Hernan Diaz: “I Wouldn’t Be the Person I am Without Borges.”
The Author of Trust Talks to Jane Ciabattari
When his first novel, In the Distance, was published, Hernán Diaz described the sense of “foreignness” he gained from his formative years. He was born in Argentina; his family moved to Stockholm when he was two, and he grew up with Swedish as his first language, then relocated to Argentina when he was nine. In his twenties, he lived in London, then settled in New York.
“Foreignness” is central to In the Distance, published by Coffee House Press in 2017, which follows Håkan Söderström as he leaves Sweden with his brother for New York during the Gold Rush. The brothers lose touch before sailing; Håkan ends up in San Francisco, and becomes determined to make his way east to find his brother. In this dangerous and challenging new land, Håkan becomes known as “The Hawk.” He is a massive fellow, apt, adventurous, solitary, ultimately legendary, able to survive no matter what threats he encounters in the frontier. Diaz’s eerie reinvention of the “Western” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and winner of the William Saroyan International Prize, the Cabell Award, the Prix Page America, and the New American Voices Award.
Diaz’s new novel, Trust, moves forward into the twentieth century, and includes several crises in the financial markets—the panic of 1907 and the 1929 crash. It’s a rare novel that addresses the fateful division between the world of “speculative capital” and those who produce and consume goods. And it’s deliciously Borgesian in form, an aspect we covered in our email exchange, which took place the week Diaz’s Guggenheim fellowship was announced.
Jane Ciabattari: How has your life gone over the past unsettling few years? Writing, teaching, personal life? Where have you been living?
Hernan Diaz: These have, indeed, been unsettling years: waking up from one nightmare to find ourselves in another. And I was solidly in Brooklyn thorough it all. We live in a small apartment, so at the height of the pandemic, I was up at 4 am to work before zoom invaded our home. It actually became a nice routine, once I adapted to it.I wouldn’t be the person I am without Borges.
For the last stretch, I was fortunate enough to get a fellowship at the New York Public Library, while it was closed to the general public. Because I found the subway a bit scary at that time, I walked up to Bryant Park from Brooklyn every morning—walking is the best way to solve writing problems. And I should say that working in that eerily empty building (some days there were only a few security guards) definitely had an effect on the book.
JC: In wondering what inspired your unusual structure of four distinct but interrelated sections—a novel, an unfinished manuscript, a memoir, a diary—I was drawn to your book Borges, between History and Eternity, and your comments on Borges’ use of “nesting worlds”—those “mises en abyme where each new layer questions the authenticity of the preceding one?”—in his fiction. Through what process did you come up with your nesting worlds?
HD: I wouldn’t be the person I am without Borges. One of the many things he taught me is precisely what you point out: how literature can create its own referential context by surrounding itself with more literature. I find framing games endlessly fascinating because they make us think about meaning, representation, and truth.
In the case of Trust, I was particularly interested in the distinction between fact and fiction—the rhetorical boundaries between them and how they are, to a large extent, the effect of specific contracts we enter into each time we read a text. Hopefully, each one of the sections in the book will make the reader reflect on the “terms and conditions” they tacitly accepted for the previous one—and, by extension, the unspoken agreements and conventions inherent to every reading experience.
JC: Did you always have all four sections outlined, with each opening out a new aspect of the world of an early 20th-century financial tycoon?
HD: I don’t work with outlines. But yes: I always knew that the sections would both reveal and conceal crucial aspects of the story. For a while, I considered intertwining all four sections, but it seemed more effective to have distinct narrative strata—I did think of the structure almost in geological terms, and wanted these layers to both explain and contradict one another. To use a more typical metaphor, the narratives get entangled and disentangled in almost equal measure as we move from one section to the next. Part of the fun is to follow these threads.My hope was to enlist the reader as a textual detective of sorts.
My hope was to enlist the reader as a textual detective of sorts. There’s quite a bit of room and enough play between the parts to allow each reader to piece the story together in slightly different ways. I should also point out there’s another aspect that is as important as the plot or the diegetic lines: voice. There are different sections because (among other reasons) it’s important that we hear different voices and see how they interact. The book is, to an enormous extent, about the implications of having a voice or being denied one. One of the main questions in the novel is who gets a megaphone and who is gagged.
JC: Partway through your opening section, framed as a 1938 novel, Bonds, by Harold Vanner, I went to the bookshelf and pulled out a copy of The Financier, the first of Dreiser’s prescient trilogy about the ruthless Frank Cowperwood, the industrialist caught up in the stock market crash following the 1871 Chicago fire. Vanner’s “Benjamin Rask” is of a different generation—central financial dramas in his life include the panic of 1907 and the 1929 crash, when he shorts the market and increases his already substantial wealth exponentially. And you do make a brief mention of The Financier in your third section. How did Dreiser’s trilogy influence Trust? (And other authors? Edith Wharton?)
HD: I love that you have The Financier on your bookshelf! That may have been the first book I read explicitly toward Trust, before I really knew what my novel would become. It’s remarkable that The Financier is the only book in Dreiser’s trilogy that is still in print, don’t you think? I bought a first edition of the second volume, The Titan, for about five dollars. But I haven’t read the third installment, written 35 years after the first. I must confess I found it hard to get through these books.
Still, Dreiser is important to me because he’s one of the few authors in the American canon who truly deals with the intricacies of finance. So does Upton Sinclair in The Moneychangers, published in 1908. (The villain is quite obviously modeled on John Pierpont Morgan.) I think it’s meaningful that this book also happens to be out of print, which tells you something about the place these narratives have in our literary tradition.
You mention Edith Wharton. She and Henry James are, of course, palpable presences in the first section. But more in terms of tone, form, and atmosphere. They were both rather priggish when it came to money—which was famously a taboo in their set. I think they deal with the intricacies of class more than with the labyrinths of capital. They’re not really concerned with labor, which is the foundation of capital. In their world, money is seldom “made;” it’s mostly “already there.” Which means they excuse themselves from looking at the many forms of injustice that necessarily go into the primitive accumulation behind every fortune.
JC: Did you have a specific financier (or several) in mind when working on Trust? (I think of Elon Musk, for instance)?
HD: The focus of the book is not on industrialists or “entrepreneurs” who make tangible goods (like cars) or provide concrete services (like shipping anything to your doorstep within hours). I was interested, rather, in speculative capital. The abstraction of certain kind of fortunes was fascinating to me. But even if I wasn’t thinking of any of our space-bound billionaires in particular, there was something about all of them that did inform this book: their desire to buy reality itself. I think this is the ultimate goal, isn’t it? To purchase a version of reality and impose it on others.
I suppose this is one additional reason why I was interested in nesting worlds. I should also add that most of the book was written during the Trump administration, when reality seemed to have been utterly commodified. This fraudster was a living, omnipresent example of how absurd the myths around these “Great Men” are—and how their greater-than-life epic narratives mainly serve the purpose of silencing and suppressing the many casualties left behind during their ascent. Yet, in the United States, there is an undying fascination around the totally ideological fable of the “self-made man.” A fable, it should be said, from which women have been utterly erased—which was is central concern in Trust.
JC: “Benjamin Rask” is a fictional character created by your fictional novelist Harold Varner based on a real financier, Andrew Bevel, who is so offended by the characterization of his life and his wife’s that he counters with a memoir, “My Life.” This second section reads as a bland self-serving memoir-in-progress in defense of financiers (“Every financier ought to be a polymath, because finance is the thread that runs through every aspect of life”), with notations like “Brief paragraph Mildred, domestic delights. Home a solace during these happily frantic times.”
Bevel defends himself for his “prescience” regarding stock market fluctuations and his “historical achievements” of 1926 and 1929, where he built his fortune at the expense of so many others. And he defends his late wife Mildred, who is presented in the Vanner novel as a woman with a complex and serious inherited mental disorder. “Mildred was my muse,” he says. He describes her as fragile, warm. A comfort and support. This manuscript seems like a warm-up for Part III. Is that what you had in mind?
HD: It’s a bit hard to talk about this section without giving too much away. But yes: this fragmentary autobiography of this “Great Man” echoes the rhetoric of so many self-serving memoirs I had to study in preparation for this part. It was mind-blowing to read, in book after book, how absolutely certain these men were that the stories of their faultless lives deserved to be heard. This section of the book aims, among other things, to defamiliarize certain voices we have been taught to trust in historical documents. Deep into the process of writing this memoir, I made the decision to shatter the whole thing and turn it into an unfinished draft. This allowed me to focus on the truly essential parts and, hopefully, give it a formal edge.
JC: Part III, “A Memoir Remembered, by Ida Partenza,” brings us yet another voice. Ida is the daughter of an Italian anarchist exiled to Brooklyn, where he works as a typesetter. Her mother has died, and Ida takes a job for a Wall Street man she knows her father would abhor. How did you build Ida as a character in historic fiction, given the complicated polarity between her father and her employer?
HD: Ida’s section is, by far, the one that I rewrote and edited the most. It was hard to find my way into her tone and her style—she looks back on her life after long and successful career as a writer. I thought of her as a New Journalist, and her syntax, punctuation, and cadence are totally different from my natural tendencies as a writer. It was an arduous (yet fascinating and pleasurable) process to teach myself how to write in her voice.
And you’re right: young Ida finds herself between those poles—her father and her employer, both of whom push her into stereotypical roles (homemaker and secretary). But despite their vast political, cultural, and class differences, these two men have a lot in common—especially their equally stereotypical ideas of maleness. Part of Ida’s intelligence can be seen in how she is able to turn their own misogynistic bluster against themselves.
JC: Ida is also composing a fiction from this material, for a mysterious blackmailer. Another Borgesian twist?
HD: Ida is besieged by different men—her father, her employer, her boyfriend, an extortionist—who try to manipulate her in different ways. Being a brilliant writer, she counterattacks with text. I took this as an opportunity to expand the proliferation of fictions on fictions on fictions. This multiplication of narratives in Trust has to do with one of the book’s central claims: rather than imitating life, literature has the ability to reshape reality.
JC: Many surprises unfold in the course of Ida’s story, which casts into question all the previous pages. The final section, “Futures,” reveals the “truth” about Mildred Bevel. It’s framed as a diary written as she is dying of cancer in a Swiss spa, where she is continually fielding calls from Andrew and mulling over her past. This section offers a brilliant a devastating twist on Andrew Bevel’s life. Did you have that in mind all along? Did it unfold gradually?
HD: Yes, I had this ending in mind from very early on. Most of the book took shape around it. I also knew what I wanted this section to look like formally—it had to feel almost like a prose poem at times. But it also had to have a philosophical tone. On the one hand, it was a pleasure to write because it’s a love letter to many artists and thinkers I worship (the section is, in part, a modernist cabinet of curiosities influenced by people like Jean Rhys, Theodor Adorno, Virginia Woolf, Arnold Schönberg, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Gertrude Stein). On the other hand, it was a great challenge. Mostly because it’s a very intimate text—both for the narrator and for me.
JC: Congratulations on your Guggenheim fellowship. What will you be working on next?
HD: Thank you! It was a wonderful surprise. In addition to having finished some short stories over the last few months, I’m working on a new novel. Although I’m not superstitious and most emphatically do not believe in celestial powers of any kind, I’m at that stage where I fear the whole thing will be obliterated if I dare talk about it.
Hernan Diaz’s Trust is available via Riverhead Books.