Gordon Keith (TREDITION CLASSICS)
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I hope so. I don't feel any obligation to write Shamp of the City-Solo or The Fall of Poxdown again, to mention only my two most famously obscure published works. If I could try, I wouldn't; as it is, I couldn't if I tried. Interviewers: Shamp of the City-Solo is a mix of experimental jargon and traditional mentor relationship. Where did you get the idea for this now classic work? Gordon: Shamp is in infantile novel in many ways, and I don't mean that as any aspersion upon its literary merit. Its protagonist Hughbury Shamp's obsessive idea is that, if you don't get famous, life is a mistake, an enactment of doom start to finish, and that was my preoccupation when I was eight years old, no later.
The sexuality in Shamp is largely pre-genital, that is, infantile. The hero boldly quits his parents in true picaresque style, but then speedily attaches himself to three masters with all the anxious fervor of a parentless waif.
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Even the choice of a male protagonist is infantile. Hughbury Shamp is not really male; he's an hysterical neuter with a flair for ornate sophistry and a strong instinct of self-preservation. That's a version of me in my inchoate state. It took some years and some shall we say negative encouragement before I began to think of myself as a woman and a writer at the same time. I don't believe I write for all other women, only for myself, and so first I had to be willing and ready to write about a woman who is or sees herself as a sort of freak. That's what I'm doing now.
If the language is not as opaque as Shamp's, it's still, I think, full of intellect. I haven't jettisoned my rhetorical fireworks for The Adventuress. I would even wager that I will pass my whole literary life without once being praised by critics for writing in a "deceptively simple style. I never disapproved of these conventions, I just ignored them ignore as in ignorant and used what gifts I had in abundance at the outset, which were all rhetorical.
Interviewers: Shamp of the City-Solo doesn't appear to be as popular in its reprint edition as it was when it was first published back in Why do you think that is? Gordon: The vogue for Shamp when it first appeared, though richly deserved, was a triumph of tireless one-man promotional jugglery by the editor of Treacle Press, Bruce McPherson, and of good timing. It was one of the first small press novels, during a burst of small press activity; therefore it was a small press pheenom, in a year when there could be such a thing.
The second time around the timing was not as good. I knew it wouldn't be, but Bruce is an unflagging optimist; that's why he's the editor of a small press and I'm not.
Shamp should not have been allowed to lapse from print in the first place it was out of print less than a year after it first appeared , but a reprint was financially impracticable at the time. I was delighted to see Shamp in print again, but I didn't want to see Bruce lose his shirt. However, he keeps going somehow, and the books he produces become only more beautiful, remarkable, complex and for the publisher expensive. It's an astonishing object of art in itself. Interviewers: Why did Treacle Press change the cover and drop the illustrations from the first edition?
Gordon: I believe that was part of a strategy to make the book appear more like a trade edition. Of course the illusion fades as soon as the gentle skimmer, as Beckett aptly puts it, actually cracks the book.
The one thing that might make such convoluted though charming prose appear more penetrable would be larger type. But that expedient would have been costly as well as, very possibly, in vain.
Keith Gordon Redfield
Interviewers: The Adventuress features a quasi-picaresque vein at least the portions I've seen. The same sort of thing T. Coraghessan Boyle and Tom Disch have been working with. And John Barth before them.
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Your novel also has a strong autobiographical streak. Why that fusion? For distancing purposes? Or just for humor? Gordon: People who make too clever critics of their own work should be treated with distrust, since I've noticed that bad writers do this quite as glibly and cogently as good ones.
But I will answer the question, because I've never been able to keep my mouth shut even when I knew full well I should. Now in hindsight, looking down on my own work from the lofty perch of a literary critic, I see the plain below me littered with charlatans of exactly this type, rhetorical adventurers who betray themselves at every turn.
I seem particularly to enjoy attributing this self-advertising imposture to professionals, to doctors, professors, clergymen, politicians, so-called artists, orators, impresarios. The only difference, with The Adventuress , is that here I am attributing it to a woman and, at that, to a woman who rather resembles myself, although I'm conscious I'm now committing the greatest imposture of all--those were fabrications; this becomes a downright lie.
George Meredith, a novelist whom I much admire and feel in some respects closely akin to in the evolutionary scheme, says in An Essay on Comedy that "any intellectual pleading of a doubtful cause contains germs of an idea of comedy. Intellectual absurdities interest me. The mediating element is always rhetoric.
Interviewers: Your fiction seems somehow different in tone from that of most women writers I've encountered. In style, in its language, it has what I can only describe as a kind of natural authority; the narrative voice occurs as a given, rather than as a laboriously achieved artifact. At the same time, it's a highly personalized voice, often with a definite sexual and emotional orientation.
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There are a few other women whose work, I think, could fall into the category--though in other respects their writing is very different from yours--Shirley Hazzard, Christina Stead, even Jane Bowles, with her particular stylistic quirkiness. Are you familiar with their work--and if so, do you see a connection?
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Gordon: I find both Christina Stead and Jane Bowles highly interesting stylists, though one gets an uncomfortable sense that Jane Bowles' stylistic quirkiness is a map of disintegration whereas Christina Stead's style presents a truly versatile ability. I haven't yet read Shirley Hazzard. I like Margaret Drabble, especially The Waterfall , which is a brief, wise book whose style is informed by all the multiple inner allusiveness one expects of poetry.
I've been reading Jean Rhys lately for the sheer entertainment of it; the incompetence of her heroines irritates me, but their solitariness and demi-mondanite if I may so put it is always interesting, and her lucid compact style has the same soothing effect on me as playing with a box of glass marbles. I lately read Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart at Keith Waldrop's recommendation, and found it a great novel in a technically faultless, intimate and elegant style.
Cynthia Ozick is a fascinating stylist with a Jehovan satirist's discomfiting mean streak. I'm waiting impatiently to obtain Laura Riding Jackson's newly republished A Progress of Stories because I know their style and conception will be fascinating; I know her Voltaire. And the "authority" of her voice, by the way, is nothing short of notorious.
Nearer my generation, Jayne Anne Phillips is a woman writer of great stylistic gifts, though I prefer her balanced, fluid, beautifully observed, classic fiction of sensibility to her ventures into expressionism, and I hope her critics don't overencourage her nostalgie de boue though we all must cope with that tendency. These are some women writers I like and certainly there are many I've missed or have not yet read who illustrate my preoccupation with exceptional and beautiful style. I don't spend much time on any writer, male or female, who doesn't have this to offer. Kathy Acker, who wrote The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula , has fantastic conceptions but to my mind ungainly executions, wonderfully original combinations from the high dive that come down belly flops.
I admire her but I can't make myself read her fictions through. I don't feel I was significantly influenced by any of the women writers I've mentioned, nor do I necessarily feel closely connected to them in motives, ideas, methods, much as I respect them. Interviewers: I have another question along these lines--one that's a little difficult to formulate. But, again, it strikes me that this sort of self-possessed narrative style is more often an aspect of the work of male writers--almost as if something in the act of narration were inherently male. Your own protagonists either assume male roles and activities, or exhibit an intense interest in men, as an indispensable complement to their own characters.
You must realize that Shamp is a substantially pre-feminist--that is, pre-feminist of-the-nineteen-seventies--document. It had taken its inevitable shape by When it was published in , a few women immediately wanted to know, with some hostility, what I was doing crouching behind a male protagonist, and I'll tell you what I told them. I was always going to be a writer, although until I was nineteen I read many thousand times more than I wrote.
At nineteen, in , I began writing fiction I still consider to be part of my mature oeuvre though I may suppress it from public viewing , unguided, and unharassed, by the program of contemporary feminism, but with complete confidence in my rhetorical powers, which as I've already mentioned is not quite the same thing as complete confidence in my ability to write a novel as that genre is commonly understood. But about my prose style, about my ability to create and sustain an original narrative voice, to make a beautiful, thoughtful, subtle object every time I constructed a sentence or paragraph--about these, I never had the slightest question I could, as they say, compete with the field, male or female.
My extraordinary facility there, in fact, was one of the imbalances in my nature that made me feel like too much of a freak ever to put myself, in female form, at the center of my own fiction. There are few female intellectual crackpot solipsists in fiction--in fact, I can't think of any, though there may well be some. Djuna Barnes, for whom I had a cult at age eighteen, was certainly one herself, but she saved the billing of rhetorical crank extraordinaire in Nightwood for Dr. Matthew O'Connor. I haven't read her Ryder; doubtless I should, for it may have some relevance here.
In sum, as a woman writer I didn't know what to make of myself, but as simply a writer neither male nor female hence, according to the rules of genus and species nomenclature, male I didn't have that problem. Gordon: Good, I'll tell you who I think did influence me--they are almost all male, but that's not surprising, considering how far back they go. I am attracted to all the cranks but also to elegant and ornate prose traditions, and where these two, idiosyncrasy and tradition, intersect, that's where I am. The tradition of English rhetorical style is actually idiosyncratic from Bacon on; with Bacon that was its point, to imitate what Morris Croll called "the athletic movements of the mind" in spontaneous passage from thought to thought in all their baroque complexity.
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This style was called base, as opposed to the sublime Ciceronian period, but never deceptively simple. And it happened just at the moment in the history of English letters when rhetoric was beginning to mean that utterance of the mind which one writes down and another reads in private, though the wind, you might say, of rhetoric as oratory was still blowing with sound and force on the door of the study.
So, given what I've already said of my own interests, it's not surprising that figure after figure in this tradition--which is not, however, the dominant tradition of the English novel--captured my attention: Bacon, Jonson, Nashe, Burton, Aubrey, Browne, Swift, Sterne, Coleridge, Lamb, Carlyle, Butler, Meredith, for a start; and along the way I couldn't resist really strange peripheral figures like Beddoes and, to fly far afield, sexually as well as temporally, Margery Kempe.
Let me not forget the King James' version of the Bible. And then there's Sir Thomas Urquhart's seventeenth century translation of Rabelais--that was prominent in my mind when I was writing Shamp. Not that I can pretend to compare with any of these forbears in classical scholarship. My reading is of the most heteroclite and unsystematic.
I know Beddoes better than Hemingway, and I would have to agree with those of my contemporaries who would call this a moral weakness. On the other hand, ignoramus though I am, in my knowledge and love of writers of the past, compared to most of my immediate contemporaries who write, I am a virtual Aquinas. But that's not saying much.