Paris Review Entries

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.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography