RIP Derek Walcott, 1930-2017
Hear him read his poem “For Oliver Jackman” around the 6:00 mark.
RIP Derek Walcott, 1930-2017
Hear him read his poem “For Oliver Jackman” around the 6:00 mark.
Tell me, would you please, about Jane Bowles.
That’s an all-inclusive command! What can I possibly tell you about her that isn’t implicit in her writing?
She obviously had an extraordinary imagination. She was always coherent, but one had the feeling that she could go off the edge at any time. Almost every page of Two Serious Ladies, for example, evoked a sense of madness although it all flowed together very naturally.
I feel that it flows naturally, yes. But I don’t find any sense of madness. Unlikely turns of thought, lack of predictability in the characters’ behavior, but no suggestion of “madness.” I love Two Serious Ladies. The action is often like the unfolding of a dream, and the background, with its realistic details, somehow emphasizes the sensation of dreaming.
Does this dreamlike quality reflect her personality?
I don’t think anyone ever thought of Jane as a “dreamy” person; she was far too lively and articulate for that. She did have a way of making herself absent suddenly, when one could see that she was a thousand miles away. If you addressed her sharply, she returned with a start. And if you asked her about it, she would simply say: “I don’t know. I was somewhere else.”
Can you read her books and see Jane Bowles in them?
Not at all; not the Jane Bowles that I knew. Her work contained no reports on her outside life. Two Serious Ladies was wholly nonautobiographical. The same goes for her stories.
She wasn’t by any means a prolific writer, was she?
No, very unprolific. She wrote very slowly. It cost her blood to write. Everything had to be transmuted into fiction before she could accept it. Sometimes it took her a week to write a page. This exaggerated slowness seemed to me a terrible waste of time, but any mention of it to her was likely to make her stop writing entirely for several days or even weeks. She would say: “All right. It’s easy for you, but it’s hell for me, and you know it. I’m not you. I know you wish I were, but I’m not. So stop it.”
The relationships between her women characters are fascinating. They read like psychological portraits, reminiscent of Djuna Barnes.
In fact, though, she refused to read Djuna Barnes. She never read Nightwood. She felt great hostility toward American women writers. Usually she refused even to look at their books.
Why was that?
When Two Serious Ladies was first reviewed in 1943, Jane was depressed by the lack of understanding shown in the unfavorable reviews. She paid no attention to the enthusiastic notices. But from then on, she became very much aware of the existence of other women writers whom she’d met and who were receiving laudatory reviews for works which she thought didn’t deserve such high praise: Jean Stafford, Mary McCarthy, Carson McCullers, Anaïs Nin. There were others I can’t remember now. She didn’t want to see them personally or see their books.
In the introduction that Truman Capote wrote for the collected works, he emphasized how young she’d been when she wrote Two Serious Ladies.
That’s true. She began it when she was twenty-one. We were married the day before her twenty-first birthday.
Was there something symbolic about the date?
No, nothing “symbolic.” Her mother wanted to remarry and she had got it into her head that Jane should marry first, so we chose the day before Jane’s birthday.
Did your careers ever conflict, yours and your wife’s?
No, there was no conflict of any kind. We never thought of ourselves as having careers. The only career I ever had was as a composer, and I destroyed that when I left the States. It’s hard to build up a career again. Work is something else, but a career is a living thing and when you break it, that’s it.
Did you and Jane Bowles ever collaborate?
On a few songs. Words and music. Any other sort of collaboration would have been unthinkable. Collaborative works of fiction are rare, and they’re generally parlor tricks, like Karezza of George Sand and who was it: Alfred de Musset?
How did she feel about herself as an artist—about her work?
She liked it. She enjoyed it. She used to read it and laugh shamefacedly. But she’d never change a word in order to make it more easily understood. She was very, very stubborn about phrasing things the way she wanted them phrased. Sometimes understanding would really be difficult and I’d suggest a change to make it simpler. She’d say, “No. It can’t be done that way.” She wouldn’t budge an inch from saying something the way she felt the character would say it.
What was her objective in writing?
Well, she was always trying to get at people’s hidden motivations. She was interested in people, not in the writing. I don’t think she was at all conscious of trying to create any particular style. She was only interested in the things she was writing about: the complicated juxtapositions of motivations in neurotic people’s heads. That was what fascinated her.
Was she “neurotic”?
Oh, probably. If one’s interested in neuroses, generally one has some sympathetic vibration.
Was she self-destructive?
I don’t think she meant to be, no. I think she overestimated her physical strength. She was always saying, “I’m as strong as an ox,” or “I’m made of iron.” That sort of thing.
Considering how independently the two of you lived your lives, your marriage couldn’t really be described as being “conventional.” Was this lack of “conventionalism” the result of planning, or did it just work out that way?
We never thought in those terms. We played everything by ear. Each one did what he pleased—went out, came back—although I must say that I tried to get her in early. She liked going out much more than I did, and I never stopped her. She had a perfect right to go to any party she wanted. Sometimes we had recriminations when she drank too much, but the idea of sitting down and discussing what constitutes a conventional or an unconventional marriage would have been unthinkable.
She has been quoted as saying, “From the first day, Morocco seemed more dreamlike than real. I felt cut off from what I knew. In the twenty years I’ve lived here, I’ve written two short stories and nothing else. It’s good for Paul, but not for me.” All things considered, do you think that’s an accurate representation of her feelings?
But you speak of feelings as though they were monolithic, as though they never shifted and altered through the years. I know Jane expressed the idea frequently toward the end of her life, when she was bedridden and regretted not being within reach of her friends. Most of them lived in New York, of course. But for the first decade she loved Morocco as much as I did.
Did you live with her here in this apartment?
No. Her initial stroke was in 1957, while I was in Kenya. When I got back to Morocco about two months later, I heard about it in Casablanca. I came here and found her quite well. We took two apartments in this building. From then on, she was very ill, and we spent our time rushing from one hospital to another, in London and New York. During the early sixties she was somewhat better, but then she began to suffer from nervous depression. She spent most of the last seven years of her life in hospitals. But she was an invalid for sixteen years.
That’s a long time to be an invalid.
Yes. It was terrible.
From Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books. English translation by R.J. Hollingdale. NYRB.
William F. Buckley
William S. Burroughs
John Clellon Holmes
“On the Return of the Dead”
The reason the Dead do not return nowadays is the boredom of it.
In the old time they would come casually, as suited them, without fuss and thinly, as it were, which is their nature; but when such visits were doubted even by those who received them and when new and false names were given them the Dead did not find it worth while. It was always a trouble; they did it really more for our sakes than for theirs and they would be recognised or stay where they were.
I am not certain that they might not have changed with the times and come frankly and positively, as some urged them to do, had it not been for Rabelais’ failure towards the end of the Boer war. Rabelais (it will be remembered) appeared in London at the very beginning of the season in 1902. Everybody knows one part of the story or another, but if I put down the gist of it here I shall be of service, for very few people have got it quite right all through, and yet that story alone can explain why one cannot get the dead to come back at all now even in the old doubtful way they did in the ’80’s and early ’90’s of the last century.
There is a place in heaven where a group of writers have put up a colonnade on a little hill looking south over the plains. There are thrones there with the names of the owners on them. It is a sort of Club.
Rabelais was quarrelling with some fool who had missed fire with a medium and was saying that the modern world wanted positive unmistakable appearances: he said he ought to know, because he had begun the modern world. Lucian said it would fail just as much as any other way; Rabelais hotly said it wouldn’t. He said he would come to London and lecture at the London School of Economics and establish a good solid objective relationship between the two worlds. Lucian said it would end badly. Rabelais, who had been drinking, lost his temper and did at once what he had only been boasting he would do. He materialised at some expense, and he announced his lecture. Then the trouble began, and I am honestly of opinion that if we had treated the experiment more decently we should not have this recent reluctance on the part of the Dead to pay us reasonable attention.
In the first place, when it was announced that Rabelais had returned to life and was about to deliver a lecture at the London School of Economics, Mrs. Whirtle, who was a learned woman, with a well-deserved reputation in the field of objective psychology, called it a rumour and discredited it (in a public lecture) on these three grounds:
(a) That Rabelais being dead so long ago would not come back to life now.
(b) That even if he did come back to life it was quite out of his habit to give lectures.
(c) That even if he had come back to life and did mean to lecture, he would never lecture at the London School of Economics, which was engaged upon matters principally formulated since Rabelais’ day and with which, moreover, Rabelais’ “essentially synthetical” mind would find a difficulty in grappling. Continue reading “The reason the Dead do not return nowadays is the boredom of it | “On the Return of the Dead,” Hilaire Belloc”
From a 1966 interview between Vladimir Nabokov and Alfred Appel, Jr., originally published in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature and reprinted in Strong Opinions.
RIP the great James Tate (1943-2015).
At 3:AM Magazine, Tristan Foster has interviewed Gerald Murnane. The interview is wonderfully prickly: “The question arouses a mild resentfulness in me,” Murnane replies at one point, before claiming a few lines later that “My sentences are the best-shaped of any sentences written by any writer of fiction in the English language during my lifetime.” A clip:
3:AM: I hesitate to ask you about your place in Australian literature both because it’s a discussion of categories and because you have directly or indirectly credited your influences as being almost wholly outside of it: Marcel Proust and Emily Brontë and Henry James. That said, I do feel somewhat obliged – you are Australian, you have never lived anywhere else and your writing is published into this country’s book market. Is your place in Australian literature something you think about?
GM: Flemington racecourse has a straight-six track. Certain races are run there over a straight course of twelve hundred metres, or six furlongs as we once called it. Sometimes, if the field is large, a group of horses will follow the inside rail while another group follows the outer rail, perhaps thirty metres away. Each group, of course, has its own leaders and pursuers and tail-enders. Sometimes, the outside group numbers only a few while the inside group comprises most of the field. The watchers in the grandstands, near the winning-post, are often unable to tell which group is in front of the other. The watchers are almost head-on to the field, and only when the leaders reach the last few hundred metres can they, the watchers, line up the two different groups, as the expression has it. If I try to compare myself with my contemporaries, I usually see us all as a field of horses coming down the straight-six course at Flemington. Most of us are over on the rails. I’m on my own coming down the outside fence. At different times, one or another of the bunch on the rails shows out far ahead of the others. Being on my own, I can’t be compared with any nearby rival, but I seem to be going well. Do I explain myself? In thirty years from now, we may know the finishing order. By that time, my archives may have become available to the public – a whole new body of my writing to be taken account of.
It was as though, in some odd quantum stroke, Hemingway died one day and Pynchon was born the next. One literature bends into another. Pynchon has made American writing a broader and stronger force. He found whispers and apparitions at the edge of modern awareness but did not lessen our sense of the physicality of American prose, the shotgun vigor, the street humor, the body fluids, the put-on.
I was writing ads for Sears truck tires when a friend gave me a copy of V. in paperback. I read it and thought, Where did this come from?
The scale of his work, large in geography and unafraid of major subjects, helped us locate our fiction not only in small anonymous corners, human and ever-essential, but out there as well, in the sprawl of high imagination and collective dreams.
Don DeLillo on Thomas Pynchon. From the Summer 2005 issue of Bookforum.