This is Not a Novel and Other Novels

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A Pure Life of the Mind: The Millions Interview with Karen Olsson


When novelist Karen Olsson was in high school in Washington, D.C., she checked The Simone Weil Reader out of the library and became obsessed by the French iconic thinker and activist. Later, after studying higher mathematics at Harvard and going on to become a writer, Olsson still found herself enthralled with the thoughts, ideas, and life of Simone Weil, as well as her older brother, André. In her third book, The Weil Conjectures, Olsson weaves together her fascination with the famous siblings and how her undergraduate studies in math eventually gave way to her own writing life. For math-minded and non-math-minded readers alike, Olsson presents a compelling series of questions about the brilliant siblings, and how math can shape and inspire one’s life.

Olsson—author of Waterloo (2005) and All the Houses (2015)—also has worked as a journalist and editor; her long-form articles have been published in The New York Times Magazine and Texas Monthly, and she is a former editor of The Texas Observer. Not surprisingly, Olsson’s journalistic curiosity melds perfectly with her novelistic precision for detail and language in this genre-defying book. Reminiscent of Jenny Offil’s The Department of Speculation, The Weil Conjectures offers a thought provoking portrait-in-pieces of what it means to be a writer and tell stories.

The Millions talked with Olsson via email about her preoccupation with the Weil siblings, mathematics, and the daily struggles at the desk.

The Millions: What drew you to write about André and Simone Weil?

Karen Olsson: I was fascinated by Simone Weil in high school: I was interested in the lives of brainy women, and here was this exotic, brilliant French intellectual in wire-rimmed glasses who could never really be a role model for a 1980s teenager in Washington, D.C.—yet I still found her inspiring in her integrity and purity. It was later that I realized her brother was a mathematician, another remarkable mind. Just the existence of these genius siblings is compelling in itself, but because one was a female public intellectual and one was a mathematician, they embody fascinations I had when I was younger, ones I could revisit through them.

TM: In reading and writing about Simone Weil for this book, did you gain further insight into your attraction to Simone—and her ideas and what she represented—when you were a teenager and first read The Simone Weil Reader?

KO: My early interest in Simone Weil was relatively superficial—I paid less attention to her work than to her biography. I was drawn to the figure of Simone Weil, to the saintly ghost of Simone Weil, who represented something like absolute attention, a pure life of the mind all but divorced from the body. So when I went back and read more about her and more of her writing, I didn’t see my youthful interest differently; I saw her differently. In particular, I saw how influenced she was by her brother the mathematician, how math informs her thinking. She also seems more eccentric, more self-punishing—it’s tempting to see her as crazy, because some of what she did seems nuts, but then again that seems to me a shortcut, avoiding the difficulty she presents. At times she’s been portrayed as crazy or as a kind of saint because she was living in a different register than the rest of us do. To the extent that her way of living demanded more discipline, more attention and engagement than most of us are in the habit of, we could all take a cue from her. But some of her ideas were quite extreme.

TM: How old were you when you discovered that you had “a head for numbers?” Did numbers and language always intermingle for you? Or was it only after college that you begin to understand the intersections?

KO: I wasn’t exceptionally talented in math, but I always liked it, and in junior high—we did a lot of rudimentary geometry in seventh grade and algebra in eighth grade—I realized that it came quickly to me. As the math on offer started to get more abstract, I started to like it more. Meanwhile I had a few teachers who commended my writing or told me I was a writer, and I took their word for it. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if the praise had been more directed to my math side—I think I was pretty susceptible to that kind of encouragement.

TM: How was the writing of this book different from your first two novels (Waterloo and All the Houses)?

KO: I had more fun writing this book than writing a novel. I loved reading and thinking about math after so many years away, and I loved not having to tend to all the narrative machinery of a novel. There’s a way in which a novelist is a kind of beleaguered manager who has to deal with dissatisfied subordinates and equipment that’s not working and low inventory. This book gave me fewer headaches.

TM: Could you talk about the structure of The Weil Conjectures? Was it difficult to determine how the sections would answer each other? Or did it flow in an organic sort of a way as you began to write and revise the narrative?

KO: Because I wrote the book in fragments, and because I wanted to braid together certain subjects and themes, the structure arose naturally as I went along. Once I had a draft I started shifting pieces around, but the book didn’t change radically from one draft to the next.

TM: How do writing and mathematics inform each other in your own creative process now?

KO: For me the words “creative process” suggest something more sophisticated and effective than what actually goes down at my desk—and I wouldn’t say, in general, that those struggles at the desk are informed by math—but I think having studied math influenced me. Math can be difficult (that damn Barbie doll was right!) and I think when you spend time learning math or physics or philosophy or anything complex, you gain confidence that you can learn other difficult things, and that it’s worth trying to solve complicated problems. Also, for writers it can be tempting to let yourself be carried away by some nice-sounding turn of phrase, and while having studied math doesn’t make you immune to that, I do think it can make you more rigorous in your thinking. Then again I’ve wondered sometimes whether rigor is an unalloyed good for a writer, since sometimes it pays off artistically to be fanciful, to spin out notions that wouldn’t necessarily hold up in the face of logical analysis.

TM: Could you talk about how Anne Carson and David Markson inspired The Weil Conjectures? In a recent essay for Granta, you mentioned both of these inventive authors as varying influences for this narrative?

KO: It seems as if there are an increasing number of books now that mash up genres, works that combine elements of essay and memoir and historical narrative. There’s not really a name for this hybrid creature, though I’ve seen the term “lyric essay” used sometimes, in particular when the author is a poet, and Anne Carson is certainly one torchbearer when it comes to books in this vein. I wasn’t thinking of her directly when it came to figuring out the form of my book, but I was thinking about her ideas about the erotics of knowledge in Eros the Bittersweet. (I didn’t realize until after I’d finished the book that Carson wrote about Simone Weil in her book Decreation.) David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel was lurking in the back of my mind as I wrote, but it’s hard for me to articulate the way in which it was hovering—it’s as though there was a voice muttering things I couldn’t quite make out, and that voice was the voice of Markson’s book.

TM: In the Granta essay, you discussed how this hybrid form is a reflection of the Internet era, and how many readers are digesting different kinds of reading in fragmented ways but with hopes of gathering meaning. Could you expand on this?

KO: To the extent that the hybrid/collage assembled from short sections is becoming more popular, I think it reflects the way we read online—a little bit here, then jumping over there, and then on to the next thing—but at the same time makes that experience more satisfying, because there is an underlying design, and the sections are cumulative and reflective. Also there are no ads.

TM: Did you find it more challenging to find time to make the necessary deep dives into reading?

KO: It’s always challenging to make time to read, and when I look back I’m surprised I managed to read as much as I did and at the same time feel bad that I didn’t read much more, since there is always more.

TM: What did you think are the most common misconceptions about higher mathematics and the study of this subject area?

KO: There’s an image in our culture of the great mathematician as a lone (male) genius who is at a minimum autistic and/or very eccentric, or else mentally ill or a hermit—people at the edge of or outside of human society. And that’s an image that serves to reinforce an idea a lot of non-mathematicians have about math, i.e. that it is an occult subject that they’re not equipped to understand, because the people who understand it are crazy geniuses who aren’t like the rest of us. Any field will have its share of unstable or eccentric people, but many great mathematicians live conventional, community-minded lives.

TM: What book would you recommend to a reader who is interested in learning more about higher mathematics (without becoming too overwhelmed)?

KO: One that I like a lot is Remarkable Mathematicians: From Euler to von Neumann, by Ioan James, which is a series of 60 engaging short biographies of mathematicians, which need not be read in order—it’s a book you can dip in and out of. And How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, by Jordan Ellenberg, is the book equivalent of taking a class from a really great teacher, who drops all sorts of funny asides and draws excellent cartoons on the board while explaining why math matters to the world around us.

This Is Not an Introduction

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Introductions, when read at all, might sometimes be considered as an after-thought to the reader’s own impressions after finishing the book. There’s nothing wrong with guarding one’s capacity for surprise when encountering the work of an author who’s new to you, nothing wrong with reading the review after seeing the movie. So, perhaps perversely, I hope you’ll read these three novels and form your own impression, and if my remarks suggest other things, or verify or call into question certain feelings, they’re only that: an appreciative reader’s observations.

But they’re fond remarks. What I have to say teeters between David’s having been my friend, and my awe and continued amazement at his work and what he achieved. Since now there will be no new work, I can only re-read — which might elicit the same responses, because of familiarity. Yet every time I pick up one of his books, I find it more exceptional than it seemed at first. I’m not alone in this response: it’s appreciated and discussed and is often spoken of as representing a leap forward for American literature. I’m still troubled that it wasn’t more appreciated in his lifetime, but I’m less sure that matters — except, obviously, for a writer being able to make a living, and for reinforcing the writer’s sense of self esteem, which are not minor matters. “Rediscoveries” are more and more a part of literary culture: Edith Pearlman; the re-issues in the wonderful New York Review of Books Classics series (don’t miss The Pilgrim Hawk by Glenway Wescott, if The Great Gatsby initially gave you snow blindness). We’ve always had Counterpoint to thank for bringing forth unexpected texts, radical books for acute readers. That doesn’t mean that you have to be an expert to enjoy them.

I knew David in the early ’80s in New York. He lived in Greenwich Village, I lived in Chelsea. We had a few mutual friends. When we were introduced, I hadn’t read his work, but I did know that Douglas Day, who’d also written about Malcolm Lowry, had the greatest respect for David’s Lowry book. I eventually read a couple of David’s early books, liked them but wasn’t over the moon, and as we got to know each other a bit better, he asked if I’d read a manuscript he was finishing called Wittgenstein’s Mistress. As I write, four extra copies are on my bookshelf, in case someone wants to read it. I took the manuscript home with me and read all night. I was speechless. Whatever I did finally manage to say on the phone no doubt let him know how astonished I was at what he’d done. In the back of my mind, I had feared reading a manuscript that would call on my non-existent knowledge of Wittgenstein. And, as writers always fear, if they don’t like what they read, they have to figure out how honest to be in their response. I’m sure I fell all over myself, but he did understand that I thought it was one of the most moving, surprising books I’d ever read. And I’m sticking to that. The character in that novel is either the last person on Earth, or she believes she is.

Absence throbs in the text. The last page is heartbreaking. And while that earlier book is quite distinct from these three, the idea of a solitary thinker, an artist (she is a painter) without reinforcement, but with many memories and confusions, going toward she knows not what, provides a kind of thematic undertow that This is Not a Novel, Vanishing Point, and The Last Novel crest above.

There is no possibility David Markson would have thought of being fashionable. But without any calculation, David’s writing has come to be considered very of-the-moment. I bring this up because for readers who’ve heard of him only recently, perhaps in on-line magazines or various blogs and literary sites, or because his books have been embraced in the academic world, his categorization as “postmodern” might come to mind. I can’t argue with that, though of course it was not the categorization that led David Foster Wallace to write him a fan letter. For Wallace, as for many other writers, it was for his unique mining of a territory that didn’t much exist — at least in the United States — until David asserted its presence. First he discovered the turf. Then he stood on it.

You have in front of you his last three books, which have often been addressed in terms of collage. We, in these fragmented times, with our reputed short attention spans and our belief that with enough intellectual coaxing anything can be made to fit with everything, react positively to “collage.” People love to compare writing to visual art, though I don’t think his work has much to do with collage. What I think is that he was his own perfect team of Eliot and Pound, a poet who displaced and projected emotions onto an opaque, little-peopled landscape that, after being re-arranged and judiciously edited, revealed the bones of a skeleton we knew existed, though not in this exact, surprising form. So, okay: I’d have it that he was a brilliant paleontologist as well as a fiction writer with the deft touch of a poet. Teamed with himself, he was absolutely brilliant. He really shuffled those cards: a quote from Diogenes; a little-known fact about Baudelaire (“Baudelaire wore rouge”). (They really were cards; his notes were kept on index cards. Many, many.) So in some ways he was a collector, and metaphorically speaking I suppose he had to eventually glue his sentences down in what he considered the best possible order. But they are all words, the images conjured up, but off the page, the collage — if it’s even an appropriate comparison — assembled horizontally, for the eye to scan from left to right.

Try to stop reading one of these three novels. Meanings accrue; mysteries arise; you laugh when you least expect to laugh; a character (or characters) are indelibly created (though in the Beckettian manner, he uses as few as possible). It’s often observed that when you compile a list, what is revealed transcends the individual notations. Write a play — in which you are primarily restricted to dialogue — and the problem is often that the dialogue takes on too much meaning. A writer as aware and purposeful as David would have been highly sensitized to that. By the time he finished, he knew what the books were. And then, I’d guess, he went on to write a second book in the same manner, because he also knew what the books were not. I’m not the one to say how many books by a writer are enough, too few, or too many. They’d have to all exist, to have a dialogue. There would have had to be many more in this series (how I wish they existed; he was working on another when he died) to know if they’d stretch all the way to the distant horizon line that existed, way in the distance, sometimes obscured by fog, as a definition of what the 20th century was. He, himself, worried about doing the same old thing — but any serious writer becomes inhibited and nervous about that. He was a man of habits, of increasingly small geographical parameters (hey: he got old and wasn’t in perfect health. Also, his beloved Strand was nearby). But he read assiduously (who cares if he didn’t keep up with contemporary fiction? Even his own admission of deficiency seems half-hearted), and developed his book’s trajectories subtly but deliberately, working both on the level of the sentence and keeping in mind the book’s arc. Some sentences are inverted; many present the observation or statement, then fill us in on who said it (“He who writes for fools will always find a large audience/ said Schopenhauer”). And then, when we are used to this system of presentation, he drops in a simple declarative sentence (“Marco Polo died three years after Dante”). Among the questions David implies is this: Does it matter who said what, or that the thing was said? For me, what’s stated, usually tersely, is like a balloon whose string dangles the name of the person being quoted. Interesting questions are raised: of the spoken word vs. the personality of the speaker; how one statement inadvertently continues or calls into question another. And throughout, a fictional persona co-exists with these usually famous artists and philosophers and musicians — a bare-bones sort of person sunk sometimes in a self-pity that seems simultaneously funny, or wandering alone through a maze of concepts that do and don’t have anything to do with his banal day, his banal (but human/therefore human) desires. What we have is fiction, comprised of fact and hearsay and words already written, whether transcribed exactly or not, repeated by David in a different order, appropriated for the purpose of making a new creature sent out to join up with those who already exist.

If at times that might have looked to the writer like a words only version of Exquisite Corpse (the old-fashioned game of two players drawing a figure, then folding the page over so the next person must continue drawing what they’ve never seen), that’s no different than the way a lot of writers work. Even writers who proceed from an outline often remark that as they wrote, something surprised them, or derailed them, or that only as they got near the end of the first draft did they realize the larger meaning of what they were doing. I don’t mean to either disappear beneath the mask of metaphor, or to make an exact analogy, but David was a solitary man who read and wrote and lived alone (though he certainly missed the good old days at his favorite bar, The Lion’s Head). He could continue drawing his own invented figure (so to speak), but in juggling the contradictions, textures, and clashing philosophies of what he was creating, he must, at times, have had to resist forcing something into shape just because it was under his control. (Pound and Eliot hardly had the same sensibility.) You don’t live almost your whole life in New York City and not believe in chance.

To quote myself (he’d smile at the indulgence) with something I said when I introduced him for his reading at the 92nd St. Y: “We know that literature is always in dialogue with other literature, but it is our good fortune that David Markson has acted as a facilitator: the good host, introducing all the right people to the right people, while being puckish enough to introduce all the right people to the wrong people, as well. In-jokes appear sometimes as little grace-notes. The works and the remarks of visual artists and philosophers also figure in, as do characters who may not be fictional. In David Markson, backward motion is as important as forward motion.” So this doesn’t become abstract, let me make a few comments about a short sequence of paragraphs from Vanishing Point:
Scholars who are convinced that Shakespeare must certainly have been a military man. Or a lawyer. Or closely associated with royalty. Or even a Jew.
To which Ellen Terry: Or surely a woman.
Yup; the jury’s out. But the passage tells us so much more than the fact that Shakespeare remains a mystery. It mimics gossip. It addresses the serious issue of identity, and other people’s claim on it. The word “Even” is certainly revealing about someone’s attitude. We are (I assume) made uncomfortable by the distinction being drawn. The following paragraph (“To which Ellen Terry: Or surely a woman”) does several interesting things: the speculation resumes (and therefore, by extension, this determines a way of speech, and typifies a conversational mode), but we can’t quite recover from “Even a Jew,” although Ms. Terry’s remark — because we do not know her — might be read any number of ways: that she thinks Jews and women are both problematic; that she is a stereotype of a woman who reflexively mentions oft-forgotten women; that she truly believes that Shakespeare might have been female. These are just a few things to notice among many possibilities. But then we drop off into white space. The next paragraph concerns a painter. Since we have no other transition to the first word of the next paragraph (Michelangelo), we hear something discordant: the lingering voice of the last person to speak (Ellen Terry) butting up against Michelangelo. We don’t move from famous writer (Shakespeare) to famous painter (Michelangelo) and feel the coherence of the arts, though; rather, we hear that ambiguous pronouncement of the suddenly vanished Ellen Terry saying something that might have been fatuous, perhaps mocking, perhaps an announcement of a personal belief. .  and a sort of echo chamber is set up, in which a voice doesn’t entirely vanish, but is merely supplanted. This happens in music all the time. I would suspect, though, that for those who care to hear it, there is Eliot’s famous line from Prufrock: “In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo.” I’m only guessing, but the world-weariness of Eliot’s famous line seems to bond invisibly to the fact that between paragraphs, a breath has been taken (seen as white space and with no suggestion of a direct way to make the transition), so that we are surprised, yet not surprised, to suddenly be considering Michelangelo.
Michelangelo once criticized the fact that Raphael was unfailingly accompanied by an entourage of pupils and admirers, saying he went parading about like a general—
To which Raphael: And you go about alone like a hangman.
We smile at Raphael’s one-upsmanship. It’s one of those moments of quick riposte we so often wish we were capable of; someone does get the last, clever word. Add that to our Exquisite Corpse as it’s been shaping up, and the accordion (turn it on its side; then my analogy works!) lengthens so that we see that Shakespeare and Ellen Terry have been conjured up, to be followed by another eminence, who gets a put-down from yet another eminent painter. Here, we can laugh — even if a bit ruefully. But rarely does a conversation conclude with someone offering a bon mot. In dialogue, it’s never believable, because it seems like the writer is being too witty, or artificially ending on a high note. (We might get off a witty remark, but then fate seems to decree that the fire alarm goes off, or our belt breaks, and our pants fall down.)

But now here, here David Markson intervenes, with his character Author:
Not that rearranging his notes means that Author has any real idea where the book is headed, on the other hand.
Ideally, in fact, it will wind up someplace that will surprise even Author himself.
There’s the pre-emptive strike, in case we wondered on pages 10-11 where the book was going. Ah, Author does not know! That’s understandable, and part of the fun of writing is in the unexpected discoveries. Who’d begrudge someone that little treat? Author is self-deprecating, willing to confess to potential worries or inadequacies; Author is just like us…except that Markson has interjected Author deliberately, for a little cameo that will grow into a larger role, later. We know that we are not supposed to be so unsophisticated as to believe that Philip Roth the character is Philip Roth the writer, or that the fictional Kathy Acker is Kathy Acker. Got it. Yet if some little part of our brain does conflate the two (privately, silently, as if with a flashlight beneath the sheets), the fictional character inevitably takes on more credibility and meaning because we see the superimposition: it’s a funhouse mirror that both distorts and also allows us to see right through it. Here, Author is released like a genie, and since what is supposedly “real” in fiction really makes us perk up, the writer can have it both ways. Author is David Markson, but Author is also just some guy. Author brings us back to Earth, in a departure that deliberately pricks the balloon that’s been sent up to ask us to consider The Great Men. Yet when we return to basics, when we touch base with an individual who is, after all, something of a guide, even if not an authority figure, Earth has become a bit defamiliarized. It’s slightly destabilized, a place not so much of sunrise and sunset, trees and bees, but a life of the mind, floated in white space for our perusal and contemplation, a concept accruing like a cloud. It’s suspended above us whether we see it or not, though if that cloud is cumulus, it’s rather reassuring that it was formed by one layer forming above another, all parts working together to give the impression of density, the flat surface from which it forms very much like the flatness of a book.

–Ann Beattie

This is the introduction to this new edition of David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel and Other Novels.

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