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“It only translates”: A Conversation about Phototaxis with Olivia Tapiero and Kit Schluter

“Slowly the water recedes, the infertile land settles and cracks like how a wound heals, a placeless wound—hurled to the borders by displaced bodies—which moves on like blood, uprooted memories.”

Phototaxis (Nightboat 2021) by Olivia Tapiero is a novel about bodies, their materiality, their frailty, and their sheer physicality as they move and are moved through space. Tapiero represents the modern Western city through a stream of consciousness interiority that toggles between multiple characters. Like the best modernist prose, she shows us both the objecthood of people and the way in which external objects manifest a latent social subjectivity. 

Phototaxis weaves together the stories of three main characters: Narr, a young immigrant woman; Zev, an anarcho-primitivist militant; and Théo, a gifted but troubled concert pianist. The novel presents these characters acting and reacting against the existential and material collapse of the world around them, from the everyday anxieties of work and life to more surreal disasters such as a mysterious “meat crisis” plaguing their unnamed city. It’s a book about the fracture of the modern world, an immigrant story that probes the West’s relationship with the rest of the world, a wrestling with the climate crisis, and a meditation on radical politics in an era when it feels very much like civilization is becoming undone. Though originally published in Canada in 2017, Phototaxis still captures the dominant feelings of the pandemic moment.

Tapiero cites Thomas Bernhard and Nathanaël as major influences on the novel. There are also shades of Renee Gladman’s Ravicka books as well as Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren. It’s a book rich with influences and references but also a unique style and voice that manages to be comic, poetic, and unnerving all at once. 

I sat down for a remote conversation with Tapiero and Kit Schluter, who translated the novel from the French. 

Aaron Winslow: Visual imagery plays a huge role in the novel, from the title, which means “movement toward light,” to the repeated imagery of Théo falling, which is itself a reference to the “falling man” image. Additionally, music is another major thread in the novel — I love, for instance, the last line of the novel: “the moment the world astounds itself by becoming music.” I’m wondering if you could talk a bit about the relationship of language and writing to the image and to music? How do you see these different arts and mediums as intersecting with each other?

Olivia Tapiero: Music is of course a theme, and it comes into the characters’ lives and careers. But for me, it’s also a tool of composition. I like to take from the language of music to think about writing, because I feel like writing, much like music, is something that deploys itself through time and through bodies. The notions of polyphony and counterpoint were really important for me while writing this book. How voices carve each other out, how a voice can be the negative space of another voice. I like to think about it that way. 

I’m a classically trained musician, so I know that world a bit. I went specifically with classical music because for me, for musicians in classical music, it’s very much about repeating, and through that repetition, carving out an authority and carving out monuments through that repetition, and reaffirming the idea of the great composers. And that’s a relationship to authority, but also just to general Western ways of thinking about creation, excellence, and accomplishment. 

AW: That was one of the things that I really wanted to hit on more, this idea of using counterpoint and polyphony, musical notions. When novelists talk about fiction and characters, the construction of character systems, it’s often couched in terms of foils, or multiple voices, or other Bakhtinian notions. What do you get from using the musical sense of those terms, rather than more traditional literary concepts?

OT: That’s a really great question because I think there’s definitely a distinction to make between how we can appropriate musical terms to make the metaphors for narrative structures — indeed, that comparison is as old as literature itself, which really started with music and singing and stuff like that. There’s a distinction between that and also just how music doesn’t say, how music can make you feel, and can make you resonate and remember, but in ways without language. And for me, the question of opacity would be linked to music, that it’s a non-verbal language. I think that, in the way I write, even if it’s with words, there’s a non-verbal language, and there’s something in the rhythm where it’s at the level of the sentence or the paragraph, but also at the level of the book. But I can’t really describe the mechanics of it. I think it’s something that resists. It’s something that just fits. And you don’t know why, but it’s as mysterious as harmony and dissonance. 

For me, it’s a way to think about things in a non-linear fashion and to accept also what resists and what cannot be said and the undercurrents of what cannot be said underneath what is said. That’s an aesthetic stance, but also a political one, because it’s harder to appropriate things that are not slogans or that are purely verbal. Take the image, for example — it’s easy to to take it, to quote it, to multiply it, and to empty it; whereas in the more lyrical sentence, there’s something that resists that kind of appropriation.

AW: Maybe this is a good time to talk about images, because the whole falling man image is, of course, an infamous image that has been used in all the insidious ways that you mentioned images being used and appropriated in. And again, there’s this idea of repetition, too, because you repeat that imagery of Théo falling consistently throughout the book. So I’m wondering how you settled on that particular image.

OT: It really came from Icarus originally. In the context in which the book was published in French, in Canada, the falling man image doesn’t read. People don’t get it. It’s not related to the Twin Towers, to New York, to war, or to anything. They’re just like it’s l’homme qui tombe. So I think that it has way more resonance in English, but that image is definitely the reference.

I was interested in how the myth of Icarus relates to desire and creation and the Western fate and sublimation. I did research later on in Greece, and I was looking everywhere for representations of Icarus, and there were none. And this archeologist explained to me that it’s one of the myths that has no illustration, no image to account for it, because it’s not a myth that people liked, it doesn’t say something that people like to hear about themselves. So I think it’s also interesting, that absence of the image.

AW: Yeah, I guess most people know the Breugel painting. . . 

OT: Exactly. There were images later on, and it really came through Romanticism. What’s interesting is that the time in which the myth reemerges and starts finding representations is the time of industrialization and colonization and all these questionings about where artists fit between nature and society, and all these questions become really on the forefront.

The other way the falling man image plays in the book is in the idea of the image of death, or the image of just-before-death, and the fascination we have with that, like with the notion of snuff films. I learned that the first footage of someone dying was of a man conducting an experiment by jumping off the Eiffel Tower and trying to deploy this balloon that didn’t work, and he just fell and died. And I was really always interested by the appeal that these things can have, but also the kind of privilege, for lack of a better word, of whose death is allowed to be represented, and which deaths are seen and seen as tragic and which deaths are not. Because the falling man is really the opposite of a mass grave. So to which dying bodies do we pay attention to, do we give value to? I feel like that says a lot about where we’re at. And also all the perverse, obscene uses that can be made of more marginalized bodies that are suffering. We’ve seen it deployed during the pandemic, the different strategies of violence, of state violence, police violence. And so who is allowed the aesthetic of the image, who becomes kind of porn, and who is completely denied the image. . . those things interest me. It’s related to power in a way that really has to do with the nature of the visual medium, I think.

AW: Olivia, you said that the image of the falling man doesn’t resonate in the Francophone community and maybe anywhere outside of the U.S., I don’t know. Were there other instances that you and Kit found that either gained resonance in the English translation or just lost all reference from being translated out of French and out of the Canadian Francophone context?

OT: I feel like we could talk about humor. I mean, I think my book is funny.

AW: It is!

OT: Right? But Francophone people don’t. At first I was thinking about it and I was like, ok, maybe I’m just not funny, which is a fair hypothesis. But the sense of humor of this book is very Thomas Bernhard and it comes from the accumulation of sentences, of images, the juxtapositions, the too much-ness that becomes kind of comical. And I thought at first that maybe it’s a different relationship to irony, but thinking about it again, I think it’s a different relationship to violence. People in the Francosphere find my book really violent, really dark. But in the US and the Anglosphere, violence has a much more central place in literature and visual culture, and in a way it’s a society that can recognize itself as being really violent. In Canada and Quebec, it’s still somewhat taboo to talk about the inherent violence of society and of the state. This leads to a specific variety of violence, this denial, this structural gaslighting, and it can be quite suffocating. 

So maybe that’s why the humor doesn’t translate. Well actually, it does translate, but it doesn’t work. It only translates. 

KS: Every character speaks with a distinct feeling, and often these voices are full of play, full of humor. There’s the conductor, and there’s the agent, who I tried to make almost comically bureaucratic and frustrated and powerless. Then there are Narr’s parents — a lot of exclamation points, a lot of reproaches made toward someone who does not care at all to hear them. And so there is the kind of futility of their anger, which I found hilarious, and which I tried to emphasize. 

So, it turns out there’s an entire strain of humor here based on futility. I found Théo also to be, at turns, the funniest character and the most tragic. His funniest moment was his complaint about his life as a musician, the repetition, the demands that are made of him, his enumeration of all the things that are terrible about being a musician — “when I’m recognized on the street, when I’m not recognized on the street.”

OT: Francophone people don’t find that scene to be funny. I think that scene is very funny.

KS: The humor comes through as a rhythm in these moments when the book — in that Bernhardian way — overflows with criticism, with anxiety, when the voice of the narrator becomes something like a fountain splashing out anxiety, anxious language. Other aspects of the book are not funny at all; the atmosphere can become very chilling. The image of this little girl dying in the water, for example; migrants being pushed over fences to get to the other side. And I think that juxtaposition gives the humor a certain political depth. 

Another aspect that I wanted to note was my prior experience of reading certain authors who translate themselves — an experience which restructured or loosened my idea of “fidelity” in translation.

One example would be Nathanaël — actually the author who brought me onto this project as translator — who is a wonderful writer and whose books I read in both the “original” French with Nathanaël’s own English editions side by side. What I found was that Nathanaël was often quite free in really readdressing the French’s tone when in English. I found the same thing happening with Beckett: when I read Beckett in French, and I don’t find it so funny. I find it rather grave. But when I read Beckett in English, it’s almost slapstick. For me at least, there’s something very fleshy — as opposed to cerebral — about English that I think lends itself to humor, which I tried to tap into while translating Olivia’s book. I hope that worked. I did try to be funny at certain points, but I never felt I was inventing the humor. I always found it in the original and tried to convey it.

AW: From the readers’ perspective, I think it worked, and so did your work of bringing out the various textures of the language. It’s a book with a lot of voices as well as textures, and different emotional registers. Olivia, how involved were you in the translation process with Kit? What was your collaboration like?

OT: I think that maybe there was one moment where I over-intervened and I was getting paranoid about punctuation. Eventually though I had to let go and to let Kit do his job. I’m also a translator and I realized how much you make it your own when you translate it. You can’t have someone over your shoulder trying to control it. I think it’s important to have conversations at first about the ethics of translation and to see from samples where the other person is coming from. With Kit, I felt a trust right away in terms of the command he has of the English language. And in his relationship to English I also sense his relationships to other languages, and I like that a lot. Kit lives in Spanish also, and I find that there’s something of that in his English, just like for me, I am around other languages, too, and that comes into play in my writing.

But it was my first experience of being translated. And it’s beautiful, because I feel like in many ways, Kit is maybe closer to the text than I was while writing it.

AW: And when did you write it? 

OT: So I finished it in 2016. In Lebanon, and I had been working on it for a year or two. At the beginning it was supposed to be just one voice. And then I really thought about those ideas of counterpoints of many voices, and that gave me the space to expand it to multiple narrators and perspectives. 

AW: It must’ve been interesting to dive back into it many years later… I finish something and I’m like, I don’t ever want to see this again

OT: Yeah. But in a way, I didn’t ever see it again because it’s a different book in English. Because it felt so alien to its context when it first came out, I think that it was good for me to have that distance.

AW: It’s interesting that it was written so long ago, because it still feels very relevant today. Maybe more relevant than ever, actually. 

OT: Yeah, it’s a little freaky. The whole sanitation crisis, the general collapse, whether ecological, political, the surveillance, et cetera. Those things only got worse since I wrote it. 

KS: I was editing the later drafts of the book during Covid, during lockdown. And I remember writing to Olivia and saying, you predicted the future! 

OT: I think that before people were like, OK, like, girl, you’re freaking out. Just chill

AW: Right, it’s like, sure, okay, meat crisis… that’ll happen. But now if meat just started appearing on the street we would all be like, all right, it’s Tuesday… 

OT: Yes, the work did feel very dissonant to its time of composition, but it’s reached a certain harmony as reality kind of suddenly matches up to it. And it was really a complete dystopia when it came out.

AW: Yeah, it’s kind of like it’s moved from being a dystopian fiction to being a satire.

OT: Yeah, exactly. 

KS: Maybe this has to do with the visibility of the humor now. The English version is coming out into a world that is definitely primed to accept it as more realistic, more of a critique, maybe even laugh about it a little bit. You know, a grim kind of laugh.

OT: That’s all we got.

AW: Yeah, well, laugh to keep from crying. I want to ask you about the design of the book, because I know, Kit, you did the design work for it. And, again, I don’t know, Olivia, if you were collaborating on that at all. How did you approach designing it?

KS: Well, I’ll be back in two seconds with props. [Ed. Note: Kit leaves the room and reappears several seconds later.]

So these are postcards that I’ve had with me in Mexico since I moved down here in 2016. I found them one of the first times I ever went to a market here. 

This one shows the cliffs of Acapulco with a man diving, which at first I thought was a suicide image. I thought it was like a 1940s snuff photograph or something. And I asked the vendor and he said, “no, no, he’s a professional show diver at this place called La Quebrada in Acapulco.” I’ve had it on my wall ever since. And I’ve continued collecting images of that place, though I’ve never been — it’s still just a dream. The divers have such an elegant way of falling: they look so incredibly light and free.

Anyhow, when Nightboat asked me to design the book, I said: we have to use the diver on the cover. The lightness of that body falling in this brutal, jagged natural space not only addresses the question the book asks regarding Théo’s suicide — whether or not his suicide was liberating, as well as the presence of this kind of all consuming nature — seemed to me a fitting juxtaposition. 

So, you have the cover with that image and then you have other humanless images of La Quebrada bookending the interior. The layout concludes with those same subjectless images, horizontally reflected. So, the reader begins with the falling man (during suicide), proceeds into imagery of nature without humans (after suicide of one man), and wraps up the book with the understanding that these are images that represent nature reasserting itself over humanity (apocalypse — a sort of mass suicide).

OT: The black pages are really important. At the end, there’s a black page after the image with the rocks. And for me, that’s really important, because much of the book is about non-image, non-representation. It’s about illegible bodies and illegible catastrophes, and really the impossibility of sustaining a narrative that remains intact during these moments of collapse that we are collectively going through. 

 

Olivia Tapiero is a writer and translator. She has published Les murs (2009), Espaces (2012), Phototaxie (2017) and Rien du tout (2021), and has co-edited Chairs (2019). She is a literary director at Moebius, and has contributed to magazines such as Tristesse, Estuaire, Relations and Liberté. She lives in Tio’tia:ke (Montréal).

Christopher “Kit” Osborn Schluter was born by Caesarean section in Boston, Massachusetts at 3:58 p.m., on February 12, 1989. Author of Pierrot’s Fingernails and 5 Cartoons; translator of Marcel Schwob’s The Book of Monelle and Rafael Bernal’s His Name Was Death. Manner, site, and time of death TBD.

Aaron Winslow is the managing editor of Air/Light. He also writes video games, fiction, poetry, and criticism. He is the writer of "Star Renegades," a tactical roguelite JRPG created by Massive Damage and published by Raw Fury that was nominated for a 2021 Canadian Game Award and 2021 Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television Best Game Award. Other recent writing — including fiction, critical reviews, essays, and humor — has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Los Angeles Review of Books, Social Text, Smallwork, James Joyce Quarterly, Full Stop, Harriet: the Poetry Foundation Blog, and more. 

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Stella Harris is a student, tutor, and writer living in Los Angeles.

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