A Thousand Questions to Alan Pauls

It was 6.45 am on Wednesday, November 19th. My neighbours were tormenting their crying and moaning baby with Barbapapa’s theme song. Every morning starts with a defeat against the clock and life itself. But that day was going to be different. Yes, different. I wasn’t going to break down the wall screaming «I’m calling the police!». I was about to interview Alan Pauls with the help of my faithful friend and companion Giacomo Buratti.

I spent about thirty-five minutes looking at my hair: I certainly couldn’t meet the author of A History of Hair showing off an improper hairstyle.

It was 9.15 and the regional train to Rome was five minutes late. Five minutes are nothing. Five minutes represent the tiniest setback that can happen on a regional train. The 9.15 train is also pretty quite. It’s too late for school children passing their homework before arriving at school, but it’s also too early for those who are skipping school, listening to Pitbull on their phones, filled with adrenalin and sweat. The 9.15 train is that of older boys who always look misplaced (they should be in bed or at school), they get off at San Filippo Neri or Gemelli to visit their grandma who’s just had a hip replaced or a creaking shoulder. A woman asked me if she could sit next to me: if she doesn’t sit in the train direction she’ll vomit. A girl in front of me was reading the flipback edition of a Dan Brown book. Nothing too worrying.

I met Tamara in front of the Coliseum. We were two hours early so we decided to go to a bar and reorganise our ideas. «I’ll take you to Rome’s gay street bars» Tamara told me. The bar we picked had some tables on the pavement, but the Sinhalese waiter who approached us with menus told us that everything was less expensive if taken at the counter. «A cappuccino? 3€ here, 1,50€ at the counter». We told him we needed a table to write and we didn’t want a continental breakfast, but clearly we didn’t convince him, for he kept repeating everything cost more at the table. When we ordered a cup of tea and a cappuccino he took the menus back and looked at us as if saying “I warned you, your loss”.

We’re about to interview the author of a book called The History of Money and we’re mistaken for beggars.

You know when people tell you Google is your friend? Well, it certainly isn’t our friend.

Giacomo and I are completely incapable of understanding the maps, but we liked to know how to reach Sur publishing house. In the end we decided to use the good old ask-and-you’ll-be-told method.

With a partially collapsed lung (mine) and the joy of a menopausal great tit (his), we finally got to the appointment’s place.

Pauls was having lunch: we took the chance to talk to Antonio, valiant press office. And then he came.

He’s handsome, the kind of handsome with a messy face, as if he had woken up just twenty minutes earlier, and yet he still managed to look sexy. He introduced himself, speaking Italian. He even kissed me, beautiful people clearly have a connection. Then we began the interview.

Your style is immediately distinguishable, made of very long sentences, subordinates, remarks, parentheses. Does it start from a growing nucleus or do your sentences follow one another in a flow? No, I tend to write a sentence that is already longer than usual and as I keep going I realise there’s still space for me to add something else. I fill it up.

Do you do this as you write or just when you rewrite your work?

I add things and the sentence expands. It’s a method I also use for the structure of novels. Sentences are the miniatures of a novel’s architecture.

So there’s a general wide structure in which other things can be inserted.

Not necessarily. The structure can also be pretty limited, but I always find a way to start a new sentence inside another one. It’s not necessarily long, I tend to work with the air I find inside it.

The names of the protagonist and almost all the other character of History of money are never actually stated. Yet, the names money acquires are discussed at length. This part comes to my mind: «The term luca is used for a thousand pesos, partly to shorten it, partly perhaps with the illusion that moving from the kingdom of numbers to that of words, something in that expanding chaos — the money universe — will finally calm down, fall into line, and return under control, at least under the control everyday language can exert on something mute».

I never thought about it but I like the idea. Nameless characters are quite common in my trilogy [History of Crying, History of Hair and History of Money]. I find it very hard to name my characters. If Kafka hadn’t made the use of initials so popular I would have done it.

So this is all not to plagiarise Kafka?

Well, the idea of a contemporary and anonymous character with no identity is kind of a commonplace. Yet, at the same time I prefer the characters of my stories to be as neutral as possible. I believe a name is a very strong identity definer.

How about language exerting its control on money? Can it be extended to reality in general?

I don’t think language is a means of control. I believe language has some kind of relationship with the world, but it doesn’t necessarily control it. I think it clashes with it, it surrounds it, it becomes its echo. The changing of money’s name is a historical fact, something that happened in Argentina and that I wanted to bring back to memory, for I think it’s crucial to society. The moment money acquires a new name is very traumatic, it’s as though people changed their language. That’s how I perceived it when I was a child.

In other interviews you’ve given, you’ve talked about literature as a conversation. Who’s your interlocutor?

Mainly the Argentinian literary tradition: I can find myself in it, and through it in other authors, especially European rather than North American ones. Argentina’s literary tradition is very dialogic, it’s not national (in the provincial meaning of the word), it has established various contacts with the European tradition. I’m very interested in Stendhal, for instance, or nineteenth century novels. I’m fascinated by modernist authors: Kafka, Joyce, Proust. That’s the kind of literature I enjoy reading.

Is it a backward-looking dialogue, then? Isn’t it achievable with contemporaries?

Yes, there is a dialogue. But I’m talking about the formative dialogue which made me become a writer. I do engage in some kind of conversation with my contemporaries, I talk with my generation of Argentinian writers, but I don’t feel a connection with other contemporary writers when I write.

Why not?

I don’t know. It seems to me as if it has been an important experience when I was in my twenties and up until I was thirty-five, but then I started thinking that writing was more of a solitary act. I believe group experiences are very decisive in strategic periods, when writers need to define themselves and find a place. It’s a political moment when writers have to be part of a group to a find their place among other writers and to defend their idea of literature against other ideas of literature. But then, from a certain moment on, this political activity tends to end.

Is this dissolution more of a stylistic-formal fact or a genre/field statement?

It is stylistic, but also political. What I mean is that writers try to define their position in some kind of war going on in that specific cultural field. It’s a war of position, it’s a war for ideas and power roles. You either win or lose a fight. In my case I don’t feel such a strong need for this family. It exists, but it’s something I’ve acquired as a second nature.

What’s the readers’ position in this matter?

I don’t know. Readers come quite late in the process. It’s not a crucial matter as I’m writing. You can establish a conversation with readers, but only later. If I think of an ideal reader as I’m writing I think of other writers of a certain family, a certain group. I guess when I come up with long complicated sentences I’m already thinking about a certain kind of reader, but it’s not explicit, it’s not a deliberate choice. I think of readers as people who can bear a certain amount of work, a certain kind of reasoning, not as someone who needs to be satisfied. If those who read my work aren’t willing to do this part of the work, then there’s no possible conversation.

Is the readers’ work parallel to yours or do readers have to adapt to you?

Readers don’t adapt, they suggest their position, they start a relationship with the text in a very unpredictable way, a way that I can’t foresee. I can make suggestions and readers can follow them, go against them, have a hysteric reaction. That’s something completely beyond my control, and I like it to be that way. I would be very disappointed by a reader who thought the exact same thing I think about what I write.

In History of Money the protagonist shows a cinema class Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. In the film scene when gold coins are poured over the tsar’s head, he pauses the video and the freeze-frame is that of the film on which it has been recorded: a porn movie. Are money and pornography similar? Are they symbols of absence on some level?

They’re not actually elements that require some kind of absence: in fact, money and pornography show something, they make it extremely visible and put it in front of everyone’s eyes. That’s the difference between eroticism and pornography: the former plays with what you can hide, the latter is the most explicit thing ever. Money, which in my novel is always cash, is material and displayed. Cash could represent the pornographic version of “erotic” money, that is credit cards or checks. Nowadays, money is disappearing and cash is becoming some kind of obscene materialistic thing. Society tends to distance itself from material money. That’s why I thought highlighting that object could convey an obscene and shameless effect.

Is money substituting relationships, then? Or does it strengthen them? Does it satisfy the need for relationships, becoming masturbation?

Money is a drive, it boosts relationships, forces, situations. It’s an object of desire and it’s scary because people are always afraid to lose it. My novel deals with the middle class. It’s not about people who have lots of money nor people who have very little money: it’s about those who are afraid to lose the little money they have. At the same time, it’s a novel about the riddle money embodies, the enigmatic side it has when it generates conjectures, stories and hypothesis.

The protagonist’s parents squander a lot of money in various ways, whereas their son feels a sort of pleasure in paying everything. Is that an effect of the parent-children relationship? Or can it be applied to Argentinian society in the 70s? Or to the modern one?

I’m not so ambitious as to think that the Western World acts as the family of my novel. I usually think in a much smaller scale. I talk about how a specific group of people acts and I don’t think this necessarily represents how fathers universally act towards their children. I’m merely interested in the role money has among family members. I believe that families are always analysed from a psychological and sexual point of view, whereas an economic analysis never takes place. I believe family is a profoundly economic institution in which money is very important and very defining. I think the way money circulates inside a family — especially among adults — generates a great curiosity in children. Since we’re used to talking in psychoanalytic terms, we generally think children make many hypothesis about their parents sexual life. Yet, I think money and the way money is looked at and earned, is much more enigmatic. What I wanted to tell about childhood is that the attention children pay to money is as great as that paid to their parents sexual life. The child of my novel is very sensitive to the appearance and disappearance of money in his family.

Why all this shame? Did we need a money-oriented Freud?

Money — cash, I mean — is something that touches our body, it bears the traces of all the bodies that have touched it. Think of the amount of cocaine that is said to be on banknotes. Money is a very abstract, yet material thing. It’s a convention, the relation between a piece of paper and its value is unnatural. But banknotes in fact carry the chemical traces of those who have touched them and the cocaine that has been sniffed through them. Cash is a very unsettling entity and it’s kind of a taboo issue. People don’t usually like talking about money, they’re ashamed, they never ask, and when they do ask it’s because of a very precise aim. It’s certainly not a topic people handle with ease, and that’s one of the reasons why I think money is being more and more concealed and turned into something else.

Then it’s somehow a taboo that involves the body, being money one of its extensions.

Sure. It’s a dirty and promiscuous appendix, for it has been shared by many people. It’s almost orgiastic: many people, often unknown people, have possessed it. It’s a filthy form of social sharing. At the same time cash is almost a synonym of illegality. If I pay with my credit card or a check you can identify my personal story, but you can’t do that with cash. It doesn’t say anything about the person using it. Cash is totally social, communitarian and communist, and at the same time it allows the person who uses it to remain anonymous. When I was in the United States I had to pay two thousand dollars for a flat: the people who had to take the money were automatically paralised, they couldn’t touch those banknotes because it meant I was a drug trafficker. Cash can only come from crime. In that sense it’s unsettling.

There’s a special column on inutile: money interviews. How could the author of History of Money avoid it?

[He smiles and says that since he doesn’t pay taxes in Italy he can answer anything.]

At this precise moment, how much money do you have in your wallet?

[He puts his hand in the right pocket of his trousers and takes out some wrinkled banknotes. He says he doesn’t use a wallet, he wants to keep money near his body.]

110 Euros.

How much money are you going to spend on books?

Zero.

Would a greater amount of money benefit your writing?

No. There’s no connection between the amount of money I have and the beauty of writing.

A person you care about kills him/herself. You decide to tell his/her story in a novel. The novel is a success and you earn quite a lot of money. Do you feel guilty?

No. I’d feel guilty if I had the possibility to help him/her, but didn’t do anything. If I want to use his/her story in a novel I have every right to do it.

Would you ever write a book only not to give the advance back?

I’ve never received an advance. I’ve always been paid in the end.

But would you?

No. I’d give the advance back without writing the book. I can’t write for money. I want what I write to have a connection with money. I want to be paid for what I write, but I don’t write for money. Money regarding what I write is a form of profit and that’s what I want it to be. I don’t want it to be a professional economic system. I don’t like professional writers.

Is that because it diminishes the writers’ role?

No no. I don’t want my writing to be part of an economically-regulated system, I prefer it to be alien to any kind of economic system. I don’t want it to be for free, I don’t write for art’s or beauty’s sake. I’m interested in the relation between money and literature, but I like the connection between what I write and how much I get paid to be completely bizarre and irrational. I think making this relation a professional one means mixing something very eccentric with something that can only make it more boring.

Would it be similar to being an employee?

No, I really like writing as if I were an employee, like Kafka. But there’s no natural and legitimate relation between what one writes and how much that’s worth. It would be equally crazy if they paid you two Euros or a million Euros. There’s no reason why you’re paid a million or just two Euros. The same happens in History of Money when the protagonist asks how much terrorists ask for someone’s release. That’s why a work by Jeff Koons costs 50 million dollars and not ten thousand. There’s no likely relation.

Is this because a literary work doesn’t actually have its own economic value?

No, it does have an economic value. It’s the attribution of this economic value that is absolutely whimsical. It’s one of the most absurd and artistic things to exist.

We gave Alan Pauls inutile’s latest issue. He asked if he had to pay for it. He’s really obsessed with money, then.

Written by Tamara Viola & Giacomo Buratti.

Originally published at rivista.inutile.eu on December 3, 2014.

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