It was June 1952 when a duo of young interviewers visited the elegant office of the then established British writer EM Forster at King’s College, Cambridge. They recorded the Edwardian-style furniture, the pictures on the walls, and the “solicitous but firm” tone of the author of Passage to India, and they engaged in an extensive talk in which, based on questions about technical aspects of their writing, they followed different paths. Forster himself had stopped the public reading of one of his unfinished works the previous year in its tracks, claiming that it was more interesting for him to expose the problems that this text posed and why he could not solve them. The idea of asking him directly and reproducing everything in writing was, at that time, something quite eccentric and, why deny it, it would also be today.
The truth is that that conversation was the first interview for the first issue of 1953 of a literary magazine, with an unlikely future, that had been assembled by a group of twenty-somethings Americans, graduated from Harvard and Yale, ready to taste the bohemian and fun of Paris of postwar period. They were not the lost generation, but they came ready to put on the shoes of those Americans who had made Paris a party. The atmosphere of the Cold War seeped into a literary culture of the 1950s dominated by publications such as Partisan Review O Poetry, with a heavy critical body and a lot of politics. “They did not consider you serious if you were not politically engaged ”, one of the founders, John Train, recounted sarcastically years later.
But this group, which Irwin Shaw referred to as the tall young men (the tall youth), resisted such a slab and declared in that issue in 1953 that its publication was intended to relegate criticism. “I think that The Paris Review it should welcome these people into its pages: good writers and good poets, those who do not go with the flow and do not wield the ax. As long as they are good, “wrote William Styron in the statement of intent that opened the magazine. Installed on the Rive Gauche and helped by the conservative French magazine The round table, they soon found a publisher solvent – Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan – and helpers began to circulate, such as Jane Fonda herself.
An eagle with its claws hooked to a feather and wearing a Phrygian cap like that of the French revolutionaries was the emblem of that publication that in its fifth issue produced an unpublished story by Samuel Beckett, and in the 20th it published the first story ever printed. of an unknown Philip Roth. “They had talent, money and taste. They avoided using those magazine buzzwords like Zeitgeist, and they did not publish irascible criticisms of Melville or Kafka, “wrote Gay Talese in an article dedicated to the founders of The Paris Review in the sixties. But beyond the undeniable good eye that the mythical director George Plimpton, the fiction editor Peter Matthiessen, the poetry editor Donald Hall and the art editor William Pène du Bois proved to have to publish texts by brilliant authors from the beginning and discover new voices, It is no exaggeration to say that his greatest contribution to the history of literature (and journalism) is due to having raised the genre of the interview to an almost legendary status. Those of The Paris Review They seem to have helped train more than one author, or at least have given them encouragement in their low hours by reading, for example, that even the Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll procrastinated: “I tidy up the desk and put it back in order, I take a walk , I organize my library, I have tea or coffee with my wife, I smoke like a cart driver, I am distracted by anything – a visit, a call, the radio – and, in the end, at the last moment, I am forced to start, like someone who arrives late to the station and jumps onto a moving train ”. These talks say: a writer is this. And the legend of these interviews has also led them to be invented in the fiction of David Foster Wallace and Miguel Siyuco, among others.
There was a practical and a more idealistic reason for the decision to publish extensive talks with famous writers. The interview was the only way to get prestigious names in a newborn magazine for free. But, in addition, as Plimpton explained to his mother in a letter, this question-answer exchange was conceived as a kind of “essay text in the form of a dialogue on technique.” Hence the general title of these conversations: The art of fiction. Continued The art of poetry in 1959 with TS Eliot, The art of theater, of the biography, the translation, the edition or the script. The spectrum has been broadening.
Only five years after the publication was born, the first anthology of those interviews was published. There were so many that those by Graham Greene or Isak Dinesen were left out of that volume, which has been followed by many others, becoming these titles a source of funding, prestige and publicity for the magazine, and setting the canon. Since the eighties there have been some editions in Spain, but never until now one as wide as the one that Acantilado presents, with 100 talks in two volumes, ranging from the first interview with EM Forster in 1953 to that of Roberto Calasso in 2014. The selection has been carried out by the editor Sandra Ollo and the project has been developed over eight years.
Like the good classics, these long conversations don’t sound stale or stagnant in time. Graham Greene bluntly states: “I write as I write because I am who I am,” and “spending too much time in the company of other writers is practically a form of onanism.” Ralph Ellison, the first African American interviewed, in 1953, seems to speak today when he says: “I do not establish a dichotomy between art and protest.” The poet Elizabeth Bishop maintains that “nothing is as shameful as being a poet, seriously”, and Hemingway starts his now mythical talk with Plimpton in a cafeteria in Madrid in 1954 saying that in a horse racing program “you have the true art of fiction ”. And, anticipating this era of mass distraction by several decades, says the author of Fiesta: “What is lethal for work is the telephone and visits.” Primo Levi, Kundera, Nadine Gordimer, Céline, Nabokov… The list is immense and shows a more intense international commitment than the one that the American publishing scene has maintained.
The interviews of The Paris Review they were always planned as a collaborative process. In them confrontation is not sought. More than a face to face is an elbow to elbow. It is about making it easier for the writer to show himself and explain who he is and how he does what he does. “They are largely self-portraits,” wrote Philip Gourevitch, who succeeded the historic Plimpton in 2005 after his death.
Those twentysomethings of America in 1950s Paris invented an interview pattern and, as Margaret Atwood has written, it produced “a hunger like that of the butterfly collector: all prominent writers should be brought into their network.” At the beginning, when tape recorders were scarce, the interviewers went two by two, and even today there are some meetings in which several interlocutors participate. There are usually several appointments that last a minimum of three hours at a time, and sometimes they are spaced by months in between or even from year to year. The recordings are transcribed and a rough draft is built from that rough (it goes, for example, from 40,000 words to 8,000) that the writer reviews, rewrites and corrects as much as he wants. Thus begins a round trip process that can take a long time. There are always several interviews going on. That of Terry Southern — satirical writer, member of the gang of Americans in Paris and who worked on Easy Rider– started in the sixties and was finally published when he had already died, almost 40 years later. Emily Nemens, the current director, responds, by email, that this format allows the writers to emphasize their message: “That collaboration generates a magic that does not have a semblance.”
Plimpton put it this way: “The best interviews not only reveal something about the personality of the writer, but they contain a surprise or two, and maybe even a plot.” They are a particular subgenre. “There was never a special interest in preserving spontaneity, the interviews were always intended to be read as a literary artifact,” explains Lorin Stein, director of the publication until 2017. “The secret is that, by passing control to the subject , it always ends up revealing itself ”.
There is no list of topics that should be treated, but how the author writes his books is always addressed and it is about taking a journey through his career; there is never a topical hanger. It is sought, yes, that there is a chemistry between the interviewer and the interviewee, that is why it is about finding not only the right moment, but also the person. The acolyte-hero duo repeats itself frequently, Stein notes, and mentions the interview with Robert Lowell by a young Frederick Seidel, a great admirer of his work. After a whole day together it turned out that the tape recorder hadn’t worked. Seidel wrote down everything he remembered and handed that transcript to Lowell, who was fine with it and they moved on. More complicated was the case of Patrick O’Brian, whose secret was discovered several years after the interview with The Paris Review. His real name was Richard Patrick Russ and he had worked as a spy before ending up in France with his second wife.
The mysteries surrounding these conversations with writers are many. In his inauguration of the tradition, EM Forster explained how a real person is transformed into a fictional character: “A useful trick is to look at that person with narrowed eyes, focusing exclusively on some of their features.” The magic of the interview may also be there.
Andrea Aguilar, editor of EL PAÍS, interviewed Lydia Davis for number 212 of ‘The Paris Review’ (spring 2015).
‘The Paris Review’. Interviews (1953-2012)
Translation by María Belmonte, Javier Calvo, Gonzalo Fernández Gómez and Francisco López Martín. Cliff, 2020. 2,832 pages. It is published on December 2. 85 euros.
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