The Hole Truth

••• Vine-Swinging Scholar Meets Lovecraft, Ponders Puppets

By the time we went back to San Diego, I had skipped two grades. I graduated from high school when I was 15 and went off to Berkeley, in the grand early '60s. When I graduated at 19, I had a Wilson fellowship to be a medievalist, so I went to Toronto. I found Toronto and graduate school very oppressive and I couldn't bear the heavy-duty scholarship and learning Old French and Old Norse and more Latin and more Old English and so I basically ran away to Hawaii.

You said you "swung from the vines." A fabulous experience for 10 years. I was very involved in Pacific culture, and I went back to graduate school in Polynesian archaeology and spent a lot of time in New Zealand and Australia and wrote a book about Hawaii. Five people bought it.

Anyway, I finally wound up back on the mainland again. This was the 1980s. At that time, the Penguin "Writers From the Other Europe" series came out, and the stories of Bruno Schulz appeared in this country for the first time. I began reading very deeply in Eastern European fantastic literature—Schulz, the Russians, Kafka. I had a little scholarship from the Goethe Institute to go to Munich to brush up on my nonexistent German skills and while I was there with my newly pumped-up German I started doing some of these intermediate translations of Schulz fragments, just to get more people interested in Schulz back in America.

The dark half: Victoria Nelson downloads the cosmos.
photo: Sylvia Plachy
The dark half: Victoria Nelson downloads the cosmos.

At the same time, I'd always had a deep love of ghost stories and horror stories. I had actually not read Lovecraft as a kid. I read him later, in the '80s. As a consequence of doing these little Schulz translations, I got invited to Poland to give lectures at a couple of universities about his impact on America and so on. In the course of writing these lectures, I noticed that Schulz and Lovecraft have the same art-life arcs, from the 1890s to about 1940. I was trying to reconcile my two loves, you know: of popular, supernatural literature and film on the one hand and this very high-art European stuff on the other. I wrote these essays—the one on Schulz and Lovecraft and the one on the "American Fantastic." Those were my steps in the direction of the book.

My only sadness about the book is that we never can stay very long in Capri's Blue Grotto or the Ice Age diorama at the American Museum of Natural History or with Goethe and the puppet theater his grandmother gave him because you have so much to tell us and so many people to mention—Lars von Trier, Dan Aykroyd, the Earl of Shaftesbury—and so many linguistic and historical pathways to take us down that I felt I was being dragged by the hand, kicking and screaming. For me, also, each bit opened up an enormous range of historical connections and explanations and literary interpretations and all of this, and I guess what was really going on in my mind was that I was finally making a connection between my medieval and classical training and my modern interests. I was looking as a medievalist at these things and seeing where they came from in our culture and getting very excited about that and feeling that I needed to sort of tease out all these connections and this is like this and this is like this. Alas, the image that comes to mind is that I've done the literary equivalent of Moulin Rouge.

The "Can Can Can"! I always tell people to read the book one essay at a time, sort of savor the associations. It's like a pound of halvah.

I didn't move back to Berkeley until '89. By that time, I was past 40. I began to feel all my scholarly juices coming back and I started going to every lecture at Berkeley there was. Literary criticism had changed a lot since 1966 so it was sort of a whole reduction process, and I started teaching a little bit again. So that framework of Berkeley and then Germany and Eastern Europe were sort of my guideposts. Basically, I think of the book as the Ph.D. thesis that I never wrote.

You said earlier that you're "a poster girl for being on the outside" and you have an editor at Harvard who "does not give a damn even if you didn't graduate from high school." That was a slight exaggeration on my part. Lindsay Waters is my editor. I think he's a very unusual editor because he's always on the lookout for unconventional projects. And he truly looks everywhere for them, not just at fully tenured faculty from Ivy League schools. [Greil Marcus's] Lipstick Traces was a Harvard book. It's that kind of thing.

As Victoria continues talking, I turn my attention to the wooden men in their tuxedos. I realize that I have been so busy listening to her speak about the divinization of the computer and polar romance novels and Lovecraft's syphilitic father and Papua New Guineans who rioted in the 1970s because they thought the dress mannequins in their first department store were the souls of someone's ancestors being desecrated that I had never asked her directly: What is the secret life of puppets?

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