A camp Capote, a comic Vonnegut and a magisterial Bellow all feature in this collection of Paris Review interviews. But the most moving character of all is the little-known octogenarian poet Jack Gilbertby Margaret Drabble / March 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
The Paris Review Interviews, Volume 1 (ed Philip Gourevitch)
The Paris Review series of interviews with writers was launched in 1953 with EM Forster as the subject, and introduced a new format in which successful authors could indulge in self-analysis, aesthetic theory, modest denial and witty evasion. This was long before the modern promotional book tour, with its endless readings and literary festivals, long before Richard and Judy and the three-minute round-up of your Worst Food and Favoured Place to Die. Writers of a slightly earlier epoch—Theodore Dreiser, Arnold Bennett, Somerset Maugham—did not submit themselves to such interrogations. But after the dignified precedence of the impeccable Forster, important writers appear to have been more than willing to engage in lengthy dialogues about themselves and their writing methods. The Paris Review, a poorly funded little magazine (which has recently been accused, implausibly, of having had, like Encounter, some early CIA sponsorship), made itself a name for these pieces, 16 of which—12 with men as subjects, four with women—have been collected and published by Canongate, in what editor Philip Gourevitch suggests is a canonical collection.
The volume is full of interest, though of course it cannot teach the secret of great writing any more reliably than the creative writing courses which some of these writers praise and others dismiss with contempt. Some of the revelations seem familiar, such as Hemingway’s assertion that he rewrote the last page of Farewell to Arms 39 times, but maybe that is because this is where he first made the claim. Most of the authors give interviews with a strong personal flavour easy to identify with their work. Truman Capote is stylish and camp: “I will not tolerate the presence of yellow roses—which is sad because they’re my favourite flower.” Rebecca West, speaking to Marina Warner, is imperious and extremely rude about other writers. Kurt Vonnegut, who became a great comic classroom performer, tells jokes. Saul Bellow is philosophical, magisterial, self-inquisitorial. And Borges is Borgesian.
The interviewees were allowed far more time than is now usual for such exercises, and were permitted to edit and rewrite their own responses. There is no attempt to catch the speaker unawares, and no pretence of the spontaneity or simulated authenticity of the television confrontation. The Vonnegut interview is, in effect, “an interview conducted with himself, by himself,” with some help from editor George “Playboy Polymath” Plimpton, and compiled from a composite of four separate conversations taking place over a decade. Bellow gave an extraordinary amount of time to his conversation, “up to two hours a day, at least twice and often three times a week throughout a five-week period”—and this despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that he did not wish to answer trivial criticism or speak about his personal writing habits. What he does speak and write about wonderfully is the art of fiction itself, the difference between “factualism” and “realism,” the importance of unmediated feeling and openness to experience in Dreiser and DH Lawrence, and his own discovery of an uninhibited, true American voice in The Adventures of Augie March, published in 1953. Bellow’s interview was conducted two years after the success of Herzog in 1964, a novel in which he says he had to unlearn some of Augie March’s exuberance, but nevertheless it demonstrates that the great breakthrough in his work came in the earlier novel, an American masterpiece composed on a heroic scale.
The Borges interview is also carefully composed and based on several (though fewer) meetings. It is skilfully conducted by Ronald Christ, who manages to give a sense of one long uninterrupted conversation. It is full of Borges’s physical presence and the atmosphere of his office in the Biblioteca Nacional of Buenos Aires, where he is attended by his secretary, Miss Quinteros, and gently besieged by the next batch of visitors, the Campbells, about whom he murmurs from time to time: “The Campbells are coming…” The near-blind Borges speaks vividly about what colour means and meant to him, particularly yellow, which he describes as the most vivid of all; he wore yellow neckties when he began to lose his sight, he says, because it was the only colour he could see, and was much teased for it. The scene has an intense indoor actuality, like a sombre oil painting. Borges talks, with erudition and a little teasing, about his admiration for physical bravery, and gangsters, and the tango, and learning old Norse, and Henry James, and his family history. Towards the end of this long discursive interchange, Christ politely asks Borges if he would mind signing his copy of Labyrinths, which Borges is glad to do, but he protests that he doesn’t like the picture of himself on the jacket: “I’m not so gloomy?” he pleads. “So beaten down… so dark?” And so the evening falls on the grey world of the great old man.
The poet Elizabeth Bishop shows the most unease with the interview process. The dialogue with her was published two years after her death, after she had already expressed her fears that she would come across in it as “the soul of frivolity,” “babbling along like a very shallow brook.” We know that Bishop’s personal life was marked by tragedy, and she admits that she found difficulty in the public life of readings and teaching to which dwindling finances eventually condemned her. She is at times chatty, as though trying to disarm or deflect, and at times bleak: “I don’t believe in teaching poetry at all, but that’s what they want one to do…The word creative drives me crazy.” Her impatience with herself for undergoing this humiliation is manifest. She clearly had no time to spare for polishing up her off-the-cuff remarks for publication, and couldn’t wait for it all to be over. She reworked her poems, not her conversations. (She has my sympathy. I was interviewed years ago in this slot, and, having failed fully to appreciate the honour of the invitation, could not believe it when the interviewer wanted to come back another day and ask me more questions—I hadn’t time, I had shopping to do and children to feed…)
The most moving character in this volume is Jack Gilbert, now in his eighties, an American poet who seems to speak from a vagabond world of unworldly dedication. I knew nothing of his work until I read him here, for, as he readily agrees, living abroad most of his life—mainly in Europe—and outside of literary circles has meant that his poems rarely appear in anthologies. But he is the real thing, a poet who has lived for poetry and love, who speaks with warmth of San Francisco in the 1960s, and with candour of his literary legacy. He has a room piled high with papers. He’s going to give them all to the lost love of his life, Linda. He lives simply now, renting space in a friend’s house. The last two lines run, like one of his shorter poems: “Do you still wake happy but aware of your mortality?
“Yes, though I sometimes have to have a cup of tea first.”