Bookforum talks with Peter Trachtenberg

Peter Trachtenberg’s Another Insane Devotion: On the Love of Cats and Persons is the memoir of a cat owner impelled almost against his will (and certainly against his better judgment) to fly from North Carolina to New York in search of his missing cat. It is also an account of a dissolving marriage, and a far-flung and highly erudite meditation on the nature of love.

Trachtenberg is no stranger to asking big-picture questions through seemingly small subjects. His memoir, Seven Tattoos, moved effortlessly from the death rites of the Ngaju of Borneo to the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, becoming more of an exploration of one man’s relationship to the divine than a story of addiction, recovery, and body ink. His follow-up, The Book of Calamities: Five Questions about Suffering and its Meaning saw him travel the globe, going to Sri Lanka after the tsunami and Rwanda after the genocide in order to explore the ways in which people make (or fail to make) sense of their pain.

Despite their disparate topics, all these books have similar qualities, namely Trachtenberg’s searching mind, his eye for absurdity (particularly his own), his compassion, and his willingness to ask the big questions in ways that make them seem like gossip: Where is God? Why do we suffer? What is love?

Bookforum: What was the genesis of Another Insane Devotion?

Trachtenberg: Basically, I wrote Another Insane Devotion because somebody I practiced yoga with told me I had to write it. This was after I’d come back to North Carolina after looking for my cat Biscuit, and I told her the story the way I told everybody the story back then—I couldn’t not tell it. This yogini wasn’t what you’d call a literary person. She was somebody who had, or believed she had, certain psychic abilities. (Ordinarily, this isn’t a claim I take at face-value.) When I was finished talking, she said, You have to write this story. And—I don’t know—I started writing. Either I was more suggestible than usual or she had intuited that this was the thing I really wanted to do. I wrote a short essay about looking for Biscuit and it quickly became apparent that I was also writing about my love for my wife, and my fears about my marriage, which hadn’t collapsed but had cracks spreading across its surface. I didn’t want to write about the marriage directly—I wanted to treat it obliquely. And I didn’t want the essay to be strictly autobiographical. To put it another way, I wanted it to be about something more than my own immediate circumstances, which were limited and subject to change. In a sense, what the essay was really about was the feeling of being in danger of losing the thing you loved. This is something everybody feels from time to time. Babies feel it.

People liked the essay, but I didn’t know then that it would become a book. I just kept writing until I gradually worked out what it was about. Luckily, my agent loved it, and she sent out a couple of chapters with a proposal. Everywhere it was turned down. Yet at the same time, we were getting letters from editors who’d passed on it saying the book was beautiful but they didn’t know what it was supposed to be. Was it about a lost cat? A failing marriage? If so, why wasn’t there more about the marriage? Why are you calling your wife by an initial?

For a while I thought it might not ever get published, but I kept working on it anyway. It was the only thing I wanted to write. And the experience of writing it without having a destination for it paradoxically restored my joy in writing, which had been severely eroded by my last book, The Book of Calamities.

Bookforum: Why did Calamities have that effect on you?

Trachtenberg: Calamities was a very difficult book to write. The whole time I worked on it, I was terrified that I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew nothing about breast cancer, I knew nothing about the Rwandan genocide, I hadn’t read any philosophy since my freshman year of college. I thought I was going to fail the people whose stories I was trying to tell and be exposed as a callow moron. By the end, I was a year and a half over deadline. I’d gone into debt, and the book didn’t sell well. I hadn’t counted on it to sell well, but I thought it would get reviews. The ones it got were pretty good, but there weren’t a lot of them, and. as babyish as it sounds, that was crushing to me.

Bookforum: How do you feel about Devotion?

Trachtenberg: Aesthetically, I think it’s okay. I can read from it before an audience without embarrassment. I sometimes worry that it’s an ethically problematic work. I took a period of my life that I shared with another person, and although I experimented with saying as little as I could about the marriage, ultimately I had to say something, and I know I breached certain intimacies. They weren’t scandalous intimacies, but they were things that may not have been mine alone to tell.

Bookforum: You strike a tricky balance between telling the story of Biscuit the cat and talking about your fraying marriage to F.

Trachtenberg: I was influenced by the lyric essay, in particular, the way the lyric essay utilizes a tension between the surface and latent content of the piece, moving between them the way a poem does. In Devotion, the cat is the surface content, the marriage is the latent content, and I play a kind of shell game with them, directing the reader’s attention to one and then the other, and then back again. But it wouldn’t be right to call the story about the cat a metaphor for the marriage—in other words, to place the surface content in a subordinate or symbolic relationship to the latent content. Yes, the cat is a stand-in for the marriage, but the marriage is also a stand-in for the cat, and both are stand-ins for this other elusive, ineffable thing we refer to as love.

Bookforum: At key moments in the narrative you quote Proust’s writings on love.

Trachtenberg: For many years I routinely lied and told people that I’d read all of In Search of Lost Time, but in fact I’d only read the first book, Swann’s Way. It was only while I was writing Devotion that I finally decided to read the whole big motherfucker, to just strap myself in and submit to it. I’d read for an hour each morning. It was almost a form of meditation.

Proust’s view of love is that it’s an illusion, a form of projection. It’s a desire to recapture a feeling that seems to emanate from the loved one but actually comes from within oneself. It’s narcissistic, obsessive, and destructive. Marcel makes a physical prisoner of Albertine, the woman he loves, or thinks he loves, and she makes a prisoner of him in other ways, and in the end her only solution is to run away. Shortly afterward, she’s thrown off a horse and killed. That’s what Proust calls love.

Devotion, on the other hand, is more about seeing the other being, contemplating its beingness, the weight of its presence in the world, without necessarily wanting anything from him or her or it. This can only be done by maintaining a certain psychic distance. When you hold someone too close you’re physically unable to look at her.

Simone Weil says somewhere that the great problem of human life is the inability to distinguish looking from eating. “It may be that vice, depravity, and crime are nearly always ... in their essence, attempts to eat beauty, to eat what we should only look at.” I kept that statement in the back of my mind while writing.

The last episode of the book has me looking at my cat, which is looking at two rabbits in the grass outside our house in upstate New York. Within a few months of that sighting, I knew it would become the end of the book, It was such a perfect moment of seeing. And that’s the whole book right there. Earlier there’s a long passage about walking through the countryside with F. and wanting to know what she saw when she looked out at the landscape. If you love somebody, you want to see what they see, and you want them to see what you see.

Bookforum: So is that your definition of love?

Trachtenberg: I don’t want to say what love is. Certainly a kind of selfless delight in the other is an aspect of love. But so much goes into love, including all the sewage of the psyche. We’re cruel, we’re narcissistic, we’re creatures of ruthless appetite, but sometimes we can take simple, open-eyed delight in the presence of another being.

Bookforum: The way you talk about these questions echoes the great pleasure of reading the book. Devotion is a memoir, but it’s written like an essay.

Trachtenberg: I always thought of it as an extended personal essay. What I’m most interested in is the movement of thought, which is what I believe distinguishes the essay from the memoir, which is supposed to be about action. In terms of a story, Devotion isn’t about much, after all: a guy whose marriage is falling apart goes looking for his lost cat. It’s the thinking that matters.

Bookforum: So how do you capture the movement of thought?

Trachtenberg: The writing process involved allowing myself the freedom to include absolutely everything in the beginning, while knowing that I might cut back later. There was plenty that I took out in later drafts, but there were also unexpected things that I let stay: For instance, at one critical juncture I recalled the first dirty joke I’d ever heard. It just came bubbling up from my unconscious, and was almost as shocking as it was when I was six or seven. I asked myself, do I really want to put this in, a dirty joke about John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe? After some consideration, I decided that, yeah, I did.

One other important change: In the first draft, the search for Biscuit was concentrated in the last few chapters, and as a result the book felt inert. But when I placed her disappearance at the beginning it produced an interesting dual movement: you move forward in time searching for Biscuit, and you move backward in time to understand the narrator’s relations with her and other cats and the origins of the marriage and how it may have gone wrong.

Bookforum: How do you approach the tension between fact and fiction?

Trachtenberg: My hope is to take a more nuanced approach to that question than it often gets. When I teach a survey of nonfiction, for example, I usually start with Herodotus’s Histories, in which he matter-of-factly says that there’s a race of people in Central Asia who have their faces on their stomachs. Herodotus lived in a less documented world, where there was more room for the interplay of fact and imagination. It’s only now, with our increasingly elaborate and sophisticated fact gathering and fact-checking apparatuses, that we are becoming more rigid about the dividing line between fiction and nonfiction.

In my own work, I’m interested in the interplay between fact, imagination and memory. There’s a difference between what I know to be true, for example, and what I remember. That’s why I talk about thin facts—i.e. things that I or other folks remember—and thick facts that can be externally verified, like dates, times, locations, emails. But my memories sometimes contradict each other. Where they do, I’m willing to give the reader alternate versions, because I’m simply not sure which actually happened.

Bookforum: Could you talk about your current project? You mentioned that it’s a novel.

It’s the story of the late-life bankruptcy and death of Ulysses S. Grant, who was cheated by his business partner, Ferdinand Ward, “The Young Napoleon of Wall Street,” and left virtually destitute and dying of throat cancer. Grant wrote his extraordinary memoirs in order to pay off his debts and leave something for his widow.

The book began as a nonfiction project, but I couldn’t figure out how to write a work of that kind that was set entirely in the 19th century but that would clearly be about our own time. I gave a presentation at a residency last summer and a group of writers there encouraged me to try writing first person in Grant’s voice. So I tried and it came very naturally. I’d spent months immersed in his memoirs and papers and knew his voice pretty well. Of course, this is something I couldn’t do in nonfiction—unless I was Edmund Morris. Nor could I engineer a scene in which the dying Grant, who may be hallucinating or experiencing a dying man’s prophetic insight, glides through New York in the fall of 2008.

Bookforum: What drew you to Grant?

Trachtenberg: I find him a terrifically moving figure: an alcoholic (though one who, by all reports, stayed heroically dry through most of the Civil War), a repeated business failure—he seems to have had a compulsion to find people who'd cheat him—and the worst president to ever set foot in the White House until George W. Bush. Grant was a fuckup in every area of his life except two: he could win wars and he could write.