Saturday, November 20, 2010

“The most agreeable of executioners” - Steve Silkin on Cioran

GP: Steve, it’s such a pleasure for me to interview someone who met and talked with Emil Cioran. Reading your book “The Forbidden Stories”, I was a little bit puzzled by the detachment with which you approach your younger life. Beautiful and intriguing, your literature seems a casual expedition in a past assigned to you, rather than the past that you lived. It is therefore quite fascinating to see that you find solace in someone like Emil Cioran, who lived so intimately close to abyss and despair every second of his life. Is it because, as they say, opposites attract?

STEVE SILKIN: Cioran was more of a challenge than a solace. He had studied Bergson, but gave up on him because he said that Bergson “hadn’t seen the tragic aspect of life.” That sentence was a big influence on my first book, “The Telescope Builder.” I could’ve posted it on the wall above my desk, but I didn’t need to – it was constantly in my mind. I think you can find his influence in “The Forbidden Stories” too, especially in “Green Parrot at My Window,” “Euro-Looting” and “Song for John.” I don’t see myself as the opposite of Cioran. More of an heir, although I’ve always opted for narrative instead of his preferred forms, aphorisms and essays. I hope he would’ve liked my books.

(I also should add, in response to your note on the book, that some of the “The Forbidden Stories” are memoirs, others are based on actual events but fictionalized, and others are experimental fiction.)

GP: In one of our previous chats you said that you were very young when you met Cioran, and he insisted that the interview be in English “because he did not want any translation mistakes.” Tell us about that visit. His proficiency in French is legendary. How was his English?

STEVE SILKIN: I interviewed Cioran for the International Herald Tribune where I worked as a news clerk in 1985; he was 74, I was 28. I had studied French political institutions and the history of French literature at La Sorbonne, so I thought my French was pretty good, but he was wary. We did flip back and forth a few times, if I remember correctly, between French and English. He was fluent in French and his English was excellent.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t sure what he meant by “wives” when he explained his disdain for literary prizes – which always meant having to attend a ceremony and thank the benefactors: “If someone wants to give me money, they must do it unofficially – the way they give it to their wives – without the cameras and the press.” I thought he might be mixing up the French word “femmes” – which can be translated as “women” or “wives,” depending on context, and I thought that what he really meant was “women,” but “women” as in “prostitutes,” so I changed it to say what I thought he meant. Maybe I should’ve had more faith in his English. Mea culpa.

GP: You told me that “He was quite the raconteur, and he loved to chat about this and that. He was dressed casually, very relaxed, did not struggle for words or thoughts.” Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston, in her book “Searching for Cioran” mentions repeatedly Cioran’s reluctance to discuss “his Romanian past”, dismissing it as “de la prehistoire”. Did you approach this subject with him?

STEVE SILKIN: I knew that his father was an orthodox priest so I asked him what his parents thought of his writing. His second book was “On the Tears of the Saints,” which he acknowledged contained some anti-Christian statements. “My friends were flabbergasted, horrified. My mother – I should have published this book after the death of my parents. My father was disappointed. No, not disappointed. Amazed. Resigned.”

I regret that I did not ask him more about his youth. I have since learned that like many intellectuals of his generation in Romania, he was pro-fascist as a young man. I’d suggest that in later life he probably dismissed his early days as “de la pre-histoire” in order to avoid that issue. I wouldn’t have thought to ask. Nothing I encountered in his writing suggested any embrace of fascism or excuse for it.

I did ask him about whether he returned to Romania. I got the impression that he didn’t find it welcoming. “At the butcher shop, there are only the heads and the feet of the chicken,” he said. “So people ask what happened to the rest of the chicken. The butcher shrugs and tells them that it went abroad to finance the economy through exports.”

GP: Did you meet Simone? What did you think of her role in Cioran’s life?

STEVE SILKIN: I did meet Simone. She was charming and soft-spoken and I could tell she was very supportive. They had a very easy rapport. At one point I needed to use the facilities and she accompanied me down the hall – they shared the toilet with the other residents of the top floor. The reason she went with me: She brought a tissue and wiped off the light switch before I touched it. She seemed slightly apologetic and slightly embarrassed; I interpreted it as kindness and consideration. I suppose she thought the hygiene of her neighbors was less than ideal and didn’t want me to catch anything.

GP: Did you see his home office or his working place, his writing table?

STEVE SILKIN: I am so glad you asked about his work space! It was a small room, under the slope of the roof. His small desk was under the slope, where you would not have been able to stand up. We had been chatting about some of our favorite writers, and I mentioned Fitzgerald. He was delighted. “I am just now revising a study I wrote about Fitzgerald for a collection,” and he brought me in to show me the essay and his work on it. (I now have it in a collection called “Exercises d’Admiration.”) The room was about 10 feet by 10, and to say it was a chaos of books would be an understatement. They were on shelves and knee-high stacks on the floor. Some of the stacks had collapsed, others were on the verge. There wasn’t much room to move. I loved it!

GP: In one of your articles on Cioran, you mention: “He wasn't reading fiction anymore, only biography. ‘I'm no longer interested in problems, only their outcomes,' he [Cioran] told me”. But aren’t all biographies fictional, to a large extent?

STEVE SILKIN: Most biographies, I think, are researched, and, through whatever prism, at least attempt some documentary value regardless of how incomplete and unreliable they might actually be. I suppose he felt that he had learned what he could from fiction and was looking to learn what he could from “fact.”

GP: Tell us how his “History and Utopia” got Cioran a Parisian apartment, by Odeon.

STEVE SILKIN: One of the most intense moments of our visit was when we discussed the idea that a writer could not survive in modern times. He said that the end of the affordable weekly hotel room rate meant the death of modern literature. So a writer’s survival was a real issue for him. I had told him I was reading “Histoire et Utopie” and was finding it difficult to get through. He told me it wasn’t his best book, but his favorite because of this: When he was looking for an apartment, he told a real estate agent that he was a writer, and she expressed some interest. So at their next visit, he gave her his book, “Histoire et Utopie.” She seemed to like it and got him his small but comfortable flat on the top floor of a building in the heart of the Left Bank.

GP: He signed a book for you with these memorable words: “Aux plus agreables des bourreaux.” How do you interpret his words?

STEVE SILKIN: Yes, he signed my copy of “Ecartlement” (“Drawn and Quartered”) with the dedication: “To the most agreeable of executioners.” After I had asked his publisher if I could meet him in order to write an article about his life and work, I was told that normally he did not grant interviews, but he would meet me because he was intrigued that a young American was interested in his writing. So I imagined he didn’t like talking about himself too much. So instead of diving right in, I mentioned I had the same gas radiators at my place, and we quickly agreed that they were incredibly efficient heaters for their size. During the course of the interview, he asked me to stay for lunch, which Simone served us. We sat talking for a while after that, and I think we were having a pretty good time. Hence the inscription, which is perfect Cioran, isn’t it? It’s one of my treasured possessions.

GP: Tell us a bit about your own trajectory as a writer. What happened next to the young man that lives in the pages of your collection of “Forbidden Stories”? What are you working on?

STEVE SILKIN: I struggled for years trying to write the stories that would make up my first two collections, “The Telescope Builder” and “Too Lucky.” I would write first drafts and tear them up. Again and again. Then I spent years not writing because I knew I wasn’t ready. Then I went to a seminar with some writing coaches and learned some things about word choices and sentence construction. Finally, I think I was able to use the right tools to evoke the emotions I was trying to communicate. As I was finishing those two collections, I wrote the novel, “The Cemetery Vote.” As I mentioned above, some of the work in “Forbidden Stories” is experimental: I pushed myself to go new places in both style and content. I’m now working on a book based on the life of a high school classmate. I didn’t know him, but I later learned he led the most extreme, transgressive, self-destructive existence I’ve heard of, at least of my generation. It is a challenge. His widow came for a visit from Israel last summer and I interviewed her about his strange, sad life and death. I have a stack of notes and I’m still deciding how to give them a voice. That will be another challenge of seeing “the tragic aspect of life.”

STEVE SILKIN was born in New York, grew up in Los Angeles, traveled across Europe and studied at La Sorbonne. He began his career in journalism at the International Herald Tribune in Paris, then returned to California, where he has been working as a reporter and editor since the late 1980s. He has stood at the edge of the Sahara and visited the Oracle at Delphi. But his finest moment was when he escaped arrest for trespassing in a skyscraper under construction by fleeing from the LAPD on his bicycle.

His books can be purchased in paperback format via amazon or lulu, and are also available for Kindle and other e-reading devices via Kindle store and smashwords.