"Comedy can certainly be bitter, but it’s also a way of forgiving people, including yourself." - We talked to Jonathan Franzen about anxiety, American families and humour.
What’s the matter with families? What’s wrong with this form of cohabitation?
I hope it’s clear from my novels that I like families; I certainly enjoy writing about them. Novelists are attracted to families because family bonds are powerfully charged with love, loyalty, and taboo—all of which lend themselves to efficiently creating dramatic situations. And, unlike the choices we make as modern consumers, family bonds are not elective. Even if you reject your mother, she’s still your mother—she’s still a powerful object in your psyche. If you’re interested in the psyche, as I am, how can you not write about mothers?
Why do you use dysfunctional families to portray the problems of society?
It’s not my intention to portray the problems of society—they are already well portrayed by any number of other media— and I don’t think the families in my novels even remotely qualify as “dysfunctional.” All the children in them are well loved, well fed, well clothed, well educated, and never abused, never neglected. It’s true that I’m interested in the anxieties and internal conflicts that modern life creates; and by writing about familial relationships, which tend to be universal and easily identified with (i.e. don’t require lengthy explanations), I can devote more attention to modern life.
You once said you became a novelist because you like to control things. How do you feel about the things you can’t control in your life or around you? Do you agree with the statement that you can control many people’s lives and beliefs with your works?
I do my best not to worry about things I can’t control. There will never be a good drug for anxiety, because anxiety is a primary human function—it helps us organize ourselves to deal with the problems we face. It helps us to prioritize our problems. If a drug knocks out anxiety, we become addicted to it; it becomes a way of not facing our problems. The lesson from this is that you 'should' be anxious—but only about things you can control. And, no, I don’t at all think that I can (or would want) to control people’s lives and beliefs. I’m a novelist. I want to bring readers pleasure.
Do your books change and shape American society? Do you believe in the notion that you can raise important questions and start a social discussion?
I consider it an act of artistic bad faith to try to teach something to a reader or to change a reader’s opinion about something. The most I hope for as a novelist, which is also the very least a novelist should aspire to, is to provide a sense of connection and recognition to other people who experience the world the way I do. If a reader feels slightly less alone and less ashamed after reading my work, the work has succeeded.
The most common themes for Hungarian contemporary authors are similar to the subjects you often deal with: dysfunctional families, broken lives and careers, failures and frustrations, ruining the myth of the fathers or facing their guilt. Yet as a Hungarian reader I find your bitterness and hopelessness much more likeable than the world represented by Eastern European authors.
It’s nice to hear that you like the flavor of my novels! But I would make a distinction between “bitterness” and “comedy,” and between “hopelessness” and “tragedy.” Comedy can certainly be bitter, but it’s also a way of forgiving people, including yourself; and tragedy may bring us up against the hopeless situation of humanity, but it can also make something beautiful and comforting out of the enduring unsolvability of fundamental human problems. I came of age as a writer when I was reading the great German-language Modernists, in particular Kafka. If my novels make sense to Eastern European readers, maybe it’s because Kafka and Rilke and Kraus and Mann cured me of my American optimism at an early age. (And learning comedy from the Germans: what an irony! And yet: few writers are funnier than Kafka.)
Your parents didn’t approve of art and considered it useless. To what extent was becoming a writer a revenge or a quirk?
Oh, no. They were great parents, in their way, and they gave me many more opportunities than they themselves had had. If anything, I felt sorrow and guilt for having chosen a line of work that they couldn’t understand, because they hadn’t had the opportunity to cultivate an appreciation of art.
You hate the phrase The Great American Novel, because no one even knows what it means. What does it mean to you? What makes something the Great American Novel?
To me, if the phrase means anything, it means that America is such a young country that it is still in need of strong mythologies about itself. It means that there’s a chance for a novelist to participate in the making of those mythologies. And this in turn means that the novelist has extraordinary freedom here—freedom from other, more ancient mythologies; freedom to invent from scratch.
Do you believe in the American Dream? Or is that an idealized and misunderstood concept like the Great American Novel?
I sort of have to believe in it, since I’ve been living it. My father’s father came to America as a manual laborer. My mother’s father was a bartender. And here I’m giving an interview to Hungary’s leading literary news magazine.
This interview was originally published in Hungarian at konyves.blog.hu.
Tags: Jonathan Franzen