Róbert Gál was born in 1968 in Bratislava, Slovakia, and, after a period of study and itinerancy in New York, Jerusalem, and Berlin, currently resides in Prague. He is the author of several books of aphorisms and philosophical fragments, one of which, Signs & Symptoms, is available in English translation. On Wing, the author’s first work of fiction, was published in 2015 by Dalkey Archive Press. A new translation of his book Agnomia will come out next year. His website is http://www.robert-gal.com.
This interview was conducted via email between Dallas and Prague from October 2015 to June 2016.
Frank Garrett: Aphorisms tend to come in two modalities: those from which the context has been stripped (Heraclitus, Blanchot), and those whose entire world has been reduced to its most concise (Nietzsche, Jabès). How would you describe your use of aphorism?
Róbert Gál: Well, that’s an interesting question, even though I’m not sure about the strictness of your dichotomy. What I try to do in general is avoiding strictness in meaning of any word that I use—but at the same time trying to use each word out of necessity. And then you can ask what kind of necessity it is. Is that necessity perpetually created by a writer in the process of writing, or is this whole process of writing just a manifestation of some “higher” (or eventually “lower”) necessity behind it?
FG: I’m intrigued by your use of the term necessity, especially because of the extent to which improvisation—play—informs your writing as well. In not only the direct references to jazz, to Zorn, but also in the wordplay of your neologisms, for example. How conscious are you, while writing, of making a decision between necessity—the text must say what wants to be said—and the free play of improvisation?
RG: My answer here is quite simple. I tend to write in a condensed form: in fragments, in aphorisms, in blocks. For this kind of work you have to be prepared, you have to have certain ideas of what you expect to say (the “necessity” element). But then, suddenly, you get inspired, and you are able to “realize” your work “immediately,” you are able to place the right words in the right time, like in music. That’s the second phase, the writing itself. The third phase is when you already have enough material, and you can “play” with it to gradually shape the final structure into which it all fits.
FG: So you’re delineating three steps in your process: preparation, writing/work, and play. Play coming last might surprise some people. Which step is the most difficult for you? How do you deal with that difficulty?
RG: The most difficult is writing itself—what is before it is not too far from what is after it. In that sense there is an “ecstatic element” in what I write. And because we can’t experience the ecstatic perpetually, we need to be prepared for it—so later it would help us to recognize what had happened “inside” of it. Meanings are usually inherent to what is written, but not always. When they are not, you have to find the “secondary inherencies” by structuring the whole material anew. That’s play. But that’s work at the same time.
FG: Which writers have most directly influenced your writing? How do you see yourself in relation to their work?
RG: In aphorism I was inspired by classical philosophers-aphorists like Friedrich Nietzsche or Søren Kierkegaard, but also by more contemporary thinkers and writers like Fernando Pessoa, Ladislav Klíma, E. M. Cioran, Maurice Blanchot, or Thomas Bernhard (who has also frequently used aphorisms in his earlier prose pieces, like Amras, for example). And then —through my readings especially of Bernhard and Beckett— I started to write prose. What I’m working on right now is a combination of aphorisms and prose: I’m trying to build up a novel out of the numbered paragraphs—and so the text would look like a philosophical tractatus, poetry and prose at the same time.
FG: Throughout your work—that part of your work that I’ve read in translation—I notice certain religious strains. The description of your process, especially if we replace “write” with “prayer” or “meditation,” also reminds me of something like the monastic life; even something akin to Scholasticism shows itself in the new words you coin, as if the neologisms were the result of a dialectics hinted at but never fully revealed. We’ve already mentioned Jabès. I feel like there’s an element of Walter Benjamin as well, especially from his work on language. I wonder to what extent your own religious background plays a part in your writing. Or if there is some sort of direct relationship between your writing and these other quasi-religious writers.
RG: Okay, so let’s start from the end of your question. I have to admit that there are certain books—or writers—that I respect so much that this respect forbids me to read them. Sometimes I read just a few quotes from them, or various interpretations of them. Jabès and Benjamin are definitely among those writers, and the Bible is among those books. I do not read them, but they are still a strong part of who I am. And sometimes I overcome my respect and I read, but usually only to ensure myself that those are the authors or books that “I should read.” And then I stop. Maybe that’s the way my inspiration works…
Now let’s turn to the beginning of your question. “Monastic life.” Well, I haven’t studied this phenomenon too much—and so I can’t say what all the attributes of it are. For example: Is it possible to be a monk even without a monastery? Or: Is it possible to behave like a monk even when your sexual life is not totally sublime? And so on. But for writers in general it is quite natural (by the nature of their work) to transform their “working space” into a kind of “monastic” area, as Franz Kafka put it pregnantly in one of his diary entries: “My prison cell—my fortress.”
FG: I noticed this religious aspect most in the first section of Signs and Symptoms. The Epigraffiti read as if they were justifications of God—almost an apology for God. From the beginning (“Chosen by God … for damnation?”) until the end (“Death walks toward life.”) Just the opposite of nihilism, it seems. And this section was written over five years in Jerusalem and Prague. Both of these cities have seen great religious revolutions and confrontations. How did these cities where you wrote come into play in your writing? What is the impact of the religious context of these cities on your writing?
RG: To be honest, I haven’t studied history as a discipline. What I like about history is its untold story—and that is in fact a myriad of parallel stories. I see it very visibly in the example of the Velvet Revolution in 1989 in former Czechoslovakia, or especially in Slovakia, where my father was one of its leaders. Almost each actor of this revolution has its own interpretation of it. And also, each generation brings its own interpretation(s) of it. Nietzsche said: “There are no facts, only interpretations.” But that’s also a danger, because we certainly need facts—otherwise we wouldn’t have any history due to the lack of its material. You can take your own memory as that material, especially when it’s written. And then, there is a collective memory written in the faces—or facades—of the cities where you live, or where you would like to live.
My decision for Jerusalem did not, in fact, have any “religious” connotations. I moved to Israel in December 1995, partly because I wanted to really experience what it means to “belong” somewhere in the sense of being a member of the nation (because I never truly experienced that in Slovakia or in Czechia), and partly because I felt vicarious humiliation witnessing my father’s humiliation in Slovakia where he was—as at once a public persona and a Jew—a target of anti-Semitic attacks. I was sent (by one Jewish organization in Prague) to Herzliya Pituach, a nice small town close to the beach—where I lived for one month with other olim chadashim in a dormitory. And then, after I fell in love with one Israeli woman (of Slovak origin), I moved to Jerusalem. Her name was Natasha Dudinski. She studied in Prague—where she was active during the Velvet Revolution—, then in Amsterdam, and later in New York; just one year before I had studied in New York as well. Later on we met in Prague, and then again in Israel after I moved there. And then we lived together in Jerusalem for almost two years. It was my first real love, and also the first “family-like” relationship ever. I was 27, she was 28. We were both extremely complicated—and so was the relationship,—but I am grateful to God above us (if there is any) for this experience. And it was the time when I wrote the most of the aphorisms, collected later as Epigraffiti.
Jerusalem was a magic place with enormous energy and all the history that you could sense directly from the air. I have never experienced anything like that. But from the point of view of my “religious education,” I kept myself as clear of it as I could—and that’s what I do till today. Of course there are religious thinkers and/or writers that are interesting or inspiring (like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and some Jewish mystics, for example), but I’m sceptical about the very possibility of being educated in something that you are supposed to feel.
FG: Were you able to belong—or to feel like you belonged—in Israel? Did your time in Israel change your relationship with your father? How did your time in Israel change your relationship to your own country, especially since that country (Czechoslovakia) no longer existed per se?
RG: My experience of Israel was important to me, of course, but at the same time I realized that to become a citizen of the State of Israel was probably too much. I was just not able to find enough enthusiasm for becoming a Zionist (and that—becoming a Zionist—was exactly what I found necessary for my ability to live in Israel). Because I think that what I learned from the Czechoslovak experience under the communist regime gave me enough scepticism toward any kind of collective belief. Even John Zorn, as it’s well known, is not a Zionist. He needs exactly his New York in order to be the kind of Jew he would like to be. And in opposition to Zorn, I have never felt those feelings of belonging within the Jewish community in Prague, despite of the fact that I have read, and I liked Franz Kafka.
Now, let’s turn to my father, okay? First, I have to admit that I used to worship him from my early childhood (later I was told that “tato” / “father” was the very first word that I said), and my father was somehow not able to stop this unhealthy fixation even years later. Another important issue was my father’s limited ability, though somehow understandable, to talk openly about the most important facts of his life. We could talk for hours about scientific or philosophical ideas, but, for example, it wasn’t until much later that I learned where my father was born. That it was in a concentration camp (luckily, it happened a couple of months before the war ended).
So my “immigration” to Israel was mostly a symbolic act of connecting with my father and with his ancestors. In fact, I am not sure how successful it was. And how did that time change my relationship to my own country? The first answer would be: My own country? No, I have never experienced that my in it, and do not experience it even today. The second answer: New York did change it already (though just unconsciously in that time) before Israel happened. And I am thankful to both those experiences—and to my father who helped to make a revolution in our country that opened up all the possibilities for people like me to travel abroad.
FG: In your more recent writing, the style veers away from the aphoristic. There’s much more exposition, which allows for various registers of exposition. For example: it’s more than “story of X.” It’s more like “story of X, who remembers meeting A, who once thought B but now thinks C, and A has a relationship with Z, who lives in Y, where W took place, etc.”. Was this a conscious decision on your part? How has your process for writing changed from your earlier works to your more recent works?
RG: What I’m working on right now is aphoristic again. I would prefer not to talk too much about it before it’s finished. But what I tried to do in Agnomia—and do not forget that this book was published in its first edition in 2008—was to create a story: and to write prose. It was an exercise in a way. The nature of it is much more improvisational than the nature of my previous works. But still—there are many aphorisms inside. Wait for the whole book before pronouncing your final judgment.
Frank Garrett is an independent philosopher, writer, and translator. www.mycrashcourse.net