by Andrea Scrima
In her second novel Like Lips, Like Skins (German edition: Kreisläufe, Literaturverlag Droschl, 2021) Andrea Scrima unpacks a family story of strong emotional ties. When the first-person narrator Felice finds her deceased father’s diaries, she combs them for clues to a past riddled with blind spots. She abandons a drawing series because she’s afraid she’s no longer able to tell the difference between reality and abstraction; years later she wonders if she studied art to make good on her father’s unfulfilled childhood ambition. In Like Lips, Like Skins, Scrima transplants her own works of art into fictional settings. Artistic perception permeates everyday life and speaks a formal language that, much like the first-person narrator’s recurring dreams and the symptoms of her trauma, lends itself to interpretation.
Part One of this interview was published December 20, 2021 on Three Quarks Daily.
For Part Two, which focuses on the function and presence of art in Like Lips, Like Skins, Ally Klein corresponded with the author over the course of several weeks via email; the following is an edited version of a talk the two gave on December 11, 2021 at Lettrétage in Berlin.
Ally Klein: In terms of form and content, your recently published book Kreisläufe (Like Lips, Like Skins) operates with concepts intrinsic to both contemporary art and literature. To reduce the novel to a synopsis, i.e., to “pitch” it is pretty much impossible. A summary of the “plot” misses the point of this novel altogether. I’ll try to sketch it out anyway, to give readers a rough idea, but they’ll soon see that it doesn’t really do justice to the book’s complexity.
The first-person narrator, Felice, is an artist who moved from New York to West Berlin in the 1980s. She’s a firsthand witness to an era of great upheaval. Several years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, she meets the journalist Micha, who spent formative years in an East German juvenile detention facility. The novel is a diptych, divided into two parts that address a complicated family history from very different perspectives. It’s about trauma, about coming to terms with one’s own past, but most of all about finding a path back to the self.
Andrea, your novel Like Lips, Like Skins is imbued with a sense of uneasy anticipation. If we don’t “understand” things, if we’re not able to apprehend them in terms of concepts, they can’t be captured in everyday words, either. The language that literature speaks is very different from ordinary language. Does this difference play a role in your understanding of literature?
Andrea Scrima: I’m tempted to say that my understanding of literature consists in what I’m able to do as a writer, what resources are available to me. I made art pretty much exclusively up to the age of forty, and so this, of course, was bound to have an enormous impact on my writing. Descriptions of visual phenomena, e.g. patterns, reflections of light, and so on, are not only important to me because they train a particular type of perception or generate a certain mood; I can also implement them as metaphors, as abstract concepts. But I try to describe these moments in such a way that they tap into the reader’s own memory and emotions. I’m more interested in bringing the reader into a particular state of mind than I am in convincing him or her of some idea.
AK: Your novel features several very specific works of art; you name them, describe them.
Felice is a painter who also incorporates found objects into her work, for instance the pentagonal linoleum tiles that she photographs in various formations. One of the drawings from this series can be seen on the cover of your novel. As it turns out, you’ve given the protagonist actual artworks of yours, and in doing so, you transpose your work into a new setting and set of circumstances. This is one of the ways in which you fictionalize it. What does this new contextualization or fictionalization of your art mean to you? And what does it gain by it?
AS: I’ve always been interested in what happens when you convert an image into language and vice versa. As a visual artist, for a long time I made large-scale installations from the short stories I was writing at the time, entire rooms filled with text that carried over doors and in and out of window niches. The result was a textual space, and a kind of choreography emerged from this, because the visitor had to move around the room to read the text in its entirety. I was able to dictate these movements to a certain extent by carefully arranging how the lines of text were distributed on the walls.
When the need to write became more urgent, when I wanted to see whether I could write in a literary context, I had to give up art altogether for some time, because it wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Writing is a completely different process and requires a completely different type of perception, and I don’t think I would have managed the transition any other way.
In A Lesser Day, my first novel, the first-person narrator describes a series of newspaper photographs in great detail. These written descriptions conjure up completely different images, of course—imaginary images, because even when it strives for perfect accuracy—perhaps especially when it strives for accuracy—the writing voice pretty much interprets what it sees, draws conclusions, supplements what the photograph might only be hinting at, things that might just as well be overlooked or seen in multiple ways. I became fascinated by what happened to these news images in description. Three years ago, I put on an entire exhibition based on this topic at the Manière Noire project space in Berlin.
After years of writing (and finally publishing), I finally felt secure enough to go a step further in my second novel. I began describing the artmaking process, and eventually imported some of my actual art into the work in order to see what form it might take there. I was also interested in seeing how much of the original artwork can’t, in the end, be captured in words. What remains of art in its description? When you narrate it, but can’t actually see anything? Are you merely describing the intentions behind the work, are you describing an idea or the work’s appearance? Are you creating something completely new?
To my surprise, I discovered that it was suddenly much more about the fictional character I ascribed a particular work to, in this case Felice—it shifted the focus to her psychology. How did she arrive at this type of art, what does it have to do with her life? What does her art say about her as a character? A completely new narrative coalesced around the description, one that’s pretty far removed from the original impulses that led to the actual work the writing is based on.
I’m driven by the idea of bringing contemporary art a little closer to readers not normally all that familiar with it. This is a work of literature, after all, and not aesthetic theory. And so the concepts are somewhat simplified, and even if some of the passages are still pretty abstract, I hope the human connection comes across easily enough. Because the art in this book is only one component in a larger work that addresses many other themes: family, trauma, parents, children, getting older.
AK: There’s one work in particular that’s made up of various arrangements of the pentagonal floor tiles I’ve mentioned and their interaction with everyday phenomena (i.e., reflections in water): something “magical” happens, something the mind can’t quite grasp. In the past, Felice was so obsessed with the inherent dynamic and strange logic of the forms and their permutations that she thought she was able to sense what was about to come next in a given situation. She believed she was able to predict things before they occurred. Years later, this drawing series, long since abandoned, suddenly reemerges and begins speaking to her in the course of her day-to-day life. There are two levels of perception at work here: the artistic and the “banal,” everyday reality of mothering, in which Felice is constantly trying not to lose her grip on things. How can these two levels of perception be reconciled? Can they be reconciled?
AS: Felice becomes so immersed in this work, she’s so thoroughly absorbed the inner laws of the progressions and permutations that she thinks she’s stumbled upon cues to a parallel universe in which reality moves both forwards and backwards in time, simultaneously. This is perhaps the moment she lays the work aside—it’s a question the book leaves open. In any case, she becomes afraid that her mind is slipping. The laws of motion in the work infuse her perception to such a degree that she thinks she can detect their echo in everyday life, a presentiment for the next inevitable step in some inexorable process.
This effect echoes the scene where she comes out of the movie theater with her son, with their perception still saturated by the unbelievably quick motion of the animated figures in Kung Fu Panda 2, by all the whooshing and zipping around, the suspension of the laws of nature. We all know how a film can exert a lingering effect, how you suddenly see the outside world from within a different reality altogether. This is the lasting power of art, and it’s even stronger with the Floor Tile drawings, because Felice has been working on them for such a long time, she’s internalized them.
Years later, when she rediscovers these works, her memories of making them become reactivated and she feels the urge to draw again: she goes out to buy paper, pencils, but it’s complicated, the old intensity isn’t quite there, she’s haunted by vague anxieties. Nonetheless, something is rekindled; the return to art progresses slowly and by degrees.
At first it could seem that motherhood, the demands of everyday life, are what undermine the perception Felice needs to cultivate for her art, but that’s not necessarily the case. Or it can boil down to a problem of time. But sometimes we step away from art because it can be difficult to integrate it with the rest of our lives, with the human relationships that are important to us. In other words: we take refuge in normality. Perhaps.
In the case of the Floor Tile Project, I made the decision to use one of the drawings for the book cover. This adds another dimension to the passage in which Felice describes the work: all of a sudden there’s this very real image to compare it to. It’s also the passage in which the title word “Kreislauf” (meaning circuit, circle, circulation) appears for, I believe, the only time in the book, in the singular: and so everything coalesces at that moment and signalizes to the reader that this is a key section, that something’s happening here that’s emblematic for the whole novel. Of course, when the English edition finally comes out, I’ll need to figure out a different cover image—because Like Lips, Like Skins is a very different title. We’ve talked about the reasons for this in Part One of this interview.
AK: Verbalizing the visual plays an important role in your writing. For example, you narrate your artwork in the book, as you’ve said above. The reader “views” it through your eyes. You decide how he or she should see; you guide their gaze across the wall or canvas.
AS: And then the writing turns the work into something else altogether. I’ll describe one example of this. When I wrote the original text for the installation Through the Bullethole, I adopted a voyeuristic perspective that conjoined with the series of photographs I was taking through a small bullet hole in a pane of cracked security glass. I was on a three-month residency, I had a huge factory space at my disposal with these sooty industrial windows and brick walls, and I was able to immerse myself in the work to an unusual degree: to merge the ideas and emotions described in the piece with the manner in which the letters were painted on the old factory walls and the way the viewer moved through the space to read them; to calibrate the photographs and the installation itself with the voice speaking in the text and how it related to the space. It was all very gratifying. When, in Like Lips, Like Skins, I lend this work to the protagonist, she automatically becomes associated with the mental state the work suggests—this slightly crazy, obsessive gaze through a bullet hole, this necessarily limited view of the world—it all becomes far more psychological in the book, and Felice is equated with her work much, I might add, in the way that I’m often equated with my protagonist. There’s this (I hope) hilarious scene in which the work is hanging on the walls of a gallery and Felice tries to explain the photographs to her mother, sister, and the mother’s neighbor, who they’ve brought along for some reason. All of a sudden there’s this 1:1 thing happening, it’s assumed that she’s the subject of the work in a way that never actually happened to me with the original installation—at the time I made the work, the question of authorship was never confused with the idea of a journal or diary, with a confessional gesture. It was understood to be a formal conceit. The work’s inner logic was clear, and the installation cohered in a larger way that allowed the ideas feeding it to breathe, to grow into a sort of organism. When I imported a description of this work into my book, I had to learn what it could do and what it couldn’t do. It certainly wasn’t about selling the reader on conceptual art. I simply wondered what would be left of a work as complex as this after reducing it to words—and what I could make it say about my characters.
AK: The moment a work of art is absorbed into literature, writing’s sequential aspect alters it in crucial ways. Conversely, you break up the narrative chronology, i.e., the sequence of events in the plot. What remains is a carefully constructed interweaving of vignettes that touch upon various episodes from the past; leaps in time organize the narrative structure. You’re not interested in pinpointing any direct logical connection between the fragments, but in offering an inkling of a fragile causality that cannot be expressed in ordinary language. You’re concerned with pattern, and as we know, a pattern is made up of repetitions. The desire to find recurrent motifs in life provides the underlying structure of both the novel and Felice’s artistic work. Was it your intention that this structure should exist as a parallelism: on the level of you as the author, and of Felice as the artist protagonist?
AS: In Like Lips, Like Skins, I describe the painting process to invoke a particular way of seeing things:
Something had changed: there was a space I could enter now, an air that felt easier to breathe. It was as though the painting and my imagination were part of a single continuum, as though the layers emerging from beneath its rainy, weathered-looking surface were made up of the same fluid element as my mind. Art is about perception, I thought as I sank into a chair. It’s not just about making things, it’s about seeing them, like the way the wind eddies around a corner and carries a plastic bag along in its invisible dance—the wind is there, and although the plastic bag is required to visualize it, to add the ink to the brush as it describes its coils and glyphs, its sweeping strokes and trembling hesitations, what it’s really about is the wind and the fact that it’s invisible and that I nevertheless understand it, know it in my heart and my gut and my bones.
When this way of seeing is carried over into the “ordinary” world, when Felice observes everyday situations and describes them with her artistic eye, it’s clear that it’s less a matter of art as such and more about perception: about a certain way of encountering the world. It’s about patterns, but it’s also about simple correspondences and the ability to notice them. Everyone tries to find meaning in their life, and we attempt, for the most part, to create that meaning by telling each other stories, or passing on family traditions, or leaving a legacy of some kind. Some people cultivate a kind of “magical thinking”: they develop antennae for coincidences, they believe in signs and omens. We tell ourselves stories in response to an injury, a crime, a personal failure, and so on—or simply in response to the passing of time, to mortality. We tell ourselves stories to make sense of our lives. But one can also accept the world, as chaotic as it is, exactly as it is—without any visible order, without any ostensible meaning—and leave it to its veiled congruities, its clandestine rhymes. Be content with it, with observing its phenomena directly, in a purely visual, purely phenomenological way. Recognizing its repetitions of form, its “fragile causality,” as you put it. The book’s formal qualities draw on this.
AK: Felice seems unequipped for everyday life. She’s afraid of losing her mind. She sees things from her perspective as an artist: natural formations feel like a painting whose logic of layers she sets out to unravel. She’s so immersed in this way of perceiving things that she’s disconnected from the everyday world. Basically, she projects her artistic practice onto everything around her. She can’t give up being an artist. Am I interpreting this correctly? Is an absolute separation between realities possible, or does one always falter at the border between them?
AS: Felice is torn: she wants to survive, to support her child, she’s afraid of what might happen if she doesn’t focus on her job, on making money. But she constantly hears art’s siren call, its quiet, persistent voice, its susurration. One could regard her as a failed artist, as a person who has lost her purpose, at least for a time. What remains is her way of seeing, mirrored in the book’s narrative structure.
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Andrea Scrima studied fine arts in New York and Berlin, where she lives as a writer and artist. In 2018, Literaturverlag Droschl published the German edition of her novel A Lesser Day (Spuyten Duyvil, New York) under the title Wie viele Tage. Kreisläufe, the German edition of Like Lips, Like Skins, followed in 2021. She writes essays for the Times Literary Supplement, FAZ, Schreibheft, Music & Literature, The American Scholar, LitHub, and The Brooklyn Rail and is editor-in-chief of StatORec.
Ally Klein studied philosophy and literature; she lives and works in Berlin. Her debut novel Carter was published in 2018 by Literaturverlag Droschl, followed by Der Wal (The Whale) in 2021. An interview with her appeared in this column in 2018.
The first chapter of the German edition Kreisläufe appeared in issue 232 of the Austrian literary magazine manuskripte; English-language excerpts have appeared in Trafika Europe, Statorec, and Zyzzyva. The German version of Part One of this interview appeared in issue 234 of manuskripte, the English version here on Three Quarks Daily. For Part Two, Ally Klein corresponded with the author over the course of several weeks via email; the above is an edited version of a talk the two gave in Berlin on December 11, 2021 at Lettrétage.
For English-language rights to Like Lips, Like Skins, please contact Soumeya Roberts of HG Literary, New York.