Lance Olsen and John Domini Talk About Cities as Fictions, Political Daymares, and Never Being at Home

Domini and Olsen covers

Lance Olsen and John Domini have followed each other’s work for years, sharing an attraction to the edges of the fictional enterprise, to experiment and risk. Olsen has many works of fiction and non-fiction, and his awards include the Guggenheim. Domini too has published widely, in all genres, and won an NEA Fellowship. Both have spent extended time abroad, Olsen in Germany, Domini in Italy. Not till now, however, did they share new titles with similar core concern— namely, a European city going through a radical change.  In Domini’s case, in his novel The Color Inside a Melon, this was contemporary Naples, over a single hectic week. Olsen’s latest, My Red Heaven, considers a June day in Berlin, in 1927. 

Inevitably perhaps, the two writers found themselves drawn into correspondence about what they were up to, and below is the result, edited for publication.

John Domini: What we talk about when we talk about our novels— isn’t that a city? Berlin in 1927, as you render it, embodies urban archetypes from paradise to inferno, as well as the coming century’s full spectrum of light and darkness. It sets me thinking of Donald Barthelme, who termed fiction “an architectural problem.” How’s that sit with how you handled city, century, and novel? 

Lance Olsen: I love Barthelme’s notion. And I know we both share a great admiration for his work. I wouldn’t be who I am without it. His insight allows me to consider how Berlin — where I lived for a year and a half on fellowships while researching My Red Heaven, and where I visit for a month or six weeks every spring — presents itself both as fiction and architectural problem. The city is especially conducive to dérive because it doesn’t possess the orienting axes of Paris or New York. Rather — not unlike your city, Naples — it’s a gallimaufry space where on a single block the gentrified 19th century dwells next to the crumbling 18th dwells next to the frayed East German dwells next to the clean Bauhaus dwells next to a McDonalds, a trendy café, an untrendy Indian or Vietnamese or Turkish bistro, a currywurst stand, a bit of leftover Wall (now graffitied and encrusted with bubble gum), a five-story bunker built by Albert Speer that couldn’t be blown up after the war because it was so massive, and was thus transformed (after an earlier iteration as the hottest site for techno raves and gay sadomasochistic festivities in Germany) into an art gallery. 

Wayne Koestenbaum talks about hoteling as an existential position. We hotel when we enter a state of physically not-being-at-home that allows us to read, think, become curious, pay attention. Because of its grimly complex history, Berlin by nature hotels Berlin. It also became a mode of hoteling for me that I’ve found extraordinarily productive, both aesthetically and existentially.  

Over the years, John, you’ve had an equally special — yet I suspect quite different — relationship with Naples, both as generative metaphor and as palpable place. Would you talk a little about how that has shaped the deep-structure, the architectural problem(s), of The Color Inside a Melon?

JD: You know, I couldn’t help nodding and smiling, as I savored your Berlin slumgullion. In Naples the painted city faces go back to the Mycenaean Greeks, and when I consider the built-up sediments of downtown experience, I think of Italo Calvino— who else? In his invisible city Clarice, items out of antiquity keep getting repurposed: “wrought-iron gratings torn from the harem windows were used for roasting cat-meat on fires of inlaid wood.” Ah, si, nod and smile. And then smile more ruefully, because I spot my own meat on the fire. It’s nothing special to be astonished by history, after all. It just proves I’m another guppy-mouthed American, white and comfy, on whom history never laid a glove.  

I mean that my Color Inside doesn’t look to me like such a radical imagining as your Red Heaven. Mine seems a more personal exercise, born out of homely old failure.  At the end of my 30s I came back to Naples (my father’s hometown), after both my marriage and career had gone bust. I sought to relocate and lived on the cheap, with family and friends. Now, just to put it that way, like some sort Romantic quest— gimme a break! Nevertheless, over there I got a clue. I thought of a trilogy of stories, each casting a different gaze across this barely-sustainable city, as old as any in the West and yet endlessly contemporary. Besides the guppy-mouthed Statesider, there had to be the native Neapolitan and also this ever-more-visible new population, the African. The combination prompts a thousand more ironies and quidditities, sure, and maybe my Naples trio found a place for most of those, but at bottom the novels are meat-and-potatoes psychological realism, fueled by shoe-leather research. They work towards catharsis in a single player, achieved via intense experience. Granted, there are some tricks with perspective and time structure, some touches of magic, but by and large, when I’m asked about the source of these fictions, I fall back an old dodge: Madame Bovary c’est moi

In your novel, on the other hand, 1927 Berlin is this buzzing hive of protagonists, a breathtaking assortment of great minds and nightmare creatures. Roughly at the center of the text is the dip into the wounded consciousness of Walter Benjamin, an episode that traces a tragic odyssey across continent and century, while also meditating on collage. How would you feel if I termed your whole novel a collage? What can you say about its elements’ placement and sequence? 

LO: This is the second and more specific way My Red Heaven functioned for me as architectural problem. Perhaps weirdly, my novels tend to come to me first, not in the form of a character, say, or scene or theme, as is frequently the case for writers, but rather as the opportunities inherent in a certain structure. 

Several years ago, I stumbled across German-Jewish artist Otto Freundlich’s Abstract Cubist painting called “My Red Heaven” (1933), connotative to me of the that cultural energy of the interwar years in Berlin you suggest. The piece also gestures toward a collage aesthetic in its collection of apparently disparate forms on a surface that simultaneously unifies them and underscores their multiplicity. I wanted to see what happens when that collage aesthetic is translated into narrative architectonics. Each chapter of My Red Heaven therefore manifests as a narraticule set in the consciousness of an historical or imagined figure living, working, and/or simply passing through the city’s remarkable intellectual and creative possibility space during a single day in 1927. The idea became, then, to create a broad canvas called Berlin — in many ways the city is the novel’s disorienting and disoriented protagonist — that investigates the resonant complexity of an historical moment: the rise of a deadly populism at the heart of a thriving center for artists, writers, and intellectuals at a time when all fences seemed down, all options open, and the future unimaginable. A space, I’m afraid, with many unnerving parallels in the contemporary U.S.

Which leads me to a sibling set of questions. What drew you to Europe’s refugee crisis as the thematic backbeat of The Color Inside a Melon, via your protagonist, Risto, a Somali who escaped his homeland’s violence fifteen years before, opened an art gallery (beautifully named Wind & Confusion), and adopted the role of detective following the murder of another migrant? Reading about it, I couldn’t help be reminded of our mutual love for Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone. How, if at all, might her novel inform our understanding of yours, and what other writers have mattered deeply to your work’s sense of itself recently? 

JD: Jenny Erpenbeck, per carità! I’m glad you share my enthusiasm, and as for Go, Went, Gone, her deep dive into the phenomenon of Africans in Europe— specifically Berlin, of all places— I read it when my novel was in a late draft. I was dumbstruck, for starters, at Erpenbeck’s courage: testing her sensibility on souls very different, not to mention injured and suspicious. 

But the way she shaped her novel, the way she used the refugee stories, proved little like what I was up to. She filtered that ferocious drama through a quieter figure, rather a surrogate author. Myself, around Naples, I may’ve had some of the same questions as Erpenbeck, but the conversations spurred me to a different project. My Risto belongs to a dangerously shrunken sliver of Arab-African society, raised with multiple languages and exposed to the arts and higher learning. He’s the sort of sophisticate who, before the depredations of recent decades, enjoyed an extraordinary quality of life in places like Beirut, Aleppo, or even Mogadishu— a city once called “the jewel of the Horn of Africa.” The devastation visited on these former citadels of culture has been detailed in a number of harrowing texts, such as the novels of Khaled Khalifa, and when my Color Inside mentions Cavafy, I’m raising a sorry salute to what’s been lost. The Greek poet, after all, preferred Alexandria; there he could live more openly as a gay man of letters. 

In developing such a story, an individual journey, Color Inside set itself apart from Go, Went. But then again, Erpenbeck’s novel and mine do share a central theme, in that those who’ve fled “the South” seek something pretty humble, fundamentally. Our refugees seek nothing more than a decent life. Getting along, at peace and pretty much happy: basta cosi, as the Italians say. Granted, the immigrants in these books nurse a dream or two, they’d welcome more and better, but they live by that great Neapolitan proverb, “Grab the good when it comes; the bad can always find you.” That’s Naples, I’d say, enjoying the sun and the wine while you’ve got the chance — and in sharp contrast to your Berlin. My Red Heaven seethes with the ferment of The New Man, New Woman, New Heaven & Earth. Everyone, wicked or beneficent, sees themselves as a cog in some vast transformative engine. Or do you disagree? 

LO: That sounds right to me, John, and for me that “vast transformative engine” is Modernism itself in all its modes. For the reader, though, I hope, it’s Modernism colored by the ironic gauze called the future. Or, perhaps in this case, two futures. On the one hand, you have characters partaking in various cultural revolutions churning through the Weimar years, utterly unaware of the darknesses awaiting them in 1933 and after. On the other, you have the novel’s reader, who, I hope, senses a second-order irony: the harmonics between 1927 Berlin, with its creeping populism and concomitant authoritarianism, and our country’s current political daymares. I don’t mean to suggest that such parallels are clear, clean, and firm. Our situation is infinitely more nuanced than that. Yet in the same way science fiction is never really about some future, but about its metaphorized present (think, by way of example, the relationship of Orwell’s 1984 to 1948, the year it was published), I would suggest historical fiction is never really about some past — or at least never really about some past in any sort of unproblematized way — so much as it is about its metaphorized present.

Many Modernists (Nabokov, Benjamin, Arendt, Mies van der Rohe, et al.) in my pages were literal refugees, and all considered themselves cultural refugees. This may help answer the question: Why do the Modernists often return to The Odyssey (rather than, say, The Iliad) as a touchstone text? Despite the dominant narratives telling us otherwise, Heidegger reminds us, the fundamental human condition is always-already one of not-being-at-home.

Once upon a time, I heard Robert Coover lecturing about how he structured his novels. He advocated discovering the deep metaphor that guides the work and mining it down, down, down. For me in Inside a Melon that deep metaphor takes the form of the earthquake, which both acts to unsettle the foundations of Naples literally and perhaps metaphorizes Risto’s unsettling education over the course of the novel. Does that make sense in your mind, or would you locate your deep metaphor elsewhere?

JD: Ah, Robert Coover, he’s welcome any time, and as for the earthquake, yes, it’s everywhere, not just Inside a Melon. My entire Naples threesome struggles to restore its balance following an imagined recent quake. Local tectonics remain unstable, and the last bad shakeup wasn’t that long ago, 1980. Nowadays, the damage would be exacerbated by the crush of refugees, most of them making do in substandard housing (to put it mildly). For many of the nominally “white,” in fact, conditions aren’t much better. Bear in mind, farther up the Boot, they tend to view the Neapolitan as a pariah. Consider the latest quip making the rounds among the country’s far right, based in the North and buddies with Steve Bannon: “Garibaldi didn’t unify Italy — he divided Africa.” 

It’s rich story material, no question, high-concept as they say in Hollywood. And yet, Lance, as we’ve exchanged ideas, I’ve come to see the project as a collage. I see it particularly in this latest novel, the one the most concerned with the arts. 

The arts provide Risto with his escape from history, as they’ve done for others on the margins, including generations of African-Americans. Yet the trouble Risto’s gotten into could tear away the happy ending he’s pasted onto his signature composition, The Immigrant Success. That’s all at risk, safe European home— but it’s not all his own fault. To heap the blame on Risto alone would be as dumb as a tweet from The Donald. Rather, his motives are knotted inextricably with a tormented history, one that set the wretched of the Earth against the white and comfy. Amid that moil, my protagonist’s hardly the only one who seems a fragile construct. Every one of us perches on those same fault lines. 

The hope would be, Lance, that our two novels will make a few folks mindful. Reading, they’ll catch the chill: The bad can always find you. Then too, I think again of Donald Barthelme. He also remarked, as I’m sure you know, that the art of the 20th Century is collage. Another sharp aperçu, it invites a companion notion, namely, that outstanding human accomplishment over the century just past is the modern city.  Certainly these crowded, complicated spaces have everything to do with the art of that century, starting in Dublin, 1904. These days, however, the city looks more like a work in progress, a collage still taking shape. Is it a gated community for the 1%? The incubator of a greater humanity? I note that your Red Heaven ends in black. 

LO: Yeah, I’m afraid so, John — a quite material black page, all print palimpsested together, collapsed into the black heart of Hitler, which, as much as I’d like it to be otherwise, is how I’m sensing things these days. It would be lovely to believe otherwise, and lord knows I’ve tried, but my bet is it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets a lot worse. 

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.