The Greek writer Amanda Michalopoulou is the author of eight novels, three collections of short stories, and more than a dozen children’s books. She studied French literature at the University of Athens, worked for many years as a columnist for Kathimerini, and now teaches creative writing at various Greek institutions. Her work has been translated into twenty languages; the first of her two novels to appear in English, I’d Like, won the National Endowment for the Arts International Literature Prize in 2008, and the second, Why I Killed My Best Friend, was short-listed for the 2015 National Translation Award. (Both books were translated by Karen Emmerich.) Her new novel God’s Wife, translated by Patricia Felisa Barbeito, has just been published by Dalkey Archive Press.
Michalopoulou spent this fall in residence at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, where I had the good luck to continue a conversation with her begun long ago in Athens. But it was only after she departed for Greece that we embarked on this interview via email.
The premise of God’s Wife is at once audacious and unsettling. Can you talk about the origin of your novel and the kinds of research you undertook to tell such an unlikely story?
Certain books start with a disturbing question. My question here was, What if God had a wife? How would she be, what would she expect from him, and what would he expect from her in return? The Bible is full of submissive women who wished to have many children and either followed their husbands or became prostitutes. I read somewhere that these women speak 1.1% of the words in the Bible. In this patriarchal view, God’s wife would be an introverted human being, an acolyte. But what if she didn’t comply with this model of thought because of her education? I played around with this idea for some time and in 2012 I started reading philosophical and theological texts in a more focused way. What would a girl married to God have access to? What would she want to read, especially if her husband was mysterious and reserved? I wanted to write a bildungsroman about a female protagonist who changed her views on life and love because of the books she read. This is my romantic view about education.
On the first page of God’s Wife, an epistolary novel written to an unnamed reader, the narrator declares, “Having lived for so long by the side of Him who created All from Nothing, I am finally creating something of my own. I am creating you.” How do you imagine your reader(s)?
I imagine every meeting with the reader as a miraculous one. The novel that shaped my view on this when I was very young was If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino. In this postmodern tale the reader is addressed directly. “You, the reader,” wrote Calvino playfully, and I felt like he was talking to me. It was a moment of perfect osmosis and I decided there and then that if I ever wrote books, I would also make the readers part of the plot.
And I have this idea when I rewrite that there is a sexless, ageless reader behind my right shoulder, reading and editing with me. I hear this voice saying, “Don’t repeat this, we know it. Don’t be so sentimental, don’t be so cerebral.”
The beguiling voice of the narrator makes me wonder whether you heard her like this from the beginning, or whether her voice deepened as you went along.
It deepened as she grew older. Writing about her young days and how she indulged in her love with God was nice and uncomplicated, but when she started to claim time and space and freedom for herself, she became more passionate and interesting. She wasn’t a nice girl anymore. Nice girls are decorative in novels. I prefer fiery, exasperating women like Madame Bovary or Pope Joan.
God’s Wife is divided into three parts, echoing Dante’s Divine Comedy—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso—and so I wonder whether this structure was in your mind from the outset, or did it occur to you during the writing of the novel? In what way are you in conversation with Dante? With other writers?
God’s wife keeps having passionate arguments in her mind with Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil, mystics and philosophers dedicated to God, but also with atheists like Lucretius and Empedocles. As for the Divine Comedy, it is an inverted metaphor all throughout; what would be conceived as paradise—the beginning of the wedding, the infatuation—is named Inferno in the novel. As the girl grows older and keeps asking questions and revisits the world with her husband, she finds herself in a kind of limbo. And when she accepts that freedom and solitude come at a cost, she finds her paradise. It’s quite the opposite of what society would consider a successful life.
The narrator’s relationship to time is complicated, as it is for every writer. Two examples from the early pages of the novel, when the narrator begins to come to terms with the consequences of having agreed to marry God: “I live without time—this state of atemporality soothes my husband.” And: “When I write to you, time exists once more. It shakes me, makes my skin crawl, because if time exists, then what am I doing here?” How do you think about time in relationship to this novel?
God’s Wife knows both worlds; the alarm clock and the twenty-four hours, but also the universe of all things godly. This is a strange state, it stirs up comparison. Is it better to wait passively for winter or to live in oblivion and forget the names of the weekdays? I guess there is a lot of my own anxiety about time and mortality here. But it was fun to invent the rules of atemporality, the way God feels about time and space. To imagine this felt like the longest, strangest meditation.
God’s Wife is your third novel to appear in English translation. What should American readers know about your earlier books? And how do you see this one fitting into your body of work?
In most of them the protagonists are women. They cook, they raise families, they study and write books, they are pregnant with children, pregnant with ideas, they travel a lot, they fall in love and out of love, they settle or refuse to settle. I know women’s worlds. I was raised by a grandmother who hung sheets and towels to dry between two olive trees, the most poetic early image of my life. I am interested in how women fit into their environment, what is expected of them. In this sense God’s Wife is a repetition of the pattern. How we become who we are because of, and despite, our genetics.
This novel includes, among other things, fascinating meditations on the nature of faith—in God, in the efficacy of the willing suspension of disbelief that certain forms of literature demand, and in the possibility of the narrator creating her future readers. What is the relationship in your mind between spiritual matters and the reality of the narrator’s daily life? How would you describe your own faith, if indeed your fictional meditations have led you in that direction?
A writer is a monk. I always had this enormous, naive faith in literature. When I first read the scene with the madeleine in Remembrance of Things Past, I thought that what happened to Marcel Proust’s narrator would happen to anyone with a madeleine and a cup of tea. I was sixteen and I bought a madeleine to dip in my tea, expecting a thrust of involuntary memory, like the one in the novel. What was I thinking? I didn’t have an aunt named Leonie and I didn’t live in Combray. It took me some time to realize that this awkward incident was meant to be a spiritual awakening. I was the narrator, his aunt, her village. I was the text. Isn’t this a willing, miraculous suspension of disbelief? Tasting the madeleine was my kind of Holy Communion after losing myself in the text. This is probably what Julia Kristeva defined as phenomenology of an immediate pure faith.
Religion per se is a wonderful theatrical act, and I don’t mean this derogatorily. I light candles in churches and incense in Buddhist temples, I am hypnotized by the repetition of prayers and the feeling of spontaneously created community. I can’t think of writers without metaphysics. Last month, in the Congregational church in Iowa City, I met Marilynne Robinson. This is my kind of miracle. On a more serious note, “there are no atheists on a turbulent aircraft,” as Erica Jong put it.
This novel is filled with comic bits. You note that “God’s wife wants to write her own version of the marriage and God is terrified by the idea of a testimony being written at all, as He is tremendously introspective and afraid of critique.” It is hilarious to contemplate a figure for divinity as a font of insecurity, which makes me wonder about the role of humor in your work and the range of registers you employ, from the philosophical to the fantastic, with plenty of slapstick comedy. How did you manage to synthesize so many different forms of storytelling?
Sometimes I ask my students in creative writing to write down an anecdote as a short story. I admire people who can tell a joke. At school, I was an awful storyteller and didn’t know how to seduce people with my stories, how to re-create a funny dialogue. I had l’esprit de l’escalier, as the French call it. The right answer came to me when I left a room after a humiliating or embarrassing moment. In a text, you have all the time in the world to re-create humorous, sarcastic, brave, or crazy answers. My kind of revisionism.
One of the first things I did before starting God’s Wife was to collect expressions that she would use when addressing her husband, like “God bless you” or “God willing” or “for the love of God.” And paradoxes about God, like “Thank God, I’m an atheist,” by Luis Buñuel, or “I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of him,” by Márquez. The Lacanian “What does it matter how many lovers you have if none of them gives you the universe?” reads like an anecdote, too. And hopefully readers will laugh when my narrator admits she is jealous of her husband’s past.
As for synthesizing: in fiction, harmony comes from contrast of light and darkness, as in photography. Everything becomes more intimate and tangible when we recognize the rhythms of life, its discouragements and jubilations. The books that made me want to write managed this without necessarily succumbing to realism. Think of the power of metamorphosis in extravagant Greek myths, in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Of the cruel humor in Isaac Bashevis Singer and Borges and Lucia Berlin. Of Hans Castorp, who carries in his pocket an X-ray of his beloved Clavdia’s thoracic cavity in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. I am talking about writers who take everything in—cruelty, fear, and tenderness. They are not looking for justice, or moral lessons. They are just dismantling life.
I understand that you read for two years before you began to write this novel. Can you tell us something about what you read and why, and how you knew when it was time to start writing?
For realism I read Spinoza, for idealism Leibniz. I wasn’t methodical; one text led me to the next and they all eventually read as a palimpsest. Nietzsche brought me to Neoplatonism, Plato back to Nietzsche. Hegel and the idea of an unalterable self brought me to Heidegger’s fixation on constant change. But I preferred the idea of decreation, the undoing of the self, as Simone Weil described it and Anne Carson embodied it. Still, I wanted God’s wife to start her reading in order; first Plotinus and his ideas about beauty and kindness, then German Romantics. But, well, if her teacher is not God but his library, shouldn’t she read instinctively, chaotically, like I did? Wouldn’t she suffer more if she had access to knowledge and still couldn’t persuade God to tell her how it all began? I started writing the very moment I understood that drama.
The third section, Paradiso, opens with a creation story, which is like nothing heretofore put down in words:
It all began when a yellow flame tore through the benighted chaos. What was it? Where did it come from? We will never know how that beginning came to be: whether it was God or chaos itself, for God and chaos are one. In the wake of that first flare, he invented a yellow flame and hung it in the darkness.
Among other things, we learn that “He created clouds to externalize His brooding,” that the Second Coming lies in the past, and that He colored the earth yellow at first, like the wings of his first butterfly, and then went for a more neutral color. “In those primordial times,” the Narrator explains, “my abstracted husband was drawn from invention to invention by a process of association. From butterfly to leaf, from leaf to tree, from tree to soil.” What inspired you to treat the origin of life on this planet as a kind of cosmic joke?
Among other reasons, because creation is a cosmic joke, isn’t it? The biggest joke, actually. I just offer a creative interpretation. My idea was to present God as a frustrated creator, a feeling all writers share. You start with this big megalomaniac idea to create a world, to change the canon, and in the middle of it you feel that something went very wrong. Some of the good things in writing happen by accident, you do things casually, randomly, move from the leaf to the tree, from details to the whole, go back, revise. It is a crazy choreography. But how can you revise creation? I had an idea about this revision, and I wrote the chapter frantically, laughing alone in my room. Then I felt it was too much and I used a verse by Robert Frost as protection— “Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee, and I’ll forgive Thy great big one on me.”
You note that the bulk of God’s Wife was written during writing residencies, and now that you have returned home from a residency at the International Writing Program I wonder if you could speak to the different ways you work when you are at home and abroad.
Well, years ago I left my job as a full-time journalist to write fiction. Two weeks into this, I received a grant to go write for six months in a castle in east Germany, called Wiepersdorf. I wrote my first novel, there and then, in rising tension, and it was one of those experiences that shape you for life. I made a strong Pavlovian connection, ever since I’ve been unable to write at home. The ceremony of creating a room of my own works at a deeper level: it erases fear and prepares my mind and heart to go wild. Strangely enough, in Iowa I only wrote poems. Not good poems, but still, what nerve!
Can you talk about translation and its influence on your work, beginning, if you like, with your academic studies in French literature?
I feel blessed, because my previous books were translated by Karen Emmerich, and God’s Wife by Patricia Barbeito, who are goddesses of translation. They are not only exquisite translators but also editors. The process of translation was like rewriting the book in English with them. I am sorry to say that I wasn’t a good student in my French translation class, in the sense that I always changed the French text. I guess I wanted to write so badly that I couldn’t be a disciplined translator.
Translation is of big importance for small linguistic communities. It was so nice to teach in the International Literature Today class at Iowa: I loved the students’ questions! But I kept thinking that the concept of international literature is more about identity politics, a way to include non-American literature in the U.S. simply for the purpose of political correctness. It is like we live in two separate words, two realities, the U.S. and the world. The biggest problem is that we are still being exoticized, foreign publishers expect us to speak as Greek priests, or Greek fishermen, they want to smell oregano and orange trees in our books.
Barbeito, noting that God’s Wife was published during the Greek government-debt crisis, writes, “At a time of harsh austerity measures and related humanitarian crises [the thousands of refugees from the civil war in Syria and elsewhere who have found shelter on Greek islands], it is perhaps appropriate that the novel is both austere and turbulent, wry and angst-ridden.” But this is as far as the analogy goes, since you have chosen to focus “instead on crises of another, parallel order.” Can you talk about the relationship in your work between politics and literature?
During the financial crisis, everybody was longing to read literature about the crisis, as if novelists had taken on the role of journalists. We were expected to write a report on what we saw before us. In that sense, it might seem like I am stubbornly out of context. Yet politics is so much more than our narrow definition of it, it refers to how we treat people, how we claim our rights. The ongoing crisis in Greece is much more than financial; it is existential. People are seriously depressed and suffering, students are constantly leaving the country, and while the Golden Dawn no longer has seats in Parliament, their slippery presence is constantly felt during demonstrations.
God’s Wife sprang out of a feeling of frustration. A frustration of the mockery that our political life in Greece had become. First with the financial disclosures, then with a pseudo-referendum from a leftist party that ridiculed our idea of the political Left, now with a conservative right-wing party that disguises itself as neoliberal.
While there might not be any allusions to the economic crisis in my novel, I hope that a Greek reader will recognize the tone of disbelief, the need for redemption. My way to fight preposterous politics is to go back to philosophy and use it as a prayer.
If, as you have noted, “we write books to ask questions, not to answer them,” what questions remained unanswered when you finished writing God’s Wife? Which is another way of asking, What questions are you interested in articulating in your next book?
My next book was autofiction, a novel called Baroque. It was published in Greece four years after God’s Wife, in 2018. I moved towards it keeping in mind the idea of decreation, the undoing of self. It is constructed in fifty chapters, fifty short stories, one for every year of my life. But they move backward in time, so the book finishes with the lovemaking of the parents and the baby narrator who can’t narrate without teeth. Another question that comes directly from God’s Wife is how the creator disappears into their creation, but this is valid for every work of art. A question that stayed with me and deepened was how God can be both far and near—longe propinquus, as Marguerite Porete finely put it. It’s a vertiginous spiritual question that is legitimate to ask every now and then, not only about God but about everything.
Christopher Merrill has published six collections of poetry, including Watch Fire, for which he received the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; many edited volumes and translations; and six books of nonfiction, among them Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars, Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, and Self-Portrait with Dogwood. He is the director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and an advisory editor for The Paris Review.
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