Writers At Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Second Series.
Viking Press, $6.50
The celebrated Paris Review interviews with writers, of which this volume is the second series, are nothing if not impeccable. The interviewers are as close to ideal for the job as one can imagine—literate, courteous almost to a fault, self-effacing but not too self-effacing, very much “up” on their subjects, though without ostentation (perhaps an occasional gentle reminder to the author of a boyhood work he had forgotten), interested, though not extravagantly so, in the “creative process”—in short amateurs in the best sense of the word, and hence immune from both the excessive shyness and the excessive familiarity that would, one imagines, constitute the major hazards of the métier. The subjects, for their part, represent a literary elite quite as formidable as the participants in the first volume, and include, as the dust jacket announces, “in a fascinating departure from the predecessor volume,” no less than five poets (count ‘em). There is not, in short, a single author included in this book whose works one has not read and will not continue to read, nor is there an interviewer one would not very much like to have dinner with. Yet, withal, the reader puts the book down in a churlish spirit.
Partly it is the fault that underlies all anthologies, that eclecticism which starts by dazzling and ends by depressing. Its total effect is to detract from, not heighten, the diverse and specific achievements of each of the participants by (implicitly) equalizing them. S. J. Perelman seems a little less funny when he is forced, against all notions of the proper order of things, to rub shoulders with Boris Pasternak; it seems unfair to both. By that same odd algebra, fourteen manuscript facsimilies are not enough, and one is too many. But beyond that are all the defects of that bastard genre, the interview, which could be relaxing if it would only agree to be a gossip column, but insists instead upon pretending to be a dialogue, which it, of course, isn’t; because even if the authors are interested in just talking, the interviewer is there to find something out, and he’s got his tape recorder with him to prove it. The fastidious decorum of the proceedings does not, it turns out, help matters any, serving, if anything, to heighten the tension, as when two rather self-conscious people exchange confidences, both knowing they will like each other slightly less the next day. Van Wyck Brooks points out in the introduction that most of the writers don’t much like to talk about their writing—and their instincts are no doubt right—but there they both are, the tape recorder is purring, and they’ve got to. What then happens, especially with the more reticent authors, is that the interviewer becomes something of a nag, perpetually guiding the unwilling writer back to the subject he’s avoiding: his “work,” an entity the author then acknowledges with a certain quizzical surprise, as though he had given birth to …