Anatomizing the Language of Love: An Interview with Lee Siegel
Anatomizing the Language of Love: An Interview with Lee Siegel
Stephen J. Burn interviews fiction writer Lee Siegel.
Lee Siegel is one of the most difficult writers to locate on a map of contemporary American fiction. At a time when novelists seem to be lining up to distance themselves from the self-reflexivity associated with postmodernism - a conservative retreat that’s perhaps inspired by Jonathan Franzen’s quiet-family drama The Corrections (2001) - Siegel’s books unashamedly explore the involutions of self-referring narrative forms, and celebrate their ancestry in such proto-postmodernists as Laurence Sterne and Denis Diderot. But while Siegel seems to stand apart from the main currents of contemporary fiction, his three recent novels have often been highly praised. In a review of Love in a Dead Language (1999), Tom LeClair compared the novel to the work of Nabokov and Joyce before concluding that the book was “a major laughing matter” that “deserves space on the short, high shelf of literary wonders.” Siegel’s next book, Love and Other Games of Chance (2003), prompted Steven Moore to draw parallels to the writing of Julio Cortazor and Milorad Pavic before he “warmly recommended” Siegel’s intricate text to readers. Daniel Dennett selected the same book as one of the books of the year for the Times Literary Supplement and described it as an “amazing … intricately crafted cornucopia of magic tricks and side-show lore.” Siegel’s less experimental volume, Who Wrote the Book of Love? (2005), provoked a more muted response, but novelist Wilton Barnhardt called the book a “hilarious … time capsule of our one-time national innocence.”
But while these three works have attracted the attention of influential critics, Siegel’s experience with the publishing world has been wildly uneven. Love in a Dead Language was published by the University of Chicago Press, who had published Siegel’s three previous idiosyncratic academic books on Indian culture. Siegel worked with David Brent who helped produce a lush volume that featured pictures, different colored text, and all kinds of other typographical complexities. The unexpected success of the book (the appreciative review in the New York Times and good sales) attracted agents and trade publishers. Gary Morris of the David Black Agency sold Love and Other Games of Chance to Viking-Penguin, where Siegel was to work with Salman Rushdie’s former editor Paul Slovak. But what should have been a breakthrough, wasn’t. Although Siegel was pleased and flattered to be working with Slovak, the editor was devoting his promotional energies to the launch of a new book by T.C. Boyle. Love and Other Games of Chance was also running into conceptual problems with Viking. Siegel had conceived of this novel as eventually appearing in a square format, with a fold-out snakes and ladders game attached, but Viking maintained that this format would be too expensive because the shape of the book would require ordering special boxes when the novel was shipped. Missing the kind of attention he had been given as an author by David Brent, Siegel returned to the University of Chicago Press for his next book. Who Wrote the Book of Love? was released on 1 August 2005, but while its dust jacket won an award from the Association of American University Presses for its design, the novel itself only received three - albeit universally admiring - reviews (in the Chicago Tribune, the Daily Telegraph, and the American Book Review). Worse still, because the novel took its title from, and worked several variations upon, a 1958 song by The Monotones, ARC records announced their intention to sue Siegel shortly after the book’s publication. Writing literary fiction was evidently turning out to be a potentially costly business for Siegel.
Born in Los Angeles in 1945, Siegel completed his first book, Vivisections (1973), while he was undertaking his doctoral study of ancient Indian traditions at Oxford University. Vivisections is an unusual mixture of poetry and drawings, but its opening observation, that “all words are borrowed or salvaged from … strangers,” might be taken as a kind of key to his later “love” novels. In each of these books, Siegel takes the writer’s belatedness as an artistic opportunity, borrowing or salvaging the words of others to create the kind of “parasitic fictions” that Tom LeClair praises elsewhere in ebr - works that “rely on and admit within themselves to relying on earlier novels and writers.” The first of these books, Love in a Dead Language, comes disguised as a translation and scholarly commentary upon Vātsyāyana’s Kāmasūtra by a dissolute professor named Leopold Roth, but Siegel’s parasite mutates far beyond its origins. As one character in the book observes, “writing about love and sex is not so much writing about love or sex as it is, and cannot escape being, writing about writing”; and the scholarly work on the Kāmasūtra develops into a brilliantly original meditation on other writing, in particular Siegel’s anarchic revision of Nabokov’s Lolita as well as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. As the intertexts multiply, so do the narrative forms: Siegel weaves his story from footnotes, fake websites, letters, cartoon strips, and upside-down texts.
Love and Other Games of Chance marks Siegel’s shift into the encyclopedic mode, and so appropriately its template is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The Ishmael of Melville’s novel, who announces that he has “swam through libraries” assembling his text, might be taken as the presiding genius of Siegel’s novel. But Melville’s influence is filtered through an awareness of Nabokov’s formal game playing in his chess-board novel The Luzhin Defense, as Siegel presents his text to the reader as both a book and a board game - the novel’s main narrative is preceded by a frame-tale and snakes and ladders board, where each of the board’s hundred squares corresponds to one of the book’s hundred chapters. The book is an encyclopedic recapitulation of a life, but it’s also a quest to understand love which brings us to the boundaries of language’s descriptive power, as Siegel reveals when his narrator tries to confront his childhood love Angel about her new lover:
do you actually sleep with him? And I don’t mean “sleep” in the literal sense. What I mean is, do you actually make love with him? And I don’t mean “make love” in a philosophical sense. What I mean is, does he fuck you? And I don’t mean “fuck” in an expletory sense. What I mean is, do you do it with each other?
Angel laughed again, stood up … tousled my hair, kissed me on the cheek, and said, “I don’t know what you mean by it.”
The humor to be found in love and language is very much Siegel’s trademark, but while his previous two novels deployed this humor by masquerading as an academic text and a board game, respectively, Who Wrote the Book of Love? adopts the more congenial form of the memoir. In this third book the eye-catching formal games are less apparent (the guiding influence here is the story-teller Twain, rather than the baroque Melville), as Siegel tells the story of a young Lee Siegel’s sexual awakening in the 1950s, an awakening that is partly inspired by a book called In the Beginning: A Children’s Book about Grown-up Love. But while this narrative of education seems more straightforward than Siegel’s earlier work, there are subtle effects to enjoy, here, such as the discovery that Siegel’s young protagonist’s passage through different lovers is recapitulating a list of famous women from literary history - from (Biblical) Eve, through (Dante’s) Beatrice, to (D.H. Lawrence’s) Connie.
Each of these novels is set in motion by the discovery of a book handed down by a previous generation, and, as the above summaries suggest, part of the appeal of a Siegel novel is formal - his works cannibalize non-novelistic forms for novelistic ends, and spiral off into complex intertextual allusions and jokes. But at the same time, Siegel’s work is also characterized by the care he devotes to individual words, and even letters. In Love in a Dead Language, for example, Roth’s specialty is the study of the relationship between sentences made up of identically-ordered letters which vary only in terms of the number of spaces between those letters. This technique permits Siegel to develop some dazzling word play, encouraging the reader to puzzle over the connection between the sentence “Am I able to get her?” and the fantasy “Amiable together.” Similarly, in Love and Other Games of Chance, Siegel’s narrator Isaac Schlossberg becomes entangled with a character who challenges him to pay a penny for every anagram he can produce from Isaac’s name. Guessing that this will cost no more than five pence, Isaac accepts only to learn (to his horror) that the man’s verbal inventiveness produces a lengthy catalogue of anagrams running from “A hog’s scarce bliss” to “Bless his cargo sac.” After only a minute has passed, Isaac finds that he owes almost three pounds.
I set out to meet Siegel to conduct this interview after reading Love and Other Games of Chance in 2003. Expecting to find him in Honolulu (where he’s a professor in the University of Hawaii’s religion department), I discovered that he was at the Rockefeller Study Center in Bellagio, Italy. When I eventually met him three years later to conduct this interview in June 2006, he was in Paris. We had agreed to meet in a café where, according to Siegel, Rimbaud had once thrown up, but we ended up talking in a park. “Look at that statue of a smirking Voltaire over there,” Siegel said when we met. “I’d prefer to be watched over by the statue of Diderot that’s not so far away, across from the church of St. Germaine. But there isn’t a good bench near it.”
Stephen Burn: You’re just finishing a new book, could you tell me about it?
Lee Siegel: Sure: Love and the Old Man, (the Story of Juan Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth). The premise of the book is that Lee Siegel gets a letter from a man in Florida [Siegel, pretending, it seemed, to pretend that it was authentic, handed me the handwritten letter to read]:
Dear Mr. Siegel,
I introduce myself here with no expectation that you will believe me, but with some hope that you might be inclined to trust in my sincerity. Incredible as it may seem, I am, in fact, none other than Juan Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer who, at the age of forty-eight, on an Easter Sunday in 1513, discovered the land I christened Pascua de Florida. While duly acknowledging that achievement, historical accounts have ridiculed me for a credulity which, they imagine, encouraged a vain quest for the legendary Fountain of Youth. The fact is that I did, much to my own astonishment, actually unearth a very real artesian wellspring, the miraculous waters of which did indeed, until very recently, have the power to render living beings essentially immune to illness and resistant to the process of aging… .
The fountain has run dry, Ponce de Leon’s dying, and he wants Lee Siegel to come to Florida to ghostwrite his autobiography. That’s the frame, the story about Siegel’s relationship with him, within which are stories from his 540-year-long life - mostly love stories. It’s a book I’ve been thinking about for a long time. As a setup to it, there are Ponce de Leon episodes in both Love and Other Games of Chance and in Who Wrote the Book of Love?. And actually, I wrote a report on Ponce de Leon in the fourth grade when I was made to learn about “The Great Explorers.” Perhaps this new novel is the re-write of that very early attempt at writing.
Burn: How does this book compare to your previous three?
Siegel: Well, my agent says it’s the most sellable because the premise can be easily described and appreciated, unlike, say, having to claim that “I’ve written a book about a white whale and there’s a one-legged guy trying to catch him” - that would be hard to sell. I’d actually been working on the Ponce de Leon book before I began work on Who Wrote the Book of Love? but then I was coming to Paris and wanted to travel light. I felt I needed a lot of material to read about Spanish explorers and Florida history, and so I dropped that book for a while and wrote Who Wrote the Book of Love?, which I knew I could write out of my head.
In the early stages of writing Love and the Old Man I was composing a lot of fake historical documents, the kind of thing I’d explored in Love in a Dead Language. I find forgery so intriguing. Hasn’t Melville forged a book by Ishmael? Hasn’t Mark Twain forged a book by Huckleberry Finn? But looking back, I then decided that while this book continued to play with the question of whether or not the real Lee Siegel would stand up, I had to let go of the formal things that I’d already done. The premise of Love and the Old Man, based upon a frame and the stories within it - mine and Ponce de Leon’s - seemed to me to be enough without the fake documents. The new book is complex, I suppose, inasmuch as it works on a variety of levels; there are truths within lies within truths within lies. But, if you’re willing not to care about the difference between truth and lies, it isn’t so difficult to read.
Burn: Tell me about your work habits.
Siegel: It’s intriguing to me that this question is so often asked of writers. I’m never asked it in my job as a university professor, and I assume that it’s rarely asked of dentists, gynecologists, hookers, butchers, bakers, or candlestick makers. Why is it asked so often at readings? “Well, Salman, could you tell about your work habits?” or “Do you work in the morning, Mr. Roth, or at night?” If I’m ever asked that one publicly, I’ll answer that I write in the morning, but that it’s only because writing at night painfully reminds me of being fifteen years old and having homework to do.
This question reminds me of a story about Balzac and his work habits. First thing in the morning, he’d drink ten cups of coffee, arrange his desk, cut ten quills, put on his writing smock, and then start writing. One day, just as he had begun to work on a chapter, his landlady/housemaid started to clean his study. Upon seeing her bend over in her work, Monsieur Balzac became so aroused that, mid-sentence, he put down his pen and made love to her on his desk. Immediately afterwards, so the story goes, he sighed, “Zut alors! There goes another chapter!” It’s different with me. Every time I finish a chapter, I sigh, “Zut alors! There goes another …”
Burn: How do your novels begin?
Siegel: For each novel there was some experience, or some encounter, that led to some thinking, that led to some idea, that led to some story, that led to some book. I could talk about each or any of the novels in these terms. Each was quite different.
Burn: How did the first two emerge?
Siegel: Well, with Love in a Dead Language, what had happened was that my scholarly writing had been getting more and more like fiction. My previous academic book, City of Dreadful Night, had started as scholarship on the history of horror and the macabre in Indian literature, but I ultimately adopted the techniques of narrative fiction to make my argument. I had planned to include a long preface to the book, an essay about the relationship between scholarly writing and fiction as literary genres. But the press wasn’t very enthusiastic. “What,” I was asked, “is it with you professors that you always have to explain what you’re doing. Why can’t you just do it?”
With Love in a Dead Language, I flipped the experiment over, and decided to write narrative fiction using the techniques of scholarly writing. It has footnotes, a bibliography, epigraphs, an index - all of it fabricated.
The story began, I suppose, when I was sitting one day at a bar with a grad student at the University of Hawaii, and this very beautiful Indian girl passed by. She said hi to the grad student, and I asked who she was. He replied that she was “just some hippy chick,” and I asked, “Is she interested in India?” He said, “No, not at all.” That was the moment of the immaculate conception of my character, Lalita Gupta. Later, after I’d been working on the book for a while, I was at a party, and she was there, and somebody offered to introduce me to her. But I didn’t want to meet her, because I’d worked up a fantasy, a literary existence for her, and didn’t want it to be compromised by reality.
After I finished the novel, I never imagined that it would sell more copies than all my scholarly books put together. So I began work on a new academic venture, a study of snake charmers in India. But when Love in a Dead Language came out and was so generously received, I was able to muster the courage to try my hand at fiction again. I used my research on snake charming as the basis for the middle third of Love and Other Games of Chance. I’d discovered in my research that Snakes and Ladders was an ancient Indian game that the British took over and modulated with a moral dimension, and - although I didn’t have the story yet - the decision to write the book flowed from there. The book is a version of the game. I knew it would start at the lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea, and end at the highest, Mt. Everest.
Burn: Who are the important influences upon your work?
Siegel: There are, or course, the literary influences, things I read when I was young, books I probably didn’t really understand, but was, nevertheless amazed by, and other books that I came to later in life, books that made me believe that literature is actually something important and wonderful, books that, no matter what they’re about on the surface, are in some way about literature, about what writing might be.
Burn: Which writers do you have in mind?
Siegel: Well, there are things I read in my teens, things that planted that pernicious seed of wanting to write something important. I remember one night hearing somebody read the Marriage of Heaven and Hell on the radio, and thinking it was just amazing and I immediately went out and got it. Blake’s work became an early influence on me - his attempt to break down the line between words and images. I studied printmaking in graduate school because of him. But Blake’s sensibility was pretty far from my own. It was a sensibility informed by no sense of humor at all. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Blake is very funny after all. I’ll have to re-read him and see.
Burn: How about other writers?
Siegel: Well, I’m sixty years old, now, and when I was in school English teachers were still assigning things like Evangeline and The Red Badge of Courage. These books taught me that literature is essentially tedious and boring. But then, quite by accident, I came across Rimbaud, a guy my age, and although I didn’t understand a word of his poetry, I loved the photograph of him on the cover of the book. I picked up the book because of that photo. From him I went on to other poets I didn’t understand, the Beat poets - Gregory Corso, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti. I had the idea that girls who liked Beat poetry probably put out. My enthusiasm was subsequently squelched when, while I was a student at Berkeley, I read a story in the San Francisco Chronicle about a drug bust where a cop had posed as a poet. The reporter asked him how he had managed to pull it off, and the cop just said that beatnik poetry was really easy to write. That made me reevaluate. But I suppose, beyond anyone else, the biggest influence on me was Henry Miller. That’s probably true for a lot of writers my age.
Burn: You knew Henry Miller didn’t you?
Siegel: Miller used to play ping pong at my parents’ home on Sundays. He married Hoki Tokuda at our house. On Sunday afternoons that house had a salon feeling to it, and there were other people who often came by who also influenced me substantially - lots of writers and movie people. Most significantly for me, other than Henry Miller, was Jean Renoir - my father was his doctor and my mother was in one of his movies. Renoir was for me the sort of human being and the sort of artist that I, in my twenties, hoped I might become when I reached his ripe old age, the age in fact that I have (it shocks me to realize it) at this point reached. Renoir wrote a wonderful novel, you know - The Notebooks of Captain George.
Burn: But Miller was the biggest influence on you as a writer?
Siegel: Yeah. How can I not think of him at this moment as we sit here in Paris, in a park where he probably once sat, thinking about sex and writing, some seventy years ago? It’s a sweet little reverie. I remember being here in Paris myself when I was fifteen, in 1960. And I had bought Tropic of Cancer - it was a scrumptiously transgressive read. The book was still banned in the U.S. Having been compelled in high school to read The Red Badge of Courage, Evangeline, and A Tale of Two Cities, I wasn’t, as I’ve mentioned, particularly interested in literature. But I was interested in sex, very interested. That’s why I bought the Miller book. Reading the first page of Tropic of Cancer changed my life irreparably forever. It aroused me - not sexually at all, but literarily. It’s what first made me want to write. I smuggled the book back into the U.S. by replacing its cover with the jacket of The Red Badge of Courage. Well, actually I don’t remember what book jacket I used, but, for the sake of the story, let’s say it was The Red Badge of Courage.
I know Miller affected many others in the same way. There’s something about his writing that makes a susceptible young man want to write.
Years later, I was at Miller’s house when I noticed a large pile of unopened packages. They were manuscripts, he said, that aspiring writers had sent him for his assessment. “I don’t open them,” Miller told me, “I just send them each a post card on which I tell them to give up writing.” I expressed my surprise, “But what if one of them is really great?” “If they’re great,” Miller said, “they’ll say, ‘What the fuck does Henry Miller know?’ and keep writing.” Maybe he didn’t really say “fuck.” In fact, right now as I think about that, I don’t think I ever heard him say “fuck.”
Burn: Did you spend much time together?
Siegel: Since Henry didn’t know how to drive, I’d always pick him up for Sunday ping pong. Those drives from the Pacific Palisades to Beverly Hills and back meant a great deal to me. I loved his voice, the sound of it, as well as everything he said. He was one of my great heroes. I only once showed Henry something I had written. He responded to it by telling me that when Paul Klee was teaching art in Paris, he’d make his right-handed students draw with their left hands. “Try to write with your left hand,” Miller advised me. I’m still trying to figure out what that means.
Every time I saw Henry, he’d turn me on to new books, things he loved and wanted other people to love. The first book he gave me was The Palm Wine Drunkard by an African novelist. He could, by the way, beat me at ping pong. I could beat Hoki, but she could beat him.
The last time I saw him, shortly before he died, was at his home. When I asked about Hoki, he covered his ears, saying he never wanted to hear that name again. He was then in love with a nubile Brenda Venus and there were two Tibetan girls in bikinis by his swimming pool.
Burn: How about Leopold Roth, who first appears in Love in a Dead Language? I know that you’ve disclaimed any allusion to Philip Roth, but the Zuckerman character in Who Wrote the Book of Love? looks a little suspicious.
Siegel: I chose Roth as the name because it’s my mother’s maiden name (she appears in Love and Other Games of Chance). But it’s also the name of the Sanskrit lexicographer: Roth of Roth und Bohtlingk, compilers of the Sanskrit-Worterbuch, and that was relevant since a Sanskrit dictionary was the murder weapon in Love in a Dead Language. That there is a Philip Roth who happens to be a great American novelist, a writer I respect and admire, adds another implication, another shade of meaning. But it’s coincidental. Or is there any such thing as coincidence in fiction?
Burn: What’s your relationship with the Lee Siegel who masquerades in your books?
Siegel: I hope I’m more handsome than he is, and I think I’ve got a better sense of humor. I laugh at him, and try not to give him the chance to make too much fun of me. To what degree am I him? He’s sort of a jerk in Love in a Dead Language, kind of a bore in Love and Other Games of Chance, and not very good humored in Love and the Old Man. Another question might be about my relationships with Isaac Schlossberg, Leopold Roth and Ponce de Leon. My favorite books are autobiographical, books like Madame Bovary. While not many autobiographies are necessarily great books, all great books are, I think, necessarily in some way autobiographies.
Burn: Maybe we should note here that none of these Lee Siegels are to be confused with the Lee Siegel who had been writing for the New Republic?
Siegel: Yes, the other Lee Siegel has just been fired from the New Republic for writing blogs about himself under a pseudonym.
Burn: This sounds like it’s been lifted from one of your novels.
Siegel: There have been instances of mistaken identity. Because he’s rather mean and ornery in print, I’ve received a few nasty letters. On more than one occasion, at readings and lectures, I’ve been wrongly introduced as the New Republic critic. A woman I’ve known for a long time, emailed me some time ago to tell me that she went out on a date with him, and that it was the worst date she ever had. I don’t mind being credited or blamed for someone else’s writing or for faking blogs, but I don’t want it to get out that I’m a bad date.
Burn: Tell me about your engagement with Nabokov’s work.
Siegel: When I was about sixteen, I went on a trip with the family of a friend (Robbie Freeman who appears in Who Wrote the Book of Love?). Robbie’s mother had just read Lolita and passed it on to me, sternly warning me that it was in no way a dirty book, but that it was great literature, and that I shouldn’t imagine otherwise. I thought it was great literature because it was a dirty book. And it remained an important book for me, something to aspire to, so magnificently and eloquently dirty. I didn’t get my hands on Pale Fire until some years later and it - the relationship between author and commentator in it - was very important to me when I was beginning to write Love in a Dead Language. There was lots more about Nabokov in an early draft of that novel: Leopold Roth’s parents are at Chasen’s restaurant in Beverly Hills one night when Nabokov and Stanley Kubrick are having dinner there. By mistake, on leaving the restaurant, Roth’s father gets Nabokov’s overcoat and in the pocket are notes for a new novel. I transcribed the notes for the unknown Nabokov novel. Maybe that should have been left in.
Burn: Are there any contemporary writers with whom you feel you have affinities?
Siegel: I don’t know. There are so many, so very many, I admire. I’m a fan of Italo Calvino. George Perec, and Milan Kundera and … . Are there any contemporary writers with whom you feel I have affinities?
Burn: Perhaps William Gaddis? I’m thinking of the mix of genres in A Frolic of His Own …
Siegel: I’ve just begun reading it, because you mentioned it to me in an email. I’m very interested in the pastiche of varied texts in it - the play, the court documents, and so on, the way Gaddis invents, juxtaposes, and plays with textual voices - his shifts. His mimicry. Putting together parts into wholes. The sense that writing isn’t on the surface, at least, pouring your heart out. It’s creating different voices, creating ideas.
Burn: Maybe John Barth, too?
Siegel: Sure. Barth’s work is so wonderfully original, clever, and lively - he had sent me a kindly appreciative letter about Love in a Dead Language and I had a nice phone conversation with him. That meant a lot to me. But when I asked him for a puff for the back of the paperback he (understandably) demurred, explaining that he doesn’t “do blurbs.” This question makes me wish I felt I had affinities, and were a friend of those who had them with me - it’s my fantasy of Paris: “affinitous” writers and artists drinking absinthe and smoking Gitanes on terraces in Montparnasse, or talking in parks like this. I wish I could get drunk with Rabelais, Denis Diderot, Apollinaire, and any of the surrealists.
Burn: Do you see your work as postmodern?
Siegel: No, but I just mentioned Rabelais and Diderot and these are writers who I admire and who had what some people might call po-mo tendencies. So did Sterne, of course. He’d be invited to the proto-post-modern drinking party if I had anything to do with it. His influence on Love in a Dead Language was huge. Then there are the medieval Sanskrit writers who composed things like texts that tell one story if you read it forward and another story if you read it backward. There’s a marvelous book, the Rasikaranjana, that is simultaneously a religious text and an erotic tale, but one of them at a time depending on how you divide the words (what I called “charades” and played around with in Love in a Dead Language).
Burn: Outside of literature, you were a practicing magician, right? How has this shaped your work?
Siegel: It’s been a really big influence on me as a writer. In 1989 I wrote a book, Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India. Research for it involved spending lots of time with itinerant street magicians in India. I studied magic with them and ended up performing with them, first as a stooge and then giving testimonials as to their magic powers. It was quite startling to me that I, a Jew from Beverly Hills with a doctorate from Oxford University, had as my teacher and close friend an itinerant Muslim from a North Indian village who was completely illiterate. But in teaching me about magic, he taught me much more than he could ever imagine about writing. In attempting to evoke his performances for my book, I realized that each trick made sense as a story in the larger narrative of the magic show. And so, for that book, I tried to use the conventions of narrative fiction to serve what I considered anthropology. Writing is for me an attempt to amaze, to make an audience pretend that unreal things are real, to feel the horror, as one does in an Indian magic show, of seeing someone decapitated, and then to experience the greater pleasure of seeing the person recapitated. Real horror and real pleasure even though the whole thing’s just a trick. Magic remains a theme in my writing - like Professor Wonderful, the Indian magician in Love and Other Games of Chance, and maybe you noticed that Penn and Teller persist in writing blurbs for the back covers of my books. They’re willing to do a lot of things that John Barth won’t.
Burn: As a novelist who works at a university, and has written scholarly books, I wonder if you read much academic criticism of contemporary fiction?
Siegel: No, not really, but lots of academic writing - books on anthropology, on India, on language, on history, on anything that sounds interesting at the moment. I love reading about things that I know either very little or very much about. I know that a lot of novelists have a kind of scorn for the academy. Certainly Henry Miller did. I don’t - it’s been very good to me.
Burn: How has your academic work fed into your fiction?
Siegel: My academic training is in Indian studies and has served me in writing about India in both Love in a Dead Language and Love and Other Games of Chance. I haven’t given up academic endeavors. I’m currently translating a long Sanskrit love poem, the Gitagovinda, for the Clay Sanskrit Library.
Burn: How is that going?
Siegel: I took on the translation because, although I have some ideas for a new novel, I don’t really want to write fiction any more until I see the fate of the Ponce de Leon novel. And the process of translation really forces one to confront the relationship between form and content, the relationship between language and what it’s supposed to represent. You’re forced to think about writing on a word-by-word by word basis. Writing for me, when it’s good, is always about writing. It’s not so much about the world as such as it is about language. It’s less about ideas than it is about words.
Burn: While Love in a Dead Language uses the conventions of an academic commentary, Love and Other Games of Chance presents itself as a board game, and Who Wrote the Book of Love? is a memoir. Mixed in somewhere in these books are fake websites, anagrams, and so on. How important is form to your work?
Siegel: Form is, as far as I’m concerned, everything - certainly in the arts, probably in love, maybe even in all of life.
Burn: Does the move from mock-commentary to memoir suggest that you’ve become more comfortable with the idea of writing fiction?
Siegel: More comfortable? On the contrary. In writing Love in Dead Language, I had very limited aspirations. I was thrilled and even a little bit surprised that the University of Chicago Press was willing to publish it. When it came out and got such positive reviews, I was amazed - my achievement had, it seemed, greatly exceeded my aspirations. But that stimulated increased aspirations to the degree that when Viking-Penguin published Love and Other Games of Chance, my achievement, as established in terms of both critical appraisal and sales, turned out to be less than what I had aspired to. The trick would be to get aspiration and accomplishment to coincide. That would be happiness. So, to answer your question, contrary to what it might seem, I’ve become less and less comfortable with writing fiction with each book. Less comfortable, and more challenged.
Burn: Your latest books have become less difficult to read. Have your views on the place of difficulty in fiction changed?
Siegel: In Who Wrote the Book of Love? I was attempting to not be difficult (which was somewhat difficult for me). I aspired to write something funny and a bit dirty, an opusculum, something easy. I think if American publishing were not so commercial as it is, my decisions would be different. I would be doing more things with puzzles, and games, challenging readers with textual difficulties. But I want to be published. I don’t want that to sound like I’m compromising, but I want to be realistic.
Burn: The titles of your books, and the reappearances of characters, obviously suggests that you see them as a coherent unit. I wonder if you’d say something about the relationship you see between these books?
Siegel: Sure. I’ve thought about Love in a Dead Language, Love and Other Games of Chance, and Love and the Old Man as a sort of triptych inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delight with the center panel being that garden and my Love and Other Games of Chance, the left wing, devoted to the “Garden of Eden,” being my Love and the Old Man, and the right wing, Bosch’s “Hell,” being my Love in a Dead Language. Who Wrote the Book of Love? might be Bosch’s “Creation,” the simple painting on the shutters that close over the altar piece.
I hope this doesn’t sound too pretentious.
Burn: No, I love formal schemes.
Siegel: I haven’t made my little formal scheme clear to anyone else because the books aren’t being published by the same publisher and thus there’s no interest in any relationship among them. Outside the triptych, Who Wrote the Book of Love? was going to be the first of five short volumes (one per decade) on sexual love in the second half of the 20th century; but since it didn’t sell very well, the idea of sequels seems ridiculous.
Burn: Since we’re in Paris, and talking about formal grids, I wonder if you’re interested in the Oulipo movement?
Siegel: The rhetorical playfulness, cleverness, and zaniness of Oulipo is enormously appealing to me. Unless you’re Harry Mathews, however, being influenced by them probably won’t help getting published. And even a great writer like Harry Mathews has, at least in America, a relatively small readership.
Burn: But travel beyond America - to India and Europe - has obviously helped shape you as a writer.
Siegel: It certainly has. I taught in Seville last year and, as a result of being there, the most recent influence on me has been Cervantes. I was living in a wonderful house just a few blocks away from where he was once in prison and where he wrote most of Don Quixote, at about my age. I read it, the whole thing. I boast of this because I discovered that in the 1500-page book, the windmill scene, the scene everyone knows, is one paragraph on page 49. That made me suspect that a lot of people stopped reading on page fifty. Part two (“post-modernism” in pre-modern times), which so few non-Spaniards ever get to, is the most amazing. It’s one of those books that, beneath its extraordinary and original narrative, is writing profoundly about writing. Another proto-post-modern text.
I’m going to Greece next week and, in preparation for the trip, I’ve just begun to read the new Fagler translation of the Odyssey. Maybe that will be the next influence on my work. Yes, maybe I’ll make the leap from writer to bard.
Burn: Do you have doubts about the future of the novel?
Siegel: Reading Homer reminds me that people told stories long before they had books, that we’ve always told stories and will certainly continue to tell them even if books disappear into something purely electronic. Then, I suppose, when books are a thing of the past, the electronic book review will have to do something about that old-fashioned middle word.
Barnhardt, Wilton. “An Amusing Memoir and Time Capsule of 1950s America.” Rev. of Who Wrote the Book of Love?, by Lee Siegel. Chicago Tribune 31 July 2005, Books sec.: 1.
Dennett, Daniel. “Books of the Year.” Times Literary Supplement 5 Dec. 2003: 9.
LeClair, Tom. “The Kama Sutra and then Some.” New York Times Book Review 23 May 1999: 14.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick or, The Whale. 1851. Introd. Andrew Delbanco. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992.
Moore, Steven. “Magic Acts.” Rev. of Love and Other Games of Chance, by Lee Siegel. Washington Post Book World 2 Feb. 2003: 5.
Siegel, Lee. Vivisections. Bellingham, WA: Goliards, 1973.
—. Love in a Dead Language. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.
—. Love and Other Games of Chance. New York: Viking-Penguin, 2003.
—. Who Wrote the Book of Love? Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.