The Paris Review Interviews, IV

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The Paris Review Interviews, IV, new this week from Picador, continues a great tradition of writers discussing their motivations, inspirations, methods, and, inevitably, other writers. Volume IV collects sixteen author interviews and is perhaps a bit heavier on contemporary writers than past volumes have been, showcasing current luminaries like Haruki Murakami, Orhan Pamuk, Paul Aster, and Marilynne Robinson. Although most of the interviews take place after the 1970s (with half in the past two decades), elder statespeople like William Styron, Marianne Moore, and the venerable Ezra Pound are also present.

Pound’s interview from 1962 is paradoxically revealing in its guardedness: one senses that the aged poet is trying to edit as he speaks, to achieve some sort of perfection. It’s a bit sad too, as Pound, holed up in a sort of self-imposed exile in an Italian castle, admits, “I suffer from the cumulative isolation of not having had enough contact–fifteen years of living more with ideas than with persons.” (On a less-serious note, however, he also praises Disney’s 1957 film “Perri, that squirrel film, where you have the values of courage and tenderness asserted in a way that everybody can understand. You have got absolute genius there.”)

As one might expect, Jack Kerouac comes off as the complete opposite, talking about his troubles with editor Malcolm Cowley, problems with poetry and prose, and Neal Cassady. There’s a free-flowing verbosity to Kerouac’s speech, but also an intimacy. It’s really quite beautiful. At one point, he gets one of the two poets interviewing him, Aram Saroyan, to repeat each line of Poem 230 from Mexico City Blues as he reads it aloud (Kerouac claims he wrote the poem “purely on morphine.”) As they recite the poem over several pages, Kerouac steps outside of it every now and then to compliment Saroyan’s reading or to critique a particular line, or simply to explain what he was trying to do with his words. We’re not huge fans of Kerouac’s writing, but after this interview, we wanted to be. (Later in the book, a surprised P.G. Wodehouse on Kerouac: “Jack Kerouac died! Did he?” Interviewer: “Yes.” Wodehouse: “Oh . . . Gosh, they do die off, don’t they?” Yes, they do).

One of the stranger interviews in the books is between James Lipton, of all people, and composer Stephen Sondheim. Although we don’t doubt the literary merit of Sondheim, the interview does seem a little out of place (although we will attest that the interview with Maya Angelou convinced us to give her a little more cred. A little). Elsewhere, E.B. White asserts that “You have to write up, not down” to children, and Haruki Murakami sheds insight into his own methods and passions (he often conceives his protagonist as a twin brother, lost at birth; his favorite director is Aki Kaurismäki; he’s thrilled to be mentioned in the liner notes of Radiohead’s Kid A). Murakami also talks about the writers he loves, admires, and feels insecure around (he’s shy to meet Toni Morrison at a special luncheon).

Of course, Murakami’s not alone–there’s plenty of writers dishing on writers here. When we reviewed Volume III of The Paris Review Interviews last year, we noted that both Evelyn Waugh and Raymond Chandler take the time to dis William Faulkner in their interviews. Volume IV kicks off with William Styron, who kinda sorta disses Faulkner as well, saying that “The Sound and the Fury . . . succeeds in spite of itself. Faulkner often simply stays too damn intense for too long a time.” Or Marianne Moore, on fellow poet Hart Crane: “Hart Crane complains of me? Well, I complain of him.” Ah, writers . . . great to know they can be as petty and self-absorbed as the rest of us. And it’s that humanity that shines through in these interviews. The series’s greatest accomplishment is its ability to reveal the frailties and insecurities of its subjects, but also their true personalities and tastes. Many writers work hard to control how they are perceived; cultivating a persona, one often aloof, academic, or roguish, is perhaps key to a successful writer’s identity. The interviews here are never fawning, nor do they aspire to sensationalism in revealing their subjects. Instead, each works as a neat, detailed, and very engrossing little portrait of a fascinating personality. Highly recommended.

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