“Insanity is never trusted”: A conversation between Andrea Scrima and Ally Klein

by Andrea Scrima

Ally Klein was born in 1984 and studied philosophy and literature; she lives and works in Berlin. Carter (Literaturverlag Droschl, Graz, Austria, August 2018) is her first book.

Ally Klein. Photo: Pezhman Zahed

The novel’s plot is easily summarized. Carter, the main character of the eponymous novel, is dead. When the narrator hears the news, he or she—the sex is never clear—is caught by surprise. The book opens with an introductory recapitulation of events, but reveals very little in the way of biographical information about the person telling the story. When the story proper begins, the narrating self wanders ghostlike through the streets of an unknown city until, one night, it runs into Carter—a striking figure bursting with so much life energy that she immediately pulls the narrating self into her orbit. Fascinated, this self tries to court Carter; the ensuing relationship wavers between intimacy and distance, the respective degree of which always lies in Carter’s hands. In the end, everything ends in catastrophe, while the narrating self gradually appears to lose its sanity and its grasp on reality.

Andrea Scrima: In one sense, Carter reads like a fever dream; when the narrating self moves to a small city divided by a river, its mind is already beginning to break down. Whether or not Carter might be a product of the self’s imagination or a projection of a part of the self is something the book leaves open. Without focusing too much on interpretation, my question is: does the novel allow for this read?

Ally Klein: Yes, among all the other possible interpretations, you can also see Carter as a product of the imagination. The question is where this imagination begins, and how far it carries. As the book opens, the reader learns that Carter had been suffering from a heart condition that, in the end, proved fatal. The narrating self, which came close to getting a degree in medicine, is shocked by the news; somehow, it managed to ignore all the telltale signs.

Perhaps the self doesn’t want to face the obvious; when they meet the first time, it sees nothing but vitality in Carter. It interprets the sound she makes inhaling a cigarette as a potent life force, whereas for Carter, breathing presents a real struggle. This is where the so-called imagination begins. Carter’s entire identity is filtered through the perception of the narrating self.

In the end, as the self increasingly loses its hold on reality and the ensuing delusion leads to open conflict, you have to ask yourself whether Carter actually exists as a real person, or if she’s a construct of the imagination, of a mental disorder. Whether, from this point on, she’s no longer actually there, whether she’s been an invention all along. And, of course, you have to ask how this invention is defined: as a fictional, let’s say literary figure, or as a real person perceived subjectively, in the way the narrating self sees her.

I like to play with the figure of the narrator, to find out how much power I can give it. Where fiction begins, and how much space it takes up in our everyday lives. A human being is also a subject, and for this reason, we’re creating theoretical “fictionalisms” all the time. We are, after all, at the mercy of our perception and we’re always creating identities in response to our surroundings because we can’t leave ourselves and see people as they really are, recognize them in their essential being. Carter is a more radical example of this, perhaps, but I wanted to address this theme in a literary context. In terms of language, this conjoins well with the motif of the narrating self losing its sanity.

A.S.: I’d like to take a closer look at the gender question. It’s unclear whether the narrating self is a woman or a man, whether a rape took place between this self and another character named Kaan, or if it was a case of sexual frustration, a struggle born of jealousy and competition—or all of it combined. And it didn’t, of course, escape me that Kaan is a writer.

A.K.: Kaan’s writerly existence adds another level to the fictionality. Kaan is someone who invents himself and fails miserably at it. But in terms of the gender question, the self the reader meets at the beginning of the book is abstract, disembodied. It floats down the street like a ghost; at one point it hears an ambulance siren and becomes obsessed by the thought that the ambulance is headed for the building it lives in to reanimate its dead body. The self imagines that it’s moving through the streets as a kind of spirit, that it was so engrossed in thought that it left its body behind, at home.

The writing self constructs a reality of the mind, an entire world. It’s a pure, creative spirit that sometimes intersects with its human form, expressed in convulsive moments that overtake it and force it back into its body, which suddenly becomes so physically present that any other reality is momentarily eradicated. It’s pure pain; it amounts to a kind of dissolution.

The genderless nature of the self is not intended as a metaphor for the Creator, but for a self not in possession of its body. It’s immaterial, and so the gender is inconsequential. As far as Kaan is concerned, however, the degree of his malice depends on our understanding of the self’s sex. If the reader imagines a male narrator, the violent attack against the self seems less shocking than if he were fighting a female narrator. This is true even though the suffering of this self, who is obviously physically weaker, is vividly conveyed. We can sense its fear of Kaan’s superior strength, his unpredictability. We see the self as a suffering person independent of the gender. But our image of Kaan is influenced by whether he’s beating up a man or a woman. The interesting question is why. And Carter … if she didn’t have a pronoun attached to her, she would also be sexless. Her “problem,” so to speak, is the linguistic manifestation of the gender that she can never really escape. Nowhere in the novel do we read how “feminine” she is or anything like that. Because the construct is irrelevant to me, I portray this world with literary means.

A.S.: Everyone longs for Carter, somehow, in the way we long for a former self—a freer, more intense, radical, risk-taking self, a nearly unattainable self in touch with its instincts, desires, its intrinsic truth—now that we’ve become reasonable, responsible, reliable, etc.

A.K.: Yes, somehow she’s the instinct-driven alter ego lurking inside us. And this accounts for her fascination. She’s a complicated, contradictory figure—for me, personally, these are the only people I’m attracted to. It’s not about interest, or curiosity, it’s nothing but pure, unreflected attraction. I’m fascinated by Nastasya Filippovna and Rodion Raskolnikov, without wanting to draw a comparison. Both of whom, by the way, are not exactly positive. They’re characters that seem to open up, but then shut down again and slip through our grasp—and this exerts a powerful, magical effect.

A.S.: For me, the key moment in the book is when Carter hold the narrator’s face in her hands and suddenly there’s this grammatical construction—a factor enclosed in brackets—that defines the relationship between the selves.

A.K.: Symbolically, the brackets are open to interpretation. The narrating self sees a symbol borrowed from phenomenology, the bracketing of the so-called “natural attitude.” But yes, there are several interpretations possible here. And of course it says something about their relationship.

The brackets turn up twice in the book. The first time in the introduction, Chapter 0, when the self reminisces about Carter and wonders how to write about her. Here, they pop up as a concrete, fully formulated memory, and that’s the only time they’re called what they actually are: tattoos.

The second time they turn up, it’s in the “novel proper,” as part of the narrator’s story: in the chronology of events, when the self sees Carter for the first time in the barn and undergoes one of its somatic attacks. The passage is narrated from a perspective of pure perception. It sees the brackets on Carter’s wrists but fails to register them as tattoos.

The novel oscillates between mediated reflection, immediate perceptual state, and, later on, madness. This stage of perception does entirely without any sort of explanation. It’s about immediacy. The self is fully within it, there’s no help from without, no visible motive to reconstruct reflection a posteriori. That’s how it is with our perception. To my mind, when it comes to language, things start to get interesting. We trust reflection and reason so much more. Pure perception is trusted less, but insanity is never trusted. In the novel, we have an unreliable narrator telling the story after it’s already occurred. You might assume that the events were reflected upon and are now related through this conscious filter. But that’s not the case. Only in madness can you see what’s actually going on. The body itself speaks, unfiltered, directly. It’s a huge, profound immediacy that we can’t rationally grasp. It’s another language, like the language of dreams. You want to decode it, but there’s no code. In the novel, it presents as a primordial language, as opposed to a verbal one: a language of images that exerts its effect directly. It just does this, and the reader has to surrender to it to get any closer.

A.S.: Yes, it has an effect. Carter describes an extreme state of consciousness.

A.K.: And for me, that’s the reason I wrote Carter. More than anything, the book should have an effect. I’m not interested in generating a series of thoughts in the reader’s mind, and I don’t want the first thing people do in response is to string a few reasonable sentences together. By no means should it be possible for people to tell the book’s “story!” It’s there, and it has an abrupt effect. You read it, and it leaves its imprint. Something you might not be able to completely verbalize at first. It’s supposed to speak to something inside that hasn’t yet surfaced. We’re not really aware of this something, although it’s inside us. Or maybe we’re inside it.

A.S.: What made you start writing?

A.K.: I saw Tarkovsky’s The Mirror when I was fifteen or sixteen. Of course, I didn’t understand anything. And by understand, I mean that I really didn’t grasp the film’s concepts. I couldn’t organize the content into ideas, I wasn’t able to verbalize what I’d seen. It left me with something that made me actually break down afterwards. It was the first time in my life that this had happened to me. Not out of desperation, because I had no notion of what I’d just subjected myself to for two hours, but because it had unleashed something in me, or maybe dissolved something, I’m not sure. I can recall the feeling to this day. It was a gigantic feeling, as though something long-forgotten and neglected had found its way out. Something deep inside my body, something physical, maybe. It was like a kind of primal scream. But my strongest memory of it is that I felt all kinds of things at once. A tangle of feelings deep inside that I was unable to sort out, didn’t even want to sort out. There was a very strange beauty to seeing all this, to really see it. To peer into it, without any particular aim in mind. And I thought that I’d like to achieve something like that, too. It wasn’t a deliberately formulated goal, it was more of an impulse, but I wanted to create something that exerts it effect beyond consciousness, beyond reason, beyond conceptualization. Something that outsmarts reason and its reliance on causality, but that makes sense. And that has meaning.

A.S.: After I finished reading Carter, I started reading it again from the beginning because I wanted to have a closer look at the circular structure alluded to on the book’s cover. In rereading the first chapters, I see how precisely you depict the mental state of the narrating self as an extremely unreliable witness to the events it experiences. Can you say something about the motif of the circle?

A.K.: The spoiler is that the end of the novel leads back to the beginning. This is why the opening chapter is not numbered, in contrast to the rest of the book. And so if you follow this structure in the end and read Carter several times over, of course you’ll understand the book better. You’ll be reading it with a different kind of background knowledge, to a certain extent as another person. In other words, it’s possible to destroy the inexpressibility of Carter, to ruin its initial effect. You can read it to death, to the point where it all makes sense, where the concepts reveal themselves. It’s up to each reader how far they want to take this act of destruction. But it also says something about the person who makes this decision.

A.S.: What about this conversation we’re having? One could object that what you’re saying provides a tool for understanding the novel, or for understanding it better.

A.K.: You could say that, sure. To my mind, though, I’m only really addressing the theoretical underpinnings of the novel; we’re not talking about interpretation. The references to this type of poetics are abundant in the text itself; if you’ve read the book, none of this is really all that new. Anyone can explore the characters, the language of the body, the content of its expression and what that might mean—and let it sink in. I’m not addressing any of this.

It’s the first time I’m talking about the novel. You know, about six months before it was published, I thought I’d never talk about Carter, never be able to. I thought I simply couldn’t. I wanted to leave it alone, unexpressed, inside me. Right now, though, I’m grateful for this conversation. It’s a beautiful conclusion. I can pretty much let go now.

A.S.: It’s really kind of strange and extraordinary how your use of language—the insistence, the repetition of an idea or an image by saying it multiple times in a string of near-synonyms that accrue new nuances each time—becomes mirrored in the speech of the narrating self, which often stumbles over its words, says too much, rushes to correct itself, etc.—It’s interesting to take a speech pattern that’s used to convey a particular psychology and convert that into a literary language that operates on another level altogether.

A.K.: It’s so great that you noticed that. I’m going to chalk that up to your sensitivity for language, to your refined perception. I learned some of this from Handke. His narrator corrects himself frequently (at least in the books I’m familiar with), in a different way, of course. And I have the feeling that he’s always striving for precision. I liked the idea of representing the urge to reach this concretion through what appear to be synonyms. It’s an attempt at understanding, perhaps, or maybe a longing to better grasp the unsayable with language. There are these strings of words that are related in meaning, but in their escalation, they open up new facets as they draw closer and closer to the object or situation or feeling described. It’s a continuous approach that never actually goes beyond an approach, which can clearly be seen in the characters’ development. Each of them fails. And in the end, there’s a so-called “epic fail.”

A.S.: I get the feeling that the book embodies a kind of counteracting of something, a movement against something in language itself. But against what? You come from philosophy, isn’t that right?

A.K.: Yes, I started off studying philosophy. But in order to write, I had to let go of this identity altogether. It’s a fundamentally different way of thinking and perceiving the world, and it wasn’t possible to be both. I was a complete Schopenhauer scholar—I say “was,” because I wouldn’t call myself that anymore today, even if his ethics are still the absolute pinnacle for me. I’ve given up this way of life. I no longer have this obsession, this mania. I used to perceive the world through a Schopenhauer filter; I analyzed everything from his system, like a Robocop. Today, I’d say that I lost a lot of immediacy in my experience back then. I analyzed every word, every act, every contradiction. If someone embraced me, I wasn’t inside the embrace, but floating somewhere above it, with my filter turned on.

During my philosophy studies, I wrote a paper on Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and Schopenhauer’s ethics, two of my favorite authors at the time. It was a very close examination of Dostoevsky’s text. While I was working on it, I noticed the extent to which I was completely losing myself in his world. I got very close to things, they were clearly visible to me, altogether evident, and I noticed, sensed what language could be capable of in literature.

When I chose literature, a friend of mine asked me why I wasn’t writing my project of the time, which eventually developed into Carter, as a philosophical as opposed to a literary text. What I said then still applies today: I believe the linguistic approach to a particular object or situation is closer to me. In philosophy, I was operating within a system of scientifically rigorous terms (I was studying at the Phenomenological Institute), and this gives you tools to work with and to approach things, and it’s wonderful every time you discover something. In literature, my language consists of images. This is more immediate, it’s not “equipment” in a Heideggerian sense, it’s more physical. Literature shows, and philosophy explains. And while my mind operates at its full capacity in philosophy, I let literature lead me. If the book I’m reading is good, I trust it unconditionally.

More than any other author, Stanisław Lem’s descriptions help me switch off my thinking. I love being carried through the landscapes of Solaris or The Invincible, to immerse myself in them, understand human impotence in the face of unknown worlds. I find them fascinating and see an uncanny beauty in them. But I don’t understand these worlds, because they’re beyond my own human experience, they elude me conceptually, even while they clearly mean something. I explore them, get very close to them, and see them—and at that moment, there’s a kind of recognition of an immediate, pre-language sort. I feel that I have more to say as a writer than as a philosopher, because I work directly with this visual language. I have this, and it suits me. I’m a better writer than a philosopher, even if I feel the same dedication as I did back then. I simply practice it less. Maybe it will come back one day.

What’s it like for you? Do you feel that writing has been a departure from or a kind of branching-off from art? Or does it turn into a parallel self? And if so, can they co-exist?

A.S.: At the moment, this is actually a difficult question for me. I originally come from the visual arts, basically a form of expression without words. I’ve just recently put up an exhibition that stands in relation to my book, but speaks a language clearly different than literature. And so I find myself straddling two disciplines again, both of which are closely interconnected for me. But I’m also conflicted. Stopping the art for a time was the only way I was able to formulate my own poetics and allow it to develop freely—much as it’s been for you. But first I’d like to return to your book. What should literature achieve? Do you want to tell a story, for instance? I doubt it. Do you want to further develop language in some way? It’s not really about that either, is it?

A.K.: Literature should simply show. I like to break apart the structures of comprehensibility, to push back against the “this-here-follows-from-that-there.” In your novel A Lesser Day, you dissolve the story’s chronology in favor of following the logic of human memory. I like to blur the concepts, resist a one-dimensional understanding. I wanted to camouflage my text with a certain chronology of events, but make understanding depend on the whole; it shouldn’t come bit by bit, shouldn’t emerge slowly, in a predictably linear and successive way, but should arrive all at once. That’s why the text rushes the reader. You’re supposed to finish it without stopping anywhere for too long. You should just read. And in the end? Who knows, maybe the text leaves behind an unformed, unarticulated knowledge, some sort of lumped-together feeling in the body, maybe. That would be good.

For me personally, I’m less interested in novels I understand. If my mind is already analyzing everything to death while I’m reading, if I can name the causal relationships, the whole thing is over with pretty quickly. I seek the puzzle, the enigma. Literature shouldn’t only broaden my horizon, it should go ahead and blow it apart, and then I can put it back together from the remaining pieces.

What’s it like for you? What is your own poetological approach to your writing? What do you want literature to achieve?

A.S.: As a critic, I ask myself this all the time, but when it comes to my own books, I don’t really know when and in what form I allow myself to pose the question. Because at first it’s about being able to write at all, about an inner necessity and the search for form that follows—because the form is everything, really everything. If I’ve found the right form, everything falls into place; the ideas I want to express are always tightly interwoven with the form.

In my writing, I try to draw closer to certain states of consciousness; it’s not enough, of course, to describe them; they have to be translated into a form that exists on a level apart from the words themselves. The form comes about purely through instinct, but how it then develops is, of course, a result of deliberate decisions that have to do with my conception of literature. I want to break apart the linearity, want to obey an inner chronology. I tend to describe things very visually, but in a way that evokes the reader’s own inner images—because these are always far more powerful.

A.K.: I often have the feeling that the visual aspect of your literature derives from your art background, or has at least been influenced by it. You’re working with a different concept of narrative. And when you dissolve the chronology and dispense with linearity, you’re also taking away the reader’s ability to describe the story, to summarize it. If you were to ask me what your novel A Lesser Day is about, I’d have to dive right into the meta level. It’s impossible to sum it up for a book jacket. The structure breaks down the novel’s “story quality.”

A.S.: Yes, I think that what connects us is the space between the words, between the lines of text. An imprint of phenomena that exert their effect directly, before their lexical description, before they’ve been translated into language. It less a matter of “ideas” than of consciousness itself. We spend a third of our lives sleeping, in a state of consciousness that we know very little about. The irrational, the confusion of all the coordinates known to us is inscribed into our bodies, and yet we live as though that weren’t the case.

I can still remember the strange feeling I had while reading Robert Walser’s The Walk: all at once, I perceived something through the form itself, something that had nothing to do with language, nothing to do with a narrative structure or with the book’s themes. Suddenly, something was inhabiting the lines—as though, between the lines, something of whatever it is that resists language were … not speaking, but: what, remaining silent? I felt addressed by a kind of smiling silence, as though that were the book’s essential message.

But as soon as I try to talk about it, I notice how the words escape me. I’ve already told you once that I had this weird feeling while reading your book: the feeling that I am Carter. Not: I identify with the character. Rather, I am her. These are fleeting impressions that can’t be captured or recreated, but they make up the book’s magic. And while I don’t know who Carter really is or was, she took hold of my subconscious for a short time, smiled, and then vanished again.


Carter (Literaturverlag Droschl), August 2018. 

Visit the Droschl website and stay tuned for the English translation.