The Paris Review Interviews Reviewed

By Henry F. Tonn


The Paris Review Online Archives

It is well-known in literary circles that The Paris Review is one of the oldest and finest literary journals in America. It is particularly revered for its interviews with famous authors. Last year TPR acquired a new editor, and recently all of the interviews, harking back to 1953, have been placed online. This collection is an absolute treasure trove for writers and non-writers alike to get an inside peek at people who are, or may become, legends in their field. There are something like 450 interviews altogether, and I did not read them all, but I hope to make a few observations and perhaps inspire people to peruse this great trove themselves.

The Bad

Let’s get rid of the negative stuff first: the two worst interviews, hands down, are with Hemingway and Faulkner. Both writers are toward the end of their careers (Hemingway committed suicide two years later) and obviously are tired of interviewers asking the same old questions. Hemingway is blatantly annoyed and brusque and gives away very little, so much so that one wonders why TPR even bothered to print the interview. Faulkner is extremely defensive and protective of his personal life and focused on the “art” of writing, giving aggressive, almost dictatorial answers. Bitterness has set in for both authors, as exemplified in this statement by Faulkner:

Success is feminine and like a woman; if you cringe before her, she will override you. So the way to treat her is to show her the back of your hand. Then maybe she will do the crawling.

The Good

Conversely, Kurt Vonnegut and P. G. Wodehouse are absolutely delightful. Vonnegut, traditionally known as being something of a curmudgeon, is gregarious and entertaining. He discusses his experience as a prisoner of war in the Second World War and being in Dresden during the bombing, and how this inspired the creation of his best known book, Slaughterhouse Five. He chain smoked cigarettes throughout the interview and through most of his life, but lived to be eighty-five. P. G. Wodehouse, interviewed at the ripe old age of ninety-one, is gracious, positive, happy, and declares he has always been so. Even his criticisms (he did not particularly care for Somerset Maugham, for example) are couched in a positive manner. Many people still consider Wodehouse the true master of the English language.

S. J. Perelman is disappearing from public consciousness, but his famous wit was very much intact during his interview in 1963. He views Hollywood “as a dreary industrial town controlled by hoodlums of enormous wealth, the ethical sense of a pack of jackals, and taste so degraded that it befouled everything it touched.” And working in Hollywood is “no worse than playing piano in a whorehouse.” Another charmer is Francine du Plessix Gray, most famous for her erotic novel, Lovers and Tyrants. She opens her interview with both guns blazing when asked would she choose to be a writer again if she were given another life:

Hell no. Have you ever met a writer who’d want the same karma a second time round? I doubt if one exists. We write out of revenge against reality, to dream and enter the lives of others.

Spunky. As nearly as I can tell, she’s still alive and living in Connecticut. I’d love to have lunch with her.

So Much More

A few quickies: Tennessee Williams is very gossipy and catty. His friend, Truman Capote, once pronounced him not very bright but a great genius, and on this matter he was probably correct. Williams’s plays will be read and acted out long after most of these other luminaries are forgotten. William Buckley is gracious and thoughtful, demonstrating none of the condescension and hauteur he was famous—and infamous—for on television. James Dickey is contemptuous of Sylvia Plath’s suicide and lumps it under her determination to be “chic.” John Cheever says, “I’ve had very little drudgery in my life,” —this from a man who had alcohol, marital, and sexual problems for much of his career, and was considered an absolute wreck toward the end by his colleague, Raymond Carver. And Isak Dineson is an absolute delight, taking her interviewer all over Rome where she is on vacation. Curiously enough, they never once mention Out of Africa, the book she is best known for now. In those days, it was her short stories that had brought her fame. I would have enjoyed having coffee with her on one of those Roman outdoor patios.

I finish with Jorge Borges, perhaps most often mentioned along with Faulkner as an influence. A few notables detested Faulkner, but there is only reverence for Borges. During his interview he is warm, humorous, forthcoming, and profound. He switches effortlessly from philosophy to history to literature to culture. He discusses and quotes phrases in Latin, French, English, Spanish, and German. He does not have to impress his interviewer with erudition, he is the embodiment of it. It is a shame he did not live to be two hundred years old (instead of eighty-six) so he could continue to bless us with his gifts.

Read Jorge Borges, The Paris Review, and the interviews. The information you acquire can be carried for a lifetime.


Posted March 21, 2011