In 2013 an editor of a Canadian journal asked me to review a new Dalkey title written by S.D. Chrostowska. Perhaps he figured that I might appreciate the experimentalism behind Permission: A Novel (2013). “We run once again down that sharp divide between the writerly and the readerly,” I said in the review, “and into the continuing debate among publishers, readers, and the literati as to what side of this widening gulf a writer should be on.” The same is true of Chrostowska’s Matches: A Light Book (Punctum, 2015; reissued in Spring 2019 with additional material), an idea-rich compendium of observations on cultures, human failures, achievements, life and death, and art, all written with brio, humour, and a tinge of melancholy. When the unnamed narrator offers the advice “Isn’t it time, Philosophy, for a hint of colour? — for contrast if the times seem drab, and otherwise for camouflage,” it can be read as an authorial self-referential comment on how Matches is distinguished from the dully-dressed works in both philosophy and cultural criticism. Without being heavy-handed, Chrostowska installs lively personalities behind the contemplation.
Born in the United States and raised in Warsaw, in her late teens Chrostowska returned to the U.S. to pursue university studies before transferring to Trinity College at the University of Toronto in the mid-1990s. With Permission and Matches she stepped away from straight literary history and social-cultural theory or criticism (as presented in two other works, Literature on Trial: The Emergence of Critical Discourse in Germany, Poland, and Russia, 1700-1800 (University of Toronto Press, 2012) and Political Uses of Utopia: New Marxist, Anarchist, and Radical Democratic Perspectives (Columbia University Press, 2017, co-edited with James D. Ingram)). Both her fiction and non-fiction are already the focus of Something Other than Lifedeath (Noxious Sector Press, 2018), edited by David Cecchetto, a collection of texts from scholarly, critical. and creative fields inspired or provoked by Chrostowska’s work.
We met via email some years ago, and then in person in 2016. This interview came about due to the appearance of the second edition of Matches, and on the heels of its French publication earlier this year.
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Jeff Bursey: To begin, who did you like to read when you were growing up?
S.D. Chrostowska: From my teenage years, three authors really stand out: Arthur Conan Doyle, Daniel Defoe, and Bruno Schulz. From the first I drew plots of mystery, from the second nature and adventure, from the third myth and dream. In high school, I was absolutely steeped in Polish literature, which is rich in foreign influences and full of twists and turns. Among my favourites were the dramatic works of Adam Mickiewicz and Stanisław Wyspiański, the novels of Stefan Żeromski and S. I. Witkiewicz, and the metaphysical poetry of Mikołaj Sęp-Szarzyński (the Polish John Donne), Bolesław Leśmian (a most singular modernist), and Julian Przyboś (member of the Cracow Avantgarde). I also appreciated Polish sung poetry of the 1980s and 1990s, especially Jacek Kaczmarski whose lyrics were often ekphrastic, inspired by specific European canvasses. At the same time, I sampled much of the European canon. I read Villon and Baudelaire, Balzac and Zola, Kafka and Max Frisch.
JB: Did university studies add to or change your tastes?
SDC: While at university, I developed an interest in the histories of English, American, German, Russian, and French literature. Eventually, I moved away from literature and literary theory to “continental” philosophy, including philosophy of science and political philosophy, and then to social critique. But since critical social theory often manifested utopian tendencies — just think of Marx — I became versed in the history of utopian fiction.
JB: In your epistolary novel, Permission, a female letter writer addresses an unresponsive male artist on the plane of ideas, revealing little directly about her own life. From an interview with you posted on the Dalkey site about the novel come these sentences: “I suppose the experiment I contrived for the book was an attempt to create a community of this kind, even if initially only of two strangers. In that sense, writing is an exercise in solidarity with potential readers — against atomization, disempowerment, marginality.” Solidarity means something particular to a Polish person, as you explain there, so I’ll leave that aside. Later I’ll come back to the notion of “community.” For now, how did Permission come to be?
SDC: This is a bold question since, as you know, standing like a sentry at the opening to Permission is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s rhetorical question, “To say whether a book is good or bad, how does it matter how it came to be made?” I will say this: as an experiment in personal novelistic communication, Permission could only have arisen from an acute sense of isolation and the need to make something of being this way. It is probable that without an actual human catalyst, a sort of terrestrial muse to whom the text is addressed, the opportunity afforded by isolation would have gone to waste.
Chasing an epiphany, I wrote down what would become the book’s generative themes, and the next thing I knew I was off on an adventure. I was not to escape into a world of my own creation, but to involve myself more deeply, if indirectly, in what exists. That is why I have stressed that, for me, Permission wasn’t a novel — not enough of a fictional tapestry for that. It only transposed some tropes of experimental fiction into an actual communicative situation I had set up. It was meant to be literature as both means to communicate and as end in itself — one stone, two birds. In the back of my mind, it was also an attempt at self-homeopathy: to write a literary work to be cured, once and for all, of the desire to write literature.
JB: In Henry Miller’s novel Black Spring (1936) he writes: “What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature.” Was it that falseness you were trying to get away from? From the writers you mentioned at the beginning?
SDC: I wish it were as simple as that. But you need the novel to see the street. This street-novel is an enhanced version of Stendhal’s mirror, reflecting for us not just the mud and the sky above it, but the street as a place with a character all its own, where certain things happen or don’t happen. And if the novel is not good enough, you need a different literary optic altogether: writing that removes the pavement whose very evenness makes you oblivious to the street underneath. I am thinking of course of surrealist poetics, reenchanting the everydayness of the street, a sudden apparition from a manhole. Without literature there’d be no such thing as a street.
JB: Would it be right to say, regarding your view of what Permission is classified as, that definitions should be avoided? Or do you mean that being defined has its drawbacks? Anyone reading Permission will categorize it.
SDC: Being defined has its drawbacks only if one cannot escape one’s definitions, which reify and cut off utopian lines of thought. Because Permission is labelled a “novel,” I’m afraid that the book has a hard time being taken as anything other than a novel, with the fixed horizon that this entails. Its premise is thus likely to be misunderstood as a fictional construct, a conceit, and its epistolary framework as nothing more than a literary device. Whereas what is closer to the truth is that it took the framework of epistolary fiction, a constraint that could easily be that of an epistolary novel, to pursue personal communication, and did so unswervingly for ultimately literary ends that cannot be said to be those of a novel. As such, it is an artifact of a sustained performative and passionate utterance, of a movement of desire and thought in digital letters preserved in book form.
JB: What literary ends can a novel not have? Isn’t it a capacious form of expression?
SDC: The novel is a latecomer, and its subsumption of existing literary ends was a bid for totality and cultural ascendancy. Insofar as the novel has its own specific end that isn’t to contain other literary ends, it cannot give itself over to them. When forms like the essay or drama appear within it, the expression of ends proper to them is necessarily compromised.
Novels were first of all immersive narratives. Their competitors since the twentieth century are cinema and television’s serial dramas and soap operas. In the novel, material taken from the author’s life is transmuted into a world that appears invented. In Permission, invented material becomes transmuted into my life and appears real. You’re dealing with novelistic non-fact rather than fiction.
Why insist on reality in this convoluted way? The way we tend to carve things up, fiction is really fiction and non-fiction is fact. (Both can be vehicles of truth, but that’s beside the point.) This way, the difference between them appears clear. In fact, what distinguishes non-fiction is the rigorous hygiene, the effort to avoid contamination of factual accuracy by the truthfulness of fiction. But there is no firm line separating the one kind of writing from the other. The line is contingent on who is making the cut. What we call literature is more of a grey zone between two extremes to which writers are attached. In this zone, this no-man’s-land from (mostly) fact to (mostly) fiction, the imagination permeates what we take to be reality. What I wanted to do in Permission is alert readers to this as a good place to be, rather than as a place to which we need to reconcile ourselves. I do not pretend to have found a manuscript in Saragossa; I actually did “find” it insofar as the correspondence that is Permission is real, even if it contains partly made-up stories. Its banal authenticity aside, the book was a defense of that grey zone.
JB: Let’s stop a moment to delve into something from a little earlier: “Rather than escape into a world of my own creation, I wanted to involve myself… in what exists.” Where is the dividing line between your own creation and what exists?
SDC: My distinction there was not a dichotomy. These two types of fictional worlds exist on a continuum. If the first can be described as a dream world, a fantasy where the rules of material reality do not hold, the second is woven of memories of personal experience and their transformations or of imagined possible experience in a material world where certain phenomena and actions are impossible (either in a relative or in an absolute sense).
JB: You discuss many possible worlds and perspectives in Matches from various points of view. This is done in a way that is exceptionally lyrical, especially the opening titled “Proem,” from which this comes: “I had a vision of a book that shed light. A torch book to light my way. A comet book, its luminous tail to leave a trace for me. Its brightness so intense that closing it submerged whoever broke it open in deeper darkness than before. I fancied a kind of sempiternal flame that shot up again as one resumed where one had left off.”
This fanciful opening, which begs to be read aloud, introduces a collection of topics, or a box of flares, that vary in mood and setup, rhythm and tone, using humour, dry wit, and an aphoristic sharpness. Underneath much of the work is what I’d call the despair of an intelligent person looking at the Western world as it declines. I realize that may come off as a pessimistic view of this book.
SDC: The elements of style you took notice of can all be facets of despair. Especially the humour. The extremity of despair can give birth to hope, just as an all-too-fervent hope can lead to despair. Matches, a work of criticism, pushed my despair about the human potential for happiness close to the brink from where I can see myself hoping against all hope that the world can be “utopianized.”
Rather than constructing an argument for the viability of social critique, the book carries out such critique in a piecemeal, aleatory, eccentric fashion. Its objects of criticism are different ways of life. Human life can be led more or less consciously, more or less willfully, more or less interestingly, and more or less in conformity to particular models and frames of meaning. Certain of such ways of life — for instance, that of the artist, the consumer of culture, the activist, the entrepreneur, the bien pensant, the public intellectual — are criticized in the book through their manifestations, obliquely.
The perspective of Matches may be pessimistic, but writing it organized my pessimism for optimism. I am not quite an optimist when I write against the grain of the cacophonous decline of criticism as métier and vocation, where what passes for social critique is short-sighted, misinformed knee-jerk indignation that plays to various prejudices; I am still a pessimist, just a better one. Better as in less defeatist, less attached to pessimism, disabused of the value of pessimistic posturing. Matches effected in me a “pessimistic cure,” by which I do not at all mean that it briefly cured me of pessimism, but only that it cured my pessimism in the way one cures meat, so as to preserve it for future use and consumption, make it more palatable and keep it from turning toxic. To be a pessimist in this sense is to stumble towards the optimum, a word whose semantic history joins the senses of “work” and “good.” How can we “organize” and “better” our pessimism? By practicing immanent social criticism — rather than backdoor moralism — and, through it, orienting ourselves to what is worthwhile and good and by what it is good and worthwhile to hope for.
JB: I wonder if you’d like to explain how the idea behind this book came to you.
SDC: It came not so much as an idea but as a practice. I wrote a few aphoristic fragments and only took this up as a daily activity a year or so later, accelerating when I began to see in the activity a critical process that would give me a clearer idea of the latent cultural matrix that exceeds me as an individual but in which I am implicated. Specifically, a process exposing the values, biases, presuppositions, symbols, ideals, principles, and the contradictions between them that underpin this matrix. I saw that fragmentary, paratactic writing did not just reveal existing associations between seemingly disparate things; it also, by explicitly linking and illuminating different areas of my mental geography, created new associations. Mapping this network would strengthen the groundwork for any future reflections. But the book really came together as a book thanks to an image in René Clair’s Entr’acte: matches gathered on the crown of a balding head catching fire. I had my title!
JB: When I read it in late December 2015 it seemed like it might have taken years to compose, and that its contents could be shuffled around to form any shape you wanted. How did you decide on the shape it took?
SDC: I wrote the first pieces in 2013 and published them in a journal called Convolution. The rest of Matches was written in Berlin and Toronto between the spring of 2014 and the summer of 2015. Many of the fragments were composed in the order you encounter them in the book. Once I felt I had ventured into areas peripheral to my thinking at the time, subjects I was not just then keen or prepared to take up, that struck me as dead ends or merely epiphenomenal, I stopped and made a thematic inventory of all the texts, to get an overview of the whole. I then shifted many pieces around, to make them resonate with the surrounding material. In retrospect, fine-tuning the arrangement was the hardest part of the composition.
JB: How does the second edition differ from the first?
SDC: There is a couple dozen of new fragments, but only such as seemed to me necessary. There is also a foreword by Alexander Kluge, a writer and filmmaker for whom I have a longstanding affinity. The foreword is a translation of the one that appeared in the French edition.
JB: Of Matches, Daniel Green said in his review: “[T]he entries that most call attention to their own mediation through form are perhaps those composed of dialogues between ‘A’ and ‘B’… This form inherently puts authorial intent in suspension (is the author A or B?); it seems likely that Chrostowska the novelist has some influence on Chrostowska the critic’s sense of the potentially permeable boundaries between literature and criticism…” Is Matches, potentially or actually, one or the other, or is it a case of it being both at once? Can a work that resembles a collection of mini-essays be regarded as a work of fiction, as presenting the thoughts of a persona instead of the Chrostowska who teaches at York University in Toronto?
SDC: I would resist calling it a work of fiction. True, my opinions and sentiments are diffracted and distributed in it; they are offered discursively rather than in a direct, explicit, unilinear fashion. So, for instance, in the dialogues I assume aspects of both personas. Matches may display all six of the functions of language identified by Roman Jakobson (referential, poetic, expressive, conative, phatic, reflexive), and perhaps even the fabled, unidentified seventh function. It uses dialogue for dramatic effect. There are moments where it waxes picaresque or lyrical. But the orientation of the entire collection is propositional, which is to say that it consists of statements about the world, submitted to the reader in good faith and for their judgment as either true or false. Whether or not the reader finds it most appealing or even worthwhile to consider them in such terms is another matter. I wouldn’t rule anything out.
JB: You speak of “both personas,” but with so many competing notions, moods, and postures it could be argued that it’s a choral work, and that you’re revisiting the creation of a “community” that you mentioned when speaking about Permission.
SDC: Being indeed polyphonic, Matches is not a lecture or a suite of moral lessons on the state of our society and its present horizons, or what can be thought in such a society. I would like the sympathetic reader to thoroughly approve one moment only to beg to differ the next; to vehemently disagree with one passage only to find a subsequent one compelling; and in the end, to be unable to either agree or disagree with the work as a whole. Our reaction to a book with a thesis is typically polarized: agreement, even when we have minor quibbles with it, or disagreement, even when we recognize some good things about it. Matches is not a book of this kind as it has no overarching thesis. It does not solicit assent and seek to build consensus. By the same token, it is also unlikely to be rejected.
JB: Matches came out in French in January (Belles Lettres/Klincksieck, Paris, €25.50). Could you explain how that happened, and what reception the book has had there?
SDC: Though I work in Canada, I have spent time in France, where over time I have established ties to three overlapping milieus: critical theorists, historians of utopia, and surrealists.
In 2017, I coedited a scholarly volume on the intersections of utopia and politics, which opens with a long essay by the French thinker Miguel Abensour. While translating his text I met Joël Gayraud, who, apart from being a writer, is one of the two main French translators of Giorgio Agamben. He took the initiative to translate several pieces from Matches (as he would later its entirety). At some point he sent the pieces to Abensour, who edited the remarkable book series « Critique de la politique », combining political theory and the critique of domination. Abensour decided to publish Matches in his series. He passed away in 2017 soon after that decision, and his successor, the philosopher Michèle Cohen-Halimi, followed his editorial line. As a friend who visited him in hospital later told me, Abensour thought that Matches restored vigor and intensity to critique and that this is how one should write books. I can think of no greater compliment.
JB: And what has been the public or critical response?
SDC: It is still too early to say. The first review, by Michael Löwy, in Le Monde diplomatique, detects in Matches a “left nostalgia” — an allusion to Walter Benjamin’s linke Melancholie, or “left melancholy.” Many of my references are to North American culture, and for that reason, even at this latest stage of cultural globalization, I am told the book carries with it a whiff of exoticism.
JB: Much like with Permission, once again you blur genres. Or leave readers to work out matters for themselves. The result is an exotic work.
SDC: There is the eternal problem of classifying a book of aphorisms that does not limit itself to one area or topic. In English, Matches fell under Philosophy/Essays. In French, I can also see it filed under Poetry, despite its unflippant title. For the translation, we settled on Feux croisés: Propos sur l’histoire de la survie. Today, “feux croisés,” or crossfire, is often confused in French with “feux de croisement,” or dipped headlights. It suggests crossing beams of light, and that is the best we could do to keep intact the multiple connotations of “matches.” Because the subtitle, “A light book,” proved untranslatable, the French is completely different: “Notes on the history of survival.”
JB: An epistolary novel that isn’t a novel, a book of aphorisms that is very much more than that. What’s next? You spoke of “a dream world, a fantasy where the rules of material reality do not hold,” and you co-edited a book on utopia. Is there something along those lines in the future?
SDC: I see us living in a time of rude awakenings from dreams that didn’t feel real enough because they weren’t bad enough. What we took to be right, and good, and even sacred is revealing its noxious side and consequences.
My most recent literary project does indeed take a utopian turn. But it is a wishful turn into oncoming traffic, waking up to something worse, to a nightmare reality. You could say that the new book is an oneiric utopia within a dystopia. It commemorates the struggles of May ’68 in the context of the current silent epidemic of sleep loss. My point of departure was the question: What would it be like to become the last dreamer, the last person who really dreamt? The answer is a bedtime story for grownups. But do grownups still have time to read before going to bed?
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Jeff Bursey is the author of Verbatim: A Novel (2010), Mirrors on which dust has fallen (2015), and Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (July 2016).
Matches: A Light Book by S.D. Chrostowska is available now from Punctum Books (2nd, enlarged edition, 2019). Forthcoming next year are The Eyelid (Coach House Books) and A Cage for Every Child (Splice).