Brigitte Desalm interview with DeLillo

Kölner Stadtanzeiger (KStA), 27.10.1992
Interview of Don DeLillo (D.D.) by Brigitte Desalm
Copyright Brigitte Desalm
Translated back by Tilo Zimmermann

Title: "Masse, Macht und die Eleganz der Sätze"
("Masses, Power and the Elegance of Sentences") Subtitle: Don DeLillo, one of the most interesting American contemporary writers, is introducing his new novel "Mao II" in Cologne.

KStA: Mister DeLillo...

D.D.: Please: "Don".

KStA: Are Don DeLillo and Bill Gray writers of the same kind?

D.D.: There are overlaps, but altogether they are not. We are neither similar in our biography nor in our literary work. He was actually the character who caused me the greatest difficulties during writing. I felt much more at home with the figures of Karen and Scott. For a long time, Bill Gray was like a stonewall, and I had to search for a breach.

KStA: The book puts forward the thesis of the writer having handed over his role in society to the terrorist. Is this polemics, science-fiction, or your personal theory?

D.D.: It is Bill Gray's theory, but worth a thought, I think. It is not only the terrorist, but the whole of dark sensationalism in our culture, which has conquered a part of the narrative traditionally taken up by the novel. To me "Mao II" is more a debate about the future. The book depicts a fight for human imagination - between persons representing individuality, and the anonymous masses, which so often have been the audience for totalitarian and military rulers or terrorists. The book is filled with masses of different kinds, in the streets and on the TV screen, with revolutionaries, sufferers and victims, and it poses this question: Who speaks to these people? Does the writer speak with the same influence he once had?

KStA: The interpretation of the writer seeing his influence in society dwindle could be misunderstood. Did you get any reactions from your colleagues?

D.D.: I have not yet had the impression of being misunderstood. After all it is not the search for influence which drives an author. What is influence? The way in which authors like Becket or Kafka have created a world which dressed, depicted, or duplicated our own world has led people to experience the world around them as "kafkaesque", creating a new adjective for it - for the real world. It was Kafka's own private vision ultimately taking hold of the world and influencing other writers. It has been said time and time again that writers have lost some of their power. So that is nothing new. The way in which news, gloomy and ever more horrible news about desastrous events of all kinds seem to have become the central story of our time is new indeed.

KStA: According to Bill Gray's theory, the most successful author of our time should be Salman Rushdie. So many are trying to kill him.

D.D.: What we remember of the Rushdie case is not so much the book but the death sentence. A new example of terrorists outdoing writing. On the other hand the interpretation of the book leading up to the verdict is a gross misunderstanding. KStA: Maybe an indication that when reactions to literature become numerous, they are often based on misunderstandings? Do you write for readers or for yourself?

D.D.: I think I'm writing for an anonymous person somewhere in a small town, who has an intuition for certain things in my books. I also write for myself, of course. I write for the sake of sentences. There is a sculptural beauty in sentences, I find. I'm using an old typewriter, because I love the movement of the type bar touching the page and forming letters. This pleasure is one of my central motives to write, to form sentences. The American language is especially grateful, it is so amazingly flexible. You can bend it or squeeze it, flatten it or inflate it. It's a challenge, that's why I write.

KStA: Thomas Pynchon, who would be one of Bill Gray's role models, does not seem to care much for his audience?

D.D.: I don't know Pynchon's attitude towards the audience. We cannot assume he does not care. I think any author needs some feedback, everybody needs to be heard. To me, audience means a small group of interested people, not a large number of consumers.

KStA: Often times, your characters are loners being turned into maniacs by the loss of sense and relations. Doesn't this also hold true for the writer, ultimately destroying his biographical life?

D.D.: Not necessarily, but it happens, though I would be careful comparing author-individuals with the individuals they create. It's true, my books deal with lonely, disappointed people living on the fringe of society, who sometimes turn to violence. But this is a consequence of me having seen those things in our culture. There seems to be a strange connection between unmoved young men and celebrities, who seem to invite a certain kind of horror, the horror which comes with power. Power that changes unstable persons, who seem to get high on it, the only possible release being violence. Lee Harvey Oswald was one of these. I do not believe that he shot Kennedy for a political reason. For the longest part of his life he was political, but at the end of his life it was revealed: instead of stepping into history, he stepped out of it and entered the realm of phantasy. That he actually became the murderer of Kennedy is in my view due to an extraordinary coincidence: since the presidential motorcade passed the building where Oswald worked, he could not possibly resist the opportunity. I think in the end his deed was an act of self-realization.

KStA: Do you like it when your work gets discussed in philosophical terms?

D.D.: Not really. I try to stay on a factual level, I strictly work, as I call it, on street level. This means I listen to people, I watch them walking, gesticulating. Everything stems from that. I am not sure whether I could or would like to give a theoretical abstract of my work.

KStA: From many of your books the conclusion could be drawn that the significant element of American society has become representation: wanting to see what others are seeing, which has led to the omnipresence of the media.

D.D.: I would like to start off from Walter Benjamin's famous essay "Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner Reproduzierbarkeit". ("The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction") He suggested that the more a picture is being reproduced, by photography for instance, the more the 'aura' of the work of art whithers. That was a long time ago. Today, I believe, we are at a point where reality itself is being consumed, used up, and the aura is all we are left with. We are living in some kind of aura, and reality is disappearing in a curious way. We walk through the street, we see an act of violence, a shooting, and say: Just like the movies. We have become unable to grasp something unmediated. KStA: What are your thoughts on election day, the 4th of November?

D.D.: I have already voted by mail, since I wont be in the states in November. I don't want to say anything about this publicly, except for one thing: I think people have started to realize over the course of the last twelve years that by definition the American president is the last to know the state of the union. And that is why so many people want change.

KStA: Have you ever been involved with Phil Joanou's project to make a film based on "Libra", which was being abandoned when Oliver Stone did "JFK"?

D.D.: No. This is typical for Hollywood, where names of people surface, get connected to "our project", as it were, and two weeks later something else happens, and everything is off again. At the moment there are again plans to make a film based on "Libra".

KStA: How did you like Oliver Stone's movie?

D.D.: I thought it was like Disneyland for paranoids.

KStA: You're an Italian-American?

D.D.: Yes. Both of my parents came from Italy, I was born in New York and raised in a mainly Italian neighborhood. I think this has given me an outsider's view of American culture. Maybe it's healthy for me as a writer to know that I am somewhat of an outsider and can thus observe more objectively.

KStA: As a writer, how do you deal with the hegemony of the visual?

D.D.: There are two categories of writers, it could be said: The author who is just a voice, and the one who is also creating a picture. I belong to the latter, because I have an acute visual sense. I am not an opponent of the proliferation of pictures in our culture, I am just trying to understand its impact. I like photography, I like to look at photographs and paintings. However, the difference between the world of pictures and the world of printed matter is extraordinary and hard to define. A picture is like the masses: a multitude of impressions. A book on the other hand, with its linear advance of words and characters seems to be connected to individual identity. I think of a child learning to read, building up an identity, word by word and story by story, the book in its hand. Somehow pictures always lead to people as masses. Books belong to individuals.

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