Thursday, November 4, 2010

Interview with Thaisa Frank, author of Heidegger's Glasses

heidegger's glasses cover

Thaisa Frank, author of the fascinating Heidegger's Glasses, was kind enough to answer some of the questions I had for her at the end of the novel.  Don't forget you can enter to win a copy of the book at my review post (here)!  I know you will all want this book, especially after reading Thaisa's interview, so don't hesitate to enter.

Question 1:  As the book progresses, the letters from the dead become much more forceful and begin to speak of breaking out and disappearing. Is this because the cracks in the world are getting bigger?

Thaisa's Answer:  That’s a great way to link the metaphor of Hanussen’s globe and the changing letters! And in a sense that’s what was really happening as Germany continued to incur heavy losses in the war. It’s also the case that more and more prisoners began to rebel and find ways to exchange messages at the border between one barrack and another.

Q2:  What is the connection between furniture and bones?

Thaisa:  The Nazis deny making human furniture out of bones, but I’ve seen pictures of them. So the connection is quite literal. Metaphorically, of course, it has a lot of connections and probably brings into bold relief the attitude (prevalent in all holocausts) that the ‘other’ who is the object of murder and hatred isn’t really a person but an object.

Q3:  Who in the Compound has the least amount of guilt over the dead?

Thaisa:  Without question Dieter Stumpf who relishes séances and firmly believes that the Compound is on a serious mission to answer the dead.


  If this novel could be compared to a single painting (or, alternatively, the work of a single artist), which one would you pick?

Thaisa:  This is a great question and although various artists came to mind intellectually (Munch and Kollwitz) a painting immediately occurred to me and I can’t find it. It’s a 20th century surreal painting in either the Whitney or the MOMA called (I think) The Sleepers. It’s a huge room without borders so you think it may extend infinitely and in this room, tucked in identical beds, are people who all look the same. Their eyes are open. The expressions in the eyes are amazing--the expressions of people who have a sense of dread yet hope it’s unfounded. This painting came to mind in a very visceral way. Intellectually it makes sense: All the characters in the book live with dread and have to deny it. And all the characters in the book are variously asleep (not conscious) and awake (very conscious.) Thanks for a great question. I’ll send you the reference if I can find it.

Me:  Are you thinking of The Sleepers III by George Tooker (above)?  Maybe someone has a better suggestion.

Q5: You make a lot of Classical references in the book. Are there any non-Classical allusions--to Nordic myths or folktales, for example?

Thaisa:  There are no references to fairy tales, but when I wrote it I drew on my sense of affinity with fairy tales--a sense of the magic of the imagination I’ve had ever since I was little.

If Kafka wrote the first great fairy tales of the modern age with The Trial, In the Penal Colony, and Metamorphosis, then I feel that World War II provides us with the second set of fairy tales. Because of the impeccable record-keeping by both perpetrators and victims, and because the suspense created by the escalation of the Final Solution was pitted against the invasion of the Russians and the Allies, WW II’s Holocaust has an almost novelistic, even mythic, quality. It also brings into bold relief how people can become absurdly enchanted in the presence of a belief shared by a group mind. This fairy-tale aspect can be used to great disadvantage to romanticize the war. But it can also be used to great advantage because it allows us to see WW II’s holocaust through a broad lens that leads us to the truth of all holocausts. Like all first drafts of fairy tales, this one is raw and unadorned: Take a look at the original Red Riding Hood in French. It’s ghoulish, grisly, and blatantly sexual. And even sanitized fairy tales for children involve abandonment, terror, and evil spells.

For all these reasons, I was drawn to the fairy-tale like environment of the Scribes. By using this as a pervasive backdrop, I was able to show parts of the Holocaust that were raw, ghoulish, and unpalatable, like Mengele’s experiments, a rape, an arrest, and an unanticipated murder.

Q6: What happened to Stumpf?

Thaisa:  Stumpf disappears with his crates of mail. This is something that Elie sees when she goes outside at night alone and smokes under cover of her scarf.

Q7: Would you describe your work as surrealism or magical realism?

Thaisa:  Thanks for asking and for making a distinction! These categories are often used interchangeably but there’s actually a big difference. Magic realism invariably involves a community of people who believe in some magical force that exists in the world (often contact with the dead, the ability to time travel, the appearance of angels, sometimes the belief in the totemic nature of objects.) Surrealism involves one, at the most two, improbable or impossible situations, and puts them into an ordinary world.

The world of magic realism is an extraordinary world where magic penetrates the ordinary. Surrealism, on the other hand, posits one absurd situation in a perfectly ordinary world. (A man wakes up transformed into a huge bug, or is accused of a crime he never committed and isn’t even named). The ordinary world is determined to proceed according to its plodding, often legalistic, ordinary laws. A Hundred Years of Solitude, by Marquez, is a good example of magic realism. People commune with the dead and can see their dreams. In The Trial, by Kafka, a man is accused of a crime he not only hasn’t committed, but which is never spelled out to him. He has nothing magic to resort to, but must appeal to the plodding legal system. This absurd situation shines a lens on the absurdity of the legal system.

Heidegger’s Glasses certainly touches upon a community that believes in the occult. But only a few characters in the book are part of that community, and the two protagonists are definitely not part of it. What becomes surreal is the premise that there are people who answer letters to the dead in an underground mine that has been converted into a romantic 19th-Century world, with a cobblestone street, gas lamps, and a canopy of sky that changes from night to day. This world is an absurd dream in the midst of a Germany’s failing war.

So I would say that I work in the tradition of surrealism.

Q8: There are a lot of codes in the novel--Lodenstein's father writes codes, and the Scribes create a secret language
called Dreamatoria. Was Heidegger's letter a code, or was he really that clueless?

Thaisa: One irony of the book is that we never see Heidegger’s letter to Asher Englehardt. The letter we see is Mikhail Solomon’s answer, which is supposed to be absurd. And we don’t know how clueless Heidegger was about the war. He was a romantic German: He wore lederhosen to class in the summer months and built a hut in the Black Forest. He allied with the Nazis resolve to return to the past, and then got upset with them for not doing it in a way he imagined. He helped some Jewish students escape and ignored others. (He shunned Carnap, a philosopher and colleague whose wife was Jewish, and then was miffed because Carnap wouldn’t talk to him after the war.) Heidegger was probably not so much clueless as totally dissociated.


If Heidegger's Glasses is made into a movie, who do you want to play Lodenstein?

Thaisa: Wow! This is every writer’s private delusion. But since you’ve asked…. I’ve always seen this as a German movie, in which case I would like Matthias Habich, who played the father in “Nowhere in Africa” to play Lodenstein. He has a combination of rigidity and softness that appeals to me. I consider Brad Pitt to be about the best male actor in America now, but I don’t think he quite fits the role. Maybe the newly-incarnated Leonardo Dicaprio---newly-incarnated in that it seemed that he could really act in Revolutionary Road.

Q10: What's your next project?

Thaisa:  I’m finishing a new collection of short stories that I allowed to languish when I wrote Heidegger’s Glasses. But I am--and have been--working on something new. The most I can say is that it doesn’t take place in the past--hence it’s not historical. And I’m experimenting with a somewhat different voice.

Thank you so much for absolutely great interview, Thaisa!  Your answers definitely added to the story for me!  And Leo's cute, but maybe not quite Teutonic enough to play Lodenstein. ;)

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