The Horse’s Mouth

Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (Second Series)
Edited by George Plimpton.
Viking 368 pp. $6.50.

If the purpose served in giving these literary interviews their present title is nothing so homely as exactitude, the choice does suggest that the publisher knows where we itch. It might go without saying that this volume, which gathers together conversations with Hemingway, Eliot, Pound, Katherine Anne Porter, S. J. Perelman, and diverse others, presents, like its predecessor, everything but the writer “at work.” In fact, it is only the rare, blunt remark (by Miss Porter or Mary McCarthy or Henry Miller) about the dearness of privacy or the despair felt at interruption that reminds us what a writer’s work is like. More noticeably at work here is the writer’s surprising, sometimes dizzying charm; or failing that, some other forgotten virtue of civilized talk: fidelity to the point at hand, or perhaps a chastening plainness. Indeed, before the whole performance has gone very far one begins to hope, vulgarly or not, that the subjects were paid; not one of them is dull.

Only the interviewers are. And of course this is entirely proper. Even so, the range of questions seems, half-way through the book, maddeningly narrow (“Do you type or compose in hand? Do you show your work to friends for criticism? Is your work a direct reflection of personal experience, or . . . ?”). But what would one have? The imagination runs wild in considering what such interviews might be like. These are done with unfailing respectfulness and grace and come as close as taste and cultivation could to fulfilling what I take to be the purpose.

Certainly the Paris Review, which first published the interviews in both volumes of Writers at Work, has been, for its ten years of life, a graceful and adventurous little magazine. These interviews stand for one aspect of its adventurousness, and having become, so to speak, the specialité de la maison, for one aspect of this period. The magazine, started in 1953 by a group of Harvard graduates, remains one of the few among innumerable literary journals begun in the 1950’s to make a success. What was noticeable from the start—what William Styron, an advisory editor, promised in a gruff epistolary introduction to the first issue (signed: “Bill Styron”)—was that the magazine was more interested in “creative work” than in criticism. This emphasis was, to put it mildly, a relief. What was unspoken, though implicit in the choice, and what was more than congenial to the mood of younger readers and writers at the time, was that the magazine would make no use of history—no “perspective” and no distinctions of the sort dictated by a view of art as continuous over time. Nothing professorial, in short Unlike the English Horizon or Scrutiny, the American Partisan Review or Hudson Review, the Paris Review was to remind one of the “traditionless” 20’s, signalizing clean breaks and new worlds through the revelation of fresh sensibility in stories, poems, and pictures. Art was what was wanted, pure but not simple; and art of the present, free of comparison or precedent. The history of living artists—in the form collected here—is to the best of my knowledge the only “perspective” the editors have ever invoked.

If, assembled in books, such history turns out after all to be of interest chiefly to English majors and to the earnest acolytes of the ubiquitous workshops, this is because a job-lot of literary shop-talk palls pretty quickly on the ordinarily cultivated reader. On the other hand, there must surely be more English majors and more workshops than there were in 1953. For one’s sense of it is that the beginning of the Paris Review coincided roughly with the nearly unanimous assent by educated Americans to the propositions of the New Romanticists who preached with such vigor to the sour and baffling post-World War II period: the proposition that among the extraordinary powers of art are social deliverance and personal therapy; the proposition that art is almost the only irreproachable cultural action; that it is a nearly religious resort. Thus the idea of art has never had such a boom. And so there will be many younger readers who will mistakenly approach Writers at Work as being more closely comparable to Lives of the Saints than to Vasari. The others, with only an M.A. thesis to grind out, can be assured that, unlike the refractory personal letters and journals of the past, these “documents” contain fairly straight answers to fiercely serious questions: they are straight from the horse’s mouth. . . .

The trouble is that even the most intent and skillful interviewers can elicit only uncertain memories, critical simplicities, and some brave, modest—even sheepish—attempts to explain a point of technique or to wrestle with a long-standing superstition. Grandeur recedes when the information we are given about the time of day each author works, where he sits, his writing implements and surrounding furniture all begins to suggest (indeed to become, in the Hemingway interview) a kind of Manual of Professional Hygiene, or else a pilot study for Fifteen Model Rooms for the Writer, to be unveiled at Lord and Taylor. Through all of the questioning runs a depressing note of undisclosed hope. It sounds clearest in the recurrence on the interviewer’s tongue of phrases like “the process of writing” and “the process of creation.” It is the impossible hope of conjuring an answer to the mystery of creation and of talent. Finally, the Lit. students have it all their own way. They can at least find out where early drafts of “Ash Wednesday” were published. Lonely, aspiring authors will put the book away, lonely.

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But for the reader seeking neither research material nor initiation there are, as I said at the start, many moments of sheer entertainment here. The measured and unmistakeable voice of Robert Frost chats on and on with an evasive virtuosity that reminds one of Picasso drawing those pictures with a flashlight for Clouzot’s camera. When her dazzlingly well-informed interviewer prompts Marianne Moore about the contents of a letter someone wrote her, Miss Moore exclaims, stopping everything quite dead, “Really?” Mary McCarthy appears to get a whole new idea, before our very eyes, about a work in progress; the interviewer’s blush of pride is almost audible.

But can one review these conversations? It is rather like reviewing a party; worse yet, a party given in honor of someone’s mania—in this case, the interviewer’s. As an instance, Miss McCarthy’s legendary vivacity comes through beautifully; but one begins to wonder whether her almost continuous mood of autobiographical revelation aims at some sort of testament, some secular witness; or merely at providing entertainment appropriate to the occasion. Just as in her work, the self-revelation is almost consistently comic, but trivializing. Her account of her own political involvement in the 30’s could hardly be jauntier or more amusing to herself. Its oddest aspect, of which she seems only partly aware, is the emphasis she reports on position as against activity: the friendships blasted, the inflamed introspection, all, apparently, over what one professed, rather than what one did. But is her account, given these odd conversational circumstances, quite true?

Perhaps it is. In his introduction, the late Van Wyck Brooks remarks that “most of these writers are politically passive . . . political issues have become at once too simple and too massive, beyond the scope of writers and literary thinking.” On the evidence of the rest of the book, one would have to agree. And surely one aspect of the present view of art is a misapprehension, if not a plain, implacable hatred, of politics. If the children’s teeth are a bit soft on ambrosia, there are indications here that the fathers have eaten rue: Henry Miller, Ezra Pound, Lawrence Durrell, Miss McCarthy, all, one way or another, would teach a reader of these interviews that politics and political ideas are a mug’s game. Only Boris Pasternak, by an irony needing no comment, can go on for pages about a trilogy of plays he is writing whose inspiration is the political history that he had known and was still moved by.

The Pasternak interview is likewise unique in conveying some sense of genuine personal relationship between the interviewer and the subject. It is a relief, it even adds credibility, that the form is straight narrative and that we feel none of the purposefulness of the graduate student who has run “a source” to earth. In the end, I suppose that the only serious reservation one might have about these bright and well-made souvenirs comes from the fact that the same interviews, in bound volumes of the Paris Review in one university library I know, are already pocked and serrated with the under-linings and contentious marginalia of Contemp. Lit. students. It saddens me to think they might greet the next work of one of these very gallant troupers with a cry: “But I read where you said. . . .”

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