Kate Zambreno and Kate Briggs have more in common than a first name. Briggs is a translator of Roland Barthes, and the author of This Little Art (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018), a book-length essay on translation. It’s a book not just about the act of shifting a text from one language to another, but is also a remarkable and intimate meditation on the way in which interpretation is an integral part of life: from your body translating the movements of an aerobics instructor, to your ears mishearing the lyrics of a Madonna song. Zambreno’s body of work, too, is marked by intimacy, and a thoughtful engagement with a long lineage of writers and artists: from Thomas Bernhard to Louise Bourgeois, from Roland Barthes to Barbara Loden. Her Appendix Project (MIT Press, 2019) is an addendum to the Book of Mutter (Semiotext(e), 2017), a work about “stitching back former selves, sentences,” that at its heart is a fractured, brilliant, and rhizomatic search to piece a life together after the death of her mother.
Given what the two Kates share in common—warm, meditative writing; a common love for Barthes—we asked them to correspond. They wrote emails to one another this winter, from February to March, Zambreno from her home in New York, and Briggs in Rotterdam. Because they’re both named Kate, we think it pertinent to say: the exchange begins with a letter from Briggs to Zambreno.
I’ve just got home from walking the boys to school, and made a coffee, and the light is beautiful this morning—I feel like I can believe spring is coming now. Whereas last week it seemed impossible… The birds are singing too. And now I’ve written those lines I’m wondering whether the seasons might be a good place to start: continuity, ongoingness but always with variation? In Appendix Project you describe Barthes’s Mourning Diary as a “form of meditation that felt cyclical, seasonal.” I received Appendix Project—a book of new talks you wrote and delivered in response to requests to read from Book of Mutter—as a way of extending your time with these questions and experiences and materials of that earlier book, and holding them open. I want to ask you about this persistence: what it means, and perhaps also what it takes, to stay with a set of preoccupations over time. Even under pressure to write about something else, to talk about something else, to already be somewhere else? And yet I’m also interested to know whether, like the seasons, the questions and experiences and materials of Book of Mutter came feel renewed, somehow, through the writing and delivery of these extension pieces—? Is “renewed” the right word? Or was it more that some preoccupations stayed persistently the same, while others things changed all around you?
Thinking of what is around and with you, one of the most affecting aspects of the book, for me, was how Leo, your daughter, grows older. Her rate of change—a kind of background metamorphosis from newborn to a nearly one-year old—is astonishing. Perhaps that’s it? Some things move and change faster than others? Some things don’t change or move at all—they seem to pool? What strikes me about your writing and thinking in this book—which is so closely accompanied by reading and looking at, thinking with, the work of others—is how it manages to hold these very different durations together, making a space for some things to shift so slowly that the changes are barely perceptible, and for others to all of a sudden transform…
It is morning and my partner has let me sleep in—until 8am—as I’ve been rundown lately, with finishing a project and the beginning of the semester and all of the exigencies of parenting a toddler. He is with Leo in the next room, in the bathroom, wiping her bum, helping brush her teeth, engaging her cheerfully, I feel I should be in there, but instead I want to begin writing you. We are expected to get a snowstorm—I squint and see white particles floating outside my bedroom window. This morning while bouncing on the bed, trying to wake me up, Leo told me that she wants to wear sandals—red sandals—and play on the swings at the playground. It feels we’ve been inside so much lately. Right now that feels so far away, but I know it will be soon, and then the next year, and so on.
Lately I have been thinking about how John Cage was inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings, describing them as airports of particles and light, and how Rauschenberg described them as clocks, that if you look closely on the canvas you could tell the time of day and the weather. (As I write this, the particles are coming flurrier, faster). This connects for me to Roland Barthes noting that the French word for weather—le temps—is also the word for time, in his thinking through the haiku in your translation for The Preparation of the Novel—which you, in turn, think through in your meditation on the uncanniness and intimacy of translation, This Little Art. It is uncanny realizing—because in your book you made me think deeply about this—that I was also reading your words—that I was thinking through your thinking as well, in this lecture series that so profoundly moved me and is still how I think through writing. Like what you write about your desire to translate Barthes’ lecture, I began these essays out of a desire to think more slowly through Barthes—as if I was moved to copy his texts over and over again, as you write.
That was the original desire—I was drawn to how Barthes writes about the ongoingness of grief, and how grief saturates all of his later texts, and he refuses to let go of it, and I wanted to revise it, in my own language, as you write in This Little Art. Immediately postpartum, when I could begin reading, I was rereading Mourning Diary and his lectures on The Neutral, because of how Barthes situates exhaustion as a feature of the neutral, and that was my dominant state, postpartum—for a year—just extreme exhaustion. And also my sense of mourning my mother was renewed by having a baby—everything felt so alive to me, alive in the way a scar can become alive again with pain, and I missed the ritual of working on Book of Mutter, as a way to mourn. I didn’t want to read from the book, or talk about the book, I wanted to have a way to write through what I was thinking and feeling, and reading, and seeing, as a way also to force myself to write again.
I was really moved in This Little Art how you think through Barthes, his desire towards continuance, not immobility, as you phrase it, even though finishing a book is supposed to mark an end point. So, yes, Appendix Project is a continuation. A project of reading and writing, and wrestling time away, which felt almost impossible in that first year. The fiercest sensation I felt when I got pregnant, and then had a baby, was how possible it is to transform—for one’s body to transform, for one’s thinking to transform. While still being haunted—by the same books, the same ghosts. This transformation felt like what Barthes calls his satori—his moment of awakening. I felt it before, actually, when my mother died, which caused me to come into writing. So in a way I began again. Continuing to reread, to try to think more deeply, while also this challenge of how to find time, and how to write time, how to write, as my friend Amina Cain once wrote to me, both the full and the fleeting. Book of Mutter was a clock, a text of who I was as a writer and thinker over a duration, and then I wasn’t that person anymore. And so I had to write a new text. That became its own clock.
And now I’m not the person anymore who wrote those talks—that project of duration and endurance. Time passes. My daughter is now two years old. Yet I’m still rereading your Barthes translation! And rereading it through reading your book, which is so much about reading intimately, and writing as a form of rereading. I was incredibly moved reading your book how translating the Barthes lectures, which is about his desire to come to a new writing life, to write a novel, and, I think, writing your book, was your own coming to writing, your own way of thinking about what you love and want out of literature.
So, as the snow has now formed a blanket over everything, in my small glimpse of the outside, and because I’ve written too much, I want to turn your last question back onto you. How does that continue for you? How are you thinking of time and space and duration in your own work? About a body in a room? About texts as rooms? I am also interested in what you write in your book about the space of not-knowing, of failure, that you see inherent in translation, and also, I think, in writing—I think that is such a different rhythm and process than to start out by claiming what one knows, it is more like the movement of unfolding…
Is it still snowing with you? It is another morning here, a little bit greyer, but the birds are singing again. I hope you’re feeling better. You know, I was just the other day describing to a student what Barthes says about being out of step with the codes of the seasons—thinking of Leo now, with her plan to wear red sandals outside on a snowy day. And, as I was talking, I caught myself thinking: Why this material again? Why do I find myself, still, talking about these late lectures, and directing students towards them? Why not anything else? I know it must have to do with the time I spent with them: books as clocks, holding the time they took to write and the time they take to read, as well as all the different durations they internally narrate. But it must also have to do with the questions those lectures are asking. How to live together? What forms of community are available, or imaginable? And then, how to speak and act in a way that does minimal harm, to oneself and to others? And then, how to continue even in the wake of major change, the loss of a loved one, this life-changing grief, or even—as you describe—the transformations of becoming a parent? How to start again, on this new basis—what kind of writing will be possible now?
These still feel to me to be essential questions. But it’s not only the questions themselves, it’s also the manner of phrasing them. This way Barthes has of opening them out to others, to his audience, and now to his readers, so that we might share in them, too, and extend them, fill them in with local colour and meaning, take them home into our own lives. Which is clearly happening. That was one of the beautiful things for me about reading your book. I thought: this is clearly happening in Appendix Project, and in the way you engage so closely—with such deep insight and personal investment—with Barthes’s late work.
What continues? I don’t plan to keep writing about Barthes’s lectures, though I know I’ll keep thinking and catching myself talking about them. What continues for me is this desire for the novel—what Barthes calls the long form, the longest form. There is something about the length, and so therefore also about the duration of engagement, and the way this reading time has to be interrupted with, and kind of extended by, life—because a long form can’t be read all at once—which fascinates me. It has always fascinated me, I think. In Not to Read Alejandro Zambra has a piece called “Festival of the Long Novel”, describing a project for a literary festival which never happened. But I wish it would—I would love more than anything to sit with other readers and practitioners of the longest form and try to work this fascination out… But that’s not to say I plan to write a long novel. I’m not sure I’d be capable of it. My novel would have to be something else. Which links in my head to failure—
Translation, especially, is so often talked about in terms of failure. But when reading translations, and perhaps also when reading books, all kinds of books, I tend to be more struck by, more ready to wonder at, what has been possible than hasn’t. What interests me are the very real, the very felt, limitations which make certain things, certain moves, certain forms of writing seem impossible for certain people, regardless of how possible they are for others. And how those limitations, from necessity, force alternatives. I think this is how innovation happens, or can happen.
You write about wanting to transcribe passages of Barthes, even the whole book. And that might be what I would most like to do, too: to give you the thing itself, the sentences phrased as they are phrased, so lightly and so beautifully, in French. But—if I am going to write a translation and not a transcription—I can’t. I can’t do that, and so I do this, and so I write this. That logic seems to me to be underlying Appendix Project. You felt you couldn’t read aloud from Book of Mutter—you couldn’t. But what you could do was draft these talks: and what we have now, as a result, is this new book, which I can now read and reread and hold in my hands. Barthes writes about this, too: how the novel he desired to write most was a novel made from memory, like Proust’s. But, it couldn’t be that, it was never going to be that—because, so he says, he had a terrible memory. For that simple-complicated reason, his novel would have to be something else: a novel written directly out of the present. So I think interest in failure would be along the lines of: How does a sense of not that produce the necessary condition for what is for any given individual? How does the desire for something you can’t do—where the can’t might be physical, or moral, or philosophical, or fall like a prohibition from the outside—get redirected, and end up producing what you can?
Failure seems deeply connected, for you, to unfinishedness. And so is productive in this sense, if only because what is unfinished can still continue….
I wonder: which—of your books– do you consider finished? Is Appendix Project finished? And how do you think and feel about this redirecting of desire? Of all the writerly forms you engage with—the note, what you call the scrap, the talk, the essay, the novel, among others—do some feel more accidental, some more sought-after than others?
I should tell you that in the end, this was written over two days, not one, and it is now another morning, and I feel like I might be getting Arthur’s cold. But the light is astonishing: the trees are glowing!
Arrgh, I am now sick as well. I am in bed with what I am calling the stomach flu. Sometimes I wonder if getting sick is a way for me to find a form of solitude, especially now. It will gain me more time, it will gain me this hour, to write to you. In the next room John is getting Leo dressed for story time at the library. It is the morning again—all the snow has melted—and I feel there’s something like a springish light coming in from the window. I love your turn toward the novel—I really responded to the longing within your book to write… I feel for me the longing to write a novel is a longing to be alone. And I think they are perhaps the same thing. A novel is a solitude. But the writing of a novel shows the difficulty, depending on one’s life and material conditions, of achieving this solitude, this room. And it can be, like Hervé Guibert writes, a companion. Often a book for me, is a companion—I carry it around with me, the notes for it, the thinking towards it, long before the writing. That’s what it was with Book of Mutter—a room I could go into in which I could remember, in which I could grieve. That’s what my novel Drifts was, which took me years to finish, mostly because I wanted to exist within the state of it, because the book for me was about exploring a feeling, exploring the impossibility of writing the present-tense. Now that I’m basically finished with it, I still feel unfinished. I think that’s what scratches inside of me, to continue to write. I never feel like what I write is finished, because what’s underneath, that desire, that inquiry, that exists somewhere between the self and others, and my relationship to literature and language, is still unfinished. What exactly this project is, I don’t really know. I like how Clarice Lispector rewords Simone Weil, that she writes a book to try to get rid of her self. I think I feel that way as well lately. But it never happens—perhaps because by the time I write a book to try to get rid of my self, I’ve already become another self, I’ve already shed that skin.
I did read This Little Art as within the space of the novel—I often think of Eileen Myles writing that a novel is meant to be read from the beginning to the end. And your book is a companion—it was a companion for you writing it, but also, crucially, a companion for the reader. I love how the spaces within it allow the reader to write, to think themselves. I like what you say here about failure and form—that form becomes what we are able to write. I feel more and more drawn lately to the short novel. I desire to engage with that tradition of the novel, but I seem to find myself writing and publishing smaller forms lately. I wrote these very brief stories or essays that I really didn’t intend to, that are coming out as a book, Screen Tests, which I wrote because there was a period this past summer when I had at most one hour a day to work, and I wanted to focus this time on smaller forms. The talk was another accidental form—I was asked to give them, and I took this as an opportunity for a conceptual project—but it became a book I didn’t mean to write, although I wrote them with an intensity and energy that I really didn’t understand. I really almost bankrupted my body in the process. I think I had to write them to try to understand what I was searching for, which is something like why I still write, and what I long for in literature, to understand subjectivity and precarity, and yes, a sort of community, and what is it that repeats in a life’s work. And, I think, desire for other art forms—for the slow cinema of Chantal Akerman, for the paintings of Marlene Dumas and On Kawara, for photography, the desire for literature and language to do what it so often fails to.
I have also been drawn to brevity lately in writing, for a writing that feels often like a not-writing, but has a strangeness, an atmospheric quality—I loved the Lydia Davis translations of the A.L. Snijders animal fables that you write about—for a story to be a paragraph, for it to have grace and clarity (after John Cage), is also a desire.
I think the winter has ended here; my cold didn’t turn into anything and please tell Leo that over the weekend I wore my old bashed-up but still a bit silver sandals out in the garden (with blue socks). Get well soon. I feel so inspired by the way you’re thinking on the scale of a life’s work, something I take as being quite different from, in the sense of not ever really being subsumable to, a list of discrete publications. I mean that without grandiosity, and I know that’s how you mean it, too: just this ongoing, invested working-out of what matters, what repeats and what changes, in solitude and the company of others, over a lifetime—