"If your identity is inscribed for you from the outside, it’s even more difficult to escape."

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Stephanie LaCava talks to Kate Zambreno

I was skeptical when a friend told me to read Kate Zambreno’s work of literary criticism about modernist wives entitled Heroines, most likely out of self-preservation. I have my own heroines, they won’t leave me alone, they show up again and again in essays and fantasies. From what I understood, this book would explore women of this sort, in particular Zelda Fitzgerald and Viv Eliot (T.S. Eliot’s first wife) and how, perhaps, their own artistic voice was drowned in accusation of hysteria, their stories relegated to the fiction of their respective spouses. I was terrified. Then, I read it—all the research and personal anecdotes. I fell in love with one girl in particular, the writer Zambreno. When I heard of her novel Green Girl, I didn’t hesitate this time. Therein, I found evidence of the very processes Zambreno discussed in Heroines, which became a kind of magical notebook for deconstructing Green Girl. (If only all novels came with such a companion.) Green Girl is the story of Ruth, a young American living abroad in London, pained and fascinated by beauty and loneliness. Her references include the likes of Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter and Nico’s song, “Femme Fatale.” These are the women that inhabit my own pathetic scrapbook, and those of many contemporary girls. What was most striking, though, was Zambreno’s scathing rendition of a girl fixated on aloof icons, desperately channeling their allure and mystery. This strange connection is, I am sad to say, one of countless others that reminded me of my own struggles and those of other women I knew, some unlike me altogether. Isn’t that why we love a book, because it makes us a little mad with recognition? Green Girl also made me want more of Zambreno’s work and its ability to examine the perceived disconnect between beauty and intelligence, cipher and reality—even, simply, a woman and her work.

Last Wednesday, we met at a tea shop and began furiously discussing where our sensibilities intersect, the women—and men—of the French New Wave, struggling with embracing aesthetics in critical work, even an appreciation for Sir John Everett Millais’ portrait of Ophelia. We then went across the street, up the elevator and into my writing office where we sat in a windowless room and continued our conversation.

—Stephanie LaCava

I. THE PUBLIC BECOMES A COLISEUM

STEPHANIE LACAVA: It surprised me that you were a fan of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and he was so influential in many parts of Green Girl. I found this fascinating because it’s such a disparate reference from your stable of cinematic and female icons.

KATE ZAMBRENO: It continues to be an important reference point for my work, this collaged text born out of intense obsession, and especially his chapter on the flâneur, the urban stroller.

SL: I saw it on two levels in Green Girl. Not only did you directly reference it with quotes before chapters and scenes surrounding the commerce and crowds of Oxford Circus, but also, I think, in the way Heroines was formed and subsequently influenced Green Girl. It seemed all about the fragmented thought and then a natural cohesion of vision.

KZ: I was accumulating the notes for Green Girl and Heroines at the same time, and Heroines especially, a book that came out of a decade-long notebooking process, was a slow accumulation, a gradual accretion. I think in some ways Heroines was an apologia for the type of novel that Green Girl was—I was philosophizing and working through an existential novel of a shopgirl, a flâneuse. Have you ever read Gail Scott’s My Paris? It’s very inspired by Benjamin. The female narrator, keeping this notebook while in Paris for a limited time, is voluptuously reading and engaging with the book, and I pulled from it, in Green Girl—for an epigraph, “Why can’t the flâneur be stoned?” It’s one of several  important contemporary novels that I talk about at the essay at the end, on walkers in literature [in the new Harper Perennial edition]—these innovative and radical novels of women writers, often queer, engaging with the notion of the walker and the city and contemporary space. And these books aren’t talked about as often in the mainstream, but they’re really important to me. Works by Gail Scott, Renee Gladman, Amina Cain, Danielle Dutton, Pamela Lu.  

SL: Do you know Lauren Elkin? She’s at work on a book about the flâneuse.

KZ: She’s writing about Bowen, Woolf and Rhys, right? I really wrangled—in Green Girl—with Benjamin’s chapter on the walker—and the ending scene of Green Girl was also inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Man in the Crowd,” the walker disappearing into a crowd in ecstasy, that Benjamin engages with as well.

SL: I love that scene when she’s lost in the crowd and you’re just listing the types of bodies before that.

KZ: So much of the book takes place in crowds—on the street, working in the fragrance section at the department store, the holiday rush. I am interested in this idea of deconstruction and urban space, and whether that’s possible for this girl who’s so aware of her appearance and her identity, as it’s formed from the outside, whether she could dissipate ecstatically. I’m thinking of Anne Carson’s reading of ecstasy from its origins of ekstasis in her essay “Decreation,”to escape outside, a sort of mysticism. I was really compelled, in Benjamin, to see how close the chapter on the prostitute is to the chapter on the walker.

SL: It reminds me of another great artist-muse-woman-lover, Lee Miller, and how she contracted gonorrhea from being raped by a family friend when she was really young. From that point forward, she looked to be outside of her body through her photography. Sexuality is important in exploring the concept of wandering and work. It’s interesting you bring up the prostitute being right after the flâneur in Benjamin’s work.

KZ: I forgot the exact line—but there’s this line about a prostitute being a commodity that’s bought and sold, so interested in the department store and commodities and—

SL: The buying and selling of ecstasy.

KZ: Right. But being an object to be sold. And so I think that Benjamin, in some ways, realized that during a time when he’s writing about—the nineteenth century—a woman in public would most likely be seen as something to be sold. Or an object of desire, or a commodity. So she would not be free to be this urban wanderer who looks and is not looked at.

SL: Nowadays, that certainly applies in a ridiculous way, depending on the landscape you’re looking at. Because we have all of these women that we watch almost obsessively.

KZ: I’m interested in the woman in public, who is watched, who watches herself, that self-consciousness. If your identity is inscribed for you from the outside, it’s even more difficult to escape. I’m interested in women who went mad in public, or went mad and unraveled in the public eye.

Often it’s young, pretty, white, straight women who are the ones given the most visibility in our culture. Huge amounts of visibility—and there’s an incredible amount of privilege to that. But there’s such a price to that, too. It’s a little bit like the public becomes a coliseum. And I’m interested in that box or prison of identity.

SL: You mention the idea of the female as object, and what that means for a woman who is an artist, and undoubtedly, no matter what she’s created, it still may be a bias that she is never going to transcend.

KZ: And with Heroines, I was looking at a very specific woman in history. I was really interested in the wives of the geniuses whom I was also inspired by. I was interested in these women who were often remembered only as an image. And are often remembered, and satirized, as frivolous and mad at the same time. So I was really interested in, often, the women who were made into an image.

SL: In the literary world, explain this idea that beauty and style are considered frivolous, that intelligence and frivolities may be mutually exclusive.

KZ: I think it’s stupid. Green Girl and Heroines have been criticized as being obsessed with glamour, Heroines more so because it’s first-person. Because of its rather heightened narrator who is channeling these figures, somehow it’s also been accused of setting back feminism—I think one quote was that “glamour is an empty suit.” Which—sure, of course it is. Isn’t what we desire, that can also make us feel empty, really intriguing to explore in literature?  

There’s something incredibly troubling and contradictory about society’s obsession with beauty and age and glamour. But that does not mean that we should not write about it, that we shouldn’t attempt the truth of our lives and existences.

SL: And if you’re merely looking at capitalism and commerce.

KZ: Who we are, and especially how capitalism relates to our bodies, in the context of gender and race, is so important to write about. And how our desires can sometimes be annihilating or contradictory. And writing about it isn’t, somehow, not acknowledging that our desires are not incredibly complex. And most of our desires are not, if we analyze them, politically correct.

SL: I would charge that any kind of dismissal of something because it’s about objects is an unfounded argument.

KZ: Yes. I think we live in a very fast media world where reviewers review books they’ve read quickly and respond often to their violent feelings towards a book. And that really just says more about them, and how they feel towards a book, and whether they hate or love a character, which has nothing to do with whether the book is interesting. I would argue, if the book made them have such a violent reaction, there’s probably something inherently interesting, and perhaps the book also was trying to provoke the reader. But what I found really, really interesting about those kinds of dismissals is that so much of Heroines, especially the second part, was essentially about those dismissals, historically. And these reviewers didn’t note the irony—the pernicious ones used the book for a cultural argument, or to write about it in the context of feminism, not reading it on its own terms.

In my opinion there’s no more extraordinary novel about the violence and intensity of existence than Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight, a hugely important book to everything I’ve ever written. After I read it, Green Girl was allowed to come into being, and I write about it at length in Heroines. And in Heroines I quote from Angela Carter, whose stories I love but whose criticism I felt some distance to, dismissing Rhys’ novels as frivolous, narcissistic, me-narratives. And it’s like—yeah, so? I would say the same thing about many, many great works of literature that are equally important to me, that are about existential crises—NauseaNotes from Underground,  Walser’s The Walk, Magic Mountain—they all attempt to write the consciousness of a character obsessed with himself, with frivolity. And also, regarding Carter’s dismissal, that’s the point: an existential crisis is about feeling contained in a certain identity, and is struggling with how you’re viewed on the outside, and who you are on the inside. And Rhys documents this complex, fragmented, interiority so incredibly, both self-involved and also intensely empathetic. And when I read books like that, I feel less alone.

II. YEARNING AND ELEGY

SL: I’m interested in your experience among contemporary male writers’ notion of female hysteria. There’s this perpetuated idea that the woman is coming from a place of hysteria.

KZ: In this first-person novel I’m working on now, I told myself I wouldn’t write about clothes, I wouldn’t write about vanity, I wouldn’t write about depression, and I wouldn’t write about feminism, because these are all the things that I kind of got taken to task for in Heroines. And I find in my next book, which is called Switzerland, I’m doing all this more intensely, but in framing it as a novel, I’m allowed to play more with the unreliable or heightened narrator, that was already present in Heroines. It was Cocteau who said: “Listen carefully to first criticisms made of your work. Note just what it is about your work that critics don’t like—then cultivate it. That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.” I think in Heroines, what I was really saying was that these great men, whose literature I also tremendously admire, at least Eliot and Flaubert, were allowed to channel hysteria in the works. That because these writers didn’t feel the threat of being labeled in such personal ways. They could distance their art from their lives, and then didn’t also, in that era, feel the very specific, punitive threat of being institutionalized. And something that I still think is very real in our culture is that many of the young women writers I teach and know, they’re very afraid of writing autobiographically or writing fiction that comes from a place of the self, that comes from some nonfiction impulse. I don’t think it’s about fiction or nonfiction. I think we’re afraid of being somehow wrong or unliterary or not serious or not transformative enough. Still illegitimate.  

SL: And that’s the thing about a memoir. It’s a huge problem.

KZ: The contemporary male novelist can somehow still write autobiographically and be taken seriously, but even when the woman writer frames her work as fiction, she is still often not taken seriously, if the work is seen as being inspired by her real life. So the book I’m working on now is an attempt at a feminine, fragmented, American Knausgaard, while recognizing the futility of that. I’m full of such dread and shame as I’m writing it. And I don’t even know if it would be considered on the level of the writers I’m obviously in dialogue with—Rilke, Sebald, Walser, Bernhard, Mann—because it’s also about feminism, and friendship, and community, and the body, and depression, and desire and love and ache, and all of these things. But it is an experiment with myself. Knausgaard has this incredible cockiness, and so many women writers I know, including me, are filled with self-doubt, although honestly, on a poetic level, I find doubt, searching, not knowing, far more intriguing. All the reviews for Knausgaard or Ben Lerner bring up Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge—which was also a huge influence on Green Girl [and quoted in the epigraphs]—and they bring up Bernhard, and women writers aren’t considered a part of that tradition—the tradition of the nervous, angsty interiority. And I think that’s why it is good to remember that tradition, the European philosophical tradition of the novel, but also sort of forge our own in some ways because we are probably excluded from that. To still write the body and illness and desire while being dismissed for writing the body and illness and desire.

SL: Ruth in Green Girl is completely obsessed with a guy whom she had a sexual encounter with who was very dominant with her. She was left with bruises all over her. And she wants that again. Then, she meets the guy who is gentle, who loves her, who makes love to her.

KZ: The philosopher.

SL: And she never meets the sort of brutal man who makes love to her, which I feel like is the sort of man she needs. What was behind that? Because here you are talking about sexuality, and here is this character and she’s obsessed with being dominated.

KZ: Well I don’t think our desires can necessarily be explained easily, that’s what makes it so rich to write about, how mysterious our own desires can be, but also how formed, from capitalism, gender, etc.

SL: And Ruth is having a problem with that, struggling, like why do I want it this way? It’s almost like she’s reasoning it in her head.

KZ: I thought of her longing and her yearning as very literary.Yearning is my favorite feeling to write from. Yearning and elegy. But she’s very consumed by desire. She’s consumed by desire for clothes, she’s consumed by desire for deconstruction—to not exist, which is erotic in some way. She’s supposed to be some coherent identity to all people. For me, her eroticism is deeply philosophical, and I don’t think she’s entirely aware of it. Like, we aren’t entirely aware of why we desire what we desire. And I think part of it is formed by the culture. And I think part of it is partially formed by romance, heterosexual romance narratives that could be poisonous, and some of is formed by trauma, and all these aspects of herself. I never wanted to dismiss her eroticism, or explain it too easily.

III. TO ARTICULATE AT LEAST ONE, TINY CONSCIOUSNESS

SL: Who is this illusive, omnipotent narrator in Green Girl

KZ: Well, she’s fictional.

SL: But she feels a bit like Ruth’s mother.

KZ: [laughs] She’s very ambivalent, it’s very maternal. It’s very inspired by Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. Lispector has a male author-creator who writes her Macabea, her grotesque Macabea, who is based on the young, poor girls Lispector would watch in SãoPaolo. In many ways, Green Girl is a dialogue with Lispector’s novel. I’ve always been intrigued that she makes the narrator in Hour of the Star male. She writes at one point, something like, “If I were a female, I would cry constantly at this Macabea.” It’s a distancing of the author from her character, afraid to be consumed; I have always been utterly provoked by that.

SL: To me, the obsession with Lispector is that she represents what all of these girls represent, because she made up her own life narrative. So much of it was her own perception of herself as this character. She was this personified example of this beautiful, intelligent writer who made up even her own story. Which is so funny that it’s coming out only now, because she’s so popular in other countries. But not so popular in America.

KZ: They sold her books in cigarette machines in Brazil. I feel like with her, and a lot of my mentors on the page, Kathy Acker, Marguerite Duras, their works deal so much with interrogating memoir, with destroying memoir and making themselves anew—and destabilizing the I, as far as the notion of the confessional.

SL: Which is funny, because they’re protecting the stories that they’ve created. 

KZ: Right, it’s slippery, which is a quality I’m very drawn to in literature. And this is what I wanted in Heroines and in Green Girl, which I don’t know if I succeed at. I really wanted an unreliable, slippery narrator, as well as a character wrangling with identity, which makes the reader have to wrangle with ideas of identity. Green Girl is, in many ways, a cruel book. The narrator is in some ways a stand-in for the author, although she’s actually older than me. In some ways she empathizes with Ruth, and Ruth is, in some ways, her former self.

SL: See, I felt that a little bit, too. Especially in the sexual scenes, where she’s watching.

KZ: Right. Sometimes she doesn’t judge Ruth and she loves her, she loves her so much and identifies with her, as the reader does. And sometimes she hates her, as the reader does.

SL: As the reader does.

KZ: And sometimes she’s completely horrified by her, as Duras is in The Lover, as Clarice Lispector is in The Hour of the Star, as some version of herself. I think of Green Girl in many ways a meditation on and elegy to youth.  

SL: What do you think makes Ruth lovable?

KZ: I think Ruth is lovable because she is one consciousness.

SL: What’s the thing about her that’s most dislikable?

KZ: I don’t know if I can answer that.  The narrator is horrified by how unthoughtful she is, and how apolitical she is, and how she kind of puts things inside of her. And so she’s a little horrified with how un-meditated her life seems, that it’s not fully formed yet (although I don’t think any of us become fully formed). But I think other readers are horrified with Ruth, in a moral way, which I think says way more about the culture and themselves. That it’s such a girl behaving badly, that she’s so horrible to everyone around her. I see her as basically exquisitely human, while also being so collected and formed by the culture at the same time, so not allowed to become herself entirely. Which I think is essentially what, to me, the book is about: an identity crisis.

SL: Did you choose the name Ruth because of the biblical association?

KZ: I did, yes. Although I just liked the sound of it too. To me, the Book of Ruth is so much about a new mother who is not Ruth’s mother and how Ruth follows her mother-in-law to this strange land and even prostitutes herself for the mother. So it’s this very complex relationship between two women, which is the relationship of the narrator to the character in the book. I think a lot of people interpret that Ruth is me, because that’s how novels by women are so often read, blatantly autobiographical, without the distance or frame that is writing, and she is, certainly, but also she’s a type, she’s based on figures in film, celebrities, many other girls I’ve known. It’s a book about what I had observed at that point in my life and the culture. Ruth is physically not me, even though we both have short hair. I was interested in a certain sort of archetype, physically, and in films, and Green Girl is so much about film and representation in film, and this sort of pop culture iconography of the time. A film that Green Girl is really inspired by is AgnèsVarda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, and the blonde pop star played by Corrinne Marchand who is experiencing a crisis of sorts, wondering who she is in the world, wandering about the streets of Paris in this film that’s like a subjective documentary, looking at herself in the mirror and seeing how she exists, trying on hats. Attempting to become in solitude, while being so pulled by others’ versions of her. Varda was also really inspired by Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurid Brigge when she was writing it. So she saw, in Cléo, an existential crisis of this pop star, and while I was writing Green Girl, Britney Spears was having her breakdown and I was really, really inspired by that image which has become so much a part of our pop culture consciousness, of her shaving her head in public, like a Renee Falconetti still.

SL: In order to be in a place to have this kind of existential crisis, you need to have had a certain privilege. It’s ironic.

KZ: Yes, to have Britney Spears’ breakdown, the public figure breaking down spectacularly. But I think all of us, in our own ways, and formed and exacerbated by how we are perceived in public, and how our identities are formed from the outside, have our own existential crises, our intense feelings of alienation. Although it is a luxury to have solitude, and privacy, in order to meditate upon it. One of the roles of literature is to be able to articulate at least one, tiny consciousness. But yeah, I was also interested specifically in Green Girl in a girl who is privileged and in public (although also being alienated by her numbing retail job), who is really just torn apart in public and becomes almost mad because she’s not really allowed to have a self that is not defined by others, she’s nauseated by her self-consciousness. But ultimately, if I was going to say one thing that Heroines and Green Girl have in common, I would say that both books are about loneliness. And Green Girl to me is a novel about loneliness and alienation and the city. Which I continue to write to.  

Stephanie LaCava is a writer working in New York City and Paris.

Kate Zambreno’s novel Green Girl is now available through Harper Perennial in a revised P.S. edition. Her book Heroines, published by Semiotext(e)’s Active Agents, is also now available through Harper Perennial in ebook. She will be reading at McNally Jackson July 1, in conversation with the poet Adam Fitzgerald.