Check out our accompanying Luc Sante playlist here.
It's difficult to explain the one-two punch historian and critic Luc Sante's first two books delivered to readers and writers of cultural history. Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991) and Evidence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992) were these coiled, perfectly composed little mind-bombs. Both were books you have to return to frequently, as they opened new worlds. Evidence was a slim volume compiling police evidence photographs taken by the New York City police between 1914 and 1918 with annotations that spread off into many directions, about criminality and the police, and the evolution of photography. Low Life, which on the surface was about early gangs and urban life in New York City, presented material generally covered by academics, if at all, but it was written, for a change, in actual English. And it wasn't just English, it was in what William Gibson calls "a prose style to die for." And as long as we're trotting out quotes, Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker called Sante "one of the handful of living masters of the American language, as well as a singular historian and philosopher of American experience."
I first met the guy 13 years ago, at an unexpectedly awesome event called the Pop Studies Conference at Seattle's Experience Music Project. I published his work in my zine Yeti, and, when I began to publish books, he was the first person I asked to work with. We did a collection of essays called Kill All Your Darlings (2007) and a book about early postcard photographs called Folk Photography (2009). Sante is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and he has written about books, movies, art, photography, and music for dozens of magazines and newspapers.
Sante, who lives in Kingston, N.Y., and teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard, has received awards too — a Whiting Writers' Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Grammy (for album notes). Among his forthcoming works are a criminal history of Paris and an uncompromising and fun look at the life and works of Lou Reed.
Metro Times: Have you been to Detroit before? I'm curious what you think about it in relation to 1970s New York City, as they're often erroneously compared to each other.
Luc Sante: I drove through Detroit once, about five years ago, when [girlfriend and author] Mimi Lipson and I were coming back from visiting her relatives in western Michigan. I just caught a brief gander — the old Tiger Stadium, some of the downtown buildings. Not enough for a real impression, but it reminded me a lot less of NYC in the '70s than of Newark [New Jersey] in that same period. I learned to drive in Newark then [a Taggarts course], and it had that same kind of vacancy, and collapse, and shreds of bygone grandeur.
MT: Your style is sharp and clean. How much time in your writing consists of deleting words?
Sante: Impossible to say how much time I spend putting in words versus taking them out. I write one sentence at a time, sometimes spending hours per sentence (if it's the beginning I might spend weeks or months) because I can't go on to the next until I'm satisfied. So I essentially do one draft, although I might pick at it forever. That said, on The Other Paris, the new one, I wrote entire chapters — hundreds of pages — that I ended up junking.
MT: Your only published translation is Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon (New York Review Books Classics, 2007). As you were born and spent your early years in the French-speaking part of Belgium, I'm curious if you've done any other translations?
Sante: I did tons of translating for the Paris book. I translated or retranslated everything I quote from the French unless I didn't have access to the original. So I translated Balzac, Hugo, Zola, Huysmans, Guy Debord, as well as a host of writers who are either undertranslated or not translated at all, which includes some really important writers, such as Francis Carco. Translation is an insanely time-consuming task, and I don't have huge amounts of time on my hands. For years now, I've been nibbling away at two books: Georges Darien's Le Voleur ("The Thief," 1897), a novel which is sort of a Socratic dialogue justifying theft, and Léo Malet's La vie est dégueulasse ("Life Sucks," 1947), a very noir novel based on the Bonnot Gang.
MT: How do you listen to music, when, where, how, and what?
Sante: I listen to music primarily in the car and at the gym — I can't listen to music when I'm working — and so I'm wedded to my iPod Classic 160GB (and was gutted to learn they've stopped making them; don't know what I'll do when mine dies). My box has 25,000 songs on it, and I listen almost exclusively in shuffle mode. There's something uncanny about whatever algorithm they used to program it, since the segués, however radical, so often make total sense. But as a consequence, I give myself over to the whole river of music in my life, from chanson to dub, Mississippi blues to mbalax, girl groups to free jazz, Pablo Casals to the Incredible String Band, mostly without getting into a thing with any one style for long. That said, my friends at Crammed Discs in Brussels recently sent me a care package of amazing CDs, and I'm particularly entranced by Véronique Vincent and Aksak Maboul's Ex-Futur Album and the two records by the all-star Roma outfit Taraf de Haïdouks. Oh, and Robert Wyatt's Different Every Time (Domino Records).
Sante is in Detroit for two appearances, first at the Cranbrook Art Museum's deSalle Auditorium at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 3, for a presentation on vernacular photography, "The Genius of the System." He also appears at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 4, reading from various works. Both events are free.