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Interview with Raymond Federman

Raymond Federman

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As interviewed by Mark Amerika for Altx.com, with the final two questions supplied by TJ Dietderich.

Q: When did you first realize that you were going to spend your life writing fiction? (was it a particular event? feeling? situation? epiphany/vision?)

A: It was in North Carolina of all places. I was in the Army (82nd Airborne Division) wondering what the fuck am I doing here with all these dumb hillbillies. In those days (let's say it was l951, I was still very dumb and naive and unprepared for the rest of my life and sentimental and full of complexes, but ready to take on anyone, anything, in those days I would easily do 100 push ups and 200 sit-ups without blinking), anyway, there I was at Fort Bragg with the 82nd wondering how the hell did I get into this shit, and one day, I remember very clearly it was raining cats and dogs and while all the fat ugly hillbillies were getting drunk or playing poker, I went for a long walk alone in the rain. In those days I thought I was going to become a great jazz musician, but it was obvious that I didn't have the right color skin to become one of the saxophone giants. It was raining, and I believe it was a Sunday because that day we didn't have to run around for five miles with full-pack on the back and butterflies in the stomach, and give me 20 and give me 30 the fat sergeant would scream every time we made a false move, no that day we were off. So I was walking in the rain feeling sorry for myself, and there was a movie at the Fort Bragg cinema, I forget what the movie was, a war movie, you know WWII movies, that's all they played in that cinema to inspire us to be better killers. Anyway, I went into that movie-house, and I don't know why when I came out, I was so depressed, but also so moved by the film I had seen, I wish I could remember what it was, I began crying in the rain, and it was then, right then, in the rain, on a Sunday, at Fort Bragg, in l951, I think it was December, or something like that, because in January 52 they shipped me to Korea to fight the war hoping that I would get killed over there so that they wouldn't have to pay me social security when the time came, and so it was then, right there on the spot, tears running down my cheeks mixed with the rain drops, that I decided, dammit, I'm going to become a famous writer.

Q: Of course your last answer reminds me of Take it or Leave it which you once told me was your favorite Federman book (mine too). It also reminds me of your writings/ digressions/ manifestos on Surfiction in that it's not that easy to differentiate between the word- being Federman and the various characters who float through your narratives (Moinous, Namredef, Frenchy, etc). Could you update us on the relevancy of Surfiction today -- an age of virtual irrelevancy for fiction as a genre -- and how do you assess the need to create YOUR OWN characterizations via the ones you WRITE OUT in your stories?

A: First of all, TIOLI (Take It Or Leave It, ed. note) is not only my favorite book, but it is probably my best book and my most complex. The book that has not yet been read -- I mean read for what it is: a monstrous collage/montage of discourses (real and unreal, original and invented, published and unpublished, etc.). A young man in Milwaukee has just written a long essay on Playgiarism in TIOLI. Very interesting piece. His email: matthewr@csd.uwm.edu.

Secondly, I do not believe in Surfiction any more because all the principles of Surfiction have been appropriated by second-rate third-rate and fourth-rate pseudo-fictionists who have no idea why they are using these principles. And besides Surfiction as invented by Moinous only applies to one book -- you may not know this but the Surfiction essay (first published in Partisan Review in 1973, then expanded as a intro to the Surfiction book) was written specificlaly to Explain Double or Nothng (DON) to the world because I was so appalled at the way that book was being read. There is, in fact, only one real Surfiction novel, and that's DON. One could say that TIOLI is the last great Surfictional novel. After that Federman shifted to what can only be called Critifiction. But that's another story.

One thing must be made clear to those who are interested in Federman's work. Federman does not invent characters. The notion of character is obsolete for him. Federman invents voices -- only voices. Characters belong in old-fashioned realistic 19th century novels. Federman, federman (with a small f), moinous, namredef, B One, or whatever he calls his voices, these are only voices. the problem is that no one really listens to Federman's voices, people want to see (there is a difference between seeing and hearing -- all great fiction is music and therefore must be heard. Fuck seeing!) the substance (the story?) when they should be listening to the music (the shape of the sentences).

Q: Tell us about your concept of pla[y]giarism, when it came to you, what do you think caused it to appear as an essential part of your practice, etc. You know, a lot of young writers, me included, are attracted to the idea of doing away with copyright altogether -- especially in cyberspace. I suppose being an old writer from the old world (of books), you would find this idea of anti-copyright repulsive, yes?

A: Plajeu: I cannot explain how playgiarism works -- you do it or you don't do it. You're born a playgiarizer or you are not. It's as simple as that. The laws of playgiarism are unwritten, it's a taboo, like incest, it cannot be legalized. The great playgiarizers of all time, Homer, Shakespeare, Rabelais, Diderot, Rimbaud, Proust, Beckett, and Federman have never pretended to do anything else than playgiarizing. Inferior writers deny that they playgiarize because they confuse plagiarism with playgiarism, not the same. The difference is enormous, but no one has ever been able to tell what it is. It cannot be measured in weight or size. Plagiarism is sad. It cries, it whines. It always apologizes. Playgiarism on the other hand laughs all the time. It makes fun of what it does while doing it.

That's all I can tell you today. Tomorrow I may be able to tell you more. But to illustrate what I mean, here is a piece of playgiarism I performed today. A certain H (his name is of not consequence) sent me via e-mail, from Vienna [for the sake of realism], a piece of criticism concerning a fiction I sent to H -- the piece, or I should say the two versions of the piece describe two rooms [one dark, one light] in which a gesture was performed, and so on [as presented below]. As soon as I received H's criticism I began the process of playgiarism which of course always involves the process of reading [you cannot playgiarize what you have not read or heard], and soon I had written my one daily piece of what I now call Ficticritifiction. H took my fiction and wrote a criticism of it and I took his criticism and made a fiction of it. In other words, a very important aspect of Ficticritifiction is that it leads the reader back to the original fiction, but not in a self-reflexive fashion as it has erroneously been explained these past two or three decades. Playgiarism is not self-reflexive. How could it be? How can something reflex itself when that itself has, so to speak, no itself, but only a borrowed self. A displaced self. If this is getting to complicated, too intellectual for Amerika, then let me put it in simpler terms -- on the Walt Disney mental level: Playgiarism is above all a game whose rules are the game itself.

The French would call that Plajeu.

Q: The displaced self, the one that pla[y]giarizes so as to create a kind of laughter and forgetting, and whose Fictioncritifiction-a-day turns the world in upon itself (even though it has no itself to speak of), makes sense to me. This is what I was getting at regarding anti-copyright and our ability to float through cyberspace (and what is cyberspace but the virtual reality your playgiarizing imagination navigates through on its mission to Surf-sample-manipulate [don't forget this dictum Federman, it will become famous one day!]). But on a different subject, and since Alt-X has a huge international audience interested in writers like Beckett, Burroughs, De Sade, Surfiction and all of the emerging Avant-Pop writers, tell us about how your work grew so popular in Germany. What is it about the scene in Germany that makes them more sensitive to your work than the commercial by-products of an America gone crazy?

A: First my Dear Amerika you must understand that I do not forget -- I never forget. Milan Kundera, that over-rated displaced writer wrote the book of laughter and forgetting. I never forget, and that is why I can laugh -- laugh the laugh laughing at the laugh -- that is to say laugh at human idiocy, human savagery. And by the way, I do not float in cyberspace. I invade c-space, I corrupt c-space. Just to float in it does not interest me. And that leads me in fact to your question about the success of my work in Germany.

My work is successful in Germany because it does not simply float there, it invaded Germany, it corrupted Germany, if forced Germany to look at itself through my books. One would be tempted to say that Germany loves Federman because Federman is a survivor of the Holocaust. Yes the Germans love a survivor -- especially a survivor who does not really accuse them directly -- especially a survivor who is an optimist, who can laugh and make them laugh -- laugh tears.

That's perhaps one reason. But that's not the essential reason. After all my work does not really deal with the Holocaust -- no sentimentality about it, not statistics, no horror. My work is really about the post-holocaust, what it means to live the rest of your earthly existence with this thing inside of you -- and I don't mean just me, I mean all of us, wherever we may be -- those who experienced it, those who think they experiences, those who survived it, those who did it, those who witnessed it and said nothing, those who claim they never knew, those who claim it never happened, those who feel sorry for those to whom it happened, and so on and so on. The Holocaust was an universal affair in which we were all implicated and are still.

But that is not the real reason why the Germany loves Federman. They love F because F went to AmeriKa and there struggled and there suffered and there worked like a slave and there even starved and there became a writer a real writer and what he writes is Amerika and the Germans love to read about Amerika because they would all love to become Americans and forget their sordid history. Not that the American history is not sordid. But in America we are able to laugh at the sordid history of America because it is so laughable, so dumb, so naive.

First then: the holocaust or rather the post-holocaust or what I prefer to call the post-Hilter era. That's why they love Federman.

Second: because F writes about America and the Germans love America. But now we come to the real reason why F has a dozen books circulating in Germany (two of them do not even exist anywhere else), why F has dozen radio plays in Germany, and two more forthcoming, why F has two modern ballets in Germany, and one more in progress, why F has a couple of Jazz/Poetry CDs in Germany, and more coming, why F's novels have been adapted to various other medium, and why more books will be published, and his latest play will have it world premiere there, etc. and so on, and so on. The real reason is because the German have recognized that F is a fucking good writer, and that F is not only a fucking good writer, but that he became a fucking good writer in a borrowed language. The Germans love the English language, they all speak it better than the Amerikans, and they admire a writer who is capable of working in a language that is not his own.

But that's not all. The Germans respect thinking, kulture, intelligence, intellect, they admire a thinking being. In America if you are intelligent, if you have knowledge, if you think too well, they treat you like a sick person, they think you have a brain tumor, and immediately they want to operate on you. Just go see the movie with Travolta called Phenomenon. A decent movie, a nice movie that peddles a scary message. But there is more, I mean why F is so successful in Germany -- and when I say successful, I don't mean in terms of the number of copies the book sold -- we not talking blockbuster here or best-seller, we talking fame.

Alles Oder Nichts (l986) translation of DON sold about 25000 copies and is still going strong. The US edition sold 3000 copies in 20 years, and the fucking FC2 idiots who reprinted the book in a beautiful new digital edition don't know how to sell the book, it didn't even get reviewed. How idiotic. But what is important about the German edition of DON is not how many copies it sold, it's the fact that it got some 75 reviews in the major newspapers, and won two prizes. For a totally unreadable, unmarketable book that's not bad. I will not go through the list of all the books, but what these reviews and articles, and books (yes there are four books written about Federman in Germany, and several doctoral dissertation) all admire in F's work is the quality of the writing, the daring of the writing, the blasphemy of the writing, the effrontery of the writing, in other words the beauty of this laughterature.

And then, also, this should be mentioned, German girls love F's book more than German men. There must be a reason, but that one I cannot understand. But I know this first hand, the girls F has known intimately in Germany have all told him that they think he is a great writer. That reading his books is like fucking with him. I am quoting here.

Q: Have you had the same success in other countries?

A: My novels have been translated into a dozen languages besides German: Italian, Romanian, Hungarian, Greek, Polish, Dutch, Hebrew, French, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese. Yes even in Chinese, two books. Can you believe Take it or Leave it in Chinese. A beautiful edition. The Chinese even managed to reproduce exactly the mad typography of the book.

But suddenly it's in France that's it's happening. The past two years twelve of my books have been published in France by two different publishers. One in Paris, Al Dante, who does the novels. Another in Marseille, Le Mot et le Reste, who does the poetry and other things.

For 30 years the French ignored my work. Here let me tell you the sad story. In 1974, I published a novel I had written in French. It was called Amer Eldorado. It was published by the famed Éditions Stock, a very good publisher, and the book got great reviews and did well for a while. But then, inevitably, Éditions Stock got bought out by a big mercantile publisher and the novel disappeared. Over the years I tried to get it reprinted but no publishers in France were interested. In 2001, one of my German publishers in Berlin brought out, in French, a new edition of the book now entitled Amer Eldorado 2/001. I had totally rewritten the book. The original 1974 edition was 177 pages. The 2001 edition published in Berlin is 330 pages long. But of course, the book being in French it barely got noticed in Germany.

I gave a copy of that book to a friend of mine in France. A poet. And he showed it to a young woman who right now is considered one of the best and most innovati ve fiction writers in France. Her name is Nathalie Quintane. After she read the book, she wrote me saying: Who are you Federman? Why is your work not known in France? Your are speaking directly to us - to my generation [Nathalie is 34], and we want to do the kind of things you do in your books. I am going to make you known in France! [My translation]

And she did. Not only she found me my present publishers, she wrote articles about the German French edition of AE2, in which she said that it was a shame that Federman should be a success in Germany and ignored in the country where he was born. She went on a radio programs to praise the book, and tell everybody to read Federman.

As a result the books kept appearing one after another, and articles kept being written in all the major newspapers asking where the hell has this great French writer been for the past 30 years. Liberation, the most read newspaper in France devoted 3 pages to l'oeuvre Federman. Le Monde, le Figaro, and even l'Humanité [the communist newspaper - my father the old Trotskyist would have loved it] published articles about this Great French writer who wrote all these books in exile and now return to his native coutry with a wheelbarrow full of books.

And now every other day I get a invitation to come and read here, or to participate in a literary festival there. And Amer Eldorado 2/001 [the new French edition] is being adapted to the stage, and the play has already been officially accepted for the famed Avignon Theater Festival where there will be 10 performances in which Federman himself will appear as an actor/author.

It's dizzying. Suppose the French decide to name a street after me? Here, the other day I wrote a little poem about that. I'll stick it here.

Rue Federman

so you want a street
named after you in the old country
after you change tense

Rue Féderman

so be it

but now look at all that traffic
it's madness here

it's true on
second thought
I prefer a cul-de-sac



Now listen to this. The French Embassy in the U.S. heard that there is a French writer who is leaving in San Diego and writing these incredible books that are the talk of France right now, and so the French Embassy decided that I should go to Bordeaux to participate in a Poetry Festival, and then on to Marseille and Nice, and Avignon, and Paris, to give readings, etc. And so the French Embassy flew me business class to France and covered all my hotel expenses and trains and even gave me a per diem for my stay in France. And so I spent two weeks in France. And I jsut got back last Friday. Friday, March 17, 2005.

This is happening now. I mean this discovery of Federman by the French. Maybe a bit late, but .... Quitte ou Double as Double or Nothing is now called in France.

Q: And what are you working on now. Or do you have time to do any work with all that success?

A: Since I retired from SUNY-Buffalo six year ago and moved to San Diego, I have never written so much. I am working on three books right now.

Well, one is finished. A bilingual collection of fragments of writing in all kinds of known-genres and unknown-genres which I wrote since 1999, when I moved to California. The book is called: Loose Shoes & Smelly Socks. I think it's unpublishable.

The second one is almost finished. It's about Samuel Beckett. Not a cacademic book. A memoir. A collage of various pieces I have written over the years about my 20 years friendship with Beckett. The book is called Detritus: Sam & Me.

And the third a novel, tentatively entitled Out of the Foxhole. The story, if there is a story, begins where Take it or Leave it ended, and where Smiles on Washington Square started. It's about the three years Frenchy/Moinous spent in the Far East. In Korea during the war, and then in Tokyo.

There is one other book in progress which I should also mention. My biography which I am doing with Larry McCaffery. I say doing because I am not writing it, I am speaking the story of my life to Larry who records it. We have now more than 40 hours of tapes. The book that Larry will eventually write will be called The Final Version of my Life.