Diana George’s recent writing has appeared in Conjunctions and 3AM Magazine. They did an MFA in creative writing at Brown University and were also the recipient of an NEA award for fiction. George lives in Seattle, where they work as a technical editor, write for the port-truckers newsletter Solidarity, and proofread for Asymptote, a magazine of literary translation.
Their story, "Keyhole," appeared in Issue Sixty-Eight of The Collagist.
Here, Diana George talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about Kafka, dead whales, and ambiguity.
Please tell us about the origins of your short story, “Keyhole.” What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?
My stories usually begin with a phrase that intrigues me, rather than an idea. But this story sat in the drawer for a while, so I couldn’t say now what that phrase was.
I know where certain elements came from. The description of the cook and Ziller, of what sex is like for them, came from a sentence in Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy.” In that story, a speaking, educated ape describes his relations with a half-tamed chimpanzee: in the Muirs’ translation, “I take comfort from her as apes do”; in German, “ich lasse es mir nach Affenart bei ihr wohlgehen.” The German sentence was the one I had in mind; it seems crueler than the English version, colder.
But sometimes it’s better not to know where a writer got an image. One day my friend was having his hair cut by a barber from Hungary, so my friend told him all about this Hungarian movie he’d just seen, Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies. The barber had never seen Tarr’s movie, but when my friend described the dead whale being borne through the countryside on a flatbed truck—(and it’s a stunning image, one that resonates with Hobbes’s Leviathan, the rotten ship of state in Eastern-bloc communism, the terrifying muteness of nature, and the death of God, though it’s reducible to none of these)—anyway, when my friend got to the part about the whale, he was expecting the barber to be suitably astonished, but the barber just nodded and said something to the effect of, “Oh, sure. Dead whale on a truck. We saw those in Hungary all the time.” (And they did; a dead whale known as “Goliath” was exhibited throughout Hungary in the early 1960s.) The whale in Werckmeister Harmonies is still a stroke of genius, but I was a little disappointed to learn that Tarr and (and his collaborators Krasznahorkai and Hranitzky) hadn’t invented it out of whole cloth.
A good deal is left to the reader’s imagination in this piece, most notably the exact nature of Ziller’s “plans for the child.” How much of what is ambiguous or unknown to the audience is clearly known for you? Is it important for you to know all the answers to the questions that linger when writing such a story, or is it better to keep some mystery alive even for yourself?
With this story, I don’t know anything beyond what is on the page. Though if I did know something more about Ziller, perhaps it could only be something in his past. There’s a remarkable novel by Paul Griffiths called let me tell you. It’s narrated by Ophelia, the character from Hamlet, but she’s under the Oulipian constraint of a closed lexicon: Ophelia can only use the 481 words she spoke in Shakespeare’s play. In a way, the book is a transcendental investigation into the limits of what we can do or hope for in this play we find ourselves in, with this language not of our making. Griffiths gives Ophelia a backstory, but when she departs from Elsinore at the novel’s end—sorry, belated spoiler alert—what she encounters is nothing but snow; snow fills her footprints, it blurs any traces she leaves. At the far border of the page, after the end, there is only a blank.
The passage that stood out to me most from the rest is this one that appears near the end: “Let Ziller speak here, through the creature; let all such speech be Ziller’s. Let speech equal Ziller, not because Ziller alone is God, but because he is no less God than is the child. Ziller was not a judge of souls. A sage, perhaps, yes, if you insist, yes, but not a judge. The most fearsome prophet is not the one who condemns without mercy, who declares these damned and these redeemed. If anything, Ziller explained, Ziller knew himself to be this: the prophet of indifference.” This section reads differently for a few reasons—the repetition of Ziller’s name, the second-person pronoun, the switches between present and past tenses—all of which together create a more runaway, rambling tone. How did you decide to alter your prose in this way? What was the driving force behind this unusual paragraph?
I don’t think I can discuss my own prose in terms of decisions; that’s not to say there weren’t any decisions, but I don’t know that they’re available to me now.
There’s a strange movie by Nicholas Ray called Bigger Than Life; James Mason plays a man who takes a life-saving new drug, but this drug has a side-effect one can only call “patriarchal mania.” He gets weirdly into being the Dad: taking his wife and children out for a meal, being the one who orders the food and pays the bill. Later, when it all starts to go horribly wrong, he succumbs to an Abraham delusion and makes ready to sacrifice his son. But there’s already something very strange about him at the restaurant, something uncanny in the way he exults in fatherhood.
I wasn’t thinking about that movie when I wrote this story, and it’s a bit showily self-absorbed of me to make a lengthy exegesis my own brief, brief story, but that’s what we’re here for, so… I’ll put it this way: I would like it to be the case that I’ve written a story that induces a sense of unease, but a story in which in it is hard to say just where that unease issues from. Is it in the plans we don’t read about (perhaps involving a knife and Mount Moriah)? Or is it in the bizarre exaltation Ziller seems to draw from the routine exercise of fatherly powers?
I have the feeling I’m making something up when I describe my intentions here, but still, maybe a compositional principle for Ziller’s rant was that it not resolve this ambiguity.
What writing projects are you working on now?
More fiction. Stories that are different than “Keyhole.” The sense of place is less abstract; the narration is often twisted through a secondary relay of some kind. The language is more ornate, the violence closer to the surface.
And I’m writing a dissertation called “After the End.” It’s about Beckett, Blanchot, and Antoine Volodine. It wants a bit of filling out; there’s still the odd chapter or three to write. But I’ve chosen the dissertation’s epigraph already; it’s Beckett, from Malone Dies: “Let me say before I go any further that I forgive nobody.”
What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?
Walter Benjamin once wrote a book review called “Goethebücher, aber wilkommene,” which could be translated as “Even More Books on Goethe, But Ones I’m Glad About.” In a similar category for me, “Beckett Criticism, the Kind You Can Recommend in Good Conscience,” would be Herschel Farbman’s The Other Night.
Some other books that have stood out for me recently are Otessa Moshfegg’s McGlue; Joseph Libertson’s Proximity; Antoine Volodine’s Terminus radieux and the recent translation of his Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven. And, also in translation, Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World; and a strange prose piece by the Brazilian visual artist Nuno Ramos, with the unsurpassable title “Ó.”
I’m very much looking forward to Berit Ellingsen’s new novel Not Dark Yet. And I think more people should know about the work of Kinton Ford, whose “Abbreviations” I was lucky enough to excerpt for an issue of Birkensnake.