Rosie and Andrew talk his new book Mnemic Symbols, kickboxing the reader and self-diagnosing cannibalism.
Rosie Šnajdr: I want to begin by asking you about the title of your book, Mnemic Symbols, which points to the theme that I feel underpins the work: inaccessible meaning. I think that would be a useful starting point for talking about your process and the structure of the work. So, Andrew, how about the title?
Andrew Hodgson: Mnemic Symbols — it’s a bit arch really, but whatever. My previous was called Reperfusion, after the medical term. You remove an organ, and flush it of blood, and it becomes an isolated object, and you put it on ice to transport it. And someone somewhere with a failing heart, or whatever, is brought this organ, it is added to their circuit and blood flow is returned, and the organ is given life through its participation in this human circuit, and the human is preserved. That putting back of blood is the process of reperfusion. And so, to apply that to a book, a book is an object you can chuck through a window, or use as a doorstop, but when you read it, it becomes something else. With Reperfusion I was trying to ask what it was that the book becomes when it is being read. I chose the title Mnemic Symbols for similar reasons. Freud uses it in a number of different ways, but here I use it in the sense of an interaction of trauma and repression; the contiguous banal and the violent anomaly. How, in interaction, these things bring each other into contention, or force each other into other meanings. We can think of a mnemic symbol as a repetitive intrusion, fetishisation, of a banal episode, that steps in to fill a void made by traumatic experience, intrusively. So, if I wait in line in a shop to buy a green shirt, and a shooting occurs ahead of me in the queue. I might come to be desperately averse to green shirts, or queuing in shops, and those become a thing of violence, and the experiential moment itself is allowed to fall away. Or the building of monuments, or recording trauma itself, transmuting it into something more palatable. Like stories in a book. It is also a reflex, a tic, and the truths of the matter are buried somewhere in these reflexive interactions. In a sense of aversion, displacement; misdirection. I saw this reflected in storytelling structurally as sort of, intrusive thought, and this episodic structure or narrative nature being this progressive intrusion upon the reader in a sense. And kind of presenting these blockages in experience, that function as stumbling blocks to force the reader out of their sense of continuity and complacency. To try and create a kind of narrative curved mirror, that would disperse the interaction of truth and falsity in text and make it prismatic, in a sense.
If we think of art and language as communicative, as mediations of the world and the way we live in it, that monolithic monopolisation on culture is not representative of the varied ways the vast majority live.
Rosie: That’s really interesting. In that sense, both of your titles are essentially working as pronouncements on the intention of the objects — what the reading process is, and how the book is interacting with the reading process.
Andrew: Aye, well, when I read a book I see it in a very confrontational way almost. When I enter into text as a reader with the sense of well this is my space, and you as the writer, you have set the parameters of the game, but it’s me that’s going to play it, it’s me that’s going to apply it, and it’s me that’s going to apply meaning to this. And in my critical writing, I’m kind of quite aggressive in this approach — this is mine, it is not yours — so it’s a bit weird when those roles are flipped, and I have to write the thing, and I know the reader, just like me, is out there. It seems to be an adversarial relation.
By accepting the interactivity of the writing/reading relation, and understanding it as an in-text power struggle; by projecting into that space, post-writing, post-publication, where the text itself becomes its own independent object, I as the thing that generated it, become more spectral. The text and its meaning becomes contested ground during the process of its construction.
Rosie: Neatly put. The adversarial conflict between writer and readers being shifted back to the point of writing — that’s a condition that is very familiar to me and certainly something that drove the composition of my book A Hypocritical Reader. The notion of that process making the I spectral puts me in mind of the section in your book that interrogates the inscription of the word ‘I’ (pp. 54-55). The I becomes an object. It has other purposes in that part of the book but, in this context, it does come across as being autobiographical or confessional about the spectrality that arises from the process of attempting to pre-empt the power of the reader.
It feels sometimes in the English language that there’s been this swindle operating over the last sixty years, that’s ended up presenting an avant-garde literature that appears dead and ossified, and that’s the one that has been taken up by the academy, and the canon.
Andrew: Yes, with this sense of spectralisation, questions arise. I like how you position that in the ‘The Interrupted Human Remains Mr Christopher O’Rourke’ episode in A Hypocritical Reader. These questions of, who is speaking here? Who is investing what with interiority? Most often, different planes in narrative fiction coalesce together in an ambiguous way, so you don’t really question who has agency, who is the actor. You can kind of cohabit, as the reader, with the editors and the writer. Your experience and the writer’s experience and the fictive world, and they’re permitted to fluidly intermingle. In Mnemic Symbols this comfortability breaks down, I think. Its different planes don’t quite align, and from that emerges the question of, well, who is invested here? Who is the human entity in this pulped-wood object thing?
Rosie: Within the book, the narratives themselves glide past one another. In terms of opportunities for identification, on the part of the reader, there are two distinct opportunities in the book. The person who is attempting the burial of the urn and the café frequenting man with friends with alphabetical symbols for names. They are entirely separate but desperately petition the reader for their interrelation.
Andrew: The intention was that these things were supposed to interact in a functional, or dysfunctional way. And it was for the receiver to decide how they interlock, or if they do. It was the intention to cast these parallel strands that, though fictionalised, have a base in life. But how they would coalesce into fictive story, whether the fictive or the life that underpins them exists as sub-strata, is left to the reader. And so, it was important that those planes of separation not quite separate cleanly, nor fall into the comfortable ambiguity necessary for it to become a novel.
Rosie: Precisely. As a reader, I found myself feeling tasked to read these two stylistically divergent narratives against each other and felt them pulling both together and apart. I found I was trying to crush them into a single argument, whilst also attempting to understand how they acted in opposition to each other. Since one was self-consciously literary, I found myself asking myself about the nature of story-telling and its relationship to the codes of realism. Specifically, why codes contest their closeness to reality. I found that juxtaposition between confessional modern narrative, against the traumatic mythical Kafkaesque narrative jarring, though they were united by the positioning of the lone protagonist. The dissonance prevented either from being taken as ‘true’.
Andrew: Yeah, in the sense of, which one of these is the veil, which is draped across this concept of truth, or mimeticism, and which one is driving story. Is the story there to hide the intentions of the writing project, the scripting project, or is it there as some sort of culmination? Because there’s this vying between the two, the reader would have to make judgements on what exactly the intention of the projects is. And on what level these things function. And the idea, I suppose, was to reflect on, what these stories are for. What, in the more general sense, a fictive work is for. Is it entertaining us, in this sort of distracting way, or is it challenging us to reflect on how we narrate the past, or the world, to ourselves?
After the Second World War, there was the question of what is British culture now? But instead of a period of questioning, and reflection, and re-understanding, we had a period of re-consolidation, and building back the failed symbols from before in this bizarre façade of continuity.
Rosie: Your book was entertaining, Andrew. But I don’t feel that was its intention. And that’s generally more what I’m drawn to in a text by — problems, puzzles, labour. I don’t know if that’s more a marker of the avant-garde reader? Anyway, the reason I really like this book is because I feel it is tasking me to solve the unsolvable. I felt that I had these two different registers, these two different narratives, both interesting in their own right, but that it was my job to make them weigh upon each other, and I felt that was leading me to the title, Mnemic Symbols. It was like one or the other of these narratives was repressed, so that the links between them weren’t available. It meant me coming away with all the questions that you raise, about what the reader should expect from a text, what literature should provide in that way. And beyond that, it led me to start thinking in general about the human being as narrative animal. That we seek to relate; to make sense out of unrelated matters, to narrativise our lives. And in that way, I thought the book presented truth in the unsolvability of the narrative. That is why you have me saying on the back of it, in the blurb quotation, ‘pinch yourself baby, you’re alive’. I felt that this truth was fresh in the novel; the human need to relate unrelated matters is an aspect that isn’t often represented in narrative, precisely because it’s a truth about life’s relation to narrativisation.
Andrew: I liked the ‘pinch yourself baby’ bit! Yeah, it’s very much in this vein. In my critical work, I tend to read books in this way. And I tend to steal a lot of words from Freud and stuff, like hysterical identification. I sort of farm them, and then I corrupt them and then apply them however I might need to.
It’s very much this idea that the interior world does not exist in separation from the exterior, and I think books function as a kind of pathway, or conduit between the two in this kind of sense. And it has affectivity, it can reformat, in a way, perception through human interaction with the book as heterogeneous space removed, which façades as fictive, but is actually very much based in a kind of performative engagement with scenarios that are based in real-world. When I was writing Mnemic Symbols, I thought in the sense of a series of catalysts. And that truth or meaning wasn’t the book’s to dictate, but that it acted as — the way that it was presented, or the way that it would be received by a reader in this content-form staging-ground — a catalyst for application to their own interior-exterior interactions that bring together a sense of meaning.
Rosie: In some ways, we could probably treat my reaction to it as an assertion of the essential hollowness of everything? That’s probably something I should discuss with a psychotherapist.
Andrew: It’s funny. There’s this idea in avant-garde writing, especially French experimental writing from the 20th century, of text acting as a kind of machine for self-diagnosis. And Roland Topor did this book in a box — a sort of board game — called Psychotopor. It’s a bit like Cluedo. You move through this boardgame getting towards a self-diagnosis. And in the end you pick up a card and it states: You Are A Necrophiliac. You Are A Cannibal.
Rosie: Ha! I feel that reading Mnemic Symbols performs a not dissimilar act of diagnosis. Whilst we’re on the subject of Topor, you recently published a translation of a Topor’s novel Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne. I really enjoyed reading it. Does your decision to translate Topor’s work relate to your fiction aims?
Andrew: I suppose it’s all part of an overall project. I’m very disappointed in my home culture. I feel like the culture is defined in this blanket sense by a minority of sections of that society, and the way that these certain sections of society use language, or think about art, or about literature, has become the classic, the canonised, accepted way these things should be done. And it’s not representative. If we think of art and language as communicative, as mediations of the world and the way we live in it, that monolithic monopolisation on culture is not representative of the varied ways the vast majority live. And I find that very frustrating, and so, in the critical work I’ve been doing, I’ve been trying to not assimilate ignored or overlooked elements in literature to canonical culture, but mess the canon up a bit I guess, and draw the societal investment in that canon to these works. Because the problem isn’t with these writers, or these works, the problem is the reductions of world that limited canon dictates. And part of that is trying to critically approach things that haven’t been a focus. And part of that is also the idea that: if no one else is interested in working on these texts I’ll have to have a go myself. And so translating works that are not present in English, and trying to bring them into readership and, sort of demonstrate that there’s other stuff that’s gone on, is going on, and that it’s a much more open field than we’ve been led to believe. And if I can indicate that in some small way, then maybe that can be a positive thing.
Rosie: It feels sometimes in the English language that there’s been this swindle operating over the last sixty years, that’s ended up presenting an avant-garde literature that appears dead and ossified, and that’s the one that has been taken up by the academy, and the canon. And the more working class, or more interesting experiments, or newer experiments, have not been valued in the same way as early twentieth century modernism’s were. And you can add to that all the non-anglophone experimental texts that we just have not assimilated in this country. Which has left us with this very tiny field, with high-modernism as the experimental format, which is where most of my literary research has been directed. Well, it’s just a terrible shame isn’t it?
Andrew: I mean, there’s a few different layers at work. In terms of what experiment is allowed to be in our culture, it is very much discounted from affectivity, and discounted from ideas of the mimetic, or participation in social life, or human life. It is sort of locked in these reducing value judgements of isn’t it so eccentric, and zany! You never really get past the fact that the letters on the page are in a slightly unconventional layout or whatever, to what message or meaning might be generated from interaction with that. And a big part of it really, I mean… I’m from a place that’s not very much represented in our national canonical culture. And it’s been very weird to try and write, over the years. For a lot of what I write, the response is often: the way you’re using words is dysfunctional, it’s distracting from what you’re trying to say. And, you know, well, from where I’m standing: the way you use language is distracting, and dysfunctional, mate.
Rosie: It is funny, isn’t it. That it’s that way round. There’s this big confidence trick of realism which just confines so much of potential meaning. And contrary to that, people find experimental writing difficult because it doesn’t conform to realism’s codes.
Conservative writing doesn’t have the capacity to ask serious questions about what we are, how we are, and, crucially, where and what else we might be.
Andrew: Well, you called it a big swindle and I agree. After the Second World War, there was the question of what is British culture now? But instead of a period of questioning, and reflection, and re-understanding, we had a period of re-consolidation, and building back the failed symbols from before in this bizarre façade of continuity. It obscured a lot of stuff that should have been reflected on, and questioned. And in that process a genre fiction, social realism, somehow became concretised as literature — as if that is what fictive writing is, what literature is — and everything else was seen as eccentric to it. When you think about it, it’s deeply odd that the tenets of a genre fiction have become the static tenets of what fictive writing, literature, is, can be, and everything else is not it. As I say, I find it very disappointing.
Rosie: Yes, and perhaps we’re surrounded by the fruits of that social engineering now.
Let’s not get into Brexit—
Certainly conservative writing doesn’t have the capacity to ask serious questions about what we are, how we are, and, crucially, where and what else we might be. At least, to my mind, it doesn’t. Certainly, it doesn’t ask questions that go deep enough; doesn’t question the accepted fabric of communication and doesn’t look into new potentialities.
I think we could benefit so much from experiencing different ways of reading from a very young age, for example. I’ve always felt like the prioritisation of realism and immersive reading exercises in school is the least sensible way to prepare people for modern culture. The knowledge you get from learning to read critically, as you do with experimental texts, is so valuable.
Part two next week.
Rosie Šnajdr is a writer of experimental fiction. Her novella, A Hypocritical Reader (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018) explores the dysfunctional relationship between reader and writer, and the demands that have come to characterise it. Most recently, her concrete artwork/short story We Are Cosmonauts (The Aleph Press/Hesterglock Press, 2019) has explored the difficulty of finding space for humanity in heroism and celebrity, through the lens of Yuri Gagarin’s extraordinary career. She is Co-Editor of The Cambridge Literary Review.
Andrew Hodgson is author of the novelesque Mnemic Symbols (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019), and the monograph The Post-War Experimental Novel: British and French Fiction, 1945 – 1975 (Bloomsbury, 2019). He is translator from the French of Roland Topor’s Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne (Atlas Press, 2018), and from the Danish Carl Julius Salomonsen’s New Forms of Art and Contagious Mental Illness (New Documents, 2019). He is editor of the collection of experimental writing Paris (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019).