The New York newspaper for which this interview, conducted
by correspondence in 1972, was intended, refused to publish it.
My interviewer's questions have been abridged or stylized in
the following version.
Critics of Transparent Things seem to haw had
difficulty in describing its theme.
Its theme is merely a beyond-the-cypress inquiry into a
tangle of random destinies. Amongst the reviewers several
careful readers have published some beautiful stuff about it.
Yet neither they nor, of course, the common criticule discerned
the structural knot of the story. May I explain that simple and
You certainly may.
Allow me to quote a passage from my first page which
baffled the wise and misled the silly: "When we concentrate on
a material object . . . the very act of attention may lead to
our involuntarily sinking into the history of that object." A
number of such instances of falling through the present's
"tension film" are given in the course of the book. There is
the personal history of a pencil. There is also, in a later
chapter, the past of a shabby room, where, instead of focusing
on Person and the prostitute, the spectral observer drifts down
into the middle of the previous century and sees a Russian
traveler, a minor Dostoevski, occupying that room, between Swiss gambling house and Italy.
Another critic has said-
Yes, I am coming to that. Reviewers of my little book made
the lighthearted mistake of assuming that seeing through things
is the professional function of a novelist. Actually, that kind
of generalization is not only a dismal commonplace but is
specifically untrue. Unlike the mysterious observer or
observers in Transparent Things, a novelist is, like all
mortals, more fully at home on the surface of the present than
in the ooze of the past.
So who is that observer; who are those italicized "we"
in the fourteenth line of the novel; who, for goodness' sake,
is the "I" in its very first line?
The solution, my friend, is so simple that one is almost
embarrassed to furnish it. But here goes. An incidental but
curiously active component of my novel is Mr. R., an
American writer of German extraction. He writes English more
correctly than he speaks it. In conversation R. has an annoying
habit of introducing here and there the automatic "you know" of
the German emigre, and, more painfully yet, of misusing,
garbling, or padding the commonest American cliche. A good
specimen is his intrusive, though well meant, admonition in the
last line of my last chapter: "Easy, you know, does it, son."
Some reviewers saw in Mr. R. a portrait or
parody of Mr. N.
Exactly. They were led to that notion by mere flippancy of
thought because, I suppose, both writers are naturalized U. S.
citizens and both happen, or happened, to live in Switzerland.
When Transparent Things starts, Mr. R. is already dead
and his last letter has been filed away in the "repository" in
his publisher's office (see my Chapter Twenty-One). Not only is
the surviving writer an incomparably better artist than Mr. R.,
but the latter, in his Tralatitions, actually squirts
the venom of envy at the infuriatingly smiling Adarn von
Librikov (Chapter Nineteen), an anagrammatic alias that any
child can decode. On the threshold of my novel Hugh Person is
welcomed by a ghost or ghosts-- by his dead father, ! perhaps,
or dead wife; more probably, by the late Monsieur Kronig,
former director of the Ascot Hotel; still more probably by Mr.
R. 's phantom. This promises a thriller: whose ghost will keep
intruding upon the plot? One thing, however, is quite
transparent and certain. As intimated already in this exegesis,
it is no other than a discarnate, but still rather grotesque,
Mr. R. who greets newly-dead Hugh in the last line of the book.
I see. And what are you up to now. Baron Librikov?
Another novel? Memoirs? Cocking a snoot at dunderheads?
Two volumes of short stories and a collection of essays
are by now almost completed, and a new wonderful novel has its
little foot in the door. As to cocking a snoot at dunderheads,
I never do that. My books, all my books, are addressed not to
"dunderheads"; not to the cretins who believe that I like long
Latinate words; not to the learned loonies who find sexual or
religious allegories in my fiction; no, my books are addressed
to Adam von L., to my family, to a few intelligent friends, and
to all my likes in all the crannies of the world, from a carrel
in America to the nightmare depths of Russia.