“All great texts, in addition to creating, must also resist”: A Conversation with Ben Libman — Tobias Ryan

Last week, Minor Literature[s] published Voyages Divers, a story paying homage to Georges Perec by writer and critic Ben Libman (you can read his piece here). Curious about what had inspired the text, I caught up with Ben to discuss his interest in Oulipo, Samuel Beckett and miscellaneous literary topics.

Tobias Ryan: So what prompted you to write Voyages Divers?

Ben Libman: Oulipo has been simmering in the back of my mind as a constant, minor preoccupation because I’m writing a dissertation that’s in large part on French literature – mostly the Nouveau Roman, but I see Oulipo as its counterpart in the scheme of French literary importation into the US in the 60s and 70s. I reread Daniel Levin Becker’s Many Subtle Channels recently, which is a kind of history or exegesis of Oulipo, and he has this story in there about how he first came to Oulipo through an encounter with Perec’s Voyage d’hiver. He repeats this fact a couple of times throughout the book, so I thought that I should go back and reread Perec’s story. Then, you and I hung out in Paris, and we went to Tschann in the 6th arrondissement and there was Seuil’s volume of Perec’s Le Voyages d’hiver et ses suites with the whole collection of responses to his story by other members of Oulipo. There is an emotional tension underlying all of those sequels, because they were written after Perec had died, and, in a way, they were also keeping his spirit alive.

Of course, the intention was not to add my own pretender suite. It was simply something I felt creatively inspired to do. I thought, this is a really interesting set of premises and also a very rich, endlessly generative, series of ideas. I felt it would be fun to pick up the story of Vincent Degraël years into the future, after some sort of apocalyptic event, when society is trying to reboot itself.

TR: It seems like a very Oulipian, or maybe more specifically Perecian, gesture to write something just for the delight, the playfulness, of doing it. And that was apparent in reading it as well.

BL: That register of whimsy, joy and playfulness is probably a central feature of Oulipian texts. It’s something I find quite attractive, but that I know might be precisely what you find repulsive … For me, it’s a nice respite from the Nouveau Romancier style, which I love but am steeped in daily – I’m thinking especially of Robbe-Grillet and his intensely serious, geometrical, objective vision.

TR: You mentioned that dialectic before, between the Nouveau Roman and Oulipo. I don’t know much of anything beyond the texts I’ve read, so would you describe those movements as antagonistic? Did they interact?

BL: I don’t see them as antagonistic. In the French field, the Nouveau roman – mostly Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Simon and Butor, and mostly in the early days – were interested in sharply distinguishing themselves from the Existentialists, the engagés, and the Socialist realists. As they went on the parameters of the field changed, but these were the primary positions to which they were opposed in their golden years. The Nouveau Roman emerged in a long tradition of manifesto-wielding avant-gardists. Oulipo, as Levin Becker explains far better than I can, is of a different cast within the French field and is involved in different struggles. The two become interlocutors, though, from the American side, in the context of importation.

As Bourdieu discusses, every literary field differs nationally. The American literary field has a very different set of coordinates and viable positions than the French. And if you’re going to import the Nouveaux Romanciers or Oulipians, that is if you’re going to transport them from one field to another, they need to be made to conform to the existing parameters of the foreign field – or else the field itself needs to be completely rewired, but that’s less common. So within the context of the US, part of what I’m writing about and arguing is that figures like Sontag were attracted to the Nouveau roman because, to put it very reductively, it represented a kind of sophistication, a serious European way of thinking which they felt was lacking, in particular, from the novel.

Oulipo was brought over a bit later, and mostly in the realm of poetry, but as it arrived it had a very different affective register; it’s still European, but it’s vaunted less for its seriousness than for if its generative possibilities. Like the Nouveau Roman, it fills a position and a need, but different ones. It seemed to be a way out of the formalistic quagmire for a lot of American poets.

TR: What was your first experience of reading Oulipo?

BL: I read Queneau’s Exercises in Style first, an Oulipian text before-the-fact – thus the most exemplary text of a movement that loves everything avant la lettre, like the “anticipatory plagiarism” of Le Voyage d’hiver.

TR: And do you remember your first Perec?

BL: I first encountered him through film, actually. I saw Un homme qui dort and noticed it was based on one of his books, which I read. I then decided to jump right into La Vie mode d’emploi. So it was a straight shot from one of his good but not astounding texts to the thing he’s most celebrated, if not most known, for.

TR: La Disparation was my first, but I read it very much as a book one “should read.” I didn’t really know anything about it beyond the conceit – this is kind of a bonkers idea. And I enjoyed it, but it didn’t move or touch me. I couldn’t understand why people loved him, Perec, as a character, so much. Subsequently, I approached him with admiration, and appreciation, but never more than that.

Going further into Oulipo, I wouldn’t say I’m repulsed by it, although I have abandoned books because I wasn’t enjoying the thing they were doing. Even when I read La Vie, though, which was only very recently, I came away with the same feeling: huge respect but a sense of something lacking. What was your experience with it?

BL: It was profound. I think it’s one of the best novels of the 20th century, probably in my top ten, if not top five. And that’s because I find it has a very deep well of emotion and sensitivity that is counterbalanced by the formal play/inventiveness. And that dual aspect is one of the reasons why he was so beloved within Oulipo. He had both an interest in these constraint-based and mathematical games, and also a very deep, almost spiritual, connection with other humans and with the world. You see this in W ou Le Souvenir d’enfance, too. With La Vie, you can spend all of your time appreciating its intricate devices, you can look at his use of bi-squares in the design of his narrative, and try to sort out exactly where all the elements from his list appear, but you can also pay attention to the deeply tragic plot at the centre of the book, the story of Bartlebooth, this man who, fundamentally, fails at a monumental yet self-effacing task. That, to me, is the sign of Perec being touched by beauty, by tragedy.

TR: I completely agree, in fact. But this leads to a broader question about reading experiences and expectations. The books I’ve loved have had this element of mystery about them. And I think what was lacking in Perec, for me, was that mystery. Although I agree with all the things you said, it all felt very “lisible”. And the more I read about how he had constructed the book the more transparent it felt. None of that takes away from the quality of his writing, but it took away from my experience of reading it.

BL: Part of what you seem to be describing is the suspicion, which I share, that some constraints are just gimmicks. And I guess that’s the paradox of all formal constraint, including the sonnet, something we return to more regularly than the bi-square. They are, simultaneously, gimmicks or devices, and also engines of meaning. It’s very hard to generate meeting with complete formlessness, as many writers have found. Maybe what Perec discovered is that at the limits of absolute constraint, creative capacity remains. In fact, possibly, it flourishes.

TR: You mentioned when I contacted you about this interview that you were reading Molloy, so I got out my copy … Beckett is a writer I have loved profoundly, and who, despite the (often frustrating) way he’s talked about, the images you see of him, his monumental stature, retains his mystery. When I read Molloy, there is still mystery to it; there’s something going on, and you only get these little glimpses. You notice a little phrase or description and it resonates with everything else he did … And that’s what seduces me about him. It feels as though there is something fundamentally unknowable about his texts. And when I think about other writers I’ve loved, there is a similar element of inscrutability. It’s not obscurity because that would diminish the clarity of thought and expression, but they take you up to a point, and then go beyond that to somewhere you can no longer follow – and all the biographical, para-textual information in the world, I don’t think, gets you to that place.

BL: I’m completely on the same page with Beckett. It’s not obscurity. I think of it as a writerly text, in Barthes’ sense, or, in Sontagian terms, a text that refuses complete hermeneutic exhaustion. All of his work I think of as work against interpretation. It was something that he learned from Joyce and, ultimately, this capacity he developed was the stain of being a Joycean.

If biography is going to mean anything, maybe it’s the fact that in his explosive years, when he wrote the trilogy and Godot and Endgame, he was already into his forties. I think there’s something to be said for the amount of time he had to try and fail until that point, mostly in English, before he turned to French. That leads me to why I’m re-reading him now: I’m working on a chapter about Beckett as Nouveau romancier, and I‘m trying to think of him as a French writer in that period, not an Anglo-Irish late-modernist.

As someone who tends to understand literary production from a sociological perspective, it’s important to me that he made a conscious decision to insert himself into the French literary field after having effectively failed so many times at being the Anglo-Irish modernist he had wanted to be.

TR: You recently published a story about Beckett and Duchamp’s chess matches. Did that come about as a result your current re-reading, with a similar approach to Voyages Divers?

BL: In a way. And maybe that’s the hinge that helps me bridge the critical work I’m doing with the creative work. My longer creative projects are more divorced from what I’m doing academically, but in this case, again, as I was diving back into Beckett for this chapter of my PhD, I felt a certain urge to create something, to perpetuate a certain idea or image.

There was something incredibly poignant to me about this ephemeral series of encounters between Beckett and Duchamp. I was moved by the historical coincidence, the idea that they would all be in one place at one time. Duchamp had already been making his mark, but Beckett had not yet made his. There’s something very powerful about the image of the two of them sitting across the table from one another, trying to outdo one another in a game that is, at the same time, distracting them from the real terror going on just outside their door.

TR: I absolutely loved that story; it was so well done. And the reason I wanted to tell you that specifically is because I think it’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, to write about literary personalities well. It’s a source that people often go to, which makes sense if you’re interested in literature and that’s the world you’re immersed in. But I can think of one recent example with Beckett in particular which completely failed for me. It had all the mannerisms, but only the mannerisms, nothing deeper. That’s what I enjoyed so much about your text, it explored a moment, but it wasn’t trying to explain who Beckett was or why he did the things he did.

BL: I wanted to avoid exactly those pitfalls, a kind of re-explanation of the author and his work in fictionalised form, because that’s always going to turnout poorly. I assumed that there’s a certain amount of Beckett that everybody knows, even if it’s oblique or circumstantial. That was one of the principles I wanted to work with. And the other was that I wanted the story to be in some sense slapstick. Slapstick, the physiological, the excremental, these are all things that are deeply entwined with Beckett and his work. Writing a story about Beckett in wartime, the obvious place to go would simply be seriousness or ponderousness, but it was important to me to go in the opposite direction and offset history with a bit of levity. I have to give a shout out to Deidre Bair’s biography of Beckett and her recent memoir, Parisian Lives. She describes Beckett as being, in some sense, a deeply ridiculous person, which I love. I thought that image of Beckett as petulant and childish in his social behaviours is something that would make for an excellent texture to his fictionalised “character”.

TR: I thought it was it was great. And I was curious that, when you posted it, you mentioned it was part of a larger project. Can you talk about that?

BL: Yeah, it’s part of a novel, loosely defined, which is made up of a series of encounters, anecdotes, and/or vignettes, all revolving around this one narrator who is a detective for the Uber of detective services … Without giving too much away, there’s a part of the novel that takes place in present tense circumstances, and then a part of the novel that takes place in historically important or striking settings, such as the one described in that story.

TR:  Your mention of detectives brings us back to Molloy

BL: If I can say something about the literary detective novel, which is a sort of side obsession of mine: Having spent a lot of time with 20th-century avant garde French literature and the North American literature that followed on its heels, I’ve realised that the detective plot is used reliably and precisely when a writer is exploring particularly “experimental” modes of narrative. And one of the reasons for this is that detective plots, as a few great critics have pointed out, thematize the act of writing and of reading, the emplotment, so to speak, of disparate, often chaotically arranged elements. Using the detective form has often been a way for writers to revise and reinvent the traditional forms of the novel. Beckett does it. Pynchon does it. Robbe-Grillet does it. Paul Auster does. The limits of the “roman policier” are the limits of the novel as such.

TR: I had also wanted to ask you about Claude Simon, as I saw you were posting about him recently. Are you working on him for your PhD? I’ve never read anything by him, and I was curious to know your take: would you consider him of the stature of a Beckett, say, or a Perec?

BL: I’m currently working on a review of the new NYRB edition of Flanders Road. So I’m re-reading that and thinking a lot about him. I did write about him for the dissertation a few months ago, too.

Yes, I do think of Simon as one of the great writers of the 20th century. He is one of those interesting cases, as has happened a lot with more contemporary French winners of the Nobel Prize, of a tremendously consecrated writer who goes unremembered, especially in the Anglophone world; and that runs contrary to some of our received ideas about the relationship between French and American literary culture. As far as French-American literary exchange goes, to put it crudely, America has traded something like “raw experience” for sophistication. But unlike, say, the works of “French Theory,” few Americans rushed to get their hands on Simon, even after the Nobel.

Simon is of course interesting to me because of my dissertation. On the one hand, he plays a particular and unique role within the Nouveau roman. But more importantly, to me, he’s a textbook case of French writer who took a lot of cues from American literature (that is, the inverse of the process I’m writing about). Many people who read Simon say that he’s “Faulknerian” for good reason. Like Sartre and several other French intellectuals, he deeply admired Faulkner; but unlike most of them, he is a rare example of what it means to metabolise influence successfully. It’s not possible to speak of direct one-to-one correspondence within a discourse of influence. We need to think more carefully, and with a lot more nuance, about how exactly artistic influence works, because, as Levin Becker would say, it travels by many subtle channels. For Simon that metabolization of Faulkner is entirely unique. You don’t read Simon and think he’s a copy. You read him and think that, in ways that are almost unparaphrasable, he is borrowing, reusing, and reinventing techniques that he first encountered or admired elsewhere. I think a lot about the mechanics of exactly that process of “influence,” but on the American side. He’s a very useful case study.

TR: Who would be an example of the opposite, an American who had successfully metabolised French influences?

BL: Two examples of people who have already come up, one unsuccessful and one successful, would be Susan Sontag and Paul Auster. The unsuccessful would be Sontag as novelist. If you read, say, Death Kit, it’s impossible not to see the Nouveau roman or Barthes behind it. The way Sontag processed those ideas in narrative form doesn’t carry the mark of a practiced artistic mind. I don’t think she was ready then, as a novelist, to metabolise those materials in an effective way. They were undigested, to continue the metaphor. Paul Auster is someone I think of as very Beckettian. He often gets talked about as this post-modern, metafictional novelist, which he is in part, but I think much more central to his work is what he learnt from Beckett. He learnt it, then dissolved, dispersed, recombined it. Made it his own.

TR: Thinking about influences, and my ability or otherwise to metabolise them, I find that I often write in opposition to ideas rather than believing in them. I find myself trying to negotiate a path through devices or modes which either I’ve failed to get a hold of, have frustrated me, or, you know, have encountered and fucking hated, for whatever reason.

BL: Distinction is a condition toward which every writer strives at some point or another. And I think that’s because all great texts, in addition to creating, must also resist. I think that’s especially true now.

For example, in contemporary literature there is this auto-fictional “I”, you know, the one that is the guiding force behind all of the novels that win prizes, sell thousands of copies and inspire publishers to create pop-up stores where they peddle merchandise. And that’s because it’s an “I” that makes itself so perfectly commodifiable and marketable. It’s the astrological “I”, a very comforting and thus appealing marker of subjectivity. And in an increasingly and devastatingly atomised culture where the “I” or the consuming subject is the only thing one can cling to, where there is no solidarity or community in the sense there might once have been, that’s the point of resistance at which any “I” narrative should begin, the goal being not to become the cloistered “I”, but one that is relational, assimilable into a whole.

I play the game like everyone else, and so have no pretensions to be above or outside of it. But, you know, what we’re talking about here is a real-life version of that meme: you critique society – and yet you participate in it! That’s to say that every ideological framework, every system of social relations and of relations of production contains its own contradictions. And striving to be that contradiction, or to find it, to elaborate it and tease it out is an imperative that I feel, if not one that I’m always acting on.

One of these contradictions has been the flowering of a non-commercial literary community on a website that is owned by billionaire capitalists. I’m not talking about “Book Twitter” writ large, whatever that is and whatever its boundaries are; I’m talking very specifically about the community of people who are contributing to or running independent presses and small literary magazines, people who are writing the margins, and trying to acknowledge, represent and create the literature that performs the contradiction as often as possible, or at least tries to find its best articulation. That is such a gift and such a pleasure to behold. No one person can rise above the market or resist it on their own; that is the checkmate that neoliberal ideology has played against us. But in the cultural sphere as elsewhere, there is potential in community, however loosely constituted.

You can read Libman’s story Endgame here.

Ben Libman has written fiction, essays, and reviews for several publications, including Firmament, Oxonian Review, Yale Review, New Left Review, and The New York Times. Twitter @benlibman

Tobias Ryan is an English teacher and translator. He lives in France. Twitter: @tobiasvryan