Swedish author Aris Fioretos has had a long and varied career spanning poetry, novels, essays, criticism, editing and translation. Currently based in both Stockholm and Berlin, Fioretos has linguistic links to both countries, growing up in a bilingual Swedish-German household in Sweden with Greek and Austrian parents. A professor of Aesthetics at Södertörn University and a Vice President of the German Academy of Literature and Language, Fioretos is steeped in the literary traditions of both countries and has translated widely between Swedish, German and English, including authors such as Hölderin, Nabakov and Paul Auster. He speaks about his essay Die Dichte Welt [The Density of the World], which reflects on the suicide of a friend on September 15, 6pm at Berliner Festspiele.
Describe your first memory of writing…
It has to be the note I left behind when, as a six-year-old, I ran away from home, hoping to find a more understanding world outside the village in southern Sweden where we were living at the time: “To Mother. I have esckaped [sic].” The misspelling was unintentional. In my backpack I had stored my favorite sweater, a loaf of bread and a roll of toilet paper. What more does a young escape artist need?
The three Ws: Where, When, Why do you write?
Anywhere. After sleep. Why not?
How do you get started (with the first sentence, a character, an anecdote, with a coffee or other substances)?
I rarely notice that I’ve started until some time into the work on a new novel. Until then, I collect impressions, stray scenes and phrases, bits of dialogue … Perhaps I even have the last sentence in mind, as I did with my latest novel, Mary. When these odds and ends begin to form a pattern, I realize I have embarked on a new alphabetical adventure.
Worst praise/favourite criticism about your work?
The worst praise must have come from a Russian friend of mine, who read a draft translation of one of my texts. Despite having turned nine novels by Vladimir Nabokov into Swedish by now, I don’t know a word of Russian, so I had asked him for advice. The translation, my friend told me, was characterized by an “elephantine grace.” Needless to say, the text never made it into print. To this day, I remain untranslated into Russian.
Books and politics: what should the connection be? What makes writers good/bad activists?
Literature is a slow medium. It takes too long to finish a book in order for it to amount to any conventional form of activism. On the contrary, as a writer, I believe you must cultivate your sangfroid.
If the theory is correct which was suggested by researchers at the National Tissue Repository in Bethesda, Maryland, a few years ago, the virus that killed millions of people at the end of World War One may have survived intact a few feet under ground in Longyearbyen, a village on the Norwegian island of Svalbard. In the local cemetery are buried the bodies of seven Norwegian miners, who died in early October, 1918. Cryogenically secured in the tundra, at a place where permafrost never deserts the ground, the virus might still be biding its time in dead human cell tissue. If so, thanks to modern biotechnology, the remains of the seven miners will eventually return in the guise of other-worldly emissaries, bringing us news of the Spanish Flu, the most lethal strand of influenza known to mankind. At least that is the hope of the researchers at the National Tissue Repository.
I trust writers might be able to learn from this example. Not that it is part of our job description to kill our readers, however few and far between they may be, but like the H1N1 virus, literature must be vital enough to remain infectious. If a book is not able to get under the skin of the person who holds it in his hands, it has no business being there in the first place.
Patience is key.
Your favourite literary character. Why?
In young years, I was hopelessly in love with Salinger’s Zooey. But to nurture an infatuation with a figure made up of letters? Forget it. Letters such as B and Y certainly have their attraction, yet I prefer the protrusions and crevices of real life.
A book you wish you had written…
It’s not a book, but: Song of Songs.
Best recent read…
Petigrilli’s cult classic Cocaine. Style rarely gets the better of life; here it does.
Choose an epitaph…
Frankly, I’d prefer to manage without a tombstone. (Granted, Bis bald would be appropriate. Ditto the quip of the Californian-Austrian who this year turned a Biblical 70 years: “I’ll be back.” But if hammer and chisel must be put to use, please: only name and years, otherwise nothing.
A question you wish we’d asked…
Have your pick:
- Is it possible that the sky has a valve?
- How many angels are there to a kilo?
- Can you cry without reason?
- Would you prefer to live only every other day if that would double your lifespan?
- Can a missed opportunity cause goosebumps?
- How far into another person do you end?
- Do you end at all?
- When have you had enough of everything you do not have?
- Who is the god of missing?
- Exactly how big is a heart?
The queries are culled from a novel I wrote 10 years ago, entitled The Last Greek. As to the final question, the main protagonist, a certain Yannis Georgiades, replies: “Imagine the fist of a man which at times behaves like a sparrow.”
Berlin: the first thing that comes to mind?