CJLC editors Campbell Campbell and Thomas Wee interview Kate Zambreno on her most recent work, To Write as if Already Dead, a postmodern telling of a body in sickness and motherhood and a study on the collage, distrust, and friendship in Herve Guibert’s To The Friend Who Didn’t Save My Life. Philosophical in her approach, Zambreno turns to other thinkers to find a collective understanding of mortality and illness.

Kate Zambreno is the author of many acclaimed books, including Drifts (2020), Appendix Project (2019), Screen Tests (2019), Book of Mutter (2017), and Heroines (2012). Her writing has appeared in the Paris ReviewVirginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She teaches in the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia University and is the Strachan Donnelley Chair in Environmental Writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction.

August 17th, 2021

Campbell Campbell: You write about questioning which novel you would choose to study and write about. What drew you to Guibert? Why To The Friend Who Didn’t Save My Life rather than The Compassion Protocol? 

Kate Zambreno: I love to cheat on what I am supposed to be working on, so when Jenny Davidson approached me and said that [Columbia University Press] is commissioning a series of book-length essays on novels, I thought that this would be my new secret project [Laughs]. I always need a secret project that I’m not supposed to be working on. 

There were a couple of novels that I considered for the study. Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, and Bruce Boone’s Century of Clouds, a New Narrative work about friendship and community and volleyball at a Marxist conference. I love that Guibert is channeling Bernhard to write this fictionalized essay on Bernhard even though it is rarely read as a book about reading, a book about channeling, a book about an obsession with Bernhard.  

You ask about Compassion Protocol, and the truth is I do find Compassion Protocol to be more beautiful, more profound, more elegiac, more despairing, but I chose To The Friend because it is the book that troubled me and that I often think people misread. There has been such a wonderful Guibert renaissance by writers that I admire, for example Andrew Durbin, but a lot of the review coverage of the Guibert book from the Semiotext(e) reissue has focused on the book as an authentic and sympathetic AIDS portrait. I think that what he is doing is more layered, more bitchy, more slippery, and it is a work that I kept reading and re-reading to figure out, since around the time that I wrote Heroines. 

I chose the book because it was a problem for me. And I wanted to write through a problem, which was the problem of friendship and betrayal, the own writing I felt compelled to do through that.  I felt that necessary friction and tension about the ethics of betrayal and how he was ruining his friendships for the sake of his writing, yet I also felt a kindredness and elective affinity for him.

Someone has to reissue The Compassion Protocol, though! 

CC: I love that you mention Duras’ The Lover. I just finished it and found it exciting. 

KZ: When I moved to New York, I was asked to do a panel with other writers–you can Google this to get the real gossip–but I got into a fight on stage with a writer about Duras’ The Lover. It was supposed to be a celebration of the book with four writers speaking on stage, and I had come from a writing community who revered Duras despite, of course, that there is amazing Duras and less great Duras like there is a good Guibert and bad Guibert. These were writers who were very productive and rewrote their work over and over again to have this whole body of work that was fascinating, glittering, and constant. So at the panel there was this other writer there who wrote one famous memoir and taught full-time at an MFA program. He just tore Duras apart and claimed that this was not real writing and could be workshopped to be better. I took the bait, you know, because I had not learned not to take the bait, and we ended up in this fight on The Lover. 

I did not write a book on The Lover, though, because I didn’t know if I should be the one to write about it, especially the context of how she’s writing about race and colonialism.  Even though there is an ethical slipperiness  that I wrote about a person with AIDS, I did feel like I had to write about Guibert. If I didn’t write about him, that would be a deep loss for me because he is a writer that I think through and wrestle with. 

CC: Who won the fight at the panel? 

KZ: I don’t know! [Laughs] . I think that he was the famous writer that the majority of the literary audience came to hear speak and that he might have been perceived as winning due to his forcefulness, but I think that I won. 

CC: Do you see yourself borrowing, expanding, or perverting Guibert’s form in To The Friend? How are you both circling around questions of the intertextuality of the novel and of the self? 

KZ: I think that I was drawn to how much Guibert is reading Thomas Bernhad and channeling this mordant, nihilistic, fast Nietzschean ressentiment iTo The Friend. Guibert was always channeling Bernhard,  and I felt like I was channeling Guibert by writing about my obsessions with the notebook, diary, body, time, but I was also channeling him and Bernhard in the second half of the book. 

I wanted to know what happens when you push a sentence into aggression, into despair, into absurdity, into an abyss, and I think that the person I have been ultimately perverting since Screen Tests has been Bernhard. I am not alone in my Bernhard obsession, and I think that it is his slightly fictionalized send-ups of artists and community and existential despair that I have provoked, and I have thought of my sentences through his sentences. 

I like to think of less of the sentence and more of the space on the page when I think of Guibert. I am trying to create energy, space, sentences in conversation to other writers and hoping that my own sentence emerges from it, right? I hope so, but I do think that I have been gently playing homage to both of them and hoping that some of my voice remains. What is a voice? What is the self? What is beyond the boundaries of the self? 

Thomas Mar Wee: There has been a lot of buzz around the “fragment” and the “fragmentary” in contemporary literature, including its prominent role in your own work. Do you agree with this label being assigned to your work, and how do you conceptualize the fragment as a unit in literature? 

KZ: I recently had an event with Kate Briggs who said an interesting remark by Roland Barthes in his later period of Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes and A Lover’s Discourse. He said, “Oh, all of this talk of the fragment,” but you’ll have to look at the recording of the event because I am merely translating Kate, the translator. He was annoyed by this buzzword, that everything that is fragmentary [Laughs]. In my novel, I am trying to playfully reckon with these two buzzwords that seem to be attached to my work: autofiction and fragment. 

The fragment–we can call it the F word–has been in discourse since the popularization of the lyric essay, and this brings up questions, such as what is fragmentary writing? Is a sentence a fragment, or is a paragraph a fragment? I do think that I am interested in the tradition of writing that is aware of the space of the page and of the rhythm and tone of writing, and I am intrigued by thinking of writing as language, of language itself as an object. 

In Drifts, I am in conversation with Maurice Blanchot, the great theorist of the fragment who saw that sort of writing as anti-capitalistic, anti-commodity, where it favored writing that was centered on process and practice and against the consumable narrative. My work is in the notebook, the fragment, but that fragment may go on for pages and pages. I am a student of Sebald and Bernhard, of the digression, and I think that Sebald is called fragmented because of his obsession with the list, the archive, the museum, the zoological garden, the Wunderkammer. 

I am philosophically interested in the fragment and bored by mainstream publishing’s commodification of fragmentary writing, and I think that there is a huge range of writing that is called fragmented that does not exist in the same tradition. It misses the vast mischief of contemporary writers who are experimenting. 

TW: This brings up another question: what is non-fragmentary writing? Is it Henry James? 

KZ: Campbell and I were talking about mysticism before you got on the call, and Amy Hollywood is a scholar of mysticism who has written about Henry James and his obsession with the object. He has a fetish with the object, so why is he not seen as fragmented? 

TW: Speaking of intertextuality, works of visual art (both Guibert’s work and the work of other artists) are a frequently recurring subject throughout this book. What led this ekphrastic inclination throughout the text?

KZ: I was looking through the Book of Mutter  this morning because I was sending it to a translator. Every time I do this, have to open a past work, I must confront questions like what is this book and is it any good. That was the first book in which I actively decided to write about visual art. I wanted to incorporate writing about Louise Bourgeois, both her biography and her process and her Cells, the magic and the form of the Cells. In this way I began to experiment with a collage that lets me leave the self, and that has been the way in which I have de-centered the “I” in my work, through collage.

I remember thinking that I couldn’t write about artists, such as Henry Darger and Louise Bourgeois, because I was not trained in art criticism. My partner John Vincler writes a lot about art, and we often ask: is it too easy to bring in other artists, what is the ekphrastic mode, why go to it, and what does it do for the reader? I think that we like to look at the visual to make the writing visual, and the visual world is what excites and disorients me that I feel a need to expand upon it. I have written catalog essays in the past, but I began to understand that there is a formula to it that I do not want to do. I will write about the visual for myself, thinking through the process of artists, and the way that these forms experiment in ways I long to, and sometimes it will later get published and become for everyone else and we can share in our elective affinities. I think that the process of writing about art brings me closer to thinking about my fixation on community and its relationship to capitalism and the ephemeral. I like most in the Guibert study–a moment no one discusses, and I don’t know why–is the long opening dealing with Manet’s friendship with Baudelaire, his unfinished painting on his funeral. Thinking about other artists is a form of historical and ecological thinking because it is centered in others. I wanted to pay tribute to Guibert, and his mentor Foucault, who wrote art writing and photography criticism. The most marvelously strange parts of To The Friend are the moments when Guibert is writing about 19th century artists and his own studies in drawings of everyday objects. 

I am writing currently about Joseph Cornell–still thinking about him, his process, his work, his biography—his diaries were just as interesting as his boxes later placed in museums, and I kept thinking about the line in his diary that says collage equals life. His diaries and his organization, his archiving and source files, were as important to him as the objects he created. 

CC: This text parallels Barthes’ Preparation of the Novel, which ponders the prerequisites of writing a novel. I love the passages in To Write As If Already Dead in which you gain inspiration and questions from your female friendships; how is female friendship essential to your writing process, and how does this contrast the male friendships between Guibert and his contemporaries who gossiped and betrayed one another?

KZ: I’m always arguing with Foucault in my head, who really revealed himself in his interviews, in conversation with others. While writing the Guibert study I kept returning to Foucault’s thinking about the formlessness of friendship, that was transformed from an interview and repackaged as an essay after his death, which focused on intergenerational male communities that could turn eros and bonding into knowledge. We can look at these ideas with suspicion and wonder how this may exclude anyone who does not fit the cute boy of the Foucault world. When I read his thinking on this I agree with him, am antagonistic to him, feel excluded by him. Do we always want friendship to be formless? No, we want boundaries, to protect from power imbalances. 

I carried these ideas with me when I was writing the Guibert study. I wanted to focus on community; I wanted to focus on women and non-binary friendships; and I wanted to capture the frustrations and beauty of the knowledge that we can produce in those spaces. It is a necessary and political act to turn to the community for narratives and not subsume everything into one authorial individual project. Guibert and I both write from love, but he also has a ressentiment side to his writing and personality that I admire. Writers are all supposed to be so moral and write from a place of empathy, but I confess that one of my drives is to look at the haters, the anti-humanists, the bitchy writers. 

That being said, I tried my best to be careful with my friendships in my work. Sofia Samatar is a frequent and playful collaborator, she often writes from our correspondences, as I write from ours in Drifts and a little in the Guibert study. Perhaps this sense of writing as a conversation, as a collaboration, comes from both of our experience in the blogging world, which is a desire for a space that is anti-capitalist, non-hierarchical, impossibly utopian, and at a time before the internet felt completely commodified. [In the book] I am paying tribute to that time when it resembled performance art. 

TW: It is very different from buying a subscription to Substack, right? 

KZ: Right, although there are wonderful longform essays  that seems reminiscent of that world. But still there is that neoliberal world  that forces everyone to market themselves and that renders everything business. 

TW: The first half of To Write As If Already Dead deals primarily with your online friendship with a writer writing under the pseudonym of “Alex Suzuki”. Situated within a book that is ostensibly a study of Guibert, this seems to call for comparison between these two authors. What connections did you find between Suzuki’s anonymous writerly persona and Guibert’s oeuvre of radical self-disclosure?

KZ: Alex Suzuki is a fictional name of a heteronym for a truly brilliant writer. It is interesting that French autoportrait writing by Guibert and Duras, was happening at the same time as New Narrative, but the autoportrait writers were celebrities and best-sellers in France while the New Narrative writers were often writing for each other, and did not get published by major publishers in the States, with the exception of Kathy Acker and Dennis Cooper. I would associate the Alex Suzuki character, rather than Guibert, with the New Narrative tradition, at least in terms of community, but also for the desire and longing behind their writing, which is about a conversation, a Blanchot idea of communion, as opposed to for the market. I think that Alex Suzuki, at least the pseudonymous character who wrote on a blog, and Guibert are similar in their tone, speed, and ease of writing.There’s something bloggy about Guibert—and a link between the letter, the diary, the notebook space, that he wrote from, and theorized, but also a blog. There’s more commonalities between me and Guibert, at least in terms of being authors in the world, and speed and productivity. The author who was the inspiration for the alter-ego that was the real life persona of Alex Suzuki is a deliberate, slow, compassionate, writer who writes a book every decade, and although I  love him, that is very different from Guibert, and different from myself as well.