In Conversation: Tim Corballis and Alice Miller
In the first few pages of R.H.I., a woman eyes a man across a room; in the trenches, a soldier is gassed; and our narrator researches the pieces of life left in the archive. The characters in this book – R., a psychoanalyst in London; H., an architect in the East Berlin, and I., our narrator – all pry into the nature of the lived experience, the spaces behind our masks. Our narrator is both patient and analyst, as he interrogates the building of structures and identities, of capitalism and communism, of narrative itself. The book is described as an incomplete history of the twentieth century – and what history isn’t incomplete?
The author, Tim Corballis, is this year’s writer-in-residence at Victoria University. Tim has received a hefty bundle of awards, including the Adam Prize and the Glenn Schaeffer Fellowship. It was his CNZ residency in Berlin, however, that led to the writing of R.H.I., a pair of novellas in one volume.
Alice Miller: Hello, Tim! Congratulations on this wild, beautiful, brave book. One of the most impressive aspects of R.H.I. is that it tackles complex, abstract ideas with levity in its prose, occasional playfulness, and a commitment to the consistent inconsistencies of human thought. Did the narrative voice come naturally to you, or did it develop over time?
Tim Corballis: Thank you. That’s a good question. The narrative voice – maybe I should say voices? – certainly took time. It is much lighter than my previous books. I think in the years since the last one, I’ve begun to take language and voice less seriously. For a long time I was interested in experimenting quite explicitly with voice. The long sentences in The Fossil Pits for example. I think that kind of experimentation gives a lot of weight to voice. The question of voice seems to me to be very tied up in the need to give a work authority. I’m less interested now though in the fine crafting of sentences, and more in something like open forms – forms that are a little unfinished feeling, a little provisional, even gestural. That gives some tonal lightness, and drops the anxiety around the authority of the text. The idea of open form also suggested a fragmentary approach, with fragments coming from a range of different positions: authorial reflection, disembodied dialogue, a modified free-indirect discourse. Voice is something quite unstable throughout this. So I think maybe it’s less that I developed the voice aspects than that I gave up on some things: the need to anchor the authority of the work in its voice, or indeed in anything very much. I wanted R.H.I. to work through a certain lack of authority.
AM: There’s been a gap since you’ve written your other acclaimed novels, Below, Measurement, and The Fossil Pits – in which time you’ve been busy having a family and earning your PhD. Were there other reasons you didn’t tackle a fourth novel in this time? Why did you decide to return to fiction?
TC: I stopped writing much fiction – there are a few short stories in the intervening years – partly I think out of a bit of disillusionment with it. I guess I’ve always wavered a little between academic enquiry and creative writing, maybe not entirely comfortable in either world. So doing the PhD was actually caught up in that wavering, a turn away from writing fiction, maybe partly a turn away from all that seriousness that I mentioned in relation to voice. Academia of course has its own seriousness, but it’s of a very different kind. Academia is comfortable, probably far too comfortable, in its forms of writing, whereas fiction has this sort of implicitly competitive need to justify itself – through popularity, authority of voice (again!) or some other means.
My return was probably nothing more than a bit of a pendulum swing, something coming at a bit of a time of frustration with my PhD, driven by unfinished business from what I started in Berlin on the Creative New Zealand residency, and a distraction. It was a side project in a way, a kind of hobby for a while, which I started with a new sense that I wanted an explicitly modest project. I hope that doesn’t sound immodest in itself. Never trust someone who tells you how modest they are. But this modesty was inspired a bit by what can happen in contemporary art – which often just takes the form of what an artist happens to be interested in. Here you go, here’s some stuff I found – I’ll put it in a gallery for you. That kind of approach.
I guess I've always wavered a little between academic enquiry and creative writing, maybe not entirely comfortable in either world
AM: R.H.I. often tells a story while simultaneously critiquing the story it tells. Many of the novels’ characters are historical figures, and the reader is made to feel real tension between the writer’s capacity to plunge the reader into a compelling fictional world, and the narrator’s wish to keep pulling back – to draw the curtain and reveal the wizard operating the controls. Can you talk about how you conceived this system of layering?
TC: Yes there is a lot of that kind of layering. Part of it comes from a genuine self-questioning while writing the book. How much do I really know about this? But also, and maybe more importantly: why should we care about this? There are small bits of contemporary New Zealand thrown in towards the end of R., for example, partly to give contrast and comparison to the otherwise slightly obscure history in the rest of the book. So they say: here, this is where we are, where, probably, you are as a reader, and maybe we can think about the story through a return to our time, and think about our time through the story too. Incidentally, there’s a lot of layering that emerges from the subject matter, particularly in R. Its main protagonist is a psychoanalyst, and psychoanalysis is all about layers, about unknowns implicit in a story, about what’s below the surface, about what one doesn’t know about oneself. So here’s an interesting possibility for free indirect discourse, where the author can dip into a character’s head and channel her thoughts: what if the character’s head contains thoughts she doesn’t know she’s having? There’s a lot of play with that kind of thing in R. But both novellas deal in systems of ideas – psychoanalysis and communism – that can’t be talked about today without huge ironies and distances. So layering is kind of necessary when approaching them, I think.
AM: You have a PhD in aesthetic theory. How did this affect (infect?) your writing of the book? How does your academic thinking and writing overlap with your fiction?
TC: I think that doing the PhD exposed me to a whole lot more ideas about what art and writing can be and do. There was actually very little art or literary historical content to my doctoral study – more philosophical and sociological I guess – but perhaps this was an advantage. I didn’t feel weighed down with tradition, just inspired by a sense of possibility, a sense that an artistic work exists in the wider world and has a range of roles to play.
The goal of art, the ultimate goal, pretty difficult to achieve of course, is the end of art
I was, and still am, really taken with the avant-garde idea that art only exists because of some problem in society, and so the goal of art, the ultimate goal, pretty difficult to achieve of course, is the end of art – an end of art that also ends the problem that causes art to be necessary in the first place. This is an interesting perspective, and very different from the usual platitude that "art and writing, oh yes, that it's a good thing, without question"… I don’t really think that. I do like to imagine a future in which writing just isn’t necessary! What a wonderful world that would be. There would still be thrillers – entertainment, why not? – but not the kind of thing I do. A society without the need for consolation, or something? It’s a nice vision, and it takes me away once again from all those thoughts about how important art is, how important writing is, in and for itself – all those thoughts that bemoan the lack of a proper literary culture and all that. I’ve become fairly immune to those.
Aside from that, though, there are certainly ideas that I have come across in my academic work that find their way into my fiction writing. They’ve filtered through fairly indirectly though – I’m not sure I can point to them there in the novellas. I also like the academic world’s open spirit of enquiry, and hope to take some of that across into my fiction writing too – to ask questions of the world using fiction, the way that academics might ask questions of the world with their work. My study I think encouraged me to think on as many different levels as possible, to not just be caught up in a drama but also to be enquiring as to its meaning, its context, its politics and economics and so on.
AM: Who were some of the primary writers and thinkers that informed your writing this book? What kind of research did you do?
TC: My main inspiration – actually one of the few ‘literary’ fiction writers I remain loyal to at the moment – is the German writer Alexander Kluge. He actually appears briefly in H. He has a huge body of short fiction, mostly untranslated into English, unfortunately. It’s hard to know what to say about him. He’s mostly known outside Germany as a filmmaker, and his recent film and TV work is, well, it’s its own thing, a mix of speculation, documentary, comedy and fiction. He’s also a political theorist. He doesn’t seem to draw much of a distinction between all of these fields – there is often fairly unadulterated political theory in his fiction, and his stories often make their way into his moving image work, often as words on the screen. There’s something Borgesian about his work, in the way the outline of a story can stand in for the story itself I suppose. He doesn’t do any work setting scenes, establishing atmospheres, etc. The disembodied dialogue or interview sections of R. are also drawn from Kluge, as is much of the formal nature of the book.
As for research, there was no systematic approach. I did go to the British Psychoanalytic Society’s archives in London to look at Joan Riviere’s papers there - only a couple of hours’ work as it turned out, if that. I read some big volumes of Henselmann’s writings and designs from the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin. But as I went on, my approach to research shifted a bit, away from the desire to get things right, and towards a desire to just be influenced, directly as it were, by the world’s material. An extreme example I guess is the text from Ernest Jones’s autobiography, and some from the Freud-Jones correspondence that concerns Riviere, which I just quote directly rather than using to develop fictional settings. So in general I used research material in an almost accidental way, following the interest of the moment and letting what I was reading then feed back into the work as it came. The internet, of course, is all about that. Sometimes I would just randomly think, "I wonder what happened in the year so and so", the year I was writing about, look it up, and then just put some of the events I found out about into the text. That way history sometimes came more as an interruption of the writing than a support for it.
AM: How do you feel about the character of your narrator? Does he differ from you in any way?
TC: I actually hope it’s fairly open whether the narrator of the novellas is the same in each case. There are certainly differences to me – the narrator of R is married and I’m not, though that’s a technicality. But I don’t really see the narrators as characters in any strong sense, but rather as structural features of the novellas. They exist to give the stories a frame, to distance the reader from them, to perform all those tasks that allow authorial reflection but which, not being the actual author, allow it to be fairly speculative in nature… I’m hoping they don’t loom too much in the foreground, I guess.
AM: The Author’s Note defines the point of the book so well – and in a sense, the goal of all good art, I think – when you write: "I mean to suggest that there might be another kind of expertise, one that is widely accessible if we only recognize it as such: an expertise of not knowing." Do you feel there are particular methods in which we might practice this expertise of not knowing?
TC: That’s a slippery question, because once you’re talking about a method you’re not far from talking about an expertise. The ideal would be to remain open to all forms of language and all forms of knowledge, and seeing what might be assembled from them – and maybe a sort of cross-fertilisation that happens when you place widely separated forms of understanding next to each other. There’s some of that character I hope in R.H.I., though it’s an idea that can be taken to greater extremes in, say, the ideas and writing of Walter Benjamin, Andrei Platonov or more recently David Markson or Kenneth Goldsmith. That kind of tradition seems fruitful? What’s also important, perhaps, is that we allow ourselves a confidence in our practice without losing self-awareness and without any smug assumption that our language is superior to any other. That’s more of an attitude than a method, of course.
There might be another kind of expertise, one that is widely accessible if we only recognize it as such: an expertise of not knowing
AM: Did you always intend for there to be an Author’s Note?
TC: I’ve liked the idea for a long time – though the decision to write it came out in conversation with Fergus Barrowman from VUP, who thought, if I’ve represented him right, some kind of introductory statement might be useful in a book whose forms might otherwise be hard to recognise. I can’t remember who actually suggested it. Perhaps that’s a good sign! The book is unusual in a number of ways, and I’m not interested in presenting puzzles to my readers, so it made sense to me to introduce the book in case a reader might think that their task is to come up with some kind of answer hidden in the book. I hope the author’s note primes a reader to accept the book’s formal dissonance as it is, as dissonance, as a real and felt lack of final answers.
AM: Do you find pure narrative compelling? Are your favourite writers those who critique the narratives they present?
TC: I like TV as much as anyone – binge TV, box-set TV – and it’s very narrative driven, however much it also sinks us into contemplation of images and sound (the music in Treme, the cartographic imagery of season 2 of True Detective). There’s a lot more plot in the novel I’m currently writing, too. I less and less feel a need to have narrative critiqued, despite all the layers and frames and so forth in R.H.I. I’m not interested, for example, in that old intrusive author device, thrown in to remind us that the narrative is constructed. My feeling is that such interruptions become a game, something that makes us reflect on the nature of fiction, say, but doesn’t get us to reflect about the world. So, although I often like work that has next to no narrative at all, I’m also happy to let narrative do its work – a modest work that’s concerned with moral economies, with what characters and ideas we like and care about, and the music of tension and resolution implicit in all that.
Actually my problem with narrative is endings. They’re always false and unsatisfactory, at least when they attempt to end things. Really, the bad guy dies? Etc. And the good guy dying is just a version of that too. Or they become friends. No no no. Of course narrative wants resolution, but resolution can’t be final. The world has no endings in it – and more importantly, if narrative is a way to think about how to act in the world, then we can’t go around advocating for final resolutions (kill the bad guy). I suspect the political responses we need in the world are of a different order – a more formal one, one that steps outside of its narrative rather than bedding down in it and nailing its enemies. I’m not sure though that this formal 'stepping outside' is quite the same as critiquing narrative. I think we do live in some way according to narrative, which is to say a drama of what we care about, and what happens to it, and how our cares play themselves out. But narrative itself has this problem within it, that we need those cares, those dramas, those tensions and resolutions, we need them to keep going – yet we can't stand the thought that a narrative might just go on, endlessly recombining, endlessly falling and raising itself up. It needs ends, but if it ends there is nothing for it but to begin the next narrative. Writers – and film and TV makers, etc – have that as one of their problems to deal with. It’s a good and very basic problem about how to live. Samuel Beckett deals very well with what’s at the heart of narrative (and he’s funny!).
AM: At one point in the narrative, a conversation splits into two possible conversations, dividing the reader between two possible realities. Did you think about the book as an experimental book while you were writing it? Do you find the notion of experimental writing to be a useful one?
TC: For some reason I’m resistant to the term ‘experimental’. I think for me it implies that game playing stuff, the fiddling around with forms to see what we can come up with, that I mentioned before. Does 'experiment' suggest the clearing of an experimental space separate from the world, in which to invent? I want writing to be as embedded in the world as possible, so everything, formal innovation, plot, humour, it all has to come with its reasons and justifications. I guess one way of putting that is that I’m not at all interested in revolutionising literature – it’s literature’s role, if any, in other more worldly revolutions that gets me going. Of course I like plenty of writing that has been called experimental and are happy with it – Markson? Carla Harryman? – so I’m probably just being pedantic! But in the process of writing R.H.I. the formal stuff, the parallel columns for example, emerged from the material and the aims of the book rather than a desire to experiment. It does require an openness to different forms, of course, something I’m very conscious of as I write.
I'm not sure I believe literature in itself is all that important... I want art and literature and the conversations that surround them to keep grasping and grasping at the problem of how to live, how to respond to the world
AM: Can you talk a bit about how the relationship between New Zealand and Europe informs the book?
TC: This is something that’s in the background of the book – it’s mentioned in the author’s note, and hinted at in the framing sections, but isn’t foregrounded in it. But I think it is a useful way to think about the book, since New Zealand in its relationship to Europe can stand for a kind of pure remove, a distance from all of the dense histories I’m writing about. It means, in this case, a sort of freedom to misunderstand, to be the ignorant antipodean, to make our own meaning out of what we have taken out of context.
AM: Can you tell us a bit about your next project. Do I hear rumours of time travel?
I am experimenting with time travel. I recommend the future, if you’re going to visit anywhere… the past, ugh, so squalid. The future is much more fun. What can I say? Time travel is a great comparative tool, if you like, bringing two periods of history together and making all kinds of speculative arguments about those periods. My time travel occurs between the past and the present – from the 70s to now, and not vice versa. It’s nice to work with what I’ve come to think of as sci-fi’s axiomatic method – inventing something and seeing what might 'logically' come of it. So, what if some technology allowed people to travel from 1975 to 2008 and return with experiences and images? Time travel becomes a wonderful, vastly open metaphor, signalling futures trading, psychedelic drugs, image/spectacle/TV culture, and what have you, all of which have their 70s associations and all of which are aimed somehow at the future. I’m trying to avoid the ‘world building’ aspect of sci-fi, since imagined worlds can have a problematic closure all of their own. Popping a sci-fi conceit into the past, but without the whole steampunk aesthetic (itself a world building one I think) means putting it in direct collision with real history I suppose. That’s the idea anyway.
AM: With the internet, we have more and more spaces for smart and engaged discussions of New Zealand literature, as displayed here and in places like Horoeka. Are there any particular conversations you feel we need to be having?
TC: I hope this doesn’t sound awful – I’m not sure I believe literature in itself is all that important. I’m not sure that anything special rides on the conversations we have, though they can be interesting. I’m not interested, then, in conversations that are just internal to literature – that take sides with one book, one author, one ism against another, for example. I want art and literature and the conversations that surround them to keep grasping and grasping at the problem of how to live, how to respond to the world. I want us to forget the opinions and judgments and tastes. In this sense, there should be no important difference at all between talking about literature – talking in literature – and any other kind of talk that takes place in and about the world. Writing is just more talk amongst the talk. That’s how it remains relevant. All the talk about literary stuff – including character and plot, form, language etc – all of that is only interesting if it has some relation to those larger questions. Formal innovation, for example – I do think it can have a role as a sort of intervention in the world, even if its audience might be small. The danger of course is that it remains a matter of game playing for its own sake.