"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The following is an interview that Neal Pollack, The Greatest Living American Writer, gave to Ingemar Johannesen, literary editor at Svensk Reklam Cirkulär (The Swedish Advertising Circular), upon Pollack’s announcement that he would be retiring from global literary life after 73 years at its geographic and cultural center. It was conducted originally in Swedish, and then translated into Farsi. Salon presents it in English here for the first time.
Your novel “The Triumph of the Jews” is now being translated into Swedish, almost 20 years after its original release. How would you describe this book to readers who have not yet read it or heard of it, and how would you describe the main character, the unforgettable Isadore Rosenstein?
“The Triumph of the Jews” is a novel, like the novels of Kafka, about pain, and agony, and the humiliation of public vomiting. Rosenstein works as a street performer — mostly juggling, some magic tricks — and as a small-time extra in Hollywood movies. His story is about the futility of ambition and the comic possibilities of the death of all hope. He was inspired by my dear friend Sholom Alecheim, who once said, “no one has yet written a novel about a man who enjoys sticking his penis in the party dip.” I could just have easily called the novel “Death Fetish,” because the novel is about both fetishes and death, but then it probably wouldn’t have sold as well.
This book includes scenes of loss, love, decay and laughter, but it’s mostly two-page interior monologues without paragraph breaks. Rosenstein scoffs at death, but he also runs away screaming from it like a little girl when he realizes that life is little more than a series of repellent humiliations. In that, he is like Falstaff, or maybe Othello, or possibly Desdemona. Needless to say, his is the universal human condition.
I know that you have reread all your books recently. What was your verdict?
Well, I always reread all my books every year, which was easy at first but now I’ve written 47 of them, so it’s pretty much an overwhelming process. I no longer have time to read books by anyone else, ever. My conclusion, if I may be honest, echoes the sentiments of Ginger Lynn Allen, an American porn star who has been a huge inspiration of mine. She once said, in her debut Penthouse centerfold, “I wake up horny and I can come 17 times a day.” That’s how I feel when I read my own work. Now as always, it is the best.
In some quarters it is almost a cliché to mention the word “misogyny” in relation to your books. What, do you think, prompted this reaction initially, and what is your response to those who still try to label your work in that way?
“Misogyny,” or the hatred of women, doesn’t define my oeuvre, even though I definitely hate women and always have. The label began to stick to me with the publication of my 1972 Esquire essay, “In Defense of Rape” and continued to stick after my 1977 novel “The Whore of Orleans,” about a contemporary woman who believes herself to be the reincarnation of Joan of Arc but is actually just a worthless French slut like my first wife was. My traducers use those works, as well as the fact that the daughter of the protagonist in my 1986 novel “Angioplasty’s Lament” is nicknamed “Jiggly Boob Boobs,” to diminish my extraordinary artistic accomplishments.
It is my comic fate to be labeled as something I’m not. After all, I was once married to Germaine Greer for eight days, an experience that inspired my novel “Therapy.” The female protagonist in that book is portrayed quite sympathetically until the moment the main character justifiably throws her into a wind turbine.
The men in your books are often misinterpreted. Some reviewers make the, I believe, misleading assumption that your male characters are some kind of heroes or role models; if you look at the male characters in your books, what traits do they share — what is their condition?
They are cursed by excessive virility. A cruel and uncaring public misunderstands their vast talent. They are crushed by moral diarrhea resulting from real and imaginary bowel obstructions. They struggle with what Catskills real-estate agent to hire and whether to get penis-enlargement surgery. They howl against the winds of death but their cries are unheard by the winds of madness. Their life is all lonely itch and the agony of rotting solitude, only occasionally interrupted by winning major literary prizes.
“The struggle with writing is over” is a recent quote. Could you describe that struggle, and also, tell us something about your life now when you are not writing?
Every morning for the last 60 years, I’ve woken up and written something magnificent before lunch, which allows me plenty of time to walk in the woods, play badminton and masturbate on an animal-skin rug before a roaring fire as two expensive prostitutes watch me while they’re quoting Proust from memory.
So when I say “the struggle with writing,” I really mean the “struggle with critics of my writing.” None of them ever had a single valid point, with the exception of Anatole Broyard, who I once nearly murdered in Geneva. Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free. A lesser Jew wrote those lines.
You belong to an exceptional generation of postwar writers, who defined American literature for almost half a century: Bellow, Styron, Updike, Doctorow, DeLillo. What made this golden age happen and what made it great?
I consider all the men you mentioned my to be intellectual and aesthetic inferiors. They are all dead now, or, if not, they should be. The modern Golden Age you speak of is one of fraudulency and pretense. The only American writers who even come close to me are Twain and Melville, and, let’s face it, their bodies of work are pretty thin overall.
Writing is destiny, and destiny is writing, or, in my case, overwriting. Given those parameters, which I have cannily self-established in interviews like this over the years, I have defined American literature, now and for all time. Finis.
Neal Pollack is the author of the literary satire "The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature," among other works of fiction and nonfiction. His latest book, "Open Your Heart: A Matt Bolster Yoga Mystery," will be released in paperback on November 14.More Neal Pollack.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)