The high­brow cover for es­pi­onage

Kevin Ra­bal­ais

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

tele­cast of the sec­ond Iraq war with the same en­joy­ment he had when watch­ing the World Cup fi­nal, and dur­ing an ad break he switches to an­other chan­nel, to a Hol­ly­wood ver­sion of Tol­stoy’s Anna Karen­ina , in which an aged aris­to­cratic woman an­nounces ‘‘ If I lived in Spain / I would go to the bull­fights ev­ery day!’’ The poet com­ments: ‘‘ I didn’t feel so good af­ter that . . . Old Tol­stoy had ticked me off from be­yond the grave / and had made his con­tempt for me clear.’’

A cou­ple of po­ems later he con­trasts an Amer­i­can ac­tress, burst­ing into tears as she re­ceives an Os­car and an­nounc­ing she was there be­cause she be­lieved art was greater than war, with a scene in a restau­rant in a small re­mote Chi­nese town, where as they watched TV ‘‘ a bunch of ugly blokes . . . eat­ing in­stant-boiled mut­ton / chat­ted ex­cit­edly / in ad­mi­ra­tion of the Amer­i­can bom­bard­ment’’.

One of his fun­ni­est po­ems is an ac­cep­tance speech for the No­bel Prize of Lit­er­a­ture, which points out that the prize­money was made from the sale of dy­na­mite and that’s what he’s go­ing to spend it on. He warns the judges: could I please ask you to make your­self ready? Would you all please


Watch this space. Ge­of­frey Lehmann’s best known book of po­etry, Spring For­est was pub­lished by Faber & Faber. He is pre­par­ing a new book.

EARLY last year, a lit­er­ary con­tro­versy erupted, one that con­cerned nei­ther petty squab­bles nor bro­ken friend­ship, but the CIA. Doc , a doc­u­men­tary about the Amer­i­can nov­el­ist H. L. Humes, re­vealed that a now­illus­tri­ous au­thor in­vented The Paris Re­view as his CIA cover. Sev­eral months later, in a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view with Char­lie Rose on Amer­ica’s PBS, Peter Matthiessen, the nov­el­ist, nat­u­ral­ist and ex­plorer whose books in­clude The Snow Leop­ard , Far Tor­tuga and At Play in the Fields of the Lord , re­flected on his two years with the agency, which he called ‘‘ my youth­ful folly’’. Matthiessen’s many ad­ven­tures have led to 30 books set on five con­ti­nents. The CIA, he told Rose, was the only ad­ven­ture he re­grets.

The news broke dur­ing the pin­na­cle of Matthiessen’s long and re­spected ca­reer. In 2008, he pub­lished Shadow Coun­try , a 900-page ‘‘ new ren­der­ing’’ of a tril­ogy of nov­els about the death of a real-life Florida pi­o­neer. The nov­els Killing Mis­ter Wat­son , Lost Man’s River and Bone by Bone were pub­lished to wide ac­claim in the 1990s. Matthiessen spent nearly a decade cut­ting, re­vis­ing and, he has said, rewrit­ing ev­ery sen­tence of those ear­lier books un­til they be­came Shadow Coun­try . The novel won last year’s Na­tional Book Award for Fic­tion in the US and re­ceived the kind of praise that writ­ers and crit­ics usu­ally re­serve for the dead.

The lit­er­ary res­ur­rec­tion of Matthiessen’s The Paris Re­view co-founder ‘‘ Doc’’ Humes occurred at the same time. Humes, who died in ob­scu­rity in 1992, pub­lished two nov­els, The Un­der­ground City ( 1958) and Men Die ( 1959), be­fore spi­ralling into para­noia. For a brief time, how­ever, he was re­garded along with William Sty­ron, Nor­man Mailer and John Updike, who died in late Jan­uary, as among Amer­ica’s most promis­ing young nov­el­ists.

Humes’s lit­er­ary out­put even­tu­ally yielded to other in­ter­ests, among them a stint as cam­paign man­ager for Mailer’s un­suc­cess­ful 1961 New York may­oral bid and par­tic­i­pa­tion in Ti­mothy Leary’s LSD ex­per­i­ments. LSD led to Humes’s hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tion in Lon­don in the mid-’ 60s. He never pub­lished again. He be­came a guru on US uni­ver­sity cam­puses, where he pro­fessed gov­ern­ment con­spir­acy the­o­ries and dis­trib­uted pa­per money to passers-by. Paul Auster, a stu­dent at Columbia in the late ’ 60s, re­mem­bers Hume in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Hand to Mouth , as a ‘‘ hip­ster­vi­sion­ary-neo­prophet’’.

The CIA con­tro­versy, the re­pub­li­ca­tion of Humes’s nov­els, and the con­tin­u­ing rise of Matthiessen brought new fo­cus to the mag­a­zine they co-founded in Paris and which is pub­lished in New York. Fifty-six years af­ter the ap­pear­ance of its first is­sue, The Paris Re­view re­mains one of the English-speak­ing world’s lead­ing lit­er­ary quar­ter­lies. Much of the es­teem in which it’s held stems from its long­stand­ing trade­mark se­ries of nuts-and-bolts in­ter­views with writ­ers on the art of fic­tion, drama, po­etry and edit­ing.

As At­wood writes in her in­tro­duc­tion to The Paris Re­view In­ter­views, Vol­ume 3 , th­ese in­ter­views are ‘‘ the gold stan­dard for such things . . . There are many tips and help­ful hints, which, if the in­ter­views were cook­books, would in­volve such craft-lore things as pars­ley dry­ing and how to tell if an egg is ad­dled’’.

The first two vol­umes of The Paris Re­view In­ter­views ap­peared in 2007 and 2008. Th­ese selections of in­ter­views from through­out the mag­a­zine’s his­tory come af­ter many changes at The Paris Re­view .

Ge­orge Plimp­ton, its ed­i­tor-in-chief for the first 50 years and its first in­ter­viewer, died in 2003. Away from the mag­a­zine, Plimp­ton gained brief fame as a pre-sea­son back-up quar­ter­back for the Bal­ti­more Colts. He trained as a goalie for ice­hockey fran­chise the Bos­ton Bru­ins and at­tempted to play on the PGA Tour. He sparred with Su­gar Ray Robin­son and Archie Moore, who gave him con­cus­sion. All for the sake of lit­er­a­ture.

Two years passed be­fore The Paris Re­view was able to fill the void left by Plimp­ton’s death. In 2005, Philip Goure­vitch, the New Yorker staff writer and cel­e­brated au­thor of We Wish to In­form You That To­mor­row We Will Be Killed With Our Fam­i­lies , be­came the mag­a­zine’s ed­i­tor. He changed the long­stand­ing for­mat, mak­ing it taller and slim­mer. There are now colour pho­to­graphs and more non­fic­tion, but the con­trib­u­tors re­main a bal­anced mix­ture of new voices along with some of the most recog­nis­able names in lit­er­a­ture. Best of all, the in­ter­views con­tinue to pro­vide read­ers with in­for­ma­tive and in-depth con­ver­sa­tions about the art of lit­er­a­ture.

The two pre­vi­ously pub­lished vol­umes of The Paris Re­view In­ter­views in­clude con­ver­sa­tions with Tru­man Capote, T. S. Eliot, Jorge Luis Borges, Kurt Von­negut, El­iz­a­beth Bishop, Gra­ham Greene, Alice Munro, Peter Carey, William Faulkner and Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez, to name a few. The lat­est in the se­ries con­tains 16 in­ter­views, in­clud­ing those with Ralph El­li­son, Isak Di­ne­sen, Eve­lyn Waugh, Joyce Carol Oates, Ray­mond Carver, Ted Hughes and Nor­man Mailer.

Like the two pre­vi­ous vol­umes, th­ese in­ter­views are note­wor­thy for the nu­mer­ous gems that pro­vide not only great lit­er­ary gos­sip but also won­der­ful stim­u­la­tion for read­ers and writ­ers.

While the ques­tions are oc­ca­sion­ally odd (‘‘ What is your favourite fruit?’’ or ‘‘ Do you like mon­keys?’’) and some­times of­fen­sive (‘‘ What are the ad­van­tages of be­ing a woman writer?’’), the in­ter­views un­furl, for the most part, as en­light­en­ing con­ver­sa­tions be­tween artist and ap­pren­tice search­ing for lit­er­a­ture’s big an­swers.

Harold Pin­ter, the 2005 No­bel lau­re­ate who died late last year, dis­cusses how he wrote his first play, The Room, in four days. Pin­ter of­fers his ad­vice to young writ­ers: ‘‘ All you can do is try to write as well as you can.’’ Martin Amis re­flects on a writer’s voice and style: ‘‘ It’s all he’s got. It’s not the flashy twist, the abrupt cli­max, or the seam­less se­quence of events that char­ac­terises a writer and makes him unique. It’s a tone, it’s a way of looking at things.’’

Many of the writ­ers, in­clud­ing Waugh, speak of the ne­ces­sity of risk: ‘‘ Our poets may be wrong,’’ Waugh says, ‘‘ but what can any of us do with his tal­ent but try to de­velop his vi­sion, so that through fre­quent fail­ures we may learn bet­ter what we have missed in the past.’’

On the same topic, John Cheever, whose in­ter­view is one of the high­lights in this vi­tal col­lec­tion, says: ‘‘ Fic­tion is ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. When it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fic­tion. Ev­ery sen­tence is an in­no­va­tion.’’

Di­ne­sen speaks of hon­ing her sto­ry­telling skills among African tribes, whose mem­bers urged her on by say­ing, ‘‘ Please, Mem­sahib, talk like rain.’’ Sal­man Rushdie tells of a fan let­ter he wrote to Pa­trick White af­ter read­ing Voss , and how, sadly, he failed to un­der­stand White’s self-dep­re­cat­ing re­sponse un­til af­ter the No­bel lau­re­ate’s death.

And Cheever re­minds us why we read: ‘‘ The books that you re­ally love give the sense, when you first open them, of hav­ing been there. It is a cre­ation, al­most like a cham­ber in the mem­ory.’’

Through­out its his­tory, The Paris Re­view has pro­vided a sanc­tu­ary for those who be­lieve that lit­er­a­ture is life. This was al­ways the case for Matthiessen. ‘‘ I was much more in­ter­ested in The Paris Re­view than in [ the CIA],’’ he told Rose. But did his af­fil­i­a­tion with the agency make the mag­a­zine’s con­trib­u­tors un­wit­ting gov­ern­ment in­stru­ments? ‘‘ Youth­ful folly’’ aside, the mag­a­zine he and Humes co-founded and th­ese three vol­umes of in­ter­views are es­sen­tial for any se­ri­ous reader of mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture. Kevin Ra­bal­ais is the au­thor of The Land­scape of De­sire ( Scribe).

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