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An Interview with Yuriy Tarnawsky, Part 3

Yuriy reading at Chicago’s Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art (1974).

Part 1 | Part 2

[Please note that I’ve updated both of these posts with photos that Yuriy sent me.]

I’d like to ask a few more questions about Three Blondes and Death, if you don’t mind. Perhaps the most memorable and complicated aspect of that novel is its syntax. I’ll quote a short passage to illustrate:

It’d been unusually warm all that spring. The vegetation was much more advanced than usual. It really looked almost as in the middle of June. The grass was thick. It was bright green. It covered the earth like a bright layer of paint. The paint seemed shiny. It seemed still wet. It seemed to have been poured out of a can and to have spread over the earth. It seemed to have spread by itself. The earth therefore seemed tilted. (13)

How did you arrive at such a style?

Oh, yes, that syntax! You can’t imagine how much grief and pain it cost me.

It took me at least a year to develop it and to learn to write in it proficiently. I had to decide on the nature of it (write the grammar for that language), and then change completely how to view the world and represent it on paper. The style had a profound effect on the nature of the novel itself because I couldn’t say certain things the way I was used to, and other things I said, I otherwise wouldn’t have said.

But it was an excellent experience for me as a writer, as it made me understand how language impacts what you say. I no longer write in this style, but what I learned from this exercise has made writing much easier for me. I write much faster now. Now, at every place in the sentence or even paragraph, I understand clearly where I am, what I have said, and what I still have to say. It was an invaluable experience. I would advise every writer to go through it.

I don’t recall exactly what came first, the concept of the language or the book itself, but it was probably the former, which then gave me the idea of decomposing the story in the way I described earlier. [For more on the genesis of 3B&D, see Part 1 —Adam]

From my first book of prose onward, I had been bothered by the question of how to shape my sentences. For instance, if I were to describe the return of Joe home from work, his washing up, and sitting down to supper, should I say, “On coming home from work, Joe washed up and sat down to supper”? Or, “On coming home from work and washing up, Joe sat down to supper”? Or, “Joe came home from work. He washed up and sat down to supper”? Or perhaps, “Joe came home from work. He washed up. He sat down to supper”? I experimented with syntax in my first two books—the novel Roads (my only Ukrainian-language novel, 1961) and the book of stories Sadness—using both “normal” and fairly complex sentences. In my third book of fiction, the novel The Hypocrite, I went to the extreme of using very complex sentences, sometimes two or three pages long, with embeddings within embeddings, trying to reflect the associative thought process of writing as I went along. That ultimately became too mannerist and still didn’t answer my question.

In my fifth book of fiction, the novel The Trip South, I started experimenting with different syntactic styles, alternating chapters written in simple sentences with “normal” and more complex ones.

You’ve mentioned Roads, but I’m not familiar with those other books. Where can one find them?

They were all written in English but never published in the original. I translated excerpts from them into Ukrainian and published them as part of Seven Tries, which contains my own Ukrainian-language version of excerpts from my first seven English-language books of fiction, namely the collection Sadness, the novels The Hypocrite, Innocent in Paris, The Trip South, Meningitis, and Three Blondes and Death, and the collection Short Tails. (The full Ukrainian-language version of this last book was published in 2006 by Dmytro Burago Publishing.) Seven Tries was published as part of a book of my selected prose in Ukrainian called I Don’t Know (Rodovid, 2000), which contains in addition a revised version of Roads and my “short literary autobiography” Running Barefoot Home and Back.

(Incidentally, I Don’t Know alludes to the Beatles: “I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello.” That’s what I said to Ukraine, and what Ukraine said back to me.)

I Don’t Know (selected prose, Ukrainian) (2000).
A view of the German city of Ulm in 1945, after it was destroyed by Allied bombing. It served as the background for Roads. (Photo courtesy of Roman Woronka.)

[For more on the topic of being Ukrainian, see Yuriy’s autobiographical essay “Cut Grass” in Mad Hatters’ Review. —Adam]

…Anyway, returning to the matter of syntax: none of those early experiments satisfied me so, finally, in despair, I decided to write in exclusively simple sentences, almost as a punishment for my inability to find an answer. (Mine was a crisis similar to that of Giacometti: when, having exhausted the style he had worked in for years, he turned to molding tiny human figures in clay that crumbled in his fingers. He stopped sculpting at that point. The next thing he did, after a long hiatus, was a human foot as big as a man. My progress, however, was in the opposite direction, from large to small.)

As I have told you, at that time I was working with computers, and the issue of language was on my mind all the time. Prior to that I had worked on automatic language translation from Russian into English, then on assemblers, including designing a programming language based on the Polish notation (operator and its arguments). I also was used to employing the so-called Backus-Naur notation (language) in describing programming languages. So the idea of an artificial language was very natural to me (pardon the pun). In the end, the language I finally developed over the first year of working on Three Blondes was in fact an artificial language, a proper subset of—a language fully contained in—the natural language of English.

As I said earlier, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus was very likely also one of the factors that propelled me toward this minimalist syntactic style. But I was already well on my way. A couple of years earlier, for instance, during 1966–67, I wrote a book of poetry in Ukrainian called Without Spain (1969), in which there were sections consisting exclusively of prepositional phrases. I wanted to strip everything unnecessary from my writing and leave only the essential, which for me lay in the noun phrases attached to the prepositions. The title of the book alludes to this.

Without Spain (poetry, Ukrainian) (1964).

One thing I am sure of, however, is that the style was in no way influenced by Beckett, as has been suggested by some. At the time I worked on Three Blondes, I had read only Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape, which I translated into Ukrainian (it was published in 1972), as well as, perhaps, one or two of his short prose pieces. (I also saw a few of his plays.) I liked Godot and the other plays a lot, but found the prose schematic; I didn’t read his major prose works until a few years ago. There is no question that he is one of the greatest 20th century writers and I admire him intellectually, but esthetically he is foreign to me. I like external descriptions and metaphoric language, whereas he relies on internal monologues and semantically skeletal language.

Returning to syntax once again, I didn’t realize it at the time, but while studying linguistics, I learned that there are no true synonyms in language, and that every word and utterance carries both a denotative and connotative component. The denotative describes something in the world or the mind, and the connotative expresses the speaker’s attitude toward the description. So, even though the denotative information may be the same, the difference in the connotative meaning will make the overall meaning different. (This is part of what is called Semantic Fields in linguistics.) For instance, the words “policeman, officer, cop, fuzz,” and “pig,” all denote the same enforcer of the law, but vary greatly in terms of how the speaker feels about that person. So they are used in different contexts.

Now, simple sentences, I feel, carry little or no emotional information. They are essentially emotionally neutral. But neutrality conveys coldness and indifference in a painful or tragic context. That is, writing in simple sentences about a painful subject says that the writer is emotionally cold, removed from what he writes about. This is probably why the style of Three Blondes evokes such reaction in some readers. There is a jarring effect between the language and the subject matter.

As you know, I don’t find the novel cold at all. While each individual sentence is declarative and perhaps emotionless, they add up to have powerful emotional effects. For instance, the chapter “A Valley without God” (in Part 4, “Death”) is horrific partially because of what you describe, but largely because it is so matter-of-fact about what it describes:

The valley is the object of great curiosity. Many tourists come to see it. They arrive in trains, buses, and private cars. Huge platforms have been erected to accommodate the curious. They stand on the edges of precipices. They have railings along the edges. They are very sturdy. This is because people lean over them to vomit down into the valley below. Almost all visitors do it. This is because of the nature of the valley. There’s also platforms serving a different purpose. These are much smaller than the ones already described. They’re like small intimate rooms compared to great halls. The small platforms are somewhat removed from the big ones. This also seems to be for the sake of intimacy. These platforms are on the edges of the deepest precipices. They have no railings. This is because they serve the purpose of committing suicide. People throw themselves down from them onto the rocks below. (418)

Elsewhere, I saw a reviewer compare the novel to an autopsy report (Bruce Borowsky’s “The Thinnest, Whitest Blonde of All”). Which is a clever connection—and seems appropriate to chapters such as “Chemnitz Kills a Rat.” But of course the novel isn’t an autopsy report! Although the novel’s style recalls journalism, historical objectivity, and autopsy reports and the like, it would never be mistaken for any of those things—which is part of its artistry.

This syntax question—what forms to use when in your writing—was one of the reasons I chose to study linguistics. I hadn’t seen it tackled anywhere in works on literary theory, and hoped I would find an answer to it in linguistics. Unfortunately this didn’t happen. Perhaps linguists dealing with stylistics have investigated it, but I studied transformational-generative grammar, and nothing of this type was discussed in any of the courses I took.

But a few years ago I believe I came on my own to understanding what is at play here. The issue is essentially one of rhythm, similar to the phonetic rhythm in poetics, and although there does exist a connection between that and subject matter, it is a very vague connection, hard to rely on. If you do, you have to do it on a very general level. For instance, a choppy rhythm does not go well with a delicate lyrical subject. Nor does a slow, languid rhythm suit a racy subject. The effects of anything more intricate than that, however, is hard to predict. If you do go in for it, chances are that the reader will not pick it up.

Let me give you an example. Pretend you’ve written the sentence, “On coming home from work, Joe washed up and sat down to supper.” You want to convey the fact that Joe behaved in a calm normal fashion, as he always does on coming home from work. Now let’s pretend you write, “Joe came home from work. He washed up. He sat down to supper.” You want to convey that his actions were mechanical and disjointed because he was upset. It is likely that this will not be understood by many readers. In other words, there is no explicit agreement on what the different constructions mean, and if a writer uses one of them with a particular intent, it is possible that many readers will never get the point. I think this is felt intuitively by those writers who are sensitive to such issues, and so, even when they rely on syntax, they also employ other, semantic devices to heighten the impact.

Syntax, then, is generally ignored by both writers and readers and other means are employed to achieve the desired effect. In my case, the syntax is so rigid that its nature is obvious, and the reader can’t ignore it. Its effect is similar to that of hexameter in epic poetry—the readers, reading it, automatically master the hexameter form and anticipate it, thus becoming co-authors. The same can happen in Three Blondes and Death: after reading for a while, the readers will automatically master the grammar of the language, as they have mastered the grammar of English, and with every sentence will anticipate what is to come. In theory this should be gratifying to them, after they get over any initial objections.

In my case, that definitely does happen (and it is gratifying).

But, as I said earlier, it is the clash between the subject matter and the syntax that produces the strongest, unexpected effect. And since the overall tenor of the novel is alienation, the style shores it up, makes it all-pervasive.

In some places, you seem to be poking fun at your own self-imposed, laborious style:

Suddenly a man appears in the hallway. He’s come from the left. He stops beside the mirror. His head is bent down. He seems to be looking down at something. He seems to be doing something with his hands. Bethlehem can’t see what the man is doing because he’s standing too close to the wardrobe. The man then lifts his head up. He turns right. He leans against the wall. There’s a candelabrum on the wall beside the mirror. It’s also ornate. It’s bronze. There’re two lights in it. They’re lit. They illuminate the man’s face. The man’s hair is thick. It’s curly. It’s black. The man has side whiskers. They’re also thick. The man’s eyebrows are also finally thick. (152)

The “also finally” strikes me as a bemused comment on the extreme atomization on display here, and how long many sentences it sometimes takes to describe something.

I don’t think I was consciously poking fun at the style. But it does come out as a side-effect of the unshakable determination with which I was adhering to the rules. I consciously decided not to sacrifice the style for the sake of making the language more natural or the text more readable, but to stick to the rules at all cost. I imagine Cyrano must have felt this way presenting his long-nosed visage to the world: “This is how I look. Take me or leave me. I don’t care.” As a result, you get this effect sometimes, just as how Cyrano must have looked funny in the eyes of those he faced.

This effect is more pronounced in Meningitis, where the grammar I had chosen was even more rigid than in Three Blondes. There, for instance, I had rules of pronominalization between sentences, describing when I should use a pronoun rather than a noun or name. I had decided that if the preceding sentence has two nouns of the same gender, then I would use the noun or the name in the next sentence rather than a pronoun. Otherwise I would use a pronoun:

The sunlight changed color. The sunlight became orange. It seemed visible in the air. The sunlight seemed an orange tent. The tent seemed silk. Its peak seemed the sun. The tent seemed centered аround Jim Morrison. (21)

[“Jim Morrison” is the name of the central character in Meningitis. —Adam]

This sometimes sounds awkward, as it goes against the rhetorical conventions (this isn’t grammar any more) that have arisen in English. But the “benefit” of this is the ruthless rigidity that comes across, which the reader will pick up. The style was meant to be uncomfortable, tight as a coffin.

The laborious or repetitive descriptions, oddly enough, have something in common with ancient epic poetry, for instance Homer’s. (I alluded to him when I spoke about hexameter above.) You will often see the same phrases repeated one after the other in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Many of these are the so-called Homeric epithets, such as “wine-dark sea,” “rosy-fingered dawn,” “swift-footed Achilles,” “bronze-clad Acheans,” as well as patronymics, such as “Achilles, son of Peleus,” “Agamemnon, son of Atreus,” and other stock constructions.

These have become part of the style of those works and add to their overall effect. I think that, subconsciously, I was hoping to achieve the same. I read the Odyssey as a child in a Ukrainian children’s translation, loved it, and the memory of the book has stayed with me to this day. Also, prior to developing this style I had worked on the translation of the Ukrainian epic poems Dumy, which likewise abound in such passages:

“O Cossacks,
You poor captives,
Do you know what day it is today in our Christian land?”
And the poor captives heard that
They recognized the slave-girl Marusia,
Priest’s daughter from Bohuslav,
By her speech.
And they spoke with words:
“O slave-girl Marusia,
Priest’s daughter from Bohuslav,
How can we know what day it is today
In our Christian land?…” [an excerpt from the Duma About Marusia From Bohuslav]

So this, too, must have had an impact on my book.

Ukrainian Dumy (co-translated by Yuriy Tarnawksy) (1979).

In general, this kind of rigidity is characteristic of works that are labeled classical, where the strictness of form rules over the author’s spirit. It is ironic that it would crop up in my own work, which arose as a reaction against classicism and rules of all kind. I guess I feel compelled to fight against others’ rules, but anxious to stick to my own.

Well, writing always needs rules, or conventions. We’re lucky today in that we have so much freedom to choose which rules we want to use.

Yes, we certainly are. But with the freedom there comes the responsibility to be strict with yourself. There is no one to control you, so you have to control yourself. This is why it is so important to create a well-defined form when you start working on something. I presume this was one of the factors that shaped the emergence of the Oulipo.

What writing projects are you working on these days, and what are your plans for the future?

I have just finished doing the final revision of the English-language version of the collection Short Tails I mentioned above. It is slated to be published this spring by CCM (Civil Coping Mechanisms) as a Journal of Experimental Fiction imprint directed by Eckhard Gerdes. I added three stories to the earlier version and rewrote about a quarter of the rest, so it differs significantly from the Ukrainian version. I worked on these stories between 1997 and 2001 and it was perhaps the most pleasant book I ever wrote. Not being a novel, it gave me the freedom to explore all sorts of possibilities that came to my mind and to develop them to their logical conclusion.

Short Tails (forthcoming 2011).

I’ll be looking forward to that eagerly. It took me a little while to get used to Short Tails—they’re extremely experimental, in my estimation—but now I’m extremely fond of them. What else?

About six months ago, I finished a third book of mininovels, or long short stories with deliberate and extensive elisions (omissions that I call negative text), that are designed to have the impact of a full novel. Since the text, as presented, is not enough to make a complete story, the reader is forced to fill in the missing information to construct the full story for himself. This way he or she becomes a co-author with me. The final result will be different for every reader but, if the reader is willing to cooperate, the story will be constructed. As you can see, the final result will depend on the reader’s imagination. The more imaginative the reader, the finer the end product.  (For more on this, see my article “The Mininovel and Negative Text,” American Book Review, Vol. 28, No. 4, May/June, 2007.)

This new collection, called The Future of Giraffes, along with Like Blood in Water (FC2, 2007) and the second, still unpublished book View of Delft that I finished a couple of years ago, form a trilogy which I call The Placebo Effect. Each of the books contains five mininovels and they all explore related topics—childhood, exile, death of a parent, death of a child, and ultimately one’s own death—so that, to me, they are like a long, complex novel with many characters and plots that contrast and intertwine with each other. They do this more like motifs in music than elements of a traditional novel, so that the final result is somewhat like a musical composition, sort of a symphony in three movements—a symphony of semantics rather than of sound.

I’ll look forward to both of those, as soon as they find homes. Your mininovel invention is catching on: I know Davis Schneiderman teaches “Screaming,” and Steven Moore mentions the concept in The Novel:An Alternative History (2010).

Well, I’m glad others find it interesting. Incidentally, I came up with the mininovel genre while working on Short Tails. I was going to include in the collection the first piece I did in this style (“Screaming”), but then realized it was different in a fundamental way from all the other stories and that more works like that were to come. So, this is how Like Blood in Water came about, which led to the trilogy.

Are you working on any new writing?

The book I am currently actively working on is a collection of poems, in English, called Modus Tollens. The title is a term from mathematical logic referring to deduction with negation. Its counterpart without negation is modus ponens, which corresponds to syllogism in the traditional deductive reasoning system.

The classical example of how modus tollens works is “If it is night, Apollo sleeps. Apollo doesn’t sleep. Therefore it is not night.” I use it as a metaphor for agnosticism. I follow an extreme destructive approach to language in these works, chopping up not only phrases but even words into confusing lines, and call them ipd’simprovised poetic devices—on analogy with the ied’s—improvised explosive devices—we know so well from Iraq. They shred and scatter the reader’s mind the way that ied’s do flesh, bones, metal, and other matter in the physical world. I call this Heuristic Poetry, which definitely differs from Projective Poetry: as the reader proceeds through the text, his mind is torn every which way and all sorts of linguistic constructions are formed and rejected in it as in the end he builds the poem up for himself from the jumble of linguistic material I give him. Hopefully it will be the one—or very close to the one—I had in mind.

Here is a sample poem from this book:


a dog run
ning a
cross an em
ty city squ
are tall skin
ny ribs stick
ing out all sk
in and
bones hair
wet drip
ping from no
where to now
here unaw
are of it
self the
world just run
ning from her
e to the
re cut
ting a
cross a flat sur
face pla
ne a liv
ing skin
and bone
s dot
ted line geo
metric physic
s con
cept bisectri

a text
book of meta
physics giv
ing off the sm
ell of a wet

As to future plans, I have written in Ukrainian a set of exercises for writers which are designed to teach by pointing out the cardinal issues of choice that arise before everyone who sits down to write: Should I use the present or the past tense? What syntactic style should I employ? What viewpoint should I use—first person, third, second, the omniscient narrator? How long should the lines in my poem be? and so on. These exercises are divided into three parts—poetry, fiction, and drama. I have taught the poetry part over the internet to students at one of the universities in Ukraine and have developed all the examples for this section. Those for fiction and drama still have to be done. And I have translated all the exercises themselves into English but have not prepared any examples. I would like to do both of these things, but it will be a lot of work and I don’t know when I will get to it.

Then there are my articles. I have written more than two dozen of them and it would be nice if I could fix them up and put them into a book.

And finally, there are two novels in English I started years ago but for some incomprehensible reason could never finish. They are very dear to my heart and more than anything else I would like to complete them.

Otherwise, for the time being at least…that’s all, folks!

[Update 26 April 11: You may also be interested in Yuriy’s recent interview with Steve Tomasula, at Rain Taxi.]

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

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