In 1966, when John Updike was first asked to do a Paris Review interview, he refused: “Perhaps I have written fiction because everything unambiguously expressed seems somehow crass to me; and when the subject is myself, I want to jeer and weep. Also, I really don't have a great deal to tell interviewers; the little I learned about life and the art of fiction I try to express in my work.”
Dec 18, 2010
[John Steinbeck had agreed to a Paris Review interview late in his life. He had earlier been coy about it but then wanted the interview very much. He was, unfortunately, too sick to work on the project, though it was at the end often in his thoughts. With this interest of his in mind, the editors of this magazine compiled a number of comments on the art of fiction that John Steinbeck made over the years. Some come from the East of Eden diaries, published in December 1969 by Viking Press under the title Journal of a Novel. Others are excerpted from letters, some of which have been collected under the title Steinbeck: A Life in Letters and published in October 1975 by Viking. The quotes have been organized under various topic headings rather than chronologically, as they are in the diaries and letters. Nathaniel Benchley, a close friend of the author, has provided the introduction.]
Fragment of a letter from Boris Pasternak to a fellow poet:
“The melodic authenticity of most of your work is very dear to me, as is your faithfulness to the principle of melody and to “ascent” in the supreme sense that Alexander Blok gave that word.
"You will understand from a reading of my most recent works that I, too, am under the power of the same influence, but we must try to make sure that, as in Alexander Blok, this note works, reveals, incarnates, and expresses thoughts to their ultimate clarity, instead of being only a reminder of sounds which originally charmed us, an inconsequential echo dying in the air.”
Since his return to Italy, Ezra Pound has spent most of his time in the Tirol, staying at Castle Brunnenburg with his wife, his daughter Mary, his son-in-law Prince Boris de Rachewiltz, and his grandchildren. However, the mountains in this resort country near Merano are cold in the winter, and Mr. Pound likes the sun. The interviewer was about to leave England for Merano, at the end of February, when a telegram stopped him at the door: “Merano icebound. Come to Rome.”
Vladimir Nabokov lives with his wife Véra in the Montreux Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland, a resort city on Lake Geneva which was a favorite of Russian aristocrats of the last century. They dwell in a connected series of hotel rooms that, like their houses and apartments in the United States, seem impermanent, places of exile. Their rooms include one used for visits by their son Dmitri, and another, the chambre de debarras, where various items are deposited—Turkish and Japanese editions of Lolita, other books, sporting equipment, an American flag.
In 1934, Henry Miller, then aged forty-two and living in Paris, published his first book. In 1961 the book was finally published in his native land, where it promptly became a best-seller and a cause célèbre. By now the waters have been so muddied by controversy about censorship, pornography, and obscenity that one is likely to talk about anything but the book itself.
The interview took place in the living room of the apartment in Paris where Miss McCarthy was staying during the winter of 1961. It was a sunny, pleasant room, not too large, with long windows facing south toward the new buildings going up along the avenue Montaigne. A dining-cum-writing table stood in an alcove at one end; on it were a lamp, some books and papers, and a rather well-worn portable typewriter. At the other end of the room were several armchairs and a low sofa where Miss McCarthy sat while the interview was recorded. On this early-spring afternoon, the windows were open wide, letting in a warm breeze and the noise of construction work nearby. An enormous pink azalea plant bloomed on the balcony, and roses graced a small desk in one corner.
Among serious novelists, Aldous Huxley is surely the wittiest and most irreverent. Ever since the early twenties, his name has been a byword for a particular kind of social satire; in fact, he has immortalized in satire a whole period and a way of life. In addition to his ten novels, Huxley has written, during the course of an extremely prolific career, poetry, drama, essays, travel, biography, and history.
The interview took place on the afternoon of Saturday, July 6, 1963. The setting was Norman Mailer's Brooklyn Heights apartment, whose living room commands a panoramic view of lower Manhattan, the East River, and the New York harbor. The living room is fitted out with nautical or maritime furnishings and decorations, and Mailer, his curls unshorn, seemed at odd moments during the afternoon the novelist-as-ship-captain, though less Ahab than Captain Vere, and less both than Captain Shotover in ripe middle age. Mailer had recently stopped smoking, and the absence of nicotine had caused him to put on weight, which he carries gracefully and with vigor; the new amplitude of flesh seems to have influenced his spirit in the direction of benignity.
Allen Ginsberg was elected King of the May by Czech students in Prague on May Day, 1965. Soon afterward, he was expelled by the Czech government. He had been traveling for several months—in Cuba, Russia, and Poland—and from Prague he ﬂew to London to negotiate the English publication of his poems. I didn’t know he was in the country, but one night in Bristol before a poetry reading I saw him in a bar. He read that night; I hadn’t heard him read before and was struck that evening by the way he seemed to enter each of his poems emotionally while reading them, the performance was much a discovery for him as for his audience.
Mr. Frost came into the front room of his house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, casually dressed, wearing high plaid slippers, offering greetings with a quiet, even diffident friendliness. But there was no mistaking the evidence of the enormous power of his personality. It makes you at once aware of the thick, compacted strength of his body, even now at eighty-six; it is apparent in his face, actually too alive and spontaneously expressive to be as ruggedly heroic as in his photographs.
This interview was conducted in July 1966, in conversations I held with Borges at his office in the Biblioteca Nacional, of which he is the director. The room, recalling an older Buenos Aires, is not really an office at all but a large, ornate, high-ceilinged chamber in the newly renovated library. On the walls—but far too high to be easily read, as if hung with diffidence—are various academic certificates and literary citations. There are also several Piranesi etchings, bringing to mind the nightmarish Piranesi ruin in Borges's story, “The Immortal.” Over the fireplace is a large portrait; when I asked Borges's secretary, Miss Susana Quinteros, about the portrait, she responded in a fitting, if unintentional echo of a basic Borgesean theme: “No importa. It's a reproduction of another painting.”
Simone de Beauvoir had introduced me to Jean Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre, whom I had interviewed. But she hesitated about being interviewed herself: “Why should we talk about me? Don't you think I've done enough in my three books of memoirs?” It took several letters and conversations to convince her otherwise, and then only on the condition “that it wouldn't be too long.”
The interview “took place” over a period of several weeks. Beginning with some exploratory discussions during May of 1965, it was shelved during the summer, and actually accomplished during September and October. Two recording sessions were held, totaling about an hour and a half, but this was only a small part of the effort Mr. Bellow gave to this interview. A series of meetings, for over five weeks, was devoted to the most careful revision of the original material. Recognizing at the outset the effort he would make for such an interview, he had real reluctance about beginning it at all. Once his decision had been reached, however, he gave a remarkable amount of his time freely to the task—up to two hours a day, at least twice and often three times a week throughout the entire five-week period. It had become an opportunity, as he put it, to say some things which were important but which weren't being said.
The interview happened on a scalding, soggy-aired Fourth of July in a sunny room in Albee's small, attractive country house in Montauk, Long Island. Keeping in mind his luxuriously appointed house in New York City's Greenwich Village, one finds the country place dramatically modest by comparison. With the exception of a handsome, newly built tennis court (in which the playwright takes a disarmingly childlike pleasure and pride) and an incongruously grand Henry Moore sculpture situated high on a landscaped terrace that commands a startling view of the sea, the simplicity of the place leaves one with the curious impression that the news of the personal wealth his work has brought him has not quite reached the playwright-in-residence at Montauk. Still, it is in his country house that he generally seems most at ease, natural, at home.
You go to the races?
Then you read the Racing Form . . . . There you have the true art of fiction.
—Conversation in a Madrid café, May 1954
Ernest Hemingway writes in the bedroom of his house in the Havana suburb of San Francisco de Paula. He has a special workroom prepared for him in a square tower at the southwest corner of the house, but prefers to work in his bedroom, climbing to the tower room only when “characters” drive him up there.
The bedroom is on the ground floor and connects with the main room of the house. The door between the two is kept ajar by a heavy volume listing and describing The World’s Aircraft Engines. The bedroom is large, sunny, the windows facing east and south letting in the day’s light on white walls and a yellow-tinged tile floor.
The eighteenth century succeeds to the twentieth on the ground floors at the bottom of St. James's Street. The gloss and the cellophane of oyster bars and travel agencies are wrapped incongruously round the legs of the dignified houses. Graham Greene lives here at the commercial end of this thoroughfare in a flat on the first floor of a narrow house sandwiched between the clubs of the aristocracy and St. James's Palace. Above him, General Auchinleck, the soldier who was beaten by Rommel; below him, the smartest oyster bar in Europe; opposite, the second smartest.
Henry Green is a tall, gracious, and imposingly handsome man, with a warm, strong voice and very quick eyes. In speech he displays on occasion that hallmark of the English public school: the slight tilt of the head and closing of the eyes when pronouncing the first few words of some sentences—a manner most often in contrast to what he is saying, for his expressions tend toward parable and his wit may move from cozy to scorpion-dry in less than a twinkle. Many have remarked that his celebrated deafness will roar or falter according to his spirit and situation; at any rate he will not use a hearing aid, for reasons of his own, which are no doubt discernable to some.
“That is not all of Arctic Summer—there is almost half as much of it again—but that’s all I want to read because now it goes off, or at least I think so, and I do not want my voice to go out into the air while my heart is sinking. It will be more interesting to consider what the problems before me were, and why I was unlikely to solve them. I should like to do this, though it may involve us a little in fiction technicalities . . .”
So said E. M. Forster, addressing an audience at the Aldeburgh Festival of 1951. He had been reading part of an unfinished novel called Arctic Summer. At the end of the reading, he went on to explain why he had not finished the novel, which led him to mention what he called “fiction technicalities.”
William Faulkner was born in 1897 in New Albany, Mississippi, where his father was then working as a conductor on the railroad built by the novelist's great-grandfather, Colonel William Falkner (without the “u”), author of The White Rose of Memphis. Soon the family moved to Oxford, thirty-five miles away, where young Faulkner, although he was a voracious reader, failed to earn enough credits to be graduated from the local high school. In 1918 he enlisted as a student flyer in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He spent a little more than a year as a special student at the state university, Ole Miss, and later worked as postmaster at the university station until he was fired for reading on the job.
When Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s first novel, received the National Book Award for 1953, the author in his acceptance speech noted with dismay and gratification the conferring of the award to what he called an “attempt at a major novel.” His gratification was understandable, so too his dismay when one considers the amount of objectivity Mr. Ellison can display toward his own work. He felt the state of United States fiction to be so unhappy that it was an “attempt” rather than an achievement which received the important award.
Harold Pinter had recently moved into a five-story 1820 Nash house facing Regent's Park in London. The view from the floor-through top floor where he has installed his office overlooks a duck pond and a long stretch of wooded parkland; his desk faces this view, and in late October 1966, when the interview took place, the changing leaves and the hazy London sun constantly distracted him as he thought over questions or began to give answers. He speaks in a deep, theater-trained voice that comes rather surprisingly from him, and indeed is the most remarkable thing about him physically. When speaking he almost always tends to excessive qualification of any statement, as if coming to a final definition of things were obviously impossible. One gets the impression—as one does with many of the characters in his plays—of a man so deeply involved with what he's thinking that roughing it into speech is a painful necessity.
Dec 13, 2010
The Jnanpith Award is the highest literary award in India. It is presented by the Bharatiya Jnanpith, a trust founded by the Sahu Jain family, the publishers of The Times of India Newspaper. The name of the award is taken from Sanskrit jnāna-pīṭha = "knowledge-seat". The award carries a check for Rs. 700,000, a citation plaque and a bronze replica of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, and the arts. The award was instituted in 1961, and its first recipient, in 1965, was the Malayalam writer G. Sankara Kurup. Any Indian citizen who writes in any of the official languages of India is eligible for the honor. Prior to 1982, the awards were given for a single work by a writer; since then, the award has been given for a lifetime contribution to Indian literature. Seven awards each have been awarded in Kannada and Hindi and followed by five in Bengali and Malayalam, four in and Urdu and three in Gujarati, Oriya and Marathi.The award announcements have lately been lagging behind the award-years. The awards for the years 2005 and 2006 were announced on November 22, 2008, and were awarded to the Hindi writer Kunwar Narayan for 2005 and jointly to Konkani writer Ravindra Kelekar and Sanskrit scholar Satya Vrat Shastri for 2006. Satya Vrat Shastri is the first Sanskrit poet to be conferred the award since its inception.