The highbrow cover for espionage
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
HIT THE GROUND!
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).