Wednesday, November 29, 2006
LA, Merrill, NBA, and yours truly
Merrill, one of the oddest and most supernaturally fluent poets of the last century, makes no great claims for his prose. In fact it strikes him as a medium of painful (if practical) redundancy: the same thing over and over, not unlike the boxcar alternation of coffeeshops, pharmacies, and dry cleaners in Marina del Rey. Yet prose, like death and taxes, is always with us. As Merrill says:
There are after all things to be said for prose. I still read it, often with more profit than I do poetry. I go on using it for letters, conversation, the recording of dreams, and so forth. It is not that much harder to write than verse, or (as a seventeen-thousand-line poem goes to show) that much less concise. Yet I persist in seeing it as a mildly nightmarish medium, to which there is no end: coterminous with one's very life, and only at rare and irregular intervals affording that least pause in flight whereby a given line of poetry creates the desire for another, and renews through all-but-whimsical closure the musical attack.Of course his tongue is firmly in cheek. This reluctant dabbler in a nightmarish medium produced the nearly 700 pages of prose collected in this sumptuous volume. The all-but-whimsical note is struck early and often. But it's irresistible stuff for the most part, including the complete text of Merrill's 1993 memoir A Different Person. It was there that I came across his comments about translating Montale's "Nuove Stanze," a youthful effort that nearly drove the memoirist around the bend. Merrill is wonderfully frank about the inherent confusion of translation. The signal-to-noise ratio isn't such a problem when you're translating, say, the operating instructions for a lawn mower. But all poets traffic in ambiguity. And a poet like Montale--a Hermeticist in spite of himself, even when he was flagrantly kicking Hitler down the stairs in "Primavera hitleriana"--is more ambiguous than most. Here's Merrill, tearing his hair out:
Montale was clearly taking pains not to say all he knew, and to say what he did know with such mysterious force that any reader except for that ideal tu--the woman pondering the chessboard--would have an awed sense of eavesdropping upon a prayer. A wraith of tightly knit logic--a syntax to be followed at your own risk, for the thread might snap at any turning--marked even the least of Montale's poems, any one of which called for as much constructive guesswork as did an ode by Horace... For me it was the ladles and love letters, the furniture and pets, those blessedly ordinary nouns embedded like votive prayers in its walls, that drew a reader ever deeper into the labyrinth. Their translator had to go a step further and pretend to know what dwelt at its heart.Notice he says pretend: bold, and also honest. And notice that Merrill's own prose has at least some of the labyrinthine quality he attributes to Montale. The playfulness, wrought-iron elegance, and sweet tooth for metaphor all point to the usual suspect: Proust. Yet this frilliness is intolerable to some readers. Back in 1986, when the National Book Critics Circle used to publish its deliberations, one judge compared Merrill's prose to "knitting doilies." Presumably that year's winner (Joseph Brodsky's eminently deserving Less Than One) had a more manly vibe to it. In any case, these are the sort of comments that might best stay behind closed doors.
Which brings us to Marianne Wiggins's recent piece on judging the National Book Awards. Wiggins makes no bones about about the logrolling and special pleading that factor into any such competition. Yet I was disconcerted to learn that although four out of the five judges found Mark Danielewski's Only Revolutions unfathomable (I believe that means unreadable), they chose it as a finalist to placate the single diehard Danielewskiite on the panel. Even worse, they deep-sixed at least one superb novel, Peter Behrens's The Law of Dreams, in the name of diversity. I don't know who should feel worse: Behrens, taking the hit for white males everywhere, or Dana Spiotta, added to the slate simply because she was a bonafide female. In the end Richard Powers, who Wiggins calls her "hair-on-fire favorite," walked off with the prize. Guys rule! (For more discussion of Wiggins and her wagging tongue, see the excellent NBCC blog.)
Finally, here's a piece from Booklist about my novel, The Only News I Know. Molly McQuade did an excellent job of capturing my (apparently) insane level of diffidence--I sound like a walking, talking marshmallow--and even found room for a cameo shot of Al. Now all I need to do is revise the damn manuscript. And take some sort of assertiveness workshop at the Learning Annex.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
Two bits: Behrens, Powers
One additional note. Not so many moons ago, Steven Zeitchik was a literary journalist and mainstay at Publishers Weekly. In August 2005, however, he decamped for Variety. Since I don't dip into the film-industry bible with any regularity, I hadn't been following his work too closely. But when Richard Powers bagged the National Book Award last week, I came across Zeitchik's coverage and was tickled to find it written in the classic hix-nix-flix-in-stix argot: "Scribe Richard Powers won the fiction prize at lit kudofest the National Book Awards in Gotham Wednesday night, stealing the thunder from Judith Regan... Maverick publisher--and controversial O.J. interrogator--Regan threatened to shake up the normally staid kudos after receiving an unexpected nom. But prize went to Powers, who has built a literary career on a wide range of genres and styles, penning crix favorites Gain and Galatea 2.0." It would be churlish for crix to object, I think. Kudos to you, Steve!
Monday, November 20, 2006
All you need is Love?
Although the Beatles have historically refused such licensing opportunities--no car commercials or deodorant jingles for the Fab Four!--McCartney and Starr agreed. They then coaxed George Martin out of retirement to do the job. No doubt the heroic producer, whose hearing began to fail him several years ago, couldn't resist one more lap around the track with his greatest discovery; perhaps he also wished to erase the memory of his earlier curtain call, the celebrity-strewn embarrassment of In My Life. In any case, Martin spent many months clambering up and down the Everest of modern pop music that is the Beatles' output . Some songs he would simply remix and remaster. Others he would reconfigure into mash-ups--and to make these musical vivisections work, Martin and his son Giles combed through the catalogue for stuff in related keys and with compatible tempos. The result, with a glitzy cover that the stylish Fabs would never have endorsed, is hitting the stores as I speak. Am I going to buy it?
Hold on, I’ll get to that. First I'll address the improved sonics, which are glaring even in a compressed format like MP3. The original CD transfers, which date back to the digital Stone Age (i.e., 1987), are famously rotten--leave it to EMI to treat their crown jewels like paste diamonds. But I just listened to both mixes of "All You Need Is Love" back-to-back, and the comparison is devastating. Never again will I cue up the version on the Magical Mystery Tour CD, with its watery opening chorus stuffed into the left channel and feeble drum sound. In a case like this, Love has made its predecessors instantly obsolete.
The Martins have worked similar magic with the murky "I Am The Walrus" and with their pellucid take on "Something," whose strings are now luxuriously audible down to the last, pinging pizzicato. In some cases, of course, there’s not much room for a sonic upgrade. The various elements of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," committed to four-track tape on a single October afternoon in 1963, then mixed down to mono and crude stereo the following Monday, can no longer be effectively disentangled. The producers content themselves with inserting the hysterical white noise of a screaming audience (which I could have lived without). "Help," too, sounds much like the original recording. But I was surprised to discover that I prefer the version of "Hey Jude" on Past Masters, Volume 2. On the older disc, McCartney’s vocal has a startling immediacy; here the producers have opted for a more recessive sound, and muffled the distinctive jangling piano. The result is more anthemic but less intimate--a definite loss.
Things get more problematic, though, when pere et fil begin to diverge from the original recordings. I don't mind George and Giles stripping the instrumental track off "Because"--the a cappella version already appeared on Anthology 3, not to mention a host of earlier bootlegs. True, the producers inserted longer pauses between the phrases, but that too seems like a forgivable dramatic device. And some of the mash-ups make perfect thematic sense. Who wouldn't want to mate "Strawberry Fields Forever" with "Penny Lane"--two brilliant samples of childhood reverie, the one wistful and increasingly dark, the other shining with psychedelic clarity? And why not match up the droning exoticism of "Tomorrow Never Knows" with George Harrison's more reverent homage to his Indian sources, "Within You Without You"? Even the best of these hybrids will never overshadow the originals--but then again, they're not meant to. Not even Danger Mouse imagined knocking the Fab Four out of the ring. The idea is to make hear us familiar sounds with at least a fraction of the explosive newness they once conveyed. That's no mean feat.
In fact, based on some of the dodgier segments of Love, it’s horribly difficult. Which is another way of saying that I find many of the mash-ups on this disc plodding and pedestrian. The first time you hear them, you're busy tabulating all the beloved bits and bobs: just the fade-out to "Strawberry Fields" includes the French horn licks from "Sgt. Pepper," George Martin's sped-up piano from "In My Life," vocal accents and the Baroque trumpet solo from "Penny Lane," harpsichord and cello from "Piggies," and the final, rollicking chorus from "Hello Goodbye." But after repeated listenings, these combinational pleasures start to pall: it's a little like doing a jigsaw puzzle for the fifth time. Yes, the crunchy horn section from "Savoy Truffle" fits very nicely atop "Drive My Car," as does Macca's ferocious guitar solo from "Taxman"--but right around the time Martin stirs the verse from "What You’re Doing" into the pot, a terrible whiff of gimmickry begins to waft from the invisible, laser-etched grooves of Love. The Beatles could be campy, lazy, self-indulgent, but they were seldom corny. These mash-ups often are.
So, alas, are the sound effects, which tend toward wooden literalism. When Lennon mentions "Henry the horse" in "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite," we hear a faint whinnying in the background. Worse: at the end of "Julia," that delicate marvel of death and transfiguration, we hear an ambulance siren, clearly alluding to the car accident that killed Lennon's mother in 1958. The Fabs, of course, adored sound effects. God knows how many hours were consumed adding that menagerie of barks, howls, and hoof beats to "Good Morning, Good Morning." What's getting killed here, however, is the metaphoric richness of the song. You might as well insert a whirring pepper mill into "Sgt. Pepper," or a ringing cash register into "Baby You’re a Rich Man." In the olden days, at least, these boners would have been buried in the mix. Now you can hear them with dismaying clarity.
Ah, back to that mix. Love is being released not only on conventional CD but in DVD 5.1 format--configured, that is, for a six-channel audio system. Since I have only two speakers (three, technically, if you count the busted one I’ve been too cheap to repair), I won’t be getting the full Sensurround effect. I do find a certain irony in this, since the Beatles dwelled in a monophonic universe for much of their career. As late as 1967, when Geoff Emerick was mixing down the jam-packed tracks of Sgt. Pepper, he and the boys were still monitoring the results through a single speaker. In his recent memoir, Here, There and Everywhere, Emerick practically warns his readers away from the two-channel product: "True Beatles fans would do well to avail themselves of the mono versions of Sgt. Pepper and Revolver because far more time and effort went into those mixes than the stereo mixes."
What true Beatles fans will get, however, is the spatial opulence of DVD 5.1, which is now being touted as the manifest destiny of recorded music. That may or may not be the case. There are philosophical arguments to be made on both sides, some of them fairly vituperative, as to whether music is best enjoyed seated at the epicenter of an six-channel audio Orgasmatron. Me, I’m happy to have all the options: vinyl, CD, and DVD, mono and stereo, the canonical releases and the ocean of outtakes and alternates available on bootlegs. But there’s no question that EMI will eventually release the entire Beatles catalogue in DVD 5.1, simply because there’s so much money to be made. And I would guess that when every last song has been remixed and remastered and dumped into the marketplace, Love will end up in the novelty bin, having been rendered as obsolete as my pathetic Magical Mystery Tour disc.
In the meantime, it will sell by the truckload. A review like this--no, a hundred reviews like this--will stop nobody from snatching the disc off the shelves. And despite the strictly illegal MP3s I already downloaded, and all the bitching I just did, and my fussbudget reservations about listening to "Hold Me Tight" on an over-the-top home theater system, it probably won’t stop me either. The word, like it or not, is Love. I better go order my copy.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
Richard Powers: I had studied physics as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois in Urbana. At some point, though, I realized that I would have to close as many doors in that discipline as in any other. So I took a master's degree in English literature, thinking that this was the last domain of the generalists. But fairly quickly I discovered that the professionalization of that field also made it impossible to keep the aerial view.
James Marcus: So you didn't go for a doctorate?
Powers: No. After leaving school, I moved to Boston and worked as a computer programmer and was pretty much reading in a random, pleasure-driven way. I did that for the better part of a year.
Marcus: What led you to begin Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance?
Powers: I was living in the Fens just behind the Fine Arts Museum, and would head in there every Saturday morning when you could go for free. One day they were having this retrospective of August Sander, a German photographer who was completely unknown to me--this was his first North American exhibition, I think. And I have a visceral memory of walking around the corner into this room and seeing that photograph. It really was an uncanny feeling. I felt as if that gaze had been positioned there for 70 years and I was just now coming into contact with it. And when I read the caption--"Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, Westerwald, 1914"--the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I realized they weren't on their way to the dance that they thought they were on their way to. Anyway, that was a Saturday. On Monday I gave my two weeks' notice.
Marcus: So it was this particular artifact that really set the book in motion?
Powers: Yeah. And as I looked at that artifact, or very shortly afterwards, I realized that everything I'd been reading at random for the last year and a half really converged around a single moment--the birth moment of the 20th century. The age of mechanical reproduction, the age of mass warfare, the age of the interdependence of the viewer and the viewed. My random walk through all the books I couldn't read while I was in graduate school really did cohere and coalesce.
Marcus: After this breakthrough, how long did it take you to write the book?
Powers: Just about two years. I kept ends together by freelancing--back then a little bit of programming skill went a long way. You could do a six-week job and build up the war chest for a while.
Marcus: Following the publication of Three Farmers, you were living abroad, weren't you?
Powers: That's right. I wrote a first draft of Prisoner's Dilemma and then moved to the Netherlands, where I finished it. Then I began work on Gold Bug. I spent almost six years there.
Marcus: Did you ever consider staying there, or did you know it was a temporary expatriation?
Powers: I never know anything. It's tough to figure out what's going on next week.
Marcus: For this week, anyway, you're living in New York City. Do you find that a congenial place?
Powers: It's been terrific. Very productive--a nice mix of isolation and connection.
Marcus: Your publisher made it clear that you wouldn't be signing books on this tour--or at all, for that matter. Is this a philosophical objection to books as commodities?
Powers: I suppose it is. In some sense all my books are concerned with recovering human meaning and human value from the commodity. But Three Farmers in particular revolved around a search for an original photograph--an authorized version. And having concluded that the authorized version of the 20th century is the one you authorize--by engagement with the story--I felt that it would be hypocritical to turn around and do limited, author-signed editions. That was the original impetus, and I've been foolishly consistent with it ever since.
Marcus: All of your books present a fairly jaundiced view of the 20th century. In Three Farmers, for example, World War I seems to mark the beginning of a disastrous era. In Gain, a reader might reasonably conclude that the invention of the steam engine sent us straight to hell. But was there a prelapsarian moment? Are the good old days pure mythology?
Powers: I do think that changes in technology sufficiently alter the material conditions of existence. Meaning that they also alter whatever state of mind we develop to survive the conditions of material existence. That's not to say that displacement, bafflement, and alienation, haven't always existed. Look at Ecclesiastes, right? But I don't think the books are jaundiced in the sense of denying any kind of emotional repertoire for responding to technology. In fact, one of the things that compels me about fiction is the attempt to open up a new dialogue with the terms of our existence. That strikes me as the opposite of jaundiced, really.
Marcus: I wasn't suggesting that your books were Luddite tracts! What's more, your evident fascination with computers or genetics or economics becomes quite contagious. You make technology a reader-friendly subject.
Powers: My sense of technology is that it's not separable from those of us who create, receive, and consume. And just as the current business crisis has been brought about by externalizing the costs--by sweeping the consequences and debits under the rug--the crisis of contemporary sensibility is the result of externalizing the process of technology. Somehow we want to exonerate ourselves from the world we are making. We want to blame other people with nefarious purposes. I think it's more accurate and honest to say that the processes that we've set in motion are us.
Marcus: In Gain you refer to "our culture of permanent adolescence." Is this a specifically American sort of adolescence?
Powers: However widespread it may be, we've certainly elevated it to a real art form. It's hard to think of anybody who's got a really big balance-of-trade advantage over us when it comes to cyclic consumer churning.
Marcus: You've interspersed commercial handbills and flyers from the fictional Clare Soap and Chemical Corporation throughout Gain. Was that part of your initial design?
Powers: Yes, that came fairly early on. I envisioned this book as dialogue between two individuals. One is the literal individual: Laura, a 42-year-old woman who's just minding her own business and trying to live the good life. The other is a limited liability corporation.
Marcus: Which is a peculiar sort of individual.
Powers: Exactly. In fact, John Marshall used the word fiction in that famous 1819 Supreme Court decision, Dartmouth v. Woodward. He wrote that "the corporation is a fictional entity." The thing is, a fictional entity like Clare Soap and Chemical is ultimately operating beyond any individual's ability to understand or control it. Yet this 180-year-old individual is in a constant dialogue with this woman, and she with it, even though they can scarcely conceive of each other. It was easy to develop a voice and a life for Laura, and a series of dramatic confrontations through which her plight becomes known to her and to the reader. But early on I realized that in order to bring this company to life, I was going to have to get into that rhetoric that corporations use to perpetuate themselves.
Marcus: There's a wonderful moment in the book when the brothers Clare are agonizing over whether to incorporate. In exchange for losing absolute control over the company, they'll be granting eternal life to the creature that is Clare. It's a kind of Faustian bargain, isn't it?
Powers: It's a strange Faustian bargain--and it's our principal one. When I was doing all the research on this, I made an interesting discovery, which is that corporations were deeply suspected, even by businessmen, in the early 19th century. They believed that people who couldn't run a business by themselves didn't deserve special dispensations.
Marcus: Along with being a history of corporate America, Gain struck me as an enormous meditation on transubstantiation--commercial, chemical, psychological, and so forth. In each case, there's something mysterious about how one thing changes into another.
Powers: I haven't heard a better formulation of what's at stake. You know, all commerce and industry is basically about this weird notion of taking something without value and turning it into something valuable. And "transubstantiation" links up to the religious, meaning mysterious, sense of that equation. There's a paradox in trade. You have widgets and I have gizmos, we make this swap, and somehow we both end up richer! The same thing is true of manufacture. Again, it's not a zero-sum game. I take a pound of fat, I make two pounds of soap with it. I take a pound of soap and trade it back for another pound of fat--and now I've got a pound left over to sell to somebody else. The mystery of profit is actually quite profound.
Marcus: Not to mention the mystery of cancer.
Powers: There is, as you say, something in the process of growth that passes all understanding. Yet I think Laura's illness gives her a kind of privileged position to look back and see what that mystery is--to see how deeply she has assimilated it into her life.
Marcus: At the end of the book, Laura's grown-up son creates a chunk of computer code that will transform just about anything: its "ambidextrous data structures looked out Janus-faced to mesh with both raw source and finished product." Several hundred pages earlier, the rudimentary chemistry of soap is described as a similarly Janus-faced operation. What are we to make of this symmetry?
Powers: I find that moment potentially quite chilling. The Janus-faced quality of the soap molecule, the Janus-faced quality of the protein-folding code--well, it's hard to tell whether the sins of the fathers are being recapitulated or redeemed! Are we creating the answer to the problems that we've set in motion, or are we compounding them? It's also the profound mystery of art, I guess. Are we mirroring the world or reducing it? The heart of the representation paradox is that the map isn't the place--but it can get us to the place, somehow, if we don't believe the map too much.
Marcus: Let me ask a question that applies not only to Gain but to all your books. Do your ideas--and these are very much novels of ideas--typically generate your narratives, or vice-versa?
Powers: It's been a little different with each project. What I'm really interested in doing is learning how to write a book where all of the processes that are available to the human organism are at work--the analytical side as well as the unmediated emotional engagement. There's some sense that these are inimical, and that you have to declare your mode and choose between them. But I don't think that's necessarily the case. I don't think that's the way that we live: we carry these things in consonance inside us. Consequently, I think that books have to evolve from two directions at once. There has to be that kind of top-down formulation where you know your theme and your research is driving outwards and accreting detail. At the same time, you have to work from the bottom up, providing a point of emotional identification for the reader. You have to flesh these characters out, and allow them to do things that are going to be surprising to you. The problem, of course, is that these two tunnels--the top-down tunnel and the bottom-up tunnel--are never going to meet on the first pass. So the act of writing is always the act of rewriting. The multiple revisions and edits give you the chance to align form and content at every level.
Marcus: Are there any contemporaries who seem particularly adept at getting those two tunnels to meet?
Powers: Sure. I mean, my fiction reading is slightly thwarted by the amount of research that I have to do to write the books. But in the time I do have to read my contemporaries, I'm constantly amazed at how vigorous and eclectic and far-ranging and adventuresome American fiction is right now. That happy confluence of a novel of ideas and a novel of character is actually being achieved by lots of people. Pynchon, for example, does it magnificently in Mason & Dixon, in a way that even the astonishments of his previous books didn't match. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there's somebody like Eric Kraft. He's writing deeply humorous and engaging and entertaining books, and yet they're all part of a big project, which is itself quite idea-driven and recursive. Between those poles, we have hundreds of writers. There's Maureen Howard and Bradford Morrow and Joanna Scott, to name just a few. And there are the folks I'm often compared to, like David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Franzen. All of them are linking ideas to character revelation, and doing it with the kind of success that would drive me to despair if there weren't so much pleasure in reading it.
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
O'Connor, Levon and Garth, Tosca
People are always complaining that the modern novelist has no hope and that the picture he paints of the world is unbearable. The only answer to this is that people without hope do not write novels. Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I'm always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it's very shocking to the system. If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won't survive the ordeal.I've still got my teeth and hair but can otherwise attest to the absolute rightness of this description. Meanwhile, on other fronts: there's a nice article about Levon Helm in the current issue of Paste, largely focusing on his resurrected vocal cords. Mark Guarino also notes that Helm is recording an album (am I showing my age?) of roots-oriented material for release in 2007. Sounds good to me:
The sound is pure mountain country, mostly ancient tunes Helm--who plays drums, mandolin and banjo on the record--first heard growing up in cotton-country Arkansas, including "Little Birds," a song he learned from his father that The Band played in its early touring days but never released. "We played around with that tune," he says, "but we never did get the right kind of a cut on it."I've got a cloudy (well, almost inaudible) bootleg of the Band performing "Little Birds" at their Fillmore West debut in 1969. I look forward to hearing the 66-year-old Helm pin this Appalachian chestnut to the canvas. I'm no less eager to hear Garth Hudson's impending Savoy release, which features this sui generis keyboard monster playing jazz. This won't, I trust, be your average, Bill-Evans-on-speed trio session: Hudson is too omniverous a stylist to phone in one more version of "April In Paris." Imagine a shotgun marriage between Art Tatum and Jerry Lee Lewis and you'll be on the right track. (You can read an excellent profile of Hudson here, and listen to a brief sample of his jazzier playing here, courtesy of Mark Dann Recording.)
Finally: we went to Tosca last night. José Cura was a ruggedly masculine and big-lunged Cavaradossi (Nina thought he looked good in tights), Andrea Gruber endowed the title role with a fine, flirtatious edge, and James Morris was evil. In the pit--which the Italians, I recently learned, call the golfo mistico--the orchestra sounded tremendous. A historical note: Puccini adapted the opera from Victorien Sardou's 1887 play of the same name. When the composer visited Sardou in 1899, the playwright was touching up his original script for a revival with Sarah Bernhardt, and apparently wished to play fast and loose with Roman geography. Puccini recalled (I'm quoting from David Hamilton's program note):
In sketching the panorama, he wanted the course of the Tiber to be seen passing between St. Peter's and the Castello [Sant'Angelo]! I told him that the flumen flows past on the other side, under the Castello. But he, as calm as a fish, said: "Oh, that's nothing!" A fine fellow, all life and fire and full of historical-topo-panoramical inexactitudes.I'm tempted to laugh at Puccini's lust for precision--who goes to the opera for verisimilitude?--but in fact I spent the entire third act wondering if the sun was rising on the correct side of the Castello. Let's see. That imposing fortress (and traditional hidey-hole for the Pope when the brigands came calling) faces south. So if you're standing on the parapet--from which Tosca will do her one-and-a-half gainer at the end--the sun would rise to the left. Hooray! Confirming these calculations on a map, I was suddenly grateful to the set designer for his or her historical-topo-panoramical exactitude.
Monday, November 06, 2006
Vidal times two
In an era when droves of American writers have deserted the novel for the cozier pleasures of the confessional--and when pouring your heart out, preferably on television, has become a national sport--Gore Vidal remains an unlikely memoirist. Long ago, he pronounced himself "the least autobiographical of novelists." And despite Vidal's deep affinity for Montaigne, who spent his final decades contemplating the face (and the soul) he saw daily in his shaving mirror, our greatest essayist has never had much of an appetite for introspection.You can read the rest here. In the meantime, here's something of a codicil: an interview I conducted with Vidal for Amazon.com in 1999. It's no longer accessible at Amazon--or anywhere else, for that matter--and I thought it was worth sharing. At the time we spoke, the author had just published The Golden Age, which wrapped up his (fictional) chronicle of American history, and we began by discussing his cameo appearance in that valedictory novel.
Instead, Vidal's fine-toothed and ferocious scrutiny has been directed outward, at the great arenas of public life, including politics, theater and the movies--"three worlds," he has noted, "where no one is ever on oath." No other writer has peered so intently under the hood of American society. None can match his uncanny gift for (as he wrote of Roman historian Suetonius in 1993) "telling us what we want to know." But the author invariably kept one subject under wraps: himself. All we got was a million or so words of unbeatable prose and that tantalizing Cheshire grin. It was only with the 1995 publication of Palimpsest: A Memoir that Vidal finally took the witness stand.
James Marcus: You've called yourself "the least autobiographical of novelists." Yet The Golden Age not only introduces you as a character but comes to a metafictional climax in your living room. What caused you to violate your cardinal rule?
Gore Vidal: Well, I am the least important character in the book. I have the smallest part, and make only three brief appearances.
JM: But what about the ending?
GV: At that point I enter as Author: as the creator of these imaginary characters and interpreter of their history. So it's really a device to come to terms with certain questions. What is history? Who are these people? What is life but energy, and what is energy going to do next? It's about metamorphosis, I suppose, and I guess I'm metamorphosing there as well. An autobiographical novelist, on the other hand, is somebody like Philip Roth, who writes only about himself, his marriages, his father, his operations, and the agony and joy of being the greatest living author.
JM: Although he loves to deny that he's writing about himself.
GV: Of course he does--because he's ever so subtle.
JM: Most of your previous "narratives of empire" relied upon prodigious amounts of research, but you were very much alive and kicking between 1939 and 1954. Did your role as a firsthand witness affect how you wrote The Golden Age?
GV: There's a prodigious amount of research in this book, too. Yet I did live through the period and knew many of the figures fairly well, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Alice Longworth. I have bits of information and shards of memory which are useful in constructing the characters. At the same time, you feel a little embarrassed speculating about what these people were up to when you saw them only as official people, old people, distant people.
JM: When Lincoln was published, you spent quite a while trading the scholarly equivalent of Minié balls with various historians. Have the other books provoked that sort of scholarly contention?
GV: Very little. After the Lincoln dustup, I think the historians are quite wary of me, because I hit back hard and catch them out. For example, I had Henry James complaining about the Spanish American War in one book--pointing out that although empire had been the making of the British, it would be the ruin of the Americans. A reviewer in the Washington Times denied that Henry James could ever have said such a thing. And of course I was quoting from one of his letters! That's the way I work.
JM: In your fiction, Washington, D.C., and Hollywood seem to be the twin capitals of the American imagination.
GV: I suppose they are the twin capitals. I first wrote about the subject in Hollywood, which is only a bit about the silent-movie days--it's mostly about politics. In order to get Americans in a warlike mood, Woodrow Wilson had sent a publicist named George Creel to make sure that anti-Hun propaganda films were made. Wilson himself appeared in a couple of them, explaining the great danger posed to us by the Kaiser. Now, I have my character Caroline Sanford wonder what it would be like to reverse the process--to have Hollywood influence the people at large, who would then influence Washington.
JM: And did that happen?
GV: Louis B. Mayer did it, however unconsciously, when he made the Andy Hardy series. Those films were hugely popular, and convinced the entire world that we were nothing but an animated Norman Rockwell painting. So Hollywood in the end did shape America's view of itself, and therefore its politics.
JM: That process may have reached its pinnacle with Ronald Reagan's election.
Vidal: Highly symbolic, yes. And he thought he was in a movie the entire time he was in Washington! He had no clear idea of what he was supposed to do, other than seem sincere.
JM: Speaking of which, you refer to FDR as "the master in the White House whose vast depths of benign insincerity could never be entirely plumbed by any mere mortal." Who finally wins the insincerity sweepstakes?
GV: I would say that insincerity is a presidential necessity. You can't be sincere about all the things you have to do and say in the course of a day. Jefferson was easily the most insincere--but I think he tricked himself, he would get into a certain mode of sententiousness and believe exactly what he was saying. That's a presidential trick.
Now, FDR was truly astonishing, in that he provoked the Japanese into attacking us so that we could then go to war against Hitler. That took a lot of planning. He was terrified that he might be impeached, which is why everything pertaining to the Pearl Harbor attack was deep-sixed until 1995--you couldn't get at it. But we had broken all of the Japanese naval codes, and knew exactly where their ships were. Of course our court historians have to pretend FDR knew nothing about it, which means ignoring all the evidence, which they do superbly well.
JM: And what about the current presidential contenders?
GV: Well, Gore's going to win. And of the two, he is after all prepared to be president--he's been trained, he's quite intelligent, and so forth. I don't see that he can do much of anything, but that's the system (as Clinton discovered when he tried to give us a national health service, something that every civilized country has and we will never have, thanks to the insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, and elements of the AMA). And Bush? Catastrophic. I mean, he shouldn't be allowed to run for office. It is plainly something so stupid that we've never seen its like before in a presidential election.
Look, America is run from the boardrooms, and I think we may just have to give up presidential elections. It was Richard Nixon who said that, domestically, this country doesn't need a president, that it runs itself. What he meant (and he was much misunderstood) was that the great corporations decide everything, including the economy. In his opinion the president was really only necessary for foreign affairs: he could start the odd war and have fun.
JM: It's a pity you haven't written a Nixonian novel. But generally speaking, your view of history seems very personality driven, which brings us to a question: Was FDR or Harry Truman or Woodrow Wilson truly making history, or riding on its coattails?
GV: That depends on whether you're a Carlyle man or a Hegelian. Carlyle believed in the Great Man theory of history, and Hegel believed in historic forces.
JM: Which are you?
GV: I'm both. I'm balanced. I appeal to another great thinker: Johann Gottfried Herder, the German 18th-century philosophe. He coined a word, einfühlen, for which there's no proper word in English. Empathy is about as close as you can come. But he was referring to the ability to get into the past, while realizing that it's not just another aspect of the present, with people that you know dressed up in funny clothes. It truly is another country, another world. And the capacity to feel your way into it, to give a sense of it, is a gift that requires einfühlen, and not many people have it.
JM: Obviously you do.
GVl: I believe so, otherwise I wouldn't have gone to the trouble of writing all those books. I do see that the past is not us, and that it's useful to know about. But it doesn't repeat itself. It's reachable, but there isn't much to be done with it, except gaze upon it and see how others managed things.
JM: But wouldn't you say the past is also there to be perpetually rearranged?
GV: Well, each generation does it in its own way, of course, and has its own obsessions. Figures come into fashion, go out of fashion, and in the United States of Amnesia, are generally forgotten altogether.
JM: In The Golden Age you call the United States "the brave pompous invention of the Enlightenment ... set in a wilderness forever dreaming itself Athens reborn, even as it crudely, doggedly, recreated Rome." This description seems to encapsulate your entire American chronicle. But which imperial period are we currently enjoying? Augustan? Or Neronic?
GV: We never had a proper republic such as the Romans did, not that they had much of a franchise. I would say that with the global empire on our hands, our imperial days are numbered. It's going to be too expensive to maintain all this. You know, 51 percent of the budget still goes for war, and the Pentagon has asked for another $60 billion a year for the next decade. That's what they should be talking about in this campaign, and that's the one thing that will never be mentioned. The military budget is sacred, along with the corporations that make those extraordinary weapons, like the bomber that can't fly in the rain.
JM: That would be a fair-weather weapon.
GV: Exactly. And while the candidates talk about debates and private life and little Lord Jesus and Moses, the presidency itself becomes increasingly irrelevant. At one point during the Gingrich coup d'état, Bill Clinton actually said, "The president is not irrelevant." Well, the very fact that it had crossed his mind meant that some serious seismic change had occurred in the land.
JM: Speaking of irrelevance, you've produced a witty and ironic and even semi-charismatic Herbert Hoover in The Golden Age. Were you just being contrarian?
GV: Wasn't that nice? All this country needs, he said, is a great poem. Hoover was a very interesting man, and much abler than people depicted him. Much of the New Deal he was already cooking up--public works and so forth. He was moving too slowly, though, and didn't realize the depth of the mess, and by the time he got cracking, Roosevelt was on the scene. He certainly hated Roosevelt.
JM: You have your own fictional stand-in poke fun at the idea of an American golden age. But is there any sense in which you take the title seriously? Was there a brief shining moment, or are we kidding ourselves?
GV: It's obviously ironic. But I do show the beginning of a golden age, which lasted from 1945 to 1950. Those were the only five years since Pearl Harbor that we haven't been at war. Until very recently, that is--and we're about to be at war again in Colombia, unless we already are and they haven't told us yet. Charles Beard had that great line: "Perpetual war for perpetual peace." That's American policy, and it's never ceased to be that way.
JM: But your golden age also had an artistic component, didn't it?
GV: Very much. That's why I introduce Tennessee Williams, Lenny Bernstein, Paul Bowles, Dawn Powell... and myself. For those five years, there was such an explosion in the arts! America, which had never even known about ballet, was suddenly No. 1 in the world, thanks to Tudor and Robbins and later Balanchine. No. 1 in the musical comedy, an art form we've now forgotten how to produce. We had A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman on Broadway at the same time. And people read novels! In 1948, the top book on the bestseller list was Orwell's 1984, followed by Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal. It was an extremely exciting time. And then Harry Truman replaced the republic with a national security state, which brought on the Korean War and loyalty oaths and the blacklist, and it died. It began, and then it went away.
JM: Did it die at Truman's hands in a deliberate manner, or was it the Zeitgeist?
GV: One can argue that the Zeitgeist created him, but I believe that it was very conscious stuff. Truman and Dean Acheson were two right-wing, rather limited men, who believed in force--and force had come their way with the atom bomb.
JM: Yet your portrait of Truman is itself quite complicated.
GV: That is ever my intention.
JM: Then you have succeeded again.
JM: One of your characters is writing an essay on "those political dynasties that had decorated or degraded the American republic from the splendid Adams family down to the merry Roosevelts." You, of course, very nearly participated in such a dynasty. At this point are you relieved or regretful that the voters of the 29th District thought otherwise?
GV: It was my decision not to go to Congress. I nearly won it in 1960--I ran 20,000 votes ahead of Jack Kennedy, who pulled down the whole ticket. There was a great anti-Catholic backlash in the district, which none of us were prepared for. But four years later, in 1964, the seat was mine if I wanted it. I had just finished Julian, however, and decided that I didn't want to go to Congress. Simple as that.
JM: Did you give the idea serious consideration?
GV: Oh, in 1960 I wanted to win.
JM: And in 1964?
GV: No. I'd got a place in Rome by then, Julian had come out, and I was a novelist once more. Also: you can't do both. A writer's job is to tell the truth as he sees it, and a politician must never give the game away. So you have two opposing forces in you, and you can't function that way.
JM: Can you think of a single example of somebody who's done both things decently?
GV: I can't. Clare Luce had her plays written for her. Winston Churchill was a windy self-promoter, writing stories about himself and his family. There have been very good writers who have been president, of course. Wilson was a very good writer, Roosevelt wasn't too bad, but again, it was all self-promotion.
JM: What about Lincoln as a stylist?
GV: Lincoln, I've always said, was probably the greatest American writer. And a close second was Ulysses S. Grant. But they're not creative writers.
JM: One last question. The past, according to one of your characters, is "the only place where you can get a good meal." Is there anything else to be said for it?
GV: Well, it's over with. We don't have to live through that again!