- An Interview with Raymond Federman
This is part of a tape-recorded interview conducted in the Debrecen Center of the Hungarian Academy of Arts and Sciences on 19 February 1986, when Raymond Federman visited Kossuth University as part of a highly successful lecture tour in Hungary. Professor Federman has kindly revised the transcript of our conversation. He is the author of Double or Nothing (1971), Amer Eldorado (1974), Take It or Leave It (1976), The Voice in the Closet/La Voix dans le Cabinet de Débarras (1979), The Twofold Vibration (1982), and also of Smiles on Washington Square (1985), the novel that won the American Book Award in 1986. In this part of the interview Professor Federman discusses fiction generally. The section principally addressed to his own work will be published separately.
Abádi-Nagy: You invented the term "Surfiction" and edited a collection of essays with that title. "Just as the Surrealists called that level of man's experience that functions in the subconscious 'Surreality,'" you call "that level of man's activity that reveals life as a fiction 'Surfiction.'" Could you explain to the Hungarian reader, who is not familiar with the surfiction essay, what you mean by "life as a fiction"?
Federman: As you know I invented the term "Surfiction" by simply putting the prefix "sur" before "fiction." "Sur" of course is from the [End Page 157] French, and means "on top of," but it's obvious that it echoes the word "Surrealism." The idea is that all fiction writing is performed on top of another fiction. That is to say writing fiction is not necessarily about something; it is writing on top of something, usually on top of another fiction. The fiction that I had in mind when I invented the term is really the fiction of life. This has been an important idea for my work. For instance, I had a number of crucial and even traumatic experiences during my life, especially during World War Two, and these experiences over the years have been told, related to someone (my children, my wife, my friends) as stories. Therefore, even before I began writing fiction I was already full of stories—stories which were my life. As I moved away from these experiences, I mean in time, to the day when I started inscribing these in my fiction, it became evident to me that my life had become a fiction, a story, and that I was writing on top of that story.
Abádi-Nagy: That is, the story you start out from, when you create, is already a "story," a version of life.
Federman: Yes, and unless that experience is articulated, verbalized, spoken or written, it remains nonexistent. In the act of writing surfiction there is a sharing of the story with others. But the fact of transforming the primary-story into a secondary-story (into a "second-hand tale" as I call it in Take It or Leave It) implies an element of transformation, of distortion, and that's because language always distorts the fact, the experience, the history, or, if you prefer, the origin. Surfiction is exactly that: a way of writing on top of a fiction but in the process transforming, distorting, displacing the original into a new space. A new form even.
Abádi-Nagy: Your main theoretical lines suggest a kind of fiction that "tries to explore the possibilities of fiction," that "challenges the tradition that governs it" and "constantly renews our faith in man's imagination." This is what Laurence Sterne was doing and what John Barth is doing. You yourself mention Joyce, Beckett, Borges. Self-conscious novelists like Cervantes, Nabokov, Queuneau, Coover, Cortázar, Pynchon, Barthelme, and more could be added. So this kind of writing does have its tradition. Does the surfiction you propose also differ from the tradition it derives from?
Federman: That is only if a writer works within a tradition, but that's a fallacy because there is always more than one tradition. I am sure every writer can make a list of writers of the past (going as far back as Homer) up to the present with...