Unprecedented times call for new forms, which is why I suggested to Greek writer Amanda Michalopoulouthat we format our “interview” as a “dictionary.” I learned this from the writer Hilary Plum a decade ago when she interviewed me in this form. I supplied the words, Michalopoulou filled in the definitions.
My hope was to invite Michalopoulou to forge another way of speaking about her novel, God’s Wife (published by Dalkey Archive Press, translated by Patricia Felisa Barbeito). This is her third book in English translation, after I’d Like (2008) and Why I Killed my Best Friend (2014). And it is what the title implies: the story of a girl who marries God, lives by his side, and shares his secrets. It is a love story, a self-conscious meditation on writing and mortality, and a search of identity. According to LARB this identity “is both constructed and deconstructed in the novel in an exploration of faith, femininity, love, and desire, through a masterful interweaving of postmodern ideas about the self and writing.”
Dictionary Under Quarantine/Alphabet for a Pandemic knits quotes from the book with Michalopoulou’s take on the act of writing (“adjectives are opulent”), the relationship between reader and writer (“alliance”) and plenty more, including the ever-desirable satisfaction (“Rolling Stones revisited”).
May this dictionary, this alphabet, lead you into the strange, unparalleled, quarantined world of God’s Wife, at a moment when we, too, are living with the strangeness of quarantine.
Alliance: The suspension of disbelief between readers and writers and between strangers in general (see Xenia)
Betrayal: act of disloyalty. As in “ You no longer love Him? Is that why you’re betraying Him? I’m not betraying Him any more than He already betrays Himself”. (see also Love)
Crisis: n. of Greek origin. Decision, choice, interpretation of signs, judgment (in ancient Greek). Hippocrates used it in a medical context to indicate the turning point of a disease, leading to recovery or death.
Deviate: A distance from what is expected. When people still used to walk in the streets randomly, the Swiss writer Robert Walser, an idler of sorts, treated paths and forests as a carpet, asking his famous question; where would I be if I was not here?
Effervescent: The quality of time during quarantine. The sound of vitamin c dissolving in water.
Fury: Extreme anger. As in “His way of converting the sorrow of separation into fury—a trait typical of my husband’s character”. (Again, scroll down and see Love)
Glory: Praise and admiration in equal parts. In the wedding scene, God’s Wife, to impress Him with her piety, whispers the Prayer of the Hours: “Surround us with Your holy Angels, that guided and guarded by their host, we may arrive at the unity of the faith, and the understanding of Your ineffable glory.”
He stared at her in surprise. “Ineffable glory?”
“That’s what the prayer says. My aunt taught me.”
“Ineffable glory,” He repeated, bemused. “Do you think so?”
Heresy: People protesting against social distancing. God’s Wife protesting against her husband.
Indecent: sexually offensive. When God’s Wife is young she dreams of Her husband naked and wonders what would happen if the Angels were to lift their tunics and come at her, the entire flock of them at once.
Jeopardy: the world as we know it (synonym; in peril)
Kick: as in phrasal verb kick back. Suggestive of relaxing time, when all you want is to get out and run or shout; or both.
Love: The strongest human feeling, sometimes confused with its opposite. Difficult to describe while it lasts, but also afterwards. “ In the same way that statues in art books remind us what the body is capable of, so too the God of the Bible reminds us how small is the distance between despair and love”.
Money: Pieces of paper with a certain exchange value. When God and His wife leave their quarantine to travel into the real world she recalls “the feeling of wanting something for its own sake, for no particular reason; of money changing hands; of coming into ownership of an object”.
Notorious: In her youth, (see Youth) God’s Wife wants to tell her girlfriends she is already married to someone famous who likes His privacy. They rattle off the names of actors and soccer players. She pities their provincialism.
Opulent: Adjective. Adjectives are opulent. We just need nouns.
Property: “our; the pronoun of established couples, the delusion of shared property” says the Wife.
Query: Taxes, literary agencies, questions addressed to God.
Redolent: A garden, a madeleine, a personal index of smells. If you use this word you are probably not infected (anosmia -loss of smell- is associated with COVID-19).
Satisfy: Rolling Stones revisited
Tunnel: Freud. Sex. A bad metaphor for where God’s wife hides her pencil (in her vagina). A good metaphor in Alejandra Pizarnik’s poetry (“A song that I cross like a tunnel”).
Unison: A word we will soon start to forget, meaning together. “They wanted to know if God used an alarm clock in the morning and brushed His teeth after meals. In unison, they asked: “Does He swim in the lake? Does He work out? What are His thoughts on the Second World War?”
Violence: a violin exploding
Want: childish desire. “I know, you want to know how God conceived of matter before the invention of matter, light before the invention of light. How did He tell History before History. Was He in a hurry or did He linger over the details (birds’ beaks, human buttocks, sunsets)?”.
Xenia: In ancient Greece strangers were seen as gods in disguise. Everybody opened their doors to them without a second thought. And without wearing masks or gloves for that matter.
Youth: A period in life associated with immaturity, despair and impulsiveness. After youth comes a longer period associated with immaturity, despair and impulsiveness. God was born old (and tremendously impulsive): “To everyone else He was simply a man no longer in the first flush of youth: white mane combed back; bushy beard; thick grey eyebrows; serene, inscrutable eyes”.
Zeal: Enthusiasm mixed with excitement and luck of worry. ”When you are married to God, it is absurd to worry. He’s not going to crash His car, be murdered, or fall victim to fraud.”