I was familiar with Garth Greenwell’s work, yet I hadn’t read any of it until September of 2019. Shortly after I returned to New York from a year spent in Paris, I obtained a galley copy of his second book, Cleanness.
During my time in Paris, I dedicated months to researching different books that focused on love and sex, such as Plato’s Symposium, Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, and works by authors like D.H. Lawrence and Annie Ernaux. Reading Cleanness after my research and having spent a year abroad as an American, like Greenwell’s narrator, felt like a dream come true.
I hadn’t realized what I was looking for, but I knew I had found it when I read Cleanness.
Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You , was met with heaps of praise when it was published in 2016, with over fifty publications from nine countries naming it one of the best books of the year. His latest book, Cleanness , has been even more highly praised.
Structured in three sections, each with three stories, the novel centers around a relationship between the narrator, an American high school teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria, and R. and its subsequent loss.
With explicit and extended sex scenes, the book transcends any American literary sex writing that the reader has seen before and it maps the landscape of desire, taking the reader rapidly to moments of great intensity and then slowing down to take it in.
Greenwell, aged forty-two, began his career with an opera singing education, followed by a period of time devoted to poetry. He also taught high school for seven years and spent three in a PhD program at Harvard.
He considers himself to be “very unreligious,” but perceives his life as if he had a devotional outlook looking for something to be devoted to. This concept of devotion appears to be applied in his writing, which is lengthy and has been compared to Jamesian prose.
His work is directed toward devotion; exploring love, aesthetics, and the source of emotional anguish with such precision that reading him produces a spiritual feeling and admiration for the complexity of being human.
His artistic experience outside of fiction writing is probably the cause of his unique style, which avoids traditional forms and focuses on emotion through language.
When I had the opportunity to converse with him in early December 2019, prior to the launch of Cleanness in January, I was very enthusiastic to discuss various matters. We spoke in person in my living room with occasional remarks from my miniature pup, whom Greenwell managed to quieten down by squatting beside them. He was affable and speaking in a very similar manner to how he expressed himself in his writing, thoughtfully considering his responses out loud to ensure he was delivering exact answers.
— Written by Nellie Hermann
I. “A STICKY MASS OF AWARENESS”
THE BELIEVER: Cleanness is neither a novel nor a compilation of short stories. Apart from “The Frog King,” each of the stories is written in a single, lengthy narrative scene. Even though they are individuals, they are linked to each other. Could you explain how this format came to be? Was there a certain philosophy driving it?
GARTH GREENWELL: In an ideal world, this book would be referred to as a song cycle, which may sound excessively pretentious, but it is true. This work was inspired by Schubert’s Winterreise. A novel is composed of material that has a range of levels of intensity.
Viewing the book as a song cycle eliminates this variation; each of the nine sections is its own central point of intensity. In an opera, there are arias and recitatives, which can be likened to the moments of intensity and the less intense parts of a novel.
But in a single cycle, the recitatives are removed and only the arias remain.
BLVR: This book made me experience an array of emotions and I pondered over the role of its structure in creating this feeling. It made me consider poetry and music, which may be generally strive to evoke emotion in their readers or listeners, unlike a novel or a collection of stories.
GG: In my opinion, there are a number of narrative details that I am not confident in my ability to craft and that I simply don’t care about. I’m fine with providing the essential information for the sake of the plot in a concise manner, and not really worrying about it any further.
I appreciate authors who can quickly set up a situation of strong emotion that the writing then brings to life.
BLVR: Could you provide me with an illustration?
Recently, I have been enraptured by Jean Stafford and Thomas Bernhard, who both have a knack for setting up a story in an economically efficient way.
An example of this is present in Bernhard’s The Loser, where a man walks into a tavern and the next five pages are filled with a multitude of memories and thought processes. Afterward, the story resumes with him taking a step toward the table.
This is something I appreciate, when authors can create these frameworks that serve as vessels for the inner workings of a character. I am not looking down on narratives that focus on plot or cause and consequence, but prefer to have the sentences steer the story in the direction of the most powerful emotion.
As opposed to the “secret” type of writing, where the story revolves around the revelation of said secret, I prefer to lay out the truth right away and then explore how to handle the repercussions.
BLVR: In the book, the narrator ponders the relationship between the words ardor and arduous. Could you discuss the bond between love and labor? How did you end up writing the type of work you are currently doing and if so, how has writing been a source of significance for you?
GG: Art has certainly taken on a profound meaning for me. It is a source of what I would consider to be transcendent value. I find myself in the middle of two conflicting ideas; humanistic and nihilistic.
The practice of making art, and the art itself, provides a value that seems infinite to me, and I think that when we are in an ethical relationship with someone, we must recognize their life as having an infinite value.
On the other hand, when I look at something from a slightly different perspective, what once seemed to be of infinite value can become meaningless. It is true that most works of art fade away, and even our species may eventually cease to exist.
However, when I was teaching recently, I showed my students a video of Jessye Norman singing the “Liebestod” from Tristan und Isolde , and that is an example of something that I believe holds a great amount of value. Both of these truths are valid.
My interest lies in exploring the concept of epiphany and the profound, emotive experiences of the world that it can evoke.
This could be a realization of another human being, such as falling in love or a revelation about something in the world. In this book, I wanted to show my respect for such experiences, yet also remain skeptical of their portability.
For instance, in the last line of the title chapter, “Cleanness,” the narrator makes an unwavering pledge to R. That is only possible due to the epiphanic moment.
I believe in being respectful of such feelings, understanding that we are shaped by them, but also that we come to view them differently as we grow. This is reflected in the story “Mentor,” where the teacher is aware of the other side of heartbreak, but the student is still in that moment.
This dynamic doesn’t create a value hierarchy between the two, but instead shows that the realization is true in its context, yet that value may not be able to carry outside of the frame. This is something that seems to be true for many aspects of life.
Section Two: An Innovative Technique
BLVR: All of this brings up the notion of religion and faith, and the idea that if one takes a step away, it could all become unimportant. There is also a suggestion in Cleanness of the holiness of the human body, both in the capacity to give and receive love and to endure suffering.
An example of this is in the story “The Little Saint”, where the boy is seen as saintly due to his willingness to accept pain. Therefore, even acts of apparent cruelty are considered heartening and almost divine.
GG: It seems to me that one’s temperament is a major factor in how they view desire. I personally have a tendency to regard it with reverence, whereas others may find it foolish. I particularly appreciate when those who engage with their desires do so in a way that pushes them to confront the parts of themselves that can be frightening or distressing.
This can be seen in activities such as S&M, where humiliation and darkness are embraced in order to explore these desires in a safe and aesthetic environment.
I believe that our emotions are never singular; the moral conviction of something is never simple. I find that a humorous approach to sexuality can be oversimplifying. What interests me is a more sincere effort to experience the momentousness of sex or of desire.
From a distance, certain elements may appear absurd. However, within the context of the experience, those same elements can be electrifying, meaningful and eye-opening. It appears that when you immerse yourself, you are likely to recognize the contrast between opposites.
For example, in “The Little Saint” as well as in “Gospodar,” there is an inspiring blend of tenderness and brutality. Furthermore, in the chapter “Cleanness,” the narrator is taken aback by the epiphanic expression of love which is only accomplished by being cruel to R. and recognizing the capacity for cruelty within himself.
I’m not convinced that our emotions are ever straightforward. It’s not possible for us to experience tenderness without also having a hint of cruelty. More than that, I’m not interested in depicting a cruelty that is not accompanied by tenderness or a tenderness that is not accompanied by cruelty.
Writing fiction is a way of examining situations that are so intricate that we have to resort to the craft of art to comprehend them. If I feel like I can easily express my thoughts or opinions on a subject, then I’m not driven to write about it. I’m only motivated to write about the things that leave me baffled.
BLVR: Therefore, when you explain one of these stories, it appears as if you were aware of what you were doing while writing these stories. Is that how it was in reality?
I don’t believe that craft is the best way to describe writing; instead, it is an instinctive process. When I am drafting, I don’t look back or start editing. It is a feeling of excitement, but can also be full of anxiety and doubt.
Writing for me is a slow process, and I write by hand. I feel like I’m groping my way forward in the dark and the sentences are my tool for finding out what the story is going to be. I can tell when I’m close to the “heat” or when I’m facing a difficult situation and it’s usually not pleasant. I need to feel a sense of urgency when I’m writing in order to be successful.
I believe when it comes to experiencing art, if I know exactly what I am supposed to think, I no longer find it interesting. Art has the ability to make us uncomfortable and force us to confront situations where our moral understanding is lacking.
This is one of the ways art can help us live, by providing us with an altered view of the world that allows us to comprehend it using our limited moral tools.
Section Three: Composing Erotic Prose
BLVR: How about we discuss writing about sex? I’m curious why it is not featured more in American literature. Is there any accuracy to my theory that homosexual authors are tackling the topic more frequently and with greater intensity than heterosexual ones?
GG: It astounds me how little sex writing is created in English. It’s difficult to articulate why, especially since we have a general fondness for pornography. Yet, it seems that there has been a lie perpetuated to authors and writing teachers alike, that sex is an undefinable topic that can’t be accurately portrayed.
To have renowned, influential authors and instructors of writing say that sex can’t be written well, and it should not be attempted is incredibly obstructive! It’s startling to consider that there is this significant, basic human experience and literature can’t even approach it? But I unfortunately often hear such ideas.
The discussion regarding gay writing is quite attractive. There are undeniably some queer authors who have tackled writing about sex without any hesitation.
This might be due to the fact that the area of gay male sexual culture is quite open and has a tendency toward exploration and lack of embarrassment. Additionally, I ponder if John Updike’s critique of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Spell was so critical due to the lack of a connection to the religious structures of marriage and child in gay sex?
Q: What did he do?
GG: In 1999, The New Yorker published a review for The Spell in which he stated that the potential of marriage and procreation gives heterosexual encounters an air of sanctity that homosexual ones do not possess.
So it is possible that the same institutions granting this sanctity also prevent us from examining them in detail. I ponder.
I can comprehend how that could be logical.
GG: I can’t verify if that’s true, but it appears to be. I did think my book took sex as far as it could be taken. I wrote “Gospodar,” which is one of the most sexually open pieces, before What Belongs to You was released, so it was evident I was interested in it before any of the discussions regarding WBTY , but I was taken aback and somewhat disgruntled by how much everyone kept referring to the sex in WBTY.
There’s actually not that much of it! It truly demonstrated something about mainstream American publishing in 2016 that people were like, Goodness gracious. People would tell me, “You’re so bold to write these things.” I was like, What do you mean? ” And furthermore: “Why aren’t you paying attention to Samuel Delaney, who is really writing sex with a direct approach?” You know, there’s maybe three pages in the book that have explicit sex in them–and it’s not even that explicit! I believe people were like, “Oh, he’s using the word cock , like, you know, what courage!”And so I did feel–I began to joke, and then I think it wasn’t completely a joke–that I would gain all that conversation with the following book. I was going to compose a book that would justify all that talk about sex.
When I wrote “Gospodar” and “The Little Saint,” I felt like I was introducing types of sexual relations that had never been explored in the literature I write, nor subjected to the recursive Jamesian phenomenological sentence that interests me.
This combination of dedication to pornographic explicitness coupled to a commitment to the pressure a certain kind of aesthetic syntax can put on experience, was exciting to me as a kind of experiment. I wanted to use these tools to look at various forms of sex, such as S&M, as well as sex within a romantic relationship.
I knew that to write sex well, I had to be unflinching and committed to explicitness, and that the key to writing anything well is to look as long and as patiently as possible and with a full moral and aesthetic apparatus, and to try to see and write truthfully.
This is a matter of perspective, as I can see two sides of the argument. On one hand, I believe that sex is not particularly remarkable and that it is difficult to write about even a mundane experience such as eating a muffin.
However, on the other hand, I think that sex has a special quality due to the intense communication between two people. It may hold a certain power to uncover truths, but I also feel that it is ultimately just as hard to capture as any other human experience. Both of these thoughts seem to be true to me.
BLVR: My understanding is that sex is an experience that is beyond explanation by words. It is not something that can be easily described using our everyday language. But if we look at it this way, the question becomes: what is…
I have heard the argument that our language is too limited to capture the beauty of the world around us, but I think that we are able to do a lot with the tools we have. I have studied apophatic theology and the via negativa, which explores how we can use language in a more effective way.
Aesthetic writing is also a way to take a pedestrian tool and make it less pedestrian. I don’t think that sex is ever nonverbal, because it can be a very conscious experience, and it can often be productive of language, especially in my case as I have had many experiences involving erotica. It is wrong to think that language is inadequate to describe everything, because it is one of the most incredible inventions of mankind.
BLVR: Are there certain works or authors you would suggest for interesting sex writing?
GG remarked that Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children contain noteworthy sex writing. Additionally, they noted that D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was extraordinary and provided good anal sex writing, while Mary McCarthy’s The Group featured three paragraphs of jaw-droppingly good sex writing.
GG further mentioned that Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov had some remarkable, albeit uncomfortable, sex writing, and Alissa Nutting’s Tampa made a strong impression.
Lastly, they praised Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater for pushing the boundaries of mainstream American fiction with its erotic life of elderly and infirm bodies, including a memorable scene of the protagonist’s tender moment with his longtime mistress, where they experimented with urine play. GG concluded by expressing their admiration for Roth, noting that his writing does not flatten out the effect.
The late works of James Baldwin should not be overlooked. Giovanni’s Room is a memorable tale, and although the sex writing is abstract and obscure, it does not compare to his later works. If Beale Street Could Talk contains the best written masturbation scene I have ever read, and Just Above My Head offers intensely explicit sexual scenes, including some between men. These passages illustrate how sex writing can be a powerful way to address larger issues of history and trauma.
BLVR: It is said that you advise your students, “Logistics are attractive.” Is this a recommendation to utilize when writing about sex or a piece of advice in general regarding writing?
GG: I’m fond of authors who have attention to detail. Zola is an example of this lesson–I’m sure he’s a favorite of yours too.
The exactitude he brings to the way he crafts his stories–such as the means of descending a horse into a mine, the means of making alcohol, and the process of running a large store–is not dull, but instead invigorating.
It’s a declaration of loyalty to the existence of the world, a demonstration of the importance of using imagination to comprehend life. This is not a departure from the themes and plot of a work, but instead a primary part of it.
The nine times out of ten that sex writing fails, I find it is due to a lack of consideration for how the bodies interact with each other in the story.
Inadequate pressure is being placed on the reality of the world, causing a looseness and incompleteness that prevents the creation of psychological urgency, emotion, and suspense. A commitment to the logistics, or the physicality of the story, is a sign of seriousness to me in art.
It is not the over-explicitness of the writing that creates the failure, but rather the under-explicitness that renders the reader unable to care about the story.
IV: THE DEPTHS
The fourth section of this topic is an exploration of the abyss – a seemingly bottomless pit of unknown darkness. However, it can also be seen as a metaphor for the unknown depths of the human psyche.
BLVR: Regarding the concluding section of “The Little Saint”, which details a situation of unexpected violence, there is a phrase that reads “It was the pleasure of being a man, I think, I’m not sure I had ever felt it before.” Could you discuss the concept of masculinity in your work in relation to this line?
GG: The themes of “The Little Saint” and “Gospodar” both revolve around masculinity and the narrator’s own feelings of inadequacy when it comes to attaining it. In “Gospodar” he admires a man who is immune to being labelled “faggot”.
Whereas in “The Little Saint” he is conscious of performing a role that is not his and he desires to do something but hesitates because he doesn’t think he’s like the men he has longed for, who act without question. So, this is all about the narrator’s perception of what it means to be a man.
Masculinity is a fantasy, one that can include cruelty. In “The Little Saint,” the narrator discovers he can find pleasure in someone else’s suffering, despite having been a victim of the same masculine script.
His newfound pleasure teaches him something about himself, striking a contrast between the three separate phenomena of sex, pleasure, and desire. This type of sex writing is revelatory in its insights.
I believe that engaging in sexual activity can provide us with a great deal of insight into who we are. We often think that we understand our own needs and what we enjoy, but exploring new forms of intimacy–like promiscuity, cruising, or sex with strangers–can help us to uncover our own hidden desires.
In this way, sex can be a powerful tool in art and literature, allowing us to uncover the mysteries of our own being and make revelations about ourselves. Additionally, I agree that cruelty is an integral part of our conceptions of masculinity, and it is hard to remove that element from our ideas of manhood.
BLVR: I’m curious if there’s any counsel you could provide to students who are tackling topics related to trauma or other tough subjects in their writing.
GG: There is a conflict between the objectives of art and those of education. Education typically desires to keep students safe, whereas art often calls for taking risks. We may not be fond of the idea of art as hardships or the artist as a victim, yet it often takes a plunge into the unknown to create something remarkable.
Unhappily, there is no assurance of emerging unscathed. I am not able to encourage a student to take such a gamble. There is no assurance of returning.
I feel immense gratitude to artists such as Frank Bidart, who delve into difficult places and share what they find there with us. Writing is hard work, but it is not as difficult as some professions. And, it is perilous. To make great art, one must be willing to take risks. I believe that art is not a harmless endeavor. As an educator, I strive to not cause any harm to my students.
BLVR: Are there ever moments in your writing life that are challenging in terms of getting started? What methods do you use to begin your work? Can you elaborate on how you come up with your topics?
GG: I do not actively look for topics to write about; it is rather the topics that come to me that I find can no longer be ignored. This is expressed in different ways, such as my excitement when I encounter a place or situation that interests me, or my dread when a subject or situation becomes unavoidable. I experienced this while writing certain portions of Cleanness, specifically “The Little Saint” and “An Evening Out.”
For me, isolation and structure are the essential elements for writing. I can’t write on the road, or when I’m engaged in the outward-facing tasks related to my work as a writer. When I publish a book, I know there is going to be a period when I won’t be able to write.
But I can still write while I’m doing other work – I composed What Belongs to You while I had a full-time job as a high school teacher. I need to be able to manage my own time and write the same hour each day. After I have done my allotted hours, I have finished my work for the day, no matter if I haven’t produced anything.
There is no point in getting frustrated if I have just written a sentence or not even that. Stress to produce blocks my writing, so if I just put in the time, the writing will be done. I write to avoid boredom, because sitting at my desk for hours doing nothing is unbearable. Ultimately, I write to get away from that.
In John Updike’s review of The Spell by Alan Hollinghurst from the May 31, 1999 issue of The New Yorker, he states that the novel’s intertwining affairs lack momentum, and only focus on self-gratification.
Nevertheless, he goes on to note that stories about heterosexual partnering, however frivolous and based on self-interest, accident, false assumptions, and physical arousal, can still be connected to the propagation of the species and the traditional, sacred models of family.
In An Introductory Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies, Orlando O. Espin and James B. Nickoloff refer to via negativa as “the way of negation.” This concept is defined as “the experience of what God is not,” and is characterized by the idea that humans cannot use images or language to understand God’s love. Apophatic theology is the form of thinking and religious tradition that is based on via negativa.
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