Almost everybody knows what it’s like to look for a home.
Many also know the feeling of being in a strange city for the first time.
The March selection of The Buffalo News Book Club, “The Apartment,” explores those experiences in a haunting way, as it tells the story of one day in the life of a 41-year-old American man who is looking for an apartment in an old European city.
In Greg Baxter’s compact novel, we never learn the man’s name. We never learn exactly where he is.
His companion on this journey is a young woman, Saskia, who is 26. Much different from the narrator – she is outgoing, cosmopolitan, well-connected – Saskia nonetheless forms an unusual bond with him over the course of this long, revealing day.
Although much of the book focuses on the events of the day of searching for an apartment, one significant digression is introduced by the words, “A friend once told me that the only time you ever really see a place is the first time and last time you’re there – the day you move in and the day you move out.” In recalling that friend, the narrator provides a glimpse of an expansive world of connections and disappointments, love and longing. Then it’s back to Saskia and the apartment search, a story that holds its own fascination.
Greg Baxter, who lives in Berlin but was recently traveling in the United States, answered questions posed by The Buffalo News about his novel.
Read on, for a glimpse into the author and his absorbing, haunting work.
Q: Tell us about your visit to the United States and about your permanent home.
GB: I’m in Austin, Texas, at the moment – on extended vacation from my current home, Berlin, Germany. I graduated from the University of Texas almost 20 years ago. Exactly at this moment I am sitting at the bar of an overcrowded vegan café that serves tofu Tex-Mex tacos. It’s across the street from the house I’m renting.
I was born in Texas, and I was brought up in two very different parts of Texas. I lived in San Antonio until about the age of 8 or 9, then I moved with my mother to a place called Cut and Shoot in east Texas. We lived in Cut and Shoot until thieves (we believe they were family members) slowly stripped our home to a wooden frame – over a period of months they took everything from the cabinets to the walls to the roof to the septic tank – then we moved to a trailer in a lot behind a friend’s trailer in Conroe, Texas, which is just 20 minutes from Cut and Shoot.
What am I doing here? I recently finished a new novel, called “Munich Airport,” about a man who is returning to the U.S. after 25 years in Europe. It’s entirely possible I am here living out the fate he both desired and feared – to drive around in big cars, visit massive supermarkets, eat burritos, and hit golf balls. People sometimes ask me if my books are autobiographical, and to a small extent that’s true – incidents that I witness and experience find their ways into my books – but it’s probably more accurate to say that I method-write: I start to become the narrator of my books. I change personalities. I acquire new habits. I think differently about things. I eat differently. Whatever it takes to become my narrator. My primary challenge as a writer isn’t coming up with stories or plots but achieving a connection with a character that isn’t unlike madness. And it takes me a long time after finishing a book to come back out of this character.
I’m not sure if I am here saying farewell to the narrator of my new novel or trying to find a new one to become.
Q: How is “The Apartment” being received?
GB: My experience so far in the U.S. has been incredible and humbling, particularly because of the kind reviews, and also because I think the book is getting into the hands of real readers, and some people seem to like it a lot and some people really seem to dislike it. I’m glad it gets people talking about what a book can and should or should not do. The book has been called plotless and boring and shallow and it’s been called tense and a page-turner and deep. It’s great to see. I have always wanted – and hope always to want – to write books that divide people, and dramatically so.
Q: The task of finding an apartment seems trivial and mundane. But there is so much more to your book. How did you come up with the idea of making a search for an apartment the framework for the day’s events? And what did people say when you told them you were writing a book about a day a man spends looking for an apartment?
GB: I suppose, to me, the search for an apartment – or a place to live – doesn’t feel at all mundane and trivial. It feels sacred. Even if I didn’t think so, much can be done with ordinary stories. Virginia Woolf wrote a momentous work of literature about buying a pencil.
As for people’s reactions to the book: I tend not to talk about what I’m writing. If someone asks me, I might describe a book a friend is writing. I think writing for me is in large part a process of making sense out of a great confusion – the more seemingly impenetrable this confusion is, the more I feel I’m on to something. But these confusions must be picked apart carefully, delicately, one fragile word after the other, and written down. Talking won’t work. By talking I sink back into the confusion.
Q: Many wonderful novels have been set in the span of a day. Did you seek inspiration from any of them, or did your book naturally fall into a day’s events?
GB: I think what drew me to the one-day journey in the case of “The Apartment” ultimately came from my interest and experience in studying and writing essays. Essays in the tradition of Montaigne – self-interrogating, moral-philosophical essays. This influence might be the reason some readers claim that “The Apartment” is light on plot. It isn’t really light on plot. It’s heavy on plot. But it’s an essayistic plot. I’m quite glad I discovered a late-blooming interest in the essay, because I am not capable of writing nor am I interested in traditional, horizontal plots.
Q: A lot of people who live in and around Buffalo have family roots in places like Poland, Germany, Hungary, and so on. When you created the city in “The Apartment” – whose name we never learn – did you have a particular place in mind? Why did you choose to leave it nameless?
GB: I didn’t choose to leave a city nameless: it has no name; it isn’t a real city. It is an unreal city in the tradition of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” – all those cities he mentions united in and transformed by violence and destruction and a lust for conquest and power, and which express that ruined lust now in the petrification of their beauty. It’s also, I hope, a constant reminder that this book is not realism.
The book contains a number of details that come from my own experiences, and the few names that do exist in the book are of personal importance, such as Hotel Rus and Chambinsky. Through the use of names and remembered details I encode my own past in the novel, and through imagination and unreality I have tried to create a city that is dreamlike and also, by virtue of its inescapability, nightmarish.
Q: The age of the main character seems to be important, as he is 41, and done with many things in his life – but at the beginning of many more. Why did you choose a narrator at that stage of life?
GB: This is a really interesting and tough question to answer. I can’t imagine the story being similar if the man were 31 or 51. I was 36 when I wrote the book. I think I always choose narrators a few years older than me. Perhaps I see writing as looking into the future.
Q: The character of Saskia becomes very important to the novel, as she goes from being the acquaintance of the narrator to his companion on a daylong journey. What qualities of Saskia do you feel complement the narrator?
GB: Strangely enough, I don’t think about characters in this way – I don’t think about what makes two people companions or how they work as a pair. My characters do not have qualities, and “The Apartment” is not a psychological novel. I think of characterization as an act of writing down symptoms but never diagnosing. The fact that the relationship between Saskia and the narrator remains undefined is not an outcome of two people with certain qualities colliding on a certain day but a pure accident that occurred while I witnessed them on a search for an apartment.
Q: How many times in your life have you uprooted and relocated to a new city? Did you use those experiences in telling this story, of an American expatriate in Europe?
GB: Many times. Throughout my 20s, I lived in a new city almost every year, and each time it seemed to involve a relocation across the Atlantic.
I’ve learned a lot about the way America is perceived by Europe and the rest of the world by living abroad for so long, but I didn’t want to make much of that perception in this book – a typically negative perception – because it relies on stereotypes and is often hypocritical. I didn’t want to turn the book political or have it become a comparison of stereotypes.
Q: Why did you want to leave so much unresolved/unknown at the end of the book?
GB: I don’t think of the ending of my book as unresolved – this might be in part because I feel that what passes for resolution in most books is a formulaic tidiness, or worse, manicured untidiness. In the case of “The Apartment,” I feel the ending is about as complete as I can make it. I’ve tried to create a permanent and inescapable loop in which the reader is doomed not to think about the planned breakfast but to wake again and again and again with the narrator in the middle of the night.