I first met Garth Greenwell when we were both undergraduates. At that time, Garth had studied music and wrote very beautiful poetry. His native talent with the English language was evident to anyone who met him or saw him speak. His commitment to writing was inspirational; even as a young student, he lived in a room with two cats and many, many hundreds of books. He could talk about poetry for hours, and everything he said was formulated in eloquent, unpredictable sentences. Twenty years have passed since then, as have many poems, three books of prose, and thousands of miles between us. Garth and I have since crossed paths in Michigan, Washington, DC, New York City, Iowa, Texas, and several times in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he lived for a number of years and where all of his books are set. He still speaks in more beautiful sentences than anyone else I know. There is simply no one like him, no one so able to give musical shape to ideas both on a page and in person. His books, the prize-winning novella Mitko, the much-acclaimed novel What Belongs To You, and now the new work, Cleanness, all vibrate with intelligence and passion, and with exquisite control of language.
Garth Greenwell has received the British Book Award for Debut of the Year, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for six other awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, What Belongs To You was selected as a best book of 2016 by over fifty publications in nine countries, and is being translated into a dozen languages. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, A Public Space, and VICE, and he has written criticism for The New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and the New York Times Book Review, among others. He lives in Iowa City. When we conducted this conversation, Garth was in Iowa and I was in Atlanta, so the following took place over email.
As I was reading Cleanness, I couldn’t help but think of lines from Louise Gluck. “I thought / that pain meant / I was not loved. / It meant I loved.” I thought also of Catullus’s famous line: “I hate and love.” Your work captures this tension with enviable clarity and precision. Can you speak a little bit about this?
The whole point of art, for me, is to give us tools to explore feelings or situations or dilemmas that defeat our other ways of making meaning. When a situation is so vertiginous, so ethically complex, so emotionally fraught, that I feel like I’m staring into an abyss—that’s when I feel moved to make art, when I feel I need the peculiar tools of fiction to figure out what I think. I mean, to inhabit my bewilderment. I think art is the realm in which we can give full rein to the ambiguity, uncertainty, and doubt that we often feel we have to suppress in other kinds of expression—in our political speech, say. I think an ability to dwell in ambiguity, uncertainty, and doubt is a central virtue of humanness. I think it’s crucial to any thinking that might adequately capture the complexity of reality.
Between is the word reviewers of your work mention most often. Your work is described as mapping the territory between vulnerability and sustainability, between love and alienation, between desire and shame, between passion and confusion. Where do you locate this “between”?
The “Ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds,” Stevens calls for at the end of “Idea of Order at Key West” have always seemed to me like a goal of art. I’m drawn to art that expands and multiplies complexity, art that seeks ever finer gradations of feeling and thought. When do we ever feel a single feeling, or for long? When are we ever wholehearted? How long can we stay in a single place, or stay there happily? Between-ness is the human condition, it seems to me. Certainly itinerancy has characterized my life. Between-ness is also the condition of art. We love to draw lines and borders. Desire and art-making are border-crossing impulses. Promiscuity—an eagerness for mixture, excitement at the new things arrived at through unexpected encounters—is one of the virtues I most admire in thinking, in art-making, in life.
I wonder if you could also speak about the book’s existence between Europe and the U.S.? I mean this about both the physical location—you have spent many years in Bulgaria—and also in terms of literary influences—James, Mann, Sebald, among others, are an influence on your work, and yet your writing is unmistakably American. Do you see Cleanness as a European book or an American one? Do these distinctions even exist for you?
I don’t know how much these distinctions exist for me. Certainly I think the conversation of art doesn’t care about them very much. I’ve always been turned off by a kind of assertive Americanism, and the American writers I love best, from Hawthorne and James and Baldwin to Alexander Chee and Yiyun Li, have all been cosmopolitan in their tastes and views. Of course, America is important to my writing—the landscape of the American South, the rhythms of American speech, the expansive, sometimes-redemptive, sometimes-toxic sense of American selfhood. What it means to be American is one of the subjects of my books, as it is of any book about Americans abroad. Bulgaria is important to the books, too. I was speaking Bulgarian every day as I wrote What Belongs to You. Often enough, I spoke only Bulgarian. The rhythms of Bulgarian—the most beautiful, the most musical language in the world, so far as I’m concerned—are part of those sentences, as is the cityscape of Mladost, the quarter of Sofia where I lived, which I also think is very beautiful, though maybe with a difficult kind of beauty.
Again, for me the great human virtue is promiscuity, the fact that we love mixture, that we are excited by collisions between cultures, languages, traditions. This is why I’m so disgusted by the rejection of this virtue by nationalists of various stripes—and also why I’m resistant to “stay in your lane” condemnations of “cultural appropriation.” Of course, encounters with the other are fraught with peril and—like any ethically meaningful human endeavor—inherently “problematic.” Of course, we need to be mindful and reverent as we attempt to reach across borders of various kinds. But any attempt to build walls—between bodies, between cultural traditions, between languages and aesthetics—is abhorrent to me.
The characters in Cleanness experience suffering. And yet, “Frog King,” at the very center of the book, is a story that opens up the possibility of profound happiness. When asked about that elsewhere, you responded, “To a certain kind of temperament—my temperament, I guess—the assumption that happiness is less interesting than suffering (“happy families are all alike,” etc.) and therefore a less worthy subject for art, seems natural, self-evident. But I think that assumption is wrong. It’s an aesthetic failing but also a moral one, it seems to me now, to see happiness, even very ordinary happiness, as somehow less profound, variegated, interesting, less accommodating of insight, than other kinds of experience. I worry sometimes, in contemporary fiction, that we assume trauma is the most interesting story we have to tell.” I love that answer, and wonder if you could expand a bit?
Well, one of the differences between the books is that I hope Cleanness is better. What Belongs to You was my first attempt to write fiction, and I do think Cleanness does things I couldn’t have managed in the first book. Its canvas is broader. There are many more characters, many more settings. And yes, I hope that there are many more emotional notes. We all have our particular temperaments—they aren’t things we can justify or defend—and mine tends to a tragic view of life. My tendency is to feel profundity and resonance most immediately in melancholy things. But I want the art I make to be bigger than my temperament, and it is among my central beliefs that any human experience, any human feeling, is profound when we explore it with the right tools.
When it comes to “The Frog King,” there was also a kind of existential imperative. I love the characters at the heart of the book, and the book is often quite hard on them, and I wanted to give them a kind of idyll. I wanted to allow them a less complicated happiness than they get in the rest of the book. I found that chapter incredibly hard to write, and weirdly devastating. It’s the lesson of Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy,” I guess—if you want to be heartbroken, take happiness as your theme.
One way in which Cleanness is a departure from your previous work is its frank and candid depiction of sexual intimacy. You said, in another interview, that “sex is one of our most charged forms of communication, and that makes it a unique opportunity for a writer. One thing that interests me is expanding charged moments and dissecting their emotional intricacies; in that way, sex is a kind of provocation, a challenge.” You also said, “Sex is inextricable from philosophy. It is a source of all of our metaphysics. It’s the experience that puts us most in our animal bodies, and yet also gives us our most intense intimations of something beyond those bodies.” Might you speak a bit more on this, specifically as it applies to Cleanness?
The prejudice against writing sex in Anglo-American literature is something that utterly baffles me. What a bizarre thing it is to claim that this central, profound territory of human life is off-limits to literary or artistic representation. Sex seems to me one of the densest and most intense human phenomena, one of the things I find it hardest to think about—and so something I want to think about in art. The biggest surprise to me about the reception of my first book—other than the fact of there being any reception at all—was how much discussion there was about the sex in it. There isn’t very much sex in it! It said something about the culture of mainstream publishing in America in 2016 that a novel with maybe three or four pages of explicit sex between men could seem surprising.
In Cleanness, I wanted to think about sex much more deeply—as a form of sociality, as an excavation of the self, as an attempt to engage ethically with the other, an attempt that often fails. I wanted to try to get to the bottom of the abyss desire is for me. Of course, one never gets to the bottom of an abyss, an abyss has no bottom—but I had the experience, especially writing “Gospodar” and its companion chapter, “The Little Saint,” of going far enough I was afraid I wouldn’t find my way back. I think sex and desire are great revelations, often but not always comfortless revelations, of our ethical capacities and limitations, of our porousness to elements of culture we might want to inoculate ourselves against. I wanted to write them in all their changes, as modes of sustained intimacy, as modes of encountering strangers, as modes of power and submission. I wanted to think about the way that sex and desire lead us to precipices of various kinds. Sex can go terribly wrong, and the book does explore sex as trauma. But it can also go surprisingly, even miraculously right, and I hope the book also explores how sex can be reparative, maybe even redemptive. How it can expose us to experiences of overwhelming joy.
“Cleanness” is the title of a fourteenth-century Middle English alliterative poem by an unknown author. In that text, “cleanness” has a religious or metaphysical quality. Your Cleanness mentions the word itself only once. Your narrator says, “Sex had never been joyful for me before, or almost never, it had always been fraught with shame and anxiety and fear, all of which vanished at the sight of his smile, simply vanished, it poured a kind of cleanness over everything we did.” Can you say more on what this word means for you?
No concept is more alluring, more potentially inspiring, or more dangerous than cleanness. I wanted to think about the different ways we use ideas of cleanness and filth, how we apply them to geographies, to desires, to bodies, in ways that confuse the physical and the metaphysical. “Are you clean?” on gay cruising apps, is a question about HIV status. The poem you reference is a retelling of several Bible stories, including the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is the nightmare version of the cleanness that rage for purity leads us to. That rage is always a response, I think, to the fear many people feel in the face of the desire we feel for filth. One of the journeys my narrator is on is an attempt to shape a life that accommodates both urges, that acknowledges and makes room for his competing desires for purity and for filth.
I hope we can speak a bit more about content and form. Speaking elsewhere about the new book, you say, “Desire is the great inciting incident of plot, because it’s an impulse that engages our wills … Desire is something that happens to us, something before which we’re prone; it defeats our will and disrupts all our intentions.” Can you expand?
I think that’s true about desire as a narrative device, that it’s almost uniquely interesting in the way that it at once takes our will from us—we don’t get to choose what turns us on—and itself becomes our will—we’ll go to great lengths to satisfy our desire. That’s true of the desire that motivates art as well. We make many choices as we make art, some of them agonizing, but we don’t get to choose what moves us, what we feel compelled to make.
I hope that both of my books explore desire not just in their content but in their construction and their style. I think this is true at the level of how the books are put together, the way their form pushes against linear plot, striving to inhabit a kind of lyric or queer time. But I feel it most intensely at the level of the sentence. The kind of sentence I’m drawn to, which constantly falls back on itself in correction or hesitation or defeat but is also drawn forward by the demands of rhythm and cadence, feels mimetic of desire to me, even of sex. It also feels mimetic of thinking, or of the kind of libidinal thinking that happens in my writing. I don’t feel that sentences are containers for thoughts that precede them. The sentences, the pressure of syntax, the pleasures and possibilities of rhythm and cadence, produce the thought. In that way, form and content are inextricable.
Your work has always been innovative in scope. You have published in various different genres, from poetry to literary criticism to short stories, a novella, novels. Your work has also been shape-shifting—what one might think of as a novella, Mitko, becomes a novel right in front of our eyes in What Belongs to You. What one might first assume is a collection of short stories—Cleanness— morphs into something else entirely. How did that happen?
None of this—the shifts from poetry to prose, the fact that the novella grew into something larger—was planned. I wish I were disciplined and confident enough to plan out a career and then embody my plan, like Zola did—or, well, maybe I don’t wish that at all. I like artists whose works feel at once monumental and contingent, hesitating, accommodating of error and accident. The various versions of Leaves of Grass, James’s revisions, Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. Not a thought, but a mind thinking. Art as object, but also art as action. The ideal is an object that still has the vibrancy, the dynamism, of the action.
Do you see Cleanness as a sequel to What Belongs to You, as a story told by the same narrator, in the same location? And, if so, will there be a trilogy?
I don’t think of Cleanness as a sequel to What Belongs to You. The books intermingle—their temporalities and characters overlap, but they also are autonomous, I hope. The first two or three pieces of what would become Cleanness were written while I was writing What Belongs to You, and I did have a sense of the projects as continuous. But they each had their own imperatives. It was clear that the first book would be very narrowly focused on the obsessive relationship at its heart. Cleanness is more ample. It lets in more of the world. My next book will be set in America, not Bulgaria, but it will intermingle with the first two in a similar way. I’m drawn to writers whose books feel at once like well-wrought, autonomous objects, and like a single, unfolding project. I don’t know what I will want to write in ten years, but right now, the idea of books that are both individual and porous is something that excites me.
I began this conversation with a few lines of poetry, so I would like to end it on poetry. When I first met you, you wrote and spoke only about poetry. I was worried you might abandon this engagement, but you have clearly continued the conversation. You recently published a beautiful interview with Frank Bidart in The Paris Review. What do you continue to get from poetry that you might or might not get from literary fiction?
For better and for worse, everything I do as a fiction writer is a result of having spent decades as a poet. Even though I haven’t written poetry in several years, poetry is still central to my life, and I still think of myself more naturally as a poet than as a novelist. I read poems every day. I still write a great deal about poetry. I teach poetry whenever I teach a fiction workshop. When I wrote poetry, I often felt as though I were sculpting language out of silence, trying to divorce words from their necessary relationship to time. Frank Bidart says this in one of his poems, that the goal is to nail something “outside time.” Writing prose, I feel language very much in time—the unit is the phrase or sentence, very seldom the individual word. The interrelation of syntax with time feels generative, a blessing. But I like feeling poetry ready to hand. I like feeling that it is possible to suspend the horizontal movement of prose and reach along the vertical axis of the lyric. Maybe that movement, from horizontal to vertical, from narrative to lyric, is one of the characteristic movements of my fiction, or maybe—I guess this feels more true to me—I’m trying to strike some quixotic, impossible middle ground between them.
I worry about the way that, for American writers, our reading and our identifications seem to be becoming more insular. Many of the fiction writers I know don’t read poetry. Almost none of the American writers I know read in other languages—few of them read widely even in translation. That seems a little tragic to me, and doesn’t bode well for the health of American literature. As an artist, I want to be curious, voracious, promiscuous—to use that word again. I want my sense of what art can do to be enlarged. To do that means turning away from the familiar—our familiar genres, our familiar languages, our familiar locales—toward experiences that challenge us and, especially, that make us question the orientation we’ve adopted toward the world. That turning toward the unfamiliar is something that desire encourages us to dare to do, I think. The writer in America has been professionalized to a perilous extent. I don’t think great art is likely to be made by professionals. I think it’s more likely to be impeded by the demands and values of professionalization. The ideal development of the artist is libidinal, I think, spurred not by the demands of the academy or the world of professional publishing, but by the imperatives of desire, by seeking out complicated pleasures.
Read Garth Greenwell’s “Godospar,” which appears as a chapter in Cleanness, in our Summer 2014 issue, and his Art of Fiction interview with Frank Bidart in our Summer 2019 issue.
Ilya Kaminsky is the author of Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press) and Dancing In Odessa (Tupelo Press). His awards include the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Whiting Writer’s Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award, Lannan Foundation’s Fellowship and the NEA Fellowship. His poems regularly appear in Best American Poetry and Pushcart Prize anthologies. Read his poem “From ‘Last Will and Testament’” in our Winter 2018 issue.
Last / Next Article