“Absurdity is great because it’s a mirror; the whole structure of our world, if one simply steps back and observes, they’ll see it: we wake up, we make coffee, we dress the kids and go to the same office every day to do things that equal numbers, which equal, two weeks later, money. Yes, it makes sense, but it’s also terribly absurd. Everything is absurd with the right spin.”
I first encountered Mark Haber as a bookseller; that is, as a reader. His championing of writers outside the mainstream, in particular contemporary Latin American writers, has put a productive dent in my sense of what is happening in world literature, and this was reason enough for me to expect that his own first novel, Reinhardt’s Garden, would offer something new. Originality was the one expectation I went in with. But Haber’s relationship to originality turns out to be quite complicated, and this complication ended up being one of my favorite things his novel has to offer.
Told in a single, leisurely, narrative paragraph, Reinhardt’s Garden is a comic account of autodidactic tobacco heir Jacov Reinhardt, as told by his hypochondriac sidekick. An erratic figure of monumental pretension, Reinhardt has dedicated his life to the study of melancholy, and this intellectual quest takes him on a journey through Europe, Russia, and eventually to the Amazon. It is hard to tell whether the physical events of this journey or its philosophical underpinnings are more ridiculous, though Haber keeps a straight face throughout, and this heroically sustained irony pushes the reader into questions—of realness and fakeness, tradition and invention—some of which I wanted to ask him.
THE BELIEVER: I’ll start with a snarky opinion I used to hold. It began years ago when I read William Gaddis’s Agape Agape and was disappointed to see that one of our great stylistic innovators had written a book “in the style of” Thomas Bernhard. Later other books started appearing “in the style of” Bernhard, books by writers as diverse as Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Horacio Castellanos Moya—in fact a large chunk of the New Directions catalog—and then even newer voices, such as the Australian writer Jen Craig. Eventually I came to realize that what I had been thinking of restrictively as a style was in fact a genre—or tradition—a way of writing but also a way of thinking. And while writing out of someone else’s style risks being derivative, working within a genre is simply choosing which conversation to join.
All of which is to say that your new book, Reinhardt’s Garden, is Bernhardian in some really excellent ways, but also specific to you in all sorts of other ways. I would like to ask, not so much about influences, but about your own sense of your relationship to this genre/tradition. How did you come to this way of writing and thinking? What does this form allow you to do?
MARK HABER: I think we’re all guilty of having our own snarky opinions, especially regarding styles and aesthetics and so on.
I’d started reading Bernhard about a decade ago, beginning with The Loser, and reading four or five after that, although not in a row. Maybe one or two every year. And I immediately loved the style but it never occurred to me that I had the ability to write in long, sinuous sentences, or that my sense of absurdity would lend itself to that. I simply admired it. I do think it’s a tradition and, considering it a little more loosely, a tradition that goes back further than Bernhard. Bernhard certainly owns the repetition and the circular way of ranting about a subject, leaving to rant about something else, then once again returning, that mixture of black pessimism blended with a propulsive narrative. It’s very singular. But his books almost always exist in a very internal framework, in the ranting, in the digressive and obsessive mind of the narrator, while my book lives in the external world, a world of incident and action. So Bernhard is an obvious influence but hopefully blended with my other influences and made my own. That’s the goal, at least.
I also think that Faulkner and Woolf and Garcia Marquez (in some of his books) wrote in a sort of propulsive, stream-of-consciousness style where the words merely follow the thoughts of the writer or the character. Two important influences that I read (incidentally in the same year) were Absalom, Absalom! and The Autumn of the Patriarch. Those books literally changed my DNA. And then, as you said, more and more writers were working in this style: Krasznahorkai, Castellanos Moya and many more. By Night in Chile was published a few years after I began reading Bernhard and, looking back, it seems almost inevitable that I wouldn’t begin writing in this style.
I think opening a book and seeing a page filled with unbroken text is really beautiful. If the writing is good, I don’t think there’s anything better. I can flip to any page of The Autumn of the Patriarch or Bernhard’s Concrete and I’ll just be astounded. Every time.
Other big influences are Saul Bellow’s marriage of high and low culture and Cesar Aira’s tiny little novels. As well as mixing fictional writers, movements, works of art with the real, which is very Borgesian, but has been a part of everything I’ve done.
Lastly, by putting this style (unbroken text) upon myself it actually freed me and allowed me to express myself, go all over the place, forward, backward, everywhere, which, of course had its own separate challenges, but honestly, giving myself that formal guideline was the most freeing thing I’d ever done.
BLVR: I love that in discussing real influences you mention fake ones, because fake history is another part of the ironic space your novel creates around itself. This is a book full of fictional intellectuals, not just the characters themselves but their influences—you’ve created their influences. Reinhardt has built his life philosophy around three “great men,” the elusive Emiliano Gomez Carrasquilla, the formidable Otto Klein, and Leo Tolstoy—two of whom you invented, though the Tolstoy in this book is arguably as invented as the others. Why do fake philosophies appeal to you?
MH: Pretend philosophies, writers, and literary movements appeal to me for several reasons. I love the conversation that literature has with itself. Books and writers are in dialogue with each other and to invoke a book or a writer continues the conversation in some way. Whether it’s Allen Ginsberg having Walt Whitman show up in a poem or an entire novel written from the perspective of Captain Ahab’s wife or taking the titles of your novels from lines of Shakespeare. I love the tapestry too, the way the titles of books, especially in italics, look throughout a work (another aesthetic choice).
I also admire invented philosophies because I love poking fun at the rarefied air and language of academics and academia. I think this is Saul Bellow’s and Nabokov’s influence—these characters that are high IQ morons. I mean the narrator of Humboldt’s Gift is a celebrated lecturer who finds himself in trouble with the Chicago mob. Lots of Nabokov’s characters too—highly intelligent people making dumb choices—I don’t think that ever gets old.
BLVR: You mentioned Borges, and while lots of writers have created fictional writers/thinkers, I agree with you that yours are very Borgesian, because of the irony I mentioned before, the deeply understated absurdity that runs through the book. Reading Reinhardt’s Garden, I experienced that double-take I had reading Borges’s “Pierre Menard,” that feeling of Wait, is he serious?, followed by He can’t be serious, followed by I think maybe he isn’t serious. Right?
This feeling revisited me when I read your recent article in LitHub about Mila Menendez Krause, “The Writer You’ve Never Heard of That Made My Book Possible.” Not only had I never heard of her, I got the growing sense as I read what was presented as a work of critical appreciation that you’d actually made her up, thus extending your novel’s meditation on influence and fiction out into the sphere of (ostensibly real) life.
MH: Mila Menendez Krause is invented! It began because I wanted to write an essay to try and build interest in Reinhardt’s Garden, and I tried desperately to work on a couple of essays (about good book design, literary influence and other topics) but to be frank, I’m not a very good nonfiction writer. I can do it but it’s not very good. It feels like homework to me. And why read an essay by me about Norwegian literature or Clarice Lispector or whatever, when lots of people are better at it? So it all came about because of my fear of writing nonfiction!
Also, the piece is a nod to Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, a fantastic book of fictional biographies of Latin American fascist writers. The book is incredible because it’s so flat and measured that the reader can’t believe these characters don’t exist. Bolano’s book wasn’t meant to be funny but it’s a great lesson in world building, not in the sense of building a setting where a story takes place but building a world, through voice and language, where something invented not only resembles reality but seems more real than reality, where it outdoes reality.
I wanted Menandez Krause to seem real because it would be fantastic if she was! But also, weaving her between real and fictional writers and events turns it into something more, giving depth and attention to the Spanish Civil War for example, or the rise of antisemitism in Europe. That’s why I’m a big believer in fiction containing as many truths as nonfiction. Maybe more. Also (I only noticed this later) but like Reinhardt’s Garden, there’s a relationship between Europe and Latin America in that piece.
I wasn’t trying to fool anyone but to show an invented world of literary influence. I take no joy in fooling people, but I figured, if you like this piece then you’ll like my book. And I wrote it not knowing if anyone would accept it. Luckily Jonny Diamond at LitHub was game.
BLVR: I’m sticking with questions about influence in this interview because your book has so much fun with that topic, and I think one of its greatest contributions is this sort of joyous, loving, cynical, absurd meditation on the perplexity of influence. So let me ask you about Robert Burton.
You quote from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy in an epigraph but I was surprised that Burton didn’t show up as a reference in the story itself, given how central the idea of melancholy is to the book and how substantively the book meditates on it. You give us Tolstoy and “The Death of Ivan Illych” but the grandfather of melancholy is nowhere to be seen. Was there a reason?
MH: One reason Burton doesn’t make an appearance is that I only pick up The Anatomy of Melancholy maybe once or twice a year, peruse a few pages and put it back. I’m not some well-read scholar of the book at all. The book is sort of an anomaly, right? So I don’t know the book particularly well. But also, looking back, I think having more than one writer in the novel whose work is focused on melancholy would create confusion. I considered bringing him up in Jacov’s conversation once or twice but the opportunity never arose or I thought it would bring more questions than answers. None of this was conscious, but I think, looking back, having a host of writers focused on the same subject would’ve made the story convoluted or confusing. In my imagination though, Jacov is certainly aware of Burton.
BLVR: I have to admit I’ve always had a tough time with Burton. Every time I pick up The Anatomy of Melancholy, I struggle to understand how I’m supposed to “take” him.* There’s a tonal ambiguity, as in Borges, but unlike with Borges I never eventually arrive at a feeling that I “got it.” Is this ambiguity purposeful, and/or does it have something to do with melancholy itself?
MH: No, you’re exactly right! I’ve always read it as an absurd rabbit-hole of a book! I liken it to an even more absurd Tristram Shandy even though the tone of that novel is not ambiguous. But no, it isn’t an easy book. And the tone is very, very flat. Is he being serious? Is he being satiric? It’s scientific, but is it pseudoscience or real science? I don’t know! So you aren’t alone at all. I sort of admire the ambiguity. I respect the not-knowing what the hell he’s doing.
Speaking of being a “melancholy expert,” I’m not one in any sense. If someone wanted to know anything about melancholy, my book is not the book to read. I kept the books from my epigraphs close at hand while writing, especially Laslo F. Foldenyi’s study, Melancholy, but used them very little. I would dip in, perhaps find a little inspiration and continue writing. But I have a weird intelligence, my strength is my imagination and my love of language. I’m not a very good critical thinker. Does that make sense? That book as well as Burton’s is too smart for me. In the end, though, Reinhardt’s Garden is not really a novel about melancholy, in my opinion, but hubris.
BLVR: Oh, I think you’re right. Melancholy is Reinhardt’s subject, but the book’s subject is Reinhardt’s hubris. That said, I don’t think “melancholy” is quite a random subject for his hubris, or could easily be replaced by something else. It’s because melancholy is the most hubrisy object hubris could have, this self-deluding existential pride in the heroism of uselessness.
So, let me ask your opinion of art—art and uselessness. Here you’ve created an interwoven fabric of fake and real figures, fake and real philosophies, brought together in the form of a stand-alone novel but spilling out also into the world in the form of fake and real influences, conversations joined or invented. And at the center of all this is Reinhardt’s quest for perfect uselessness.
Is Reinhardt wrong? Is he right? Is he absurd? Does absurdity serve a purpose?
MH: That’s a great point. I hadn’t separated the two before, but you’re exactly right. And melancholy isn’t the same as, say, arrogance or migraines. It’s singular.
I can’t say if Reinhardt is right or wrong; what I strive for in characters (because it’s true with real people) is a character that is partially right. Characters that have elements of truth in what they say or believe, but not the complete truth. I like Jacov as a character because there’s strands of universal truths in what he says, most of it cancelled by something he says or does immediately after. He may quote Buddhist scripture and say why he believes it’s a path to enlightenment and then turn around and contradict himself. He might preach the value of empathy and then spend an hour being absolutely self-obsessed. All of us are like that to some extent. People can be remarkably complex, so this a way I try to show it. I also think it helps the humor. And that ties into your question about absurdity. I do think absurdity serves a purpose, more than just entertainment. I don’t ever set out to make something absurd; my natural intuition just goes in that direction. I could never write a flat, “straight” story. I mean, I could, but it would be forced and feel unnatural and wouldn’t be very good. I see things askew, or I’m comfortable making them that way when I write. I can’t write about a guy who comes home from work at the factory and has a beer or an argument with his wife—I’m not subtle, so my characters and plots are usually a bit extreme.
Absurdity is great because it’s a mirror; the whole structure of our world, if one simply steps back and observes, they’ll see it: we wake up, we make coffee, we dress the kids and go to the same office every day to do things that equal numbers, which equal, two weeks later, money. Yes, it makes sense, but it’s also terribly absurd. Everything is absurd with the right spin. So absurdity, to me, is the reminder that it’s all silly in the end. I don’t mean that in a hopeless way, just that life is strange and human beings are strange. If we weren’t doing this absurd thing, we’d be doing that other absurd thing. We’re fated to be absurd.
*NB: the editor at the Believer, upon receiving the text of this interview, and taking pity on me vis a vis The Anatomy of Melancholy, sent along this very useful interview on the subject with Philip Pullman.