Garth Greenwell’s debut novel, What Belongs to You, has received a loud welcome from fellow novelists such as Claire Messud and Edmund White, as well as almost ecstatic praise from the critics. Paddy Kehoe spoke to the 38-year-old Kentucky author on a recent visit to RTÉ.
The unnamed narrator is an American teacher in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, as indeed the author Garth himself once was. He embarks on a sexual relationship with a younger Bulgarian man, Mitko, a complex, mercurial character in his early twenties.
Mitko doesn’t have a home, he needs the money that the teacher gives him in what are in effect their sexual transactions, he has a drug problem. However, when we meet him first, he is cocky and confident, full of ebullience and charm. What Belongs to You vividly describes their somewhat tormented relationship, but the story also charts Mitko’s decline. By the close of the 191-page novel, when we know him as well as we do, he cuts a pitiful figure.
“What Belongs to You is a book about particular lives in a particular place, “says the genial author. “But the thing that is so extraordinary about literature - and the thing that makes it worth devoting one’s life to it - is that through those particular lives and particular places, I hope that you do reach something that is true of all lives and all places, that through the particular you arrive at the universal.”
Greenwell taught literature in a prestigious high school in Bulgaria for a period of four years, which he readily admits was “ a hard job.” Fluent himself in Bulgarian, he taught literature in English, and as part of the course, would ask his students to write stories about their own experiences in Sofia, in the style of James Joyce’s Dubliners. He would also ask them to supply a map of the route which their character or characters took through Sofia, an interesting touch in terms of focusing minds on a sense of recognisable place.
Interestingly, he wrote the book - or perhaps more accurately, the novella Mitko, which it was entitled in its original manifestation - in the early hours of the morning. “I would wake up at 4.30am and write for two hours before class. So I was writing in the dark, I was writing in a foreign place, in a place where, if I wasn’t teaching that day I might not speak English to anyone.”
This monastic, solitary process in a foreign land changed his relationship with writing, even his relationship with English. “It made it private, it made it the most intense experience of privacy I’ve ever had, “ he says. “And I think that that feeling allowed me an authentic relationship with myself and with my thoughts, and gave me a sense of freedom that allowed me to write without worrying about what people might think.”
He was living far from anyone who knew him, let alone anyone who knew that he was a writer. “One of the interesting things about publishing a book – because it’s the first time I’ve done it – is that it’s exactly the opposite of writing a book, that inwardness you can achieve when no one cares what you are doing.”
The novel is in large part a subtle exploration of ambivalence of motive. Who is exploiting who, you will find yourself asking as you contemplate the two principal characters who not alone are ethnically different, but come from entirely different socio-economic circumstances.
“Literature creates a space in which we can explore ambivalence - I feel that in so much of our lives we are forced to pretend that we can only feel one thing, or that we are certain of what we feel. Readers do often talk about sympathy in the book. They’ll say, `I sympathise with Mitko' or `I didn’t sympathise with Mitko', or `I sympathise with the narrator,' or `I didn’t sympathise with the narrator.' And I do think that that is something that literature - and art more generally - can do, because something isn’t art if it only wants you to have one response, if it only intends you to feel one thing.
Something that (suggests) you should only feel one thing is propaganda, or possibly pornography, he argues. "I think it’s not until the intention is for you to feel multiple things, and maybe contradictory things, that something can come become art.” Books, he also says, are `a profound remedy for loneliness.’
Thus the reader should feel shadings, varying colours of feeling, as he or she absorbs the story of the unnamed American and his time with Mitko. Being judgmental about either would not just be pointless, it would be missing the point. “Even when they’re failing each other – and I think each of them fails the other – each of them is desperate for some kind of real connection, despite the fact there is this transactional nature to their relationship which overflows the bounds of that.”
What Belongs to You will appear in Bulgarian in October, the first novel about gay people in Bulgaria, period, and the first to appear in Bulgarian, albeit written originally in English by a Kentucky native. “If it gets any attention at all, it will be the attention of scandal, “ he says. Should it be received that way he reckons it would be devastating for him, rather than to have it received as literature. In any case, he is going to Bulgaria to launch the translation, `to be part of the argument’, as he says, in a country which has no history of gay literature.
The novelist is still clearly attached to his two leading players, whom he admits he actually misses, now that there has been some distance struck between author and narrative. “Mitko says to the narrator at a couple of points, especially towards the end of the book, “you are a istinski priyatel, you are `a true friend.'” There are all sorts of ways in the book that that’s not true, but I hope there are all sorts of ways that it is true too.”
What Belongs to You is published by Picador