An established writer in France, Sébastien Doubinsky has published a series of novels, covering genres from classical literature to crime fiction, as well as a few poetry collections. In conversation with The Missing Slate’s Senior Fiction Editor, Casey Harding, Sébastien discusses poetry’s role in society, the ‘new generation of formidable artists and writers the media have never heard of’, and why all writing can be thought of as a political act.
I recently read an interview you had with CopyLeft Web Journal from 2012 and I was struck by an answer you gave to the question, “Do you think poetry plays a role in your society?” You responded, “No, it doesn’t and it won’t for a long time. Why? Because poetry has no more social function…poetry, fiction and any form of truly subversive way of thinking or expressing oneself will be put aside and ignored…”
This idea has obsessed me of late. In the past artists were the thinkers of a society, the critics, the outside observers. What I once thought was that the widespread commercialization of art was simply a money grab, but as time goes on I’m starting to see something much scarier. By removing artists and replacing them with easily manipulatable simulacrums we have lost that necessary third party. My question for you is, what do you think the next step should be? As a writer more concerned with quality than sales, something I respect so very highly, do you propose that we as artists sit on the fringe and wait and hope that some semblance of rational thought will return or is there something else that we can and should be doing?
You are asking me a very difficult question, because it is hard to answer it without sounding like a pretentious idiot or a prophet wannabe. I will try to answer it as honestly as I can, though. First, the next step has already begun, and it is quite an interesting one: demobilization. This can sound very scary (and it is for the whole system), but I think it might actually be a very good thing. There are more and more artists and writers—as well as publishers and galleries—who are trying to do something in spite of the system. Not necessarily against, but in spite of—which means renouncing to the promises of fame, money and glory its faithful servants are rewarded with—or at least promised. The hipster movement, ironically, is one of its most obvious symptoms: choosing the beard and vinyl records is a mark of rejection, even if for many it’s only a fashion. But because, precisely, it is a fashion, it symbolizes something than runs deeper than the pure fad. Simultaneously, the number of indie publishers and bookstores is on the rise, and the crowdfunding movement, with all its limits, is allowing original projects to take shape. What’s more, the cultural underground, in its 50s-60s sense, is becoming real again—ironically enough not because it is shunned by the system, but because the system doesn’t even know it exists. I am right now surrounded by a new generation of formidable artists and writers the media have never heard of—and those will be some of the important voices of tomorrow, for sure—check out Jerry Wilson, Jordan Krall, Matt Bialer, Chris Kelso, JS Breukelaar, Kris Saknussemm, Arjun Rajendran, Alicia Young, Marly Youmans, Cynthia Atkins, Alexis Fancher, Celina Osuna, Nabina Das, Tikuli, Vincenzo Bilof, Dominic Albanese, Justin Grimboll, Tabish Khair among others. You will be very surprised to see how alive and ground-breaking today’s fiction and poetry are. Of course, they’re all outside of conventional literature and often categorized as “genre”, but then again, so were the Surrealists… And to answer your second question in a logical way, I think the best thing to do for writers and artists is to create groups based on trust, mutual support and solidarity, instead of competition and jealousy—and to turn our backs to the illusionary “castle” built by the market. We read Kafka—we all know that it contains nothing.
As a follow-up question, much of your writing is political in nature, is that something that you consciously think about when you sit down to write or is it something that just makes sense for the narrative? Is it the job of artists to question politics?
Well, yes, I do consider myself a political writer, but then again, I also consider any writing political, as it challenges the tyranny of the material—i.e. what is normally impossible to deny and contest. You cannot run through the wall of your apartment, but you can write a story or a poem in which you can. It is therefore ontologically extremely subversive—I am finishing a short essay where I develop this. This said, you have consciously political writers, like me, and non-consciously political writers. Everything I write is political in the sense that I question power in all its forms—in everyday life as well as on a geopolitical level. The way to consider and treat other people is as political as voting. Maybe even more. So I wouldn’t exactly say that it is the “job” of artists and writers to question politics as it is attached to the very nature of their craft. Their job, eventually, is to explain or defend their position.
I had a very interesting conversation with a friend of mine a few weeks ago. He grew up in Bulgaria under Communist rule and had an anecdote about the time. There was an interview with a famous violinist shortly after Communism fell where he was asked how it was to live as a musician now that the country was free. His response was to ask the interviewer to imagine fifty cars driving into a parking lot with no lines and to try and find some semblance of order from the chaos. I am no fan of what Communism did to art but a part of this story hits home for me and seems to make sense for a lot of what has been going on in American literature. It is almost too easy to write, too easy to produce art, that a lot of the hard work and struggle that has to go into it is lost. How does this mirror, or not mirror, what you have seen having been a serious writer for over two and a half decades?
I would like to talk about the process of translating your own work. Nabokov wrote that there are three categories of translation: paraphrastic, lexical and literal. But this, it seems, does not apply if you are translating your own work. How does that process work for you? Do you feel like you are, in a sense, rewriting your work?
Yes, absolutely. Nabokov, by the way, also re-wrote his own works. When you translate yourself into another language, you switch culture and you have to move the frame. I have translated myself—and others—many times and know well that perfect translation doesn’t exist. It can be seen as a tragedy, a communication failure, but actually I consider this a chance—a chance of freedom, of the irreconcilable space between cultures—and the mutual respect it implies. So if you read closely and compare the two versions of the same novel I’ve written, I think you might be shocked by the liberties I am taking with the original text! But that is because the second one becomes a new original, if you want, another text altogether.
At a talk you gave at the University of Florida this past year you said that you write with very, very loud music playing, is it the same when you are translating? Does the music you are playing affect the writing you do or is it there more as white noise?
Music is essential for me, and yes, as an old punk, I do mostly listen to noisy stuff. What it gives me are two things: first, I use it as a canvas, a texture on which I can set my words and create the mood, the atmosphere I want for the story; second, I often use it as a counterpoint, a contrast to what I am writing at the moment. For example, if it’s a love scene, I will mostly listen to very violent music. If it’s a violent scene, then it will be soft and melodic. Why? So I don’t get trapped in “easy” thinking. I always try to write so that I am never comfortable—always on my toes, thinking about ways to break routines and clichés. “Work, work and more work,” again. But I will also say that this the way that I write—I know many of my friends who write or create in complete silence, and it works for them too. No advice from me on that one. Everybody has his own tricks.
What are you currently working on? Anything exciting in the works?
I am currently finishing a bilingual essay on “Reading, writing, rebelling”, which will come out as an e-book through E-Fractions éditions in the spring, and on a new novel, ‘Suan Ming’ which is a very Dickian (as in Philip K. Dick) story about a Remote Viewer assigned to a mission that will completely change his life—many times. Apart from that, I have three novels coming out this year in the USA: ‘White City’, a dystopian noir coming soon through Bizarro Pulp Press, a new edition of ‘The Song of Synth’ coming out through Talos/Skyhorse in August and a self-translation of my French novel, ‘Quién es?’, through Dalkey Archive Press this summer too.