Late in Kate Zambreno’s first full-length novel, Green Girl, a male admirer considers the protagonist, Ruth, and jots down in his notebook: “She drowns herself in her own reflections.” It is as compendious a description as any we’ve yet read about Ruth, a “green girl” (from Polonius’ accusation of Ophelia: “You speak like a green girl, unsifted in such perilous circumstance”) who wanders London in search of either a sense of self or of meaning, neither of which seems imminent. Beautiful and alienated, Ruth is visible to herself only as a thing seen — by the men who want her, by the women who condescend to her, and by an elusive, unseen narrator who fabricates her with equal parts tenderness and revulsion. She plods through department stores and the underground catching shadows of her face in reflective surfaces and whispering, “Look at me. (Don’t look at me.) Look at me. (Don’t look at me.)”
Green Girl was first published in 2011, but Harper Perennial has just released a revised version, which includes two new scenes and an essay from the author. It’s an early work worth revisiting. The hallmarks of Zambreno’s idiosyncratic, acclaimed style are on display — prose almost violent in its vividness; emotions so intensely felt they teeter between transcendent and maudlin — and its subject and form arise from many of the same preoccupations that drove Zambreno’s much lauded third book, Heroines: women who are fragmented and seen in fragment; women who are messy, beautiful, horrifying, sublime, abject; women who cannot or will not speak. I spoke with Zambreno about slippery narrators, silent women, and some of the questions that inspired Green Girl and Heroines, as well as her forthcoming Book of Mutter (Wesleyan University Press 2015) and the novel she’s working on now: What is it to be a woman being seen? What is it to be a woman writing herself in the world?
Jordan Kisner: How was it revisiting something you wrote years ago? Revising older writing is often mortifying enough — at least for me — but Green Girl also seems to be so deeply rooted in a moment of development (being young and fucked up in a very particular, paralyzed way) that I imagine might be unusually uncomfortable to re-examine after a period of distance.
Kate Zambreno: Ah yes. There is nothing crueler than someone making you read your own writing. I guess as Green Girl evolved I, already, as author, was further away from that fixed point you refer to, and [so] the narrator began to develop, watching and creating this tender grotesque, a sort of elegy to youth. I always thought of the narrator’s “I”, albeit fictionalized, as closer to my own as the author. And I think the movement of that book was already circling around a frozen period.
I feel somewhat distanced from my early preoccupations with the ambivalent libertine, who was the focus of O Fallen Angel, Green Girl, and in some ways Heroines.
But in general, yes — revisiting older writing is strange. I can read it now somehow as a reader. It seems to have issued forth from someone else, from another time. I was pleasantly surprised when beginning the production of this new version that I didn’t want to vomit all over it. Although I did revise the second half, which seemed stiff and clunky at times. I can see myself teaching myself how to write a novel when writing this book.
It makes sense to me that you think of the narrator as closer to your own perspective, and did even at the time you wrote the novel. I know a lot of the initial reception focused on whether or not the main character, Ruth, was likable, but I was more preoccupied with the narrator’s feelings about Ruth than I was with my own. Their emotional relationship — or maybe their ontological relationship — felt unsettled to me.
Yes. To me the novel is about an author and a character in search of each other. And, like everything I write, is a meditation on the act of literature. It is unsettling, cannibalistic, violent, ambivalent, maybe maternal. The devouringness of seeking another as a muse.
As I read, I kept thinking, “Why this girl, why this muse? Why is this narrator in search of this particular girl?”
What do you think? I am not sure.
Well, I suppose I’m wondering if those were questions you were asking yourself as you were writing. How much did you see Ruth (and the narrator seeing Ruth) as fully formed and how much were you in search of this particular cipher, or tender grotesque — a phrase I love, by the way.
It is everything I’m meditating on lately — not when I was writing Green Girl, but now, as I’m already in new work that I’ve been in for some time. I think Ruth is a particular cipher, it’s true. I’ve always been drawn either to the intensely charismatic and fraudulent, or others who seem locked in, who do not speak, who are silent. Ruth is a very silent character, and I was curious about her interior monologue, about her muted yet very specific subjectivity, how that subjectivity was formed too from the outside.
I am not a silent person — I wish I was — I have always envied those who don’t need to speak. But I think too when writing the novel I was remembering times I had to be Someone Else. And the times I wanted to be Someone Else. That is a central fixation of mine in writing. I remembered the years of working customer service; and the years of being a young woman; and the years of being a foreigner; and how this all was a way of being muted, or written from the outside.
I don’t think of Ruth as fully formed, and this incenses and infuriates the narrator. I think she is forming. But now at this position, looking back on the novel, I don’t think any of us are fully formed. That is the existential dilemma. Ruth is drawn from so many ciphers in literature and film. Sophie in Jelinek’s Wonderful Wonderful Times, Robin Vote in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, the shop girl in screwball comedies and the New Wave, who are usually not given much interiority. They are the objects of other’s desires.
I see how Ruth emerges from these many other historical women, both real and fictional. That’s something I wanted to bring up: the explicit way in which you put your own writing in conversation with your influences, both in Green Girl — which is filled with epigraphs from Rhys, Walter Benjamin, characters from the New Wave — and in Heroines. You make that theoretical/historical/intertextual conversation quite visible to the reader.
I had an extended conversation this summer with a young male novelist about writing — we were both enthusiastic readers of Thomas Bernhard, of WG Sebald, of writers in that sort of European philosophical tradition. And at one of our first meetings, he looked at me quite critically and asked: “Why are you so . . . metafictional?”
Ha! That sounds so accusatory.
I felt like I was on trial somewhat, for being a good modernist, which of course I am, but I also feel like we are past that moment. We are past the moment of the 19th century realist novel. I still believe greatly in beauty in writing, in language. Yet I am drawn to the narratives that we tell ourselves in order to live (am I rewording Didion here?) — the ways our consciousnesses are not streams but deeply colonized by popular culture, by society, by ghosts of various histories. And by literature.
When writing Green Girl, I was very inspired by the novels of Jean Rhys. But I felt, very strongly for myself personally, for my own aesthetic and political project, that there was no need ever to write a simple novel of a shop girl, because no one will ever do it better than Jean Rhys. No one will ever write a musical, ecstatic, poisonous novel like Good Morning, Midnight, and there’s no reason to try. Green Girl evolved to be a novel about other narratives, about other novels too. It is a work about writing.
There is, I hope, an attempt at consciousness, at deep meaning, at subjectivity, as well in the works, not just this meta referential text. And I am also subtextual. I mean, there are moments I reference Nightwood in Green Girl and I never mention the text — many moments like this — or how Heroines, Part One, is a satire of the “Game of Chess’ section of The Waste Land and “The Yellow Wallpaper.” O Fallen Angel, too, is a grotesque of Mrs. Dalloway. The works are about the act of literature, they’re about reading, and I think Heroines especially is about a deep, deep sense of loneliness, and feeling only a ghost community among unfinished or suicided writers — and the great modernist women writers who only wrote one book, or had an early rich period, and then despaired the rest of their lives. I guess I’m an essayist masquerading as a novelist.
There is certainly something essayistic about both books. Speaking of masquerading: In moments I thought of Green Girl as a film masquerading as a novel. Or yes, an essay. And Heroines is in a sense an essay masquerading as a collage, or a diary — or perhaps I have that reversed. The hybridity of form has a pleasing slipperiness about it. These are books in which two or three forms are bumping into each other, hiding behind each other, interrogating each other.
Oh I love that. I love the idea of slipperiness. It is the word I’ve been using a lot lately and why I have taken asylum in the novel in this next project, although I do love the essay dearly. I love its failure and its movements. When I wrote Heroines, I was very aware that I was writing a fictionalized narrator — by that I mean I was writing a self that is not a self. That I am never writing a self that is myself, while almost always writing “I” and always writing of the writer in a room. I found that in our contemporary, very American idea of nonfiction, there cannot be that much permission for a heightened or slippery narrator. (Except in poetry, where the speaker can move between fiction and nonfiction.) And I’m so interested in slipperiness! And exposing the fraudulence of the “I”! So I’ve taken asylum in the novel, although I am critical of it, critical of the Henry James novel, which T.S. Eliot praised as being without ideas.
Someone recently told me a story about an interview Sebald did. He was asked, “Is (your book, whatever book) a novel?” And he said yes. Is it a memoir? He said yes. Is it an essay? And again he said yes. I feel the same way. I feel all the works are fictions with an essayistic consciousness, that issues forth from the self, from a nonfiction impulse, while being not the self.
The problem with memoir as it’s imagined now — even though I love works that circle around memory, my Book of Mutter circles around memory — is the idea that memory is fixed, and not fictionalized, or that the self is anything but fragmented. I’m interested in the fragment, in the collage. I always write from the diary, and I think for me writing and reading is attempting to figure out the everyday. How to live. How always to live badly. The next work is very inspired by this quote from Rilke, in his Letters to Cezanne: “One lives life so badly, as one comes into the moment unfinished, unable, distracted.”
That’s very beautiful.
The next work is also very inspired by Robert Walser. I just read yesterday Elfriede Jelinek’s voice-play that she wrote about Walser, where she meditates on his relationship to silence and writing and the self. It was interesting, to think of that in connection to your question about wearing references explicitly in the text. Jelinek writes that everyone [who] thinks of her as a feminist writer might be surprised that she would be so obsessed with Walser and find such kindredness with him. And I think my next book is in a way my Elizabeth Costello. It’s wrangling with being a published woman writer seen as writing this feminist text, while wanting to write a great, a pure and beautiful work of literature about love, and finding it a failure.
I love Walser’s The Walk, everything he’s doing in it — the way he writes with such pain and scorn about his contemporary publishing, his feelings of alienation, while also writing such great beauty and tenderness and ecstasy. That work all along, this bruise under the narrative, the love he doesn’t mention. I would love to write a work that isn’t explicit.
The book I’m working on now is called Switzerland. It’s another collage. It will look like a lyric essay, a notebook, in the vein of Kafka’s diaries or Sontag’s or Camus’, while being a novel, and deeply engaged with hermit-flaneurs, with drifters and drifting. I wanted it to be 800 pages like Knausgaard but I think it will be lyric. I want it to be quite musical, a work of intense feeling. I think the whole book will be about me reading The Magic Mountain and thinking about Robert Walser, maybe. What does it mean to want witness and recognition? To be a writer? To be read? To be public? To desire privacy and yet have a tremendous ego, tremendous ambition?
Well, this complex and sometimes tortured relationship with visibility, and feminine visibility, is a dominant theme in your work thus far. And in connection with memory there’s always the question of how much is visible to the self looking back, and how much of that self (or the present one) should be made visible to a reader.
Yes, in this work too there’s an obsession with invisibility and visibility, with writing, and with vanity, with beauty, with age.
I always wonder what should be made visible to the reader. It’s something I think about more now, with Mutter and Switzerland, than I did before. I like that distance between what the reader wants to know and what the narrator tells her. But I also like the explicit, the rawness of moments of intense emotion or confessionalism.
Is your technique for that kind of dissembling and confronting at once already firm, or is it something you’re writing your way toward, always?
I can’t explain it, but sometimes when I’m writing I can feel it, I’m inside of it, and it can become quite musical (I listen to a lot of modern compositional music when I write) and I can let myself be quiet, and it feels glorious. But I also wish to have the rant — that’s what Walser does so well — these quick moments of fury or violence. It is a textured thing. But I think it’s also giving yourself permission to write the work, to overwrite it, and importantly, giving yourself permission to let the work sit for as long as possible. For Book of Mutter, I had a fast hot draft about 8 years ago. And I let it sit, I let myself fail, I let myself rewrite. I think that’s the greatest thing a writer can give to themselves, that time and space to sit with a work, to allow it to move and become even more mysterious, and also more honest.
There are perfect works, like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, like Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, like Renee Gladman’s Toaf. I am fixated on that, but I also love the beauty and unruliness of Walser’s The Walk. And I still overwrite.
I was keeping a correspondence with an editor, agonizing over this book. And I kept on repeating, “I want to write a perfect book,” and she wrote me, “But perhaps these are not perfect times.” I think there’s something to that. And that Rilke quote — to be unfinished, unable, distracted. That feels like our contemporary moment. Not living beautifully, but badly. After Heroines was read as a text of feminist theory, I had this overriding desire to write such a great and beautiful work of art. And for a while I thought: I can’t be political in it, cannot be feminist, cannot be angry, cannot be grotesque. But I am trying to find a way — to write beauty and ugliness. To write the monstrous.
I have wondered this lately — and Doris Lessing writes about this in her updated preface to The Golden Notebook — why does feminism in a work somehow negate questions of form, or style, or philosophy, or other literary aspects of the work? I taught Elizabeth Costello last year. I adore Coetzee, and it’s strange that he was able to articulate, in his alter-ego, what I was thinking about what it’s like to be a published writer who’s written a feminist book.
But, if a woman wrote that book, would it be read as literature? Well, if a woman writer wrote it, it wouldn’t be read as fictionalized.