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A Conversation with Lance Olsen

By Peter Wortsman

 

Lance and I go back a long way. Both old friends and sometime protégés of the late great prose experimentalist Raymond Federman, we first met as fellow participants in “Pirated Jazz (Re-Writing [Post] Modern Bodies),” A Festival of Fiction and Poetry Reading, organized by fellow prose experimentalist Doug Rice, held jointly at Kent State University, in Salem, OH, and the legendary Beehive cabaret in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1994. Inspiration powers the inner dynamo of Olsen’s tireless imagination, but dogged commitment and determination keep the books coming. A trifecta virtuoso in the universe of words, he writes, teaches, and has served as chair of the Board of Directors at FC2 from 2001 to 2019.

Peter Wortsman: It is a great pleasure to tease out responses from you, Lance, in my capacity as [im]moderator. Where did you grow up? Was the family environment conducive to storytelling? When did the writing bug first bite?

Lance Olsen: It’s so good to be with you and your amazing, mischievous imagination again, Peter. My dad worked for an oil company in Venezuela. I came to consciousness in what felt like a surreal jungle compound there. When we moved to a leafy, bland suburb near mall-laden Paramus, New Jersey, an even more surreal space, and I entered school, my teachers didn’t believe the stories I told them about my experiences in South America (wild boar treeing my sister, e.g.; police thinking my Play-Doh was a can of plastic explosive), so I was not irregularly brought down to the principal’s office to have my mom verify my memories by phone. My real life, in other words, was treated as a mode of fiction. I suppose I had few occupational options open to me after that.

Wortsman: Do you recall your first favorite books?

Lance Olsen: Early on: the complete Dr. Seuss for its crazy-wonderful proto-Joycean language play and deep-structure iconoclasm. As a teen, the first book that ever blew my brain and heart apart was Kafka’s Metamorphosis; I read that first sentence about Gregor Samsa transforming in the wake of uneasy dream into a giant cockroach in his bed, and was never the same again.

Wortsman: What is it about words that make them more than mere echoes of consciousness, but rather worthwhile virtual companions on our lonesome journey into the void? And what is it about the act of writing that makes it a more gratifying means of taming eternity than skipping flat stones over water or whittling sticks?

Olsen: Beckett: “Words are all we have.” They’re what we’ve got to shape chaos into cosmos. Too, their texture, their sound and rhythm when strung together just right, the feel of them on the tongue, against the palate. Some writers write paragraph to paragraph. I’m the kind that can fiddle with a potentially good phrase for half an hour for the joy of it. Fiction allows me that extended play in language, but also allows me the extended opportunity to try (and always fail) in beautiful ways to imagine minds other than my own, manners of being-in-the-world that aren’t mine. At its most resonant, fiction is thereby an invitation to empathetic contemplation.

Wortsman: I know in my own work that I’m onto something if I feel embarrassed by the words written, as if I were standing there stark naked before strangers. How do you know if a sentence or string of words rings true?

Olsen: That’s perfect, Peter, and absolutely. Maybe I would add, or maybe just rephrase, that I feel a patch of prose I’ve written is right when it drops me into uncharted waters, when what I’ve said, what I’ve thought, has become question or problem rather than answer or solution.

Wortsman: We were both fortunate to have benefited from fellowships at the American Academy in Berlin. You subsequently returned as a DAAD Berlin Artist-in-Residence. The city of Berlin has had a profound influence on us both, an influence richly apparent in your recently published novel, My Red Heaven. Something in the air there, or perhaps in the beer and burps, appears to invite, indeed demand, response, to draw daydreams out of the waking mind. I wonder if you could reflect briefly on how and in what ways Berlin with its complex history and culture got under your skin and seeped into the pages of this book.

Olsen: Every form suggests a philosophy. Berlin’s form, because it doesn’t possess the orienting axes of, say, a Paris or New York, suggests dérive. It’s a vibrant gallimaufry geography where on a single block the gentrified 19th century dwells next to the crumbling 18th dwells next to the frayed East German dwells next to the clean Bauhaus dwells next to a McDonalds, a trendy café, an untrendy Indian or Vietnamese or Turkish bistro, a currywurst stand, a bit of leftover Wall (now graffitied and encrusted with bubble gum), a five-story bunker built by Albert Speer that couldn’t be blown up after the war because it was so massive, and was thus transformed (after an earlier iteration as the hottest site for techno raves and gay sadomasochistic festivities in Germany) into an art gallery. Wayne Koestenbaum talks about hoteling as an existential position. We hotel when we enter a state of physically not-being-at-home that allows us to read, think, become curious, pay attention. Because of its grimly complex history, Berlin by nature hotels Berlin. It also became a hoteling for me that I’ve found extraordinarily productive, both aesthetically and existentially.

Wortsman: What first sparked the idea for this book? Did it come to you in a flash that you were going to situate it all on a single day in a single city, à la Dublin in Ulysses?

Olsen: In 2015 I stumbled upon Otto Freundlich’s abstract Cubist painting called Mein roter HimmelMy Red Heaven—at the Pompidou. It was completed in 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor. For some reason, that painting all at once became connotative to me of the cultural energy of the Weimar era, especially in Berlin. It gestures toward a collage aesthetic in its collection of apparently disparate forms on a surface that simultaneously unifies them and underscores their multiplicity. I found myself asking myself what happens when that aesthetic is translated into a narrative architectonics. Each chapter of My Red Heaven takes the form of a narraticule set in the consciousness of an historical or imagined figure (Nabokov, Schoenberg, Einstein, et al.) living, working, and/or simply passing through Berlin’s remarkable intellectual and creative possibility zone during, as you say, a single day in 1927. The goal for me was to create a broad canvas—in many ways Berlin is the novel’s disorienting and disoriented protagonist—that explores the resonant complexity of a historical moment.

Wortsman: In one passage, Freundlich appears to be reflecting on the thing at hand when he “steps off the U-Bahn into the ruckus of the Kurfürstenstraße platform. The idea for his next painting gyres in. Its title, he comprehends without warning, will be My Red Heaven, and it will consist of an abstract flurry of quadrilateral shapes forging three color strata down a large canvas: reds at the top; grays, greens, whites, and blues in the middle; blacks at the bottom. Otto doesn’t know it will take another half decade before he can plunge in.” Are Freundlich and Olsen here musing simultaneously on what sparked their inspiration?

Olsen: My fictive Freundlich was luckier than I. While the puzzle that prompted the novel for me—how to translate painting into prose—arrived with a jolt, the actual writing took the form of a long accretion over the course of four or five years that involved extensive research and extensive thinking about and teaching Modernism, a non-movement to which the novel is a kind of love song.

Wortsman: I recognize a number of the locales, like the brewery in Prenzlauer Berg, for instance, which you describe as “that red brick building the color of stoneground mustard.” In which, of course, those of us who’ve been there recognize today’s Kulturbrauerei. Another scene takes place near the Pfaueninsel in Wannsee, that charmed oasis not far from the villa that currently houses the American Academy. In what way did specific Berlin locales inspire passages in this novel, or was it the other way around, that you plunked texts in favorite locales after the fact?

Olsen: How wonderful that we got to share those secret handshakes of recognition. My Red Heaven isn’t only a love song to Modernism, but also one to spots in Berlin that hold special private elation for me. I don’t believe there’s a corner I mention that I haven’t spent some real time in on multiple occasions. It’s my secret selfie collection.

Wortsman: At one point you quote, or perhaps posit literary theorist Walter Benjamin conjecturing: “Suppose, therefore, it could be argued that we are all collage artists.” Is that borrowed from the Arcades Project, or an invented line? Are you here channeling Benjamin to espouse the book’s aesthetic?

Olsen: I confess: I wrote a line I wish Benjamin had written. The idea at its pith harmonizes with his Arcades Project, but Benjamin never actually wrote them…although he should have. I’ve never been drawn to Benjamin’s actual prose, which strikes me as wooden.

Wortsman: First developed by Braque and Picasso in their Cubist phase, and subsequently refined by German Dadaists Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Höch, among others, the collage has infected various art forms, from visual to musical to verbal creations. This is particularly true in Berlin. Walter Ruttman’s great impressionist documentary film Berlin, Symphony of a Big City, produced in 1927, and Alfred Döblin’s collage novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, published in 1929, are notable cases in point. As is the more recent collage-film Wings of Desire, by Wim Wenders. A collage of parallel happenings and musings on a given day when life is percolating and all hell is about to break loose, My Red Heaven appears to harken back to and be infected, or rather informed, by these diverse influences. I wonder if you could elaborate on your embrace of the collage form and its precedents. What makes the collage such a rich and realistic portrayal of modern life?

Olsen: We’re back to every form suggesting a philosophy. The collage, which works through juxtaposition of the incommensurate, refuses to privilege one vision over another. You can think, for example, of the wildly breathfluttering works you mention, all of which I hope readers hear in My Red Heaven, as well as the mixed voices and styles comprising Joyce’s Ulysses, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and Eliot’s Waste Land, all of which my novel waves at over the heads of its characters. Collage argues that each voice, each vision, is always available, tenable, and arbitrary. It argues for polyphony as an existential choreography.

Wortsman: The reader gets the sense that you both celebrate the astounding splendor of simultaneity and revile the utter disgust of bodies essentially piled on top of each other, as they are in a Berlin high rise. (I know that you yourself seek regular refuge from the madding crowd in the wilds of Idaho.) Is there for you indeed a bit of both, celebration and revulsion, in your evocation of urban life?

Olsen: The urban charges me. The rural recharges me. The suburban, I guess, maintains me, since that’s where I find myself teaching much of each year. I find it difficult to write in most cities because of the cloud of splintering distractions. (Berlin, because of its quiet neighborhoods like Prenzelauer Berg, which possess the aura of villages, is different.) Rather, I adore them for converting me into a switching station of opportunities. Too much rural, with its magnificent, peaceful predictability, would drive me crazy after a while.

Wortsman: There is a reflection about novels you put into the mouth of journalist Kurt Severing—a borrowed comic book character: “But novels—imagine all the ones that have been published. Imagine all the humans that have read them, are reading them, will read them, yet stubbornly continue behaving just like humans. Imagine all the societies that ponder them, teach them, write about them, talk about them….People carry on killing, brutalizing, bullying, cheating, swindling, stealing, lying, gambling, overeating, fretting, celebrating selfishness, messiness, laziness, neuroses, arrogance, rudeness, despotism, greed, hypocrisy, etc.…when all [novels] accomplish is to confirm that everything is made to be broken. And so consider the consequences of their presence in our lives. There is none. I want that cup of coffee….I want to ask my café friend: Is anyone still interested in stories?” Is this Severing mouthing off, or Olsen infiltrating Severing, reflecting on the simultaneously futile and essential thing he is doing in writing this novel?

Olsen: Kurt Severing, I should say, is another wave within in the novel over the head of its characters, this time at Jason Lutes’s incredibly gifted graphic novel Berlin, which everyone should read immediately, and which focuses, more or less, on the same period I write about in My Red Heaven. Severing’s sentiments here, however, are more or less my own in two senses. First, there’s the recognition that novels have never made anything happen at a large, social level; in a sense, therefore, they are useless; they don’t change a thing. Second, though, behind that sense there’s another most of us intuit deeply: that novels alter individuals all the time. We can all, I’m absolutely sure of it, come up with a number that have made us new people. Reading them, we felt ourselves profoundly, hearthammeringly modified. Sometimes, alas, that change lasts only a few minutes, or a week or two. Yet I can name books, as I’m sure most of us can, that have undone and redone me for life.

Wortsman: Climbing into the mind’s eye of one of your many high-profile protagonists, the artist Käthe Kollwitz, you write: “Over the years you have learned to work the way a cow grazes.” Can this characterization likewise be said to apply to the writing manner of Lance Olsen?

Olsen: For better or worse, I certainly do work more slowly, more meticulously, than I once did. I think that I think that I used to be more interested in product than process. Over the years, I’ve come to cherish the act of writing as a form of painstaking meditation and aestheticization. The first draft is always the hardest for me—that unnerving act of bringing something into being out of thin air. After that, it’s exhilaration all the way down.

Wortsman: Among the other historic characters who happened to have spent time in Berlin, and make appearances in your book, is the dying Franz Kafka. You have Kafka inform his last lover Dora Diamant: “‘Everybody thinks literature is about things that occur out there,’ he once told her. ‘People believe that’s what it has always been about and always will be. This is an admirable theory, but thoroughly wrong. Every age gets the literature it deserves. This one deserves a literature in which nothing takes place out there, again and again. Everything occurs in here—he pointed to his head—inside the storm.’” Is this Kafka mouthing his own aesthetic, or Olsen channeling Kafka, or a bit of both?

Olsen: The aesthetics is all me again, I’m afraid—while also (and this is why I asked Kafka to say it) forging a kind of definition of Modernism itself. If we think of nineteenth-century writing and art as a photograph, Modernist writing and art is an x-ray. What’s important in the latter (Woolf, Proust, Kafka himself) always goes on primarily in interior spaces. In a sense, Kafka’s quote likewise points to something innate about the hope called fiction: that, as I say, it can do deep consciousness in a way other art forms can’t.

Wortsman: There’s another lovely, profound, and all too true line ascribed to the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, great-grandfather of the sexual revolution of the Sixties, whom you portray being interviewed in a zeppelin flying over the city: “The inverse is also the case, naturally: the woman who needs to be liberated most is the woman inside every man.” Is that a documented or an imagined Hirschfeld quote?

Olsen: This one’s an extrapolation of Hirschfeld’s thought. In part, his greatest contribution to ur-gender studies was the understanding that the notion of the binary is a joke perpetrated by Western philosophy and culture. In that sense, he anticipates Derrida, who sets the stage for Judith Butler, Maggie Nelson, and so many others who undo categorical thought—even if those beautiful theorists would have been only marginally aware of Hirschfeld…if at all.

Wortsman: Secret lovers, the young Hannah Arendt and the up-and-coming philosopher Martin Heidegger, her erstwhile professor, already full of himself, make an appearance. How, I wonder, did you gather your protagonists? Did you document (or invent) their all actually having been in Berlin at that same time, or imagine them there?

Olsen: Most are documented—Nabokov, Anita Berber, Otto Dix among them—but I couldn’t find proof a good number of them were actually in Berlin on the day I needed them to be: Anita’s birthday: June 10th, 1927. I could only prove they could have been, or perhaps were there in the temporal neighborhood. I’m thinking, by way of example, of Heisenberg, Schoenberg, and Freundlich himself.

Wortsman: Do you, as a novelist, have a particular fondness for any of your characters?

Olsen: Whoever’s consciousness I’m imagining myself in at a particular moment—even if it’s Hitler’s or Carl Firscher’s, my serial killer’s—is my favorite in the sense that it allows me to experience the world from a radically different point of view than my own. That invariably helps me unlearn something important about psychology and the world.

Wortsman: Do you remember the moment when you crossed the last t and dotted the last i, as it were, deciding that you were done with My Red Heaven? Were you glad to have finally completed this book once it was definitely done, or did you want it to keep going, like a taste you don’t want to stop tasting?

Olsen: Oh, man, it broke my heart to finish My Red Heaven. Every once in a long while that’s happened to me—when I was pretty sure I had completed Girl Imagined by Chance; when I stepped away from Nietzsche’s Kisses. There was something so energizing, so enriching, to work on My Red Heaven. I loved learning more about the period, the people that frequented it, the voices and forms that arose out of it. I loved celebrating some of my favorite Modernist texts. And the structure of my novel—one consciousness tumbling into another—could have kept going for hundreds of pages beyond the last. But at a certain point I knew the shape, the length, the vision had done what it had set out to, and that, if I had kept going, I would have entered into the town of Self-Absorption.

Wortsman: Does one book for you lead to another? What’s next on the drawing board?

Olsen: I’m trying to find my footing in a novel-in-progress that takes me as far away from Modernism and the concerns of My Red Heaven as possible. This one is a speculative literary fiction. It explores and troubles mind-upload neurotechnologies, and therefore questions about the relationship of brain to mind; identity; memory; refugeeism (geographical, somatic, temporal); and where the human ends and something else will someday begin. It takes as its form a cluster of neurons firing. I’m happy to report I’m not quite sure what I mean by any of those things. That’s the delight for me right now. Everything feels possible, impossible, and unknown.

Wortsman: Finally, given the rise of right-wing demagogues in so many parts of the world, notably in our own backyard, do you feel a responsibility as a novelist to be politically engagé in your writing? Should novels or other forms of literary writing consciously raise consciousness or just tell stories?

Olsen: While it didn’t actually start out this way, My Red Heaven soon became in my mind an invitation to contemplate the parallels between the Weimar years and our own—how a grim populism can contaminate a country so gradually, so insidiously, and yet in the end so completely through deceit, a politics of paranoia, xenophobia, pit-bullish nationalism and alpha-male ignorance, that most of its essentially decent but unthinking citizens come to understand what’s happened only when their democracy has already become something other than democratic around them and in them. Which is to say: yes, always, always, always. I don’t really see how any writing can be anything except vigorously political, among all the other things it can be and is—especially that kind which claims it’s apolitical, a position that is always the most political extant. When one says one’s work is apolitical, one is usually flagging its impulse to normativize certain repeated narratives (Goebbels: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”), and to say to its readers: Go to sleep now. There’s nothing to see here. There’s nothing to feel, nothing essential to think about. Everything has been and always will be just fine.

 

Peter Wortsman is the author of a novel, three books of short fiction, and an Independent-Publishers-Award-winning travel memoir, Ghost Dance in Berlin. His most recent publications include Stimme und Atem / Out of Breath, Out of Mind and a second edition of his first book, A Modern Way to Die. Also an acclaimed translator from the German, he was a Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin in 2010.

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