Interview | Kevin Breathnach

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Kevin Breathnach — photo by Vanessa Ifediora

I had intended my interview with Kevin Breathnach to go smoothly and at first it appeared to be doing so. We had arranged a time for a discussion over Skype, had both logged on at that appointed time, and he had made contact in the chat box: ‘Ready whenever you are but no rush!’ Then came the first crisis: no matter how hard or how many times I clicked, my mouse would not produce a cursor where I needed to type a reply. Accidentally I sent a grinning emoji, which somehow had even less emotive an expression than those populating WhatsApp, which were themselves so blank they had led me to conclude that the name was an ironic joke on the part of web-developers. Staring at me from the chat box, its eyes appeared glazed, surrounded by circles of a slightly darker yellow than the rest of the face, perhaps the result of a heavy night out on the dark web. Quickly calling Kevin in the hope he wouldn’t have the chance to see my faux-pas, it was only once he’d picked up and we’d begun our conversation that I realised the completely black screen I was faced with was not a problem with the connection, but a result of my having started a voice and not a video call. By now Kevin was getting into his flow and I didn’t want to interrupt him, was glad in fact to have something to hide my embarrassment behind, and so for the next hour or so, without ever seeing one another’s faces, we discussed his debut collection of essays Tunnel Vision in what I’m glad to say was thenceforth a gaffe-free and illuminating interview.

Looking back on it (and perhaps trying retrospectively to inflate my faux-pas into a metaphor) holding a conversation over the impediment of a black screen could be considered a curiously appropriate symbol for the book. Tunnel Vision is about borders and what it means to operate across them – borders between art and the self, between narrator and author, and between locals and foreigners. Pieces of art-historical criticism run alongside autobiographical essays, the boundaries between the two getting ever more permeable. Breathnach discusses the work of figures ranging from Thomas Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann to Berenice Abbott and Stephen Shore, all the while re-examining events from his own life as a promising young footballer, an English teacher in Madrid and Gwangju, and a student hooked on the combination of mephedrone and online pornography. Our conversation ranged over many of these topics, but I began by asking him about physical borders.

I wanted to start with a UK jumping off point, with Brexit imminent and being negotiated by a prime minister who has said that ‘a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere’. Given that a lot of your essays are written from the perspective of a foreigner, in Munich, Madrid, Paris and Korea, and in ‘The Lot’ you write ‘everywhere I went I was reminded of places I’d never been’, I wondered what it was it about being a foreigner that stimulated your writing?

When I found out the book would be coming out in March and it would be round about the deadline for article 50 I feared I would be asked a question about Brexit and so I began to listen to wall to wall podcasts related to it, so much so that if there wasn’t Brexit content playing somewhere in the house I began to feel ill at ease. And yet no matter how many hours, how many podcasts I’ve listened to, I still have very little, to say about it, practically nothing.

In regards to being a foreigner it’s important to distinguish that there’s probably an extent to which I had privileged status in Europe at that time, as someone with an EU passport, someone who’s white, because as I was travelling austerity measures had been implemented. Particularly when I was in Madrid the refugee crisis was being most heavily reported, and so I guess this portrait of easy movement across borders on my part is maybe an idealised image of Europe in some way, one I don’t think everyone has, probably very few people in fact, and perhaps as a result of Brexit there will be a border in Ireland. There kind of already is one in effect in some senses; a while ago I saw police come onto the bus across the border and two people were removed because they didn’t have their immigration papers, and the bus just drove off. But in terms of what it was about being in those countries, I think it was important that for a lot of the time I was alone and didn’t know anyone, nor did I know the particular place and I only had a touristic notion of historical traces. If I walk around Dublin the roads have historical, or literary or artistic connotations for me, so there is a sense in which it is terrain that is already in some way covered, and in order to write it  would require taking that on in some way. As well as that it kind of provides a framing device especially with the sort of travel that I did where it was a couple of months in each place, which didn’t really allow me to settle anywhere, those months became the inside of a particular frame and they limit the amount of material. I’ve found when the stuff of life is your material, there’s an overabundance and it can be emotionally or psychologically confusing at best, so by having it in another place, you’re able in some sense to start with a blank canvas and since you have no existing relationships with people there’s less risk.

Also I suppose I’m engaged with a certain European iconography and by travelling I was exposed to that and also to the activity of image looking in different contexts, either alone, or with other people.

Just thinking about you being alone, there are a few essays in the collection about self-presentation. So the one about the Goncourt brothers’ journal (‘Put a Man on its Grave’) and the one about Susan Sontag’s diaries (‘Square Brackets’), in which you quote one of her lines ‘the doubling of the self in dreams. The doubling of the self in art’ and I was wondering, your tone is quite detached in a lot of essays but at the same time you have a lot of very self-revelatory descriptions – was this a conscious approach to undermining detached notions that you normally have in criticism, by mixing biographical details with analyses of art? Especially in ‘Tunnel Vision’ for example.

There’s a switching back and forth between two different registers – I’m really happy you mentioned the Sontag and the Goncourt essays. Those ones are I suppose, essays in which I was interested in splitting of the ‘I’ or a plural inhabitation of the ‘I’, so with Sontag and the editor of her journals, her son David Rieff, and the two Goncourt brothers who wrote in the first person singular. I wrote most of the first person essays first. It’s not that I wrote six first person essays and then six art historical essays, but the art historical essays were at first unconsciously or subconsciously addressed to the doubts and ambivalence I had begun to feel about the first person essay as I was practising it at the time. I was interested in stepping back a little bit and allowing that particular attitude that I felt and feel to mingle with the sometimes quite brazenly open essays about myself, and to see also in what way the material I had been writing over the previous three years and the way I had been thinking about it had informed what I thought about self-portraiture, about photography, and self-revelation, and it seemed the best way to do that would be to have some sort of distance or else the book would become laboriously meta. It needed some semblance that it wasn’t self-reflexive. But that idea of the art historical essays as being detached – I think maybe they are more reserved but they are maybe some of the most emotional essays for me, I guess because I had some sort of cover so was able to talk about and think about all sorts of things that are maybe running beneath the surface of the personal narratives, because I do think the personal narratives do gesture towards something unspoken running beneath them. It’s different unspokens at various points. But I wanted to use those self-portraits by Berenice Abbot, Andre Kertesz, and Stephen Shore to really try and find out for myself what those unspokens were. They created space in which I could write about desire and literary theory at the same time and in the same sentence.

Doubling as well — I think doubling exists at different points in the book. I did a Masters in textual studies and read a lot of Rosalind Krauss for my dissertation — she talks about doubling being a sign of signification. So it was about producing as many doubling effects in the book, so that they became symbolically active even if I didn’t know what they were symbols of — I think that’s a good way of talking about it. There’s actually a story that didn’t make it into the book, in which I started consciously behaving as a double. On the back of the train essay [‘Tunnel Vision’] I went on a residency to Bergen -it was an exchange between the Irish Writers’ Centre and the Bergen Writers’ Centre. They put me up in this apartment style room on the seventh floor of a hotel – I was there for eight days or so and on the second or third last day it was a rainy Sunday and I accidentally set the fire alarm off by trying to fry an egg but getting distracted by the Steven Shore piece [‘Shape of Silence’], which I was trying to finish at the time. As a result the entire hotel had to be evacuated, but the man next door who was an Italian man came out of his room and was like ‘What’s going on?’ and I said ‘oh, it’s me, I set this off’ and he was a bit angry but also friendly. I eventually got downstairs and the hotel was a lot more populous than I had first thought. Everyone had to stand out on the street where it was raining, and because it was Sunday the receptionist wasn’t working, so the fire alarm continued to go off and the entire time I was just trying to appear really confused as though I had nothing to do with it to all those people who didn’t know I’d set off the alarm, while at the same time trying to look guilty enough to the Italian man who knew that I’d done it, so he didn’t think I was trying to abdicate responsibility.

Haha, life imitating art there.

I was Edmond and Jules Goncourt at once. It could be a general definition of my literary style.

Related to definitions, I was fascinated by your speculation that the name Veronica derives from vera and icon meaning ‘truth’ and ‘image’. You talk on the one hand [in ‘Closer Still’] about Kertesz cutting up his wedding photos, editing them in a way that produces a very different picture of the couple’s relationship, and then on the other [in ‘Tunnel Vision’] about the seven hour Bergen to Oslo railway film, which doesn’t have any cuts. How do they produce truth through image?

That’s an interesting comparison to think about those two things together. I wrote the title essay immediately after the Kertesz piece, and although I guess the Bergensbanen film is precisely that thing, an uncut text, I saw in it then a kind of opportunity or invitation to do precisely that: to cut it up and to take what I had learned from Kertesz’s practice; the ease with which an excision or a reorientation of the frame can select or juxtapose incidents and make them speak, when as part of a seven hour film they seem completely random. I don’t know how many incidents I describe, but there are many more I do not. Both essays speak to the relationship between editing and authorisation; I saw the train film as the equivalent of a sculptor receiving an enormous amount of rock out of which to carve something. It had loads of different qualities that I was attracted to – time, the spacio-temporal qualities of locomotion as a kind of doubling of the spacio-temporal qualities of cinema. Patrick Keiller talks about this and I’d read him about a year before, so when I saw the film for the first time I knew it was something I would be able to work with, though I didn’t know exactly in what way.

Another interesting thing to talk about here, in regards to Veronica and vera and icon is that I do say parenthetically that it’s a false etymology. It’s a fortuitous one anyway, and the fact that it’s a false one is interesting as well because it’s speaking about truth value. In regard to truth value and image – my background is in photography, and the photograph is said to have a ‘reality effect’ or guarantee of truth and I thought that that was an interesting way to think about photography alongside the category of nonfiction, where what people are interested in when they are reading nonfiction, or what attracts them to it is that there’s a guarantee of truth, and also that the authorial voice is stabilised in its own body. But what I’ve tried to do in the book is talk about why photography’s truth claim is contested, to say the least, as well as to contest the truth value of my own narratives. I suppose also by getting all those suggestions in, I would produce some kind of distance, maybe not distance but put the text outside of myself, just enough that I was comfortable with.

It’s interesting what you say about the assumptions people bring to nonfiction; it’s a stereotype that people read nonfiction to be educated. It feels like a responsible thing to be reading rather than a silly novel, and yet recently these boundaries have been becoming more and more blurred, as autofiction has entered the mainstream. I was wondering if you see yourself at all as part of this current vogue for autofiction.

I wouldn’t say that I’m not. I studied French in university and actually there was a lecturer in there who seemed to run an auotfiction module every year, and those were some of the few classes I actually went to, where we read Modiano, Annie Ernaux, Nathlaie Sarraute, Sophie Calle. I think we also did Marguerite Duras, so it’s definitely a tradition I was exposed to but it didn’t provoke me into writing about myself; that was maybe more people like Joan Didion. Or maybe I just read Joan Didion at a point where I’d made space for myself – I’d just finished my dissertation and once I’d done that I had time just to focus on my writing. I’d tried to get a job and then moved away and got an agent on the back of the essay about Paris [‘Unfamiliar Angles’], which is probably the most Didion-esque; that and the first Madrid one, ‘The Lot’, were written when I had a document of Didion’s sentences that I would occasionally open up to use their structures, so there’s a couple of sentences in there that maybe someone will be able to trace.

As for autofiction, I have enjoyed the Eduoard Louis that I’ve read, I’m reading that Eribon book at the moment, I like that as well.  I suppose the collection is as much autofiction as it is anything else, but I also think that it’s a book that’s attempting to operate in the space of the ‘informe’, or that which is without form, or with such a carnival of different forms that it can slip out of the autofiction discussion if it wants to, which is what I’m going to do now.

Another topic I wanted to touch on was the relationship in several essays between the present and history. For instance in the one [‘Death Cycles’] when you’re going to visit the memorial in Munich to the Manchester United team that died in the 1958 plane crash, there’s a moment when you’re taking a photo of the memorial and you see a motorcyclist crash – a kind of weird parody of the original crash. Also in that essay you discuss the architecture of Munich and the debates after World War 2 about whether to destroy, retain or refashion it, and the question how could this architecture so tainted by the recent past be used? So on the one hand you have this bathetic echo of the plane crash and then on the other you have this extensive public history of the city…there’s not really a question there, but…

I’m interested in the idea of the parody of the crash, I hadn’t really thought of it in those terms because at the time it seemed quite serious, and yet I did also immediately use it as material. Before that crash, nothing in the book existed. It was the first essay that I wrote. As much as Joan Didion provoked me into writing first person nonfiction that crash kind of jolted or brought something on. Maybe because it was a version of the crash, (and I’m happy to take it on as a parodic version, I actually really like that), but also because it is one of those moments when time just seems to open up in a ludicrous way.

Did you find the cliché that everything slows down to be true?

No, and maybe that’s what the book is an attempt to do: to put things in their proper context and their proper tempo, to actually slow things down. But no, the accident happened very fast and then I walked off faster. Today I was actually walking up and down O’Connell Street trying to walk as slowly as possible because I’ve noticed I’m quite a fast walker, and it took me twenty-seven minutes so I’m hoping next time I can get it even longer.

As to the relationship between history and the present – I was living in Munich at the time, and it was the first time I’d written about myself and I guess I was a little bit…not shy, but uncertain about whether or not I should be doing that, whether or not it was a legitimate literary practice, and I think that especially as someone coming from a critical background I needed some other echo, some other double of what had happened in order to bring its meaning out, or to suggest a kind of meaning without actually spelling anything out. Also as something to shield myself, maybe not shield, but to control the narrative in some way. So I started researching the reconstruction of Munich, and there is also a lot in that essay about my own childhood playing football, and how my grandfather started attempting a reconstruction of his brother in me; I found in Munich being the most conservatively reconstructed city in Germany after the war, a lot of the buildings went up as facsimiles of what they had been before World War 2 and sometimes even before World War 1 – I guess I found in that a kind of language to talk about what’s going on in the more personal stuff but to speak about it from a distance in a way that is artful and reticent. But at the same time I was also trying to find ways of placing the first person narrative in the political or historical context, so there’s an attempt to do that using what are seen as reactionary reconstructions that are not only actively harmful to the future but are also a sign of an inability to process grief and move on; the German word is Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which is I think the only German word I know how to pronounce. But also I suppose I wanted to do that with the prologue in Chemnitz with the bust of Marx. Talking about that stuff lends the piece…I guess you want to find a way in which first person is relevant…

Viable maybe? Thinking about the times we’re living in, which seem very chaotic, what place does the first person have in this situation? It seems almost a selfish point of view.

Yeah exactly. In that Kate Briggs book [This Little Art] she mentions the moment from Roland Barthes’ memoir in which he gives a speculative portrait of a middle class maiden practising her water colours while there’s political upheaval going on outside. I guess I wanted to give a sense of me talking about something very specific that happened to me and has a specific personal meaning, while also not that narrator necessarily being conscious of where that sits in its historical context. I wanted the narrator to seem as oblivious as possible to what was going on – maybe not in that essay, maybe by that point I hadn’t been trying to do that – but the extent to which I am trying to see political bad faith in the narrator, I want him to seem unaware of that and let the secondary material do all the work.

The only time I remember contemporary political events being mentioned, I think is in ‘The Lot’ where there’s one line or so about you witnessing the marches against austerity in Madrid.

There’s a bit in there, and about my narrator’s failure to be involved in that, watching football while they were going on. I think that the book is addressed to the contemporary moment but I think my way of addressing that is to come at it at a slightly oblique angle. I suppose my Stephen Shore essay is an attempt to consider the complicities at play in a touristic mode of aesthetic representation.

One more question, related to this topic: I noticed there aren’t many people older than thirty, certainly not older than forty in the book – not the people you discuss but the people you meet. Is the practice of travelling around teaching English, in Spain, in Korea, particularly a young person’s approach to, or vision of, the contemporary world, and do you feel, not sealed off, but like there’s a barrier between younger and older visions of Europe, culture and citizenry, as they’re experienced in the book?

That’s a curveball at the end! There have been older people in my life but I think in some sense the book is maybe an attempt to emerge from youth.

Not a bildungsroman obviously, but a coming of age?

Yeah that is definitely suggested a couple of times in the book, with me trying to write a novel for example. As to different notions of citizenry I think it’s probably too general a thing for me to pronounce on. I would say notions of citizenry are probably going to be greatly changed in the next couple of years. It seems to be a location for a lot of the debates and struggles that are going on today, but it hasn’t in my experience been an intergenerational thing. I think the younger people in my life, in the way they lived their lives, were producing more interesting material for me to write about. A lot of the book is about romantic relationships and nonromantic relationships, which tend to be with my contemporaries, so I’m not really sure I’d have much now to say about youth. Actually when I was doing publicity, they asked me for my age and I was going to lie and say I’m thirty when I’m actually thirty-one so I don’t know if at the age of thirty-one for me to be talking about youth might seem a bit rich to younger readers. I think everybody in the book is around the same age as me which is thirty – I mean thirty-one.

The reason I ask is because I thought about this topic the first time I read the essay about Munich, when you write that you missed the opening of the bridge [the Liam Whelan Bridge in Dublin, honouring his great uncle who was killed in the Munich air disaster] but you travelled to Munich to see the memorial at the airport instead.

Well I didn’t travel to Munich to see the memorial.

You go out of your way once you’re there to see it.

Yeah. Maybe one reason for the disconnect between generations in the book is drug taking or doing stuff that was concealed from the older generation. Do you mean why was I not at the bridge opening in Dublin? I think maybe it was at the time of the events in ‘Tunnel Vision’ the title essay, so maybe I was just otherwise engaged.

Yeah, I guess it just goes back to the first question, (we’re going to finish with a nice circular structure) about this idea of open borders and travelling and the fact that those opportunities, not that they weren’t available to older generations, but that they’re seen as a right by young people. It’s not uncommon to travel to Europe, even Asia, Korea, Japan, to teach English, whereas maybe – a big generalisation – but maybe in the political scene, with Brexit, there’s this view of older people that they see themselves as more rooted whereas for younger people they seem themselves not as rootless but positioned in a freer way of being.

I suppose amongst young people who have an EU passport it has been seen as a right, and it is a right enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, but I think that there are also a lot of young people for whom it’s not a right and who have never had that easy mobility across borders. But for me, I experience it as a right, or at least not as an issue; so I was talking about that incident earlier on when I saw those people taken off the bus because they didn’t have their papers – I didn’t have my passport that day and was allowed to stay on. As far as older people and Brexit – actually I’m not going to make a comment about Brexit. I haven’t listened carefully enough to the podcasts. But yeah, I really appreciate this line of questioning because I’m glad to know that the book has suggested that much, because I was worried it hadn’t come across. I’ll be interested to see how people engage with that question. You might be onto something with the generational gap – but it’s not something I understand at the moment.

It’s something readers can ponder for themselves. Well, thanks for your time Kevin – wishing you all the success with the book.

For more on Kevin Breathnach and Tunnel Vision, go here.

Words and interview by Mathis Clément.


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