Stephanie LaCava talks to Kate Zambreno
I was skeptical when a friend told me to read Kate Zambreno’s work of literary criticism about modernist wives entitled Heroines, most likely out of self-preservation. I have my own heroines, they won’t leave me alone, they show up again and again in essays and fantasies. From what I understood, this book would explore women of this sort, in particular Zelda Fitzgerald and Viv Eliot (T.S. Eliot’s first wife) and how, perhaps, their own artistic voice was drowned in accusation of hysteria, their stories relegated to the fiction of their respective spouses. I was terrified. Then, I read it—all the research and personal anecdotes. I fell in love with one girl in particular, the writer Zambreno. When I heard of her novel Green Girl, I didn’t hesitate this time. Therein, I found evidence of the very processes Zambreno discussed in Heroines, which became a kind of magical notebook for deconstructing Green Girl. (If only all novels came with such a companion.) Green Girl is the story of Ruth, a young American living abroad in London, pained and fascinated by beauty and loneliness. Her references include the likes of Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter and Nico’s song, “Femme Fatale.” These are the women that inhabit my own pathetic scrapbook, and those of many contemporary girls. What was most striking, though, was Zambreno’s scathing rendition of a girl fixated on aloof icons, desperately channeling their allure and mystery. This strange connection is, I am sad to say, one of countless others that reminded me of my own struggles and those of other women I knew, some unlike me altogether. Isn’t that why we love a book, because it makes us a little mad with recognition? Green Girl also made me want more of Zambreno’s work and its ability to examine the perceived disconnect between beauty and intelligence, cipher and reality—even, simply, a woman and her work.
Last Wednesday, we met at a tea shop and began furiously discussing where our sensibilities intersect, the women—and men—of the French New Wave, struggling with embracing aesthetics in critical work, even an appreciation for Sir John Everett Millais’ portrait of Ophelia. We then went across the street, up the elevator and into my writing office where we sat in a windowless room and continued our conversation.
I. THE PUBLIC BECOMES A COLISEUM
STEPHANIE LACAVA: It surprised me that you were a fan of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and he was so influential in many parts of Green Girl. I found this fascinating because it’s such a disparate reference from your stable of cinematic and female icons.
KATE ZAMBRENO: It continues to be an important reference point for my work, this collaged text born out of intense obsession, and especially his chapter on the flâneur, the urban stroller.
SL: I saw it on two levels in Green Girl. Not only did you directly reference it with quotes before chapters and scenes surrounding the commerce and crowds of Oxford Circus, but also, I think, in the way Heroines was formed and subsequently influenced Green Girl. It seemed all about the fragmented thought and then a natural cohesion of vision.
KZ: I was accumulating the notes for Green Girl and Heroines at the same time, and Heroines especially, a book that came out of a decade-long notebooking process, was a slow accumulation, a gradual accretion. I think in some ways Heroines was an apologia for the type of novel that Green Girl was—I was philosophizing and working through an existential novel of a shopgirl, a flâneuse. Have you ever read Gail Scott’s My Paris? It’s very inspired by Benjamin. The female narrator, keeping this notebook while in Paris for a limited time, is voluptuously reading and engaging with the book, and I pulled from it, in Green Girl—for an epigraph, “Why can’t the flâneur be stoned?” It’s one of several important contemporary novels that I talk about at the essay at the end, on walkers in literature [in the new Harper Perennial edition]—these innovative and radical novels of women writers, often queer, engaging with the notion of the walker and the city and contemporary space. And these books aren’t talked about as often in the mainstream, but they’re really important to me. Works by Gail Scott, Renee Gladman, Amina Cain, Danielle Dutton, Pamela Lu.
SL: Do you know Lauren Elkin? She’s at work on a book about the flâneuse.
KZ: She’s writing about Bowen, Woolf and Rhys, right? I really wrangled—in Green Girl—with Benjamin’s chapter on the walker—and the ending scene of Green Girl was also inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Man in the Crowd,” the walker disappearing into a crowd in ecstasy, that Benjamin engages with as well.
SL: I love that scene when she’s lost in the crowd and you’re just listing the types of bodies before that.
KZ: So much of the book takes place in crowds—on the street, working in the fragrance section at the department store, the holiday rush. I am interested in this idea of deconstruction and urban space, and whether that’s possible for this girl who’s so aware of her appearance and her identity, as it’s formed from the outside, whether she could dissipate ecstatically. I’m thinking of Anne Carson’s reading of ecstasy from its origins of ekstasis in her essay “Decreation,”to escape outside, a sort of mysticism. I was really compelled, in Benjamin, to see how close the chapter on the prostitute is to the chapter on the walker.