What prompted you to write Babyfucker? Did it start as an idea, a sentence, question, challenge?
It wasn’t an idea. It was an image. An image in my head. A vexing image. An image that was just suddenly there. Without reminding me of anyone or anything. Without eliciting any feeling in me. That’s what was vexing. A challenge. And then suddenly the sentence was there. As a response to the image? As an escape? As self-defense? I don’t know. “I fuck babies.” And then there was the decision to attempt to extract something like a story from this terrible sentence.
Your prose is often hypnotic. Babyfucker evokes its own associative logic by which words generate further words, creating a dazzling rhythmic trip. Yet the beauty of your prose is offset by the disturbing nature of the text. Everything hinges on the monstrous “I fuck babies.” Why did you choose that sentence specifically?
I’m very happy to hear you use the word “beauty” to describe my prose. Because, as strange as it may seem, it was in fact my intention to make something beautiful out of this monstrous material. To write a beautiful story. In this anything but obvious intention a certain idea played a role: the idea that beauty as an aesthetic category can only have relevance today if it passes the endurance test represented by the most un-beautiful, revolting material thinkable. I had the somewhat megalomaniacal idea that I could transform shit into gold by writing. And there was the quite crazy corollary idea: only gold made from shit is true gold.
Ten years after Babyfucker I wrote an ode titled “Censure.” It opens with the verse “The black bar in front of the sex organ.” And the first verse of the second strophe reads: “The axe that – chop now! – that shatters beautifully in your hand.” There’s a similar crazy notion at work here: the notion that a murder weapon is transformed into its opposite in the last second, before the deadly blow, right when the axe holder is ordered to act. The axe, it is claimed, doesn’t just shatter, no, it even shatters “beautifully.” Hard to believe, isn’t it?
Few concrete details are given about the narrator or his surroundings. The reader must navigate the narrator’s grunts, groans, stutters, and mumbles. He repeats “O I am babbling.” It’s unclear whether his activities are a fantasy, dream, real-life telling, or all three, all at once. The instability of the narrator’s mental world mimics the physical world he perceives. Was the structure of the text set from the first draft or did it come to you through the writing process itself?
The character, the first person narrator only has one thing: his sentence. The problem with the sentence – beside the fact that it’s monstrous – is that it has no context. The only thing that the narrator does, and he does it incessantly, is this: he attempts to invent something like a context for this context-less sentence. Not to remember, but to invent. Babbling away, he produces and discards his “reality.” It’s meaningless to decide in this context whether something is a dream, a fantasy, or reality. Reality is simply what is narrated. And what’s narrated is only what could correspond to the sole certainty that is alleged to exist: “I fuck babies.” The “few concrete details” that the narrator tosses us are, at closer examination, just as fantastic as his grotesque hallucinations.
Take the very first sentences in the narrative. Sentence one: “I fuck babies.” The foundational sentence. The theme. The challenge. A sentence that isn’t just monstrous, but also fantastic. A sentence that no living person could ever say. The verb’s timeless present and the noun’s plural make the sentence one of trans-real monstrosity.
Sentence two: “Around my bed there are creels.” An attempt to invent a place for the first sentence where either A) the sentence is spoken; B) the narrated event occurs ; or C) the sentence is spoken AND the narrated event occurs. This sentence, read by itself, in version A, might be a “true story.” A realistic story could begin in this way: a real man lies on a real bed surrounded by real creels. For reasons that we expect to learn in the course of the story, the man utters THE monstrous sentence: “I fuck babies.”
Sentence three: “They’re crawling with babies.” This sentence has no place in a realistic story. A situation in which four creels surround a bed and in which each of these creels “crawls with babies” cannot occur in reality. CANNOT occur. A baby in each creel, ok. Two babies? Maybe, whatever. Three babies? Oh come on, stop already. Four babies? Shut up, you idiot. What does exist is: cans that crawl with worms (on fishing boats). But creels that crawl with babies? Definitely not.
But what if they were there, these babies? Dozens of them? Twelve in every creel? Ok, we are prepared to picture the impossible and against our better judgment accept the assurance offered by sentence four: “They’re all there.” But sentences five and six finally, definitively exceed every notion of reality that claims to be adequate to reality. “Always have been. Always will be.” These sentences create a context that corresponds perfectly to the timeless present of the sentence “I fuck babies.” In reality however NOTHING always has been and NOTHING is for always.
I don’t know if that’s an answer to your question. Hopefully it is. Reality is annulled after six sentences. At that point one can no longer distinguish “from the first draft” and “through the writing process itself.”
The narrator is someone who has lost his identity, is unsure if he even exists. There is the hint of a Linda and a Paul, but their reality is tenuous: “Linda. What if she asked me to substitute a stuffed dog for the dog. If she asked me something. Anything. Could I then claim she exists.” Throughout the text, the narrator struggles to regain his existence through his sentence: “I fuck babies. Therefore I am, maybe.” Repetition-as-comfort. He relies on his sentence to save him, yet by the end, he is unsure whether “I fuck babies” was ever “his” to begin with: “And what if its a mistake. A mix-up. What if I’ve been saying that Paul’s sentence the whole time. Because someone somewhere put in the wrong tape for me.” Can you talk a little about your intentions here?
That’s correct: the narrator has been afflicted with a feeling of total derealization. The world’s presentness, the existence of others, his own existence: nothing is guaranteed for him. Only one terrifying sentence – “I fuck babies” – is vested beyond any doubt for him with the reality index that the cogito had for Descartes. That’s why it’s “his” sentence. That’s why he clings to it as if it could save him and catapult him into existence. AS IF – that is the decisive point. It’s IMPOSSIBLE that a sentence like “I fuck babies” can help bring a human being into existence. Because it is necessarily an UNTRUE sentence. The person for whom it would be a true sentence – if we want to admit for a moment that such a creature exists – someone who would actually “fuck babies” serially, on a conveyor belt, many of them one after the other, many times a day: such a person would NEVER SAY this sentence.
To whom for heaven’s sake would he say it? On what occasion? For what reason? When the narrator says, “And what if it’s a mistake,” he begins to realize that “his” sentence, despite the index of reality it bears for him, might be the wrong sentence. He begins to realize this. He has already begun to realize this when he arrives at this “maybe” conclusion: “I fuck babies. Therefore I am maybe.” But it’s no more than the beginning of a realization. The narrator doesn’t get any further. It’s not even possible for him to pose a question about what problems the phenomenon of the “untrue sentence with reality index” might cause for understanding. WE, you and I, can of course come up with some thoughts about it. An idea might be: the sentence is not the thing that is vested with the reality index. Instead, it adheres to the sentence’s components, the individual words. To the fact that they come together in a constellation. It’s enough that a sentence occurs to the narrator (that a sentence is foisted on him) that brings together “I,” “fuck,” and “babies” – and that’s enough for the feeling of security – secure because it promises something like reality – to come about for him. But it’s also imaginable that the sentence “I fuck babies” connects the CORRECT words in a grammatically INCORRECT way. False presence. False plural. False voice (active instead of passive). And who would be responsible for the narrator’s blunder or parapraxis? Well, me of course, the author. Maybe I put the wrong tape in for him. Maybe on purpose.
Can you discuss the influence of Beckett on Babyfucker, and your writing as a whole?
I read Beckett intensively ten or twelve years before I wrote Babyfucker. But Beckett’s prose – the novels more than anything, and The Unnameable more than any other – has remained the non plus ultra of modern narration for me. Modern in an emphatic sense. Narrating as not narrating. No narrative as narrating in quotation marks. No “I,” no place, no time. Only this tentative speaking and writing movement that hints at a speaker, a place, a time only to immediately revoke them, hint again, and again revoke them. This tracing out of a trail left behind by a successive writing down and crossing out, by a crossed out writing down and a writing down crossed out. This textual tracing that is NOTHING (thus: “Texts for Nothing”), and, yet, no, absolutely NOT NOTHING. The incomparable, inimitable about Beckettian blackness is: this black is not just the blackness of a message, as black as it may be. It’s more that this black meaning turns into a black syntax. Into a meandering of sentences knotted together. Into a flowing, branching out, uprooted, blocked rush of black sentences. Phew. Such abominably imprecise metaphors! Sorry, Ms. Hall.
When Babyfucker won the second prize in the 1991 Ingborg Bachmann Competition, the book became one of the biggest literary scandals in recent years. Specifically, Jörg Haider claimed that the text was “inexcusable” and a “sexual perversion.” Were you surprised that many misinterpreted the book, focusing on the title rather than the subject matter? Has your view shifted over the years?
Here we are again with the contradiction of “beauty” and “monstrosity.” I really thought that everyone would clap and say: this author does such a wonderful job of making us forget how dreadful his topic really is. The aforementioned shit-gold-thing. That was A) naïve of me; B) but also a misjudgment of the text. Perhaps I even underestimated the “Babyfucker” by minimizing for myself the antagonism between beauty and monstrosity. Monstrosity can’t be beautified away by skillful prose pirouettes. Beauty doesn’t sublate monstrosity. And today I understand much better those people who find that there’s nothing beautiful there, nothing at all, just a triumph of monstrosity. However: the fact that there were people who read the text in all seriousness as “Confessions from the Life of a Pedophile” – that baffles me to this day.
How did you get involved in writing? As a young writer what books were especially influential? What texts do you continue to revisit?
I’ve always written. But intermittently, with long breaks. At first, poems and plays (when I was eight or nine). Then poems again (at sixteen, seventeen: Celan imitations, with poorly measured doses of obscenity). Then once an isolated prose text, under the influence of Proust: “An Attempt by Martin T. to Remember.” Then poems again (at twenty-five, twenty-six: undoubtedly imitations, I just don’t know anymore what of). Then during a long stay in Tuscany in 1978-1979 once again an isolated prose text: “The Condition of Mö or What and how a Story” (now, instead of Proust, Finnegan’s Wake, a book that, unlike the Recherche, I never read). I’ve only written regularly (more or less) since 1983. 1983-1988: poems. 1988-1995: prose. 1999-2010: poems.
I read most enthusiastically (idiotic superlative!) Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Beckett. And as far as poets go: Benn, Rilke (despite everything), and, more than anything, Hölderlin. And not to forget the “experimentalists”: Ernst Jandl, Oskar Pastior. Right now I’m reading Kleist.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’d like to return to prose after a fifteen-year hiatus. An epistolary novella maybe. A man went into the mountains fifteen years ago to write the following letter to a woman: “Dear B., I’d like to strike you down with an iron rod. Maybe I love you. If you feel the same way and your wishes conform to mine, then please please get in touch with me posthaste. We’ll discuss this matter together and make the necessary arrangements if everything works out. With warm wishes, Your Bernd.” The letter is, however, never mailed and never written. In further letters to B. from Bernd, he pursues, among other things, the question: why? The last letter could be the one in which Bernd lets B. know that the matter has been settled since he has just been struck down by a group of women with iron rods.
Translated by by Peter Smith, the 2009 German/English edition of Babyfucker is available from Les Figues.