a pair of

ragged claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

AS promised, to­day we have the Bri­tish Li­brary CD set The Spo­ken Word: Amer­i­can Writers. (The Brits were here last week.) This three-disc col­lec­tion fea­tures 27 writers, in­clud­ing seven No­bel lau­re­ates: Sin­clair Lewis, Eu­gene O’Neill, Pearl Buck, John Stein­beck, Isaac Ba­she­vis Singer, Saul Bel­low and Toni Mor­ri­son. Most of the au­dio comes from BBC in­ter­views, which has the fringe ben­e­fit of hear­ing writers ad­dressed as Miss Stein and Mr Stein­beck, though O’Neill reads from Long Day’s Jour­ney Into Night. The old­est record­ing is the 1934 in­ter­view with Gertrude Stein, who puts her in­ter­roga­tor in his place when he sug­gests many read­ers don’t un­der­stand her work: ‘‘Look here, be­ing in­tel­li­gi­ble is not what it seems.’’ One of the most re­cent, and it’s a gem, is a 1984 in­ter­view with Arthur Miller, then 69, recorded on the porch of his Connecticut home. You can hear bird­song in the back­ground as the play­wright talks about Death of a Sales­man and The Cru­cible, the sad­ness of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe and his re­fusal to name names be­fore the House Un-Amer­i­can Ac­tiv­i­ties Com­mit­tee. His anal­y­sis of Amer­i­can para­noia re­mains rel­e­vant. The other Miller, wild Henry, does not dis­ap­point at 88, cheer­fully rail­ing against the world and ad­mit­ting most peo­ple read his books for the sex. He says his only re­gret was aban­don­ing piano lessons, be­cause ‘‘mu­sic is the high­est art of all’’. Low art is on Ray­mond Chan­dler’s mind in a won­der­ful 1958 in­ter­view with Ian Flem­ing that could be a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Philip Mar­lowe and James Bond. Re­sist­ing Flem­ing’s praise, Chan­dler in­sists his ‘‘thrillers’’ are ‘‘be­low the salt’’. Chan­dler sounds as though he may have had a few, and James Thurber joins the party later when asked to de­scribe him­self: ‘‘A jolly drink­ing com­pan­ion . . . up to a cer­tain hour.’’ F. Scott Fitzger­ald reads a bit of Othello but his pal Ernest Hem­ing­way is the con­spic­u­ous ab­sence here, for rea­sons that are not ex­plained. He does get a men­tion in a 1960 in­ter­view with Mary Mc­Carthy, but it’s a dis­hon­ourable one, as the ex­em­plar of ‘‘anti-in­tel­lec­tual’’ Amer­i­can writers ‘‘whose minds would never be raped by an idea’’. I save the best for last: the aris­to­cratic, imperious, play­ful, blind­ingly smart and sub­limely self-pos­sessed Vladimir Nabokov, in­ter­viewed in 1970 when he was 71. He talks with amused de­tach­ment about the writ­ing process — the pen­cil that needs sharp­en­ing, the blad­der that needs drain­ing, ‘‘the word I al­ways mis­spell’’ — be­fore mov­ing on to diss Dos­to­evsky for the ‘‘ghastly’’ Crime and Pun­ish­ment, tick off Tol­stoy for the sen­ti­men­tal­ity of War and Peace and up­braid ‘‘Mr Updike’’ for a re­cent re­view. But I laughed most when the in­ter­viewer asks if Nabokov could talk about the im­por­tance to his work of his wife and muse, Vera, and the au­thor replies: ‘‘No, I could not.’’ The Spo­ken Word: Amer­i­can Writers ($45) is dis­trib­uted by In­books (www.in­books.com.au).

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