Interviu: Bruce Benderson

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Bruce Benderson, 62 de ani, scriitor, jurnalist si traducator, reprezentant al culturii gay din Statele Unite, scrie deopotriva in franceza si in engleza. A tradus in engleza scrieri de autori precum Alain Robbe-Grillet, Pierre Guyotat, Philippe Sollers, romanul lui Virginie Despentes, Baise-moi (ecranizat in 2000) si autobiografia lui Céline Dion. In 2004, sub titlul Autobiographie érotique (Rivages), Românul a primit Prix de Flore, ai carui laureati au mai fost Michel Houellebecq, Virginie Despentes si, cel mai recent, Amélie Nothomb. In 2006, romanul a fost publicat si in spatiul anglo-saxon, cu titlul The Romanian. Story of an Obsession, iar in acest an a aparut in romaneste, tradus de Alexandra Mustatea, la Editura Trei, sub un titlu care impaca si varianta franceza, si pe cea engleza: Românul. O autobiografie erotica.

Scriitorul Paul Doru Mugur a avut amabilitatea sa ne puna la dispozitie acest interviu pe care l-a realizat recent cu Bruce Benderson.

Bruce Benderson
Bruce Benderson                                   © Miaz Brothers

The Romanian is subtitled "a memoir": how much from what you describe there happened in reality and how much is invented?

Almost all of it happened in reality. There was a need, however, to change some of the names, but not all. One element, however, has been altered, and that is the element of time. Things did not really happen in exactly the same chronology and the same brief period of time. In order to create a more coherent structure and to stress the relationship between certain elements in the narrative, I had to rearrange and compress time. What I describe happening in nine months really went on and off for about a period of three years.

Your question brings up an interesting issue, because in the U.S. many memoirists are being accused of "lying." There is such a strong focus on documentary and nonfiction in the U.S. right now that people tend to be too literal about the issue. There is, for example, no real word for this type of memoir in French, which is the foreign culture with which I am most familiar. I suppose they would call it an "autobiographie" or a "journal", but in English it is neither an "autobiography," which for us is the story of a person's entire life, or a journal, which is for us merely a diary in which one notes the events of a day.

In the French sense my book is not "mes memoirs" either, which generally refers to one's life story, which we, again, in English call an "autobiography." Why the difference? Because, I think, the French want to provide an author the opportunity to meditate on a certain aspect of his life without anyone questioning which part of it is true and which part is fiction. There is more freedom in such an opportunity, and also more discretion. It's a more sophisticated approach as well, and comes from the notion that truth is not found in the "facts," but in the creativity of the author.

Does the confession from The Romanian have a therapeutic effect on you? Did you feel "relieved" after you wrote it? Did you feel writing this novel like "travelling to the end" of your passion (un voyage au bout de la passion)?

If you used the word "relieved" or "confession," I think you misunderstand the intent of The Romanian. There was nothing to feel relieved about. It was one of the best experiences of my life, and I came away from it not only with a lasting knowledge and appreciation of another culture, which continues to this day, but with a lifelong friend in the person of Romulus, who shared these strong experiences with me and feels very connected to me. It's strange, your question sounds so "American," based on the Protestant idea that our experiences are a lesson in error from which we "recover" by "confession." 

I began writing the book the day after I met Romulus and was always writing it from then on. If anything, the book was an attempt to prolong and intensify the experience, not a confession. More like a "flaunting." It was only by chance that it turned into a profound learning experience about the nature of love and the nature of another culture. That wasn't my original intent.

Romanul
Bruce Benderson, Românul. O autobiografie erotica, Editura Trei, Colectia "Eroscop", 2008, 496 p., 39 RON

What is the purpose of literature for you? Why do you write?

For me, writing is an attempt to create an objective outer model of what is happening inside me. I do not write to understand, but I often receive the gift of understanding as a second advantage. I write to create objective models of my feelings, fantasies and thoughts, in the hope of sharing them with the rest of the world. It often reminds me of masturbation, a process by which you take fragments of fantasies and put them together to create mental scenarios of exciting behavior, so that you can jerk off.

Who are your favorite contemporary authors? Do you also read books of non-american authors?

I don't read much for pleasure any more. As a New Yorker, you are probably aware of the fact that Americans, and especially New Yorkers, work constantly these days. I have to read a lot, but it's usually connected to a particular project I'm  working on. I do, however, have my favorites from the past, when I had no professional life and would read purely for pleasure. Most of them are either French or American. They are J.-K. Huysmans, William Burroughs, Baudelaire, Robbe-Grillet, Dennis Cooper and others. I dislike most contemporary literature, though there are a few exceptions. For example, I loved Virginie Despentes "Baise-moi," which I translated for an American publisher.

Please describe for the Romanian audience the american literary market. In US is it mandatory to have an agent? Why do you need an agent? Can you make a living from writing fiction in US?

If you wish to be published by a large mainstream publisher, you must have an agent. It's nearly impossible to approach them on your own. However, if you are in the New York literary scene, you may meet editors socially, and that can lead to publication. For those without an agent, there are hundreds of small presses, but they have very small distributions. I think that less than 10 percent of writers are successful, and less than 1 percent of fiction writers make a full living that way. They would have to be very, very famous.

Remember: this country is the size of a whole continent. What seems "famous" in a European country would get lost here. "Famous" means that you sell at least 100,000 copies per book. It's very hard to make a living purely as a fiction writer. I don't. However, once one has skills as a writer, there are countless ways of making money, as a journalist, editor, translator, writing teacher in a university, all of which use the talents of writing. I myself work as a journalist and translator, and I teach occasionally. At the moment I'm working for a very powerful agent, helping him develop and write book ideas to be submitted to editors. Then he sells these book ideas and receives a percentage. I am paid hourly.

In the "Romanian" in parallel with the description of your relationship with Romulus you present also Carol II anb Elena Lupescu relationship. Did you feel that their relationship was mirroring yours?

Vice versa. My relationship was mirroring theirs. They are the important historical figures. I think it's quite obvious that I believed there was an oedipal parallels between the two triangles: Carol II, Queen Marie and Lupescu vs. myself, my mother, and Romulus. Poor Romulus is forced to play Lupescu! But the situations are so similar psychoanalytically. Carol II is outraging his mother by his affair with an outsider. His mother is passionately in love with him and very controlling. I am outraging my mother by my affair with Romulus. My mother was passionately in love with me and very controlling. Need I say more?

What was your general impression on Romania? How did you find it? What was your general vibe? People, architecture, customs, landscape, anecdotes, etc? Did you make any friends there besides Romulus? Did you feel that travelling to Romania is a bit like travelling to your own Eastern European genetic past?  Did you feel that the Romanians are homophobic compared to the Americans and people from other western countries (i.e. France)?

So many complex questions! I loved Romania. It was one of the greatest adventures of my life. Going there was like following an impulse. I knew very little about the country, but I was always fascinated by what I did know: these Latins surrounded by Slavs, the Turkish influence and the kinds of sensuality that entails, the schizophrenic relationship between East and West, their historical traumas, the sexy machismo, the seductive women, the Byzantine strategies inherent in Romanian psychology, the surrender to Mioritsa, the spirituality of rural life, the mysterious quality of Orthodox ritual. I was endlessly fascinated.

At the beginning, I was absorbed in observing what seemed like post-Communist trauma--people floating down the street in a cloud of repression and hopelessness. But in the last 8 years, that has changed considerably. Each time I go to Romania, I get more impressed by the energy of young people, who don't remember Communism of Ceausescu. I hope I don't sound prejudiced or too full of cliches.

Unfortunately, I was mostly confined to a certain culture when I was with Romulus, and that was the culture of the poor and uneducated. Which, however, didn't make them any less fascinating. I have always been interested in the survival schemes of the economically and socially disenfranchised, especially here the U.S.. So my adventures with Romulus were an extension of past American adventures.

And yes, there were all kinds of modes of humor, cuisine, depressed mentalities that reminded me so much of my Eastern European Jewish background. I learned that things I had thought were Jewish were Romanian instead, or were both. I saw how close my grandparents' Eastern European Jewish culture was to Romanian culture, and I was stunned. Of course, it all makes sense. I just found out that, whereas my mother's parents were from White Russia, my father's may have been from Bessarabia. When will the blending of Eastern European and Jewish cultures be accepted in Eastern Europe? Probably never, unfortunately. But it can't be denied, and both cultures have enriched each other. Admit it, you Romanians!

Finally, yes, I do believe that Romanians are homophobic compared to Westerners. There are very obvious reasons for this. Gay liberation was invented by the West in the second half of the 20th century, based on certain cultural experiments in Weimarch Germany. It's a German-English-American-Dutch invention that can be traced quite easily to Protestant and Anglo-Saxon traditions. It doesn't fit very comfortably with Orthodox Christian views, peasant culture or Eastern machismo values. Current homosexual culture is intimately bound up with the advances of Western global capitalism. It is inevitable that gays will find acceptance in Romania, but as they do, Romania will become progressively more Westernized.

I will miss some of what is lost, but I couldn't possibly condone some of the homophobic attitudes that have existed in Romania in the past and still do today. They are no different than the lingering anti-Semitism I encountered there from time to time. Yet I'm very unhappy about gay culture in America, believe it or not. My generation believed in gay liberation, and the current ethos is gay assimilation. The North American middle class engulfs everything around it, and now it is in the process of engulfing gays. This won't change anything, it will merely strengthen the power of the middle class even more. As you can see, I'm very ambivalent. Why can't gays and other minorities be granted equal rights without bringing the culture of North American global capitalism with them. I truly wish there was a way. And as for myself, I like to think of my homosexuality as "disruptive" of middle class life, not accommodating to it. But no one seems to care about that any more.

Would you ever choose to live in Romania if you had the choice?

I was actually very seriously considering it. I researched real estate in Sighisoara. But alas, developments in NY and Paris moved me away from the idea. There is just too much that I have to do in both cities. I would, however, like to speak Romanian, and I'm studying it on my own right now. In an ideal world, I would be spending part of each year in Romania.

What do you think about the Romanian writers of the diaspora? Are they visible at all in the vast American literature landscape?

Aren't you part of that literary disaspora? In the last few years I've become friends with some very talented Romanian writers, especially Carmen Firan and Adrian Sangeorzan, whose work I love. I've helped edit writing by both of them. I also know and admire the work of the poet Nina Cassian. Then, of course, there is our "official" Romanian novelist in America, Norman Manea, who has gained the support of top intellectuals, who has never bothered to learn to write in English and who seems eternally traumatized by his Communist past. I think he is a great writer, but I'm not attracted to his refusal to let go of his culture and react to what he sees in ours.

I do have one Romanian writer whom I am absolutely passionate about, and that is Panait Istrati. I admire both his life and is writing so deeply, and I become lost in his novels. He certainly could be used to dispute any claims of homophobia in Romanian culture. The homosexual elements in his narratives would even be considered shocking by Western standards today. Long live Istrati's work! I would also like to point out how astonished I was to discover that some of the Romanian writers I admire are also physicians. Sangeorzan is a gynecologist, for example. In this day and age in America, such a thing is unimaginable. I have never met an American doctor who wrote serious literature or even one with a real taste for literature. Their training is completely anti-art. Medical school is like boot camp, they are not encouraged to study the humanities.

They think only about their craft and making money--lots of money. The idea of the physician-intellectual is something I associated with a European and nineteenth century American past. Doctors were originally highly educated people with an understanding of the humanities. Healing the body was not just a matter of hard science for them but also a matter of understanding the mind and the soul. All of that is gone in this country today.

Projects of the present and the future? Another memoir? A novel, maybe?

I've written too much lately, in the last 6 months or so, I've published 2 books in France and 2 in the U.S. The process of writing, editing and publicizing them has exhausted me! I need a break. People who are interested in my work can always look me up on myspace.

There they will see the covers of all the books I have published. That's the complete story for now.

P.S.: If those Romanians who read my book would like to contact me, they can always write to me at bruxe@aol.com

Interviu realizat de Paul Doru Mugur, 39 de ani, scriitor, medic, actualmente traieste la New York. Este editorul revistei Respiro  care apare pe net incepand cu anul 2000. Majoritatea textelor sale au fost publicate pe internet. Pe hartie a publicat doua carti: Scutul lui Perseu, Editura Publistar, 1999 si Ceva usor, Editura Brumar, 2006.

Cateva fragmente din acest interviu au aparut si in numarul 14 al revistei Noua literatura. Doua fragmente din roman au aparut in revista Respiro, pe vremea cand romanul era inca in manuscris, aici si aici.




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