Shooting the breeze for free
William Skidelsky THE PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEWS: VOLUME I edited by Philip Gourevitch Canongate, 14.99, pp. 510, ISBN 9781841959252 © £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 The Paris Review came into being in 1953, when a group of young Americans living in Paris, among them George Plimpton and William Styron, decided to start a literary magazine Their intention was to get away from the academic factionalism that then prevailed in literary journals, and simply publish good writing, whether fiction, poetry or plays. In addition, the group came up with an ingenious format — the Q&A — whereby authors would have the chance to discuss the process of writing with a knowledgeable and broadly sympathetic interviewer. Undoubtedly, the format's appeal was enhanced by the fact that the Paris Review was cash-strapped. Displaying a financial canniness that is rare among literary types, Plimpton and Co. reasoned that while famous writers would demand prohibitive fees for putting pen to paper, they could probably be persuaded to shoot the breeze for free.
And so one of the great institutions of postwar literary culture was born. The inaugural Paris Review interview was with E. M. Forster, and the magazine's form has hardly dipped since then. Over the past six decades, it has carried interviews with many of modern literature's giants: Ezra Pound, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov. Being interviewed by the Paris Review has become a badge of distinction, an affirmation that a writer should be taken seriously. Today there are more than 300 interviews in the magazine's archive, and collectively they justify the title 'The DNA of literature', under which they appear on the Paris Review's website.
Drawing as it does on such material, a book like this could hardly fail to be diverting. Still, the Paris Review's current editor, Philip Gourevitch, has done an excellent job in choosing the 16 conversations collected here. The temptation to pack the book with heavyweights must have been considerable, but Gourevitch has wisely opted for a varied line-up, including lesser-known figures such as the novelists James M. Cain and Richard Price and the poet Jack Gilbert alongside the likes of T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway and Jorge Luis Borges. In making his selections, he has also done justice to the range of Paris Review subjects. For as well as novelists and poets, the magazine has interviewed essayists, humourists, translators and biographers. Such diversity is reflected in the interview with former New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb, and the conversation about screenwriting with Billy Wilder.
What makes these interviews so good? Partly, it is the willingness on the part of the interviewers to risk appearing stupid. From the start, the Paris Review wanted its interviews to be primarily about the process of writing, and so it gave interviewers licence to ask basic questions: 'Why did you start writing?'; 'How many hours a day do you work?'; 'What do you write with?' There is something wonderfully demystifying, not to say levelling, about figures such as T. S. Eliot or Ernest Hemingway being forced to describe whether they prefer using a pencil or typewriter, or whether they are at their best in the morning or afternoon. Hemingway reveals that he always writes standing up, whereas Truman Capote — typically implausibly — claims to be 'a completely horizontal author'. Not all the subjects are equally willing to play the game. Saul Bellow, for example, makes it clear that he isn't prepared to discuss his 'personal writing habits'. His interview is poorer for this restriction, and he comes across as a slightly pompous figure.
Reading these interviews makes one realise how boringly mediated most newspaper interviews are. A writer's own words tend to be more interesting than an interviewer's impressions, but in a standard interview-profile the latter has priority. The Q&A, if done well, is a superbly open-ended format. No one interpretation is forced upon the reader; subtexts can emerge. The experience of reading a Q&A, in other words, parallels that of reading a novel or a poem — and so these conversations are a rare example of a journalistic form doing justice to its subject.
Something of this can be seen in my own favourite, the interview with Borges. The writer, who was in his late sixties when the interview took place, and nearly blind, comes across as a mischievous character, as happy discussing gangster movies as the use of metaphor in Old Norse. During the interview, a sub-theme develops. The conversation keeps being interrupted by Borges' assistant, who informs him that 'Senor Campbell is waiting'. 'The Campbells are coming!' Borges exclaims several times, although rather than doing anything about it, he carries on talking. After three interruptions, he says, 'But now I remember the Campbells are coming ... They are supposed to be a ferocious tribe.' Who are these mysterious Campbells? Do they actually exist, or are they merely a handy fabulation, a pretext for bringing the session to a close? The question, appropriately, is left hanging.