Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Vexed Texture of Text - a conversation with the "poet fictioneer" D. F. Lewis

D. F. Lewis is a master storyteller, a unique voice in visionary literature with a distinctive and idiosyncratic prose style. His stories, rich in neologisms, sometimes seem to be written in another language, a language that imbues his writings with qualities that can only please readers with an acquired taste. Author of over 1,500 published stories, he is the winner of the British Fantasy Society Karl Edward Wagner Award. Apart from being a writer, he is also known as the editor of the magazine Nemonymous and as the creator of Gestalt Real-Time Reviews (published online as Des Lewis).
I first came across Lewis' works through Thomas Ligotti Online discussion board, one of the venues where he publishes his flash fiction pieces known as "thingies". From among many of his memorable coinages for words and expressions I am particularly fond of the term "ominous imagination", which I think is very close to "visionary literature" discussed on this blog.
Des has agreed to answer several questions, which I am honoured to publish on Confusio Linguarum. In a short conversation we have covered a number of subjects, some of which are in the scope of this blog's focus.


Sławek Wielhorski: You have a very distinctive prose style, which at times makes one feel like one is reading in another language. Your stories - sometimes approaching prose poems - are more about sound, structure and rhythm than plot. On several occasions, you have referred to your writing style as the "vexed texture of text" and to yourself as the "poet fictioneer"*. Can you elaborate on these terms and tell us about the role of language in your stories?

Des Lewis: Thanks. I can't remember ever calling myself the "poet fictioneer", but I do like it! When referring to the "vexed texture of text", I am pretty sure that this was used first as a self-referential irony or avant garde aspiration within the fiction of my novella 'Weirdtongue' - a weird tongue, a rough abrasive surface of words whence meanings can be teased or worried, reaching meanings beyond the scope of smooth prose. I agree, meanwhile, that I have a propensity towards believing that language can be used magically, preternaturally, a power over the writer rather than the other way around. Not automatic writing so much as a creative, sporadically unequal partnership between two mysteries: the mystery of the self and that of the 'field theory' of Venn diagram semantics within a frame of prehensile phonetics (inwardly vocalised) as hung upon ever-ratcheting syntax. I don't think one can generalise about the actual relative plot or non-plot deployed by that shifting partnership. I think the strength of each plot depends upon its own participation in the journey, but I usually at least set it in motion. Nothing would happen without my igniting a plot. Some of these plots turn out to be stronger than others.

SW: Some of your stories tend to convey a sense of sadness, poignancy and loss. One of the passages that has remained with me for a very long time is this last sentence from the story "Snail Trail": "The paradise garden is a magical place. We can only dream when there, but we cannot dream of it." Is D. F. Lewis a pessimist or an optimist? When writing, to what extent do you aim at conveying the essential characteristics of your own temperament?

DL: Thank you and thanks also for asking the question of "D.F. Lewis" rather than of a nebulous 'you.' I think the DFL who writes my fiction (as opposed to Des Lewis who writes my gestalt real-time reviews since 2008) is indeed a pessimist, but one who wants to share the beauty of sadness, even of despair, as a sort of musical experience like some of Mahler's symphonies and song cycles. This is what I call optimising the pessimum. Whilst having almost a religious faith in literature (that I hope comes out in my book reviews - more about that later, no doubt), I am otherwise an atheist in the normal sense, not an anti-natalist like Ligotti, but someone dependant on some of the factors described in my answer above to the first question, to monger the Weird, to comb up the tufts of aesthetic dark pleasure, salvaging some spiritual recompense so at least to soften the inevitable blows of life's torments, of its inevitable lost love, of a sense of guilt, finally, death. Sometimes I yearn for a posterity or legacy for my works, beyond death but that becomes part of that sense of guilt, too, a selfishness I try to transcend, akin to a self-evident pretentiousness that is inevitable, but a pretentiousness that is paradoxically the powerhouse, too, of such proclivities of (perhaps pointless) ambition embodied by these answers I am giving you.

SW: The elaborate language, word-play and neologisms present in your prose might pose a challenge for translators, especially because the complexity of the language can deepen the ambiguity in your prose. Considering that your readers tend to come up with different interpretations of your works and subsequent readings can reshape these interpretations, how do we translate D. F. Lewis into other languages? If someone ever undertook a project of translating a big portion of your works (I wouldn't dare to say all of your uncollectable works) into another language how would you see that translator approach this task? Do you find such a project feasible?

DL: As I have grown older, I have begun to appreciate translations. I used to be a young purist against any translations, but now I see translations as works-in themselves, preternaturally drawing some value, no doubt,  from the text it has translated. I try to read fiction as purely as what it is and how its presentation affects its meaning or effect. I try to ignore any politics, shenanigans, biography, and whether it is a translation etc., factors that might lie behind such fictions, as that is how I expect  posterity will read any books, ignoring things other than the text and the book they hold in their hand (or the  Kindle on their screen?).

SW: You have created and edited “Nemonymous:  A Journal of Parthenogenetic Fiction and Late Labelling" - the first ever magazine that allowed anonymous email submissions beyond the point of final acceptance or rejection. Each issue of Nemonymous contains a selection of stories without bylines – the names of the authors were kept secret until the publication of the next issue. Why is it that writers are so reluctant to be published anonymously whilst readers are unwilling to read anonymous works? Are writers taking themselves too seriously or is it readers who pay too much attention to the man behind the works instead of focusing on the voice coming from a certain piece of fiction?

DL: It is hard to recall at what I really thought back in 2001, when I started the Nemonymous series. I think if you read my answer to the first question above, this method of publication actually falls into place. And I am only pleased it produced such a wide range of quality stories by various authors, some of whom have since gone on to be very successful. If you want to see my thinking about this at the time, then this old link may be useful:

Of course, in this competitive age, I can sympathise with authors wanting their own by-lines attached to their work. But I continue to believe that anonymous submissions are useful to the editor as well as to the author, and anonymous publication might transcend some of the more vitriolic exchanges on social media today about all manner of political correctness.

SW: You have been nominated twice for the British Fantasy Society Award for your "Gestalt Real-Time Reviewing". According to my estimation there are currently over 500 such reviews of novels, anthologies, magazines and chapbooks you have posted online. This is an impressive undertaking that you must be very passionate about. When I read your real-time reviews of novels, story collections and anthologies I have the impression I am reading somebody's travelogue collecting impressions from countless travels through literary landscapes. Can you tell us more about what Real-Time Reviewing means to you and what is your main motivation in writing them?

DL: Yes, this is my latest passion, started almost by chance in 2008, the third stage in my output (like Picasso's blue period!), the first being my 1000 plus print-published stories from 1986-1999 leading to the collection 'Weirdmonger', my publication of other authors (2001-2013) being the second. I see this reviewing, aka Dreamcatcher, as a collaboration with others in a labyrinth of hyper-imaginative literature, becoming intrinsic to its giant skull and mind. Or perhaps less pretentiously, here are some of my random thoughts about it -- It is the passion of the moment. -- My book reviews are written for three separate parties: myself, the readers and the book’s inferred creator. Most reviews elsewhere are actual PREviews for readers. Mine can also be genuine REviews that can be read (a) alongside me as the reader reads the book or (b) after the book is read by the reader. – The ultimate triangulation of the soul of a book can be reached by several people doing gestalt real-time reviews of the same book -- Books are bought by me for my personal reading and real-time reviewing. No reviews copies accepted. -- I don’t necessarily need authors to react to my real-time reviews of their books I bought. But it is nice simply to know they have read (are reading) them. I do this activity, anyway, for my own pleasure and as a usefulness aid to my own reading, but I also do it for past and future readers of the books, and, yes, for the authors themselves. -- When some other book reviews have receded into the past, mine will still be dreamcaught.

Many of my other thoughts about this process are here (with a continuation link at the end this page's 'comment stream'):

As to motivation, I think it is tied up with the gestalt of this whole review so far! And I love your image of the travelogue.

SW: Based on your reviews, I suppose that you must have an impressive collection of books. Some of them are from my favourite publishers who have released gorgeous works of visionary literature: Tartarus Press, Swan River Press, Zagava and Ex Occidente among others. It also looks like you are not very fond of electronic editions. Why is the physical aspect of the book so important to you when reading?

DL: Yes, you are right. And it has cost me a fortune, but it has been money well spent. And I see a fiction book's form as intrinsic to its gestalt, as becomes clear when you read some of my reviews. Having said that, I have been known, in recent years, to review ebooks!

D. F. Lewis'  neologism "Weirdmonger" appears in Weird Words - A Lovecraftian Lexicon.

SW: You seem to be quite fond of the following quote from "The Area" by Stefan Grabiński:

"Wrzesmian wasn't too popular. The works of this strange man, saturated with rampant fantasy and imbued with strong individualism, gave a most unfavourable impression by inverting accepted aesthetic-literary theories and by mocking established pseudo-truths. His output was eventually acknowledged as the product of a sick imagination, the bizarre work of an eccentric, maybe even a madman. Wrzesmian was an inconvenience for a variety of reasons and he disturbed unnecessarily, stirring peaceful waters. Thus his premature eclipse was received with a secret sigh of relief."**

Wrześmian, the main protagonist of “The Area” who also appears in the novel Baphomet's Shadow (yet to be translated into English) is Stefan Grabiński’s alter ego used by the author almost a century ago when Grabiński still did not receive proper recognition. What are your expectations towards the future of your literary output? Where do you wish D. F. Lewis’ works to be 100 years from now?

DL: I suffer from literary paranoia, I think, and I often see myself in that Wrzesmian quote. I guess it is pretentious to do so, though. But that thought is mainly ironic, to go along with my on-line listed neologisms and quotes about me since the early days. I also see myself in some of these quotes that accompany the Wrzesmian one here:

Thanks for that information about the untranslated Grabinski novel. I try not to think of the future of my literary output, and I wonder if I have a fourth 'blue' period, as it were, within me, to follow the real-time reviewing. I hope my works will still be read in 100 years from now, but another part of me thinks it highly pretentious or presumptuous to believe that they will be. Sometimes I convince myself that I am a bit of an avant garde fraud, useless as a writer but then again, another day, I don't. A bit of a literary psychosis that I would align with a mental form of 'vexed texture of text'!

SW: Thank you very much for this conversation, Des. We are looking forward to your upcoming real-time reviews!

*"poet fictioneer" comes from "Interview with D. F. Lewis" conducted by Rachel Kendall
** the story "The Area" can be read in The Dark Domain by Stefan Grabiński, trans. Miroslaw Lipinski

1 comment :

  1. And this is what D. F. Lewis wrote about translations in the "Interview with D. F. Lewis" conducted by Rachel Kendall in 1999:

    "- If the opportunity came along, would you like to see your own stories translated or would you be concerned about the loss of e.g. carefully formulated sentence structure, style, the impact of certain English words, the personal meaning and essence behind each story?

    Well the odd story by me has been translated (into Japanese & Serbian as two examples, and soon to be a story in Czech). And the whole process of translation fascinates me. I know I ought to worry about reading translations ... bearing in mind my literary 'purism'!
    But here are my four equations:

    (1) Fiction/Poem = Original Text placed in the audience arena.

    (2) What can be taken from or given to the text = reader's 'opinion' or 'reaction' (manifold opinions and reactions, all different and unknowable).

    (3) The nearer one is able to reach towards the noumenon of the text = the more one can shuffle off the variable misleading and unknowable historical, biographical, critical, academic extrapolations of the text.

    (4)Poet/Author of Fiction/Poem in (1) above = Just another ordinary reader with fallible rights to describe/interpret/evaluate the text, i.e. after it has been placed in the audience arena as a sacrosanct 'sculpture' or entity of creativity.

    And each set of equations is triggered anew by a revision of the text etc., which would include a translation. In other words, the translation becomes a brand new equation (1) and that fact sits comfortably with me."