Interview with Miquel de Palol: On architecture, geometry, literature, nested narratives, the dodecahedron as a 3D table of contents, the soundtrack for his books, and the choice between Immanuel Kant and the Marquis de Sade

The Untranslated: How did your studies of architecture shape you as a writer?

 Miquel de Palol: At the beginning of my youth, I made a life plan in which I envisioned architecture as a profession to earn a living and poetry as the expansion of my artistic impulse—I was following in a way the example of Spinoza, who was a lens grinder during working hours and a philosopher during the rest of the day. Soon I realised that both architecture and literature are very demanding endeavours that need one’s total dedication or are not worth pursuing at all. Architecture also has an important expressive dimension and requires a stylistic and ideological commitment by demanding a combination of technical knowledge and diplomatic work that takes almost as much time as the study of each project and its implementation. In the end, I had to choose one activity that I could see myself grappling with for the rest of my life. Only after my professional break from architecture did I notice its dimension and meaning in creative processes. I am often asked if I find it helpful to know how a house is structured or even if this knowledge has provided me with a model for structuring a text, especially if it is lengthy and complex. That might sound nice as a metaphor, but I’m very sceptical of such mechanism because the concept of “structuring” unites a vast range of attitudes and activities that considerably differ from one another. On the other hand, I’ve used, with a certain degree of freedom, some elements of architecture and some geometric figures in my writing, but when depicting them I utilised the symbolic rather than, let’s say, technical mechanism.

The Untranslated: You are obviously a voracious reader. Your books are marked by numerous sources of inspiration coming from fiction, poetry, philosophy, art criticism, and studies of a variety of topics, yet you have developed your unique, unmistakable style which is impossible to confuse with anyone else’s. Have you ever run the risk of becoming an epigone?

Palol: Not consciously. The risks of writing are usually the functions of ambition. I’m a proponent of being aware of one’s own strengths and limitations, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea to set the bar a little higher than the one you believe you can clear, having objectively weighed your abilities. It shouldn’t be raised too high because then it will be difficult to reach, but high enough so you can get out of your comfort zone and step into the terrain of challenge that is more likely to yield an authentic work. I am also a proponent of humility: not of false modesty but of self-awareness; conversely, it would be a diplomatic risk to assume that your purpose is to create an absolute masterpiece and that if it doesn’t work out, in Cyril Connolly’s words, you “might as well be peeling potatoes.”

The Untranslated: In our debut novel The Garden of Seven Twilights, you adopt the technique of nested narratives. The 8th narrative level is the farthest point that you reach. Were you tempted to go even further when working on the manuscript?

Palol: Yes. At first, I toyed with the idea of exploiting this conceit to the maximum (16 levels, 32, 64…), but I immediately saw that this had no value in itself, unless I wanted to get into the Guinness Book of Records. The human capacity to separate and distinguish is limited. There are examples of that in all fields. If we take any plane geometric figure like a square and divide it in half with a line, we can differentiate the two parts at a glance. The same holds true if we divide the square into 4 parts, into 9, into 16—up to 64, probably. After that, a person without special training will have to start counting. A grid divided into 144 parts already requires some time (and, depending on the size, good eyesight) to be correctly evaluated. At some point, the lines begin to merge, and the human eye perceives the square as a whole, just like it was at the very beginning when it hadn’t been divided yet. The same goes for polygons: triangles, squares, and pentagons can be identified at a glance. But you have to rely on counting in order to distinguish a polygon with 100 sides from one with 110, and when there is a certain number of sides, polygons will begin to resemble circles.

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Miquel de Palol’s outline for the embedded narrative structure of The Garden of Seven Twilights. Photos courtesy of the author.

Music is another discipline where this phenomenon can be found. During Bach’s famous visit to Potsdam, in 1747, the king asked the musician (whether it’s true or not—doesn’t matter) to improvise a six-voice canon, and then an eight-voice canon. Did Bach do it? Biber’s Missa Salisburgensis is another example of an attempt to build a Tower of Babel, and before that, there was Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alium, composed of 40 voices (8 choirs of 5 voices each)—the effect is fascinating, but the voices are not distinguishable anymore. The Baroque anticipates the extravagance of Romanticism, a period when the excess in proportions becomes a distinctive feature. 6 voices appear to be the limit of appreciable distinction. In the case of my novel, 8 levels of nested stories seemed to me a reasonable equivalent of 6 voices in music. I believe that dealing with more narrative levels would have been overwhelming for the reader unless we are talking about an exceptionally gifted person with a photographic memory. Of course, it is possible to build a literary contraption with 1,000 levels of successive embeddings, but the reader will have an endless flow of events in their head and will lose track of the action.

The Untranslated: The world you have created in Ígur Neblí is extremely cruel. It reminded me of Alexei German’s film Hard to be a God. It is not a place any sane reader would like to inhabit. Nevertheless, when reading the book, I had a feeling that there were undertones of a certain tenderness towards that world as if you were describing something ugly but dear to your heart. Is there any substance to that?

Palol: That’s a very good point. It’s hard for me to allocate preferences to my books and easy to fall back on instinct or base my opinion on the joys and rewards they give, which may determine my positive or negative attitude towards them. The Garden of Seven Twilights should be my favourite work because it has given me the most returns, but I have to confess that I harbour a certain weakness towards the books with a more complicated life. Ígur Neblí is one of them (as well as El Quincorn). It came right after The Garden …, and I designed it with opposite parameters: a unique, equiescent narrator instead of a group of first-person narrators, structural linearity instead of the diversity of temporal planes, past tense narration without any incursion into the present, hypotactic register instead of simple diction. When deciding whether I wanted to make the story irremediably ruthless, it seemed to me that, by contrast, some compassion for the characters would be more effective.

The Untranslated: In a recent interview, you said that you preferred the philosophy of the Marquis de Sade to that of Immanuel Kant. Could you elaborate on that?

Palol: It’s an idea suggested by Lacan­—in that peculiar, fanciful style of his—in the sense that Kant is a staunch defender of Law as the expression of a divine attribute made accessible to humans, whereas Sade, by not subjecting human acts to moral categorisation and by advocating existential synthesis of good and evil turns out to be, in practice, absolutely tolerant and compassionate. Kant would execute a criminal in the name of Law. But Sade would pardon the criminal in the name of the impossibility to hierarchise any action. Sade’s paradigm of life seems to me more inclusive, comprehensive, and sympathetic than that of Kant. As history has shown, however, there are a lot of cases in which the administration of justice serves the right purpose, and not allowing justice to be dispensed would spell permissiveness or even inducement to commit violence, abuse, murder, and genocide; it would mean the banalisation of justice itself with impunity as a consequence. Existence is full of contradictions and inconsistencies and, when they can’t be resolved, there is no other option than to learn how to live with them. This learning is conflict-ridden and, quite often, wild. I am not familiar with the institutions of justice in the United States and civilised Europe, so I can’t say how humane they are, but in my country those institutions are so defective that the occasions on which one has the impression of witnessing an act of justice are exceptions. A large part of the judges, especially those with the highest rank and the most power, are noisy prevaricators who look more like medieval inquisitors and mobsters trading favours than servants of the supposed Rule of Law. At this point, the causal circle closes, and I end up choosing Sade instead of Kant, whose “fair justice” proves to be non-existent.

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Imaginary Portrait of D.A.F. de Sade by Man Ray and Portrait of Immanuel Kant attributed to Jean-Marc Nattier

The Untranslated: How did you arrive at the concept of The Troiacord and how close is the published version to the one you had in mind, both in terms of its content and physical appearance? I am also interested in how you came up with the idea of including a model of the dodecahedron in the published version of the book.

Palol: The Troiacord is the product of a challenge, or an illusion, not in the sense of emotional expectation but in the sense of an uncommon perception that Catalan literature and the society in which it is embedded enjoy acceptable normality in the European context, which, as we know, was not the case at that time, nor is it now. The apparent intention to put yourself above your country may seem pretentious, even conceited. I proceeded from the idea of the Game, which is one of the main elements of The Troiacord. None of my books are exactly like the ones I had in mind when developing their concepts, but as years pass, this resemblance increases with each new book. I don’t know whether it means that I’m getting better at it, or that I’m gradually lowering my expectations. If the latter is the case, it is something completely unconscious and involuntary, and if I really believed that it was happening, I would do everything in my power to remedy it. A novel of more than 600 pages requires a good physical shape: memory, endurance, mental balance, ability to synthesise, flexibility allowing you to distance yourself from your text so that you can see it from a new perspective as well as to switch between two frames of mind: that of your everyday life and the one you adopt when writing. The best years for writing novels are between 30 and 60: at the early extreme the novelist is limited by insufficient knowledge of reality and of the human being, and at the late—by a lack of energy. Of course, we all aspire to overcome the constraints of nature. The Troiacord falls in the middle of this range, which, of course, does not automatically make it a good novel.  As for the table of contents that extends over the surface of a dodecahedron, I thought it would be illustrative and entertaining to include in the edition the model to be assembled so that the readers could follow, if they pleased, the story in its true dimension, that is to say in 3D. The titles of the chapters are inscribed around the vertices of the polyhedron, and there is also a zodiac sign in the centre of each face to demonstrate the cyclical character of the object and to show how it is based on a game of symbolic correspondences. The publication of the novel coincided with a delicate moment for the publisher, and the book did not receive due attention. It was my idea to publish it in five volumes (just like I had the first edition of The Garden of Seven Twilights brought out in three volumes), but both the dodecahedron of the table of contents and the slipcase were made very poorly, which resulted in an inconsistent object of low physical quality. I hope to rectify this in the future edition, which we are going to start working on soon, and I trust that the book will look a lot like the one I would make if I had an unlimited budget, with a certain surprise for the readers that I will keep secret for now. I also hope that English-speaking readers will soon have access to the U.S. edition, whose translation is already underway.

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Which Catalan authors should be more well-known and more widely read, in your opinion?

Palol: Catalan literature is currently in a comatose state, but it has always suffered from a provincial, self-limiting and cowardly inbreeding, with occasional bouts of irresponsibility and madness. The scene is so small and weak that there is no place for heterodoxies, and even less so when heterodox authors have the bad idea to dispute cultural policies and norms in general. The imbalances of appraisal are surely the product of insecure subjectivities and can always be debated, of course. But there are some dismissals that I find outrageous and scandalous. Despite their “political” presence, Llull, Maragall, and Espriu are completely unknown in terms of their influence on contemporary literature and their reception by the readers; no one examined Espriu’s kabbalistic practices until Rosa Delor’s study. There are more serious instances of neglect: Agustí Esclasans, Ventura Ametller, Bru de Sala, Julià de Jòdar.

Music is essential to all your writing. Not only do you include numerous references to musical works and composers, but sometimes your text itself mimics the structure of a musical composition, like Boötes for example. Which musical works would make up the soundtrack for your fiction?

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Elias Gottlob Haussmann, Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach

Palol: I have always been interested in the possible applications of musical structures to writing, in all possible aspects. The forms (sonata, rondo, toccata, vaudeville), the relationship between voices, harmony, and, above all, the counterpoint seem to me extraordinary expressive tools, which are capable of developing into various procedures and degrees of abstraction. Although they are present in the overall structure of most of my books, for some of those, like Graphomaquia and L-shaped Stories, they have specifically served as raw material. The soundtrack would be quite varied. Bach would be the most frequently featured composer along with the authors from his circle, not necessarily in the temporal or geographical sense. Besides some representatives of his immediate family (with Johann Christoph, Wilhelm Friedemann, and Carl Philipp Emanuel in the most prominent place), those would be: Biber, Purcell, Buxtehude, Fischer, Pachelbel, Telemann, Graupner, Handel, Zelenka, not to dismiss composers from other circles: Haydn seems great to me, Mozart, Beethoven and the romantics up to Bruckner, Mahler, and Strauss, and then Busoni, Reger, Schönberg, Webern, Berg, Boulez, Berio, Gershwin, Bernstein, Penderecki, Ligeti. I’d also make sure to include Cohen, Dylan, the Beatles, Clapton, the Rolling Stones, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits.

The Untranslated: The famous phrase “Let None But Geometers Enter Here” could serve as an epigraph for any of your novels. However, you have chosen to use it for Boötes. Does it mean that this book is the culmination of your geometric vision?

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Page from Harmonices Mundi by Johannes Kepler

Palol: It is perhaps the book in which geometric elements play a more significant role, both in structural and symbolic terms. With the passage of time, I increasingly appreciate the extraordinary capacity of geometric objects to serve as an organising principle and symbolic frame of reference for other disciplines of thought and expression. Among the classical series of equivalences (colours – gems – planets – days of the week – hours of the day – animals – humours – seasons – trees – numbers – letters, etc.), polyhedra and polygons seem to me one of the most lucid sequences of such kind, and, at the same time, one of the most abstract (aseptic) and the most loaded with argumental content. In Timaeus, Plato (as you know) correlates the five perfectly regular polyhedra (they have equal vertices, edges, faces and are also known as “the Platonic solids”) with the elements. I have the impression that he didn’t know what to do with the dodecahedron and therefore assigned it the role of the model of the universe, but it is also possible that he feigned ignorance to hide from the reader some mystery knowledge (probably Egyptian) that he didn’t want to reveal. From that point, the extension to other areas of equivalence seems obvious to me.

The fact that the reality of geometry is what it is and not something else is at the heart of the unresolved polemic on idealism: whether geometry (and mathematics in general) exists by itself, on the margins of human vision; whether we have invented it or only discovered; to what extent one thing or another puts us in the position of hubris and fallacy with respect to the reality that we cannot quite understand; whether in another quantum state 1 + 1 would not equal 2, but some other number. All that is part of the internal discussion in Boötes, and that is why I thought it was appropriate to give it the epigraph you have mentioned, which would have been excessive in any other book (probably with the exception of The Troiacord and The Testament of Alcestis).

This is an English translation of the interview, which was conducted in Catalan.

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2 Responses to Interview with Miquel de Palol: On architecture, geometry, literature, nested narratives, the dodecahedron as a 3D table of contents, the soundtrack for his books, and the choice between Immanuel Kant and the Marquis de Sade

  1. jaket1 says:

    Thank you so much for the insight you provide on this blog about brilliant authors unknown in the English-speaking world. I’m really looking forward to ‘The Garden . . . ‘ and ‘The Troiacord’ in English, although I have started learning Spanish after reading some of the incredible reviews on here.

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