Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, edited by George Plimpton
Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. Fourth Series.
by George Plimpton.
Viking. 459 pp. $14.95.
Interviewer: And there’s your new poem, “Talking To Mice.” Have you any favorite mythological mice?
Auden: Mythological! What on earth could you be referring to? Are there any, aside from Mickey Mouse? You must mean fictional mice.
Interviewer: I must.
Auden: Oh yes, there’s the mice of Beatrix Potter, of which I’m quite fond.
Interviewer: How about Mickey?
Auden: He’s all right.
Interviewer: Do you believe in the Devil?
Such are the Paris Review interviews. A strange mixture of the profound and the inane, insight and absurdity. This Fourth Series, identical in format to its three predecessors, contains sixteen interviews, most of which were conducted in the late 1960’s. There are six poets and ten novelists represented; the playwrights, after a short run in the Third Series, have disappeared again.
The question arises as to whether or not any kind of general conclusions on the state of literary culture today can be drawn from these interviews. There is, however, no recognizable group in this new series whose consciousness is expressed in such a way as to indicate a shared outlook or intention. In the Second Series, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and the young Robert Lowell were interrelated to a high degree in both their ideas and their activity. A group dynamic existed; the modernist movement and its offshoots gave a sense of cohesiveness to the literary scene. Ezra Pound (about whom almost everyone in the Second Series had an anecdote to relate) was the busiest planet in the galaxy and even managed to draw Robert Frost into his orbit. By contrast, the poets of the Fourth Series—John Berryman, Conrad Aiken, George Seferis, W. H. Auden, Robert Graves, and Anne Sexton—are disparate personalities and hardly seem to interact at all. All writers write in isolation but the sense of a literary group such as gathered around Pound in London in the early part of the century or in New York in the 1940’s, is no longer with us. The shared reminiscences of the Second Series evoked a sense of unity of experience; in the Third Series the stratification of the generations was plain to see, Jean Cocteau and Evelyn Waugh rubbing shoulders with Norman Mailer and William S. Burroughs; in the Fourth Series the disintegration appears to be complete.
The Paris Review interviews are retrospectives, and for this reason the title Writers at Work is slightly misleading, as it implies some sort of ongoing analysis of the contemporary scene. In fact, the book gives to established writers a chance to look back on their work and to assess their contributions and those of their forebears and contemporaries. Eight of the writers in the new volume have died since their interviews originally appeared in the magazine. John Updike, by far the youngest writer in the book, had published two books of poetry, five collections of short stories, and four novels at the time of the interview; Robert Graves had over a hundred and twenty volumes to look back on.
As the idea of a “movement” has disappeared, so has the idea of an “international audience” emerged. In the new series, writers from Denmark, Greece, and Argentina are added to the usual mixed bag of British and Americans. The availability of works in translation, particularly from Latin America, has placed a far more varied literary culture at the fingertips of the reader, and consequently, the history and culture he is now required to embrace defy him in their very broadness. As the Paris Review interviews would seem to indicate, the modern reader is now to be concerned with individual geniuses of a variety of cultures rather than with the literary movement or group. In most cases the relationship of the individual writer to his particular literary tradition (say, Jorge Luis Borges to Argentina) is unknown, and as a result their books tend to be read in a social and historical vacuum.
All the writers turn out to be good talkers: that is, one thinks they are, until one realizes that each interview has been carefully touched up and varnished in manuscript form in order to remove any traces of a stutter or an ill-thought-out remark. All are terrified of the tape recorder, though Seferis has a moment of triumph over the machine:
Interviewer: The tape machine seems to have stopped recording. Say something and let’s see if it’s still working properly.
Seferis: Wallace Stevens was in an insurance company.
Even, so, the interviews do manage to read like conversations, and half the fun of them lies in mining the deep pit of anecdotes that each writer has. Most are loath to talk about their work in great detail, but when they do it is both interesting and informative (thus, Saul Bellow on Herzog in the Third Series and Seferis on his poetry in the Fourth).
In the first interview of the First Series, E. M. Forster remarked that he was “more interested in works than in authors,” but it is no doubt true that most people who read the Paris Review interviews do so in order to discover a little more about the personalities behind the names on book jackets. They are more likely, however, to find out a great deal about their chosen writer’s assessment of other writers and little about the writer himself. Contradictory evaluations of literary figures are scattered over the pages of the interviews. Sometimes crosschecking brings humorous results. For example, interviewer to Evelyn Waugh (Third Series):
What about Ronald Firbank?
Waugh: I enjoyed him very much when I was young. I can’t read him now.
Interviewer: Why not?
Waugh: I think there would be something wrong with an elderly man who could enjoy Fir-bank.
And in the new series, W. H. Auden says, at the age of sixty-five:
Auden: I suppose my favorite modern novelists are Ronald Firbank and P. G. Wodehouse.
Auden, in fact, is made to suffer the silliest interview—“What is the name of your cat?” “What is that big book over there?” Anthony Burgess provides two cooking recipes along with some information on Joyce, while Robert Graves proves to be the most interesting interviewee. He remarks at one point that poetry expresses the relation between “jewels and the matrix.” The same might be said of the Paris Review interviews: searching for the jewels occasionally becomes laborious, but in the main it is worth the effort. Some fine stones have been turned up in the past. Interviewer to Waugh (Third Series):
Have you found any professional critic of your work illuminating or helpful? Edmund Wilson for example?
Waugh: IS he an American?
Waugh: I don’t think what they have to say is of much interest, do you?
Danger! Writers at Work!