The Paris Review Interviews IV


A big thanks to Frances and Camille for turning me on to the Paris Review interviews! I received the third and fourth volumes of the selected interviews for Christmas, and have been making my slow but delighted way through the fourth ever since. Number Four contains interviews with two of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami and Marilynne Robinson (which is why I started here), but it's chock full of thoughts from other luminaries of the last 75 years, including but not limited to William Styron, Marianne Moore, Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth, P.G. Wodehouse, Maya Angelou, and Paul Auster.

It's always hard to write about collections of things - poems, short stories, interviews, essays. How to encompass what made the reading experience special, when a collection is composed of many diverse parts rather than a unified whole? But here's what I'd like to say about reading these interviews: truly, I got so much more out of them than I anticipated. I was expecting to page through, perhaps even skim, the interviews with authors I hadn't read, pausing for a more in-depth read only on the relatively few with whose work I was familiar. This is not what happened. Not even close. Instead, I found myself feeling more as if I were reading character-driven short stories than mundane "interviews." The distinctive voice of each author came through so clearly: Styron's crotchety, expansive good-old-boy-ism; Moore's careful precision; Kerouac's self-involved exuberance; Wodehouse's sunny, bumbling optimism; Naipul's jumpy reticience, eventually overcome. Sometimes, as with Kerouac, these personas were the ones I expected to find. Other times, probably more often than not, they held surprises. Paul Auster, for example: given the hard-polished, seemingly soulless cleverness of his New York Trilogy, I was expecting a self-congratulatory cynic. Instead, he struck me as shockingly sincere. Just listen to him gush about the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne:

But there's more to Hawthorne than just his stories and novels. I'm equally attached to his notebooks, which contain some of his strongest, most brilliant prose. The diary he kept about taking care of his five-year-old son for three weeks in 1851 is a self-contained work. It can stand on its own, and it's so charming, so funny in its deadpan way, that it gives an entirely new picture of Hawthorne. He wasn't the gloomy, tormented figure most people think he was. Or not only that. He was a loving father, and husband, a man who liked a good cigar and a glass or two of whiskey, and he was playful, generous, and warmhearted. Exceedingly shy, yes, but someone who enjoyed the simple pleasures of the world.

I relate so strongly to Auster's joy here at finding a multi-facetedness to Hawthorne—a deadpan humor and a liking for good cigars, when all most people see is a "gloomy, tormented figure." The humanizing influence is so charming, both in what Auster has to say about Hawthorne, and in what the interview reveals about Auster himself. Reading his interview made me reevaluate my relationship to his work, which I had regarded as a kind of clever joke on the reader, but which I now tend to think about in a more serious light. On one hand, I think this makes The New York Trilogy slightly less successful, due to its lack of soul...but on the other hand, knowing there's more substance to the author than I had realized makes me more excited to read his other work. I'm now inclined to judge him more stringently, but with more respect.

By the age of fifty, most of us are haunted by ghosts. They live inside us and we spend as much time talking to the dead as to the living. It's hard for a young person to understand this. It's not that a twenty year old doesn't know he's going to die, but it's the loss of others that so profoundly affects an older person—and you can't know what that accumulation of losses is going to do to you until you experience it yourself. Life is so short, so fragile, so mystifying. After all, how many people do we actually love in the course of a lifetime? Just a few, a tiny few. When most of them are gone, the map of your inner world changes. As my friend George Oppen once said to me about getting old: what a strange thing to happen to a little boy.

I mean, what a gorgeous observation! And really, the whole volume is full of this kind of gem. One of my most exciting discoveries is the poet John Ashbery, whom I admit I had never heard of before reading his interview. I connected with it so strongly, though, that I sought out Ashbery's work and am now in the midst of his gorgeous yet enigmatic Notes from the Air. I related to his account of gradually coming to the realization that the people who produced nineteenth-century poetry had their own vital reality:

I didn't really get a feeling for the poetry of the past until I had discovered modern poetry. Then I began to see how nineteenth-century poetry wasn't just something lifeless in an ancient museum but must have grown out of the lives of the people who wrote it.

I remember going through this same process of realization about pre-contemporary literature (say, anything published before 1900) early in college. It was a visceral, un-cerebral epiphany; I reached a point at which I had amassed enough life experience myself to be able to empathize with and relate to people whose worldviews were very different from my own—to recognize what was essentially similar through the veil of differences. Before it happened, I experienced Shakespeare as a kind of alien being, whose characters, I had to accept, acted in ways not understandable in terms of my own existence. Which offered me very limited options for interacting with his texts. Sometime early in college something clicked for me, and I recognize the motivations that make Hamlet dither over killing his uncle, or Edgar put off revealing his identity to Gloucester. They suddenly seemed like real people to me, just living in different circumstances. (Obviously Ashbery has benefited from his long career in poetry; look how much more concise his version of this process is than mine!)

So too, I shared Ashbery's thoughts on ambiguity in art:

The idea of relief from pain has something to do with ambiguity. Ambiguity supposes eventual resolution of itself, whereas certitude implies further ambiguity. I guess that is why so much "depressing" modern art makes me feel cheerful.

This idea seems very apropos to the recent Woolf in Winter discussions. Woolf is the poster girl of so-called "depressing" modern art, yet I find much of her work positively exhilarating, and I think a lot of it has to do with her ability to evoke and even celebrate ongoing ambiguity. Most of my favorite writers—Woolf, Ishiguro, Welty, Proust—are able to coexist peacefully with conflicting impulses and uncertainties, and resist tying anything up into a neat little package for the reader. Perhaps I wouldn't go so far as to say that their work makes me feel "cheerful," but it does match up with my lived experience, and so gives me the deeply-felt pleasure of discovering a kindred spirit. As Murakami says in his own interview, "I always hope to position myself away from so-called conclusions."

There's no way I can share all the satisfying moments and fascinating tidbits in these interviews. I loved learning about the process by which Murakami's novels get translated into English (some smaller countries actually translate from the English rather than the original Japanese!); was engrossed by David Grossman's reflections on control of language in the Israeli press; was impressed by Hermione Lee's insightful questions in her interview with Philip Roth; was gobsmacked to learn that Stephen Sondheim grew up in a surrogate-son relationship to Oscar Hammerstein, and learned song-writing from him (and was also intrigued by Sondheim's reflections on how much less suited the English language is to writing rhyming poetry than the French and Italian). My ear for gossipy details loved picking up little facts of the writer's life—that Maya Angelou rents hotel rooms and writes on the unmade beds, for example.

But what I loved most about reading these interviews was basking in the sense that what we all do, here in the book-blogging world—talking about literature; wrestling with how it works and why; pondering the mysteries of it—is work that's worthwhile, and even important, to do. I look forward to my slow but rewarding journey through the other three volumes and beyond.


  • Whoever gave you these is a good friend. Volumes 1 and 2 are still available discounted from Amazon as well as a boxed set of all four.
    All of them are on the night stand by my bed and are read almost nightly. The interview with Marilyn Robinson is one of my favorites as well.

  • George: It was my folks! They are unfailingly good to me, yes indeed. And I loved Robinson's interview as well! Wanted to write about it here, but ran out of room...but since you mention it, my favorite moment was this:

    The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world.
  • I do covet these volumes, but don't know when I'll ever get them or get to them. Maybe after I brainwash my own folks..

  • P.S. Checked on Amazon and I might want to get the 2nd first as it has Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, and James Thurber.. my faves. It also has Stephen King.. who I don't read anymore at all but I was such a fan in my teens (heehee) and so familiar with his works, plus I loved when he did interviews.. he's fun that way. :D

  • You and Frances have definitely sold me on these, Emily, so I'll have to look into acquiring one or all of the titles sometime down the road. Particularly enjoyed the bit you shared about Auster on Hawthorne (a guy I feel is a wee bit overrated talking about one of my favorite authors from my high school days = intrinsically interesting), and how that revealed a different side of Auster to you. This action-packed post of yours, following so closely on the heels of Frances' Bolaño interview book post, also reminds me I should spend some more time hunting down quality interviews with the authors I love. Something I do sometimes but not often enough. Thanks for the reminder! P.S. Is there a preview function on the new recaptcha gizmo or is it just a one-shot deal?

  • These four volumes are among the most prized items in my library. Only a couple of days ago I was hooting with laughter, reading my way through Rebecca West's opinions on fellow writers.

    Asked by the interviewer about Cyril Connolly she answers:

    Connolly? What an extraordinary thing to ask! He was a very good editor of Horizon, but he wasn't a very interesting person. As for writing, he was fond of it, as you might say.

    So damning, that last sentence.

  • These always sound so wonderful, I can not read enough about them to tide me over until I actually get them. And your review made Hawthorne sound like a wonderful bloke which is great, before I only know him as the man who couldn't reciprocate Melville's tortured romantic feelings.

  • Since all the reviews are available free online I've always thought, oh I'll just go read them there, but of course I never have. I think it might be time to start investing in the books. I see I could get volume 4 with a year's subscription. They really know how to put up a tempting offer!

  • Claire: I know, it's so hard to choose which one(s) to start with! I'm very curious about the Morrison, and also about Parker, Vonnegut, Capote...the list goes on & on! Better get working on your folks. ;-)

    Richard: Interesting, you were a big Hawthorne fan? Wouldn't have predicted that based on your current tastes. Anyway, yes, these are fantastic & you would love them. And sadly, the recaptcha is a one-shot deal, at least for now (the preview function was preventing it from working properly for some reason).

  • Anthony: Ouch! That West quote is deliciously devastating. I agree that these are such a great resource to have in one's personal library.

    Jodie: Wow, I was not aware of this salacious piece of gossip about Melville & Hawthorne. Obviously need to review my 19th-century-American-lit gossip sheets! ;-)

  • Stefanie: I know what you're saying. Free is hard to beat. But since I'm REALLY trying to shift my balance of reading time away from the internet, shelling out for these lovely editions seemed worthwhile (or at least, letting other people do it for me!). I think you should go for it. They're a very satisfying tactile experience - lovely colors, fun to hold in your hand. :-)

  • I saw this on another site (probably Frances) and I think this sounds so wonderful!

  • Rebecca: So wonderful, yes indeed! Highly recommended. :-)

  • "Reading his interview made me reevaluate my relationship to his work."

    Exactly where I was when I recently decided to start on the big Auster read. Right in the middle of that same interview. What a coincidence. Or maybe there are no coincidences. Just like-minded readers converging in the same spots. And that is what I love about The Paris Review pieces. Sitting in on the best imaginable conversations about literature. You feel as if you have welcomed in to a secret club. And you really see a personal side to these authors too. Less studied than in some other formats. Less self-conscious.

  • I loved this post! :D Your enthusiasm really shines through, and the excerpts you posted were lovely.

    >>But what I loved most about reading these interviews was basking in the sense that what we all do, here in the book-blogging world—talking about literature; wrestling with how it works and why; pondering the mysteries of it—is work that's worthwhile, and even important, to do.

    So true. :) Although I worry that much of the time I tend more towards 'book reports' than wrestling with literature.

  • I totally sympathize with your feelings with regards to writing about collections. It's

    especially daunting when there's no central theme to the collection that ties everything

    together. But the problem is, I like reading collections--I love short stories, essays,

    and interviews :) Like this new favorite book I have, a collection of Borges' fictions, I

    can't even imagine writing a review for that thick book. So I guess I'll just follow your

    example with the essays and write about the collection part by part.

    Thank you for saying what you said in the last paragraph. Besides knowing that your work is appreciated, it's also very comforting to know that what you do carries some sense, some significance—that it's not at all a waste of our precious little time. I started writing about my readings because I wanted to give meaning to all those hours spent staring at a book. To have the confirmation that the act of writing and pondering carries some "importance" in itself is truly wonderful :)

    By the way, I ENVY you for having those volumes. It's quite expensive to have the set shipped here in the Philippines, but I'm not sure I can resist for very long :D

  • Frances: Interesting, I was thinking about your big Auster project and wondering if you'd read that interview. I'll be watching for your thoughts as you read through your Auster pile, as I'm now very interested indeed about the rest of his prolific back-list. Will have my eye out for my next read! (And well, it's probably not that huge a coincidence since I learned about these interviews from you in the first place! ;-) ).

    Eva: Aw, thanks for the nice words. I think you do plenty of struggling with literature - in particular your recent posts on diversifying one's reading and vegetarianism really challenged people & got them talking. Good on ya, lady!

  • Mark David: I'm so glad you found validation in the last paragraph! You do a beautiful job with your posts, so please know it makes a difference, at least to me! And that's an interesting point about being confronted with the collection difficulty a lot - I don't love collections as a rule, so I don't run into it that often. Maybe as you write about them more you'll develop some tricks on how to do it well...then you can share them with me. ;-)

  • I have Volume 1 on my ToBeRead Shelf. I'm so jealous of George who has all of them by his bed and reads in them nightly! I'm reading out of FIVE books at the moment because I can't choose just one and it's making me CRAZY!

  • I love what Auster said: 'As my friend George Oppen once said to me about getting old: what a strange thing to happen to a little boy.' So true.

    I love reading interviews of authors. I have a very old Penguin paperback with a selected list of author interviews (I think probably from the Paris Review) but I so want the whole thing. I'm going to ask for it for my birthday!

  • Cynthia: Yes, I think four or five books going at a time is the point where I start to feel spread too thin. Volume 1 looks awesome! I'm jealous of George, too. :-)

    Sakura: Isn't that a lovely Auster quote? Good idea on asking for the set as a birthday present!

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography