What books were you reading in those years?
Everything. I read fiction four or five hours a night every night for five years. Worked through Dickens, the Russians, the French, the moderns, the postmoderns. It was like a return to the long reading summers of my youth, but now I was reading literature, getting a sense of all the ways a story could be made.
But the primal books for me remained the ones I’d encountered in the fall of 1980: Malte, Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Magic Mountain, and, above all, The Trial. In each of these books the fundamental story is the same. There are these superficial arrangements; there is the life we think we have, this very much socially constructed life that is comfortable or uncomfortable but nonetheless what we think of as “our life.” And there’s something else underneath it, which was represented by all of those German-language writers as Death. There’s this awful truth, this maskless self, underlying everything. And what was striking about all four of those great books was that each of them found the drama in blowing the cover off a life. You start with an individual who is in some way defended, and you strip away or just explode the surface and force that character into confrontation with what’s underneath.