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Katie Kitamura on Marriage (and Divorce) in Literature

Love and marriage may go together like a horse and carriage, but what happens when the horses are spooked and the whole procession is run off the road? Katie Kitamura, whose new novel A Separation charts the disastrous—and tragic—failure of a marriage, considers some of literature’s most heartfelt accounts of relationship failure

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Katie Kitamura

Katie Kitamura is the author of The Longshot and Gone to the Forest, both finalists for the New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award. Her third novel, A Separation, about a woman’s quest to track down her estranged husband, is published this month and will be translated into 14 languages. She lives in New York.

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Katie Kitamura

Katie Kitamura is the author of The Longshot and Gone to the Forest, both finalists for the New York Public Library's Young Lions Fiction Award. Her third novel, A Separation, about a woman’s quest to track down her estranged husband, is published this month and will be translated into 14 languages. She lives in New York.

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Your list brings together stories about the making and breaking of love—do you tend to prefer stories that bring characters together or tear them apart? Looking down your list, I could hazard a guess…

To quote from the great novel of marriage and its dissolution—“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Readers and writers are voyeurs and, at first glance, the collapse of a relationship is more interesting to observe. But I think it’s more complicated than that. Happiness is a difficult emotion to write about, difficult to capture on the page. Sustained happiness even more so.

What is it, do you think, that makes romance one of publishing’s most lucrative genres? And why are women particularly drawn to these kinds of stories?

I didn’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, but one of my favourite things about that series is the fact that a good percentage of the readership was male—by some accounts as much as a third. So something about the fantasy constructed in those books appealed to both men and women—and perhaps that’s the key to the most successful books in that genre.

A lot of stereotyping goes on when it comes to love stories, about the writer, the reader and the book itself.

Yes—in the sense that you’re trying to appeal to the fantasies of a mass public. But the truth is those fantasies are constructed of clichés and stereotypes anyway. All our fantasies are. You learn how to construct a fantasy from the social and cultural material around you—there’s nothing essentially unique about sexual fantasy, nothing spontaneous. You can find that either profoundly dispiriting or you can take comfort in the fact that in this regard, at least, there is some commonality between people.

The novelist Richard Flanagan has said that love stories are the hardest to write—would you agree? There’s the risk that it will end up being little more than hammy genre fiction. How does a writer guard against that?

It’s an interesting question—what are the demands of the love story? How can you satisfy those demands and also reinvent them? Alice Munro’s The Bear Came Over the Mountain is a wonderful love story, but it’s not overtly radical. What it does do is depict minute shifts in emotion with extreme precision. And that is still the best way to avoid the pitfalls of cliché or stereotype—they deal in generalities, writing precisely is the best guard against that.

In Reading the Romance (1984), Janice Radway went some way towards mapping out a definitive pattern governing how love stories work. Separation, of hero from heroine, is an essential stage during which things change, either in the hero or heroine or wider context—is this something you had in mind at all when you set out to write your novel? (It’s like you’ve taken one stage in the pattern and drawn it out, split it into sub-sections, analysed the minutiae of each.)

I think I was writing more in response to the stages of grief—or perhaps, against that delineation, because I wanted in this book to complicate the grief of the narrator. In the beginning of my novel, the narrator is contemplating the end of her marriage, that’s the loss she’s confronting. By the end of the novel, she’s grieving something far more complicated, something that continues to shift even as the narrative draws to a close.

Your first book, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, is a fantastic example of a writer combining key tropes from multiple genres—romance, psychological thriller, mystery….

It’s a novel that uses the narrative form of the psychological thriller, but in the service of exploring a single emotion: jealousy. It’s a simple set up: the unnamed narrator is newly married to the mysterious Maxim de Winter.

“The real love story in the novel is between Mrs Danvers and Rebecca”

Installed at his estate, Manderlay, she slowly becomes obsessed by his first wife, Rebecca. One reason why the thriller-like aspects of the novel are so successful is because the flattening of narrative goes hand in hand with the flattening of perspective when in the grips of jealousy.

And Mrs Danvers must surely be one of the most successful fictional characters of all time.

She is—she’s terrifying, but she’s also a character who is suffering for love. It seems clear that the real love story in the novel is between Mrs Danvers and Rebecca.

Landscape is another key character here.

Landscape is important, and du Maurier uses it brilliantly—not least because the landscape of Manderlay is one that represents power and the accrual of capital. Among other things, the novel is about class, and how those divisions regulate who is inside and who is outside—and by extension, who wants to serve from inside, and who wants to burn it all down.

Tell us about your next book, The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. Insofar as it’s a love story, it’s not a very happy one, is it?

I think this is the first time I’ve thought of The Portrait of a Lady as a story about marriage, but of course it is—it’s a story about the institution of marriage, and the diminished sphere of choice that was available to women at the time. Stories about marriage are clearly not just stories about love—sometimes not even stories about love. Marriage as a social institution, marriage as a form of power—these are at the heart of the story here. Even Isabel Archer’s seduction by Osmond is a narrative that is one of power rather than romance.

In a way, it’s less about the development of a relationship and more about the stop-start development of an individual—Isabel Archer. In that sense, it’s similar to the protagonist in Rebecca who, although never named and always referred to as Mrs M. de Winter, might manage to emerge as an individual once the long shadow of Rebecca is finally dispelled at the end.

I first read The Portrait of a Lady when I was in college, and most of my attention went to the first half of the book, when Isabel is defining herself as a young woman. I read it again a decade later, and I was primarily struck by the second half of the book, which is about the disillusionment of Isabel’s character—a disillusionment that also functions as an awakening. But that’s what’s extraordinary about Isabel Archer’s character—that she sees with the force of real clarity, and she carries on.

Like in Rebecca, the protagonist of James’s novel is, more or less, a normal woman to whom life-changing things—like a vast inherited fortune—happen. How essential is this factor?

The narrator in Rebecca repeatedly presents herself as ordinary—although I think the power of her narrative indicates that she is more than she admits. I think Isabel Archer is a little different, she is depicted as an exceptional woman ‘confronting her destiny’. I think James is referencing all the narratives of American exceptionalism, of American innocence and American savagery.

So she is symbolic in that sense, but I also think she’s an extraordinary character on the page, one of the great female characters in the history of the novel.

If we thought the relationship at the heart of A Portrait was dispiriting, your next novel, Lust by the Austrian novelists and playwright Elfriede Jelinek, contributes a brutal sense of perspective.

Lust is a novel about rape in marriage, and again is a novel about power relationships within marriage. It tells the story of Gerti, who is trapped in a sexually and psychologically abusive relationship—it’s unflinching and it’s possibly the most relentless of Jelinek’s novels, which is saying quite a lot.

It’s like a dark, twisted fable. The characters can seem quite archetypal—they don’t even have surnames. Plot, too, is secondary.

I don’t think Jelinek is interested in plot. She’s not even interested in psychology. She does play a lot with fairy tales—she has written a series of works for theatre that are sometimes referred to as the Princess Plays, or the Princess Dramas, and which deconstruct figures like Snow White or Jackie Kennedy.

“It’s the darkest version of a fairy tale, more Brothers Grimm than Disney”

And I suppose there is a simplicity to the narrative structure, that is fable-like. But it’s the darkest version of a fairy tale, in which daily violence is a key part. It’s more Brothers Grimm than Disney.

The novel apparently started out as a kind of exercise for Jelinek—she said she wanted to write an “erotic, indeed pornographic, novel from a woman’s point of view”. Does she succeed? What is it like to read?

I think it’s an interesting book because you can sense that she’s trying to locate a language that is not colonized by male experience, and that—even for a writer as brilliant and inventive as Jelinek—this is extremely difficult.

You have the sense of echoes and of citation, of language that has been appropriated. Whether or not she feels she succeeded, it truly does not feel like a novel that could have been written by a man, and reading it, you understand how rare that is.

It was very controversial when it was published.

It still is; Jelinek is still controversial—even with the Nobel prize, even with all the awards that she has won throughout her career, she remains undomesticated. That’s pretty extraordinary. She’s been recognized and rewarded by the institution [of marriage] but she remains apart from it.

She has a very distinctive prose style—the Nobel committee, awarding her the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004, described a musical quality to her prose.

I’ve spoken with a few of her translators, and they’ve all commented on the difficulty of translating her prose, because there are so many puns that are specific to the German language. But most interesting to me was something Damion Searls said, which is that one of the most challenging things is preserving the awkwardness of her prose, of maintaining its particularity. I don’t have any German, and can only read in the translation, but to me it feels like her translators have succeeded in this.

Tell us about your next book, My First Wife (alternative title: My Marriage) by Jakob Wassermann. It’s not very well-known—indeed, it was probably all but forgotten by most until Michael Hofmann’s translation in 2012.

Yes, it has an interesting publication history in English translation—Michael Hofmann identified a part of a much larger work that he chose to translate and advocated publishing as a stand-alone work. Obviously I haven’t read the entire work, so I can’t judge with much authority, but it certainly feels successful as a stand-alone work.

Rachel Cusk, reviewing Hoffman’s edition in the Guardian, called it “an anti-tale of many inversions”, which seems a pretty good way of describing it. My Marriage is in fact ‘My Divorce’. It’s fiercely autobiographical—how does that, and our knowledge of that, shape our reading of it?

I suppose for contemporary readers it might have been a little like reading Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I read it more or less as a straight piece of fiction, in part because I think however much a writer is writing about his or her own life, the process of writing is itself a pretty fierce form of fictionalization.

Having said that, the sheer amount of legal detail feels particularly true and particularly lived—to me, the legal proceedings are the most harrowing part of the collapse of the marriage.

Of all the books you’ve chosen it’s the one that most punts me back in the direction of your own, A Separation. For one thing, both take the form of a monologue; and they’re both accounts of undoings, of dissolution, of a space where something used to be and now its opposite, as well as a great many other things, may have crept in.

That’s kind! I read My Marriage in a state of transfixed horror—and returning to your earlier question, it’s hard to deny that the horror is amplified by knowing that it’s autobiographical. It’s a novel that doesn’t really rely on plot, but that sustains tension throughout, primarily through the close observation of the narrator.

The characters in Wassermann’s story—as in his life—are brought to catastrophic breaking point by the compulsion to perform the good, solid bourgeois marriage, with the kids, the mortgage etc. It makes me think of that passage in your novel: “The emulation became the thing itself… – perhaps wife and husband and marriage itself are only words that conceal much more unstable realities, more turbulent than can be contained in a handful of syllables, or any amount of writing.”

One thing I was interested in thinking about in writing this book are how we rely on roles and the performance of these roles, in order to maintain the cohesion of our identity—certainly socially, but also personally.

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My narrator doesn’t have recourse to those roles—she’s neither wife nor ex-wife nor widow exactly. That precipitates a kind of crisis. I think one of the most insidious things about the wife in My Marriage is the way she uses the symbolic power of the title ‘wife’ against her husband.

Let’s talk about your last book, The Argonauts, a memoir by Maggie Nelson.

This is a book that is about many things, but perhaps most successfully it is about a relationship that undergoes multiple shifts of identity over the course of the book. That relationship is observed with a great deal of precision and honesty, and because of circumstance it also reflects the social and cultural moment the book was written in.

It’s engaged in large part with unsettling or doing away with entirely the man/woman/marriage categories mentioned above—the recurring theme seems to be, ‘What happens if I am, or we are, a triangle but the institutions which structure our lives are circles and squares?’ What is Nelson’s aim?

For me, one of the reasons why the book is so successful is because it feels written from experience, rather than a thesis. It’s as if Nelson is simply writing about her relationship (with artist Harry Dodge) as it unfolded. That relationship doesn’t fit neatly into the categories that existed at the time, and she forcefully critiques the binaries of our society using an array of intellectual and linguistic tools. But that critique is grounded in experience. The stakes of the argument are personal.

There’s a great line, when Nelson and Harry head to the wedding chapel just before same-sex marriage is (temporarily) banned in California: “Poor marriage! Off we went to kill it (unforgivable). Or reinforce it (unforgivable).” What lies on the other side of all the binaries, prejudices and norms she has to ‘kill’?

I don’t think Nelson relied on those binaries to begin with, so the landscape she moves through is not necessarily one of wreck and ruin. It’s one in which certain structures have been cleared to allow her the space to define herself and her relationship as she sees fit. But let’s be honest. Those binaries and prejudices and norms persist—in fact, at this precise moment, they are rapidly regaining power.

She draws compelling parallels between love and sex and reading, too.

There’s a wonderful Michael Wood quote, which I’m going to bastardize here—but it’s something like, ‘I’ve read so many books that half of what I think I’ve lived, I’ve merely read in books.’ I think a lot of writers and readers are like that. The investment is real—you see your life through the filter of reading.

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

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