Peter Spielberg was born in Vienna. He has been awarded fellowships in fiction by the New York Foundation for the Arts and by the National Endowment for the Arts. His FC2 books include The Noctambulists & Other Fictions, Hearsay, Crash Landing, The Hermetic Whore, and Twiddledum Twaddledum. The following is excerpted from an electronic interview for the FC2 newsletter.
Peter Spielberg on …
… The Noctambulists, his latest book:
The Noctambulists is a selection of stories written after the publication of my previous collection. Two of the stories were written in the mid ’80s; the others in the ’90s. Combined they were meant to deal with fin de siècle angst and point forward to the hazards and follies of the coming century.
Since the publication of my first collection of stories, Bedrock (The Crossing Press, 1973, unfortunately out of print), the mood as well as the mode of my fiction has often been compared to that found in the works of Kafka. Who am I to deny his influence? Consciously or not, any fiction writer who has read Kafka’s work will be infected. In my case there is a cultural connection. Despite having spent my adolescent and adult years in the U.S., I have never felt completely at home in this climate. My sensibility, my Weltanschauung, is more European than American.
My formative years were spent in Central Europe, where I read Grimm’s Tales (the un-Disneyfied, un-defanged version) in German and cut my milk teeth on the cautionary tales of Der Struwwelpeter like all naughty German-speaking children since the mid-19th Century. Add to that my having experienced and luckily survived the Kafkaesque nightmare of Nazi persecution first in Vienna, then in Prague …
There is, of course, a thematic connection as well: alienation, loneliness, humiliation, abandonment, existential fear, arbitrary punishment, father-son power struggles, archetypal guilt, sexual guilt, and guilt of survival.
… other influences:
One could just as easily invoke Dostoyevsky, Beckett, T. S. Eliot, Auden, Celine, Sartre, and Camus. I would not deny the influence these writers have had on me. Let me add Jonathan Swift and Nathanael West (the American novelist whose view of life I feel closest to).
When I take your question of influence a step further, we bump against the many literary references in my work that I have used as ironic juxtaposition or structural scaffolding (thank you, J. Joyce) or thematic reinforcement.
— The epigraph of “A Happening” (in The Noctambulists) from Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” serves as a clue — or a false clue — to the fate of the protagonist and raises the possibility that the story which follows his seemingly failed suicidal leap is a fantasy much like that of the condemned hanged man’s in Bierce’s story.
— Imbedded in the texts of Bedrock, The Hermetic Whore, and Twiddledum Twaddledum are echoes of Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter (“Slovenly Peter” in its English version, familiar to all well-bred British children). The cover of this children’s classic is reproduced on the title page of Twiddledum Twaddledum (and used as the dust jacket illustration of the U.K. edition).
— Pankraz — the name of the defeatist, sullen anti-hero of Twiddledum Twaddledum — points to a novella by the 19th-century Swiss author Gottfried Keller, “Pankraz Der Schmoller” (i.e., the Sulker). And (Kafka once again) one of the main structural supports of this absurdist Bildungsroman is Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika, which, as you remember, deals with the adventures of a teenaged Middle European immigrant in a fantastic America.
… the box:
Categorizing an author by typing him (or her) or noting a kinship to a well-known author can be useful, especially to readers unfamiliar with an author’s work. Hence, Reader A may pass the book by because she’s had enough of Hemingway-like stories while Reader B buys the book because that’s the kind of fiction that interests him. Professional critics tend to use this kind of typing to reinforce their interpretation of a work and to place it historically, to assign it its place in the cannon. Blurb writers use typecasting as a form of shorthand, a device welcomed by publishers who like the free ride the dropping of big names offers.
Authors should take little notice. If the shoe fits, fine. It’s off to the ball to dance the night away. Ditto if it raises his stature by the invocation. But if it pinches … or if the alleged influence implies a lack of originality, an author mustn’t flinch to have a couple of toes cut off when his feet are forced into a size 6 shoe.
Anyway, authors can’t respond to dust jacket blurbs or to reviews. They shouldn’t. They’ve had their say. The text speaks for them. The need to explain or to defend is an admission of failure. (The first lesson that a participant in a writing workshop must learn.)
… his boxes:
As to the “fairy tale feel” to my books, I think fable-like comes closer. To lighten that categorization, add a cup of humor to the mix — absurdist riffs as well as gallows humor. To cut the whimsical element in what might be called surreal, add a spoonful of bitterness, a pinch of cruelty. The dominant tone tends to be ironic.
The language, syntax, pitch (tone?) — my voice: a perceptive (or was it hostile?) reader once asked me, “Do you write your stories in German first before translating them into English?”
Make what you will of that. Fiction with a foreign accent, perhaps. Yes, there is a satiric intent in much of my work, the exploration of human foibles and of societal idiocies or worse.
I consider myself as much a modernist as a post-modernist. Although I enjoy using metafiction’s trickery (many of the devices, by the way, are as old as the Dadaists or older, say our mid-18th-century Tristram Shandy), I have tried to ground the surreal on a foundation of plot and characters. The funhouse mirror I hold up reflects reality, distorted, to be sure, but reality all the same.
My impulse to write comes from my guts. Like Faulkner, I’m demon driven. After the demon has been assuaged, I like, all authors, want my work to be read and appreciated.
Understood? Yes, one hopes that the overall intent comes across, that, for example, the protagonist in a first-person narration is not mistaken for the author; that black humor is taken with a grain of salt. And it’s a great pleasure when a reader appreciates the mood of a story or catches on to a reference which though not essential to following the novel’s plot adds another dimension to the story (for example, that the river into which the failed artist and would-be suicide in “A Happening” leaps is the River Styx; even better, if the reader also hears an echo of Kafka’s “The Judgment” which ends with its protagonist dropping from the bridge to his death). Like Joyce, one is always longing for the ideal reader.
The springboard usually is an image, a scene (a fly circling a dangling strip of yellow flypaper was the trigger for my novel Hearsay), or a string of words, or an opening sentence, or rarely but best of all: the final scene, the closing words.
Qualms, if any, come after publication. Should I have cut this passage or rephrased that one? Did I offend a former lover or my Cousin Alphonse by basing an anecdote on her / his character without sufficiently changing the circumstances or features?
Too late! The harm is done. A caveat to would-be novelists! It may not be writ in stone, but …
I am sweating over a novel with the working title of French Leave.