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Roll Deep

August 3, 2008


Late last spring, I asked students in my writing classes to read “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say,” an essay published in Kill All Your Darlings, a collection of pieces written by Luc Sante between 1990 and 2005. We’d had a tame semester, my students and I. I’d drawn their attention a little too much to ideas about writing rather than writing itself, and no matter how eagerly I tried to invigorate discussion, several of the readings I assigned lulled several of my students to bottomless boredom, if not sleep. The blank stares, the checked cell phones, the occasional bobbing head.

Sante would, I hoped, offer something different from the explications and arguments of the writers whose work we’d been plowing through. In “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say,” he uses the little that is known about Buddy Bolden—along with no small dose of fancy—to locate the birth of funk in a stinking, hot New Orleans dancehall in July of 1902.

Bolden, a late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century coronet player, is a slick hook on which to hang funk. His music is often talked about (Sante points out that Bolden is foremost among those musicians credited with the invention of jazz, if jazz can be said to have been invented), but as none of his band’s recordings are known to exist, modern ears haven’t had the pleasure of hearing Bolden play. So this was going to be fun: here was an essay by a writer who, though he’d clearly done his research, knew only so much and managed to write anyway—and with authority. Only later would it occur to me that Sante manages to write as he does precisely because he is so acutely aware of what he does not—and cannot—know.

It must be this knack for writing in the spaces between what is known that led W.S. Di Piero to say with regard to Sante’s 1998 memoir The Factory of Facts that for Sante, fathoming a person “involves digging up and assembling the data, often fragmentary, and reimagining the history that created all that debris.” Sante has found occasions to reimagine not only in the details of his own and his family’s history, but also in the history of New York City’s seediest districts (Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York), in crime scene photographs from the New York Police Department’s archives (Evidence), and, among other subjects explored in the work collected in Kill All Your Darlings, in a jazz musician from turn-of-the-century New Orleans.

Discussion of “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say” served, for my students, as its own kind of occasion. The essay brought out in them the wonder I’d been trying all semester to stir up. They recognized Sante’s weaving of fact and fancy and were eager to figure out his moves. But as I exchanged emails with Sante this past July to find out where his mind has wandered in the year or so since Kill All Your Darlings and his translation of Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines were published, it wasn’t my students’ response to Sante’s conjuring that I most vividly remembered. The response I most vividly remembered was my own.

Where I usually sit behind a desk as I conduct classes, Sante’s essay had me out of my seat and performing, with all the hip swaying, finger shaking, face contorting, and foul-mouthed talking I could muster, an interpretive dance of sorts: “This,” I explained to my wide awake morning class, “is funk.” I’d been transported—“hijacked” is the word Greil Marcus uses in his introduction to Kill All Your Darlings—and by the end of the class, I’d taken at least a few students along with me: from funk to the South and then to Oakland, California. Later, in their writing, a few students took Sante’s thinking and their own imaginations even farther afield.

Really, I have no idea whether “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say” is about the dreamed up origins of funk. But I know that I had a good time imagining it to be so, just as Sante seems to have a good time imagining Bolden in a New Orleans dancehall on a hot July night in 1902. I considered asking Sante if I had the piece right, if he’d meant for it to be an evocation of the first faint signs of funk. But then I thought better of it. I don’t really want to know whether I’m right. I’m guessing Sante wouldn’t want me to know either.

— Suzanne Menghraj for Guernica

Guernica: I listened to the playlist you discussed in the June 18, 2008 edition of the New York Times’ Paper Cuts blog. I hear in the tracks all the “brambled verbal density” you attribute to them. I’m particularly interested, given that your work deals in the enigmatic and evocative, in what you write with regard to dancehaller Vybz Kartel’s “Roll Deep”: that you have no idea what he’s going on about for half the verses. What do lyrics as inscrutable as Kartel’s and beats as forceful as those in the songs you included in the playlist evoke for you?

Luc Sante: I stumbled upon what you might call modernist literature—Rimbaud, Breton, and Burroughs in particular, and Bob Dylan’s early electric period figured strongly as well—in a series of great swoops when I was around thirteen. One of the effects it had on me was a kind of intoxication with form, the immediate by-product of which was a jettisoning of meaning. For nearly ten years meaning—and such allied concepts as story and argument—were simply outside my purview. I only fully realized this in retrospect, when I would see a movie or read a book I had seen or read then and realized that, yes, there was a plot or whatever that I’d managed to completely overlook. I had somehow been able to take, say, a 1940′s crime movie and turn it into a surrealist suite of images, beautiful and intense maybe, but having no logical progression from the first frame to the last. In my twenties I became increasingly aware of meaning, story, argument, etc., and largely lost that ability (some might call it a disability). I’m still pretty impervious to story, at least when I’ve tried to write fiction, which is the principal reason none of my attempts at novels have worked out. And I retain a sort of negative capability in reading poetry and listening to songs. I approach them as abstract works and don’t tend to look for a thread unless it jumps up in my face.

“Whenever I’ve searched for the origins of rhythm in my life the only thing I’ve ever been able to find is the rhythm of the litanies in the Latin mass—the ora pro nobis iteration in funeral services and the antiphonal ceremony of rogations in the fields.”

Guernica: To be able to conjure a surrealist suite of images. Sounds more like an ability than a disability. I guess that’s what I’m wondering: whether, despite the loss of ability you mention, “Roll Deep,” or perhaps another of the playlist tracks, brings to mind any particular images.

Luc Sante: Actually, songs don’t provoke visual images for me. I hadn’t exactly been aware of this before. What I get from songs is language, but not necessarily the actual lyrics. Hmm. This line of thought seems to be getting neurological… Anyway, I sometimes get words from instrumentals, but mostly from music I get rhythm. And timbre and inflection, stuff like that, which makes it sound much drier than it actually is, but in any event the image-generating portion of my brain involves some entirely other lode.

Guernica: Without getting too neurological, which lode does generate images? Whichever it is, it seems very well connected in you to the lode responsible for generating prose.

Luc Sante: It’s funny—if music produces words, words do produce images. Despite this, music and images seem to live in different sides of the brain. I guess I think in analogies, which tend to be visual. And images produce images—the more images I see the more I can imagine, which, in part, accounts for my addiction to images and my stamina for consuming vast numbers of them at a time.

Guernica: You mention by way of introduction to the playlist that rhythm is instrumental to the way you construct sentences. I imagine writerly rhythm as a function of syllabic arrangement, but that understanding seems somehow incomplete. What else is there to rhythm?

“If the sentence is cloddish and clunky, it’s simply wrong—and not just wrong-sounding but wrong in its meaning.”

Luc Sante: Whenever I’ve searched for the origins of rhythm in my life the only thing I’ve ever been able to find is the rhythm of the litanies in the Latin mass—the ora pro nobis iteration in funeral services and the antiphonal ceremony of rogations in the fields. Otherwise music was pretty much absent from my early life—my family didn’t get a record player until I was nine, and the radio only seemed to issue news and soccer, later baseball. Music crept up on me in childhood from a variety of ambient sources. In any case, soul music came to seem like something I’d always known, and—beginning when I was nineteen—reggae even more so, as if I’d somehow heard it in infancy.

Rhythm in writing is somehow analogous, but it’s a completely intuitive matter. I don’t really understand the process. It’s related to the substance of Flaubert’s famous letter to George Sand: “When I come upon a bad assonance or a repetition in my sentences, I’m sure I’m floundering in the false. By searching I find the proper expression, which was always the only one, and which is also harmonious. The word is never lacking when one possesses the idea. Is there not, in this precise fitting of parts, something eternal, like a principal? If not, why should there be a relation between the right word and the musical word? Or why should the greatest compression of thought always result in a line of poetry?” This is crucial stuff for me. I write intuitively, not knowing where I’m going, not knowing what the next sentence will be until this one has guided me there, and knowing how the sentence goes begins with my hearing its rhythm in my head, and then filling in the specific words. If the sentence is cloddish and clunky, it’s simply wrong—and not just wrong-sounding but wrong in its meaning. I realize at this point that I seem to be conflating two separate senses of the word “rhythm”—beat and flow—but they are inextricably linked in my mind and the matter lies largely outside my ability to articulate it. Rhythm also guides my reading, that part of which has nothing to do with acquiring information. There are certain writers whose rhythm is immediately congenial to me. Among the living, I think of Geoff Dyer, whose books I’d devour even if they were about metallurgy or stamp collecting. His rhythm carries me through, exactly the way the rhythm of a dancehall number takes over my body.

Guernica: You refer to the ora pro nobis iteration in Roman Catholic funeral services, as well as the mass and its litanies: the antiphony, the call and response, the repetition. There’s something of the march toward death—sometimes an exuberant march of the sort to be found in dancehall—in repeated rhythms. I can’t say whether you’d agree with me there, but if you do, what might you say is in that? What’s in incantation?

“…some writers pretty much elude translation because their thinking processes are so intimately linked to the French language—or the English or any other—that you can’t remove them from context without violence.”

Luc Sante: I know what you mean, but that’s not uppermost in my mind. The litany is closely associated with the processional, and that touches me emotionally very strongly. Stupid parades without chanting and representing interests possibly even inimical to me can make me tear up. The processional, even with its flavor and impact transferred to a march rhythm, somehow connotes reunion and harmony. Most recent example: I was in Williamsburg (of all places) to do a reading last month, and while I was walking down Bedford Avenue a samba school appeared out of nowhere, singing and accompanying themselves on various percussion instruments. It bowled me over. The New Orleans marching bands of course accompany funerals, but then they come back from the graveyard and renew life.

Guernica: You suggest in the introduction to your translation of Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines that translating Fénéon’s faits-divers—the brief news items he wrote for Le Matin in 1906—presents a special challenge. This is true partly, I take it, because of what you refer to as the “dynamism and tensile strength” Fénéon imparts to what would otherwise be a rhythmless reporting of facts. Which of the faits-divers included in the translation presented the greatest challenge in terms of conveying dynamism and tensility? What made the item—or items—so difficult to translate?

Luc Sante: It’s hard at this late date to reconstruct the specific process of translation, especially since I did it so fast. It was like a jigsaw puzzle, shifting clauses around for the smoothest fit, as well as of course finding equivalent words and phrases matching the original in meaning and color and pitch all at once. Languages never ever match point for point, and in the close confines of Fénéon’s items there was very little wiggle room. But still, Fénéon worked pretty well in English, I think. This is far from true for all writers; some writers pretty much elude translation because their thinking processes are so intimately linked to the French language—or the English or any other—that you can’t remove them from context without violence.

“I can’t remember plots to save my life.”

Guernica: I see an affinity between Fénéon’s translated faits-divers and the cadences of some of your earlier work. I’m thinking in particular of “Résumé,” the first chapter of The Factory of Facts. Of course, Fénéon’s faits-divers address public events while your own fait-divers (I also recall the chapter titled “Faits-Divers” in The Factory of Facts) address events a bit closer to you. What kinds of adjustments, if any, are required as that cadence is applied to discussions of subjects far and near?

Luc Sante: I’m often stingy with words. Early in my writing career I noticed that I would apparently be trying to get the entire matter of whatever I was writing about into the first line of my text, and then I’d have to comb it out to make it intelligible. It’s a difficult process, writing. I like whenever possible to make every word do as many tasks and carry as much weight as possible. I regularly have to stretch to cover 1,200 words or 2,500 words or whatever—and even then I like nothing better than editing pieces down to the bone. So the bare telegraphic style comes to me very naturally.

Guernica: I’m sure a lot of the simply unnecessary gets left out in the bare, telegraphic style. The silences typical of that style are often loaded with the essential as well.

Luc Sante: Yes, it’s a mode I’m comfortable with. Leaves out the chitchat and goes for the gusto, and it’s an excellent way to plant bombs unnoticed along the roadside.

Guernica: You suggested in response to an earlier question that your attempts at novels haven’t worked out principally because of your imperviousness to story. I was going to ask what now seems like a very silly question about the telegraphic style as another possible hindrance (I suppose at the level of word count, the telegraphic style wouldn’t lend itself to novel writing though it very well could lend itself at other levels). Instead: please tell me a little more about your imperviousness to story.

Luc Sante: I can’t remember plots to save my life. I never remember how movies end. I find it impossible to summarize novels I’ve read, say, within a month—but I actually don’t read all that many novels. On the other hand, I love process, and I like novels that are keyed to a process rather than a story, if you understand my distinction. The best kinds of novels are the rare ones in which the story and the operative metaphor are one and the same: Moby Dick, Don Quixote, Lolita. A recent example is Francisco Goldman’s The Ordinary Seaman. In those cases I understand and remember the story perfectly.

Guernica: Do you regard argument, which you mentioned alongside story and meaning a bit earlier on, as you do plot? I take it—and read it—that in the pieces collected in Kill All Your Darlings you are more attuned to critical processes than to argument.

Luc Sante: Argument is a rhetorical strategy that I enjoy but don’t use that often, in part because I find that argument for me implies that the work has already been done before I (metaphorically) put pen to paper, so that it becomes a matter of simple transcription. Plot is different. I don’t quite have a handle on that. But maybe it suffices to say that for similar reasons I would be absolutely unable to devise a plot and then execute it. I absolutely require not knowing what I will write before I write it.

Guernica: Kill All Your Darlings might be read as a collection of critical essays steeped in the personal. To whatever extent you distinguish between them, how do you understand the relationship between critical and personal modes of writing?

Luc Sante: Sometimes I get cynical and say that everything is work for hire, just laying pipe, but then I get idealistic and say that everything is personal. Both are true. I like work-for-hire because I like to be surprised, being confronted with something about which I hadn’t previously thought very much, but everything is potentially the occasion for something personal, even if it only actually works out that way about one-tenth of the time. I let subjects lead me where they will lead me. This is all a function of the intuitive and non-systematic way in which I seem to operate. Everything in Kill was commissioned, and some things took me by surprise. Of course, there have been many assignments that took me by surprise in the opposite direction—looked promising but led nowhere. Another matter is that I exhaust subjects for myself sooner or later. I’m a hard-core fox (as opposed to a hedgehog) and have no capacity for making a career out of one or two subjects. When I’ve been asked to revisit a subject it usually has resulted in my going on autopilot—unless I never quite plumbed the matter the first time.

Guernica: Your use of the word “surprise” brings to mind a passage from Oscar Wilde’s The Critic as Artist in which the character Gilbert suggests that analysis or exposition of a work of art takes place in a lower sphere of criticism; Gilbert favors—and I suspect you might as well—criticism that, as he puts it, sets out to “deepen [a work of art’s] mystery, to raise round it, and round its maker, that mist of wonder that is dear to both gods and worshippers alike.” In those instances when a subject looks promising but leads nowhere, do you most often attribute the difficulty in deepening the subject’s mystery to the subject, to yourself, to chemistry, to process, or to something else? In other words, what characterizes your encounters with subjects that won’t—I think I’m bastardizing slang here—roll deep?

Luc Sante: Yes! Great quote. I was recently trying to explain to some friends what I find objectionable or depressing about a certain breed of clever critic (no names, please). The sort that undertake to explain difficult or marginal writers and proceed to wrap them up neatly, domesticate them for consumption by magazine readers who consequently feel that they don’t need to read those writers themselves, that all the work has been done for them. I think Wilde—if you overlook the slightly moist and religious vocabulary—understands. But these days I seldom have subjects that lead nowhere because one thing experience has taught me is that enthusiasm will not make a piece. Only the existence of a problem will. I discovered this years ago when I was movie critic for a monthly, so that I might see thirty or forty movies in a month and have to pick one or two to write about. The ones that made good subjects were the ones I couldn’t resolve emotionally or intellectually after leaving the theater. If there was a problem I would have to work it out on paper, and that made for the sinew of the piece. The same logic applies pretty much to all writing, it seems to me. Everything that comes with contradictions is wood for my fire.

Guernica: I think problems are where it’s at too, but I’m surprised to hear you say that working out a problem—which could be understood to mean working to resolve a problem—makes for the sinew of your pieces on unresolved subjects. Doesn’t working out a problem—reaching resolution, solving the thing—put a damper on that mist of wonder Wilde refers to? If you don’t often strive for resolution in the usual sense, what does working out a problem mean to you in reference to writing?

“Anything I can resolve fully is likely to be insubstantial.”

Luc Sante: First of all, working out a problem provides for necessary friction, without which writing is pointless. It also makes for a process. I go through the sequence of my reactions in chronological order, trying not to leave anything out, since even the smallest details can contribute—I suppose in a sense it’s like detective work, possibly combined with court procedural. These things help me to understand the matter at hand, if only subjectively, but they do not guarantee a resolution—which may not be the point anyway. I may circle round the matter, sift the ashes, exhume the cadaver, lay everything out on the examination table—but that may still leave a core that I can’t quite penetrate. I’m relieved when that happens, in fact. Anything I can resolve fully is likely to be insubstantial.

Guernica: You’ve been blogging. What freedoms and limits do you find in writing that isn’t for hire but is public?

Luc Sante: My blog is dormant at the moment, for a variety of reasons. I enjoy the limitlessness of blog writing—being able to write about any damn thing at any time—but feel a bit at sea for the same reason. Constraint is as ever the mother of invention, and maybe I haven’t yet figured out a suitable set of constraints to impose on myself when blogging.

Guernica: So blogging is out of play for the moment. What kinds of wood are in your fire lately?

Luc Sante: I’m pretty deep into a book on Paris, which is the first of three books I have under contract (the second is a subjective view of the ’60s and ’70s—not a memoir!; the third is a short bio of Walt Whitman for one of those short-bio series). So I’m reading a lot of French books famous and obscure, and slowly translating a book called Paris Insolite, by Jean-Paul Clebert. And I will revive the blog sooner or later.

Suzanne Menghraj teaches writing in New York University’s Liberal Studies Program.

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