Home // December.13.2017 // Vlad Savich

Digging Deep into the Perfectly Plausible

Russian ex-pat Vlad Savich is a playwright, director, and impresario in the Montreal theater scene. In the following interview, he talks to his frienc and artistic colleague, the actor and writer David Tacium. (An excerpt from Tacium's recently finished novel appeared in NERObooks earlier this month; click here to read it.)

David Tacium

Tacium, after a Holi celebration in 2017.

Vlad Savich: David, tell us who you are.

David Tacium: Okay, a quick biography. You'll have heard some of this before.

Like many people, I came into the world split in two. My father came with his mother and two sisters from famine-stricken Ukraine in the mid 1930s as a thirteen-year-old; my mother was a strict Baptist of English stock, whose own mother emigrated from a village near Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon as a twenty-year-old nurse. The two sides of the family, English and Slavic, maintained a cordial state of mutual misunderstanding throughout my childhood on the northern shore of Lake Superior.

My grandfather fought in World War I on the side of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, coming out alive with an Iron Cross. My father proudly fought in World War II on the side of the Allies against Adolph Hitler. I have never had to fight in any war nor even do military service. I am quite certain I'd have a found a way to dodge any form of conscription.

I was raised to be a boy-team sports and all the rest-but my passions were music, acting, reading, writing, and. other boys. The family moved to the western prairies where the horizon is wide open but minds not so much. University was a refuge. I acted there in an Ionesco play, in French. I also began to travel. During my first major trip, at 19, I met a distinguished elderly British poet who became my mentor. F.T. Prince encouraged me to go live in Italy and learn that language. (Learning language is all about being curious; I have curiosity in spades.)

Today I teach English and German at a francophone college. I have traveled all around the world and onto every continent except Australia and Antarctica. I speak only six languages, in this order: English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Russian. It is my shame that I don't know more; but these at least allow me to explore six different universes. 

VS: Your grandfather fought in WWI; your father was in WW II. Life is a constant struggle. Is it meaningful for me to say that you also fight? Whose side are you fighting on?

DT: Having a grandfather and a father who were never enemies but who risked their lives on opposite sides-what a lesson in how relative  sides  are! One of the strangest peculiarities of our species is our readiness to pledge allegiance to a piece of cloth fluttering in the wind.

I'm on the side of deserters. Is there a more abject fate for any individual than to end up as cannon fodder? And yet deserters get labeled traitors! Gays have also been stigmatized as traitors, against their biological sex.

The struggle to secure gay rights has been truly worthy. I have lived to see an unprecedented sphere of freedom expand, what with the huge steps forward in my student years, the 1970s, and more in the early years of the 21st century. Here in the West one could declare victory, though not at all elsewhere. The struggle continues, the battle against ignorance.

'Life is a struggle'? It's certainly no love-in. Social injustice of all stripes and colours makes my blood boil. Though: lately my involvement in community radio and political activism has waned. Alas, Oscar Wilde was right to complain that the trouble with socialism was mainly that it ate up too many evenings. I still cry out strong and loud: Welcome refugees!

VS: Recently you finished a great novel; congratulations! What problems does it deal with?

DT: Thank you! I started it in 2012 and finished it this year after some traveling in Mexico, India, Europe. It took more time than my PhD! Whether it's great or not I don't know. I wrote it for myself. More exactly, it's written to the 20-year-old I was, like a long letter across time, in the hope that today there are 20-year-olds who experience life as I did, lost and confused, intense, and on the look-out for reflections.

I picture my ideal reader sitting out on a balcony engrossed in my novel, finding comfort in it, feeling less alone. If he's out there somewhere, he'll confirm to me that I was ahead of my time. Truth be told, I've always felt a few steps ahead of my time. Not with regards to technology-I don't even have a cell phone, let alone a smart one. I mean spiritually ahead. Sometimes it stirs a feeling of sheer loneliness. My novel means to fill the void.

VS: "More exactly, it's written to the 20-year-old I was"; tell me, David, would you return to your twenties if you could? If so, what would you like to change in your past? Did you have anything in your life that you regret?

DT: Life is 'an inextinguishable crop of regrets'. That's not me, that's Joseph Conrad, but I've been quoting it since I was 20. Yes, I'd relive those early years, only this time less timidly. My novel is an expression of the regret of not going all the way for a person one desires. Religious taboo prevents the two main characters from really getting to know each other. That happened to me. "Live all you can, it's a mistake not to." That's not me either, that's a character named Strether in a late Henry James novel, The Ambassadors , but I've been saying it a long long time.

I still believe there is little in life I'd have done otherwise given a second chance. My biggest regret transcends my own experience. I regret the way the world has gone. I deeply regret how illiterate our society has become, blinded by spectator sports and other forms of entertainment, uncritical, interested only in money. It depresses me to think how few people are candidates for reading my novel, or any novel.

VS: "It depresses me to think how few people are candidates for reading my novel"; but isn't it a writer's task to change the world? How do you think your novel could do so? Might it not change the lives of at least a few people?

DT: Ah, the 'happy few'! Yes. My work is for them. I'm not trying to create a best-seller. If I could reach those few kindred souls, I wouldn't want them to change their lives. It's those who can't read-a growing majority in our Western society, where one in four if not one in three is aliterate, a kind of functional illiteracy-whose lives need changing. The indirect consequence with having such a small pool of potential readers has to do with the economics of the publishing industry; editors are reluctant to take a chance on a text which won't rake in the revenue.

VS: If our writing is unable to change our world, why do we write? It seems to me that writers are like pioneers. Conquerors of new lands. What do you think?

DT: People are always saying that everything has already been said. I tend to agree. I also think that the great age of literary creation is in the past. The greatest Russian literature predates the 1917 Revolution. Nothing written in Europe over the past fifty years has surpassed Proust, Joyce, Thomas Mann (nor could it; the readership just isn't there).

The metaphor you propose is interesting. The great explorers never really discovered anything new-the land they stumbled on was already inhabited, and the new life they brought was founded on destruction.

So, discovery isn't my motive. When I write, all I want is to engage my reader in thought. The only person I'm trying truly to change is myself.

VS: Tell me, who do you think wrote the first novel?

DT: Probably someone inspired by the gods. Sometimes the feeling of divine inspiration comes over me. It's such a delicious illusion.

VS: God is an exciting topic to write about. After all, the writer feels like a Creator. Do you believe in a creator of everything that exists?

DT: I am completely agnostic in matters of religion. There is no explanation for everything that exists. If it could be explained, no one would have to rely on mere belief. And why would a supreme Creator care one way or another whether I believed in It?

What I really cannot accept is organized religion. Why are all major organized religions so anti-sex? The only true creation happens through  sex. In the sexual act, I am at my most creative. Of course, as a male I can only fancy that the works I produce are a kind of giving of birth. So yes, the writer feels like a creator, at times. But I wouldn't go near any writer who took himself for God.

VS: There is a phrase to describe writer and other cultural creators, supposedly coined by Yury Olesha and subsequently used by Stalin: "engineers of the human soul." How would you describe the writer's craft? Is creativity a craft, a gift, a grift?

DT: Well look, there is an engineering of the human soul going on all over Western capitalist society. In the job 'market', the managerial class engineers employees. The department formerly called Personnel got renamed in the 1980s as Human Resources, and now some employers have begun to use the phrase 'Human Capital'. This stuff is pervasive. It's unimaginable to me that a literary writer in Western society could ever have such an influence on the collective psyche. In Western society, a literary writer is lucky if anyone notices he exists. 

To answer your question, though, I see creativity and craft as two quite separate facets of the work of writing. Creativity, or call it inspiration-either one has it or one doesn't. One can't be taught to be inspired. But creativity is only a jumping-off place. Most of my creativity comes when I'm not writing. It hits me, and I try to retain the memory of the flash for when I have the chance to sit down. Often I stop and jot a note to myself. I set aside regular time to write, whether I'm inspired or not, and if the inspiration isn't there, there's still plenty of work to be done, fiddling with text, adjusting plans, reading and re-reading.

VS: Which for you is more astonishing, life or death?

DT: Now we are getting really philosophical. I can't consider this question without being mindful of the fact that most of the lights I live by, my mentors, are dead and buried. What we call culture is a kind of carpet woven with layers and layers of fossils. This awareness fills me with a sense of urgency.

Since adolescence, I have been repeating a line from Dylan Thomas, like a mantra: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." This life-affirming poem is obsessed with death, as of course Thomas, drinking himself into premature death at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village.

To deny death has always struck me as the height of absurdity. Yet our consumer society is in deep denial. Consumption is the vain promise of everlasting terrestrial life. Blinded in the process of devouring, our society doesn't recognize its own dying. I have a theory that the growing cult of the zombie, the growing popularity of Hallowe'en (itself a pale reflection of the much more impressive Mexican Day of the Dead) are signs in popular culture that people do in fact understand the urgency of mortality, more than one might think.

VS: You're a theater actor. Maybe you know of the critic V.G., Belinsky? In 1834, he published his first article in Molva, titled "Literaturnye mechtaniia—elegiia v proze", "Literary Dreams: The Elegy in Prose." It represented a new kind of critical discourse, and was much quoted, especially his question: "Do you like the theater as much as I love it?" Do you know this question? How do you respond?

DT: Yes, Belinski, a great critic, and a great believer in genius. One can like a talent, but genius, one can only love. The genius of theater is how it takes one out of oneself. One becomes someone else. That right there is what draws me to acting. When I write, I plunge ever more deeply into myself; when I act, I levitate out of the self.

VS: Do you think literature is dying? Or is it taking on a new form?

DT: I don't bother myself too much with this pessimistic question. I prefer to go on reading and writing as if technology had never come along to sweep it all away. For all that we're supposedly in a moment of literary decline, I bet I read and write a whole lot more than my ancestors ever did. They were too busy raising families and struggling to survive.

But my head isn't entirely in the sand, either. I see where we're going and I'm not pleased. The most literary minds foresaw it-the novels of Thomas Mann, for instance, are prophetic. The decay accelerated midway through the 20th century and has been picking up speed like a snowball rolling down a hill. There's a parallel to be drawn to global warming. I'm not saying the two trends go hand in hand, but I am saying that ecological suffering lies ahead for the human species, and that human 'progress' is laying a knife to literature, too. 

VS: If before your birth, someone could have asked you to choose between non-existence or life, which would you have taken? This may be more a matter of philosophy than of literature, but writers do sometimes ask their characters questions like this, or explore such questions through their characters.

DT: I'm not sure I've ever made any of my characters confront such a question, but I myself am rather philosophical. Breaking it down: before my birth I would not have been I , so of course the right choice would have been not to come into being. Sophocles got it right when he wrote it's better for man not to have been born. Ah, but there is no pure mind; we are all animals. The animal in me cannot imagine a fate worse than never having been, except maybe death. And the only way to reach the state of non-existence for a creature who exists is via death. hmm.

Death doesn't interest me. Maybe one day it will. Maybe one day I will treat the question through a literary lens, a character tempted by suicide. I'm not ready for that myself, my only brother having taken his life. 

VS: A harrowing thing. I wonder if you ask what your life would have been if such a sorrowful event had not take place. I don't wish to pry into that part of your history today, so let me ask my last question. "If"-each new work of mine begins from this word. I tell myself, "if you found a million dollars", or "if you were a dog", or "if you met an alien in the street." You get the idea. How does your literary work begin?

DT: "What if"-thus begins the parallel universe of every work of fiction. However, my literary world has no affinity to science fiction and not much at all to magic realism either. My interest is in digging deep into the perfectly plausible. This is why I admire Henry James so highly. His writing is virtually unreadable nowadays, his observations being too thick and rich, too painstaking for our current attention deficit syndrome society.

Banner graphic: A production photo (cropped) from the 1927 film Metropolis, directed by Fritz Lang. In the public domain.

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