Laird Hunt interviews Oliver Rohe
Laird Hunt: Talk a little bit about the impetus for writing Vacant Lot—where did this striking image of a man sitting in the middle of his own ruins come from, and how did the narrative around him unfold?
Oliver Rohe: After having written a debut novel in which, at least in part, I discussed the impact of war on one of its victims, I wanted to write something from the point of view of those who had benefited from that war (the war lords)—those who had glory, power, money. More precisely, I wanted to put myself into the mind of a former war lord who, when peace was declared, lost everything: his social standing, his life as he knew it, his former privileges. Vacant Lot is also, more generally, a story of loss. The setting of the text—a building in ruins in the middle of a city undergoing reconstruction, was a natural extension of my vision for the novel. I needed a place where this man would feel at home, in his dreams, even though the outside world is hostile to him. It was necessary to show not just the mental state of the character, but the contrast between the outside (the euphoric reconstruction of the city) and the inside (the ruined conscience of the character).
Laird Hunt: I'm curious about the lack of geographic specificity in regards to "la guerre" in your work. I know that you grew up in Lebanon and experienced first hand the ravages of the conflict there, and so it is quite easy for me to imagine that the war you speak of is a fictional analogue of the civil war in Lebanon, and yet the vast majority of readers encountering your writing will experience this as a non-localized phenomenon. The post-war city under reconstruction in Vacant Lot that you write of could, in a sense, be anywhere. I wonder if you could speak to this.
Oliver Rohe: I didn’t want to name the place where the war and its aftermath took place precisely because such phenomena don’t affect one country in particular, but rather concern humanity in its entirety: violence, war, the guilt of victim and butcher, the scabbing over of violence, the management of a country’s own history. The majority of my readers think, for example, that my first two novels take place in the Former Yugoslavia. I never correct observations like this, because they confirm for me that I was right not to assign the action in my books a precise geographical location. Next, there is no doubt something more intimate about my inability to name this particular location. This inability, I believe, is linked to the fact that I have not been able myself to leave this experience behind. Even if it took place during my childhood, or my adolescence, it is still very much with me today. I don’t have enough distance from the subject to be able to name it, in other words to consider it as something external to my experience. There is also a kind of hesitancy/modesty on my part—not wanting to openly discuss my personal experience, while at the same basing my books on it. It’s a ruse—a sort of gentleman’s agreement: something in me says, “you have to write about your experience while at the same time masking—for example by not naming places—the provenance of this experience.” Finally, I’d like for my books not just to be read as autobiographical, or documentaries, but also as the products of my imagination (which they also are).
Laird Hunt: In addition to the masking and universalizing aspects you describe, another thing that gets accomplished with this strategy, one could argue, is a perhaps more direct inscription of the work into the space of literature (I'm deliberately invoking Blanchot): while Vacant Lot obviously has a great deal to say about "real" events, it is also entering a particular literary conversation, one in which Stendahl's mirror, we could say, throws back a slightly warped reflection. What are the works that you imagine Vacant Lot conversing with? What books were helpful to you as you worked on it?
Oliver Rohe: The reference to Stendahl’s mirror suits me perfectly. I try to describe, at least in this book, not just my character’s mental state, but also—it’s a question of symmetry—the world grinding away at the foot of his building. I’m not looking to write realist literature in the proper sense of the word—with a quasi-sociological desire to pin down reality. Reflecting reality, and not trying to reproduce it, is what I look for in my writing. It’s a also matter of simultaneously taking up the constants of human existence (all that doesn’t inscribe itself in history) and the particular contexts in which these constants play themselves out. Finding a balance between these two impulses is difficult, and I’ll admit that for the moment my writing—with the exception of the book on David Bowie [Nous Autres]—is more concerned with the constants of human existence (violence, exile, second languages, memory, etc.). In sum, I would say that there is no direct description of reality in my books, just its emergence in the text.
The reference to Blanchot also, of course, has resonance for me, in the sense that my character can only fully realize himself, or find relief in death—which he doesn’t manage to achieve, because he remains desperately attached to his routine, to his building, to his meager memories. Moreover, the first sentence of Vacant Lot is very close to the first sentence of Blanchot’s Thomas the Obscure (“Thomas sat down and looked at the sea”). Since we are discussing connections with other books, there is also a more or less conscious reference to Beckett (for example to The Lost Ones), especially with regard to the relationship between the body and space.
Having said that, I should admit that I wrote Vacant Lot almost without stopping, in two weeks, without any great desire to link it to something I’d read. Strangely, I didn’t do any research at all to write it. I simply tried to put myself into the place of someone who had lost everything, and whose memory suffers for not being able to piece together all of its parts. The goal then was to find a language made of images, hallucinations and perceptions that would work for describing this sense of loss (and guilt). In short, unlike my first book, which was very theoretical and allusive, I wanted to write something more direct, also more musical, and less caught up in lines of literary association—even if, always, what we write is informed by what we read.
Laird Hunt: Speaking of the reading we do, I suspect a good portion of your reading time must be taken up by texts related to your work as an editor. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about Inculte, the journal of literature and philosophy you helped found and now co-edit: what made you and your co-editors decide to set out on this journey together? I'm also interested in how you see your work with the journal impacting on your work as a writer and vice-versa.
Oliver Rohe: It’s true that a fair amount of my reading life is given over to the journal I direct with the other members of the board of editors. Why this project? First, because I didn’t identify with extant literary journals—they were a little musty, too expensive, not open enough to contemporary literature. Second, because it was precisely about a collective adventure, about establishing a common process for reflection -- in short, it was about friendship. We decide on a theme for each issue, which we discuss at length before each taking on a part of it. This collective approach, beyond giving both a greater diversity and coherence to the journal, allows us, together at first, to better grasp the issues that we’re all facing; also, and this is important, it allows us to feed off each other without in any way erasing our differences. It’s the opposite of the model of self-sufficiency in which we sometimes place the writer’s work. More seriously, the journal gives us an excuse to get together regularly, to drink a few beers and talk late into the night.
Laird Hunt: As mentioned, you were born and raised in Lebanon, and now you live and write in France. There is a long and impressive tradition of writers and artists making the Hexagon their home for political and/or aesthetic reasons. What is it 1) that brought you to France and kept you there and 2) that made you decide to write in French (rather than Arabic or English, other languages you speak)?
Oliver Rohe: I left Beirut in 1990, to flee the last months of the war. We could have gone to Germany, because I’m half German, but we decided on Paris, among other reasons because our cultural references were French. I went to a French high school, we spoke French at the house, the reading I did was in French. You could say that French is my maternal language, as is Arabic—the middle class in Beirut is bilingual sometimes trilingual. Consequently, remaining in France, once the first transitional year was over, seemed natural.
It didn’t occur to me to write in another language, no doubt because I didn’t know English and Arabic well enough, or at least not as well as I knew French. My challenge, one that I mentioned in my first book, was to erase all traces of these other languages (Arabic and English) from my mind in order to be able to master one language. It took time for me to be able to dream in French, rather than in a mix of languages, as had been the case in Beirut. Consequently, I went from a ragout of unformed languages to the mastery of a single language—necessary if one is to write. This process took time and considerable effort, because in essence it required me to erase my linguistic hard drive, which was over-flowing with languages, and install a new operating system. To extend the computer metaphor, let’s say my head was simultaneously playing host to Linux, Windows and Mac OSX, all of which I had to erase in order to go with a single system (Mac OSX).
Laird Hunt: You have written three novels, each quite different from the others, not just in terms of form and style, but also in terms of what Barthes referred to as mode. I wonder if you could speak to the variousness of your work and if you see yourself continuing to explore different pistes as you move forward with it.
Oliver Rohe: Writing isn’t about endlessly exploring the same structure and style—even if literature has some good examples to the contrary, moreover rather brilliant ones, like Thomas Bernhard. To put it somewhat plainly, I don’t decide to try a new form before having found what it is I want to talk about—the two come at the same time. A form without any connection to its content, which is pure form only, doesn’t interest me (the famous book about nothing that Flaubert dreamt of was actually about something: nothing). For me, form and content are the same thing. Put otherwise, I attempt to create voices—like putting on so many masks—that are as close as possible to the line of discourse or to the story I’m attempting to develop. For example: the Bowie book gives voice to the characters he created in the 1970s. The best form I could come up with to highlight the multiplication of doubles in a single body (Bowie’s) was the epistolary: seeing these doubles write letters to each other demonstrates the schizophrenia affecting Bowie during that period of his life. This negatively impacts neither on the work’s unity nor on its continuity of tone and style.
I seek to reinvent myself with each book; repeating the same form bores me. Moreover, repeating the same form in each book would mean two things: an incapacity to change styles and, especially, the devaluation of this form repeated over and over again. For example: in my first book I borrowed a good deal from Bernhard, precisely because at its core the book is about imitation. It didn’t make sense to me then to do the same thing again with other subjects.—it couldn’t be justified.
Laird Hunt: Before we end, talk a little bit about what contemporary French fiction we should be reading and translating in the United States.
Oliver Rohe: Contemporary French literature, which is still, alas, under-translated in the United States, is much more rich and interesting than one would like us to believe (especially in France). There are a number of writers whose excellent work merits the attention of American readers. I’ll name a few, some of whom work with me on Inculte: François Bégaudeau, Arno Bertina, Mathias Enard and Philippe Vasset from my generation; Régis Jauffret, Eric Chevillard (whom I believe has already been translated into English), Emmanuel Adely and Linda Lê from the slightly older generation. Obviously there are others, but I couldn’t name them all.