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Sophie Vallas (ed.), Conversations with Jerome Charyn

Literary Conversations Series. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2014, 164 p. ISBN: 978-1-62846-089-6. 52,50€
Michèle BONNET
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Sophie Vallas (ed.), Conversations with Jerome Charyn. Literary Conversations Series. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2014, 164 p. ISBN: 978-1-62846-089-6. 52,50€.

Texte intégral

1Conversations with Jerome Charyn is a new volume in the Literary Conversations Series edited by Sophie Vallas (Aix-Marseille Université) and published in 2014 by University Press of Mississippi. It starts out with a bibliography of the author, which immediately gives a clear view of the range of his writing (Fiction, Crime fiction, Autobiographical writing, Nonfiction, Graphic novels, Children and young adults fiction). The chronology of his life following the editor’s “Introduction” and the exhaustive index that winds up the volume are further scientific and pedagogical tools providing a useful background and framework for the thirteen conversations that make up the bulk of the volume. The latter are arranged in chronological order, the first ten spanning the period from 1992 to 1995, the last three dating back to 2004, 2009 and 2011. They were carried out by both American and French journalists or scholars—Charyn has been spending more and more of his time in Paris since 1992 and loves “bande dessinée,” to him a typically French exercise which he has been practicing with French artists, and is perhaps better appreciated in France than in the US. Sophie Vallas is the author of the elegant translation of five of the interviews initially conducted in French.

2The volume is rich and instructive as well as pleasant to read. It offers the amateur of American literature an excellent initiation to Charyn’s work (all the more so as Charyn makes lavish comments upon the writers he admires, more particularly Faulkner, Nabokov, Melville, or the William Gass of “The Pedersen Kid”) but will also be undoubtedly of great use to the Charyn scholar, as Charyn proves to be a self-reflexive author who enjoys pondering about his culture and his multi-faceted art, an art that rejects the realistic form and is bent on subverting the frontiers of genre: fiction and non fiction (essays, documentaries), biography and autobiography, crime fiction and literary fiction, image and text. Experimenting with form and exploring the limits of language is indeed one of Charyn’s trademarks—“I do not regard the books I write as belonging to a genre… The only criterium is language itself.”

3Although most of these conversations broach similar subjects, they enlighten them with their own light, adding their specific details and emphasizing one particular point, so that only one of them (a short one at that) may sound slightly redundant. All in all, they each enrich the picture that gradually emerges from the volume.

4Charyn insists on art as form (“the best writers are always those who play with the form, who work within limits and constraints”), as a play with language, which is his obsessive concern (he discards the search for meaning as a legitimate literary object and wishes that writers stopped “narrativizing”). What might seem paradoxical and rather fascinating, however, is that this concern with form should turn out to be rooted in Charyn’s own personal experience, in a deprived childhood that had a determining, structuring influence on his approach to language, writing and art. References to this seminal experience crop up in practically each of the conversations, which each add a touch to the subject, but take on striking relief in Sophie Vallas’s particularly illuminating interview, where everything seems to come definitely together, “’Pinocchio Is Still Out There’: Listening to Jerome Charyn’s Everlasting Quest.” To her first question on what strikes her as the “autobiographical dimension” of his work, Charyn fully agrees that it was a crucial factor in his life and writing career: “I think so much of your material comes out of your childhood. It almost seems that your self is formed by the age of six, and that very little happens afterwards”; “All those things that come from one’s personal background, one’s past, are much more important than the present or the future,” he already says in an earlier interview. This element is so decisive that it is evoked in practically all, if not all, of the conversations: Charyn was born from destitute Jewish immigrants who came from Europe in the 20s and settled in the Bronx. They never managed for this reason to master the language, failing to integrate into American culture. “I had no language as a child” is a leitmotiv of these interviews. Feeling deprived, “gholem-like,” he says, in the wasteland of the Bronx, he would then strive to forge an identity and indeed “invent himself” or “give birth to himself” by building up this language which had failed him as a child and which would become the Grail of his adult life. This language, and this is another recurring theme of the volume, he identifies variously with “music,” or an “undersong,” or a “rhythm” or again “a voice.” Charyn is indeed a little disappointing when the members of the LOLITA group try to get a more precise definition of this “music” or “voice.” He is nevertheless less evasive elsewhere when he says to Marc Chénetier that it is the “space between the sentences” that makes for this “music” (an art mastered by Dashiell Hammett, his model for roman noir) or when he speaks with Sophie Vallas and Richard Phelan of Emily Dickinson’s dashes and ellipses, or with Gilles Ménégaldo of the necessity to do away with connectives and adjectives.

5Charyn’s illiterate childhood was also decisive in that, partly because he had no access to language (either English or Yiddish), he turned ravenously to comic books and film, thus fuelling a passion for images that is another characteristic of his personal and artistic world. “I had always had the desire to turn words into images” or, “Actually, what I think I’ve been doing throughout my entire life is writing comic books in novel form,” he tells Frederic Tuten. This fascination with images accounts for his experiments with graphic novels (which he also appreciates for their humor and disregard of reality), or what he prefers to call “bandes dessinées,” a genre which he holds to be different from comic books and at which he thinks that the French excel. It partly explains that he settled in Paris, working with Boucq or Loustal among others and winning a prize at Angoulême for The Magician’s Wife.

6Another recurring theme in these conversations (discussed in more detail by Gilles Ménégaldo and Marc Chénetier) is Charyn’s fondness for crime fiction (he likes to call it polar or roman noir, arguing that it owes much to Baudelaire and Rimbaud). This “democratic” genre (a genre whose form he plays with and subverts like the others) launched his career with Blue Eyes (1974) and developed with the novels featuring Isaac Sidel, a character once again inspired by his life (his brother, a Mafia specialist, was a member of the New York police) and showing that there is no tight frontier between order and disorder, or law and crime, to him “a central phenomenon of our culture.” They have in addition a particular site, New York, an urban space which offers another favorite subject of fictional or documentary exploration, as with Metropolis: New York as Myth, Marketplace, and Magical Land. “I have no homeland”, he has actually declared to Blumenfeld. “I only have two cities, New York and Paris.”

7Special mention should finally be made of the last two conversations conducted by Sophie Vallas (“Pinocchio Is Still Out There”), and Sophie Vallas and Richard Phelan (about The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson), as they discuss a topic that is not broached elsewhere and seems essential to a proper understanding of Charyn’s production: namely, beyond the pervasive presence of the biographical dimension mentioned above, that of the principle of the interweaving of biography and autobiography and the blending of voices, as dramatized among others by Savage Shorthand, where Charyn assumes Isaac Babel’s voice, or The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. Establishing a complex mesh of reality and fiction, self and other, these works take us deeper into both the issue of voice as Charyn endeavors to make another person’s “music” his “music,” to “cannibalize” it to some extent, and the representation of self, suggesting that “in a way all biography is autobiography.”

8All in all, these Conversations are entertaining and intellectually stimulating and they offer a rich insight into Charyn’s very varied, “protean” (Sophie Vallas) production. They help grasp the singular “music” that he insists is the gist of every true work of art.

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Michèle BONNET, « Sophie Vallas (ed.), Conversations with Jerome Charyn »E-rea [En ligne], 13.1 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2015, consulté le 18 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Michèle BONNET

Université de Franche-Comté

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