On Reconfiguring the Modernist Flaneur and Writing in a
Jana Prikryl and Joanna Kavenna in Conversation
For the past two decades, the English writer Joanna Kavenna has been one of the most interesting and thrilling guides to getting on in the world. In The Ice Museum, her 2005 debut, she scoured the Arctic and roamed Nordic countries in search for clues of how to be. It is an extraordinary work of history, travelogue and memoir. The kind of book you give to the friend who joins a merchant navy, or signs on to an archaeologist dig, or volunteers for Doctors Without Borders.
Since turning to fiction—she actually wrote seven unpublished novels before her eighth was accepted—Kavenna has been able to accordion more philosophy and wit into the contemporary novel than just about any young British novelist. Her 2007 debut Inglorious smashes together the feel of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway as it follows its heroine across London the day her life implodes. Kavenna’s most recent novel, A Field Guide to Reality, spins theories of quantum physics on its fingertip in an alternate Oxford where a manuscript has gone missing.
Early next year, Doubleday will publish Kavenna’s fifth novel, the dystopian tech murder mystery, Zed, which is as linguistically dexterous and peripatetic as ever. It’s set in a world of hyper-capitalism where a company called Beetle has designed software of surveillance/convenience so enmeshed in daily life it has become predictive of almost all reality. Except when it isn’t, producing what is called a Zed moment.
Kavenna’s work is so spark-like and so unusual, I was startled to feel its kin recently when I picked up Jana Prikryl’s darkly luminescent second collection of poems, No Matter. Few poets capture the smear of glass and terror which paint global cities today. The columns of disquiet and silence that lurk in the syntax of their public spaces.
Very few poets can slip into the uneasy spaces made by movement in the 21st-century metropolis and the kind of thoughts which can be thought there. Prikryl does far more than look or frame, let alone consume. She’s a mapmaker for whom language forms the coordinates. A voice that presses resistance to the buying eye into every corner of her exquisitely made verse. Stylish and frank, informed by modernism, yet warmer to the touch, No Matter elevates thoughtfulness to its own holy register.
This fall, as the world tilted into an almost parody of a tech-driven dystopia, it seemed like a good idea to put these two remarkable writers in contact, see if between their minds a different, better, less dark light might be created. It turns out they’d already met, and so they picked up in conversation partly where they left off.
Joanna Kavenna: Jana—it’s such a joy to read your beautiful and alchemical poems. The portrait of the individual in the city is so brilliant, and the way you chart NYC through the permutations of memory and the imagination. How do you place your work in relation to that “modernist” tradition of the flaneur, or the “outsider” as Colin Wilson defined it, who wanders the teeming city, trying to fathom its meaning and also the meaning of life and chaos and beauty and terror in general?
Jana Prikryl: Thank you for this very gratifying reading of No Matter!—it’s been exciting to read your novels and find influences so central to me coursing through narrative works. I think I’ve always been ambivalent about “the flaneur”; he seems a gentleman of leisure, a connoisseur, privileged and detached. Whereas I’m partial to Eliot’s speaker in “The Waste Land,” where he mixes some Baudelaire in Paris with some Dante in Hell. I guess it’s a question of tone; Eliot’s half-disabused half-screwball voice has always been my cup of tea (“That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”). I went through a long phase (which may or may not be over) of trudging up the subway stairs on my way to work, silently repeating to myself, “So many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.”
This figure in Eliot (and in Baudelaire’s poems) really sees his compatriots, including their suffering and their malevolence, and is lamentably connected to them. He doesn’t loftily rejoice in the city; he curses it half the time. As a woman, I find this the only version of a flaneur that really makes sense; one of the things I thought about in No Matter is how a female subject moving among other people is always aware of herself as a unit within a marketplace, how she’s subject to certain offers and threats.
I sense that Rosa, the main character of your novel Inglorious, would get the distinction I’m trying to make: she quits her job as an arts journalist out of something like Dante-esque despair (finding herself unsatisfied at 35, “in the middle of her life”) and proceeds to have rather Waste Landish visions of London: “She moved quickly to avoid an oncoming rush of people, recent fugitives from a commuter train. They seeped along the streets, towards the maze of their working lives.” (Here I actually wrote “TSE” in the margin!) And elsewhere her determination to disrupt the conventional storyline of her life leads her to have apocalyptic visions: “She imagined the city dead and gone, a fierce wind blasting the earth. She shrugged that off, because it was making her worry.” (This struck me as a pretty good encapsulation of what happens in No Matter.) In Inglorious this sense of fracture is wonderfully comic and complicated in its ironies—if you opt out, you’ll get a glimpse of the truth, but it will ruin you.
It’s amazing to consider your new novel, Zed, as taking Rosa’s several instants of fracture and filling them with a fully realized dystopia. The ornate counter-realism and even the unshirking violence of this novel—in which a Google- or Amazon-like company called Beetle records everything everyone does and computes the probabilities of their future actions—seem a fearless departure from Inglorious, but then you wrote into the future in The Birth of Love as well.
Is that a fair category for Zed? And how do you think about the relationship between these different sides of your fiction, between the “psychological realism” and the modes that might be called more experimental or genre-esque (though psychological probing certainly remains at the center of Zed)? Is there something generative about this movement itself, between forms, some way in which writing a book using one kind of window on reality actually helps you build the next one in a radically different way?
JK: I agree about the flaneur-connoisseur—the wealthy aristocrat who perceives the city as a playground and marketplace. Then there are the renegade heirs of that tradition—those febrile snobby-modernists of the early 20th century with their crowd terror and their exclamations of “Damn the Man in the Street!” and “The masses at Piccadilly / are sordid and sweaty” (Pound and Richard Aldington respectively) and that whole diabolical “Egoist” aesthetic of “everyone else is a zombie apart from me.” And I totally agree about Eliot—his awareness that the times are very weird and that everyone, himself included, is tainted by this overarching lunacy: “Falling towers / Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/Vienna London / Unreal.” I’ve been quite transfixed for years by those lines you cite—“I had not thought death had undone so many”—and once even wrote a novel called I had not Thought—though alas the only good thing about that novel was the title . . .
Thanks so much for your highly perceptive and generous readings of Inglorious and Zed. Yes, I think Rosa Lane is very ambivalent about the flaneur-connoisseurs and elite modernists. She reads them, searching for answers, and finds she is outside their faux-outsider tradition. Her mother dies, Rosa is mired in grief and assailed by questions about the meaning of life, and so she goes on her own (mock-heroic) quest for a way to live, a rough-hewn sense of purpose. She wanders the streets of London, searching, hoping. Lots of the other characters tell her to get a grip, stop indulging herself. But I wondered—how can Rosa just carry on as if everything is normal, how can any of us? When people we love vanish into nothingness and we never see them again? And yet we must find a way to continue, somehow, because there is no other sane reality where things make perfect sense. So I was very interested in those sorts of dark ironies in that book and they probably turn up in everything I write.
In Zed I wanted to create a kind of parallel version of our society, just exaggerating a few aspects of our contemporary hall of mirrors. Our society feels quite like dystopian fiction in a sense—the radical prospects of the early web are darkening into turnkey totalitarianism as Edward Snowden writes. I just very slightly exaggerated the tech-friendly AI that listens in to our conversations and anticipates our desires, wristbands recording our data, driverless cars and pre-crime algorithms, indefatigable drones and droids.
I was interested in how this tech revolution affects our experience, our reality. We’re speaking about old modernist flaneurs and they make choices all the time—where to walk, where not to walk. It’s like Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths”: the path forks, they make a choice—down this street, or that street, here or there. In our strange world where digital reality seeps into tangible reality, automagical tech companies seek to intrude on individual subjectivity, free will. The path forks and we are nudged one way, or another. This has profound implications for freedom—can we really be free when reality morphs around us, seeking to influence our desires? Like an unreal city where suddenly one street morphs into another and however much we try to resist we are constantly directed towards—er—another massive shop! Also, this digital-Pythagoreanism with its vision of the perfectible mathematical human doesn’t really work, because humans are too fascinating, complex, unpredictable, so I was really interested in that as well. In my novel people keep choosing paths they aren’t expected to, taking “wrong” turns and these anomalies in the supposedly perfect system are called “Zed.” And all Zed really means is “the stuff we can’t predict”—a category indicating uncertainty. Eventually there’s an epidemic of Zed—and everyone is running around trying to understand what Zed is and how to either diminish or increase it, depending on who they are . . .
To answer your excellent question about realism—I think Inglorious and Zed are both realism, in a sense, but it’s just that we live in a very weird reality. You could argue in a way that the more realistic the writing, the weirder it has to be, if it’s really going to be representative of reality! As you rightly discern Rosa is one individual trying to understand reality, and in Zed I had an idea to have an omniscient narrator trying to be very logical about everything and getting into a certain amount of trouble as events spiral into chaos. I’m very interested in satirical and absurdist traditions too, where this logical illogic prevails and serves to defamiliarize the things around us, which are already pretty strange.
I think this interests you as well? There are so many beautiful ironies in your poems. Also, you asked me about the window on reality and how things shift from one work to another and I think this question pertains to your work as well. It’s fascinating to read your latest collection No Matter in relation to your first, The After Party. One poem from The After Party (“The Letters of George Kennan and John Lukacs, Interspersed with Some of My Dreams”) alludes perhaps to an article in The New York Review entitled “The Heart of a Realist”? Your poem brilliantly elides time and place, dreams and reality, subverts orthodox realism as well—“Deer outside my window in Manhattan, / and woods, and a girl on a horse, and then / snow begins to fall in thick, slow clumps . . .”
Reading this poem I thought of Wittgenstein, because of the ironic way you write about language itself, our strange system of squeaks and murmurs: ”My gravel words drift slowly through the water / toward a sort of muzzle that spits them out, / and that is how I speak.” In another poem from The After Party (“Benvenuto Tisi’s Vestal Virgin Claudia Quinta Pulling a Boat with the Statue of Cybele”) you write “Reality’s my kind of metaphor.” I wonder if this might be one way to read your dreamlike and yet richly tangible descriptions of city life?
No Matter, also, is full of these compelling incongruities and wild, soaring imaginings. In your poem “Real”—quotidian reality is transformed, “the studio / grows L-shaped, with an alcove / for the bed,” and there is another vast room “with grand piano and French doors/opening on a view of my private beach . . .” Are these poems also a form of subversion/satire, in your view? As well as the philosophical questions they pose about reality they also express profound unease about the iniquity of hyper-capitalist cities—from “Real” again—“Those years obedient to time is money when/it’s space that’s time . . .” Also, you write in your email about Eliot—that he “doesn’t loftily rejoice in the city; he curses it half the time. As a woman, I find this the only version of a “flaneur” that really makes sense.” I agree, and this also made me think of another poem from No Matter—“Vertical”—with its expressive, purposeful cursing: “Name me a city/as bullying as this one”—and then “Low, mean, / drizzling Dublin . . . / Mean as in low and dun.” This leads me to a question about poetic personae—recalling what the poet Charlotte Mew wrote about “I don’t want to be anyone when I’m writing.” Do you welcome queries about autobiography and the personae of your poems or do you find them delimiting? Also, a slightly unrelated question but related at least to Eliot how important is New York as a specific place in your work, and how much is it a psychic terrain, “unreal city” where other places, memories, dark imaginings, emerge?
JP: Thank you for your wonderfully sensitive readings of those poems . . . I wish people asked me about personae more often! And that they invoked my autobiography less frequently. Of course my work is rooted in my own experience. But I think one overlooked advantage a novelist has over a poet, at least right now (correct me if I’m wrong!) is that their work is generally discussed on its own terms. You’re understood as someone who invents characters and sets them loose in a world of your own making (even if that world largely echoes the one you inhabit); I think even great critics are more comfortable assessing the persuasiveness of a character or a setting, as imaginative units, than of something as mutable as a poetic persona. (Do you think this is so? As a novelist, do you find that we live in an age of imaginative and trenchant criticism?) Yet I think every poem—in a way every line in every poem—exists as a distinct persona, a sort of testing ground for intuitions about our feelings and histories.
I love that Charlotte Mew line (which is new to me!) because it seems to give priority to the interplay of personas in a poem, by taking the poet out of it. The poem you mention, “Vertical,” which badmouths Dublin, is an experiment with persona precisely because its assertions map onto some of my own worst opinions about the place I lived when I was 23 and 24—with all the ambivalence I really feel left out. After I wrote those lines, part of me was truly clutching her pearls. But the idea was to see what would happen if I tried to express my lowest feelings about the place, to see where that voice would lead—it was an experiment with prejudice. Of course deliberately transgressing in a poem isn’t new, it goes back through Frederick Seidel and John Berryman to (again) Eliot, and Blake and Byron before him, in different ways, and to 18th-century satire in Pope and Swift and Dryden. The paradox of importing some “real life” into a poem while making its lines more mannered, rather than less, is something that has always fascinated me.
Central to the creation of persona is exaggeration—but isn’t everything we feel already exaggerated? Feeling is inherently hyperbolic! At least in my experience. It overtakes me; writing is something like a chance to see how often I become a persona IRL. This kind of persona does often result in satirical poems. The poem you quote called “Real” takes its title from “real estate dreams,” which everybody in New York City has—imagining all kinds of additions to their actual, brutally nonnegotiable square footage. I was trying to use New York (at least by reputation the world’s most expensive, difficult city) to dramatize questions of desire, versus something like fairness and equality.
Anyone living here is constantly aware of the population density, of the sheer quantity of alternative humans who could take up residence in one’s own apartment the minute one left (jacking up the rent up even higher); any big city is a metaphor for mortality itself, in that sense. As I wrote No Matter a couple of years ago—watching global warming being officially ignored, and migrants from the planet’s south vilified and actually tortured by the US government for seeking to find shelter in safer climates—I found my very personal feelings about being a woman in her thirties and forties trapped in a big, grinding city blurring with the simultaneous feeling of being trapped in a society, in a vast structure one can only partially perceive. So the New York in my book is definitely a “psychic terrain,” as you point out; even the street grid acts as a useful, very rectilinear, framework on which you can hang a palimpsest of other places and states of mind.
All this leads me back to what you said about how you can exaggerate in fiction, in order to defamiliarize the things around us “which are already pretty strange.” I want to quote a passage from the world of Zed that I especially loved:
“In general, people were surprised to find that their words were not quite their words. The gap was slender but significant at the same time. Bespoke was an exciting new opportunity, a truly global, truly equal language. If you spoke into a Beetle device, then your words were bespoken to others. If you typed, then your words were Bespoke-corrected, unless you insisted otherwise. It was time-consuming to insist otherwise, as you had to insist otherwise with each word you typed. Yet it was the choice of each individual, to bespeak or not to bespeak, of course.”
This is hilarious and very dark—because naturally I’m bespeaking as I type this email to you. In a sense you’ve had to exaggerate very little! It is a bit like 1984 but with a sense of humor. Was Orwell someone you thought about as you wrote, or did you have any other models in mind?
The brilliant conceit in the book, whereby people’s future crimes are prosecuted as if they had already occurred, is chilling—though not so far removed from, e.g., FBI sting operations that end up getting suspects arrested who have only talked about their criminal intent. Do you think we’re really in danger of becoming what you embody in Zed? And—if you’re already at work on your next novel, can you say whether you feel it’s a departure from this one, in form or style or subject?
JK: Exactly—about cities as metaphors for mortality. All the lighted rooms, and I find it very strange and moving when I walk around a city at night, and see these glimpses of other lives, window by window. Finite mortals, existing in this brief moment in time. Also, yes, I agree about the remorseless compression of humans into overpriced boxes, and the iniquities of capitalism as further revealed in the parsimonious allocations of space.
And that’s true about personae and how writers get asked far too much about autobiography as if that’s somehow an empirical way to understand their work. I love your idea of using a persona to express our most unpalatable opinions! Enrique Vila-Matas also tells journalists who interview him just to make up his biography entirely, which I’ve always thought was a good idea.
The idea of personae leads me to the impressive versatility of tone you achieve in your poems, as you move from the wry knowingness of “Stoic” (“Upper East Side’s where you want to cultivate friends,/its mediocre restaurants won’t close”) to the delicate lyricism of “Greenpoint” (“The houses cold as lined foolscap / in a rainbow of pastels”), to the powerful and disturbing cadences of “Murder” (“did the tranquil way they defaced her / come back to me”) and so many further textures and atmospheres. Does each poem have a distinctive atmosphere in language to you, and how do you work with and against different poetic forms? Also, how do you go about combining your poems into the collection—how do you determine the sequence, do you want them to be read sequentially indeed?
Thanks so much for quoting that passage from Zed. Yes I think the relationship between thought and language is so baroque and we surrender ourselves to this strange shared system of language, in the hope that somehow something gets through to others, and yet meaning is so uncertain, and there’s a fascinating gap.
“Bespoke” is devised by my fictional tech company, Beetle, to make language clear and precise, like maths, to banish uncertainty and ambiguity—also to end the outbreak of “Zed.” But no one can really understand what anyone is saying in Bespoke because reality is too complex and ambiguous and so are humans. Words echo with associations, and no language can fully encapsulate the rich strangeness of even one minute of reality, etc.!
As well as language games I was thinking about that thing of mathematical small-ism online: books, films, works of art assessed with mathematical star ratings; our experience expressed in number values. But really? The birth of our children? How many stars? The death of our loved ones? The agony, ecstasy, beauty, terror of quotidian life—how many stars? It’s fundamentally surreal, so I was interested in pushing that a little further, seeing what happens. And I imagined the AI might get overwhelmed by trying to convert complexity into simplicity, and up sounding like robots who’ve read too much Joyce. I had a lot of fun with Bespoke but equally I was aware that all oppressive-utopian regimes seek to redefine language, to control and adapt consciousness if they can, and these language games are fundamentally about the power of mind over mind—as of course Orwell knew so well. So Orwell was there, absolutely, and I was thinking a lot about works such as Victor Klemperer’s LTI and Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances as well.
What about your relationship with language—especially as I imagine you hold more than one language in your head? Also, your poems play such glorious language games and these often work to subvert and even at times devastate conventional ideas, ossified phrases. For example, “Asylum,”—which I want to quote in its entirety, if I may.
like when I can’t sleep I say to myself
the the the the
each article drenched to the bone in the
belief it attends something solid,
fond belief, always being
cut in on—the
the the the the the the
does the trick if I can stick with it
not get swept into narrative, that shock brigade
all tell, if by shock they mean hit
the the the the the the the the
papers say asylum is temporary
now, true, what’s not that’s able to
maintain its potency, you wake up
from a spell in that genre of safety, relative
safety, what saved you
making as if the story were widely shared
until you saw them as-if otherwise and then
what saved you was seeing their look, saying
resemblance too may be at any time revoked so
must be made the most
seeing it then, seizing
the minute dismounting with the foot
trained as a dancer to keep you traveling because
they’d slept and, refreshed, moved the the the the
papers expired, it’s their turn now
to really live
JK: There’s so much happening in this poem: philosophical questions about the relationship between world and word, and then poetic games with language, stretching and testing words until they reveal their indeterminacy, and then you also turn to those empty phrases that get repeated over and over again in the media, like mantras. “The” is such an odd word. It’s everywhere for a start, and then it can be used to indicate something specific—that cat, not all the other cats—and also something non-specific i.e., “The Novel” as in all novels not one novel. So it has its own paradoxical nature.
You have those striking lines where you repeat “the the the the the the” until the word starts to fall apart and then you add: “each article drenched to the bone in the /belief it attends something solid.” Your repetition of “the” tests that idea of solidity, and this happens as well in a further line: “the the the the the the the the / papers say asylum is temporary.” It’s such a clever piece of writing because you expose the fragility of words themselves—dismantling them as you write. I wondered about this in relation to what you wrote about “Vertical”—as an experiment with prejudice—is this also a way of reading “Asylum”?
One last question before I conclude. We’ve talked a lot about reality and realism, and also politics and art. We are living in this massive age of disruption with seismic possibilities for change and realms of great danger. Politicians such as Trump and Putin lie freely, and even claim that truth doesn’t matter, there is no truth anymore, just “alternative facts.” So there’s a huge further question of what we do when calling out politicians for lying is no longer effective, and they don’t actually care if we trust them or not? And yet their lies create realities, because they are repeated over and over again.
How do you feel about the coming age and how does this affect your work? And also, I wondered what you think about the place of made-up worlds in a society where reality has fractured? Do works of the imagination get undermined as more made-up stuff, one more untruth—when Russia is a Surkovian theatre of the absurd, and Trump runs politics like a reality TV show? I hope not, and I derive great inspiration from works such as The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, Zamyatin’s We, Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” Kafka’s The Trial, Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years and many more besides—because in their imaginative absurdism they expose their cruel and mendacious societies. But I wonder what you think about the status of fiction and poetry in a post-truth age?
JP: Thank you for all that, especially in re my “Asylum”! I think of that poem as containing several voices, almost like a play. It began very simply with my thinking about the way I (in actual fact) sometimes try to combat insomnia, by repeating “the the the the the” in my head. (Occasionally it works.) And the idea of “asylum,” as in sleep, drifted into its political dimension—and ultimately the voice(s) denying the right to asylum get the last word. I do think of every poem as generating its own atmosphere, or playing with language according to a distinct set of parameters or horizon lines—some extremely intricate, others looser or wider.
And yes, you ask about my languages—I still speak Czech, and sometimes a Czech word will absolutely pierce me with its rightness (e.g., “silver” is stříbro, a much silverer and more light-slivering word than silver). But my Czech is rusty and my vocabulary somewhat limited since I left the country when I was five (I never formally learned to write/spell, so sending emails to my relatives is a good exercise in humility). What Czech gives my English, I think, is an outsize awareness of syntax. Syntax used to be exploited much more effectively, ferociously, fruitfully by English poets than it is today—starting with Old English of course, and during the Renaissance, but including up to the modernists, who cared so much about the architecture of their thought that they inevitably cared about the structure of their sentences and lines.
I like what you said about both Inglorious and Zed being realism, “it’s just that we live in a very weird reality.” One of its crucial features is that we now see the corruptibility of individuals and institutions in a way we wouldn’t have believed even five years ago—and this sense of corruption, everywhere, and especially within, is so well captured in Zed. The moments when the narrator reveals what various characters are thinking, how they’re responding to the smallest gestures around them, have a terrible poignancy in the context of the sweeping narrative that surrounds them: their inner worlds cannot be immune to the outer.
I think the status of fiction and poetry doesn’t change even in what feels like our yawningly gonzo moment. Lately I have to remind myself that we’ve been in a “post-truth age” for 15 years now, ever since Karl Rove mocked the idea of a “reality-based community.” But things have rapidly, um, decomposed since roughly 2015? Ever since Trump’s years of birtherism failed to derail his presidential ambitions (and then when the Brexit vote happened, and then when Angela Merkel came to seem like a radical in declaring that migrants were welcome in Germany).
I think readers have begun to look to literature more urgently than we used to, if only for basic intelligence and fellow-feeling. The all too obvious parallel is the 1930s but our moment has also made me think about the 1990s, when some writers in Central Europe lamented the end of “dissident writing”; with the end of Soviet occupation, literature would have less weight than it did when every word seemed a kind of moral defense against the regime. It’s as if the reverse were happening now, and in the West—not that literature is weighty again in the same way (we still have freedom of the press, and I find the slogan “Resist” is painfully facile) but maybe you could say that since 2015 fiction and poetry have . . . gained some weight. Make literature morally portly again! This does seem like a grimly productive time to be at work.