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The Tense of Trauma

Novelist Chris Kraus ponders the meaning of “It would have been”

Leslie Camhi
June 07, 2006

The prospect of speaking with Chris Kraus is unnerving. This is a woman who turned her affair manqué with an expatriate English cultural critic into the cult classic I Love Dick—a succès de scandale and roman à clef written in the form of wildly unrequited love letters/philosophical meditations. Was stepping into her orbit, even for an interview, a calculated risk?

Torpor, Kraus’ dazzling new novel, digs still more deeply into the minds of its protagonists, a married couple who bear a more than passing resemblance to Kraus and her husband of many years, French literary critic and Columbia professor Sylvère Lotringer. This hilarious and biting satire of academia and the art world is set at the dawn of the New World Order, circa 1991, as its heroine, a frustrated avant-garde filmmaker, and her husband, a child survivor of the Shoah and a university professor who loathes academe, travel with their miniature dachshund across a newly reconfigured Eastern Europe. Their ostensible purpose is to adopt a Romanian orphan, though that’s a barely adequate cover for their flight from History and from their relationship’s unraveling.

It was impossible to write Torpor in the first person, because it was just too personal. There was a lot of controversy around I Love Dick. People claimed that it was such a confessional book. I didn’t really think it was personal at all. The stuff from my life was used in a very anecdotal way there.

But in Torpor I really wanted to get into that stuff, which had a lot to do with Sylvère and me, and with Sylvère’s background as a child survivor. And I also wanted it to be very funny, and to turn the couple into a pair of clowns at times, because the truest stuff is also always the most embarrassing, the funniest, and most compromising stuff.

I guess I learned that, especially for a woman, you can’t turn yourself into that kind of a clown, because it just invites the wrong kind of scrutiny. So if I wanted to knock the couple around a bit, they had to be like Burns and Allen, or Laurel and Hardy. Then I could say anything.

Also, since I wasn’t writing the book in real time, I started playing games with tense. “It would have been”—just to say it puts a little lump in your chest. It’s so incredibly sad and poignant. And then it turned out that this really is the tense of trauma. It’s apparently well-known among people who study trauma that this tense is used a great deal.

Can we talk a bit about the character of Sylvie? The book is narrated from her perspective, looking back. At one point, she describes both Sylvie and Jerome as “people born of tragic circumstances.” It’s clear what the tragic circumstance were for Jerome—the war, the Shoah. But Sylvie, who is a generation younger, grew up in New Zealand. What were the tragic circumstances for her?

Oh well, when she was in the 5th grade, the kids picketed her house with signs saying, “Sylvie Green has cooties.” And then she has a wild imagination. It’s also somewhat a class thing—being from a family of working-class, disenfranchised intellectuals. And then coming to New York, and not having been to the kind of school that most people in the art world go to, and always feeling, even in a band of outsiders, somewhat apart.

Where did you grow up?

Well, like Sylvie, I was born in the Bronx. My parents moved to a suburb near Bridgeport, Connecticut. During the Vietnam War, they decided to give up their American citizenship and move to New Zealand.

Was it a political decision for them?

Yes, it was a political decision, a heart decision, also a money decision. They were perpetually behind, financially. My sister had some pretty serious medical problems, and they didn’t have insurance. And they saw New Zealand as this social-democratic paradise, which in a sense it was. It was so marvelous to arrive there in 1969. At that time it was still a very closed society, with a huge lower middle class, very few wealthy and very few poor. And very low expectations in terms of consumer goods, and a much more communal way of life. All of which gives Sylvie a great deal in common with Jerome. New Zealand in the 70s was like France in the 50s, in terms of how many people had cars, and that they would socialize in each other’s houses. And that it was a small society, where the people you knew at university were running the country 20 years later.

You say in I Love Dick that you weren’t aware of the fact that you were Jewish until you were 21.

Right, until I came back to New York and met the Glassmans and the Heymans.

The Glassmans and the Heymans?

My relatives. My parents were both only children whose parents died at a young age, and they were not close to either of their families. And I only met these parts of the family when I was 21 and came back to New York.

So…what did you think?

Well, it was no surprise, because I’d always gravitated to the only Jews everywhere. And once back in New York I deeply related to New York Jewish culture. But I was very naïve. And then Sylvère, of course, filled in all the details.

About the war?

About the war. About the history of anti-Semitism.

You mentioned that the names of Sylvie and Jerome are taken from the main characters in George Perec’s novel Les Choses. I remember that book as an itinerary of 1960s material culture in France.

Do you want to know the real knockout? That book begins in the past conditional. “They would have liked to be rich” is the first line. And in the last chapter, when the couple fulfills their mediocre destiny, it switches to the simple past, as I do in my last chapter. And you feel the knife coming down.

They finally have full-time jobs in advertising. They’re on the train traveling first class to their new jobs. And they’re about to be able to moderately afford all the fantasies of their youth. They’re going in to have lunch in the railway car. “And they found it quite tasteless,” is the last line.

I remember reading an interview with Perec, and all he would say about Les Choses was that it was a book about happiness. Maybe that’s his comment about happiness, that it’s somehow unworthy, or mediocre.

Expectation and longing are always so much richer than fulfillment. That’s a Flaubert thing, too. In Sentimental Education, the character is outside the brothel and it’s the happiest day of his life.

You also quote Perec’s memoir of his experiences as a hidden child in Occupied France, W, Or the Memory of Childhood.

The part that I quote, about his not remembering his childhood, mirrored so much of what I had observed. And Sylvère and Perec knew each other at school. They put out a magazine together, called La ligne générale. It was a bunch of really brilliant, sarcastic, witty young Jewish men, just five or six years after the war. All of them had lost parents. And they never talked about the war. Sylvère knew Sarah Kofman at school, too and they never talked about the war. Instead, they hated humanism.

How do you see the relationship between their wartime experiences and their hatred of humanism?

Well as opposed to de Beauvoir, Sartre, and company, they preferred an absurdist, kitsch, sarcastic embracing of popular culture. It was much closer to their view of the world.

Because of de Beauvoir and Sartre’s wartime history?

Because they couldn’t take things that Seriously, with a capital S. Things were so serious that they could only see them through this absurdist lens. It was like Sartre and de Beauvoir and that generation were the hippies, and these guys were the punks.

Sylvie takes a swipe at something like that, in the beginning of the book, when she talks about how she can’t imagine why these people around her are taking their lives so seriously. The whole culture, all of their friends, the people in the East Village, everyone succumbing to this sauve qui peut, I-have-to-get-my-life-together mentality.

What role does Romania plays in the book?

Romania is Jerome and Sylvie writ large. I was completely fascinated by this idea that not just trauma survivors but an entire nation can experience this entropy. That once a certain downward spiral is reached, there’s no way out, it can only go down. And in the case of Romania, it’s so much because of the nationalisms and racial hatreds. They seal their own fate with those.

Are you making a comparison with Jerome’s feelings about the war? He doesn’t experience a racial hatred of Germans.

No, but he is certainly very much kept alive by hatreds and resentment. And hatred can be a very energizing thing, but ultimately it’s a pretty closed circuit. Just like trauma. It’s not that you can ever achieve the psychoanalytic model, where you confront, integrate and move on. I don’t think that’s possible. The best you can hope for is to sort of move over. People who come to my readings have said that they feel an affinity with that in terms of surviving cancer. They can’t ever come to a point where they say it was a good thing, and where the whole horrible experience is redeemed. It’s not redeemable. And that’s a much more adult position.

So you mean Romania is Jerome and Sylvie writ large, in their inability to move forward on all fronts.

Yes, and since their decisions predicated on resentment, hatred, and trauma, they’re never really the right decisions. It was also fascinating to me, looking at that period, 1991, and realizing that in the global economy there will always have to be winners and losers. So how are the losers chosen? Do they chose themselves, and if so, to what extent?

Are you and Sylvère still married?

We are. We live separate lives, but we continue to be married. We have other people in our lives who respect that. Sylvère and I had this pretty singular experience, where we realized that we didn’t have to do the couple anymore, but that we still loved each other deeply, and felt responsible for each other.

I don’t think that’s so singular, it’s just singular that people act on it.

Yes, the whole culture says, next, next, next. The year coming up is his last year teaching at Columbia before retiring. He’s on sabbatical this year, and he’s been working on a book about the Romanian critic E.M. Cioran. He’s writing about French anti-semitism through the experience of Cioran, who was in the Iron Guard, the Romanian equivalent of the SS.

There was also that Romanian historian…

Mircea Eliade. He was huge in the Iron Guard.

I remember reading him in art school and finding his work so essentialist.

Absolutely. Those were the people who hung little bags of peasant soil around their necks while clubbing Jews.

Torpor is not the most flattering portrait of Jerome. It’s done with a lot of love and empathy, but it’s very biting.

It’s not a very flattering portrait of Sylvie, either, as this cheerful little enabler. I think it’s much more biting about the nature of the couple, than about either of the two people.

I guess the part that seemed harshest to me was when you talk about writing or coauthoring your husband’s work for him.

I ghostwrote for other people, too, for a long time. Because I had this precocious career as a journalist in New Zealand, all the while that I was being lost and miserable and trying to be an artist, I could always write. I was just writing for other people.

Then you finally realized that you could publish something with your own name attached to it.

Yes, but not until I Love Dick. I guess it was being able to write in the first person, and being so driven to write, that I wasn’t all hung up on who the first person was. So I just flew through it. I posited Dick as my ideal listener. And with that, you can say anything. All you need is a listener, and you can talk.

Leslie Camhi’s first-person essays and writings on art, photography, film, design, fashion, and women’s lives, have appeared in the New York Times, Vogue Magazine, and many other publications.

Leslie Camhi’s first-person essays and writings on art, photography, film, design, fashion, and women’s lives, have appeared in The New York Times, Vogue Magazine, and many other publications. Her translation from the French of Violaine Huisman’s award-winning debut novel, The Book of Mother, was published this month by Scribner. She’s on Twitter @CamhiLeslie and on Instagram @drlesliecamhi.