An Interview with Yuriy Tarnawsky, Part 1

I first encountered Yuriy Tarnawsky‘s writing in 1998, when I stumbled across a copy of Three Blondes and Death (FC2, 1993) in a Philadelphia bookstore. (A college professor, having noticed my interest in less-than-realist fiction, encouraged me to be on the lookout for any books published by FC2 or Dalkey Archive Press.)

Three Blondes was unlike any other book I’d ever seen: it consisted of hundreds of short chapters, each one a solid block of prose, describing in meticulous detail the simultaneously outlandish and banal lives of the protagonist, Hwbrgdtse, and three blonde women—Alphabette, Bethlehem, and Chemnitz—that he grows, in turn, infatuated with. The chapters are not always presented in chronological order, and more than half of them relate the characters’ dreams. It very quickly became one of my favorite contemporary novels. (When I moved to Thailand in 2003, it was one of the few books that I brought with me.)

Later, in the summer of 2004, I met Yuriy in New York, at Ron Sukenick’s memorial service; we began talking, and soon became friends. I’m pleased now to be able to post here, in multiple parts, a lengthy interview I’ve conducted with him. I’ll also be posting and linking to excerpts from Yuriy’s writing; my hope is that this will encourage more people to seek out his unique and deliriously fascinating work.

A D JAMESON: You told me that you started writing Three Blondes and Death (FC2, 1993) before you wrote Meningitis (Fiction Collective, 1978). How long did it take you to write Three Blondes? And how many different versions of it did you complete before arriving at the finished one?

YURIY TARNAWSKY: I started working on the book November 16, 1970. As I recall, I got the idea driving down to New York City from White Plains along Hutchinson Parkway—to do a novel in the classical sense, that is, the hero’s life story from childhood till death, but not in chronological order, arranged into a plot, except broken up into its essential elements. What I envisioned was something similar to what a Cubist painting does to its subject as it breaks it down into its constituent planes and arranges them in a visually interesting way rather than trying to render likeness. It was to be the story of a man partial to blondes, and there would be three of them. These three stories, plus the man’s persistent, unstoppable drift toward death, would then be the four main elements of the book, each done separately. This immediately gave me the title.

In addition to doing the usual rewriting, I did three distinct versions of the book. The first one I finished July 1, 1973, that is in about two and a half years. After having it typed up, I sent it around to a few publishers and probably agents (I don’t remember exactly), with no takers. One of the publishers was Fiction Collective, which had recently come into being. The manuscript was rejected, but, I was told, it provoked a heated debate, with some people liking it a lot and others hating it no less.

In August of 1973 I was visiting Canada and, while there, wrote a short story “Eleanor” in the same minimalist syntactic style I had developed in Three Blondes. More stories followed in the same general style and kept me away from the novel. These I eventually put together into a book which I finished in 1975. This was Meningitis. I submitted it to Fiction Collective and it was accepted and published in 1978. The publisher wanted me to call the book a novel, but I was reluctant to do it, since I viewed the book as a collection of connected stories. So we compromised on “a work of fiction.” Now I prefer calling it a novel. The concept of the genre has loosened so much lately that the book fits into it quite comfortably.

In the fall of 1975, I embarked on a Ph.D. program in linguistics at New York University. I continued working full-time for IBM and there was no time left for life let alone literature. But Three Blondes chafed inside me left untouched and after I got my degree in February of 1982, I went back to working on it in September. I rewrote in thoroughly, changing about eighty percent of it. The changes were both in the style (syntax) and the subject matter (story). I had grown tired of the rigid artificial language the book was originally written in and which I had already presented to the world in Meningitis, so I decided to ease the rules somewhat and make the language more natural.

As to the story, I had used a lot of random, unrelated material in the first version, and decided to stick more to the subject matter this time. Many of these new sections, which I call “scenes,” were dreams. The book had dream scenes already, but it was at this stage that it took on its “oneiric” character.

I finished this work in February of 1985 and soon thereafter sent the manuscript to Fiction Collective 2, the successor to Fiction Collective. It was accepted under the condition that it be revised, to which I agreed. I worked on this last version from August 4, 1991 till February 8, 1992, redoing about sixty percent of the material completely and editing the rest. This time I put in more dream scenes, so that in the end they constitute more than half of the book—88 chapters out of 175. The figure is not accidental: life is half dream and half real, but half of 175 is 87.5, so 88 is the closet approximation with rounding off to the higher number. (Irrationality wins out in the end.)

I also rewrote most of the scenes many times. Ten was not unusual, and some, I believe, I did probably close to a hundred, for instance scene forty-one of part four, “Valley without God.” In the end it was like Zen calligraphy—writing automatically so that the hand knew what words to put down without the participation of the mind. Part of the reason for rewriting was the syntactic style which required things to be described in a particular way. I had to learn to do this. But in general it was just saying the right thing. The book was so rigidly constructed that sloppiness on any level was immediately apparent and could not be permitted.

All in all, if I were to stack up the paper I had used in writing the novel, it would be a least three feet tall, and perhaps as high as five.

Did you write the book’s sections in any particular order?

No. I certainly didn’t write it sequentially. One of the benefits of liberating myself from the constraints of a plot was that I was free to organize the novel in any way I wanted and could write what I felt like writing at any particular time. This freedom may have been the principal reason why I refrained from a plot and why the book is structured as it is. I had told myself that as long as I didn’t write for money and didn’t do it to please anyone, I might as well write to please myself. This is a principle I follow to this day: “If it doesn’t bring you pleasure, don’t write it!”

Curtis White taught me that same lesson at Illinois State University.

It’s very important. Anyway, what I did was that I got myself a three-ring binder, put in four divider sheets, one for each part, and wrote whatever came to my mind, that is, whatever brought me pleasure, and then put it in the proper slot. I numbered the chapters 1.1, 1.2, …1.41; 2.1, 2.2, … 2.41; … 4.52. So, I assigned a number to every piece I wrote, and went on filling in the empty spaces. It was a little, or actually quite a bit, like doing a crossword puzzle. I reshuffled the scenes constantly and the sequence determined what scene was required in what spot, or if there was an empty spot, what kind of scene should fill it.

Since you didn’t rely on a chronological plot, how did you order the chapters?

I used two criteria.

Criterion 1: Harmony between two adjacent scenes. By “harmony” I mean that the scene that sequentially follows a particular scene follows naturally out of it. “Natural” may refer to chronology, or topic, or whatever else. In part one, “Alphabette,” for instance, you have scenes “24. Hwbrgdtse cries,” “25. Hwbrgdtse draws a picture of Alphabette that cries,” “26. Second picture of Alphabette.” These follow naturally one out of the other, as the titles suggest.

Criterion 2: Clash between the scenes. By “clash” I mean that a scene that follows a particular one in some way contradicts that scene. That is, if scene A says something positive about X, then scene B that follows it will say something negative—or, the other way around, if A says something negative, then B will say something positive. So for instance, in part two, “Bethlehem,” in “9. Third call to Bethlehem,” Bethlehem is represented in a negative way, but in “10. Hunger,” she is represented positively.

As you see, the two criteria are exact opposites of each other, and this is what I wanted. I wanted the calm the reader for a while with “natural progression,” so to speak, and then jolt him with something unexpected. I didn’t want the progression through the text to be boring by being traditional. It seems to me that it worked.

The first criterion is used more frequently than the second. These criteria, it seems to me now, although I didn’t realize it at the time I wrote the book, appear to have something in common with the relationship between reality and dreams. You can have dreams that reflect what happens in real life, reinforcing the latter, and those that contradict it, perhaps as wish fulfillment.

Yes, the characters’ dreams frequently reflect—and distort—incidents in preceding chapters.

But there are situations which don’t follow either of these criteria—sometimes there is no obvious relationship between two adjacent scenes. In other words, there is a break between scene A and B, each being independent of the other. This happens when information in B is needed to advance the story. The criterion here is not sequential but general. Three Blondes does not have a plot, but it does tell a story—the life history of Hwbrgdtse—and all the necessary information for that had to be provided.

As you see, these rules are quite flexible, and I had a high degree of freedom to shape the book.

The jacket copy claims that you based the novel on “a complex mathematical scheme […] developed as a substitute for the traditional architecture of a novel.” While it’s obvious that you carefully composed every aspect of Three Blondes and Death, some of its basic structural elements remain cryptic. For instance, why do the first three parts contain 41 chapters, while the fourth contains 52? Can you describe some of the structural principles you used? Also, which architectural elements of the traditional novel were you avoiding?

The jacket copy was written by someone at Fiction Collective 2, based on something I told them about the architecture of the novel, although I didn’t use those words. I edited the text a little but left the “complex mathematical scheme” phrase intact. I am not sure if it was wise.

It plays into the cliché that experimental fiction—especially when it’s concerned with structure—is “cold.” Whereas Three Blondes is instead quite intensely emotional.

Yes, it unfortunately does. It also misleads the reader, since there is no “formula” in the strict sense, but rather a “scheme.”

Here is what actually happened. Because I eschewed the traditional plot/chronology approach, I had to organize the book in some kind of a meaningful way. Form does not impart quality to a literary work, but in order to be good, every literary work must have a form. The “decompositional,” “cubist” approach I chose at the very beginning pushed me to a rigid, mathematical scheme. I worked on software at that time, writing an assembler for the IBM Universal Controller UC-2, and that probably impacted my thinking. (My undergraduate degree is in Electrical Engineering.)

As I recall, it went as follows. The novel is divided into four parts, so it would be reasonable for each to consist of forty chapters (scenes). But that would be formally uninteresting. I always liked Persian rugs and knew that Persian weavers in the old times used to make a deliberate mistake in the rug so as not to appear too uppity in the eyes of Allah. So, I decided to make a deliberate mistake myself, adding 1 to forty. This gave me forty-one chapters for each part. Now, four was the central number in the work, and also a “perfect” number (the square is a variant of the circle, the truly perfect geometric figure) and I wanted it to come out somewhere, to go with the four in the title (3 blondes + 1 death). Besides, four forty-ones was also boring. So I decided to add 1 to both the 4 and the 1 in forty-one, which gave me fifty-two. So, the novel would consist of 41, 41, 41, and 52 chapters, 175 in total. It so turns out (not just accidentally, of course) that 1+7+5=13 and 1+3=4. So, in the end, making all these deliberate “mistakes,” I still do get the perfect number four, which I wanted. (Hopefully Allah won’t dig in that deep to discover my pride.)

All of this is trivial, of course, but so is the number of lines in a sonnet. (14! Does it have anything to do with 41?)

But my numerological approach isn’t limited to just the number of chapters. I use numbers in other places in the book, for instance the names of the characters Ten and Thirty-Three. And if you take four as my “perfect” number you might notice some relation between the topic of a chapter and its position in the book. I would rather not disclose all this, so as to make it more interesting for readers to search it out themselves.

As to the traditional novel, first of all, I wanted to get rid of the idea of a plot. In my early novels I frequently struggled with plots, having to resort to “filling in empty space” between events I felt I had to include. Perhaps I just don’t have what you may call a “plotting” talent. I think more in a static way, in clear, vivid images. So, maybe this was the reason I came up with this structure for the book. But I had conceived of the novel also as a “manual” for fiction—what can and cannot be done.

For instance, traditionally you are supposed to describe the character at the beginning, so that readers know whom they are dealing with. Now, in Three Blondes, nothing at all is said about the main character’s appearance until the beginning of part three, three hundred pages into the book. By then the reader must have created an image of the man, which in all likelihood is something quite different from how he is described.

They may not even expect you to describe him by that point!

Precisely. So the description must come as a shock. And this is exactly what I wanted. Shocking the readers impacts their reception of the book. So, here you have an example how breaking a rule can be used effectively.

Furthermore, as you know, the main character’s name is unpronounceable: “Hwbrgdtse.” But each reader, I am sure, will find his or her own way of pronouncing it. (The typist that did the first version called him “Herbowitz.”) And it is only in the last chapter of part four that you learn how the name is actually pronounced, and that is through another character’s misunderstanding.

Developing a character “fully” is another rule that I flaunted. Some characters are purposefully pulled out of nowhere and dropped, for instance Mrs. Verschmeedt in chapter forty-six of part four. It is left to readers to fill in the missing information. There are other “violations” like that. (The Mrs. Verschmeedt scene deals with a rape, which is still another kind of violation.) Also, as I mentioned earlier, the book is “cubist,” and not chronological: I have the hero die before the end of the book, and yet he keeps on living. In general, I wanted to show that there are no rules you cannot break as long as you do it properly.

The reason I break these traditional rules isn’t so much my thumbing my nose at tradition, but rather that I view the process of writing a novel (and writing fiction in general) as manipulating readers’ minds so as to achieve certain effects. I think this is the real difference between my writing and that of someone who follows established rules. In the approach I follow, you have complete freedom of what you can do and, in addition to following rules—traditional or your own—you can also use “mistakes” or departure from rules, to stimulate the reader’s mind.

It’s true, we grow so accustomed to Hwbrgdtse’s character—his trials and tribulations, so to speak—that it comes as a shock when we receive such basic information about him so late—as well as when we find out how cruel he can be. I see these kinds of “shocking delays” throughout the book. For example, the novel ends with a banal revelation that, because of the delay, is transformed into something fairly dramatic.

Lately I have resorted to another technique of working on readers’ minds which I find quite effective. It is withholding information permanently and requiring readers to provide it themselves. Well-disposed readers will always try to make sense out of what they read, and if some information is left out, they will supply it themselves. This information will usually be in some aspect similar between different readers, but will invariably differ in details, stemming from the uniqueness of the readers’ minds.  And the fact that it will be unique for each reader is what will make it more vivid and therefore more effective. What I mean is that if in my novel I describe events A and C which follow chronologically and are related through some unspecified event B, then the reader will define the event B on her or his own. For example, A describes individual X as alive, and C describes X as dead. Then the reader will develop for him or herself event B in which X dies. I call B negative text, alluding to negative space (void) in modern sculpture. I have written close to a dozen fiction works like this, and call them mininovels. Lengthwise they are like short stories—15 to 40 pages long—but their effect is like that of a novel. They consist of short chapters and the reader has to link them into a coherent whole. Like Blood in Water (FC2, 2007) is such a collection.

Three Blondes is written in a playfully methodical fashion, yet at the same time it withholds so much. This, plus your willingness to contradict earlier descriptions, reminds me of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s writing. Were you influenced by the French New Novelists, or by other contemporary writers?

Undoubtedly, but in an indirect way. As you can tell, I didn’t try to copy the nouveau roman crowd, but went off in my own direction. But knowing what they did—that you can depart from the rules and find new things to talk about and do it in your own way—that is what I learned from them. I read them avidly, especially Robbe-Grillet—his novels and theoretical writings—but also Natalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras, Michel Butor, and Claude Simon. So, it was a liberating effect rather than discovery of something for me to use. I liked Robbe-Grillet the best, probably because of his external descriptions (chosisme), of which there is plenty in my writing, although my purpose is different and I think I do it in a different way. The other ones, I must admit, I found boring and had to force myself to read, like books on chemistry. But I learned a lot from them, I am sure.

…It is hard for me to speak about whom I was influenced by. I will tell you who I liked at different times in my life, then let you draw some conclusions from that.

The novelist that made the strongest first impression on me was Dostoyevsky. I first read his The Possessed, in an excellent Polish translation, at the age of 14, while still living in Germany. Then I read virtually all of Dostoyevsky’s other books in German. Later, when I joined IBM, I got myself a full edition of his works in Russian and read them all. This is when I learned Russian. Dostoyevsky’s influence is the strongest in my third book of fiction, the novel The Hypocrite.

Another early influence was Gogol, whom I read even before Dostoyevsky, partly in Ukrainian but also in Russian. (Gogol’s Russian is strongly flavored by Ukrainian because he was an ethnic Ukrainian, and it was easy for me to read him.) I first noticed a similarity between Gogol’s writing and mine when I was writing Three Blondes—the humor and grotesqueness. This was the reason why I put that epigraph from Dead Souls in the book:

Why write about nothing but misery, and misery, and the imperfect nature of this life, digging up characters from God knows where, from the remotest corners of the world? But what can you do if this is what the author is like, if, suffering from the malady of his own imperfection, he can write about nothing but misery and misery, and the imperfect nature of this life, digging up characters from God knows where, form the remotest corners of the world.

It is my own translation, and it isn’t quite literal. I adapted it to go better with my American text.

But these are very Ukrainian traits, and perhaps I would have written as I do without reading Gogol, although I think that probably not.

The third major influence was Sartre, whom I read when I came to the US. The influence was purely philosophical—existentialism. I picked up the virus of existentialism in Germany in high school, as it was a popular philosophical trend among young post-war Europeans. My first novel, Roads, philosophically owes much to Sartre. It deals with post-war German youth and tries to capture the spirit of aimlessness and confusion that permeated all of us at the time. The title itself alludes to Sartre’s trilogy Roads to Freedom, but from a literary standpoint it is different: lyrical, and written in a metaphorical language that has a lot in common with my poetry, perhaps because it was written in Ukrainian.

Next, in the Sixties, I was given as a present Kleist’s book of prose in German, his collected stories and the short novel Michael Kohlhaas. I read it passionately, as you would devour an orange while dying from thirst. It had those elements that I kept hidden in myself—sharply defined narration, and strictly controlled language. I didn’t copy these things—the manner of telling a story or the language structure—but they helped me find my own style.

Finally, around 1970 or so, I came across Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in the IBM library. It was in German, and I read it once again with greed. To this day I remember that final sentence in German: “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.” What a ring it has phonetically, syntactically, and semantically! (I don’t like the usual translation that is given for this sentence, and would translate it myself as: “What you cannot speak of must be left unsaid”—but even that doesn’t do justice to the original.) I was overwhelmed by the simplicity of the language and the sharpness of thought in the work and realize only now, as I am writing this, that the artificial language that I developed for Three Blondes must have been suggested by Wittgenstein’s book. Also, I mentioned above my numbering the scenes as 1.1, 1.2, etc. This was only for my personal use, but it did play a role in shaping the book and it is definitely due to Wittgenstein. On the whole, though, Wittgenstein’s influence on me was primarily esthetic—but that shouldn’t be surprising when you consider that the Tractatus has been called “poetry of logic.”

But what are influences?  They chiefly help you to develop your own esthetic, the base on which you build your own work. I was influenced as much by other forms of art—visual arts, music, movies—as I was by literature. The reckless daring of Picasso, even though I don’t actually like his work, and Dalí’s trips into the tropics of his subconscious, showed me what I can do myself. I was stimulated by the rationalism of Cubism and Constructivism and the Bauhaus as well as by the irrationalism of Surrealism. My “formative hours,” so to speak, were spent at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum, both of which I visited practically every weekend, for years, after arriving in the US.

Yuriy at the MoMA in 1955. "That's a Marino Marini on the right, and I think a Matisse on the left (I believe there are three versions of this head, going from realistic to abstract)—and also perhaps in the middle."

Another major New York influence were the Thalia Theater (now Symphony Space) and the Bleecker Street Cinema, which showed foreign movies. These probably had a more profound influence on me than anything else. They shaped my writing. I wanted to make movies, but this was impossible, so I turned to pen and paper. I think that the visual aspect predominates in my writing (I certainly rely very little on dialogue), and this is probably due to movies. My favorite directors are Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, Robert Bresson, and Alexander Dovzhenko (or perhaps the terrific work of his cameraman Danylo Demutsky, and whoever did the editing).

But probably the most pervasive, although purely indirect, influence on me is that of Bach, in particular as interpreted by Glenn Gould. Here you have the essence of what art is for me: a burning passion served up by an objective, all-understanding mind…

This is what I would like my writing to be. I still have a long way to go.

Incidentally, what really opened me up to Bach were two full weeks of concerts of Bach’s complete organ works performed by E. Power Biggs at the St. Thomas Church in New York, in May–June 1963. I walked around in a trance for weeks after that, and in a sense have never fully recovered from it to this day. The church is on Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Third Street, right around the corner from MoMA. I also heard lots of outstanding contemporary modern music—Iannis Xenakis, Luciano Berio, György Ligeti, John Cage, Milton Babbitt, and many others—at the Summergarden concerts given every year at the MoMA sculpture garden, which gave a lot of sustenance to my writing. So that half of a city block appears to have had greater impact on my esthetic development than the rest of the surface of the Earth.

Part 2 | Part 3

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18 thoughts on “An Interview with Yuriy Tarnawsky, Part 1

  1. Well, this is a real treat–and what an excellent interview with an excellent writer.

    I saw Yuriy in DC recently and mentioned that I teach his “Screaming: A Mininovel” each semester…

  2. Yuriy is a friend of mine. Sharp mind, openness to any innovative art trend, strong selectivity and sometimes a frappantly surprising his own, uncompromisingly individual vision of literature history flow, paradoxically reflective, sometimes shocking poetry and prosa, full of irony, wit, self analysis and profound understanding of “conditions of human existence” – this is what I most appreciate in him. Bravo, Yuriy! – I red thy interview with admiration!

    Leonid

  3. Thanks for this! This is the kind of thing I rely on you folks for. I’ve ordered 3 Blondes and Like Blood. Can’t wait to read ‘em.

  4. Have to say, I heard Yuriy read in Washington, DC at the Ukrainian Embassy a couple of weeks ago, and I was not taken with the material. It was another of those readings that left me scratching my head, wondering what exactly the writer had hoped to accomplish or communicate. As a speaker, he was funny, treated the audience warmly, and was generally affable. Unfortunately I didn’t take notes at this reading & I can’t be all that specific. I just know the prose did not grab me & neither did the narrative. Of course, I can’t speak about anything other than what I heard in DC, & I don’t know what was read in DC … and my taste is probably not as broad as it should be.

    “Blonde,” by the way, is generally used as the noun; blond is the adjective in most stylebooks.

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