Marianne Apostolides is the author of five books, most recently Sophrosyne (BookThug, 2014) and one play. She’s a recent recipient of the Chalmers Arts Fellowship; her previous book, Voluptuous Pleasure: The Truth About the Writing Life, was listed among the Top 100 Books of 2012 by Toronto’s Globe and Mail. She lives in Toronto with her two children.
This interview took place in the fall of 2014 via e-mail.
Malcolm Sutton: Your new novel, Sophrosyne, triangulates three main characters—a young man, his mother, and the young man’s love interest. Into the centre of what becomes an intense physical and emotional relationship among the three, you draw an idea from ancient Greek thought—an idea that seems to have been left behind in history to the degree that there is no adequate translation of it into English. In a sense, your novel is a recovery of this ancient idea into the contemporary context of the protagonist’s life. Perhaps without fully defining sophrosyne, could you say something about the process of recuperating an ancient idea and placing it at the heart of a novel?
Marianne Apostolides: Sure … I’d never heard of the term ‘sophrosyne,’ which is loosely translated as “self-control” or “self-restraint.” But then I was reading Plato’s early Socratic dialogues, curious to know what these little pieces of philosophy were about, and the concept leapt out at me. Sophrosyne is one of only four virtues identified by Socrates, which is kind of shocking … I mean, here is this man—at the foundation of Western philosophy—telling us that there are four pillars of virtue, and one hasn’t even made it into our contemporary vocabulary? That interested me.
I was already thinking about centering a narrative around a mother and a son—with the mother as a belly dancer—but I had no idea what the narrative was, or what I wanted to explore, other than the mother-son dynamic. Suddenly, I had this concept of self-control, which relates to body/ appetite/ desire and the way that humans mediate their animal impulses with rational thought. Now the narrative could take shape.
MS: The reader is thrown into, from the beginning of the novel, an emotionally heightened lesson between the mother, Sophia, and the son, Alex. We see them at first in the midst of a lesson on the meaning of Greek words: the mother posing questions to Alex in the Socratic method, with high expectations of the precision of his answers. Later, when Alex is older, he has formal education at a university, where we see him both in the classroom and in dialogue with a thesis supervisor. How important was the idea of the pedagogical lesson to your interrogation of sophrosyne?
MA: Well, I’m not interested in pedagogy per se, and I don’t want to give the impression that the book is dry or didactic—it’s anything but! It’s more like a torrent of suppressed emotion filled with the desire to understand …
The lessons you mention are just a type of conversation, where ideas represent the magnetic pole around which emotion, desire, and tension can flow.
While I’m not interested in pedagogy, I am interested in three related things: First, the intensity of this mother-son relationship—an intensity rooted in the ancient Greek idea that deep thought is inherently erotic … The whole of Western philosophy was based on the sublimation of sexual desire for teenage boys; it’s right there in the Socratic dialogues, including Xharmides, in which Socrates defines sophrosyne. Xharmides begins when Socrates glimpses the chest of a beautiful teenager whose tunic parts at the wrestling school. “I was on fire,” Socrates says; “I lost my head.”
Secondly, the notion that dialogue is a means toward knowledge and wisdom. This is especially relevant now due to digital media, whose basic format leads us into multiple discussions with a limitless number of people, all of whom are reacting to constant stimuli and data without being encouraged to stay with a thread of thought and follow it into its contradictions, entanglements, and openings. This will profoundly affect the way people think and question, and that’s worth exploring.
And finally, literature whose purpose is provoking thought rather than plot or character. In this case, I wanted to ask: in our current era—one of radical rupture in the way humankind relates to itself, the psyche of the individual, and the external world—how do we define ourselves as human animals? And how does sophrosyne help us in that self-understanding?
MS: That intense mother-son relationship that you describe—I’ve rarely seen it in literature; Bataille is the only writer who comes to mind, and there’s a French film, too, maybe something by Eric Rohmer or Louis Malle. Were there novels or films that influenced you in the writing of this relationship?
MA: No, I wasn’t influenced by any particular work of art; I was interested more in the general eroticism that runs through ancient Greek tragedy, myth, and philosophy.
The primary eroticism of the mother-son relationship has become commonplace since Freud; although he influenced many artists, including Bataille, those artists weren’t my source of inspiration or conversation. Bataille’s My Mother actually seems totally silly to me; it’s so over-the-top that it loses all eroticism. Sophrosyne is an exercise in seduction, temptation, and self-restraint—at least on the level of language, if not within/between the characters.
The Greeks linked eroticism to the desire to know: we transgress the bounds of mortal men when we seek to take, through our logic and language, the wisdom that is, and that’s therefore “divine.” In other words, transgressive desire resides at the origin of our search for wisdom and knowledge. At the end of this search is nothingness: there can never be complete satisfaction of the erotic desire.
These ideas about eroticism are at the core of the book: namely, the transgressive desire between Alex and his mom—a desire which is the blood and pulse of the novel; and the layered, slippery language and syntax that denies the reader mindless pleasure. (Mindless pleasure doesn’t interest me.)
MS: Regarding that slippery language and syntax: the style you develop for this novel is unlike your other writing (and writing by others), at least in the particular flow and construction. A key word for the aesthetic you develop is “because,” as though at the heart of the novel is a need for Alex—as the narrator—to explain something. “Because I was lying on your body …,” “Because my fingers are dug inside the dirt …,” Since what follows from “because” so often lacks a clear or obvious antecedent, what Alex means to explain is nebulous, but at the same time as weighty as his very existence. What led you to this stylistic decision? How important to you is the play between explanation and concealment?
MA: The style arose as a writing task—a conscious attempt to break the style of my previous book. It was nothing more than a writing exercise …
I should explain: I began writing Sophrosyne a week after my novel Swim was published. That book follows the thoughts of a woman as she swims in a pool; it uses slashes and em dashes—unusual syntax—all to create a long-arced, looped-back rhythm reminiscent of the body as it swims. That style made sense for Swim and the ideas and situations I wanted to explore. But when that book was done, the style wouldn’t go away … Every time I picked up the pen, the writing flowed back to that rhythm. It was incredibly frustrating!
I decided, therefore, to interrupt the language. Initially, I used lots of colons; then I began to sever a stretch of thinking, chopping a thought into multiple sentences, some of which started with “and” or “but.” From there, I began (unconsciously) to start sentences with “because.” The causal connection, in these early iterations, was not ambiguous; the antecedent was clear but unlinked, syntactically, from the subordinate clause. I wasn’t exploring existential questions here; I was simply trying to jam the rhythm of my writing so I didn’t get stuck in a literary rut. All the while, of course, I was building the narrative and learning about my characters.
That’s when interesting things started to happen …
Suddenly, content and style began to inform each other. The rhythm started to drive my thought; the use of “and,” “but,” and “because” became more complex, which allowed the ideas explored to become more complex. The two central concepts—sophrosyne and posthumanism—could be broached without enclosing the narrative in philosophical tedium. The language itself kept the narrative in a state of excitement and uncertainty.
But this was also one of the primary difficulties of writing this book, since the uncertainty—or “concealment,” as you termed it—extends to me: I do not know what happened between Alex and his mom …
During the five years I worked on this book, I sometimes thought I knew. But it was during those moments that I killed the narrative, trying to nail it down for myself and the reader. I needed to rewrite this book many times; as I did, I realized there were things I could not know about these characters and their past. This non-knowing made for a more intriguing book. It was also the most difficult challenge for me as a writer. It’s far harder to withhold, as a writer, than it is to reveal.
MS: That unusual punctuation you developed for Swim, and those grammatical disruptions you describe working into the syntax of Sophrosyne—I suppose I’m wondering a couple of things about self-conscious interruptions of language. First, would you consider interruptions to be at the heart of what is often called experimental writing? And second, are these interruptions in the positive, finding new language, or in the negative, resisting conventional, smooth language?
MA: Honestly, Malcolm, I don’t think writers are the best people to define their work … What I sense in my work, in the act of creation, is not the same as the way it’s received, as an object that’s defined and categorized. I guess I think the job of categorization belongs to other people; my job is to write the thing!
Nonetheless, you’ve asked a question I’ve been pondering; I’ll attempt an answer, so long as you indulge my roundabout response …
A few weeks ago, I was at the IFOA with my publisher; we were having lunch with an editor from New York who was asking questions about my writing. Things were going swimmingly, until I used the phrase “experimental writing.” She literally sat back in her chair, completely disengaged from the conversation; I think she picked some spinach out of her teeth, but maybe I’m making that up … The point is: the phrase, for her, signified writing that is obscure, abstruse, impossible to penetrate for no real reason except its own cleverness. “I want my books to have an emotional pull,” she said. “I need to feel connected on a human level.” A book, she concluded, can’t just be about language-play. I agree with her completely. But then I began to wonder whether I should call my writing “experimental,” and what that label means.
You ask whether “interruptions” are essential. I like that word and all it connotes, especially since it can encompass various sorts of interruptions: of syntax, or perspective and voice, or notions of time—synchronicity or leaps, folds, among past/present/future—or really any essential element of the novel … In other words, it’s not limited to syntax.
I would also add another dimension to the definition: namely, that the “experiment” is a response to the conventional form of the novel as it exists in the time the author is writing. My experiment will not be that of Virginia Woolf, because she changed what the novel can do. My job, then, is to explore an element within the contemporary form—an exploration that both enacts the novel and questions how and what a ‘novel’ is …
That’s a back-door way of answering the second part of your question, namely: there must be both a resistance and a movement toward—a negative, responsive impulse as well as a positive, progressive drive—within the writing. If you’re not “conversing” with the form—as it’s already known and experienced—then the experiments are mere anomalies …
In truth, though, it’d be impossible to write without a context. The only analogy would be a five-year-old whose artwork (seemingly) resembles Pollock’s—or my son’s scribblings that traipse through language with a zingy Dada flair …
Self-consciousness: that’s what defines experimental art. A heightened level of self-reflexivity. Interestingly enough, that also defines the human animal …
MS: Do you feel that your books are in conversation with other Canadian novels, in terms of exploring form?
MA: This is my guilty secret (or one of them): I don’t actually read enough Canadian novels to answer that question adequately. Certainly, there are various Canadian writers whose work I admire tremendously—Jenny Sampirisi and David Albahari come immediately to mind—but I wouldn’t say that I’m part of a conversation with them, nor that I have a grasp on the Canadian fiction landscape. Frankly, my writing converses more with artists of other forms—photographers, painters, and dancers especially—than with other writers. I think that’s why visual arts play such a huge role in Sophrosyne.
MS: On the topic of visual arts: Can you tell us about David Maisel’s photographs and why you chose to have Alex intersect with them? Was there a particular photo of his that you had in mind?
MA: Maisel is an L.A.-based contemporary photographer whose work ranges from aerial photos of tailings ponds and clear-cut forests (i.e., devastation on a mass scale, but rendered with abstraction and beauty), to photos of X-Rays of ancient sculptures, creating a gauzy image that emanates off the print, as if releasing the ethereal essence of an ancient work of art, to photos of canisters containing the ashes of cremated inmates in a decommissioned insane asylum—canisters whose metal has reacted over time, turning lurid shades of fuchsia, cyan, sea-green, magenta … In much of his work, I sense a gentle seduction toward the space of seeing—using beauty, unflinchingly, to lure us toward the place where we can contemplate the meaning of the “human beast.”
He’s got a great website, if people want to see for themselves: davidmaisel.com.
I chose to include Maisel’s images, writing ekphrastically if not (hopefully!) too ecstatically, for a couple of reasons.
First, I needed to introduce Alex to Meiko. I needed to get them talking—but I had to do that within the narrative constraint I’d established: namely, that the entire book consists of Alex’s thoughts to his mom. Rather than have Alex recount the scene of meeting this woman—a retelling that would ostensibly be for his mom, but would obviously (and jarringly) be for the reader—I decided to write in the present tense, with Alex and Meiko aware of each other as they move through the sensual space of an art gallery.
I could’ve created that space—that heightened attunement to physical sensation—by describing paintings that are recognizable to readers, or even by inventing images, as I did later in the book, when describing some of Meiko’s paintings. But I chose to include Maisel’s work because I think it illustrates an idea I was hoping to convey: the notion that mankind is moving away from a modernist or postmodernist framework for self-understanding, and moving toward an era of “posthumanism.”
Okay, so: I should step back to say what posthumanism is—other than a really atrocious and ugly word …
Basically, the theory says that mankind’s self-conception is radically changing, uprooted from the traditional humanist notions in which man is deemed to be graced by God with a conscious mind—a mind that lifts him above nature, allowing him to manipulate nature by learning and applying its abstract laws. We are not that creature anymore. We can’t sit comfortably in that idea of mankind. Why not? Well, as I see it, the forces driving this change are threefold: the omnipresence of technology; the absence of “God”; and the global environmental collapse. Those facts create a triangulation; within that space, the “human animal” resides. So what is the human animal now, in this era? How do we conceive of ourselves, in relation to self, society, nature, and “the divine”? And how does this self-conception affect how we behave—and how we will behave as changes hurtle forward, either technologically or environmentally?
Visual artists—far more than writers of literary prose—have comprehended the immensity of the changes facing humankind. Or, at least, they’ve responded to those changes with aesthetic and intellectual sophistication in a way I haven’t seen very much in fiction.
That’s also part of the reason I wanted to include Maisel’s work: as a way of acknowledging the profound alterations within humankind—and doing so by reveling in “successful” artwork (i.e., artwork that allows us to sense inside a depth of meaning, preparing the way for comprehension). Because we can’t know unless we’ve been brought to a place where knowledge can happen; that “place” is a physical one. “The body always leads, my love,” Sophrosyne tells Alex.
As a small side-note: after choosing to write about Maisel’s work, I discovered that Maisel studied at Princeton, which is where Sophrosyne takes place … I’d never met Maisel when I was a student there (he graduated before I did), but it feels somewhat thrilling to know that Alex and Meiko met in the museum that Maisel himself walked through, which is also a space where I went for solace as an undergrad, which is also a fictional place existing in our memories …
MS: During one of our conversations about Sophrosyne, you mentioned that you had written many (and it sounded like many, many to me) other scenes over the five years working on the novel, scenes that you put into the novel and took out and perhaps put back in and took out again. Would you consider the book that is published as Sophrosyne to be one iteration of several iterations that might have been possible?
MA: I write slim little books—tidy morsels that are dense with flavour—but you should see the slaughter that gets left on the floor! Thousands of pages, literally … Some of these pages are versions of a scene that ultimately makes it into the book, but I’ve also written hundreds of pages that are gone completely.
Some of these scenes are nothing more than my attempt to work out who these characters are. For example, I cut lots of scenes in which Meiko was a sincere, gentle, patient woman. It took me three years to realize she was actually a fucked-up sex goddess—a woman whose life taught her to love deeply, without the conventional restraints of shame. So the sincere version of Meiko got cut.
But other scenes that got cut from the book still exist inside the characters’ lives. In other words, those interactions have actually happened to those people; those scenes have occurred in the “lived experience” of the character—an experience that extends beyond the confines of the book’s contents. The reader doesn’t know about these scenes, but I do, and that informs how I shape the characters’ responses or desires within the scenes that remain. I think every novelist does that.
The other piece of this question—about whether the published Sophrosyne is only one possible Sophrosyne—requires a thinking-through …
My knee-jerk response is to say: “No, it’s not an iteration! No: this must be the book! This is the only possible way this book could exist!”
But the vehemence of my response is significant because the alternative is craziness: namely, that this book isn’t a stable entity but is, rather, a placeholder for my mind’s conception of these characters, and this theme. That idea is unsettling.
Nonetheless, you saw how much this manuscript changed in its last three months, Malcolm. And I even made slight changes for the second printing, reinserting two pages of a scene that I’d cut at the last minute. So maybe this is only one possible iteration …
But I’d add an analogy to complicate things: this is one iteration, but only in the same way that our lives are an iteration of all we might do and be. Because we—like a book—live inside a temporal universe. One action precludes another … so yes: this is the only possible iteration of the novelistic creature that is called Sophrosyne …
MS: Given that, on the one hand, readers often imagine that characters in some way resemble their writers, and, on the other hand, that writers often include autobiographical details in their work, do you feel that there is some risk in writing such a taboo relationship? Do you feel that writing a transgressive relationship leaves you vulnerable? Should writers aim to put themselves in vulnerable positions by going into uncomfortable places?
MA: Do I worry about who my readers imagine me to be? Not really. But I’ll tell you what makes me feel vulnerable, almost to the point of becoming physically ill: it’s the weirdly experimental nature of this work. Sometimes I wish I could write a simple love story. Plot is always nice. Why do I need to tackle the human condition in our era? Why, through a story where nothing “happens” except the disruption of normal, prosaic syntax? Can’t I write a gripping tale of triumph over adversity? A sweeping historical drama? A comic take on the hipster generation? Apparently I can’t. I’m constitutionally incapable. My literary impulse is fed from a different stream; my taproot seeks other waters.
It’s not really a choice. I’d be ghostwriting if I tried to write a straight-up narrative—one that didn’t explore the way in which meaning arises through language and story.
But I really don’t know what people will make of Sophrosyne, and that terrifies me … It terrifies me that I’ve made such a monstrous, hybrid, unfamiliar thing. I’m almost afraid of it.
Should other writers take these risks? Oh, I don’t know … I guess writers, like everyone else, should pursue whatever makes them feel most supremely alive.
MS: What comes next?
MA: I’m working on several projects, which is how I tend to work these days: I move forward on a project with an intense, concentrated period of writing, then I set it aside to immerse myself in another universe and way of thinking and questioning.
One of the projects is a play called Feast: A Modern-Day Symposium of Daemonic Proportions, which will be workshopped this winter. It’s a weird one—macabre, sensual, darkly humorous, but deeply intellectual—a work I’ve affectionately called the “evil twin” to Sophrosyne. I wrote Feast at a time when Sophrosyne had nearly broken me. I was three years into the manuscript, and I’d become exceedingly tight with the writing; everything seemed to come from my brain rather than any impulse or intuition. I wish I could say I logically set aside the manuscript to work on a different project, but that’s not how it happened. I actually felt like I smashed the manuscript on the ground—except what I was smashing was my psyche. From this place of shattering, I started to write a play.
Although I attend a lot of theatre, I’d never written drama, nor had I ever studied it. And I think that was part of the point: I could write from complete intuition, without my head getting in the way. The characters and language felt very alive to me; I could write flirtation and wit, insinuation, allowing the bodies on stage to amplify what I—in prose—must do entirely through the matter or material of my words. It was an incredibly freeing experience. After it was done, I sent it blind to a few places in Toronto; I hooked up with an amazing director, ted witzel, and the choreographer Jennifer Dallas. We’re hoping to mount a production in 2016.
In the meantime, I’m also working on a new novel—one that’s totally different from Sophrosyne. The narrator is omniscient, akin to the “God” narrator of nineteenth century novels. This god, however, is a bit of a prick—which is really fun to write! I also have a huge cast of characters, which I’ve never attempted to handle before as a writer. I don’t exactly know where this book is going, but I’m enjoying myself so far.