THE SETUP: In Gustaf Sobin’s third novel, The Fly-Truffler, language is the love object. Philippe Cabassac, a middle-aged professor of the dying language of Provencal, falls in love with and marries his young student, only to have her die when she miscarries his child. Cabassac is a fly-truffler he hunts the fungi in the antiquated Provençal way, using a stick to find barely visible flies that sit on their unhatched eggs, knowing that truffles are buried beneath them. After Julieta dies, he finds that eating truffles induces lifelike dreams, which allow him to resume his relationship with his dead wife. In his dreams, Cabassac and Julieta talk feverishly and make love and, eventually, have a baby. As his dreams become more vivid, his real life begins to slip away to the point where he loses everything.
BELLEN: When Cabassac first notices Julieta, she is sitting in on his class at the university, “not merely listening but recording his each and every remark.” In the novel Julieta’s character is a blank slate to be projected upon: mother, daughter, wife, lover. She is a poetic abstraction as well as a prose character. How do you reconcile the two mediums in Julieta?
FOER: I don’t know that I can reconcile the two Julietas. Sobin wants to have it both ways: for her to be Cabassac’s poetic object (abstract, airy, without nuance or any of the idiosyncratic habits that make people individuals) as well as a person in her own right, usable fuel for plot. It’s because of her, after all, that Cabassac’s life changes from that of a rather ordinary college professor to a kind of hallucinatory breakdown. And without our knowing who, or even what, she is, it’s impossible to know why Cabassac loved her while she was alive and why he obsessed over her after she died. Narcissism? A “poetic love” of what is hidden, of the “underworld,” like his love of truffles? Cabassac’s explanation of love doesn’t suffice. He says, “Maybe it’s not a person we fall in love with so much as a distance, a depth, which that particular person happens to embody.” Not only does this not explain why he fell in love with her particular “distance,” or why he can’t then simply find another woman after her death, but if he actually believes this that the person Julieta is only the distance that Julieta represents isn’t that an uncomfortable pill to swallow?
Maybe this isn’t the kind of question we should be asking, though. The book, for me, was about describing and then bringing the reader to what Cabassac calls dispousicion the condition in which the dream might occur. A simple read might put this in sexual terms, as if the preparation were a kind of foreplay. But that’s not it at all, as foreplay naturally proceeds into the act itself. This is something more like putting on familiar leathers for the purpose of dramatizing and lending added significance. To fetishize something is to appraise it at a value far greater than it would seem to have, to take it out of the context of the rest of the world and treat it as something wholly different.
In fly-truffling, as in love and literature, ceremony brings one to a place where ceremony can be forgotten. All of Cabassac’s rituals from the archaic way he hunts for truffles, to his elaborate preparations for his encounters with the ghost of Julieta (where he eats the truffles, with what, where and when he falls asleep) are for the purpose of an enthralling moment in which he can leave the world and experience pure feeling: savoring the truffle, making love to Julieta.
I wonder if the devices of writing plot, character, form are actually ceremonies to bring the reader to this condition of dispousicion. Perhaps Sobin doesn’t care if we can’t reconcile the paradoxes of his characters, so long as they are trusty vehicles, so long as they bring us to his aesthetic moment. But I don’t think they do. Do you?
BELLEN: It seems that Sobin focuses mostly on detailing and describing lost rituals and lost words, which the novel refers to as “breath relics.” Sobin delights in these relics, much more so than he does in his cast. The symbiosis between Cabassac, his flies and his truffles is described more carefully than his symbiosis with Julieta, and it feels to me to be the most authentic trinity of the novel more so than Julieta/Cabassac/dream baby or Julieta as mother/daughter/wife to Cabassac. So maybe, as you suggest, Sobin is interested in attaining that “enthralling moment in which one can leave the world for pure feeling” through rituals and vestigal words, not through plot, character, form. Even dispousicion is a vestigial word, a relic from a lost language. Personally, I don’t know if that can be attained in fiction, I don’t think it’s the realm of fiction. Poetry, maybe. Music, yes. What do you think? What work of fiction successfully attains pure feeling?
FOER: I’m not sure that I agree with you, Martine, when you say that the pure feeling isn’t in the realm of fiction. Yes, the moment is necessarily short, and yes, fiction is relatively long (at least a paragraph, by most accounts), making it impossible for the piece itself to be a single pure moment this, I think, was the impossibility that Sobin valiantly, but also foolishly, aimed for but take a novelist like García Márquez (from whose well Sobin clearly draws) or even Rushdie. The stories they tell are ultimately dwarfed by the hundreds of stories within the story, the aesthetic moments within the frame. It doesn’t matter what story a writer like that chooses to tell, because the story is merely the garden in which to grow the flowers. Jeffrey Eugenides once said that fiction should swing like a trapeze act, from one height to the next. Maybe this is what he meant.
It’s frustrating, as a writer of fiction, to know the things that poetry and music can do that prose can’t. (So you see, I agree, the three do have different realms.) This distance may be what drove Joyce to write Finnegans Wake, the only book that I can think of that is entirely from the first letter to the last composed of pure moments.
But The Fly-Truffler is no Finnegan’s Wake. Sobin’s moments lack emotional persistence. He is obviously passionate about this kind of old-fashioned love story, and there are occasions when that passion translates into passion on the page (particularly the truffling scenes and the anticipated climax of Cabassac’s dreamlife). But, if there are only two kinds of books, those that stay with you after reading, like a few more pieces of change in the pocket, and those that don’t, The Fly-Truffler is for me the latter.