Can Xue is a great writer, no doubt, but she a wee bit too pleased with herself.
With regard to your writing process, you’ve said in interviews that your writing comes from your subconscious, and that a good writer should not know what he or she is writing. What do you think of when you begin a story?
The subconscious by itself is actually not the deciding factor; every individual has a subconscious. The key lies in whether you can unleash it to create. Here there is a complicated mechanism, and I can only explain it from the vantage point of philosophy and art. In five or six years, I plan to write a book, Philosophy of Art. In that book, I’ll elaborate my thoughts on these issues based on my experience practicing art and the fruits of my intensive research into Western philosophy. I’ve already been writing for over thirty years, and the writing method I use is precisely the creative method of modern art: Reason monitors from afar. Emotions are completely unleashed. I turn towards the dark abyss of consciousness and plunge in, and in the tension between those two forces, I build the fantastic, idealist plots of my stories. I think that people who are able to write in the way I write must possess an immense primitive energy and a strongly logical spirit. Only in this way can they maintain total creativity amid a divided consciousness. In China, I have not seen a writer who is capable of sustaining that kind of creativity for many years.
The structure in your work can be so difficult to discern—both in terms of narrative structure and in the way the images connect to one another—that it’s hard to imagine just how you shape your stories. How do you edit a Can Xue story?
I never edit my stories. I just grab a pen and write, and every day I write a paragraph. For more than thirty years, it’s always been like this. I believe that I am surrounded by a powerful “aura,” and that’s the secret of my success. Successful artists are all able to manipulate the “balance of forces”—they’re that kind of extraordinarily talented people.
When you say above that “every day I write a paragraph,” do you mean you write your stories sequentially, from beginning to end? Or that you write the paragraphs and later arrange them together?
All my stories—my novels, my novellas, and my short stories—are written sequentially, from beginning to end. I never arrange them together or put them in a different sequence. My manuscripts are extremely clean—I very, very rarely correct even a single word.
Nonetheless, I would read this book:
Next year, Yale University Press is putting out a translation of a critical piece you wrote on Kafka, a writer about whom you’ve often written, and with whom you have long been fascinated. Your view of Kafka strikes us as unusual; you’ve said that Kafka’s works “signify an incomparable tragedy, but are also suffused with a pleasant freedom. This is like the whole of the experiences of K, the protagonist of his novel The Trial. There is mystery, terror, alienation, and yet his every action originates from a primitive instinct and a sublime will.” What experiences or influences have shaped your views of Kafka?
My interpretation of Kafka is indeed unusual. The main reason why my critical work on Kafka is a breath of fresh air to readers, I think, is that I have incorporated Eastern elements into my understanding of Kafka’s work. The religiosity of Westerners caused Kafka unending misery and drove him to an untimely death. I must say, to a certain degree, these living conditions diminished his creativity. On the other hand, my worldview, which combines the cultures of the East and West, enables me to regard the mundane world with an open mind and to endure this profound black comedy. Therefore, when I interpret The Castle and Amerika and other such acclaimed works, I emphasize the vitality in them, the primitive, rebellious revelry, and, above all, the vigorous meaning of life contained within. I believe I have in this respect surpassed existentialism and am proposing an artistic philosophy with a Chinese color to it. I can write this kind of criticism because I investigate the artistic philosophy shared by Kafka, Dante, Calvino, and artists like them. I have only achieved my current breakthroughs by applying my thirty-some years of creative experience to writing critical essays. I have not only written books of critical work on Kafka, but I have also analyzed Dante, Borges, Calvino, Goethe, Shakespeare, and other such masters—altogether producing six books of criticism.
Could you speak a bit more about what you term “the religiosity of Westerners”? What do you mean by “religiosity,” and how did this religiosity “diminish [Kafka's] creativity”?
Here I am referring mainly to a sense of “original sin.” A sense of original sin was in the background of both Kafka’s personal life and his literary creativity, so some people believe that one can use existentialism to explain his writings. My critique seeks to pry him apart from existentialism; rather, I analyze and write about Kafka’s exuberant creativity, his passion for the mundane world, and about his pagan rebellion against the religiosity that suppressed him. I write about his strong individuality, which led him to bring his primitive creativity (squeezed out by reason) to the fore. But Kafka’s performance in real life was far weaker than what he demonstrated in his creations. He was always on the edge of being swallowed up by original sin, and he feared quotidian life, which he always wanted to escape. On this point, actually, he is in line with existentialism. The incessant guilt that came from his religious consciousness finally conquered his primitive life force; the friction within his own soul dissipated all of his vitality. His letters and diaries always show that he was a “germophobe”; a man who could not bear the vulgarities of life; a man who strived every day to be a “good person.”
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