Zsuzsa Selyem is a novelist, poet, translator, and Associate Professor at the Department of Hungarian Literature, Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania. She was the recipient of a 2005 Academie Schloss Solitude writer-in-residence bursary, and of a 2015 Landys and Gyr writer-in-residence bursary (Zug, Switzerland). Her 2006 novel ‘9 Kiló’ (Történet a 119. zsoltárra) [9 Kilos (Story on Psalm 119)], representing Hungary at the 2007 European First Novel Festival, also appeared in German and French translations. In the latest installment of our Author of the Month series, she talks to Rushda Rafeek about how studying math influenced her writing and the challenges of teaching Shakespeare to a generation of ‘Twilight’ readers.
In ‘Hunt 1947’ Szenkovics says, ‘Tolstoy was a great man, a great realist and a great master of dialectics,’ in the debate over whether ‘War and Peace’ or ‘Anna Karenina’ is a better book. Yet your story seems more, and I apologize for this made up word, Dostoyevskian. Was this a conscious choice?
Yes, but I have to add that in my view Fyodor Mikhailovich is more “Tolstoyan”, at least in literary issues. To see greatness in poor, depraved or sinful people, as starets Zosima did in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, is somehow connected to what Tolstoy did with ‘Anna Karenina’.
How do you feel about the process of translation. Are you involved in the process yourself or do you give free reign to the translator?
Do you feel any connection between math and literature? More specifically, do you feel that writing is purely artistic or is there a level of scientific rigor inherent to the writing process?
I don’t think anymore that there is something purely artistic, for me, art is not interested in separating itself from other ways of looking at things. For me, art is interested in discovering more and more connections between the different phenomena of life. But maybe this attitude has its personal roots: although I spent my childhood reading good literature, after high school I went to study math. I considered that Kafka, for example, had more to do with math than with that shitty patriotic stuff taught to us under the label of literature. And the rigor of math gave me freedom.
How have the challenges of teaching changed or adjusted your writing?
Teaching as part of the learning process affects my work. Learning in the sense that at university you have the possibility and responsibility to research continuously, to find new questions, new ways of dealing with the actual human (and, I would add, nonhuman) condition – all these in a partly closed, partly open space, with students having different backgrounds. It once happened to me that during a lecture I just alluded to ‘Hamlet’. I didn’t realize till then that 18-year-old guys who decided to study literature didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to read or see the Shakespeare play. Or anything, except ‘Twilight’. But suddenly I had to really explain, and I mean really simply, what is at stake when Hamlet is reading Montaigne. It’s challenging, I can assure you, but it’s funny too, and once again you can realize what Péter Esterházy put this way: you needn’t fear the complicated issues, only the confused ones.
If you have a bookshelf in your room, could you name a few of your memorable titles resting side by side?
Come on, I wouldn’t survive without a bookshelf. Enumeration is a difficult figure of speech, mostly for the reader, so I’ll give you here only three titles: Erasmus’s ‘The Praise of Folly’, Woolf’s ‘The Waves’, and Bolaño’s ‘Savage Detectives’. In a physical way they don’t rest side by side, as my library is more or less arranged in alphabetical order, but maybe the reader finds the connections among them.