A2A: Marek Waldorf & Thomas McGonigle

With his debut novel, The Short Fall, recently out, Marek Waldorf engaged in a series of email exchanges with the author Thomas McGonigle. The book that they’re talking about here, St. Patrick’s Day, Dublin 1974, isn’t actually out yet, although fragments have been appearing in literary magazines over the years—and, apparently, Dalkey Archive Press does plan to publish it; it’s merely a question of when. In the meantime, I’m delighted they’ve agreed to share their conversation as an Author2Author post.

Marek WaldorfMarek Waldorf: I wanted to open with a quote from St. Patrick’s Day, Dublin 1974. Just a sentence because your sentences are wonders to behold, either at a swoop or counting the surprises:

“That woman, the Wife of the Poet, would follow a coffin hoping it would spring a leak and she could lie under it with mouth open ready to sup on the fluids to nourish her through the rest of her miserable life of hanging out, having waited for him to finish up the drink for the night so she could get him home so he could vomit in the privacy of her scorn for him.”

(That had at least three in store for me. It also makes me want to start a Tumblr for insults too big to tweet.) Going to Patchogue, your previous book, demonstrates a mastery of invective—heroic invective—but for me this beats all the great examples in there. At the same time, though, I think the quote belies the dare-I-say mellower mood and cleaner line (propulsion) of the story, a sort of pub crawl to the end of night. All your books seem negotiations between memory and the act of remembering—as if tweezering one scab of commemorated time off another. The historical and political dimensions of the act of remembering are explored most starkly in your first book (the title is quite literal, in fact: The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov), but it’s a strong current throughout.

Compared to the new book, both Petkov and Patchogue seem closer in form to collage. Patchogue tracks a reinsertion—a going-to and a coming-away—but it’s also coming at the reader from every direction: I was constantly looking over my shoulder, paging back for the dangling/missing threads (somebody always seems to be sneaking up on you). Because Dublin has a supreme “through-line” for St. Patrick’s Day, 1974, I found it easier to catch the other lines of reminiscence either refracting out from it or (more likely) in one of those hall-of mirror glimpses. In other words, the new book negotiates the layers of memory and loss with greater ease, or maybe more luxuriantly. So there’s my overarching question: How does the mood of this book, its projection of memory, “dictate” the style? Do you see a kind of mellowing in both subject matter & form here, or would you reject that term? And in the two earlier—jumpier—novels, how do you think about what goes where? Do you imagine the reader moving sequentially through these works, playing hopscotch, or making the time to do both?

Thomas McGonigle

Thomas McGonigle: I read this your letter very quickly last night and I read it again very quickly this morning. It is so strange to think of my books and myself in these terms. sunk in the most awful gloom. I have heard nothing from Dalkey Archive as to when they start production of the book, when it is to be published… and then with no other outlets and the accumulating piles of manuscript: it almost seems that poor Marek you is writing to a ghost who has some responsibility for something or other that has some connection to the person whose name appears at the end of this email

but then in the cold warmth of the room

now going on 11AM

I read the letter again as I printed it out and my first thought was that the letter had come from a version of Thomas Bernhard who had just finished writing Extinction and survived his own death in 1989.

Of course I had and have long wished for a letter from Thomas Bernhard and have somewhere in this apartment two little letters from Samuel Beckett from the time I was editing Adrift which was a three-issue magazine of Irish and Irish American writings. the most interesting of the notes from Beckett was his sending me the address of the nursing home where his friend the poet Brian Coffey was living in England after his long exile in Missouri.. you might know that Coffey was part of that small group of Irish poets—not much known now but well praised by Beckett back too many years ago: Coffey, Denis Devlin, Thomas MacGreevy…

but those letters from Beckett while politely acknowledging my existence were of slightly more interest than the post cards that Beckett would send to young writers in Ireland, as was said in Grogan’s as it was his way of helping the young in a material way as he knew they could always get a few pounds from a manuscript dealer for such

which bring me closer to The Short Fall

I’ll say it right out The Short Fall is an astonishing voice—how did you construct it?—of a paralyzed, neck down, speech writer for a president of the United States which is not tied to any particular president so does not date yet does not have that debilitating and fatal aspect of being about an imaginary country in wherever the popular mind is supposed to be thinking about, so my question might be where does this voice come from? as in the opening of Extinction: “On the twenty-ninth, having returned form Wolfsegg, I met my pupil Giambetti on the Pincio to discuss arrangements for the lessons he was to receive in May, writes Franz-Josef Murau and impressed once again by his high intelligence…”

And you Marek open your The Short Fall: “Formerly the candidate, currently the president of our bankrupt and volatile republic, Vance “Glad-Handing” Talbot was filled in equal parts with lies and courage. Measure him out, mince, then sprinkle (don’t sift or blend ) over a doting polis and voila—a recipe for success.”

So as with Bernhard the reader is taken into the confidence of that voice… but I well know only a very few are prepared in our English speaking world to be so taken… we, you and I, are not living in the German speaking world where Bernhard lives in that tiny universe of Ernst Junger, Gottfried Benn and Peter Handke or, to broaden my astronomical metaphor, in the Hungarian speaking world of Peter Nadas, Imre Kertesz and Peter Esterhazy.

Marek Waldorf: Thank you for the compliment! The voice in The Short Fall would be a refraction of my own (I visualize Edward Albee nodding vigorously)—broadened, more brazenly egotistical, weighted down in various spots, you get the idea. And, of course, fighting to be heard. That’s what makes it so contemporary. Now, of course, he seems a different character entirely. So full of shit yet so hopeless!

There’s a willing nakedness to your fiction, Tom, whereas I work hard to come before the reader fully clothed. I’m sorry if my initial note in any way put you into your gloom. In retrospect, the remarks seem disconnected from your current reality. And I am sympathetic: the more I get reminded how common my own situation is, the more blindingly unique it feels.

Thomas McGonigle: You mentioned an avoidance of I in your writing or something to that… I was thinking of a moment it must have been in 1972 at The Only Child a mostly Black bar on West 79th Street in Manhattan where Frank McShane, then head of the writing division of the School of the Arts at Columbia would host evenings and sometime late afternoon gatherings: I remember Erica Jong, Wilfred Sheed, Jakov Lind among the prose writers—John Oliver Killens ever appear or John Williams?—but the most vivid memory was of Nicanor Parra the poet from Chile… who is still alive near 100 and who never gave into the well paying world of the exiled writer, telling me of just how important it is: the I, the other discovered by Rimbaud… the most comfortable of all words, the most tricky, the most honest, the most dishonest, the one causing the greatest discomfort, the greatest ability to hide, but what if there is nothing to hide… it seemed and we were standing close to the right wall as you went into the bar, near conspirators leaning toward the future… to use the I is to be free of the I. I saw Parra in October 1989 on 110th Street in Manhattan and he had not changed.

Marek Waldorf: I like how the clarity with which you etch the characters in Dublin 1974 belies their progressive intoxication: nobody seems to be getting any drunker. In your July 30 post on The ABC of Reading, you provide some background for the novel, and then you make the comparison between recent U.S. novels being published or written and those of the not too distant past. While I find conversations of this sort end with a lot of subjective horse-trading, I do wonder—and maybe this is just as subjective—about the rather striking absence of any literary movement in English of national note. Or a magazine after McSweeney’s that has its own voice at least—not a mere compendium of favorites or whatever. Or—even more striking—the absence of any critic willing to tie her/his flag or ethos to a living movement/artist. There’s so much wishful-thinking in all this it’s embarrassing, frankly.

But Dublin 1974 reminds me of how much the associations have changed. The picture your book gives me is of an unhealthily bottlenecked “scene”—one that feels impervious to change but which we both know (& that’s one of the special sadnesses in the book) is as susceptible as everything else, lingering on as a paler & paler “advertorial” shadow of itself: so it makes a sorry kind of sense that you would also feel like the ghost of that book. Even so, it seems your observations about the transition, if that’s what you also see, might be worth tweezering out a bit, if you’re so inclined.

Thomas McGonigle: You take up the lack of a school, of a community of any sort of agreement in the world of writing.

That is the reality in the U.S…. every season or with some regularity a writer is given the million dollar prize… the book is not junk, we are not talking about junk book but about popular books that have some aspects of being worthy. So unlike in France where the “New Novel” appears or in Germany you have a Group 47.

But the important thing this exchange is occasioned by the appearance of your book The Short Fall. Your publisher will keep it in print as long as he is in business and I am sure he will make arrangements in the event of his disappearance. It will survive the moment of its publication as it will haunt all of the sure to being written as I type this: novels based on the lives of George W, BO… but strangely the only modern president who seems really interesting—Nixon—still awaits his great writer…

The Short Fall is also a wonderfully epigrammatic novel: “Vance (the candidate, the president) could wriggle through any crisis. Of course it helped that he had no wife to be unfaithful to and no close relatives to be embarrassed by.” Or “Everything grows moist and tremulous these days. Time springs its regrets and nostalgia permeates the political enterprise.”

I am sure you are aware of the nature of the language in your book and that is its great strength. The reader trusts its authority… the reader will want to recommend the book: this is the best book about politics in the United States… and no it is not about X or Y or Z…yet it can be read in that way… just as I imagined in Going to Patchogue I was writing about Patchogue in the same way that Joyce was writing about Dublin or Proust about Combray… all unknown until that moment of writing… I had hoped there would be more books such as this but then I also know that is probably unlikely…

We live in a sea of writing and writers with fewer and fewer readers… I have probably failed as I know I am not moving from hotel room to hotel room like Genet or living in a far suburb like Celine with large German shepherds and cats patrolling the property to be buried in an obscure cemetery where there is no sign pointing to the grave, or to be buried in a borrowed grave like James Thomson BV or Baudelaire.

And for a stake: three great poles of prose: Louis Ferdinand Celine in French and Jack Kerouac in American English and James Joyce in Irish English and Andrei Bitov in Russian, Milorad Pavic in Serbian, Camilo Jose Cela in Spanish: as the whore in San Camilo, 1936 says, “it’s simpler for the girls to spit than to be washing themselves…”

photo of Marek Waldorf: Sears Portrait Studio

3 November 2013 | author2author |