An Interview With Quentin S. Crisp
I've talked about Quentin S. Crisp before - he's one of my favorite living writers. His 'demented fiction' is unrivalled for its poetic quality and general, um, dementedness, and I suspect it won't be long before he has a major mainstream breakthrough - not that there's anything particularly 'mainstream' about him, but his stories and novels are certainly of world-class quality. Anyway, I sat down with him recently to discuss his writing, his favorite films, pop music, the meaning of Mishima's death, the real reason why most people study Japanese, and other relevant topics. Suffice it to say that this is probably the most important thing I have yet posted to this site, and it certainly touches on more or less everything Swifty and I have put up here at some point. It is thus mandatory reading. Apart from that, it's probably the last substantial thing I'll post for a while, time constraints being what they are. Read on and learn more...
All photos of Quentin S. Crisp © Sheridan Quaint 2007. My (brief) responses in [ ] brackets.
1.) Quentin, as of this writing you are an Englishman. How do you think growing up in England has influenced your outlook and writing style - if at all? This seems like a moronic question, the kind you'd find on an exam at an arts school - 'Examine notions of Englishness in Crisp, pp. 305, 500 words' - but I've found that your writing has a subtle but distinct nostalgia for a kind of vanished past, as well a number of references to things that non-British readers wouldn't necessarily know. I had to look up 'Wellingtons' and 'jotter', for example. Others whom I've showed your work to have also remarked that it was 'very English' - what do you make of this? Is it a reductive tag, or is there something in it?
Well, there would seem to be something in it, although these things are hard to put your finger on. I suppose, when I (lie back and) think of England, I think of things like David Bowie’s crooked teeth, which are no longer crooked, because he had them fixed, or Kate Bush’s leotard, which was presumably worn for ease of dancing, and the old Doctor Who, with what people have described as the ‘wobbly sets’. In other words, for me the interesting and virtuous aspects of English culture are to do with awkwardness and a kind of accidental charm. I don’t believe that Kate Bush’s leotard was calculated. It was positively unfashionable, or, perhaps more accurately, afashionable, but for that very reason (for me, at least) it really… er… worked.
Of course, it’s immediately apparent that these charming things are disappearing from the world. I suppose you could say that they are the opposite of slick. But slick is very much what’s happening at the moment, or what’s trying to happen. That was my impression on returning to Britain, just at the time that Iraq was invaded in 2003, after about three years abroad. Reality TV, house prices, marketing, marketing, marketing. It all seems apiece with Blair’s New Labour, which was only really an extension of Thatcherism, anyway.
I’m actually dealing with the whole theme of England and what is English quite extensively in the novel I am currently writing, Domesday Afternoon, in which a hermit in a future world looks back on a world now sunken beneath the waves and tries to reconstruct a picture of England in what he calls the ‘autobiography of the soul’.
In terms of how my cultural background has influenced outlook and writing style, that’s kind of difficult. I grew up in Devon, though, and can state quite unequivocally that the landscape of Devon had a huge influence on me. I mean, in those days children were allowed to go off on their own, and I’d ramble over the hills and fields all day, or spend my time at the beach. I’ve always had an instinctive love for nature, and tend to find the ‘fashionable’ and ‘sophisticated’ views of, for instance, Huysmans, on the subject of nature, utterly shallow and risible. I suppose I also have a kind of distrust of urban hip. I feel close to Dazai in that sense. He felt the Tokyoites he encountered to be very arrogant and seemed to feel he was treated like a country bumpkin. I find London, where I now live, to be a very conceited sort of place. It’s ‘the city’, basically, as archetype, or whatever. Fascinating as it is for novelists and the like, I’m distrustful of it. I feel that in No Longer Human, the main character, Yozo, represented the country, and his friend, Horiki, the city. Horiki even remarks at one point that inspiration from nature is ‘so passé’, or some such thing. That’s exactly the kind of shallow conceitedness I’m talking about.
[The ultimate expression of this sensibility is probably the Italian Futurists threatening to blow up the moon. Although I don’t agree with it, I find their eagerness to destroy not only nature but everything extant before they were born (i.e. filling in Venice, bombing all museums, stopping Italians from eating pasta, etc.) to be at least greatly amusing in its level of ‘I’m more avant-garde than not only my peers but the entire universe pettiness]
Clearly this is a question that I could write a whole book on, so I’ll have to try and limit myself. Socially and linguistically, England has made me, of course, though I’ve also felt very much an outsider, and never had any sense of belonging to a class (and incidentally, I think the lingering class system is the worst of all English diseases).
Socially, I think what I identify with in being English is the vast English capacity for embarrassment. Again, this is probably on its way out, though the rise to fame of people such as Ricky Gervais also suggests otherwise. I actually find embarrassment to be a kind of horror, and also an under-represented emotion in literature.
Linguistically, I feel like a kind of curator of words. I’m well aware that language shifts, but I’m always gratified, for instance, to save a word like ‘Wellingtons’ in my private museum of literature. I feel almost as if England, my homeland, has become ‘exotic’, and, in just the same way that the parochial cultural aspects of Japanese literature fascinate me, I think I am fascinated by the exoticism of England, which is increasingly exotic and marginalized as its political and economic influence in the world wanes. Or at least, in theory it is, if it’s not all concreted over and made into one big conglomerate soon.
There’s a bit in Mishima’s The Decay of the Angel that goes, “the naturalised Englishman is more English than the native Englishman”, and I suppose I feel like that (reminds me of Morrissey’s Irish Blood, English Heart) – that I am especially English because I am in some way an outsider. Growing up I always found the English a strange, flinty-dry breed of people. I mean, if you look at what the English pride themselves on, it’s all to do with being practical and down to Earth. It’s like (well it basically is) priding yourself on having no imagination. And the English have always imagined (ha ha) that England is the bastion of absolute reason and sanity, a stronghold against all superstition and so on. We’ve given the world industry, gravity and evolution. That’s the England that I have reacted against. Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen begins with the quote, “The British Empire has always encountered difficulty in distinguishing between its heroes and its monsters.” Our true heroes should be those like William Blake, who have, so to speak, tried to build Jerusalem in the green and pleasant land, not those who have, instead, only built the dark, Satanic mills.
In any case, whatever the social shortcomings of England (and they are many), I have – as I have said before – a strong love quite literally for the soil of the land itself, which takes the form of a sensual desire to be buried and at rest in this earth. I suppose there’s some notion of eternity in that – I just hope it happens (my burial) before global warming makes the landscape utterly unrecognisable.
(PS, I sometimes get in trouble for using the word ‘England’ instead of ‘Britain’. I should point out that I am not using them as if they are interchangeable. In terms of personal identification I am English rather than British, which is why I tend to use that word.)
2.) In the introduction to Rule Dementia! you characterize your writing as 'demented fiction'. But I feel like the sensibility underlying your writing is quite sane and reasonable - even if it enters difficult areas of hatred, despair, and universal indifference, it remains sensitive and often balanced. In contrast I feel like 'mainstream literature' is actually demented, because it makes incredibly tenuous assumptions about good and evil, imposes unnatural plot schematics on an unpredictable reality, and feels it has to provide facile social commentary. I know this is particularly rampant in America - the drive to write something 'important' at all costs has led to best-selling 'literature' being incredibly homogenous and prescriptive - it doesn't feel like there's a human being with a nervous system behind it at all. There's this pervasive idea that a writer should be 'detached' and 'neutral', but I don't see how this is possible - I find all writing makes assumptions, and usually fairly bland, liberal-humanist ones at that. Is 'demented' a synonym for 'honest', perhaps? Or a covert rendering of 'sane' when the mainstream has become demented? Expand a bit on what you meant by the term.
Well, I find it a rather attractive irony that you’re presenting – that the demented should be the sane. I’m reminded immediately of a few things. Firstly, I think one of Bill Hicks’ recorded gigs is called ‘Sane Man’. Then, one of my favourite Bowie songs is All the Madmen, which has the chorus: “I’d rather stay here with all the madmen/Than perish with the sad men roaming free/And I’d rather play here with all the madmen/For I’m quite content they’re all as sane as me.” I also think of Don McLean’s song Vincent, which seems like a letter addressed to Van Gogh, in which he describes Van Gogh (the artist with this great reputation for being mad) as having “suffered for [his] sanity”. And it’s certainly true that that song has a particular meaning for me.
However, there was a time when someone wanted to try and convince me that I was right rather than wrong (I tend to describe myself as ‘wrong’). It seemed like a very compassionate stance she was taking, a little like that of Don McLean addressing himself to Van Gogh, but it seems that eventually she came to the conclusion that I’m actually rather a troubled person.
I am not fond of that kind of fall from grace. And for that reason (amongst others) I have no desire to advertise myself as the voice of sanity. Honesty? Well, that might be closer to my feelings about myself, but even honesty is limited.
I generally agree with your assessment of mainstream literature. If I’m to be honest, I just find it shallow. And realism and shallowness seem linked to me. ‘Realists’ (so-called) always appear to me to be chronically out of touch with their own inner selves. I really don’t find ‘this world’ to be very real at all – but that’s a rather futile expression of feeling that’s bound to be misinterpreted in some way. I suppose I’m just a born dreamer.
But to get to the point about what I mean by ‘demented fiction’, well, of course there’s something written on that subject in the introduction to Rule Dementia! I have a sense of what I meant, but it’s not something I have rigidly defined. I suppose, for one thing, I was kind of experimenting. I wanted to see if I could create my own genre. I thought it might fall flat, but I’d give it a bash, anyway. It has occurred to me, however, that in large part, what I’m really talking about is simply imaginative fiction in the broadest sense of the term. I want to give the imagination free rein to play. I recently read Michel Houellebecq’s excellent essay on H.P. Lovecraft, and at one point he deals with Lovecraft’s writing style, which critics (whom he hilariously describes as ‘these suffragettes’) have generally derided. Houellebecq, quite rightly, says that the critics’ view that Lovecraft had a bad writing style is complete idiocy. Rather, there’s a completely different philosophy underlying his style than the philosophy of his critics. As Houellebecq points out, Lovecraft would probably have considered a story a failure if he didn’t have a chance to “go overboard” at least once. And I suppose that is one thing that I really love in art, but which brittle academics and critics seem to hate – going overboard in some stupendous way. And I think that was mainly what I meant by ‘demented’. In other words, perhaps you’re right – I’m not trying to create some dry, tasteful little piece of text that people will politely applaud and give prizes to, I’m trying to put myself, as a real person, on the page. The results, I think, are bound to be ‘demented’.
3.) The novella 'The Haunted Bicycle' in Rule Dementia! seems like the most structurally experimental piece in the collection. It contains both a personal introduction from you, an admission that the title character is based on a real individual, many private jokes, and a kind of dissociated or fragmentary ('picaresque' as the story describes itself) narrative line, along with a 'zero resolution' ending. I found myself initially frustrated by the story due to its unconventional and personal nature, but as I've re-read the book it's become possibly my favorite piece - by the end of the story, the character development feels like the best you've done. The mood is also impossible to describe - it literally feels like being besieged by another dimension of consciousness. Tell us a bit more about the story, and whether or not you're interested in future technical experiments or challenges to conventional or received narrative.
Yeah, I think this would be a good example of what my intentions were for ‘demented fiction’, though I should point out that I came up with the term after the stories were written, to describe what seem to be the instincts underlying my writing. Anyway, I’m glad you liked this piece – this and ‘Unimaginable Joys’ are my two favourites in the collection. And I’m well up for more experimentation. You can expect plenty more of that, rest assured. Whether I’ll receive much support in doing so from the world of publishing or not, I can’t say.
I think I recognised this story as a kind of breakthrough for myself. My goal as a writer is eventually to arrive at who I am (which is generally what is called ‘originality’ in the arts) and I certainly think I’m getting there. And the trick is, I think, to write what you want to write. This is not as easy as it sounds. I think many writers sit down and think, “Well, I’m going to write a story now. What are stories like, then? I should write something a bit like that, or it won’t be a story.” And this is also part of the impulse underlying the shallow, prescriptive mainstream literature you mentioned. I want to explode all that, for my own sake if nothing else. You tend to know if it’s something you really want to write, because the voice of the super-ego (often represented by critics and so on) will say, “No, that’s silly, you can’t write about that, it wouldn’t work.” If you hear that voice, most of the time it means you’re onto something and that you should do the thing that you’re not supposed to. At least, that’s the path I’ve followed in my writing. I might even go so far as to say it’s the whole point of writing.
I’m not sure what to say about the story that I haven’t said elsewhere, though. Errr… Somebody wrote a really good review of the collection recently in which they said that humour played a large part in the story, but that it couldn’t really be separated from the more serious intent, and was in fact a kind of absurdism. I thought that was a great observation and fitted my intentions perfectly. [ :) ] I’m basically glad that I managed to ‘immortalise’ a lot of the very obscure things that I did with that story.
4.) Your novel Remember You're a One-Ball! has yet to be taken up by a publisher. Will you continue trying to get a press to pick it up, or take some other route? Tell us a bit about the novel itself.
I’m hoping that a publisher will be interested, but if no one is, I’m thinking of going down the Internet publishing route with this. After some initial rejections I actually let this gather dust a bit. While I was writing it, when I got past the first couple of chapters, I experienced what is sometimes called ‘flow’ to a greater degree than I have on any other piece of writing I remember. Everything seemed to fall into place, and I felt that I had really expressed some fundamental feelings I have about, well, about my experience of being human. I did get a reaction from someone to whom I sent the manuscript to the effect that it was too horrible to be published. Personally, I don’t believe that for a moment. I mean, you can find books like American Psycho, giving details of prostitutes being tortured to death and eaten, on the shelves in respectable bookshops. I actually think that my novel is less explicit, less gratuitous and more compassionate than American Psycho, though I did think that was a pretty impressive work. And I seriously wonder whether – if there is something taboo about “Remember You’re a One-Ball!” – the thing that is really shocking is simply that it’s a novel that actually possesses human interiority and an internal monologue that’s not some kind of designer voiceover, in other words, that it actually has a first person, the way that we’re all the first person of our own lives. I think maybe human three-dimensionality is shocking. Being unfashionable – and human – is shocking, because fashion is an attempt to reduce everything to the coolness of two dimensions.
Ostensibly, however, I suppose what is ‘shocking’ about One-Ball! is that it deals with, amongst other things, themes of child abuse. I do actually think this is one of the most important issues of our times, simply because it is such a sensitive subject. I’m usually reluctant to make any ‘message’ I have explicit, since I think it’s basically up to the readers to make their own misinterpretation, but perhaps I’ll risk saying that for me, a big part of this novel is simply an expression of the idea that society abuses children. Everyone is implicated, not just the one or two people getting lynched. Society abuses children. It’s that simple, or that complicated. In fact, I think a lot of what I write is about that same idea – the way children’s innocence is systematically corrupted by a vile, cynical world.
5) In photographs you've posted, you seem to favor a faintly anachronistic or retro-Edwardian style (or at least it appears to me). Can you clarify your fashion preferences and make some suggestions for readers?
Well, I suppose I’d say that although I’m very interested in clothes, I have no interest in fashion. Maybe that sounds like quibbling, but to me, fashion is all about being cool, which is the opposite of real self-expression, and clothes, well, they can actually be about self-expression.
Having said that, I’ve become very lazy about the way I dress. I used to take a certain amount of care to present myself in a certain way, or, rather, to create a certain costume for whatever role I thought it was that came closest to my inner self. That sounds rather stilted, but I don’t think the creativity involved was so very different to that of writing. I used to wear a lot of jewellery and make up, but I suppose a lot of things have happened in my life, and I have grown older and become more conservative. So, I feel more comfortable with what might be called a look of ‘ironic conservatism’. That is, in some ways I am attracted to the conservative figure, especially in terms of drama. I’m not sure I can give a good example, but I think there are some conservative ‘baddies’ in films, for instance, who manage to give off a sense that although they are working for the forces of tyranny, they still retain some element of humanity in there somewhere, and have a sense of a ‘bigger picture’ in which their conservatism actually has a constructive place by creating order. I suddenly think of some of the verse of T.S. Eliot. “There are those who would build the temple and those who would prefer that the temple went unbuilt.” Something like that. I think the ironic conservative is, like Eliot, engaged in the building of the temple.
However, all that’s a kind of theoretical make-believe. The fact is, much to my surprise, when people first meet me they often assume I’m an artist, musician or writer from the way I dress – therefore, apparently, that I am in some way Bohemian or dandy. I’ve no objection to that. I think it has – from what I can gather – reduced my chances at job interview. And I have no objection to that, either.
If I had money, I’d be a real dandy, mind you, with a fob watch (or a fop watch?) and tailored suit and all, but the fact is, at this stage of my life, my ‘look’ is about as unstudied as you can get. It’s simply something that has happened. Most of my clothes are what people have given to me (people like to mother me, apparently, and who can blame them?) and so I suppose I’m a kind of living doll, and probably people do see me as a bit… er… William Morris or something. Anyway, basically, my sartorial splendour, if that’s what it is, is almost entirely the result of serendipity, and sartorial serendipity is something I greatly approve of. Also, I like clothes to become a part of me. I mean, I have said this elsewhere, but I tend to treat clothes a bit like security blankets. I prefer them to be familiar old friends rather than flashy and new. My philosophy on this matter resembles that of Ignatius J. Reilly, hero of A Confederacy of Dunces.
You know, clothes are wonderfully evocative of the person who has worn them, for instance, a lover’s coat hanging on the banister. You know the way that the person’s atmosphere and smell seem to have soaked in to a piece of clothing, and sometimes you just want to kind of, breathe it in, and at that moment they return unexpectedly and ask what the hell you’re doing in their room… But I think I’m getting off the point.
As to suggestions for readers, I don’t think I’d presume to suggest, really. I would like to encourage people to be more experimental, though, and more tolerant of other people’s dress. If we all dressed like we were at some sort of carnival then no one would get beaten up for looking weird. That’s my idea of the perfect world.
6) What kind of things can we expect from you in the future?
Well, to employ a terrible cliché, it’s probably best to expect the unexpected. Really, quite honestly, I think that it will all be entirely unexpected, and I certainly have no desire to play to type. In more concrete terms, you can expect a novella from me next year. It’s called Shrike, it’s set in Japan, and it will be released into the world by PS Publishing. So far, pre-release reactions to this have been really good – far more positive that I expected for something I basically ‘had to write for my own sake’. So, I’m beginning to see the work in the light of these good reactions and I expect that it will be very well received indeed. You can also expect a chapbook at some point, probably a few short stories here and there. And I’m working on a novel or two or three.
I actually feel that I have the potential to be rather a ‘mainstream’ pillar of the literary establishment, in an ironic conservative kind of way, but if I do get there, it will be largely because I don’t care too much about getting there. Anyway, I am writing. Whenever I’m not exhausted (and unfortunately I’m often exhausted) and not called upon by the world to engage in some trivial activity for the sake of mere survival, I am writing, and hope simply that I will have written something that makes my life worthwhile before I die, if such a thing is even humanly possible.
On the other hand, I’m very much aware that I – like all of us – am living on borrowed time. So, I try to come to terms with the idea that I might die today, and that therefore I have to be content with things as they are. Nothing is every really finished. We all die in the middle of something or other.
I find I’m helped a little in this now-focus by such things as Chinese landscape painting. When I walk along the banks of the Thames in what some old poet dubbed London’s Arcadia, and see the white-faced coots with their skeleton feet darting among the water reeds, or hear a solitary goose flying low over the water at twilight, and giving its mournful cry, I tend to experience it through a Chinese landscape/Daoist lens. Unfortunately not all of my nows are such moments, so clearly I’m not quite there… or here, yet.
Really, though, I think about death quite often. I think it will be a great relief to me when it comes. I sometimes imagine it as the sweetest obscurity. I will no longer have to listen to anyone’s tedious, browbeating opinions. Maybe there’s also something in my how-soon-is-dao moments of the anticipation of Mother Nature making my grave for me.
[I think about that approximately 55% of every day, more if I have nothing to do. I think Tristan A. Farnon (the comics one, not Herriott) said ‘There are only two subjects I can write about with any authority: masturbation and killing myself.’ I'm with him.]
7) Is there even any point in trying to promote Japanese literature? The translations are uniformly poor, most of the greats died forty years ago, and the best material comes from a cultural and mental framework markedly different from current mindsets in both West and East. I've more or less given up reading it in translation (except as a comparison while reading the original), and have stopped reviewing it on this blog altogether. Is it better if J-writing retains its status as the 'indie' world literature, as opposed to the more played-out English, French, Russian, etc.? Or is there a chance Tanizaki and Mishima will eventually be read alongside Proust and Dostoevski? (this doesn't include thrillers and manga, both of which are picking up ground, or completely dominating in the case of the latter, but both of which leave me as bored as their American counterparts do).
I’m not sure if there’s any point, as such. I do promote Japanese literature to friends and acquaintances, just because J-lit is one of the few loves of my life. The lamentable standard of translation is, admittedly, something of a barrier. But it can’t be that bad if I originally conceived my quite considerable interest in J-lit through reading English translations. Probably even the best translations in J-lit are not really up to standard in comparison to translations from Russian and French and so on, where translators are probably a bit more aware of people looking over their shoulder to make sure they’re doing a decent job, and therefore more likely to give a shit. However, there are some Japanese translations that are worth reading. For instance, I thought that Donald Keene’s translation of Dazai’s No Longer Human was really good. Mishima tends to translate well, too. And although his translators seem to suck all the juice out of his prose, Tanizaki’s stories are so good that they survive this quite well, I think. On the whole, though, I do feel like driving six-inch nails into the skulls of the translators. (Which reminds me, a friend pointed out to me, and it seems to be true, that the publishers Tuttle seem to be responsible for some of the dodgiest translations.)
I’m hoping to translate some stuff someday – I’ve started on Nagai Kafu’s Okamezasa, in fact, but haven’t had much time for it lately – so maybe I can do something to change that situation, or maybe there’s just something about Japanese itself that resists translation. I suppose I don’t care too much if Japanese literature never takes the place that it
actually does deserve on the world stage, because there’s probably something of the elitist within me anyway, and I do enjoy the fact that I’m reading stuff that very few Westerners are able to. I mean, one of the motivations to study Japanese in the first place is surely in order to feel superior to other human beings. You know, Gwen Stefani and many others are jumping on this whole ‘Japan is trendy’ kind of bandwagon, but what do they actually know about it? Five minutes in conversation with me would reveal all… “So, Gwen, what was that song of yours called?” “Hahrajookoo Girls.” “Oh, so not ‘Harajuku Girls’, as I had imagined, and therefore, actually nothing to do with the fashionable district in Tokyo where gyaru, rori-goths and the like strut their stuff?” Well, I’m being a bit silly, of course, but so are people like Quentin Tarantino, who makes a godawful film like Kill Bill, trying to present himself as some kind of aficionado on Japan and actually getting away with it (getting paid handsomely for it, in fact). I watched that film with a Japanese friend, and we were both laughing at Uma Thurman’s attempts to speak Japanese. My friend did rather indulgently describe these attempts as ‘cute’, though. The idea of Lucy Liu as a yakuza boss is also utterly risible, and her Japanese was, well, it was better than Uma’s, I suppose, but not good enough for someone apparently running the whole Japanese criminal underworld.
[I met one of my friends in Tokyo last year and at one point she made me listen to ‘Harajuku Girls’. She seemed to think it was a penetrating series of cross-cultural insights and wasn’t at all bothered that Stefani was trying to appropriate a station she’d known from a young age. I think everything else on her iPod was like Backstreet Boys, Coldplay, etc. My girlfriend listens constantly to Backstreet Boys and Weezer, despite me trying to force her to appreciate the Boredoms, Melt-Banana and Thee Michelle Gun Elephant and complaining that she can read Akutagawa easily in the original but doesn’t. Similarly, all the Japanese students of English literature I’ve met have been into John Irving, Nicholas Sparks, etc. These same people are surprised that I like Akutagawa or Malice Mizer. Along the same lines, I instinctively recoil whenever a Western writer or filmmaker does anything with geisha, yakuza, samurai, hostess girls, etc., but I’ve never met a Japanese person who cares.
The moral is that everyone is demented, I guess.]
I am happy to say, though, that there’s a little swipe at the kind of ‘I’ve read Murakami Haruki therefore I know everything about Japan’ mentality in the forthcoming novella I mentioned, so I’m very gratified that’s getting published. (Punches the air and says, “Yes!”)
I’m interested by what you say about the mental framework of real J-lit being different to that of modern mindsets, east and west. I think, for me, this is precisely why it is so valuable. That’s also why I’m a little prejudiced against Murakami Haruki. I’ve read one of his stories, and I enjoyed it. I even thought the sentiments behind it were admirable sentiments. And I haven’t even read enough of his work to judge overall whether he’s any good or not (though people keep telling me to read him). But what annoys me is that he seems to eclipse the real literature of Japan, somehow, and seems content to do so. I read an interview with him in which he was very dismissive of traditional Japanese literature, and I just found this a really tedious and superficial attitude to take, and one that had bored me to death in Japan itself, where I had found almost no one to whom I could talk about those aspects of Japanese culture that are actually interesting – you know, all the things that were destroyed when Japan industrialised.
[I won’t say anything about Murakami because I’ve been unfair to him in the past on this blog. I’ll just say that I think he’s a great writer with what he sets out to do, and that I really enjoyed half the books I’ve read by him. But we’re on completely different wavelengths, and everything I’ve read him say in interviews, I disagree with completely. Even Oe Kenzaburo dissed older writers in interviews; I read one where he dissed Kawabata, and he dissed him again in his Nobel speech. But I can understand where they’re coming from; they want to distinguish themselves from what’s come before. What is avant-garde to one is old-style to another. Murakami, for example, thinks F. Scott Fitzgerald is a great writer; to me Fitzgerald is a joke. Likewise, Murakami would probably be incredulous to learn that an American some thirty-five years his junior knows who Saikaku Ihara is and considers him superior to most American writers – but that is nevertheless what I feel]
I’m tempted to think that the last of the old Japan, the pre-capitalist Japan, died with Mishima’s suicide in 1970.
Anyway, what we have in real J-lit, up to the end of the Showa era, is a detailed record that other forms of civilisation are possible, apart from, well, civilisation as a McDonalds’ franchise. It’s not an imaginary world like Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but it is now almost as inaccessible as that. Its retrospective exploration through art and literature, however, is almost endless, though it is, for me, an exploration permeated with a kind of horror and grief at the fact that this entire world has been shattered by the spread of ugly modernism.
I can’t remember if it occurs in the book, but in the film version of Mishima’s Runaway Horses, one of the character’s says, “There’s no need to fear the death of the body, only of the spirit.” I think that everyone in modern civilisation fears the death of the body, and clings to material things, and, well, as a result we have seen a kind of global death of the spirit.
8.) If Ian Curtis hadn't died, would Joy Division have become New Order anyway?
Probably, I suppose. I’m not much of a fan of New Order, but perhaps you surmised that, hence the question. I think some people have enough nous not to be corrupted or otherwise ruined by artistic success. Hopefully I shall be one of them. But you know, in the words of Gogol, “It’s a depressing world, gentlemen.”
9.) In interviews like this, I usually find one of the most interesting elements to be the names dropped, which often lead to new and interesting discoveries for readers. Name some interesting writers you feel are underknown or currently going underread - doesn't matter if they're living or dead, or what genre or whatever they're supposed to be in.
I agree with you totally. I think name-dropping is not a matter of being pretentious, but of sharing one’s enthusiasms and… er… bonding? Perhaps? Anyway, let’s see. I’m going to name Mark Samuels, first of all. He’s simply a very good writer of what might be called weird fiction and, I believe for all the rights reasons (because he concentrates on writing rather than self-promotion), is not as well-known as he should be. There are very few people who can do downbeat these days, but he does downbeat extremely well. I appreciate that.
I will also name Higuchi Ichiyo, whose work I studied at Kyoto University. I should have an essay on her coming out in some journal soon, actually. To me she’s a star and a legend. She created beautiful literature and become famous in the most unlikely way and against all the odds, and died tragically young. Her oeuvre is rather slender as a result, but that just seems to make it more pure and precious.
Well, I could give a whole list of Japanese writers who are not sufficiently appreciated, such as Mishima Yukio, Nagai Kafu, Dazai Osamu etcetera etcetera, but I’ve mentioned these names many times before. For me the most under-rated of these is Nagai Kafu, who is a god of literature at whose shrine I worship.
M. John Harrison is very good. The Ice Monkey is, to me, a classic collection of short stories.
Thomas Ligotti is something of a legend, but still, I think, under-read.
I don’t hear people discuss Boris Vian much, but his novel Froth on the Daydream is quite brilliant.
Mary Shelley wrote more than just Frankenstein, you know.
I recently read The Doors of Perception and now think everyone should read it.
Katharine Mansfield is very good.
I was in correspondence with a writer called Scott Thomas for a while, and very much enjoyed his work – mainly very stylish period weird tales.
Sheridan LeFanu has written some of the most effective ghost stories in the history of the genre.
I very much admire what I have read of Andre Gide.
Lisa Tuttle should definitely be more well-known than she is. Lost Futures really did something for me, as did Memories of the Body.
I also really like that feeling of discovering a new writer. One of my more recent discoveries was the poetess Kaneko Misuzu. That was a while ago, actually; these discoveries don’t come as often as they should. I am currently in the process of discovering the cult British poet Jeremy Reed. I read an interview with him recently in which he says, “I mean, realistic writing doesn't interest me at all, it bores me. I'm always looking for the strange supernovas that flare up, the eccentrics and obsessed”, with which I am utterly in accord.
10.) Continuing on this note, I'm going to throw down some names, and I want you to tell me what comes to mind when I mention them:
Sadism… Is the first thing that comes to mind. That and the fact that a writer can seem very different in prose to the way they appear in real life. Prose is ever-young. I read her short stories and there was this almost hip use of sadism in them, really on the nerve, that made me squirm, and I imagined that she must be some groovy young siren of a writer on heroin or something. When I saw a picture of her she looked like Sister Wendy, the art-loving nun. Anyway, Kono Taeko has written a story called Ari Takaru (‘Ants Swarm’); this is obviously a lady with style and panache. I dig it.
[I wanted to marry Wataya Risa on the basis of reading her book, or at least run through the city while holding her hand and then collapse together in a field of marigolds. But as for the above, another example is Kurahashi Yumiko, who wrote stories about an incestuous couple raping an alien and a woman’s head detaching from her body and flying around (forty years ago, too). She was probably similar to Kono, but I always expected her to look at least roughly like this:
I recently had a conversation with a Morrissey fan. I hope she won’t mind me alluding to the conversation here, as it’s possible she’ll read this. She described Morrissey as ‘sacred’. In other words, she wasn’t prepared to accept criticism of him. And I understand the sentiment. I suppose I am slightly more prepared to accept criticism of him now than when I was younger, but the point is, whatever he may be like as a person (and I don’t know) he has managed to express something that to many people is sacred. I think this is to do with people’s innermost feelings about themselves, to which Morrissey has found his way. In Reel Around the Fountain, there’s the line, “It’s time the tale were told/Of how you took a child and you made him old.” It’s really the child that is the sacred thing – that innocence that is destroyed by a corrupt world. I think that’s what people identify with. It’s like when people say, “You can say anything you like about me, but don’t you dare say anything about my mother.” It’s a kind of displacement. The mother is really their innermost self. Or should that be, the Mozzer is really their innermost self?
I’ve not read that much, actually. I read a short story or two, and I started The King of Elfland’s Daughter, which I was enjoying, but for some reason I never finished it. Perhaps I’ll go back to it sometime. Nice prose style, maybe verging on the twee here and there, but what the hell, I’m quite capable of suspending my disbelief, if I have any to suspend.
It was a friend of mine – also a student of Japanese – who really got me into Dazai. I think he described Dazai as “a star, but a bit of a twat, too”. Well, Dazai was what might be called ‘buraiha’, I believe. How would you translate that? Brat-pack? Fuck-up? Something like that. No Longer Human is easily in my top ten favourite books of all time. The irony for me is that, despite the title, it must be one of the most human books I have read (a bit like that sane/demented paradox you mentioned, maybe). I think that’s the appeal of Dazai. He’s very much like a friend, and like someone you think that maybe you are. I know that I’m not Dazai, though, mainly on account of the fact that he was apparently popular with the ladies. Seems like they were lining up to commit suicide with him. I agree with my friend’s diagnosis that many people – especially in Japan – seem to overlook his sense of humour. I suppose you could say he was, in many ways, a version of the archetypal clown with a tear in his eye.
I have another friend (believe it or not) who I seem to recall once said that I could be Kingsley Amis to his Larkin, but I rather thought it was the other way around. Apart from anything else, I’ve read Larkin and haven’t read any Amis. Anyway, Amis was the naughty one, wasn’t he – the lovable rogue or some such. Larkin was the staid, unsociable one.
[I haven’t read anything by him either but his name is awesome. I feel like he could get away with anything just because of his name. Like he’s walking down the street kicking homeless people and grabbing women’s asses and then smiling really loudly and screaming ‘KINGSLEY AMIS! KIIINGSLEY AMIS!’ and no one can do anything about it]
Salammbo… is the first thing that comes into my head here, because it’s the only Flaubert I have read, though I have read it at least twice. It made quite an impression on me as a teenager. For some reason, though, I’m rather a butterfly in my reading, and even when something like this leaves a lasting impression, I don’t always follow up by reading the author’s other works. I am tempted by The Temptation of Saint Anthony, however. I believe it took him half a lifetime to finish.
The most average of the Doctor’s assistants. I don’t mean that unkindly, since (the old) Doctor Who is to me, like Morrissey, sacred. I think for the most part the assistants were meant to be average. In any case, it was a rather ramshackle programme, and a good example of artistic serendipity. I mean, it was really only meant as a schedule-filler back in 1963. The new Doctor Who is rather too calculated, I think, and rather too keen to get away from the image the old programme had of being for anoraks. Anyway, Sarah-Jane Smith was rather a plucky girl, wasn’t she? I suppose that there was something about her that typified the innocence the programme seemed to have at the time.
However, my favourite assistant was probably the second Romana. I’ve heard people say they found her annoying because she spoke as if she came from Cheltenham Girl’s School, or something. But such opinions are not worth tuppence – they are the result of the snobbery inherent in the British class system. If you’re not a snob here, then you’re an inverse snob. It’s all rather tiresome. But to get back to the point, Romana the second, played by Lalla Ward, really had something about her of the enigmatic presence of Tom Baker’s Doctor, and was the perfect counterpart to him. Interestingly, of course, they married – off-screen, I mean. I found that quite romantic and touching. Watch City of Death, and see them running hand in hand across some Paris park at the end, and tell me it’s not the most romantic thing ever!
[It is. That is probably the best story for that reason. They were the best Doctor/companion team for that reason. The other amazing thing about her in that story is that her hat always stays precisely attached to her head even when she slants it back and gravity should logically take over, like when they're running around together. I always assumed the Time Lords had mystical gravity powers that allowed them to wear hats at angles that should not be allowed by conventional time and space (see also: Peter Davison in some of them). Anyway, watching that story as a child made me think being an adult would be like that – I wanted to meet a Romana. It’s still sort of like that - like, Wataya Risa is sitting at home thinking ‘Despite my mass popular success and publishing deals, no one understands me...why can’t I meet a really tall and handsome and coldly sarcastic Western boy I can run around holding hands with and then collapse together in a field of marigolds?’ Then someone sends her the link to this blog, etc. (*cough* hint...hint...*cough*)]
11.) Lastly: this blog is ostensibly film-based, so list some of your favorite films.
Tod Browning’s Freaks
I think this is, apart from anything else, a film made to have stills extracted from it. Many of the stills from this film are works of art in themselves. Of course, this is an utterly unique film, since, apart from anything else, from the point of view of political correctness it’s totally beyond the pale. I can’t help thinking, though, that it explores people’s feelings about those who are physically and mentally different in a frank and compassionate way that no politically correct treatment could ever achieve. It’s like the darkest and most poetic fairy tale you’ve ever heard, and there’s also, for me, a strange futurism about the images here.
I am, myself, utterly fascinated by the idea of ‘freaks’. Obviously there’s something sexual in the abhorrence with which some people regard deformity and so on. But I think sex is also what ages us. Somehow, because these freaks are never ‘in’ on the circle of sexuality, the gene-pool of the chosen ones, the curse of age does not apply to them so much. Right from the start they had to base their lives on something other than sexual inclusion. I think this is also the proper position for the artist – to be the freak outside of the sexual gene-pool of the chosen, the freak who never ages, but is always simply a freak.
I read a review of this film (after I saw it) in what Alan Moore might describe as a ‘monodextrous’ publication. The caption ran something like, “Heavenly Creatures proved there is a market for films about murderous schoolgirl lezzers chasing giant imaginary butterflies.” Too right there is! My kind of film.
This film is just mad. I suppose that’s why I like it.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
To me this film is a really significant addition to the whole Mishima legend, just as The Man Who Fell to Earth is a really significant addition to the whole Bowie legend. I’m not sure how many times I’ve watched this film, but it must be at least eight. In Houellebecq’s essay on Lovecraft, there’s a section where he talks about the ritualistic function of certain kinds of literature. He’s talking mainly, I think, about people who basically write the same story each time (apart from Lovecraft, the other example he gives is the Sherlock Holmes series of adventures). I quote therefrom: “To create a great popular myth is to create a ritual that the reader awaits impatiently and to which he can return with mounting pleasure”. I suppose, although his work was not quite the repetitive kind that Houellebecq is talking about, I feel something similar in relation to Mishima. Maybe Mishima has even given us the ultimate in all literary rituals by the way that he committed seppuku. This film shows brilliantly how his literary output and his suicide were intertwined. I have no doubt that his suicide really was a work of art (and I even think that’s a more compassionate way of viewing it than simply thinking he was mad). It’s also a ritual in which I feel a desire to involve myself from time to time. I find it utterly compelling. I’m even envious that he was able to kill himself in such a way.
Part of the ritual, as presented in this film, is the soundtrack by Philip Glass, which I have on CD, and which I often play in the background as I write.
[My favourite part in that movie is the re-enaction of Kyoko no Ie where the Osamu character is getting beaten down and cut by the female gang boss and his mother is getting beaten down by her as well. I usually like any movie where a woman is being violent or hurting someone. Azumi and Audition are good like this, and also Gozu and Visitor Q by Miike, where older women start lactating too much and it becomes threatening]
I just love the way this is shot, the atmosphere. It’s perfect for me, because evocations of pre-Meiji Japan are already otherworldly to me, in a weirdly nostalgic way, and this has the added otherworldliness of rather eerie folklore into the bargain.
I never hear anyone talking about this film, but it’s really one of my all-time favourites. It’s a kind of dark comedy, but there aren’t really any laugh-out-loud points in it. It concerns a little boy who suspects his parents are cannibals who are feeding him human flesh.
There’s something truly unusual about the child’s-eye-view of the world this film gives, you know, the paranoia that can result from being a child and having to believe all the bullshit you’re given from the adult world, trying to work things out for yourself, but not knowing who or what you can trust. There’s also a fantastically eccentric turn from the girl who plays the boy’s friend or neighbour. She also distrusts the adult world, but she’s much more knowing than our boy hero. I’m not sure who the actress is, but I’ve seldom seen such a charismatic performance from a child actor.
Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (The Donald Sutherland version)
I tend to consider myself an individualist. If I have a religion, then that’s probably it. To me, evil is embodied by all that is impersonal, and good, if there is such a thing, by all that is personal. Therefore, this film, to me, ranks alongside works such as Nineteen Eighty-Four as a kind of picture of the triumph of evil. Some people have – ridiculously, I think – tried to read it as paranoia about communism. These literalists obviously think science fiction is necessarily reactionary, but it’s really only their own shallowness that they’re reading into it there (they’ve probably already been ‘snatched’ themselves). The true concern of this film goes way beyond mere politics. It really is about the human soul, and the dilemma of the human soul. The bodysnatchers have no emotions, but this means they also have no conflict between themselves. By absorbing others into their ranks they will remove all conflict from the world. For me, the pivotal moment of the whole film is when the hero and his lover are captured by a former friend, who has now been converted and is one of the bodysnatchers. He’s holding a hypodermic syringe and is about to put them to sleep to convert them, too. I forget the exact order of the dialogue, but the ‘friend’ is explaining what’s about to happen to them. The hero says to him, “I hate you.” His friend says, “Well, I don’t hate you. I don’t love you either.” Then the hero turns to his lover and says, “I love you.” His friend, looming closer with the syringe, says, “Soon you won’t love or hate anyone.”
So, there you have the whole human dilemma in a rather chilling and mind-blowing little nutshell.
I thought Steve Buscemi was really good in this. I very much identified with his character. Thora Birch was also very good, although I keep wanting to call her ‘Thora Hird’ for some reason.
This is a fairly recent film. I liked the way it subverted the whole samurai genre with some fairly feminine kind of values about nurturing loved ones and so on. To the world at large, many of the clichés that represent Japan are violent or harsh ones. These do, of course, have their fascination, but in terms of the Japan that I know, that I have lived in, while there is really a great deal about the place that I dislike, I think that Yamada Yoji, the director, is very good at capturing that side of Japan that I did like, and about which I tend to feel nostalgic. I suppose it’s a kind of warm, sentimental side.
Yamada Yoji also directed the record-breaking Otoko wa Tsurai Yo! series of films, of which I am a fan, for the same reasons. It’s a version of Japan that’s almost real, but that certainly should be real. The films are, of course, hugely populist, but in a good way, populist because they are about people. I mean, I don’t get the sense they are the result of some advertising executive shit’s market research into how to manipulate people, they are really and truly of the people.
Once again, many thanks to Quentin S. Crisp for going through with this interview and articulating so well (without seeming to try) most everything I agree with. Be sure to get more wholesome Quentin S. Crisp goodness on a regular basis from his blog, The Directory of Lost Causes.