“Imagining Our Own Death”: On Writing Times of Crisis

By Amanda Michalopoulou and Patricia Felisa Barbeito, published at Words Without Borders, on May 7th, 2020

Amanda Michalopoulou’s latest novel, God’s Wife, was published by Dalkey Archive Press in Patricia Felisa Barbeito’s translation late last year. In today’s interview, the author and translator discuss the novel’s themes of isolation in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, its exploration of gender dynamics and rebellion, and their own collaborative relationship.

Patricia Felisa Barbeito (PFB): God’s Wife came out in Greece in 2014, during the Greek government-debt crisis. In recent interviews, you’ve said that the book “sprang out of a feeling of frustration,” that you purposefully resisted allusions to “economic crisis” in favor of focusing on the workings of “disbelief,” “prayer,” and the need for “redemption.” I can’t help but be struck by the timing of the publication of the English translation, a mere month before another crisis beset the entire globe, and how it infuses these ideas with a new urgency. How does the book, and its focus on both the need and imperative to retreat from the known world and the commerce of everyday life, resonate for you now?

Amanda Michalopoulou (AM): Retreat has lost its very meaning and its prerequisite, freedom of choice, which was innate to monks and to most writers. Now that we all have to stay home, seclusion doesn’t work as a fantasy anymore. It’s the same in my novel: God, this introspective being, lives in Heaven, and his wife joins him deliberately. But when she misses human interaction, she knows she can find it out in the real world, dragging her husband along to show him real people, “shining silhouettes, pulsing veins, rippling muscles,” as she says. When they finally travel—strangely enough, they only visit China and Italy—she begs him to pay attention to people’s animal vitality, how they hug, how they eat.

I don’t know if writers have special affinities or a prophetic vein. Everybody creates catastrophic scenarios in their heads to control the uncontrollable. Deep down we know that extreme capitalism comes with some kind of forfeit. When society takes such a toll on the world and extinguishes so much life, society itself will be threatened with extinction. It is the simple law of cause and effect. But I don’t find it useful or necessary to write about the real world the exact moment that strange and terrifying things happen. We have journalists for that. Writers should wait, assimilate, and report from within. In this sense, God’s Wife is about every existential crisis. You change the triggering event (financial crisis, pandemic, whatever) and the story still works, hopefully.

PFB: It’s interesting that these triggering events are often described as unreal, as fictional. Allegory provides a necessary imaginative distance that can be both escapist and empowering. This is, in fact, exactly what happens to God’s wife: she falls asleep while playing a game with her petty tyrant of a brother and wakes up in the ultimate authority of God’s kingdom. Her entire world is turned upside down, and she has to reinvent a sense of self and agency through her writing. So the novel is very much a coming-of-age story presented as allegory. What was interesting to you about the coming-of-age scenario as allegory?

AM: Recently, I happened upon an essay by Rebecca Solnit. She explained that when she was very young, she “disappeared into books like someone running in the woods.” I thought about God’s wife, whose first act of rebellion is to run to the woods at night to meet the Beasts (the way she refers to the fierce animals that live in the forest near God’s home). She experiments with them like a teenager would. We know a lot about the sexual coming-of-age of boys—I am thinking of James Joyce and Philip Roth here, how they described their awakening—but we don’t know as much about women. People in Greece asked me, how could you write about orgies and fantasies, wasn’t this uncomfortable? And I thought discomfort, shame, even guilt is a part of the human condition. Only by describing it honestly do we move forward. Isn’t it after all what we expect of any bildungsroman? To learn how the protagonist embraces change?

PFB: Speaking of change, so much of your work is historically located—I’m thinking of Why I Killed My Best Friend (set so explicitly in post-dictatorship Greece) and, most recently, Baroque (your own coming-of-age autofiction that simultaneously charts major changes in Greek culture in the last fifty years). In fact, your work pays close attention to the idiosyncratic ways in which we are shaped by both politics and the material world. What drew you to write about a world, God’s kingdom, that is beyond both time and the vulnerabilities of the flesh, a place without “dead branches” or “rotten fruit”?

AM: Every book has its politics. The novels you mention are deeply rooted in time, in the Greece of the seventies and eighties and also in the years before the Olympic Games, in the ways money, corruption, and ambition shaped Greece back then. But when I thought about God’s Wife and its basic, simple, fairy-tale-like question—what would happen if God had a partner?—I realized the story couldn’t function within the usual constraints of time and space. After all, I wanted to recreate God, the greatest fictional character known to humanity. I should place him in an inconceivable dimension and describe space without space, time without time.

“Once upon a time, God was talking to Himself,” I wrote in my notebook. I revisited a common childhood fantasy and imagined him all alone on the brink of chaos. But “Once upon a time” and “Himself” mean something God cannot comprehend. “He” doesn’t understand us more than we understand “him.” One of the most intriguing questions was how God would appear to his wife, how he would take a recognizable form without diminishing his divinity. So I imagined him as a hologram; when his wife tries to get hold of him she touches thin air. He is so absent in his presence. Time and space come into existence when God abandons his state of being in order to create. In the novel it was all a game to him, the arched neck of the camel, snail shells, and penguins. I liked the idea that he created snow or the human ear out of pure aesthetic pleasure. That the artist within him rejoiced at the setting sun, the sculptor at knees and joints. It is always the book and its special questions that dictate the quantity and quality of realism involved.

PFB: Like so much of your work, God’s Wife focuses on a woman protagonist grappling with the difficult process of self-discovery, in this case through writing. Indeed, the novel often reads as a tribute to a host of literary and artistic predecessors—from Simone Weil to Hélène Cixous and Carolee Scheemann—who exemplify women’s authorship and creativity. What do you think of the term “women’s literature” and how would you locate your work within this canon? What is the role and influence of the formidable tradition of women’s writing in Greece on your work, which includes such strong and idiosyncratic voices as Margarita Karapanou, Maro Douka, and Ersi Sotiropoulos?

AM: I love the writers you mention. Karapanou has shaped a surreal world of her own, Douka shaped history into fiction, and Sotiropoulos is a true stylist. I would add the poets: Matsi Hatzilazarou, Jenny Mastoraki, Eleni Vakalo (superbly translated by Karen Emmerich). I wouldn’t call that “women’s literature,” as this has strange connotations of sentimentality in Greece. I believe in women’s voices; women probably understand best what Ilse Aichinger wrote: “If I add my fear to myself, Ι am entitled to use the majestic plural.” There is a distinct timbre of grievance there, of protest. Perhaps this is the reason why God reads mostly men in my novel: Voltaire, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, and only occasionally some Akhmatova.

To come back to women; I am thinking about how Colette and Anna Burns recreated the language of young girls, Alice Munro and Doris Lessing that of older women. How, from Sappho to Virginia Woolf to Anne Carson, women reinvented gender expectations. There is this whole map, this exclusive territory built by women: the plantations of Jean Rhys, the desert of Clarice Lispector, the village of Annie Ernaux, the island of Melpo Axioti, the castle of Shirley Jackson, the church of Marilynne Robinson, the square of Mercè Rodorera, the hotel of Edna O’Brien, and in the room, on the table, the bottle of Lucia Berlin. And you travel there by the airplane of Rachel Cusk. I could go on forever.

Women feel and suffer and fantasize differently. I know this, I was always surrounded by women; my grandmother, my mother, my aunt, my sister, my daughter, my girlfriends. I had a reclusive father; women in my family always provided words. But even their silence was different, full of rage, bitterness, or despair. This helped me learn to include pauses in my texts, ambivalence, characters who speak without speaking. God’s Wife has been created with this in mind, how a girl grows disappointed and what she can do to gradually get rid of disillusionment. In most of my novels and short stories women hesitate between extreme discipline and freedom. Now that I think about it, aren’t those two the fundamentals of creation?

PFB: But also of rebellion, the word that warms God’s wife’s heart, as she says at one point in the novel. In fact, defiance, disobedience, acting out, a certain kind of “ungodliness” are all motifs in this novel.

AM: Let me use here Ursula K. Le Guin’s exquisite irony. She wrote about the universal pronoun, the generic “he,” and about women before the invention of women. She compared the idea of “Manness” to the Hemingway prototype, as if she were the rebellious God’s wife talking to God. Le Guin apologizes for not having a gun and for writing sentences “with all this syntax in them. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax.” I thought in retrospect that this is how God speaks in my book, with very short, very manly sentences. Whereas the wife has semicolons and qualifying clauses. So this is mainly a linguistic rebellion. When you talk about things you start changing them.

PFB: I was also struck by how you keep pulling the rug from under your reader’s feet. The beginning of the novel draws us in with a certain intimacy and familiarity, both of genre and character, that are quickly complicated by a series of disorienting changes: God’s wife becomes as multifaceted as the many different genres­—from travelogue to fable and philosophical treatise—that are referenced in the novel. Why is this disorientation so important to you?

AM: Because I am first and foremost a reader. The books that have shaped me, like The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, Jorge Luis Borges’s stories, Lydia Davis’s dreams, Coetzee’s essays in Elizabeth Costello, taught me that genre is a play dough. It is like the house of writing. In the kitchen you bake, in the bedroom you dream, but there are ghosts in the cellar, a terrible Aleph under the stairs, philosophy books in the office, fairy tales and a globe for daydreaming in the children’s room. Why stay in one place? Hopefully readers like playing and moving around. Or at least this is the kind of reader I am dreaming of.

PFB: One of the things that I found really poignant about the novel, as I point out in my translator’s introduction, is the prevailing sense of what theorist Svetlana Boym called a “reflective nostalgia,” which, for the narrator, exposes the longing for a happy family as an impossible fantasy. Boym describes this type of nostalgia as a practice that weds “longing to critical thinking” and represents a “strategy of survival, a way of making sense of the impossibility of homecoming.” What do you think of Boym’s definition of “reflective nostalgia”? And why is it so important to the narrator’s creativity and sense of self?

AM: I didn’t know this term, but a strategy of survival resonates with me, with us all right now. As for the book, I acknowledged the idea of happiness as an impossibility for God’s wife from the very beginning. Her traumatic past and her tendency to idealize the future are a recipe for disaster. God’s wife is a loner who marries another loner, and they are even more deeply alone together because they remind each other of their innate sense of futility. This is the cruelest quarantine because, unlike our situation, there is no foreseeable end to it. But they act differently in their ultimate confinement. She retreats into herself because of a traumatic past and he does so because of his self-sufficiency. When God’s wife comes to terms with nostalgia she stops idealizing. As you say, nostalgia becomes a reflection. God’s wife is ready to give back to the world, to share, to be exposed. And this is the point when problems deepen with her husband.

PFB: As a translator, I really enjoyed the challenge posed by the playfulness of language and register in this novel. On the one hand, there is the gradual shift from the more conversational and intimate tone of the first chapter to the incantatory and biblical tenor of the last. The novel also weaves together a thick tapestry of intertextual allusions, some very direct and literal, and others both allusive and elusive. In fact, I remember how at one point we had quite a debate about how to rewrite a certain passage in which the characters are quoting lines from famous novels, because we couldn’t locate the relevant lines in English! Anyway, what I’m curious about is how you set about building these progressions and allusions. Did the changes in register and voice unfold with the development of your character?

AM: This is a brilliant question and such a difficult one. When God’s wife is a young girl she is more naive and straightforward and impulsive, and as she grows older she acquires taste, she knows what she wants and why she is not going to get it. Not only because her husband decides everything but also because mortality means acceptance; hence the biblical tone.

This is a reinterpretation of my motives, of course, because I didn’t do it on purpose—I saw her grow older and disillusioned and I had to procure a new language for that stage of her life. I am not the kind of writer who knows the march of events in a novel, I write the book to find out, I write it like I would like to read it, all joy comes from waiting to see what happens next and why. This creates other kinds of problems, because sometimes I am even more impulsive than the young God’s wife herself. For instance, when the couple started at one point to talk with a potpourri from famous novels, I copied and pasted sentences from books I liked, passages that worked well and that I found in the library of the Bogliasco Foundation or in the Shanghai Writers’ Association, where I wrote parts of the novel. I didn’t think that someday the book might be translated, I didn’t take notes of the exact pages, and sometimes you and I had to go through an entire book like War and Peace or Madame Bovary and still not find the sentence I used. This is when we decided to reselect these sentences for the English translation. It was a whole page and we rewrote it together. I wonder if we are too, in a sense, Patricia, God and her wife! In the book my narrator says that in God’s language there are multitudes of untranslatable words, that she fights to translate his feelings and ideas. Isn’t that what a translator also does? To me this is the revolutionary aspect of a literary translation.

PFB: That’s funny, and indeed something that I found very provocative as a translator. God’s Wife not only points to the impossibility of (exact) translation, but also to the illusory quality of an “original” text, or put another way, she points to the fact that all texts are already translations. I certainly appreciated the implied invitation to play with the text, to regard the notion of faithfulness with a certain irreverence. I also love the sentences near the end of the novel: “One of my sentences will spring to mind as if it were yours. You will not be wrong: we created it together.”

AM: When I wrote this sentence, I was thinking of the way we read and appropriate other people’s thoughts in books and then don’t remember if they are ours or if we have just read about them. But you are right, in that very page you and I are both readers and writers in a translation vertigo!

PFB: God’s wife writes in a room of her own, in secret, in isolation, partly, of course, because she is forbidden to do so by her husband, yet it’s clear in the novel that this sequestered state enables her creativity. Do you need to retreat in order to write? Or do you see your writing as tied to and of the world?

AM: Both. It is the constant movement between being present and absent from the world that creates tension. The young narrator needs peace of mind, and when she finds it she looks forward to interaction again, the whole vanity fair. I used my life as a model here, because I know both worlds and I need them both. And I think we all do. God’s wife says farewell to her readers by encouraging them to meet flesh-and-blood people who say, “We’d love to have you over for dinner.” Rethinking this phrase in the context of the pandemic, I realize that we are moving toward another kind of nostalgia. A nostalgia for human skin.

PFB: This brings me back to the question I began with: you’ve said that you fight preposterous politics by going back to philosophy and using it as a prayer. How do you, as a writer, respond to preposterous times like these?

AM: Imagination has replaced reality, or at least what we assumed reality was. It feels like we all live inside a novel, reading and writing it simultaneously. People are writing diaries again; I don’t know about corona, but language is certainly a virus. It spreads everywhere. We need words the same way we needed fairy tales when we were children. We’re constantly swirling in this ontological whirlwind that we are supposed to see before dying and forget the rest of the time. People who believe in God may ask themselves why both the faithful and the faithless succumb to the natural laws that came into being when the world was created. In other words, why God is a dispassionate observer.

Art, on the other hand, doesn’t deny injustice, cruelty, and violence. To come to terms with the human condition we’d better accept it. Look ourselves in the mirror, really look, not take a selfie. Art and philosophy are the ultimate refuge, a life-and-death education. Lately, I think a lot about The Death of Ivan Ilych. Tolstoy wrote that scary little book, much scarier than the news about coronavirus. Instead of reporting other people’s deaths, Tolstoy reports our own, because as we read we strongly identify with Ilych dying. You will probably ask how we are supposed to move forward by imagining our own death, and I’ll say this is the only way, this is how we will be able to love and create again and find new meaning and be grateful.