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 quadruplets. So much for the genial authors. With the more volatile personalities, like Hemingway, the interview turns into an out-and-out battle, and here the reader’s sympathies, which would initially have been granted the interviewed, revert, surprisingly, to the interviewer, if only because the writer’s justified hostility seems at variance with the one incontrovertible fact: he did let the young man in. (The interviewers, it should be noted, though frequently provoked almost beyond endurance, seem to be under instruction from the home office to avoid engaging with the quarry.) Thus, after not much resistance, the reader finds himself reading these interviews as though they were short one-acters with a cast of two—an amusing and even hilarious pastime, but surely beside the point.
Van Wyck Brooks, introducing the book, is hard put to it to find a unifying principle in all this diversity, largely because there isn’t any. He finds that we can no longer make distinctions between the “American” and the “European” mind, and more or less lets it go at that, as far as major cultural speculation is concerned; he then proceeds at random and in an improvisatory spirit to draw more casual conclusions, which are beguiling and no doubt true: most of the writers interviewed disavow allegiances to groups or coteries, preferring to go it alone; writers make use of their experiences in different ways so that Hemingway’s Paris of the twenties was, for Katherine Anne Porter (having a “marvelous experience” at the time in Mexico during the Obregon Revolution), “shallow, trivial, and silly”; some writers, like Mary McCarthy, are “political” and some, like Henry Miller, are not; writers tend to know one another, so their lives often intersect (Huxley’s wife typed the manuscript of Lady Chatterley’s Lover), but frequently writers one would have thought would have known each other didn’t. One could add further conclusions in a similar vein: poets tend to come off better in interviews than novelists because they have the benefit of something quite specific and technical—rhyme schemes and metrics—to talk about and because their casual conversation (Robert Frost’s is a case in point) tends, astonishingly, to scan; Englishmen (Aldous Huxley, Lawrence Durrell) seem to take being interviewed with better grace than Americans do; Americans (Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway) do not rest easy under the burden of being eminent, and affect a not altogether ingenuous casualness about their work; an attitude of spirited poseurism (Robert Frost, Mary McCarthy, S. J. Perelman) makes for a livelier interview than abject sincerity; the quite old come off better than the young, by virtue of having mellowed; literary history, like all other kinds, tends to fragment and look a little silly when seen up too close (the Bohemianism of the twenties: Ezra Pound threw Robert Frost over his shoulder in a jiu-jitsu demonstration at a restaurant in Soho; the literary influence of Pound on Yeats: “I told him it was rubbish”); writers, like everyone else, despite their gifts, tend to have wives and children, to long for houses in the country, to be surprised and gratified by praise, to hold grudges, to be lonely, to wonder how they will pay their bills, to stumble upon their vocations by accident or inadvertence.
These things we already knew, but would just as soon not be reminded of. Ours is above all the age of the direct question, and its intention, on the face of it, is even justifiable: to find out, once and for all, maybe for the sake of guidance. Yet perhaps beneath this innocent avidity there lurks a guiltier purpose: to expose, to lay bare, to make explicable the one still unplumbed mystery—to show up the artist for what he is—like the rest of us, only human. In times past, writers used to define themselves to themselves and to their audiences by means of such things as diaries and letters, products of solitude; perhaps because their personalities were not so accessible, they seemed a little godlike. It is no accident that the one interview in this book which prohibits irony and which does not partake even remotely of the comic is the interview with Boris Pasternak. It was hard to get to him, and involved something like a pilgrimage.
June 1, 1963