Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

An Interview with Alan Burns

Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

An Interview with Alan Burns

Article excerpt

This interview was conducted entirely through the mail from May to September 1994. As I finished rereading each of his eight novels, I would send a group of questions to Burns and he would respond. Often our letters crossed in the mail, and wherever possible I have eliminated redundancies with one significant exception--the issue of his working methods. In rereading the essay he wrote about the evolution of his career in Giles Gordon's Beyond the Words, I found Burns delineating a steady pattern of development and change as he moved from one novel to another. However in responding to these questions here, Burns repeatedly invokes Picasso's dictum that "I do not seek, I find." I have left these redundancies in the interview because they emphatically reveal a reigning principle of his aesthetic. I want to interject that Alan Burns is a delightful correspondent--prompt, anecdotal, and delightfully witty, and this interview, despite its trans-Atlantic nature, was a genuine pleasure. To Alan I send my thanks for all his time and patience.

DAVID MADDEN: Was James Joyce much of an influence on or inspiration for you?

ALAN BURNS: Joyce changed everything, made everything possible. Master of all styles, all genres, all languages, all cultures ... beyond that mere puffery, I'm wary of commenting on Joyce, overwhelmed not only by him as poet and novelist but by his mighty intellect. However, his influence on me was not intellectual but instinctive, which is to say, his achievement seemed to give me permission to follow my instinct wherever it lead. Word-coinage is an obvious example, but it goes beyond that to, say, the structure of Babel, and much more.

DM: I ask because of the opening scene in Buster in which adults are looking down on the reclining child and talking to and above him.

AB: No, the opening scene in Buster was not specifically influenced by Joyce--only in the general terms indicated above. The child, incidentally, is not intended to be "reclining," as you suggest, that's not in the text. I wanted the opening scene to contain the novel's essence and yet be credible in a naturalistic sense. "They stood over him" seemed to me then to do the job nicely. Now I think maybe it's too neat and makes the point too clearly. I still like the way I managed to introduce three generations at the start, the tensions between them, and the child's survival technique: "Who do you like best, your mother or your father?" "Both the same." Also the father's material and conventional ambitions for his son, sexuality, guilt, beauty, furniture, even the hint of war outside ("A soldier posted a letter").

DM: For many writers of your generation, World War 11 was obviously a major event, and the spectre of war figures prominently in your early novels. Can you talk about what it has meant to you and your imagination?

AB: I'm typing this letter on 5 June 1994 while D-Day is being recalled. It seems "a quarter million Germans" were killed in Normandy. How many more of them throughout the war, and Brits, Americans, impossible to list how many more, and 20,000,000 Russians ... I know the grief attached the death of one young man, my brother Jerry. Can human consciousness begin to grapple with what all this means? Life is tough enough. We all die. But deliberately to smash another human being's skull in ... why am I going about this, no point. Have dreamed since I was nine, off and on, of German paratroopers swinging through the night sky and landing in the garden. The lunacy of war is certainly at the heart of my politics and my writing.

DM: At the time you wrote Buster how would you describe your fictional approach? It strikes me that Buster is fundamentally a realist fiction, with strains of naturalism and surrealism filtering in.

AB: I had no "fictional approach"! I was grappling with the translation of experience into words. "Experience" includes dreams and lies and imaginings and fantasies as well as "what happened" (if it did). …

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