INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT BIRNBAUM
Robert Birnbaum: I look at the body of your work and your activities and, forgive the lame-ass question, but how many of you are there?
Andrei Codrescu: Well, I have a little elf workshop based on the Soviet style—it seems prolific, but look at musicians; they make 4 or 5 albums a year. They sit in on bands. They jam. It's just working.
RB: And you teach. You have a professorial chair at
AC: I do teach. But, you know, the higher your chair, the less you actually teach. [both laugh] I have a tall chair. [laughs] A high chair.
RB: How much work does Exquisite Corpse require?
AC: It requires entirely too much work. We were in print for 16 years and then went to the Internet, and that has its own set of problems. It's just as much work as doing it on paper. The journal became bigger and bigger on the Internet because you can put more in there—you can practically publish novels. I can do art galleries—it turns out to be quite a bit, plus the fact that people submit very easily by email. Submissions have quadrupled. So I have been reading a lot more.
RB: And you write?
RB: I couldn't help but notice that on your itinerary—after
here, you go back to
AC: Well, I lent
AC: So that's where I start out. I start reading and I immerse myself in the stuff, and by the time I actually open my mouth, I might have some fresh ideas. This glass thing—I started reading the histories of glass. I ended up with about 10 histories of glass at my bedside, and then I started getting catalogues of glass art, and then I started looking at glass in museums. And galleries. And then I started looking at glass on the street. I was going crazy.
RB: Why not do as the character
AC: I would if I was as spontaneous and good as
RB: Do you like doing that?
AC: Well, I do. And the money is good.
RB: Forget the money.
AC: I do. It's an occasion for an essay. And if it's particularly about something that interests me but I don't know a lot about it, it's a good excuse to read a bunch of books.
RB: What's the most unusual group that you have spoken to?
AC: The one that I gave
RB: [laughs] And there are really two competing groups?
AC: Apparently there are two fire sprinkler associations.
One is union and the other isn't. So I spoke to the non-union shops. I made a
whole lot out of the fact that the first radical union in the
RB: Does your writing fly under the radar of certain kinds of groups? Some religious fundamentalists might take exception to your characterizations of the Devil and such.
AC: They should.
RB: Would those types read your book?
AC: I tried to get my driver in
RB: Who is a satirist in
AC: That's a good question.
RB: David Sedaris—but not really.
AC: That's a very good question. Almost everything [in
RB: The satirical tradition is dwindling.
AC: Everyone takes themselves so seriously.
RB: What about the image of the open, free society, practical welcoming, funny—
AC: It is those things. And it is also closed and bigoted and narrow minded and a whole lot of other things. It's true there is an awful lot of comedy, and there is good satire on television. The Daily Show is terrific. Where I was born and where I grew up, jokes were the only oppositional culture, and in 1989 when the regime collapsed, it was possible to have comedy on television. It was possible to have satirical newspapers, and all of a sudden the culture of the joke disappeared. So with it disappeared a kind of cohesion to the society which before was based on a kind of oral shared whispering of bad things about Nicolae Ceausescu and the Communist Party.
RB: Can you characterize what it was or is about the Eastern European humor or worldview that was so singular?
AC: Humor is a very deep-rooted mode of survival in those countries, for Romanians who kept being conquered over and over, who always had to look over their shoulders to see who is coming over the hill. Not taking things so seriously was a form of, literally, surviving. So you could hide in your cave while the Visogoths were galloping over your head on horseback and tell jokes until they passed. The quintessential Romanian joke during the Ceausescu era was [told by]—people waiting in line—If you are Romanian you can be born in the city or born in the country. If you are born in the city, that's fine. If you are born in the country, there are two possibilities. You can stay home and die of hunger, or you can go into the army. If you stay home and die of hunger, that's fine. If you go into the army, there are two possibilities. You could get sent to the front, or you can stay behind a desk. If you stay behind a desk, that's fine. If you get sent to the front, there are two possibilities: you could get wounded or be killed. If you are wounded, that's fine. If you get killed, there are two possibilities. You can get your own grave or get thrown into a common one. If you get your own, that's fine. If you are in a common one, there are two possibilities—people played this in line until they got to the front. So death meant nothing. You somehow had to get past that.
RB: You told a joke, something to the effect, "People were waiting in line and then all Jews were ordered to leave. The Jews left and everyone was still waiting. And finally the store closed. And someone complained, 'Those Jews have all the luck.'" [both laugh]
AC: That's pretty classic. The jokes in Eastern Europe shared pretty much the same form—Kundera's wonderful novel The Joke, which talks about Czechoslovakia in the '60s and the '70s in which the entire society had become a joke. Nobody took anything seriously including the party leaders. Everybody told jokes, and the secret police spread them. So everybody was in on them, laughing, the whole thing was collapsing.
RB: What is it like for a Romanian of
Jewish origins to live in
RB: The only references to your Jewish roots are your emigration experience—
AC: My mother and father are both Jews. But I didn't know
my father very well and we emigrated from
RB: Your course through
AC: Yeah, there were tanks going up
AC: It had that title in the '60s.
RB: And then you moved on to
AC: I went to
RB: Being serious and focusing on a career—you're giving me a look when I say 'serious.'
AC: Well actually 'career' is the word that grabbed me. Yeah, we had a child and I started teaching in community colleges and a course here and there, and then I met John Barth at a party in Baltimore, and I had a couple of books published by then. So he said, "How would you like to spend a year in residence at Johns Hopkins?" I said, "Oh yes." "But you know it pays very little." It was a lot more than I was making at the time. I jumped at it.
RB: Have you stayed in touch with Barth?
AC: Now and then. Actually I polemicized with him at some point. He wrote some essay in the NYT and I wrote a letter taking issue and he answered back, quite kindly. He is a generous man, and I have always liked him and his books.
RB: People don't polemicize here.
AC: They do in
RB: It was in
AC: I definitely felt there wasn't anything exciting going on in the literary magazines and the literary conversation in 1983. There were factions just as there are now and politics. And the so-called academic poets didn’t mean necessarily they were teachers because of a certain style of traditions they followed. And then the so-called avant-garde and the New York Poets were on different sides of the fence and I thought it might be interesting to polemicize. To actually make a journal that's alive. And it worked. In '83 I started the NPR work, too, and I started teaching, and so that was a big year.
RB: How do you see the literary conversation now, today?
AC: I think it's a lot better than it was. The Corpse probably had a very small part in that. There are so many writers now and so many ways of approaching craft and different areas of it and sub-specialized genres. Like the third person memoir. [laughs] It's hard to talk about a state of literature and state of the art because there are so many being practiced and there are regional scenes that are interesting.
RB: What you mean by literary conversation is actually the work. I was thinking also of the commentary and the critics and enthusiasts and such.
AC: I was thinking of the work and also of critics. Which still to a large extent don't exist. We have a lot of reviewers. There are some essayists who are in various in the quarterlies and then the old standby war horses like the New York Review of Books and a few of these things. Really there is a kind of—this country doesn't for the most part have a lively periodical criticism scene. In Romania, which obviously doesn't have the vastness of the resources as American literature, there is a great deal of attention paid to poets and to writers by critics, and these critics don't do anything else but write weekly considerations of new books of poetry, and they do it at quite an intelligent level. They read well and they are conscious of their own critical tradition in doing so. But they pay attention to contemporary literature. Particularly to young poets. In this country, if you publish a book of poetry, it sinks like a stone.
RB: There is that conventional wisdom that more people write poetry than read it.
RB: April was National Poetry Month and—
AC: It was also National Fireman month and so on. [both laugh]
RB: National Chicken-plucking month. We have Pinsky and Billy Collins and some recognition for Heaney. But doesn't it seem like poetry is more accessible and thus should be more popular?
AC: It's a matter of tradition, and we don’t have that here. The Russians and the Romanians recite poetry since they can open their mouths. They are told poems. It's big oral culture. Here we have other things. You talk to the kids and they can recite commercials from the minute they open their eyes. They know all kinds of ditties. They know an incredible number of songs. Any kid of whatever age knows a whole range of songs. That's lyrical. It serves that function. Poetry here—anyone who writes poetry seriously is more or less in a 20th century idiom, and it’s one that is becoming increasingly difficult. It's not something that is really sexy or accessible to someone just beginning to enjoy text. It is something learned. It's an acquired taste for sure.
RB: Of all the things that you do, the thing you most identify with is being a poet. Is that right?
AC: I do. I do. I started writing when I was fairly young. Romanians like their poets precocious. I was 16 and they liked me and, of course, there was a great cachet with girls, to write poems and have dewy eyes and long hair and a slightly dissolute appearance.
RB: Smoke Galoises and wear a beret?
AC: If you could afford it. We smoked the most vile brand of cigarettes. [laughs] I started writing early on and thought it was the highest form of literary expression.
RB: Why did you think that?
AC: It was quickest and most unintelligible to the philistines. It created a sense of snobbishness and elevation immediately.
RB: Exactly the reverse of why I thought poetry might be accessible today.
AC: We did it to make ourselves totally different. Also because there was a great deal of poetry that was forbidden in those days and it was a sense of distinction to actually have access to it and it was a language that burned very intensely and was highly lyrical. It was the language of adolescence. Your hormones and your mysticism woke up at the same time. And so we were about 17 and made a pact if any one of us writes a novel we are not to speak to each other again.
AC: And I haven't. [laughs]
RB: You've lost your childhood friends.
AC: I've lost my friends. They quit everything, not just poetry. Some of them don't write anymore and some are dead.
RB: How do you decide what form you are going to work in?
AC: I carry a notebook for ideas, and some of them seem to be poetry because they have a nice sound or seem to somehow become a poem. It’s not that often. But then the essays have to be fairly articulate, be composed of complete sentences. [laughs] Those are—
RB: —and be intelligible.
AC: Right. Intelligible, to some degree.
They are somewhat deliberate. And then, of course, travelogues are just keeping
a very good diary, and in the case of Ay
RB: Would it be fair to say that the writing of
AC: It was. It took a long time, but the most fun part was before 9/11, because the whole book is about the period at the end of the '90s, which is now a guilded age as Mark Twain called it. Or Great Gatsby. It's a time that is very specific historically defined. But then 9/11 happened, and I realized that a lot of those ideas that were in there in a way contained this ominous feeling. The character and those surrounding him have this idea that something is going to break and live with a sense of doom even in the middle of this terrible affluence. Then the editing took place mostly after. I had to resist the temptation to insert ideas into the book to make myself seem more omniscient than I really am. But yeah, it was fun up to that point. Then I really struggled with a few rewrites, and then I just finally went back to what was there and that was that.
RB: My awareness of American literature dims significantly
as we move back past the mid-20th century.
AC: Actually it is a really interesting story. It was a
very short story, three pages in Twice Told Tales called "
RB: Which your
AC: Right. A lot of writers are fascinated by this story. Borges loved this story. And an Argentine writer wrote a book called Wakefield's Wife.
RB: What was his name?
AC: I can't remember. The story held a lot of fascination and when I thought how hard it was in the period of the '90s to find an authentic life because everything was moving so fast and things were so fanciful and strange.
RB: And as you say everything seemed to contain its own caricature.
AC: Right. So when
RB: I take it you didn’t want to name the cities he travels to in the story in keeping with your restraint in using brand names and proper nouns?
AC: I wanted to do regions for a couple of reasons. One, I
RB: There are books regularly written about life at the U.S.- Mexican border. But none that I know of about the U.S.-Canadian border.
AC: The Mexican border now runs through every city. It runs
RB: It seems to me when you do a movie such as Road Scholar, you can't not echo the parable of the three blind men and the elephant. This is a very large country with a diversity that Americans can't seem to get a handle on. And the conventional representation is one that wants to emphasize the homogeneity of the country.
AC: I was hoping to do the opposite. To meet people who are outside the mainstream. I met little religious groups and communities in—
RB: Such as the Sikhs in
AC: Yeah, people who live in other ways than in traditional
Americans in the suburbs who are in regular families. The Bruderhof, the Christian Communists and the Sikhs and all
sorts of people. And so I got—this is what made
RB: It's a fact that appears true and yet it seems
unacknowledged. People saw Road Scholar and felt good about the
picture it showed and then returned to seeing the
AC: If you get off the highway. Things have changed
considerably since 93, and there are a lot more Wal-Marts
now. It's harder and harder to find a contrarian community that can resist
RB: Some municipality just rejected a Wal-Mart.
AC: Yeah in
RB: The subject of the multiplicity of
AC: I think there are 18 [both laugh]. I'm doing Jim a little better here. 11 more, Jim!
RB: What purpose does it serve to see the
AC: It serves the purposes of rallying behind the war. Ideas of nationalism and who we are immediately take on a different—
RB: As in, "We are good and they are bad."
AC: We are good because we are a democracy and we are
tolerant, which are true things. But they are not bad because they haven't
quite figured it out. The government may be very bad, but there is a sense in
which being American is different and is real. I know this because I am an
American and I go to
RB: Are you saying that no matter where you are in this country there is less protocol and social formality and rigidity?
AC: Oh definitely. If you look at
RB: This being a week of Ronald Reagan's beatification, someone wrote to remind Americans that Reagan had the audacity to claim there was no word for 'freedom' in the Russian language.
AC: I don't remember that. I know he did say pollution comes from trees. [both laugh] He was quite memorable.
RB: I looked at the dust jacket of
AC: Well, they are people whose writing I admire. Some of
them—I met Elizabeth McCracken once in
RB: Jonathan Raban.
AC: Actually, I haven't ever met him. I would like to meet
Jonathan. He lives in
RB: Mary Karr?
AC: Her book, Liar's Club, which I think is exceptionally wonderful.
RB: Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean writer.
AC: —who was quite well regarded there before he had to go into exile under the Pinochet regime.
RB: How did these people come to read
AC: I sent them the manuscript and they just generously responded wrote quotes. This was before the galleys, before I had a publisher.
RB: They must really like you. Reading a manuscript is laborious.
AC: Well, I mean Tom Robbins is a friend. I wrote to him because he put me in one of his books. In a list of extra-terrestrials. [both laugh]
RB: You didn’t take that personally.
AC: Not really. I liked that. So then I wrote to him, and he is a great correspondent. He is just wonderful, an epistolary genius. He writes wonderful letters.
RB: Letters or emails?
AC: He writes letters as well.
RB: In a 100 years will there be many collected literary correspondences?
AC: I think email has certainly shortened correspondence and shortened the time it took to respond. If you did take time you took time to write about more things. It’s changed but there are people who still write emails as if they were letters.
RB: Maybe. But I don’t see much evidence. Rapidity seems to foster a guiltless sloppiness.
AC: Before email people used to write each other letters. You'd get letters from home if you were in college—a five-page letter from Mom and Dad with all kinds of advice. That sort of thing is gone.
RB: I asked before about your view of the literary conversation. Not much of a critical community here.
AC: No there isn’t much. There are many, many reasons for that. One of the big ones is that people are specialized. They write to their gang. And they don't pay any attention to books that fall outside either their aesthetic or their circle of acquaintances.
RB: It's perhaps early in the game, but I pay attention to [and to some degree, participate in] a burgeoning community of literary weblogs and web sites. And many are taking place at a very intelligent and dedicated level. And yes, there is still a kind of cliqueishness. But it seems smart.
AC: It's possible. I am not a big fan of the blogs. They take too much time. Certainly the people who make them take time, their entire time is spent—I think of them as spider webs.
AC: You have the spider in the center of the blog. And people get caught in there. And get eaten.
RB: [laughs] I think 'blog' is an ugly word. It would be wonderful if someone came up with a different verb. Personally, I like some of the voices and am engaged by those voices. And I think it lets the air out of the big institutional gatekeepers.
AC: Well, the New York Times Book Review has decayed considerably if it ever was anything. It had periods when it had some life in it. But now it's a dead magazine. It's way behind other sections of the newspaper. The style section is ten thousand times more interesting than the Book Review.
RB: Occasionally they will cover something of a literary nature and it will be more lively. I'd rather read about Chip Kidd's refrigerator than the things in the Book Review.
AC: Yeah, it's predictable and it yellows quickly. But it does have a tremendous influence because what is left of general readership if there is such a thing, of people who just buy books because they have read something about it, the Times does influence them.
RB: It is a good thing there are new publishing houses: MacAdam/Cage out of
AC: Dave Eggers out in
RB: He [Eggers] collaborated with MacAdam/Cage on Stephen Elliot's book.
AC: There is a lot of hope that the Internet is breaking this down. It happened in music. Also the technology for making these things is cheaper. People figure out very quickly how to distribute them. The big publishers don’t have the slightest idea which books [will] sell.
RB: Right. Just like in music.
AC: They put it out there and have no idea why people pick it up and it's kind of a 19th century way of operating. I think other businesses have figured out efficiently how to distribute the products or who likes it, why they like it. I don’t think it's the case with books.
RB: Is a dilemma of the book business that everyone should be able to publish and on the other hand that there are too many books being published?
AC: There is no question about it. Also the big publishers have a scatter shot approach. They just publish a lot of things.
RB: I just read, for example, that Simon & Schuster published 1200 books last year.
AC: The two novels I published with Simon & Schuster
got no distribution at all. No marketing ideas—I wrote three books that Simon
& Schuster published. Blood Countess got some attention because
they figured out some niche. Audiences who like sadistic
countesses and flowing blood and long fingernails. But Messiah,
which I love and think is one of my best books, a novel set in
RB: And there have been other recent novels about Casanova.
AC: There are novels about Casanova. I thought I was doing something interesting and new because it was based on the last 20 years of Casanova's life, which are not in his memoirs. And that's another book [with which] they didn't do anything. And they didn't even take out an ad. I don't know why they published it. They shoot them out there and hope one of them sticks. But I have them back now. I will republish them.
RB: I gather from the way you talk about
AC: I had most of it written. Unlike the Blood Countess and Casanova, which are ideas I sold [and] then wrote the books. This time I decided it was better if I had a finished manuscript and then I had some friends and writers I admire read it and say things about it and then I could shop it as a whole package. And then an editor wouldn't have so much work. Also, if you don’t engage in those endless discussions about which way it should go before it even exists—
RB: [laughs] Can I assume that this is a book you are happy with?
AC: I'm very happy with it. Because I can read from it. I have been doing all these readings and it sounds funny to me and I see people laughing and enjoying it. I am getting new pleasure.
RB: Is that not part of what you do when you write, read it aloud?
AC: No, I don't. In fact the audio version of the book is just out, and it's an actor reading it because it's too much work for me.
RB: So what's next for you?
AC: Let's see, what am I going to do? I want to write another novel based on the life of Tristan Tzara, the Romanian-born Jewish world shaker and founder of dada. And also an amazing poet, which is something nobody knows. He was born Sammy Rosenstock in Moinesti Romania, and went to Switzerland and was in the Resistance in WW II, and became a high-ranking member of the French Communist Party after the war, and had these transformations that went along with the century—up to the mid- century. He changed languages and I identify with him.
RB: What claims will you make about this fictional Tzara?
AC: I don’t want to write a biography because it's too confining. I want to be able to imagine certain periods of his life that have no record. I will try and find as many letters—after 1951 there is very little. He became quite private. He published some poets, but nothing much is known about his life. I will find out what I can in the way I did it about Casanova. I'll try to be as accurate as I can.
RB: Why do you need to be accurate in a fiction?
AC: Because the facts themselves made that life coherent. Or made that life, anyway. I think it important not to deviate too much from that. Then you just create—then they [your subject] should have another name.
RB: You are obliged, once you use a real name, to adhere to the facts?
AC: Yeah. I am not sure I'm going to —
RB: What if you used his real name?
AC: Sammy. And just told it from his point of view. That's a great idea —actually tell it from inside his head.
RB: Do you envision doing another road trip?
AC: Actually, now that you ask, there is a movie in the
works. It's not about, but the center of it is the
RB: Great, something to look forward to. Thanks very much.
AC: Thank you.
[Originally posted August 4, 2004 by identity theory. See http://www.identitytheory.com/interviews/birnbaum150.php]