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
The Paris Review Interviews, Volume 1 (ed Philip Gourevitch) Canongate, £14.99
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…