‘Shame cannot be a concern of the writer who wishes to be honest’
Frankie Gaffney interviews David Scott about Cut up on Copacabana: sex, travel and boxing
Frankie Gaffney with David Scott
David Scott is the author of numerous books on art, boxing, poetry, travel and graphic design. His novel Dynamo Island: The Cultural History and Geography of a Utopia was published in 2016, while his translation of Mallarmé’s sonnets appeared in 2008. He is Emeritus Professor of French (Textual & Visual Studies) at Trinity College Dublin.
What are the differences between Cut up on Copacabana and your previous books?
Copacabana is more autobiographical than my first work of fiction, Dynamo Island: The Cultural History and Geography of a Utopia that came out in 2016. That book, which I illustrated with 25 images, represents my ideal of a 2lst-century society living in ecological harmony with nature. However, there is a link between Dynamo Island and Copacabana in that Dynamo Island inspired a kind of alter-ego figure for me, Dynamodave. Dynamodave reappears in Cut up on Copacabana where, in the story of that name, he is in conversation with a like-minded Australian. Dynamodave also re-appears as the hero of an interactive computer game that forms part of the Dynamo Island website due for launch next month. He embodies a modern form of masculinity, one that is, however, not ashamed to exhibit some of its absurd characteristics.
What inspired you to write a collection that includes vignettes from your own life but departs so radically from traditional forms of literary memoir?
Basically, a desire to bring order to a range of vivid experiences that have been important in my life. I don’t think my life merits full-blown autobiographical treatment! What I wanted to do was share aspects of my experience that others might relate to or find surprising. I also wanted to adopt a different approach to some well-known subjects such as travel and boxing, something more personal and idiosyncratic, but at the same time authentic.
The boxing interest – how did that come about?
The section on ‘Boxing Rings’ tells part of the story. But also boxing was for me, a man with the natural physique of a middle- to long-distance runner (I’m primarily a 5,000-metre athlete) a perverse challenge that I have always wanted to respond to. Involvement in sports for me implies a certain exhibitionism, one that is particularly apparent in boxing where you are putting yourself – your courage, your determination, your masculinity – on show for all to see.
Do you have a boxing hero?
Yes, but it’s Floyd Patterson rather than Muhammad Ali. For me boxing is a sport that advertises itself best in strong silent men (Patterson, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano). Ali’s bragging for me detracts form his profile, though I respect his political stance as much as his ring skill. In any case, I prefer amateur to professional boxing since for me sport is more about the game and the individual challenge than about heroes. The current western world obsession with celebrity culture is anathema to me. And I don’t at all enjoy or admire UFC.
The travel theme is very important, but seems to fit into a larger theme of ‘exploration’ – psychological, linguistic, sexual; is that a fair assessment?
I’ve always loved travel; something to do with being an RAF kid who spent every two years of the first decade of his life moving – in England and abroad – from one airforce base to another. Travel was for me part of growing up and so became associated as you suggest with psychological and sexual development. When after several years of teaching in Trinity College Dublin a course in French travel writing, the exploration of themes you mention – sex, identity, language, the reading of unfamiliar signs – naturally came to the fore. This led to my best academic book, Semiologies of Travel (2004), that relates most of what I know about travel on a deeper level, not just to me but to western culture in general.
You have a section on ‘Schoolboy Rites of Passage’. Tell me more about this, and how it relates to your portrayal of masculinity? Do you think much has changed for better or for worse, in how masculinity is viewed since your school days? Where did that idea come from?
Writing the boxing stories also brought back memories of other challenges and excitements of my younger days. As a boy of the baby-boomer generation, I experienced both the traditional stereotypical role-model masculinity of the 1950s and the radical liberation (male as well as female) of the 1960s. So by 1970 my hair was long, my jeans pink and my sexual feelings liberated. I still, however, have a certain nostalgic yearning for the masculine certainties of the earlier age, though I’ve no doubt that overall today things have changed for the better.
I structured my novel Dublin Seven with seven chapters, each corresponding to one of the seven deadly sins, one of Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, and so on. I stole the idea form Joyce’s Linati schema for Ulysses. You have a similarly organised structure in Copacabana. What is your system?
I was inspired by the 19th-century Japanese woodblock printer Hokusai and took as my model his marvelous collection of Thirty-six ways of looking at Mount Fuji. As you know, numerical constraints can be useful in organising and creating pattern in the chaos of experience, though I don’t think Copacabana is a cleverly structured as Dublin 7 or Ulysses!
Who or what are your literary heroes?
In the modern (ie post-1900) period of the English/American tradition, my favourite writers are those who, like Conrad, James, Lawrence, Wharton and Woolf, explore both the complexity of social relations and individual identity. I also admire contemporary novelists like Don de Lillo and Jonathan Littell who incorporate recent history into their fiction. I prefer Proust to Joyce, and Genet to Beckett and have been indelibly marked by the post-World War II French intellectual tradition as exemplified by Barthes, Baudrillard, Derrida and Foucault.
How does your non-fictional writing interact with this short collection?
There is no watertight divide between my academic and creative or sporting interests. There are very few things I enjoy that I haven’t written about so that key themes in my scholarly work – boxing, travel, graphic design, poetry, art – are also to be found in my poetry and fiction. For me a postage stamp can inspire a poem or an exhibition on graphic design (such as the one I curated in 1995-6 at the Design Museum in London).
What advice would you give to inexperienced writers?
Literature is an exchange between writer and reader and mediates between experience and language. The author should therefore always be as concerned with language and the reader as with his or her ideas and experience. Writing is a dialectical process in which meaning and message are partly a function of shape and form. It is important to attend to both.
To write about sex is to invite ridicule. Were you trepidatious at all writing so candidly about a young man’s sexual experience?
I might have been had I not read Genet, Proust and Lawrence, or young contemporary Irish writers like Kevin Breathnach, one of the three dedicatees of Copacabana. Such writers show that shame cannot really be a concern of the writer who wishes to be honest and to explore the endlessly surprising human capacity for perversity; also how what Barthes describes as ‘le plaisir du texte’ can sometimes be quasi sexual.
What projects will you embark on next?
My next project, nearly complete, is a website version of Dynamo Island. It is interactive, inviting the contribution of others to construct a car-less Utopian world. The website will include a videogame built round the exploits of Dynamodave plus a promotional video. After that, a large-format book with Robin Fuller on Design in the Skies. Then another collection of short stories, Between Friends (sexier that Copacabana). Also a project on Masculinities in Sport that I’ll be working on this autumn as a Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study in Durham University, namely the Boxing Gym as Masculine Space.