Jasmina Tacheva talks with Bulgarian-American author Zlatko Anguelov about his newest book, Erotic Memories (2012), and the ideas of love, devotion, harmony and memory on the border between two cultures.
Zlatko Anguelov, born 1946 in Varna, Bulgaria, is a Bulgarian-American writer, a Canadian and American citizen who lived for 21 years in North America, and recently moved to Southampton, United Kingdom. Although his non-fiction, medical, journalistic, and critical writings are in English, he writes fiction in Bulgarian and follows Bulgarian literature regardless of the place he lives in or the language (English or French) he speaks on a daily basis. Ten years after the publication of his memoir “Communism and the Remorse of an Innocent Victimizer” (Texas A&M University Press, College Station, TX 2002), a collection of five novellas, titled “Erotic Memories” appeared in the Bulgarian language (Ciela, Sofia 2012).
Currently, Zlatko is a staff writer with the International Writing Program in Iowa City, IA; he writes biographies of the writers who have studied or taught at the world-famous programs in creative writing at the University of Iowa for a website called Iowa Writing University. These profiles are also featured in the iApp Iowa City, UNESCO City of Literature.
Jasmina Tacheva, born and raised in Bulgaria, is a poet, journalist and translator living in Buffalo, New York. She is the author of one book of poetry, Несподеленост (Unrequited), and the co-author of a fiction book, The Legacy of Lysimachus. She edits the online literary journal Public Republic and the art blog Absinthe-Minded. Her poems, fiction and articles have been published in numerous outlets, including Public Republic, The Quadrangle, The Griffin, Philosophia, The Institute of Modern Politics, Kultura, Literaturen Vestnik, Knigolubie, and others.
J.T.: In The Symposium Plato states through his character Aristophanes that, “[l]ove is simply the name for the desire and pursuit of the whole,” and also that when one finds a true lover, “the pair is lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight … even for a moment.” And yet in your book you often talk about the idea that “there can’t be an absolute balance.” You also describe the “strange, juicy mix of admiration and disgust” that sometimes arises between two people in a passionate relationship, so allow me to begin thus: do you believe that harmony between a man and a woman is ever possible?
Z.A.: What is possible is the illusion of harmony. By definition, harmony is the full resonance between two entities or processes – and in a physical sense, that can only be achieved between inanimate objects or processes, where the components follow natural rules. People have will and autonomy, two properties that make them ungovernable by the laws of nature.
Now, it seems to me that you want to frame our conversation about the complexities of love in a philosophical perspective, and I feel I want to resist that. For two reasons. One is that we are discussing novellas about love, that is, an artistic representation of love relationships, which are inevitably laden with unpredictability and thus, escape formal logic; they follow the “ill”-logic of the soul. They cannot be generalized – and there is nothing more prone to generalization than philosophy. And two, philosophy can never help people love each other, or even more so, love each other in a kind of prescribed way. Then, why bother to search for the ideal? The Greek philosophers were idealists, and they, as well as thousands of thinkers between them and the 21st century, have attempted to present love as a special, elevated form of spirituality that takes people out of the mundane triviality of their daily lives.
I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in love that is tangible, and experienced spontaneously on a daily basis: as part of our dreams, careers, fulfillment, failures, aspirations, procreation, rises and falls, etc. Love is out there for grab. And everyone makes of it whatever he or she is capable of. It is this capacity to love that defines our souls, and makes us distinctive individuals.
In this context, how can we talk about harmony? Instead, it is a struggle to overcome our selfishness. We are fundamentally egotistic creatures. Love, as I have experienced it and understood it, is a way to satisfy our egos. The paradox is that it comes at a price: love makes us dependent on our beloved (to a degree of enslavement). And if a person can realize that the only way out of this dependence is actually to turn the egoistic love into altruistic, and at the same time succeeds to persuade his or her partner to do the same, we may hope that a harmony can be established. But it will be but a temporary harmony, as we all change throughout our lives, and the changes are more often than not unpredictable. Here, we meet another paradox: in the majority of cases, we fail to use our will and autonomy to change in the direction that would keep us in harmony with our partner in love. We usually fall prey to our ego.
This view on love reflects human imperfection, which rarely allows humans to achieve the ideal love. Yet, it helps me think of love as a great instrument of personal improvement. If your heart is really hot and shaken by someone, and you desperately want to keep them longer near you, you begin to willfully make changes (people call them compromises, but they are good, positive compromises) that are in sync with the changes of your beloved. Think how rare this can happen between two people: either of them to change for the sake of the other.
To sum up, illusion of harmony and temporary harmony is not so bad, after all. We shouldn’t aspire for the impossible perfect state that our mind can conceive of but never really achieve.
J.T.: Would you say, then, that the zeal for harmony and perfection that has been handed down to us by the ancient Greek thinkers has a vertical trajectory, with the absolute being the final destination, while your characters inhabit a world that is rather spread out horizontally and thus, is inclusive, because it does not dismiss any possible manifestation of love? By the same token, I find the idea you just expressed – “I’m interested in love that is tangible, and experienced spontaneously on a daily basis: as part of our dreams, careers, fulfillment, failures, aspirations, procreation, rises and falls, etc. … It is this capacity to love that defines our souls, and makes us distinctive individuals.” – to be indicative of both the emotional and cognitive canvas of Erotic Memories. Is that so?
Z.A.: Yes, it is. The division into vertical and horizontal trajectories of love is an artificial construct. We are endowed with the capacity to love – humans, not God – and everyone of us makes out of this capacity whatever he or she can. We people cannot surpass ourselves.
J.T.: So, you believe that we can find love or love can find us anywhere, anytime. It surely equips us with hope that the pangs of separation won’t last forever, since sooner or later a new love will come our way. But on the other hand, doesn’t this exclude the possibility of the one and only great love that can last forever? Do you think there are, so to speak, “greater” and “smaller” loves in one’s life?
Z.A.: Of course, there are. Today’s world is a very dynamic and complex one, and our encounters with other people have increased dramatically. Our world also is a very pragmatic one. If in our youth we may have dreamt of the “one and only great love,” of which we have read in the books, reality knocked us down to our senses very soon. However, there are also many excellent books that speak of love in real life. For example, my wife and I like to remember André Maurois’s novel Les Climats published in 1928, which I read as a young man and she read as an adolescent girl. Turns out that this novel about the intricacies of marital love and infidelity has significantly shaped her and my ideas of marital love for good.
The ideal love is not interesting. It is defined in an abstract way, without taking into account human nature. We always love a concrete person. The evolution of this love is what sits at the core of our emotional well being. The standard of “ideal” is set by everyone for themselves. Any intimate relationship is a world in itself and there can’t exist universal standards. In this sense, everyone is actually able to experience the ideal love as defined by them. We usually hear about failed love relationships, because of the pain they cause and because we like sharing our pains. There are many happy love relationships of which we don’t hear, but they exist out there, in silence and quiet happiness. Call them ideal, call them great love, if you wish, this won’t change their life nor will it serve as an example of the ultimate achievement. Who needs such examples?
J.T.: Orson Welles famously said that “[o]nly through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” By the same token, in “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” Raymond Carver’s short story you allude to in one of your stories, Mel exclaims, “All this, all of this love we’re talking about, it would just be a memory. Maybe not even a memory.” If the authenticity and reliability of even the real occurrence, the actual relationship, can be questioned and called an “illusion,” let alone the mere memory of it, then what is the value of memories to you, especially seeing that they appear to be the gravitational force of your narrative around which all plots revolve?
Z.A.: The emphasis in Welles’ quote should be on “for the moment.” He obviously felt the same temporality of the love harmony I mentioned above. Now, I wouldn’t say that Mel’s account of love as bound to only turn into a memory – and perhaps even into something we are bound to forget – is “by the same token.” It is of quite a different order, and I wouldn’t use it as enforcement of the illusion idea. In the context of the two couples’ conversation over a bottle of gin in Carver’s story, this is just a passing remark typical of such conversations, which expresses Mel’s nebulous regret, anybody’s vague regret, that love cannot last forever. It is a typical common metaphor of the human condition, and a subconscious acknowledgment that the ideal is indeed unachieveable. He regretted the concrete love he was talking about. Love as a thrill, an infatuation, love before the experience of its long-lasting consequences. Moreover, love as a memory is the opposite of illusion. Usually, our memory cleans up the bad and ambiguous feelings that always accompany love while it lasts, and actually, helps us believe in the illusion that love is something beautiful and different from everyday life. Caveat: when it hasn’t ended in full disaster or outright personal war.
And you may go back to the story “Crush” and reread the passage about Carver’s WWTAWWTAL to realize that I’ve used it with a different meaning in mind. And that meaning can be summarized in the claim that love is so beautiful and overwhelming in its various manifestations that it can justify even violence, killing, and suicide. The entire confession of the narrator in my story is, if you think about it, an attempt to justify his feelings for Adelia, that is, to justify his emotional ambiguity. Why is he ambiguous, though, and why is his ambiguity the most natural occurrence in a man who lives life instead of imagining it or philosophizing about it? It is because he lives in a harmonious relationship with his wife. But he lives in the aftermath of love.
Let me explain what I mean by that and how it relates to my using memory as a literary device. It is no wonder that you, and all readers for that matter, have focused on the crush Yovo experiences for Adelia, considering that this is the love story I’m interested in. As a matter of fact, the true love story, and the love story that made me write “Crush,” is the love between Yovo and his wife Elena. It is in the background, but it is key to understanding the soul-searching Yovo undergoes – using his memory – in his desire to sort out his relationship with Elena whom, he is fully aware, he has hurt. It is no accident that Yovo tells the story of his crush in the form of a confession for Elena. Inadvertently, the readers focus on the “fresh” love, the hot love, because this is what we think love is; and love after 10 or 20 or even 30 years of relationship is not regarded as love anymore. It is regarded as cohabitation. It is, really, the aftermath of that Love.
It is this aftermath that preoccupies me as a writer. It is in these long years after the flames of love have died out that harmony may or may not replace them, in the cases they haven’t turned into ashes. Telling the story from the memory of a person who lives in the aftermath, that is, lives with all the consequences of his love behavior – the ups and downs, the euphoria and the defeats, the elegy as well as the violence, the longing and the separation, the successes and failures, the pains s/he has caused – is in my mind the most convincing way to make a story about love at once gripping and believable. The omniscient writer can describe the thrills of the new love, but a person who has kept this new love in his memory while continuing to experience its aftermath for many years, can analyze it in 3-D and convey a fuller understanding of its meaning for the two lovers who remained together for life. That is how literature can play an educational role with regard to people’s emotions.
J.T.: In one of your characters’ own words, “[t]here is something cruel in the infantilism of the men here: they are like children who love torturing animals, but without the innocence,” and also, “Lust is a weakness of men, not a means of exercising power.” What do you think prevents men from properly assessing their abilities and opportunities; what is this “infantilism” like, what causes it and keeps them from reaching emotional maturity?