I met with Claire-Louise Bennett on a sunny April afternoon in Galway during the Cuírt International Festival of Literature. Her debut story collection, Pond (published by Stinging Fly Press), was launched there to great acclaim by artist Alice Maher, whose woodcut ‘The Orchards of Our Mothers’ features on the jacket of the hardback edition. My hour-long conversation with Claire-Louise proved an enthralling insight into the mind of a gifted thinker whose decidedly non-mainstream writing scrutinizes the capacity of language to reveal aspects of solitude, embodiment and mystery.
Susanne Stich There are many things I’d like to ask you, Claire-Louise. In terms of setting the table for our conversation I feel I should start by saying that the stories in Pond are rather different from what is commonly associated with the short story form. Instead of presenting a plot leading to an epiphany of sorts, you draw the reader into a web of reflections sparked off by the minutiae of your female narrator’s world, which encompasses the domestic, the exotic and the philosophical. Can we maybe kick off with you talking about your approach to writing?
Claire-Louise Bennett I’ve always been writing, while writing and being a writer are two different things, really. My earlier writing wasn’t geared towards creating something that somebody else would engage with. I don’t know why I was writing. I can rationalize it, I suppose, and say I was trying to figure things out, but actually I don’t think that was what was going on. I think that I was undergoing certain sensations that weren’t reflected in reality. I had a sense of myself in the universe, if you like, quite strongly. There was quite an existential dimension to it, and that element of life isn’t spoken about day to day. The emphasis is more on practical things: what you’re going to do, how to establish yourself, and all that kind of stuff. It’s not about these elemental, primal parts of us. But I liked those parts in me, and I liked dwelling on them. Writing gave me the opportunity to be in that space, in that ontological zone where I could dwell. There was something slightly phantasmagorical about these writings. They didn’t make much sense, and their point wasn’t to make sense either. They were just a lot of words. I don’t know if you ever read anything by Leonora Carrington, the surrealist painter and novelist. Somebody said that her work is brewed almost, like linguistic cauldrons, I suppose. It has a totemic quality. That is what writing is about for me, too, tapping into a sense of being, a magic rather than logic.
SS: You already mentioned Leonora Carrington, but there are many other inter-textual references. In the story ‘Control Knobs’ I was intrigued by your allusions to Marlen Haushofer’s Die Wand (The Wall), one of my favourite novels. Written in the format of a journal it tells of a middle-aged woman, the sole survivor of an undefined catastrophe, who finds herself cut off from the rest of humanity in a cabin in the Austrian Alps. The book describes her new, Robinson-type existence alongside a small number of animals in painstaking detail. When it comes to the documentation of the everyday, the parallels between Pond’s narrator and the woman in The Wall are undeniable. And yet, these are very different texts and contexts. In the world you describe there is no existential crisis, but there is something underlying that connects the two voices.
CLB: I suppose I was interested in modes of solitude. One of the books I looked at initially was A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland, a beautiful book. It’s about her experience of living in a series of remote places. After a change in her personal circumstances she decided to withdraw from a busy life in London, and looked at silence in a direct and personal way, but also from a historical and cultural perspective. On the one hand silence is something associated with religious devotion, moving away from the world and self toward something transcendent. And then of course there is the concept of the romantic artist going off into nature and experiencing some sort of emancipation. Maitland argues that the artistic immersion into silence is geared towards bolstering the ego rather than overcoming it. I don’t know if I agree with her. There is this cliché that artists dwell on themselves, but I think what is interesting about reading that book, one does develop an awareness that does take you beyond yourself. I guess what has always frustrated me is the emphasis on the human. We live in a very anthropocentric culture, and the affiliated notion of convenience disgusts me. Why is everything meant to be easy all the time? I don’t really get that.
SS: In both Haushofer’s and your book there is a strong element of the material world. In Pond, an irony shines through when the narrator engages with its frustrations and endless implications. But there is also a reverence for that same material world, which is tied up with aspects of the natural world, with animals, shells and gardens for example.
CLB: Yes, there is. And, going back to Haushofer and the idea of solitude, people talk about isolation, but you’re only isolated if you think that the norm is to be integrated. Integration into the central contract isn’t necessarily the be all and end all. And if you decide not to be integrated in that way, it just means your way of connecting with the world is different. Over time you do attain an awareness where that very embodied life becomes profound, quite fulfilling and sustaining. And that’s exactly what interested me in my stories, a sense of a person on their own. We’re uncomfortable with that culturally, and have been, historically, especially with females. I suppose in literary history the lone figure of the man has many archetypes, for instance with the beat poets. And there’s always a spiritual thing attached to it, which is often quite dubious; it might just be a guy eschewing his responsibilities. Anyway, there is this context, and somehow it has been accepted, but the lone woman is something that is still uncomfortable for many. Often she is described in terms of what she lacks, e.g. she’s single, or she’s childless. I don’t think Haushofer’s book is overtly feminist, but it’s interesting how quickly the character, in her new life of solitude, comes to realize that her previous roles as mother and wife were really quite thin. When I read The Wall I didn’t find it dystopian. It’s often described as that, but I found there were such riches there, of experience. It’s not a polemic. It’s blissfully free of ideology. It’s just someone existing, and that’s exciting, having that freedom to exist without any framework or context.
SS: Staying with the inter-textual references for a moment, one of your epigraphs is from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, a stunning philosophical study of the lived experience of architecture: ‘Wolves in shells are crueller than stray ones’. We already touched upon the importance of the natural world in Pond, but tell me about this epigraph.
CLB: I suppose one of the things I’m interested in is the idea of wilderness, and where it can be found. It’s receding all the time, but at the same time it’s there, we’re just covering it up. It’s underneath the tarmac and it’s underneath the grass, the house. I like the idea that wilderness isn’t elsewhere, because the world we’ve made is on top, it covers the earth, but there’s always earth underneath, and we’re in contact with it all the time. Bachelard talks about connecting the subterranean with the aerial, and the house is kind of in between those two, and it is a cosmic space. I guess reading him helped to put words on ideas or feelings that I’d had, but never been able to give shape to. That was useful. It sort of reconfigured what a domestic space is, and what inhabiting it means. Why do certain rooms feel wrong, or certain textures? It’s not just a matter of aesthetics. I think there is something stronger going on there.
SS: Domestic spaces and their interplay with references to other places feature heavily in Pond. A lot happens in the home.
CLB: Yes. Going back to Bachelard, he implies that you learn to inhabit the world by first of all learning to inhabit your own home, and that’s not quite as straightforward as it’s made up to be. Feeling at home can be difficult. It’s not just about having a house, so that was on my mind, too. And then I was living somewhere very old. It was a very elemental place. It was made of stone, straw and wood, very basic materials that I could actually point to and name. And there was a small waterfall outside that I could hear all the time. I’m living in a place now where I can’t tell you what anything is made of, which is fine, but very different from the time when I wrote the book, living alongside those rough, unprocessed materials, or basic elements really. I think it does something to you when you inhabit the world in a different way. It taps into, and emphasizes a part of your psyche that wouldn’t otherwise be stimulated. And that’s what the book explores. The narrator’s sense of self becomes more and more diffuse. There are times when it threatens to overwhelm her. The boundaries between her and the outside world become faint. There’s that story ‘Morning, 1908’, which is quite bizarre, because what is she talking about? On the one hand she is talking about being raped. There I was interested in the idea of your sense of self getting diffuse as a result of becoming so immersed in your environment. In that context, what does it mean to be violated? I’ve always been interested in depictions in literature about a search for freedom in order to overcome certain boundaries or binds. But then there are other risks that you have to negotiate. It’s chaotic! In his essay on idleness Montaigne, for instance, talks about his wish to retire and calmly contemplate his thoughts, but he quickly realizes that this isn’t such a peaceful thing. It turns out to be pretty dreadful. You almost need structure to be protected, not only from everything else, but also from yourself.
SS: Let’s talk about voice. Most of the stories are written in the first person and the voice has a similar tone throughout the book. Anne Enright recently referred to your work and Eimear McBride’s as representative of a 'new modernism' that evolved out of the economic downturn. Do you yourself see the voice in Pond in that context? And, first of all, do you like modernist writing?
CLB: I do like modernist writing, yes, but I don’t know if it’s been an influence. I think my way of writing has been there from the beginning, and I struggled with that because it didn’t fulfill orthodox notions of narration or representation. Then I started to discover different writers, European writers mostly, and became aware of different possibilities. I wasn’t so anxious anymore about whether a text I wrote was a short story, a chapter in a novel, or a poem. I think what’s interesting for me about writing is not so much what you intend to do, but what materializes. I’ve never written with an intention. I have to feel unfettered when I write, but connected with something quite fundamental. And then I just write from that place. Afterwards I look at it and go, okay, and I begin to see what’s really happening.
SS: There’s a short story by Amy Hempel called ‘Reference #3884758485’ which I read as part of a writing course for its illustration of drift in fiction. In the format of a letter it tells of the first person narrator’s response to a parking ticket in New York City. Venturing from a place of anger and frustration about the ticket, the story spirals into a stream of consciousness about the little and the big things in the narrator’s life, exploring her fear, isolation and the possibilities of defiance in an alienating world. Pond brought this story back to me, and I guess it helped me access your book in a contemporary context as well as a more historical, modernist one, where I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, or certain stories by Katherine Mansfield. Pond also made me think of the writing of Marguerite Durasand Peter Handke, especially his journal Das Gewicht der Welt (The Weight of the World) from the 1970s. However, leading on from comparisons with other writers, and re-emphasizing your interest in concept over narrative, I’d like to ask you how important theory is to the voice you write in?
CLB: Not hugely, but I guess I spend a lot of time thinking about concepts like self and identity. There is this word aphanisis, which means ‘fading’ or ‘disappearance’. Ernest Jones coined it. He used it to describe a lack of sexual desire. But then Lacan took it up, and he used it in a way that we’re kind of familiar with now, in the postmodern sense of when language begins to overtake our sense of things, so that real experience begins to fade behind it almost. And when that happens there’s also this pressure in society: Make your mark, make a good impression, put your stamp on it. These are quite emphatic terms. But what do they mean? What do you do with them? Do you wither behind them? There’s an impoverished feeling then. Where does your soul go in this? It’s quite strange. That’s theory, but it’s also something I can connect with in a real way. It doesn’t feel abstract to me. I’m not a hugely spiritual person, but there are things that make a natural sense, a sense that’s intrinsic. And ideas do interest me, more so than stories. I think about this a lot, how we very quickly narrow our way of being in the world down. I remember that feeling as a child, it all feels vast and scary, and chaotic, primal really, and then, quite quickly, that sort of goes. Life gets more mundane and managed. Why does this happen? And then there is this other thing Thomas Mann talked about. He pointed out how, even in his time, humankind had never before been so concerned with boundaries and a sense of individuality. We are still hung up on this today, convinced that it means progression. I think these days it is emphasized for capitalist reasons rather than wholesome ones.
SS: Also impacting on the voice in Pond is your interest in the ambiguity of language. It is beautifully illustrated in this passage: ‘English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words in order to say things. I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don't think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see. I think it has to stay where it is; simmering in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organ.’
CLB: I’ve always struggled with language, and it just doesn’t seem to be adequate, or help me with the most important situations in my life. It seems to fail, and I can’t seem to figure out what the relationship between language and reality is. And yet, our realities are constructed by language. Our sensibility is connected to it, and it shapes our identity.
SS: Coming back to the idea of ‘aphanisis’ or fading, another thing that struck me were the things Pond leaves out. The narrator’s age isn’t specified, time and place aren’t specified etc. What is the function of absences, of things that aren't experienced, things that are forgotten or disappear, like the stir-fry that is thrown in the bin packed with ‘all the things I never want to see again’, or, by contrast, things that don't disappear, like the ‘broken, precious thing’ that doesn’t sink when the narrator throws it into the eponymous pond, wanting to ‘get rid of it fast’. In another passage the narrator sits in her neighbor’s kitchen with a rucksack on, unable to remember what brought her there.
CLB: I suppose the narrator is quite secretive and doesn’t like people knowing. It makes me laugh. She often says things like ‘If you must know’, or ‘For your information’. She’s a reluctant narrator, but who is making her tell the stories in the first place? That’s what interested me, the tension between making things freely available, and not giving anything away.
SS: And is that reluctance tied up with the idea of fading?
CLB: Yes. It's about how you manage that dichotomy of giving people enough of you so that they might be interested in you, while allowing a significant part to remain unspoken so that you feel, at the same time, very present and vital within yourself. I wrote something recently for the Stinging Fly blog about the paradox of the more fascinating you are to other people, the more boring you become to yourself. The exploration of that is another thing solitude enables. In solitude you kind of remain a mystery to yourself because you don’t have to represent yourself to the world all the time. The mystery is intact.
SS: The stories in Pond are all different lengths. Some of them are only a couple of lines, but there is something underlying that unites them, and almost gives the book the feel of a novel. Considering the overall emphasis on the embodied experience of thought I wonder whether the texts could be described as ‘gestures of survival’, with the voice representing a mindset rather than a particular individual?
CLB: Yes, I do think the voice suggests a kind of experiential mode rather than an ontological construct. In that sense I was influenced by German post-dramatic theatre, and particularly Hans Lehmann’s book, because I also worked in the theatre for a long time. The idea with that was what text might be in a performance space other than a play, what can actors be other than characters, and what can words be other than dialogue. It’s about releasing text from its normal orthodox function, and I found that interesting, because the theatre often is connected with an individual and their psychology. I don’t like psychology and the idea of working out the whys and wherefores. I gave up theatre because I didn’t enjoy thinking about human experience in that psychologized way. In post-dramatic theatre, however, there is a different kind of enquiry, and that’s also in the book. There’s a lot about what an ‘I’ actually is, interpreting it on the page in a way, figuring it out, and that’s not easy because you don’t want to frustrate the reader. It took a long time to work out how I was going to convey an ‘I’ in a different way.
SS: We’ve already covered huge ground, but here is one final question. The theme of love features in several stories, especially in the final one, ‘Old Ground’, where the narrator wonders if love ‘can be’ or ‘must be’ surprising. In the story ‘Morning, Noon and Night’ the narrator talks about preparing and presenting an academic paper for reasons that have ‘something to do with love’. On another level the book suggests a tremendous love of solitude, observation and thought.
CLB: I think what interests me most about anything in life is love, how we discover it, how it takes shape and becomes formalized, the expectations we have of it, and how it then just settles into our daily life. It’s quite incredible, and there’s also a great sadness there in the face of such force. I’m interested in its mutations, I suppose. Love really does colour those certain years of your life, and then, I don’t know what happens, it doesn’t so much anymore. It’s nothing to do with becoming jaded or relationships not working out, it’s not even as specific as that.
SS: Here’s one last quote from ‘A Little Before Seven’: ‘I come down the stairs or out of the adjacent rooms, always holding something, such as a towel. A towel, a newspaper I haven’t been reading, a piece of laundry, a glass. Like something reclaimed and brought back from another world. And I don’t stop. I pass right through and vanish into another part of the house. As if the item I’m holding needs to be presented somewhere as a matter of sacred urgency.’ I wonder do the objects in Pond, and their almost obsessive mentioning and arranging, connect with this theme of love?
CLB: Again, it’s that idea of vanishing behind the physical world. And in that situation she’s using that to her advantage, I suppose. You can always hide behind an object by doing the washing up or carrying a glass. I enjoyed that because sometimes it’s about playing with levels of identity. She talks about pressing down on the worktop to feel more present, and that was certainly something I was interested in. In the theatre when there is someone on stage they are physically there. You can’t subvert that. Beckett tries it to a degree by fragmenting the body. He achieves some sort of breaking down of that total and immediate presence. It’s quite difficult to achieve that in a story. In Pond I felt that sometimes the narrator is very there and cogent, and other times she becomes more nebulous. How is it that we pull ourselves together? Writing the book was about playing with those levels of presence and absence.
SS: Claire-Louise, it’s been fascinating to talk to you, and I’d love to talk even longer, but I guess we have to draw a line somewhere. Let me thank you for taking time out on this beautiful day today and going into such depth with your answers.