for the duration of this conversation, which became—through my fault alone—quite drawn out. It’s a uniquely human feeling, I think, to acknowledge simultaneously one’s utter absurdity and grotesqueness as a creature and yet feel tenderness for the whole hapless lot of us. I’m curious as well what you mean by love’s failure to make any “real difference.” Do you mean it fails to chip away at the absurdity? The fundamental aloneness in which we’re all trapped?
I guess I shouldn’t have said “misanthrope.” It’s too negative a word. I mean laughing as a way of dealing with a difficult situation. As we know, humor is a powerful tool for dealing with adversity, danger. Every culture has developed this—jokes for laughing at yourself and others like you. But you do it essentially out of pity, even love, for yourself and others like you. You merely say we’re all silly. Let’s not take ourselves so seriously. We’re not that important and neither is the pain that we feel so painful. And as to sex, yes, that in the end it’s merely a palliative, a Band-Aid, which won’t heal, close up the wound.
This thread also reminds me of a story I read earlier this week—Andrej Nickolaidis’s “The Coming.” The narrator of the story embarks on an exquisite rant about the specific hell posed by other people, particularly in a city: “A person’s degree of primitivism in an urban setting can be gauged, I maintain, by the disturbance he represents for other people. A primitive person is unable to exist in quiet discretion: he always creates noise, unsightliness, and stench. He does everything he can to be noticed—he constantly emits his existence.” Although I’m growing less and less tolerant of the vast armies of “primitives” populating New York City, I can’t help but feel as though we’re all pretty insistent about emitting our existence, through our purchases and wall posts and opinions and godawful phone conversations. Are people who are particularly loud or obnoxious about it any more absurd than the rest of us? Is the very idea of degrees itself part of the absurdity?
Oh, they’re merely more infantile, less mature. The absurdity is the same for everyone, but some deal with it in a more mature way than others. But the great leveler comes in the end and makes everyone equal. Then absurdity disappears and you become an object, just like an apple that’s fallen off the tree and rots in the grass. No more ambiguity there, no dreams of power, and fame, and riches, and a joyous eternal life. Predictable, peaceful decay.
I’m wondering whether femininity—the stifling, uncontainable brand of femininity looming in so many of the pieces—might account for the male characters’ struggles with intimacy. The women seem militant, vegetable, castrating, even thanatotic: when the narrative lens pans away from Bobby, caged under Bobbi’s skirts, to seven jars of preserved fetuses on their windowsill or the newly divorced Rooke battles a virago-houseplant shortly after losing part of a finger. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the shortened digit, but Rooke seemed to me doubly castrated: first by the severance of his finger, and second in the overrunning of his house.
I don’t think I had castration in mind in any of the stories. It is too gruesome an image to fit in with what is essentially a comic vision of life—grotesque, yes, but in the end funny. I come from Ukrainian background, and I think this is the source of my humor, the same as in Gogol. (Compare the bleak, hopeless vision of Russia in Saltikov-Shchedrin’s History of a Town to Gogol’s in general humorous one in Inspector General and Dead Souls.) This is part of what I said above about people being, for me, ridiculous in their vulnerable, imperfect humanity, grotesque, but funny at the same time. The losing of a finger, by the way, alludes to the same act in Three Blondes and Death. By it, I think, I wanted to hint at the destructibility, physical nature, of man. I say this in the story when I speak about the epiphany that Rooke experiences— “a revelation of some profound existential truth.” “Bobby and Bobbi,” incidentally, was very much influenced by Gogol. I felt that this is what Gogol would have written if he lived during our times. He has a story “Ivan Ivanovich Shponka and his Auntie” which somehow influenced me in doing this one. There is no sex in Gogol’s story, but an unhealthy relationship between a huge powerful woman and her weak childish nephew whom she calls “a child” and I view most of the action in it taking part in an enclosed space, a small room, and somehow it got transformed into this horribly grotesque tale.
Agreed, Gogol’s not terribly sexual, at least not overtly, though he certainly has a handle on the grotesque. It’s still interesting to me that these destructive—and yes, ultimately silly, interactions—center upon intimacy. I’m curious to know more about what you see in love and sexuality as particularly ripe for grotesqueness. Obviously, the fact of everyone engaging in pretty much the same act, over and over, with pretty much the same end result, and spending such an awful lot of time on it, is innately absurd. When you think too much about it, it makes you want to bow out, not participate at all, like the speaker in Corso’s “Marriage” who says “I’d be almost inclined not to do anything! Stay up all night! Stare that hotel clerk in the eye!” Which, of course, is an absurd reaction in itself. There’s not really a ticket out of absurdity, is there?
The very act of coition, of course, may look pretty bizarre, if you take away the reasons for and emotions that lie behind it. (Imagine what an extraterrestrial being would think of it if it didn’t engage in anything like that itself.) But I didn’t have this in mind. I was referring to the grotesque context in which it takes place in the story. If you recall, in the story, all is hidden from the reader, as a tragic act is from the spectator in the performance of an ancient Greek tragedy. So, the grotesqueness lies in the misoccurrence of the sexual act not in the act itself. That is, what is grotesque is how these two people try to resolve their psychological problems (his inability to relate to women of his age and her distress at her inability to carry a pregnancy) by acting out a kinky sex game.
Rick is much more direct in his feelings of being castrated and cast aside by the society of women, which has somehow cropped up without his notice. Certainly, there’s a great deal in the media about women overtaking men in education and jobs, to the point that young men are said to be “in crisis”—is Rick’s sense of displacement a reaction of this trend writ large?
But again, Rick is funny in his vulnerability, isn’t he? He lives in a world which is changing and is unable to adapt himself to the ascendance of women and in the end cowers before them. His superficial admiration of women “finally beginning to occupy their rightful place in society” evaporates as he sees how far they have advanced and feels that they will overwhelm him. But it points to his weakness. I laugh at his weakness and at the weakness of men who cannot withstand the changes taking place in the world. In a similar fashion I laugh at RT who has a rose tattooed on his forehead to become different and who dies as a result of letting his inner racism liberated by this act come to the surface. He also can’t cope with the changes that have taken place in the world around him.
Perhaps my interest in the psychodynamics has led me to overlook—at least within the forum of this discussion—the genuinely entertaining facets of many of the characters and narrative. There is a lightness to Rick’s response to a world that seems to him thoroughly post-apocalyptic that necessitates a tongue-in-cheek read, doubtlessly. But I would say that there’s also a tannic note: those who are used to having power, who have been unduly privileged within their lifetimes, are most vulnerable when the structures that reinforce that power begin to break down. In their vulnerability, they become absurd—vassals to a dead lord and totally unequipped for any other purpose. Again, we’re all absurd…but perhaps these guys are “more absurd”? Is that possible?
I don’t think so. They may act more stupidly at times, but the absurdity is the same for everyone. It is the absurdity of the human condition. And going back to Rick, it isn’t that his sexism comes up to the surface once he has had enough of seeing how far women have progressed, but that he summons up sexism as a tool to deal with his situation. If he is funny, it is because of how he tries to deal with life. The same is true of RT.
There were several “R” and “K” combinations in your characters’ names: Rooke, Rock, Rick, and simply Rk. Given the cryptography Wally Uhland engages in with his own initials and Lenin’s, and your own background in linguistics, I’m curious about the significance of these letters/sounds.
You’re absolutely right. This is not a coincidence but careful design. I find the sounds (of) “r” and “k” (and those similar to the latter) harsh and unpleasant and have endowed the names of many of the characters in the stories with them as part of the latter’s unlikable, deficient nature. (I will leave it up to the reader to find out if there may have been any other reason for this particular choice.) But by this I also tried to give unity to the book, make it read more like a novel. And in fact, many people have remarked that it reads like novel rather than a collection of stories. I have also tried to achieve this by the arrangement of the stories which, I believe, do show a certain progression. (But what would you say, if I told you that one of the publishers that rejected the book gave as a reason for the rejection that they were too different from each other and didn’t hang together?) Wally Uhland falls out of this scheme for obvious reasons. But that story also originated in a different way than many of the others, which came purely from within me. “Lenin’s Brain” was suggested by a friend of mine telling me about a biography of Lenin he had recently read. But I believe, the story isn’t completely out of place in the collection. Since one of the currents in the collection is searching for your identity (the existentialist struggle), this story shows what a freak you may become if you are shaped by outside forces. In this, it is similar to ”AC Robat.”
It often seems that publishing decisions are all but totally idiosyncratic to the reader who first receives a manuscript—whether that person is someone who knows what is interesting, or values a collection that raises questions over one that would neatly slide by in a workshop. I attended a seminar at NYU with Marie Howe the other week, and she related a fantastic story about Stanley Kunitz’s method of reading for the Yale Younger Poets competition. He insisted on reading every single manuscript himself, down to those the readers had relegated to the least-desirable bin. Apparently, the winners he selected were almost entirely, if not entirely, from that bin. There’s a certain acumen to seeing beyond what’s being rewarded at the moment and I think that, even in this age of copious publishing, that acumen is fairly rare. One thing I appreciated about Short Tails was that, despite being succinct and economical with its words, it wasn’t “neat.” By that, I mean that it didn’t go straight back to the shelf but continued to bother me.
That’s a compliment, in case my intent is unclear. If I can close up a book and say, “That was nice,” I’d better be reading to a child. I’d be curious to know about other responses you’ve received to this book—both at readings and in other critical conversations.
Oh, God, you wouldn’t believe some of the responses I got. First of all, it was rejected by probably a dozen publishers (noncommercial ones; I didn’t bother sending it to the big houses, although I did submit “Lenin’s Brain” to the New Yorker, thinking the Greenwich Village location would appeal to it, but it didn’t), including those that have published me in the past. I already mentioned that one of them said that the stories were too diverse and didn’t hang together. This one also said I was imitating Milan Kundera. (I have read one story by Kundera perhaps thirty years ago and don’t remember anything about it.) The most colorful one was from a particularly small outfit which said the stories didn’t draw the reader in and didn’t lead anywhere, that some of them had “rocky” syntax (I guess they were referring to the long sentences I use in some of the stories to convey emotional involvement), and that in the end I wasn’t ready for “the prime time.” There is also a colorful negative assessment on the internet of someone who heard me read “Concerts” and dumped on it. But since the publication, both in response to my reading from the book and from the book itself, the comments have been very positive, and perceptive too. People seem to understand exactly what I’m after and don’t accuse me of copying anyone. There are frequent references to Kafka, but not in a negative sense—just that I have something in common with him, which is true. I read Kafka when I was 20 and, although I liked him very much, I haven’t reread him since, except for a couple of stories recently, to see how I react to them now. Somehow, I haven’t felt the need for it. It’s as if the seeds of his writing had sprouted in me long time ago and are growing on their own and need no further attention. The reviews I have gotten so far have also been quite positive. A few more, as I understand it, are in the pipeline. So the reaction has been good. I am indebted for all of this to my publisher, Eckhard Gerdes, who offered on his own to publish the book and who has stood firmly behind it. He is a wonderful writer himself and what he is doing with the Journal of Experimental Fiction is absolutely admirable. It’s like going back to the early days of New Directions. (Boy, do we miss a publisher like that nowadays!)
Having spent some time under the spell of these stories, I am curious as to what in them felt particularly urgent to you—naturally, I have my own fixations as a reader, but what in them matters most to you?
The existential struggle, how people try to be happy while grappling with the crushing forces of life. Above, I mentioned the origin of the stories. The great majority of them came from a phrase popping up in my mind, which I would fancy to be the title of a story, and then, in an associative way, as one describes the associations in the Rorschach inkblot test, I would proceed from it to develop the tale. The plot then came out perfectly smoothly and easily, as if it had always been inside me and was I merely digging it up, mining it like a mother lode. So the great majority, if not all of the stories, reflect the deeply personal topics that have resided in me probably since childhood—the existential topics common to all men, of self realization, loneliness, death. Underlying this is the existentialist philosophy which influenced me early in life and has remained part of me to this day. Philosophically speaking, I feel, the central story in the collection is “AC Robat,” which I mentioned above and which shows what grotesque results outside influence may have on a person’s development. Because of AC’s parents’ silly notion to name their son after their favorite author (Arthur Conan Doyle), he has ruined his life by trying to be an acrobat. The final scene shows what inhuman torture he has to subject himself to in order to achieve this.
That character particularly interested me; I jotted something down about overdeterminism in my notes, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to ask. What was the particular phrase that popped up in your mind when you began to imagine this one?
It wasn’t so much a phrase, as an image of a gaunt, hollow-eyed fanatic, like a present-day Savonarola. But I did have other works of art in mind here too, as the epigraph says—Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist,” and my friend, the Ukrainian painter Jurij Solovij’s canvas “The Fire Eater.” These were the elements that I brought into the story.
But I want to make it clear here that in spite of my speaking of the deeply personal nature of the book, there is virtually no biographical material in it. With minor exceptions, this is true of all of my writing. As I said earlier, my principal objective, which is true of all of my writing, is to laugh at humanity, and above all at myself, at how silly we all look in our pursuit of happiness. The easiest way for me to do this is to construct characters and situations which are as far away from me and my life as possible. Then, looking from that great distance, I am able to laugh to my heart’s content at what I see until tears run down my cheeks.
T.M. De Vos is co-editor-in-chief of Gloom Cupboard and author of The Dimestore World, a poetry collection forthcoming from Patasola Press. She has recently been awarded a Summer Literary Seminars fellowship and plans to spend it all in Vilnius. She is a lover of sad languages, independent republics, and being in transit. Eastern European authors who have something to say to her should contact firstname.lastname@example.org.