Found in Translation: Céline, Chum, and Chickens
My first reaction to Chum was shock. Based on Louis-Ferdinand Céline's film sketch "Secrets dans l'îsle," Mark Spitzer's Chum is a horrifying, disgusting, impotence-causing masterpiece. Céline's "Secrets," less common and popular than his ellipses-filled, delirious novels, was brought to the literary scene through Spitzer's creation of an isolated island off the shore of Alaska and the inhabitants who occupy it. So I met up with Spitzer at his home in Kirksville, MO, where he teaches creative writing and environmental literature at Truman State University. I wanted to talk with him about Chum as well as Céline, whom he translates. It was a beautiful May afternoon, and Spitzer was outside, building a chicken coop
Lauren Rosenfield: When did you first read Céline and what was that experience like? What really stood out to you when you were reading his work?
Mark Spitzer: First time I really read Céline was when I was in Seattle. I just got back from Paris, and I decided I would read Death on the Installment Plan. I had a really hard time getting through the first 60 or 70 pages. I was like "What's so great about this?" And then the writing picked up momentum and it turned into the best book I'd ever read and I was staying up all night reading hundreds of pages and laughing my ass off.
Rosenfield: John Steract says that Céline believed death was "awfully unmysterious." Do you agree with that statement? Do you think Céline desensitizes death?
Spitzer: Céline looks at death through a doctor's point of view, and he also sees a lot of bullshit coming from religion. He approaches death clinically, with no romance in it whatsoever, since he's a doctor and he sees people dying all the time. So, he wasn't going to play by the rules and write the expected, especially after the Holocaust. And he wasn't going to maintain a bunch of sacharine clichés; he was going to write about things the way that he felt. That's the success that I see in Journey to the End of the Night. Death is not sugar-coated. I consider it one of the darkest novels of the twentieth century.
Rosenfield: I found a review of Chum by John Nettles, and he states the "only thing that changes on the island is the weather." I wanted to use this quote to reflect on Céline, and how you've said he was anti-religion. Father O'Flugence, the priest on the island, is a priest because it's a job. He states somewhere in Chum that he doesn't believe in God any more than he believes in the Devil, because he believes in Nature. I know you're an environmentalist, so was it easy for you to make Father O'Flugence this way, to have his religious beliefs coincide with Nature?
Spitzer: I really didn't put much thought into Father O'Flugence. [laughs] I guess I was trying to make fun of priests because they bugger little boys.
Rosenfield: When you first read Céline's film idea "Secrets," why did you decide to translate it? It seems Céline really intrigued you after Death on the Installment Plan. At that point did you indulge in all that Céline had written?
Spitzer: I was really interested in Céline. I started researching him and found out there was a lot of work that hadn't been translated, so I decided I was going to edit an anthology. I knew a lot of translators and I picked out a lot of work that seemed interesting and had never been translated before. I began asking these translators if they wanted to translate this piece and that piece, and then I had all these people working on a book I was editing. I decided that I was going to take on "Secrets." I really wanted to know what it was about, because critic Benitta Knapp said it was this horrible story and it was totally degrading towards women; people are killing each other and mutilating each other and urinating on each other, and I thought "Hey, that sounds like fun reading!"
Rosenfield: So you read "Secrets" and translated it. Is that when you decided to write Chum? How was Chum conceived? Had you thought about writing a book right after this translation, or did it gestate for a while?
Spitzer: I came back from Paris and I was dabbling in screenwriting and I lived with some screenwriters. So after translating that piece, I decided I wanted to write a screenplay based on it, so I wrote the screenplay and that's when I became familiar with the characters. The people I was living with, like Lars Larson, a filmmaker from Northern California, and Constantin Regas, this con-man from Austrailia - who's a really good translator - had different ideas about what I should do.
Rosenfield: So was Lars going to make the film? Was that the idea?
Spitzer: No, I mean, it would've been too big budget for him. But there was another director I knew, Peter Foldy, who lived out in Hollywood, and he was sort of interested. He called me up and suggested all of these changes. So I worked on that screenplay for years and even flew out to Hollywood at one point. But then after a while it didn't happen and I was writing a lot of different things at the time and liked dealing with publishers and editors more than Hollywood cheeseballs. But I got a lot of feedback from Lars, especially on the script. We met up in Seattle once and drove to Boulder, and talked about the screenplay along the way.
Then I was down at LSU and I was taking a fiction-writing workshop with Andrei Codrescu and I decided, "Okay, I've got this screenplay I've been working on for years, and nothing has really happened, so maybe I'll just turn it into a novel for this class I'm taking." And the novel just took off. I had a blast writing it. Every day I would get up and write a chapter, then plan the next chapter in the afternoon. I had it done in 20 days and it sold just like that.
Rosenfield: Sold to the publisher you mean?
Spitzer: Yeah. And I wasn't expecting that at all.
Rosenfield: The publisher, Zoland Books, grabbed on to this novel. Did they like that kind of book? Did you tell them about the idea of the novel and then they just wanted it?
Spitzer: I sent them a one-page synopsis and then asked if they wanted to see the whole thing. After seeing the whole manuscript the publisher called me up and said he loved it and wanted to publish it, even though others in the company thought it was too dark, but he was the boss and he bought it.
Rosenfield: I'm curious about your translation called "Secrets on the Isle." Is there any particular reason why you changed "Erika" to "April" and "Yovanivich" to "Nadine"? You kept Yann and Mother Kralik's names consistent and I was wondering if there was any reason for that.
Spitzer: Yeah, I guess in my non-fiction works, I usually change half the names and leave the other half the way they are. Some names were interesting and others I just felt like renaming.
Rosenfield: Phil Solomon says that Céline "condemns classical literature because it lacks emotional intensity and it fails to shock and ultimately captivate the reader, and thus does not afford its audience a more profound insight into the reality of the human condition." What I've been reading about Céline states that he wants to captivate the human condition, and, likewise, Chum does shock the reader. Is that part of the reason you wrote Chum? Was making Chum "anti-literature" one of your goals?
Spitzer: Yeah. But I was already writing my own "anti-literature" by that time anyways. I was writing with this Bukowski, rough-guy-let's-not-hide-the-horrors-of-things attitude, but I was also writing it for the fiction workshop.
Rosenfield: And you wanted to shock your classmates?
Spitzer: They were all trying to write for the New Yorker and I was like "fuck that shit, man!"
Rosenfield: Yeah, why would you want to write for the New Yorker?
Spitzer: That's not literature, this is literature! Every few weeks I would have to present my progress to the class, and there were people in there who couldn't take it. They thought it was misogyny and were refusing to read it. There were some religious people in the class and they were freaking out on it and I liked that reaction. Andrei thought it was great and thought it was funny that everyone was getting wigged-out by that stuff.
Rosenfield: I was looking at Céline's style in Death on the Installment Plan and the style of Chum, and Chum has a lot of exclamation points and ellipses, and then there's a whole page dedicated to the word "WHACK!" Were you trying to imitate Céline's style? Or were you just experimenting with it? I've read other works of yours, and Bottom Feeder is not like that. Did you just want to do something similar to Céline?
Spitzer: I was influenced by Céline, but I was writing in my own way that developed through both Bukowski and Céline.
Rosenfield: I've read that Céline tries to show emotion in his writing. Were you trying to do something similar with Chum? Perhaps write like you talk?
Spitzer: Well, I always take notes with my tape recorder, and those ideas become paragraphs. So, uh yes.
Rosenfield: Céline's mother thought that his books were "dangerous and nasty," and that "they caused trouble." I've read in the acknowledgments that you dedicated Chum to your father. I was curious as to what your parents think of Chum. Have they read it?
Spitzer: Oh, that's interesting. My dad loves it. His favorite line in there is when the hags go off to kill April and they were like going to get her "with the zeal of a bunch of skinheads on their way to a Jewish picnic" or something like that. My mom, however, doesn't understand the appeal of Chum.
Rosenfield: I've talked with a lot of my friends - some who know you - and when I've mentioned or discussed Chum, a lot of them say "Why would anyone write something like that?" Is that the same attitude your mom has?
Spitzer: I think a lot of people feel the movement and think it's funny, and other people see it as me being violent. Some people won't talk to me after they read it or some people will ask my wife Robin, "How can you live with a person like that?" or they'll say "He's such an obvious misogynist!" and "He wants to hurt people." But, I really see Chum as a commentary on what people can be like if they throw away all their safeguards to what is acceptable in society and, like, revert to their primal selves.
Rosenfield: Céline said in an interview that he was revealing life in his books, and he was writing about life and how one eats, drinks, belches, takes a dump, things that leave a guy nothing. So, I know you and I've read Chum, and I know you're not a "horrible misogynist," so don't you think it's possible to separate yourself from your art?
Spitzer: Yeah. And face it - people want to see people murdered, people want to see people raped, this is the stuff that's in the movies all the time, people love violence. But since we're a bunch of hypocrites, we also say "Yeah, we love violence, but not that much, so there must be something wrong with that person."
Rosenfield: I'm not sure Chum reveals Mark Spitzer, so let me ask you this: I was talking to a friend of mine, who is an art major and creates some really fucked up stuff. He told me that that's just what's in your head and you put it out through your art. Were you ever worried that people would fail to understand that Chum was in your imagination?
Spitzer: I didn't care. I wasn't worried about it. I wanted to write what was coming from my head. Now that I look back on it, though, I think it might have hurt me in some social situations, and that it may not have helped me get jobs teaching writing. You know, people read the book and are like "Well, we can't have him teaching here writing stuff like that."
Rosenfield: Céline said that if he had money he would never write. Were you writing Chum, and other works because you enjoy writing, or were you thinking that you could make a buck in the process?
Spitzer: Oh no, no, no. No. I've always been foolish about projects. I get ideas for a project and then I have to bring that project to completion. Translating projects take years and I have to hire all these people to help me translate. I never write novels figuring they're going to sell. I got all these novels I wrote, hoping they would sell, but I also figured they were things I had to do - they would either sell or they wouldn't. But Céline, he lived in a different time and he had some pretty big publishers. When he was writing his pamphlet literature, his anti-Semitic literature, there was a demand for it. The Nazis had occupied France, and he was getting paid for it. He would sell hundreds of thousands of copies of his ridiculous propaganda against the Jews, so he was writing for money.
Rosenfield: Does that disgust you in any way? Especially the anti-Semitic stuff?
Spitzer: I'm still trying to figure that out. Any Jew who studies Céline won't find an answer. Céline is a paradox. He's this person who was so influential style-wise, novel-wise, language-wise, postmodernism-wise, and on the other hand, he's written this horrible stuff - which is the mystery of Céline. I've looked at that pamphlet lit and I've read it, and most of it is so over-the-top that it's hard to take seriously, especially since he's making fun of the people who are buying it. So, it doesn't really make me mad, because I really think he was mocking people as he sucked up their money. People didn't understand it.
I got a letter from Jack Hirschman, who is a very famous poet in San Francisco, and he was like, "How could you translate Céline? He wrote all that anti-Semitic stuff." Because everyone thinks Céline was a total Nazi. But have they really read Céline? No - because this stuff has never been translated into English, and even the French Céline uses is virtually unreadable. For those who have read it, though, I don't hear them complaining, I see them writing articles about it.
Rosenfield: Okay, one last question. Were you trying to make the island in Chum a microcosm of our world? Granted, the island is small and secluded, but what happens on the island happens in our world every day. Dads rape daughters, people are murdered. Are you poking at something larger than this island of sick inhabitants?
Spitzer: I plead the Fifth. Where's that chicken wire at?