Barry Pearce talks with Aleksandar Hemon

Appears in Other Voices #47

Aleksandar Hemon is the author of The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man. The Question of Bruno appeared on best books of 2000 lists nationwide, won several literary awards and was published in eighteen countries. Born in Sarajevo, Hemon arrived in Chicago in 1992, began writing in English in 1995, and his work now appears regularly in The New Yorker, Esquire, Granta, McSweeney’s, Paris Review and Best American Short Stories.

Barry Pearce recently met him for dim sum and conversation near his home in Edgewater, on Chicago’s North Side. Hemon had just returned from a long stay in France, where he was writing.

BP: This is for an issue of Other Voices devoted to Chicago writers, so I was trying to think to myself as I was reading your books which Chicago writers came to mind. I don’t think your work compares with most of them, but I did think of Saul Bellow in certain ways.

AH: Why did you think of Saul Bellow?

BP: For one thing, the energy and pacing. His work can take on this driving, almost maniacal pace. Also, I think you’re similar in terms of introducing lots of characters, sometimes late in the narrative, and pegging them quickly and having them emerge and disappear in the story in surprising ways. Also language. I’m not saying your prose is similar, but sentence by sentence, I really enjoy Bellow’s prose. It’s fresh and energetic. There are lots of fiction writers I like whose prose, I’ll admit, is not stellar, even though, overall, I like their work. With Bellow, every sentence seems to be sort of an adventure, and I feel that in your work

AH: James Wood called (Bellow’s) sentences “risky, uninsured sentences.” The word “uninsured” is there because the sentences start going, and you don’t know where. I love Augie March, and I love parts of Herzog, but I don’t really like his later work. In fact, I love his stories. There’s a book of collected stories—that’s what’s unnerving about Bellow, there will be a story, an absolute masterpiece in and of itself, but also Chicago is so lively in it, and, you know, it’s a city that you can really sense the humanity of, the thickness of humanity—his characters and the people he runs into. And then you flip the page, and there’s just an awful, lazy, rambling kind of story. He really is everywhere. The only book that I’ve read that I love unconditionally is Augie March.

BP: The city in his work, as you’ve pointed out, is often really alive. And in Nowhere Man especially, I’m struck by how lively Chicago is and how it functions as a character in the story. It never seems self-conscious. I grew up here and have lived here almost all my life, but I feel like I’m seeing it for the first time almost, through fresh eyes.

AH: Everyone gets numb to certain things. Not just the city—life, the language. The Russian structuralists, the literary theoreticians, they have a word in Russian, Ostranenie. In English it’s translated as “defamiliarization.” This same word was in my native language, Bosnian—it’s the same word. It means “estrangement,” that is, making something strange but also making something wondrous. They thought this is what literature does, that, for instance in poetry, everyone gets numb to the language they’re using because its function is primarily clear communication…if I spoke to you in rhymed couplets right now, it wouldn’t help the conversation. So you get used to metaphors and clichés and idioms and all that, and you accept that.

Not to mention now, with television you get all these buzzwords. It drives me crazy, maybe especially now since I just came back from Paris, when people address me as “you guys.” It’s not for the sake of politeness, but you guys? What guys? But everybody’s using it. You get numb to the language by using it every day. What poetry does, if you switch it around, you change the syntax, you rhyme, you sort of estrange the language, you know? Make it distant a little, move it away from the functionality, and you also make it wondrous, presumably, because it’s used in a way that you haven’t used it. To me, that’s what literature does, that’s what’s exciting to me when I read, and that’s what Saul Bellow can do. For instance, somewhere in Augie March he talks about “morning Mississippi solemnity,” something like that, and you have a vision of it. Nabokov is the master of that in Lolita. It’s the top of that tradition of literature. In Lolita he talks about “cars in the parking lot like pigs at a trough.” Ever since I read that I can’t look at cars in a parking lot without thinking about it. It’s never been the same. And the same thing you can do with the city, or chunks of life. This is what literature does to language, and this is what I like to do.

BP: English was also not Nabokov’s first language. Is there a way in which that’s an advantage, in terms of the sort of defamiliarization you’re talking about?

AH: When you read his Russian stories, they’re just as good. It’s a sensibility that is easily adjustable if you switch the language. But the change of language does not, I think, not in my case, matter because when I write in Bosnian it’s the same way, the same sensibility, same prose, same ambition. I think when you read his Russian novels—although he helped in translation, but I cannot imagine he was rewriting them—you see the same person.

BP: There is a sense in your work of the author in love with words. Words get used in interesting ways, unusual ways, ways that wake you up as a reader.

AH: Well, that’s what I like about literature. I seldom respond to people who are indifferent to language. And in a similar way, the space, the objects, the senses get numb. You don’t think about the color of these chairs. Why would you? They’re there all the time. Every time I come here, they’re the same chairs. I’ve been coming here fifteen years. But what if you would? Suddenly, it opens up spaces. With a city like Chicago, which—in American cities you have this grid and neighborhoods that do not strive for spectacle like, say, downtown. Large parts of the city are very dormitory. You’re supposed to sleep there and shut up, and there may be secret backyards, but they’re hidden. You drive through the West Side warehouses—it’s blight. And yet, I’ve driven west through those warehouses at sunset, and the light changes in some way, and there’s something sublime and beautiful about it. I look for that. I want to look for that.

BP: Another thing that’s often mentioned about your work is the humor, which is omnipresent. You use humor all the time. I find a lot of your stuff funny, but is there a difference in sensibility with American readers? I think the British have a slightly different sense of humor from Americans. I couldn’t tell you what a Bosnian sense of humor is like, but do you ever run into people not getting things that would be found funny one place but not the other?

AH: Well, there’s certainly a Sarajevo sense of humor. There’s Bosnian too, but really—I don’t know why it is—but Sarajevo has the funniest people. I’m not really funny in Sarajevo, but my relatives—it’s not even telling jokes, just a manner of speaking. You can talk about the most serious things and it comes out as funny. I think it’s an Eastern European sensibility too—I mean Eastern European geographically, not genetically. Because bad things happen in Eastern Europe. In other words, whatever nationality might be in question, whether Slavs or Jews or whatever, I think if you live through history like that, it’s hard to take yourself seriously. The imperial cultures, British culture or American culture, they take themselves goddamn seriously. It’s like, right now I’m writing a novel, everybody has to shut up. Ian McEwan, I think, is the most humorless living human being. I cannot stand it. Somehow he took it on himself to talk about the state of Western civilization. It’s insufferable. The ambition is insufferable. He can turn up a sentence here and there, but…if you do that, you’re either crazy or you work for the government, or you have some kind of political ambition, possibly genocidal. If your primary ambition and mode of operation in literature is just daily life, you can’t take yourself seriously. And so you can’t take your life too seriously. To me, that’s beautiful.

Nabokov said about Chekhov, he wrote sad books for humorous people. That is, you could not understand their sadness unless you had a sense of humor. I don’t have any sort of real theater-going experience in the United States, but whenever I’ve seen a Chekhov production in the theater in the United States, it’s just not funny because they take it to be this self-pitying, bourgeois navel-gazing…

BP: There is in your work humor alongside really serious stuff.

AH: It’s a continuum. In Ivanov, one of the five great plays of Chekhov, there’s a scene—you can’t really see it in the English translation. They go to a party, and they all mope. And Ivanov says, Oh, I wish we could go to Moscow, we wasted our lives—you know, all in Chekhovian monologue. And they go to a party and one character starts his monologue at the party, and he says, I wasted my life, what am I doing here? Moscow is too far. So he starts crying. And the person he’s talking to picks it up, and he starts crying. Then a third person comes and says, what are you crying about? They say, oh, life’s a waste, and this person starts crying. Anyway, it gets to the fifth person, who just joins them crying without asking what it is, and by that point, it’s funny because it’s just ridiculous. For the first character, it’s a dramatic problem. It’s an essential Chekhovian dilemma, far away from the world and life. By the fifth person, it’s funny, but it never stopped being serious. They still have the same problem, and this to me, I believe, is the Eastern European sensibility. And it operates very much in Sarajevo still.

BP: A lot of people writing a story with the backdrop of a war would think, this has to be serious start to finish; there are no jokes here. But that’s frequently not the case with you. Also, it seems that in a lot of places, the war is present in every line, but it’s never dwelt on graphically. Incidents are sometimes described, but frequently it’s conveyed by headlines overseen, or a mood—it seems to work heavily in the background but only sometimes come into the foreground. I don’t know if that’s conscious, if you want to avoid spectacle, or if it just emerges that way.

AH: Well, the primary reason is that I haven’t seen the war. I saw it from here, so in some ways, I don’t have the right to talk about that, or to put myself in the foreground as bearing witness to this because I bore no witness. Whatever of the war there is in the book, as is the case in my life, someone else actually is witnessing. I have a lot of friends and family who told me a lot of stories. There’s an ethical aspect to that. I can’t represent what people went through in the war because I didn’t go through it.

There’s also an interesting formal aspect to that. It brings up a question, that is, how do you report history that you haven’t lived through? And if you have lived through it, sometimes you’re so traumatized that you can’t see anything around you. This is a symptom of trauma, I mean a diagnosed psychological symptom. You feel that you are isolated with your trauma, that nobody outside it can understand what happened to you, that you cannot explain it to anyone else. There are a lot of Bosnians in Chicago. There was a program at UIC that helped them in dealing with trauma. It’s still going on in some ways, with Stevan Weine, who’s doing great work. His main approach is testimonial, that is, he wanted them to testify. They had to start believing that someone outside their experience could understand what happened to them. The formal question for writers is how do you construct the experience that you haven’t lived through, but also, how do you construct it so that it’s understandable to those who have lived through it. One of the easiest ways to do it is to have someone speak.

BP: Speaking of formal problems, how consciously do you think about the best form for a story? Some of your stories are in wildly different forms. I think of “Islands,” which comes early in The Question of Bruno, as this series of islands—many small sections , maybe thirty or more—

AH: Thirty-three.

BP: And then something like “Blink Josef Pronek and Dead Souls”—I don’t know if you consider it a novella or not, but it’s a sprawling story, a Dante-esque, epic journey. “Alfonse Kauders” is again, a very unusual form. I’m curious about the process. I don’t know to what extent you can talk about it, but does this stuff just emerge as you start writing or do you have an idea that you want to try something different formally when you sit down?

AH: What happens is I have simultaneous interests that then prompt me to write stories. Some of those interests could be simply, I’ve been telling this story for a long time—maybe it’s writeable. I heard the story, or I just imagined a character with a name and then wondered. At the same time, there are formal things that interest me. That is, I imagine a formal framework that presents challenges and that interests me. In “Islands,” for instance, they go to the islands and then they leave the islands. That’s the framework of the story. And there’s this geographical fact of an island within an island at this place in Croatia. You respond to those interests, and I want to find a framework that can have all that at the same time. I don’t know exactly how it’s going to work, and so I have to write to figure it out.

I start writing the same story with, say, different narrative voices, different narrative entities, even different characters. Once I write a story I forget about all this, and then every once in a while, I’m throwing out my scribblings, and I run into what would be an early draft version of the story, which I entirely forgot and which is now entirely different. But often, I simply juggle in my head until I figure out a way to put it all together, and that’s a risky business because it’s very possible I can’t repeat it.

In the other story in The Question of Bruno, “Sorge Spy Ring,” the one with the footnotes, I wanted to write about [Richard] Sorge, I wanted to write about my father’s closet. I used to go through my parents stuff to see what they were up to, this sort of spying on adults, and I wanted to have this voyeuristic situation, so how do you organize all that? One of the early versions had the narrator tell all this about Sorge, but somehow it was all wrong. Then I figured out, maybe the footnotes can do that. Then other possibilities open: if you have footnotes, you can also do this, so you have to grope in the dark to find out. But there is some sort of general framework, the framework being, I want to throw these things in, so how do I find a form to keep them together.

BP: It’s a challenging story for a reader in a lot of ways, I think. In “Sorge Spy Ring,” and in a lot of your stories, the reader needs to go back and reread to connect the dots. One of the things about challenging the conventions of story all the time is that readers are used to a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Here’s how a story looks. They’re used to reading stories in a certain way, and you’re attempting to blow that up frequently.

AH: Nabokov said that rereading is all that counts. But it’s a matter of your ambition, not in terms of success, but in terms of what do you want to do with literature. For me, it’s not worth doing it unless it’s transformative, and it’s not that I’m lecturing. In the process I just described, something happens to me, before the story is even published. I figured something out, and I found access to some sort of human knowledge that is not accessible otherwise, and ideally—it sounds so pretentious, but that’s what it is, goddamnit—I manage somehow to contain and maintain that knowledge in the story, so when the reader approaches it, some of it is still there. And then we enter it, and we talk about it.

It’s not that these are the great human truths that I can lecture about for the rest of my life, but something happens. Some sort of transformation of human experience happened in language. That’s what literature is. And if there’s no transformation, if it’s reporting or description, why bother?

BP: Can realism do that in your view or are you bored by it?

AH: Not realism in the sense of reporting, like a lot of the nonfiction crap. You can have something that’s technically nonfiction and still have it be transformative, but not Tom Wolfe, that sort of crap. So I don’t know what realism is. I think that it starts at the level of language. You can tell from a sentence whether the writer has a transformative sensibility or has any ambition to do more than reporting, more than describing and more than confessing, which is the other side…Poetry is the most transformative literary genre, I mean good poetry. There’s a lot of crap.

BP: Stuart Dybek is another Chicago writer I think of as someone who has a poetic sensibility in his fiction.

AH: Oh, yes. And it is a sensibility. This memoir, nonfiction pressure from the one camp and from the other, the pressure of the novel of great ideas—if you’re talking about a great idea, why would you care about a sentence? You take care of certain sentences where the great ideas are conveyed because there’s a hierarchy of importance. So people are lazy about the language. I always wanted to teach a sentence-writing course for graduate students. No writing sample would ever be longer than a sentence because there are two dominant modes. One is not so much realism as what I call “descriptive literature,” the state of civilization, where you pursue the ideas and try to be as realistic as possible. The other is the confessional mode, where paying attention to language suggests artifice, and artifice prevents truthfulness, so it’s rattling and rambling with lazy syntax and punctuation and where tag-words like “you know,” “I guess,” “you guys” suggests sincerity.

Somehow it doesn’t seem to me that people pay as much attention to language as they used to. They weren’t of the same generation—Nabokov didn’t like Bellow, Bellow didn’t like Nabokov —but their sentences…pick a random sentence, even from a book of theirs I don’t like, and pick a sentence from whoever now. Something’s lost. You really can talk about old masters. I taught a course for writing students, “Reading Russian Writers”—because many of them had not read many foreign writers. We spent an hour and a half on a paragraph in Lolita. The point was not to get them to love it, but to isolate it. It’s the one that describes the death of his mother: “Picnic, lightning.” So beautiful. We paused on the paragraph—syntactical analysis and everything…

BP: How did writing in France go for you? It sounds like you got a lot of work done. Not too many distractions?

AH: Absolutely. I don’t like writers colonies. When there’s peace and quiet I want to sleep and read, but not work. My adrenaline goes up, I work five or six hours a day, and then I’m all high, and what do I do? Look at the sunset? So when I’m in Paris, I work in the morning and then go out, and then there’s an urban equivalent to my excitement—people everywhere, things happening.

BP: For people who are wondering when the next book will be out…

AH: Next year.

BP: This is the one you’re calling The Big Book?

AH: (Laughs). Yes, The Big Book.

BP: You know that’s what alcoholics call the standard AA book—maybe that wouldn’t be a bad name. You’d have a built-in marketing thing.

AH: I don’t know—I’d hesitate on that. And then it might have to be The Medium Sized Book.