The novella Parallel Life (1985) is set in the early Christian world. It is a tale of desperate passion: when a young Greek, Melanippos, discovers his wife cheating on him, he leaves home to become a hermit in the Egyptian desert. There are two threads in the story, one following his arduous struggle, the other his errant wife, Hyacinthe, who eventually becomes a prostitute in Rome. This is a saint’s life — but which of the two is the saint?
A Self-Interview by Apostolos Doxiadis
Let us begin at the beginning: “Parallel Life” is the first piece of fiction you wrote – right?
Oh no! It’s the first piece of fiction I published. I was writing for about ten years before that. All very indulgent, half-baked stuff, full of interesting material perhaps, but lacking integration – lacking a voice. This question of voice (who’s doing the talking, or writing, in a work of fiction) seems to me to be absolutely central, at least in practical terms. Unless this aspect is crystal-clear, any attempt at writing is doomed to failure. Parallel Life was the first project where I found an interesting and productive, but also consistent, voice through which to tell my story.
Whose voice was that?
I thought it was obvious: the voice of a fictional early Christian hagiographer. Or, to be more precise, a less-than-totally-sincere fictional early Christian hagiographer.
‘Less-than-totally-sincere’ in what way?
Well, insofar as deep down he is quite the skeptic – an unlikely attribute for your run-of-the-mill hagiographer. Funnily enough, readers from Greek Orthodox circles (it is on this religious foundation that the text allegedly rests) saw Parallel Life as deeply Christian, whereas non-Christian critics saw in it a scathing critique of fundamentalist hypocrisy.
How do you explain that?
I think it has to do with society much more than with the book. People love to read their own meanings into things. No matter how much an author may want to have a story denote a definite meaning, it will end up functioning as a kind of Rorschach test for its readers.
A depressing thought to an author, is it not? What’s the use of trying to make yourself clear, if you end up being interpreted any which way?
This, too, is largely a societal matter. People experience things from their own viewpoints, and viewpoints are constructed from values as much as from anything else. A Marxist, a Freudian and a Calvinist will view the underlying causality of a historical incident – and thus, the incident itself – quite differently. It is the same with stories. At times of greater social cohesion (or, if you prefer, of fewer degrees of conceptual freedom) a story meant more or less the same thing to everyone hearing it. Now even poor Little Red Riding Hood can be seen as a proto-feminist fable.
Why, isn’t that what it is?
(Sighs) Let’s get back to the writing of Parallel Life, shall we? …So, after a decade of unsuccessful ‘raids on the inarticulate’ (to use T.S. Eliot’s grand expression) I finally had a subject that was particularly important to me at that time…
Was that the subject of jealousy?
Jealousy, amorous obsession, whatever you want to call it… Also, I had suddenly discovered the right voice for it. I was reading a lot of early Christian saints’s lives at that time – this for personal as well as for literary reasons – and it dawned on me that their clarity of viewpoint (a clarity springing from the authors’s very precise set of values and beliefs) could give shape to the story that I wanted to tell. For, you see, you need more than just a series of causally interlinked events to tell a story. You also need a viewpoint. In fact, it is the viewpoint that actually provides the causality interlinking the events. Remember old Archimedes: ‘Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the world’. To tell a tale you need a solid viewpoint, a solid ground on which the teller may stand and do his telling.
I believe Archimedes was referring to something quite different from storytelling…
Actually he was talking about levers – he had just discovered that their power increases proportionately to the length of the side on which force is exerted – but I think it also provides a good metaphor for narration. Strong viewpoints make for strong stories.
Define ‘strong viewpoint’.
A strong viewpoint is a clear-cut cosmology, a precisely statable, non-inconsistent theory about how the world (including the human beings who inhabit it) functions. Incidentally, human history itself, like any other smaller story, is also most influenced by persons or groups with strongly held beliefs…
Quite often tragically so – but why bring up history and influence, when talking about narrative?
Well, leaders often express their strongly held beliefs in the form of stories of some sort or other (on this, see also Howard Gardners’s brilliant book Leading Minds).
Isn’t it true that when this ‘strong point of view’ is carried to extremes in literature, you get pure didacticism (Socialist Realism or Nazi fiction), or proselytizing pamphlets, or such like?
Yes, but you also get The Iliad and The Divine Comedy and, closer to our times, the miraculous last stories of Leo Tolstoy. A modernist of no lesser stature than James Joyce called Tolstoy’s ‘How Much Land Does a Man Need’ – a thoroughly didactic story, if ever there was one – ‘the best piece of fiction ever written’. So, didacticism which springs from an ultra-strong viewpoint does not necessarily make for bad storytelling. Why, Gilgamesh, and the magnificent story of Jacob in the Bible, and Oedipus Rex were all written by authors with extremely clear conceptions of how the world functions. Through these works they wished to communicate a very definite ‘message’. Waiting for Godot, is another good example.
What about the saints’s lives you were reading at the time you wrote “Parallel Life”? Would you classify them as Great Literature?
What a pointless question! Is Diophantus’s Arithmetica great literature? Hammurabi’s Code? Darwin’s Origin of the Species? Look, you don’t just judge a text for its ‘literary quality’, you judge it for its truth value. Literature is literature by virtue of its greater proximity to human truth. Plato’s Republic is better literature than Mein Kampf, but not because Plato was the better stylist.
Although both works are equally repulsive ideologically!
Ah, you’ve been reading that sycophant Karl Popper again… No, no. Plato is a better writer than Hitler because of the depth, the sincerity, the true value of his vision. It is this that moulds the style.
‘Le style c’ est l’ homme même’, eh? Or are you quoting Keats, perchance: ‘truth is beauty and beauty truth’?
Look, I don’t want our nice friendly chat to degenerate into a profound philosophical examination of the Nature of Literary Truth.
So, what do you suggest?
Quit pestering me, will you? Just let me talk about my first book!
OK, OK, talk about your first book, Your Highness.
Thank you. As a matter of fact, I’ll oblige you and indulge in an aside. Early Christian hagiography has indeed produced some great texts. Perhaps not ‘literary masterpieces’ in the sense that you mean, but stories that have the capacity to move us deeply, while at the same time serving up the essence of a noble human adventure. Do not forget that, both collectively and individually, the ascetics of the first Christian centuries performed an amazing anthropological experiment. Their ‘vioi’ (lives) are important because they record it.
The ‘amazing anthropological experiment’ being?
The study of the negative forces within the human being. Perhaps the archetypal saint’s life is the Life of St. Anthony, the first renowned Christian anchorite. Look at Bosch’s painting or read Flaubert’s book inspired by this subject, and you will see practically the whole scope of the underside of the human soul (whether you call it the Unconscious, or The Deadly Sins, or whatever). From The Upanishads, and Buddhist, Christian or Muslim texts, through Dostoyevsky and Freud, and even on to contemporary writing on ’emotional intelligence’ and whatnot, you will observe a constant preoccupation with the ‘fallen’ nature of humankind, the taxonomy of the human being’s tools for the destruction of self and others. Early Christian asceticism was an experiment on the same lines as Aldous Huxley’s taking LSD under medical supervision. Its central premise was to let the ‘passions’ (negativities, sins, frailties, or whatever you want to call them) rage under controlled conditions. Elaborating on the more restricted repertoire of the Devil’s tricks in his desert meeting with Christ, Anthony submits himself to every possible temptation, while at the same time forbidding himself the possibility of ‘acting things out’. Everything was to be experienced directly in the laboratory of his soul.
This is also what is supposed to happen in psychoanalysis, is it not?
Yes, the process is quite similar: to understand and resolve inner conflicts, you first must shed light on them, and view the monsters, but all this within the controlled and protected environment of therapy.
So, is your Father Alypios, the protagonist of “Parallel Life”, modeled on St. Anthony?
It’s interesting that you should ask …
I only ask interesting questions!
(Ignores this) … as the first stimulus for setting my own inner story of obsession within the context of early Christian asceticism came from reading the first lines of the life of Saint Paul the Simple (Hagios Pavlos ho Aplos), which is included in Palladius’s Lausaic Story. And Saint Paul the Simple was, interestingly enough, a disciple of Saint Anthony.
Yes. This is how his story begins: “One day, Paul came back early from the fields and found his wife fornicating with another man: ‘You two continue what you’re doing’, he said. ‘I’m leaving. I’d rather be a herder of scorpions, than live with an adulteress.’ Following this statement (‘a herder of scorpions’ – what a formidable expression!) he departs for the desert, seeks out the great Anthony, and demands to become his disciple. Here, of course, all similarities end.
Do we never learn what happens to the wife, in Saint Paul the Simple’s life?
Alas, no. There’s nothing like fiction for answering forever-unanswered questions.
How influenced were you from the actual style of writing of the early Christian saints’s lives? Is “Parallel Life” a parody almost, a pastiche?
No. There is some irony, of course, but its purpose and its form are not those of parody. In style, Parallel Life is more ‘literary’ than a real saint’s life. It is of course, to a certain extent, an imitation of the outer style, but this can only go so far. Most important, though, is the story’s debt to the oral style, which allows one to move swiftly to the heart of the matter.
Saints’s lives were written works, though, were they not?
Yes, but their written form owed a lot to their oral origins. More likely than not, early Saints’s lives (before the highly erudite Byzantine scholars took over, injecting into their material a strong dose of the stylistics of Attic oratory) were really nothing much more than compilations of oral tales. This is definitely true for the life of Saint Anthony, which is largely anecdotal. Legends surrounding the great man’s life, heard from travelers and pilgrims, were finally put down on paper – or more likely papyrus.
There seems to be a strong oral element in some of your other works as well.
Yes, in fact I am a strong believer in oral communication. I tend to view the written text with mistrust.
Oh, what a strange admission for an author? Why should we all go out and buy books then? And I mean yours, too.
A little humility has never hurt anyone, you know. To be aware of the shortcomings of one’s medium is no weakness.
So, what are the shortcomings of the written text, O Most Humble One?
Well, there is this object which I’ll call the Big Long Text (we can call it BLT, if you like) that I believe is going out of fashion. I worship Moby Dick and Nicholas Nickleby and The Brothers Karamazov but I think that this kind of novel cannot be produced today or, if it is, then only as a curiosity. The same can be said of non-fiction. BLTs or, sometimes, MLTs (Medium Long Texts) and occasionally SLTs (Small Long Texts) are just not what people relate to, anymore. And, to be alive, an art-form must have an audience – a real audience.
‘Real’, meaning lively, interesting, warm, appreciative – i.e. not an audience of bored-out-of-their-heads aesthetes.
I detect the influence of Alfred Hoos, here… But, pray continue!
Thank you. So, whether this is due to the change in reading habits, living habits, the upsurge of new media cropping up every week, or the overall ascendancy of the visual (I’m sure the great Marshall McLuhan would have many interesting things to say about this), the notion of a long uninterrupted text, a BLT, is becoming obsolete, slowly but surely taking the same road as the epic, the steam engine and the panda.
You are not prophesying the Death of the Novel, by any chance, are you?
I may be naive but I’m not that naive. No. As your mischievous smile and your high-pitched nasal tonalities imply, the ‘Death of the Novel’ has repeatedly failed to occur. And it probably never will. The reason is that art-forms don’t actually die, but are transformed into something else, whether similar or not-so-similar. And the novel today is definitely not what it was a hundred, or even fifty years ago.
Yes. The ‘novel’ is not actually dying, but its BLT form is gradually giving way to other things, to new forms that will, in the near future, define the term.
Oh, like shorter works, works employing the image in addition to the word (like the graphic novel, for example), works basically non-reliant on the traditional, long-winded, many-charactered BLT, the leviathan of fiction.
And how is the oral tradition pertinent to this?
The BLT is the paragon of written culture. The long, nearly endless narrative can only be expressed in written form. Memory cannot hold it and an evening of storytelling cannot contain it. An oral tale, on the contrary, is usually absorbed at one sitting: this is one of the main attractions of the oral style. Increasingly, you see around you books (novels) that can be read from first page to last in no more than, say, 3 or 4 hours. In this respect, these books are closer to an oral source of narrative fiction.
Like your books, for example?
But clearly, brevity is not the principal characteristic of the ‘oral style’.
Not ‘the’, but ‘one of the’ principal characteristics. There are others, of course: shorter sections, a simpler vocabulary, a more focused, clear-cut structure and many others (read Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy on this, or refer to Bernard J. Hibbitts’s good on-line guide to orality). For me, the quintessence of orality is the sense of a voice, the sense of a physical, living, breathing person doing the talking.
How about a physical, living, breathing person doing the writing? We are talking about books are we not?
I guess it’s this sense of whether deep down you are dealing with a writer or a speaker, an author composing elegant phrases or a person giving you a less mediated part of his or herself. I think the question of an ‘oral’ or ‘written’ style should be discussed at the level of ‘how many degrees removed’ it is from immediate, oral speech. Merely transcribed, everyday discourse would be impossible to get through on the written page, but trained oral storytellers tend to develop a style that does away with the more annoying aspects of trivially constructed discourse (repetitions, non-sequiturs, bad syntax, etc.). And it is the style of these speakers that is recorded in great examples of ‘written’ oral literature.
The Icelandic Sagas, Italo Calvino’s transcription of Italian folk-tales, Maurice O’Sullivan’s Twenty Years A-growing and, of course (if you want to include oral works polished to perfection by repetition) the Homeric poems.
OK. Enough said about style. Let’s talk about the personal conflict that led you to write “Parallel Life”.
I’ll pass. Whatever is worth preserving of it is there in the book. So read it.
I already have done. Remember ?
Το εύρημα του αφηγητή που κρύβεται ως δήθεν απλός αναγνώστης ή ανυποψίαστος μεταφορέας πίσω από το χρονικογραφικό κείμενο μιας εποχής, μας υπενθύμισε πρόσφτα, και με ιδιαίτερη επιτυχία, ο Ουμπερτο Έκο στο «Όνομα του Ρόδου». Ο Απόστολος Κ. Δοξιάδης μας υποδεικνύει με τη σύντομη ιστορία του μια διαφορετική εκδοχή:…
Το βιβλίο της χρονιάς ήταν, σίγουρα, η μαρτυρία του Χρόνη Μίσσιου – δεν είμαι ο πρώτος που θα το πω…… Όμως δίπλα στον Μίσσιο θα έβαζα και ένα δεύτερο «αιρετικό» της λογοτεχνικής συντεχνίας, μια δεύτερη απρόσμενη παρεμβολή, που διασώζει το μέτρο της πεζογραφικής ανάγκης και την αναδείχνει σε αποκαλυπτική μαρτυρία. Μιλάω για το βιβλίο του Απόστολου Δοξιάδη, «Βίος Παράλληλο». Πιστεύω …continue reading…