A Conversation with Wallace Markfield By John O’Brien

From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Spring 1982, Vol. 2.1

This interview was conducted in the spring of 1978 at Mr. Markfield’s home in Port Washington, New York.

JOB: Where do we begin?

WM: Ask the questions. If I don’t know the answers, my wife will. She’ll be home in a minute.

JOB: I saw “Annie Hall” a week ago and I was struck by the similarities between that movie and “You Could Live If They Let You,” which of course came out several years before “Annie Hall.” I suppose that this is just coincidence.

WM: Allen is a lifter, but not necessarily a plagiarist. He’s read everything, I imagine. I try to avoid thinking about such things. Every time I’ve published a novel, I’ve had a dream about Saul Bellow. I remember particularly the one before “Teitlebaum’s Window.” He was in my mother’s kitchen and my mother was paying him far more attention than she was me. Now I suspect that the rivalry is over.

JOB: Who’s won?

WM: Oh, he’s won. How do you compete with the Nobel Laureate? I don’t think that I especially care to compete with “Humboldt’s Gift.”

JOB: What kind of reception have you had from other Jewish writers?

WM: I’m not sure of the writers. But the critics from the Jewish establishment have been uniformly hostile.

JOB: Do you get hate postcards after a novel comes out?

WM: No, but I got one letter after “Teitlebaum” from someone in Israel that was very nasty. It seemed to be written by an American woman acutely and self-consciously Jewish. You come to me at a peculiar time. I’m absolutely fed up with chronicling the American-Jewish experience. I want to make a significant statement about America in the guise of a thriller.

JOB: Not comic?

WM: God help me, no. If it is, I’m lost. Psychologically it’s the worst thing I’ve faced. People that I’ve talked to about it wait for the punch line, but there is no punch line. Wherever I’ve thought I’ve seen my old shticks, I just took them out. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

JOB: What do you think of the reviews you’ve received?

WM: The reviews of “To An Early Grave” couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. The only nasty review I got was in “Commentary.”

JOB: What was the reason for the good reception?

WM: It pleased, and this was accidental, a lot of second-raters who saw it as an attack on the New York literary establishment, the “Partisan Review-Commentary” axis. It delighted them that someone from within was screaming. You must remember it was the height of the Jewish literary renaissance. Then by the time of “Teitlebaum,” the renaissance was over and the corpse had begun to stink. But that’s no explanation for the hostilities towards “Teitlebaum.” A lot of the hostility was deserved, I think; I haven’t reread it. Not too long ago I went back to reread the first chapter and I winced; not only at the first chapter but especially that chapter. Dreadful excesses. “You Could Live If They Let You” failed but not mainly because it’s specialized or is so heavily laden with Jewish and Yiddish; it failed to give the reader what the reader, I’ve concluded, deserves—a good story, something to carry him along. There was a lot of lecturing, a lot of essaying in the guise of fiction. Never again. That was the last time.

JOB: I don’t see what you mean by the excesses in the first chapter of “Teitlebaum”?

WM: I think the mother, and the father too, were overdone, came on too strong. Certain usages were overdone. The marriage seemed to me more grotesque than anything else. It proves again that in publishing there’s no way of predicting anything. I was the biggest thing that Knopf was putting out at the time and they had big plans for it. All signs portended favorably and then the bubble burst. In the beginning I thought it was just the dreadful luck of the Sunday “New York Times” assigning it to Alfred Kazin, who by any kind of moral or ethical principle should have turned it down. Maybe that’s asking for saintliness. But you would imagine the Sunday “Times” people, of all people, should be aware of this, but unfortunately they’re not. And there’s no sense in festering in paranoia over it. The review assignments are given out lackadaisically, usually by secretaries. It’s a lottery.

JOB: But “Teitlebaum” would have been ruined by a plot and conventional transitions.

WM: Yeah but, I am really in the process of relearning my craft now. I hope that it is possible to write well and yet move things along and engage the reader and give him a story. “Rosemary’s Baby” comes closest to it in the thriller genre; it’s quite an accomplishment. It’s very well written. Perfectly constructed.

JOB: There’s an arbitrary quality to “Teitlebaum” which is the source of much of the novel’s pleasure. You have no restrictions. An example of this is the introductions to the chapters in which you recount what’s been happening in the neighborhood. You are completely free to do what you want and you wouldn’t have that freedom in a more conventional novel.

WM: No. The novel I am doing now has to do with a novelist-academic. He calls himself a “novelist Rotarian.” Here we go again! I had many misgivings about using such a guy because there is no character in fiction less interesting than an academic. Somehow I think I make him interesting. He’s a different kind of academic. Anyways, he is in the hands of the KGB as we open the first chapter. He’s required to write a statement. For forty pages or so we have the statement and a certain surprise or twist is going to be sprung very soon, although thus far I have taken great pains not to dupe the reader. A careful reader will pick up on the twist; those who do pick up on it will find a pleasure and those who don’t will have an equal pleasure in seeing their hunches confirmed. Anyway I have to find a logical device that will enable him to get to the highest offices, perhaps to the President of the United States directly or the State Department. I have to figure that out and I have to do it very quickly because I find that one of the problems of the thriller genre is the tediousness of explanation. I hope in skimping on it that I am not making a mistake. Can the highest Soviet circles make such entry into the State Department easy for him? All of this is terribly boring but awfully necessary to what I am doing.

JOB: Is it as much fun for you to deal with those kinds of problems as it was to make up the chapter introductions in “Teitlebaum” or Simon’s journal entries or the letters that Helen and Simon exchange?

WM: No. There’s little of that fun. Wherever I saw myself having fun, I cut it as much as I could. I’ll give you one example. One of the devices that brings my narrator (all of this is in the first person) into the hands of the KGB is this: he’s a member of the English Department at San Francisco State. Why San Francisco State? Because I taught there and also because one of the rules of the genre is to use a glamorous background; as far as America is concerned, you can’t do better than San Francisco. Anyway, he has decided to hold his Budget and Personnel Committee hostage at the point of a gun, though it’s not a gun; it’s his son’s air pistol. I saw at that point I was in danger of excess and I really cut it to the bone. Even so, I am afraid that it will bring a laugh. But I think I can afford a laugh then.

JOB: When you were writing “Teitlebaum” it must have been fun for you to go to the typewriter in the morning to see what Simon was going to put in his journal or to see what you would put in those incredibly zany lists. Is what you are working on now more laborious?

WM: It’s not only more laborsome, at this point it’s murderous. It’s shedding everything. I have in the back of my mind the fancy that if I handed it in to my editor with a pseudonym, that he would not recognize it as my work. He probably wouldn’t because editors are stupid in that sense. For them it’s a piece of merchandise. However, it’s probably just a fancy; it probably is recognizable. I can see certain passages that are singularly my own.

JOB: Let me question my assumption here. Was it fun to compose those lists and journal entries? Did you laugh a lot while you made them up?

WM: Yes, I laughed very often during “Teitlebaum.” I do remember that. During all three novels I heard the sound of my own laughter.

JOB: Why weren’t the novels put into paperback?

WM: The first was. The second novel was a funny thing. I have an open offer for “Teitlebaum” of much less money than I care to take. There was a fairly handsome offer the day after publication which I didn’t take because I expected to get something better. But no offers were forthcoming, so I lost there. But then a couple of years later there was an awfully low bid. So that’s why “Teitlebaum” was not put in paper. With “You Could Live” not a nickel has been offered as far as I know.

JOB: If “Teitlebaum” and “You Could Live” had had front page rave reviews in the “New York Times,” would you now be writing a comic novel?

WM: Yes, most likely. About two years ago I started something called “Multiple Orgasms.” Mathew Bruccoli excerpted it in a three-hundred-copy limited edition. It was a first person narrative, completely through the eyes of a woman. I found it awfully tiresome after a while, though I never find women tiresome. But she became just a great bore to me. After about a hundred and seventy-five pages or so, I just gave up. It was getting nowhere.

JOB: Do you have a favorite of the three novels?

WM: My daughter thinks that “Teitlebaum” is the greatest book she’s ever read. I would say that that’s the best one.

JOB: I would like to talk about influences but not as influences.

WM: An influence is an influence.

JOB: But it usually sounds like imitation. What other writers did you learn from?

WM: Really the whole “Partisan Review” group. I grew up there and it was the first place I ever published. I lived in the Village during those crucial years of my life. I knew a lot of them and I hung around with a lot of them and was privy to all the information and misinformation. In other words I would lump all these writers into one word: “Partisan Review.” Of course there were distinctions among Delmore Schwartz, Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy, Dwight Macdonald, and Hannah Arendt; but then in a sense I see them in aggregate. When I was a kid there was the usual: Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, but Fitzgerald not at all. Much later, I suspect, I became “Jewish.” When “Commentary” started I read it but not with too much interest until 1949 or ’50 when it seemed kind of modish to be Jewish. Until then I never fancied myself as a Jewish writer. There was a guy named Daniel Fuchs I admired very much. I remember reading Meyer Levin’s “The Old Bunch” with much pleasure. Most of my influences are the Americans. This is the same problem that Ralph Ellison addressed himself to years and years ago. He said that his influences were like everyone else’s—Thoreau, Henry Adams, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Celine, Mann, and Joyce.

JOB: I didn’t really have any other Jewish novelists in mind. I’ve thought of Joyce.

WM: Stanley Edgar Hyman, when he reviewed “To An Early Grave,” saw it as an expansion of Joyce’s Bloomsday, the funeral episode in “Ulysses.” I can’t say that Joyce is important to me. But what writer has not been influenced by Joyce? The Rabbi’s eulogy at the wrong chapel is influenced by that marvelous thing in “Portrait of the Artist” but was no less influenced by Father Mapple’s sermon in “Moby Dick.” Celine has been as much an influence on me as anybody else, which is a strange thing for a Jewish writer to admit.

JOB: I’ve approached your work rather naively. I didn’t read “Teitlebaum” as a Jewish novel. What most interested me about “Teitlebaum” and the other novels is their humor and technique. Joyce showed that you could use lists, that you can take all kinds of disparate things and put them together. And, he was so concerned with the structure of a line of prose and with its rhythm, which is true of your style too.

WM: Son of a bitch, I don’t know if he didn’t do a disservice to all writers who came after him. Nobody is going to come close to him and yet everybody is going to try. There are times though when you can’t give yourself so utterly to a line.

JOB: How did you originally conceive of “To An Early Grave”?

WM: Actually it was improvised. I had read “Confessions of Zeno” by Italo Svevo and liked it. There was one small episode in which the narrator is lost in a cemetery looking for the grave of his brother-in-law. And he wanders by mistake into the Jewish section and says to his companion, “I didn’t know Frank was Jewish.” And for some stupid reason that grabbed me, the idea of someone arriving at the wrong chapel or making a comparable mistake, and so I worked my way backwards. As I say, it was improvised as I went along. It wasn’t too hard. It fulfilled the Aristotelian unities. One Sunday, the group meets, goes, and breaks up.

JOB: At what point did it become concerned with the New York Jewish literary establishment?

WM: Again, I just improvised that. The hero, such as he was, was modeled after myself to a certain extent. And to a certain extent Leslie Braverman, the dead man, was modeled after someone I knew. The other three in the Volkswagen were more or less pure inventions. Such outrageous fun I had with the one-liners delivered in the descriptions of the mourners at the cemetery. Here was a line that referred to Podhoretz, here was one that referred to Alfred Kazin, one to Irving Howe. Inside jokes.

JOB: It’s a very funny novel of course, but it’s also very sad because of all the waste.

WM: I didn’t mean for it to be funny. Everyone praised the humor. It was news to me.

JOB: There’s great sense of loss because Morroe and his companions are dying on the inside. Especially Morroe.

WM: Especially. I wasn’t so young when I wrote it, but it was the death of youth, a certain kind of youth. The end of Greenwich Village as observed by someone then living on 57th Street.

JOB: What about the initial conception of “You Could Live”?

WM: There’s a jabber-jockey on New York radio who’s quite famous here, Jean Shepard. I thought to myself, “A Jewish Jean Shepard at the end of his rope,” and I started to write a novel about him. It didn’t work out. I put it aside and I wrote “Teitlebaum.” After Teitlebaum I thought about Jerry Lewis and his telethons. I thought of the great comic burst as Jerry Lewis just holds forth for twenty-four hours as he does on the telethon. I tried that and it was much too tiresome. It was impossible to maintain interest in the voice of Jerry Lewis, no matter how funny I made it and whatever devices I used to bring in others. And finally I came up with “You Could Live.” How? I don’t know.

JOB: Why did you want to write about a stand-up comic?

WM: They always fascinated me. I love even the worst stand-up comics. I admire unreservedly Jackie Mason; he’s one of the funniest people alive. All of them—Alan King, Morey Amsterdam, Jack Carter, Shecky Greene, Rodney Dangerfield. I’m into pop culture and I’m always trying to find new and different ways of using the movies. Even in this thriller, I’m managing to use them. But hopefully I manage to integrate them into the work itself.

JOB: What Jules Farber says in “You Could Live” is funny but Jules himself is not particularly funny. He is desperate.

WM: I wouldn’t say that I failed with him. Jules Farber is a well-conceived character. The book is a failure and I’ll be damned if I know why, except that it was boring finally. And I do think that the ending was too easy, with Farber hoping that he and his father would have such conversations as would crack the back of the universe. And then finishing up with the autistic son. I didn’t think so at the time, but I realize now.

JOB: Do you agree that Jules’ humor and way of looking at things comes out of a desperation and paranoia?

WM: Oh yeah. More desperation than paranoia. He’s at the end of his rope. But that’s my prevailing mood when I’m doing a novel. I’m generally desperate and paranoid.

JOB: What was the origin of “Teitlebaum’s Window”?

WM: Again, several false starts. I got a letter from someone at “The Saturday Evening Post” wanting a story about childhood. The “Post” didn’t take it but “New York”did, and I think out of that story “Teitlebaum” came. It was about a nine-year-old kid in the late thirties going to the movies on Saturday afternoon; it was called “Under the Marquee.” That was the genesis. Looking back, I think that writers should stay away from their childhood as much as possible. I hate to think about childhood.

JOB: Why does “Teitlebaum” get written the way it does? Why isn’t it written like a “Studs Lonigan,” about a boy growing up and what happens to him?

WM: Because style is very important to me and in a sense the style determined the book. Or the book was an excuse for an experiment in style. Strange thing is that the last thing I would want to do is write like James Farrell, though I think that “Studs Lonigan” is an absolute masterpiece. It certainly is among the twenty-five or fifty books that deserve very high praise in American literature during the last fifty years. Certainly one of the most important books I’ve ever read. And I doubt that I could have written “Teitlebaum” without it. It was a most important influence on me, though I can’t recall using any aspect of it. It was more important than anything else I read. I think also that Celine influenced me very much in my writing. Certainly Celine’s approach to his parents in both “Journey to the End of the Night” and “Death on the Installment Plan.”

JOB: What can you do with lists that you can’t do with conventional narrative?

WM: Well, you can do a very quick summary of the time and place and a kind of shorthand for character development too. You simply mention a book that the kid is reading at the age of fourteen and it tells you everything, although J.D. Salinger and his medicine-cabinet list may have patented the use of lists. I’ve been reading a collection of John O’Hara’s lost nonfiction and he has some interesting things to say about lists. He quotes one of his own novels and he derides those who call him a lister or sociologist. He points to one of his own lines in which he is describing the objects on the top of his mantlepiece, and he says in effect, “Gentle reader, don’t you know that everything was said by the single misplaced object?”

JOB: John Hawkes said that when he first began writing, the enemies to the novel were plot, character, and theme; what was left were style and structure. Did you perceive plot as an enemy in your first three novels?

WM: The strange thing is that I’ve always believed that those three books are better plotted than they seem at first to be, even though I did improvise. Plotting is such a strange thing. There is the hack technique; Jacqueline Susann is supposed to have—and I would believe it—taken an enormous cork bulletin board and thumbtacked three-by-five cards into it with interlocking arrows. That’s one kind of plotting. Plotting is a bitch, it’s brutal and murderous and corrosive, but here I am after all this time realizing that one owes the reader something. And as long as you give that plot, you can just about get away with anything. Then you can make your statement and maybe the plot itself turns out to be that statement.

JOB: Some of the great comic moments in “Teitlebaum” are set pieces which in a plotted novel would have seemed extraneous. Or in a conventional novel you would have had to somehow integrate them into the movement of the plot. In one sense they are shticks but in another they are items that reveal the whole world of the character without your having to set up everything.

WM: That is the problem I am encountering now and I am trying to solve it in the old way. This may do me in finally in terms of this new book, but I cannot believe in all the thrillers I’ve read that you really need those obligatory scenes. For instance, you have gathered the Secretary of State, the Presidential advisor, the Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and of course the President. The advisor gets up and says, “According to my report, Mr. President, at 11:30 P.M. the KGB announced to the world that it was,” etc. “You mean it was 11:30,” etc. My eye begins to wander. This is the stuff that television is made of. I don’t really care about this because I’m waiting for the next gun to fire and for the next squib of blood to show on the shirt front. That’s what interests me, but yet those other scenes must be done. I’m trying to find the equivalent of my “Teitlebaum” lists for such scenes.

JOB: I cannot believe that this novel will be a conventional thriller.

WM: No, it won’t be conventional, if conventional is synonymous with bad, because most thrillers are bad. It may fail but not because it’s bad stylistically or in character development or otherwise. Yet I mean to keep it to the skeleton of the thriller. I should amend that; when I say “thriller,” perhaps I should say “political thriller.” That may pin it down a little more. Go ahead, I’m sorry.

JOB: When it’s published . . .

WM: . . . if it is . . .

JOB: . . . I will then know more of what you have in mind. But in talking about giving the reader a break, I think you give that break in your other novels where you avoid all the pat narrative and the weary plots. You make these enormous leaps, oftentimes with just a journal entry. I know by that journal entry everything that I have to, and I do not have to plow through fifty pages to get there. Perhaps Farrell is an example of a writer who makes you plow.

WM: Believe it or not, there’s a lot of shorthand in Farrell. Every chapter, as I recall, seems to open with a shorthand. I think especially of Studs in the movies. There are two scenes which are just breathtaking; they’re boring and they’re tedious and they’re overdone but they’re magnificent. One is Studs in the movies watching a gangster film—the film, I suspect, is “Scarface.” The other is at the burlesque when he’s going to be dead very soon; that scene is absolutely marvelous. There’s nothing like it. You smell the stink of that burlesque theater.

JOB: Let’s choose someone other than Farrell for the sake of the point. What I have in mind are the trappings of the great 19th century fiction which continue to be used in so much of modern and contemporary fiction. One doesn’t want Austen to be repeating Fielding, and one doesn’t want a contemporary to be repeating the 19th century. I don’t see why a writer would want to begin with the intention of making something new. I’m glad that you’re not writing the Jewish equivalent of “Studs Lonigan” because I’ve already read Farrell.

WM: But I wouldn’t have written “Teitlebaum” without Farrell. I climbed on the back of the old bunch, certainly Farrell, certainly Daniel Fuchs, certainly Clifford Odets. Going back to the question you originally asked about influences, from Odets I got one device. Take “Awake and Sing.” The Bergers sit around their Bronx living room and they don’t talk “to” each other but “at” each other. There is no subject, only talk. The uncle will say, “Where are my fur gloves?”—which is really an announcement of how far he has come in the world. And the father will say, “Families like this! Marx was right!! Down with such bourgeois middle-class types!” And Ralphie will say, “All my life I wanted a pair of black and white shoes.” I’m exaggerating; he doesn’t quite do it like that, but not far from it. It’s disjointed, built from seemingly disparate snips of dialogue which in their totality add up to something. I believe that I did that in all three books. And I certainly must have gotten that device from Odets, though I maybe pushed it a little beyond or tried to. But God knows you can’t do that in a thriller. Well, you know something, you can do it within limits. There’s nothing more thrilling, in the very conventional sense, having three or four people talking around and about a truly murderous subject. Or murder itself. And never quite saying it, but with each piece of dialogue revealing themselves more and more. But I agree with you that nothing should be redone.

JOB: Wouldn’t you expect that your reader brings a tradition of novels with him to your fiction and that such background allows you to depend upon what he already knows?

WM: Well, I have learned in years of teaching just how stupid the average reader is, certainly the average college kid and certainly my colleagues. It’s unbelievable. I just don’t see who’s buying books. I’m surprised when I hear the prodigious prices being paid and the prodigious first printings. “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” a dreadfully written book which I think is a masterpiece in a peculiar way, is in its thirtieth printing, that has to be something like four million copies. Who’s buying it? I don’t see anyone reading. I have six or seven years of teaching behind me and I always teach a course in modern American fiction or something like it. No matter what book I mention that is not on the reading list, nobody has read it. Nobody has ever even heard of it. No matter what TV program I refer to, nobody has ever watched it. No matter what story on the third page of the “New York Times” I mention, nobody has seen it. And on and on. I wonder what these kids actually do. They make neither love nor war. As for their parents, God help us all.

JOB: But then something like “Goodbar” is dead in a few years, never to be heard from again.

WM: It evidently isn’t dead now. It’s not going to be a classic. It’s a kind of secondary literature which may be about the best we’re getting these days. I emphasize again that it was a terribly written book. I read the first two pages and then I went on and on and I finally couldn’t put it down. In whatever clumsiness, she really got something through to me.

JOB: This remark sounds cliched and required, but “Teitlebaum” will be around for a hundred years.

WM: It won’t put my daughter through college, that’s for sure.

JOB: True, but do you agree with me.

WM: I’ll be honest. I have no doubt of it. A hundred years, I don’t know. At a certain point it just may be rediscovered. I don’t know that I’ll live to see it, and I don’t know that I necessarily care to.

JOB: How conscious were you of the audience when you were writing your first three novels? Let me make it more specific. When you used Yiddish, did you care that you were losing a certain part of the possible audience that doesn’t know Yiddish? Or did you worry that the title of an old movie would be missed on many readers?

WM: Well, I think that one is always safe with a movie. Even if someone doesn’t recognize a specific title, movies still exert a certain fascination in the American psyche. Yiddish is a kind of self-immolation for a writer. He automatically limits his audience, not only to Jews who care to read experimental fiction. I’ve come to the conclusion that I can no longer afford to do that and I don’t particularly want to do that any longer because the American-Jewish novel as a genre is quite dead.

JOB: And so, what do you expect from your audience?

WM: At the moment or in general?

JOB: Both.

WM: This may sound bitter and it is, but at the moment I expect very little from an audience. From the critics I expect the usual hostility. My view of mankind is so bleak that I can’t see any great gifts being bestowed on me. There are only about 150,000 people in the United States who buy books in hardcover. From them, who knows?

JOB: Can you afford to be conscious of an audience? After a certain point, wouldn’t that drive you crazy and make writing impossible?

WM: It would drive you crazy either way, to be conscious or to ignore them. It’s not a question that I could answer. When I wrote “To An Early Grave,” I remember saying, “Would this please such and such a friend of mine?” I probably did the same thing with “Teitlebaum” and “You Could Live,” thinking of a few people. Now maybe it’s a process of selling out, I don’t know. It probably is. I ask myself, “Hmm, how would this seem on the inside of a lurid paperback cover?” Or, “What can I get away with,” or “What can I do that will sell at the box office?” I admit that I am writing this new book for the money. Or else it’s back to teaching.

JOB: You’ve taught for seven years?

WM: And I’ve done a considerable amount of non-fiction, a lot of criticism.

JOB: What is the source of your dislike or mistrust of academics?

WM: Personal experience. I don’t know where to begin.

JOB: What is it that they do that aggravates you?

WM: Hmm. It’s the basic individual amorality and the amorphous amorality of the academic structure as it exists. You know the Jessie Unruh line- academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are that small. Which really sums it up. There’s something about the tenure procedure and the publish-or-perish and the committees, the endless committees. For the most part I have never heard a single original thing or a single interesting thing from my colleagues. I find no group in American life, probably throughout the world—because all academics must be alike—that is more hostile to what we call art. I’ve found far more morality and honesty and simple compassion in corporate life. I don’t say that corporate life isn’t ruthless and people aren’t fired. But even in the worst advertising agencies, as I remember it, and I did a lot of public relations long ago, certain things just did not happen. There was a kind of honesty. I will give you an example of simple rudeness of many academics. I was looking for a job for next Fall. Through an academic friend of mine I wrote to someone, a full professor at Fordham, who was kind enough to put me immediately on the phone to the chairman. There was some sort of job open. And so I wrote to the chairman and I never received an answer. Which is not quite that atypical.

JOB: Money always seems to be on the mind of academics, despite, as you say, there isn’t much to be fighting over.

WM: And they are the cheapest group I’ve ever seen. Sometimes with good reason, although generally speaking they are overpaid. I did a piece on this, though nobody’s ever seen it. It was called “The Graves of Academia: My Collectivized Experiences As a Writer-in-Residence.” It was published by Bruccoli-Clark in something called “Pages.” All I have is one copy, otherwise I would give it to you.

JOB: What else about the academics.

WM: The $99 charter flights; the chopped sirloin—excuse me, the chopped chuck; the way they will underpay a babysitter, the seizure of twitches and tremblings that comes upon them when it’s 12:30 in the evening and they know it’s costing them a dollar! a dollar! a dollar! And their everlasting chicken dinners. I don’t want to go into the politics. The intellectual crudity. I remember my third teaching year at Kirkland College. I’d been promised, you know, the world. I won’t go into details of how I was thoroughly and comically cheated because it only makes me out to be a bigger schmuck than I am, although that’s hard to conceive of. I was to be the writer-in-residence, and I was, carrying a load of one class; that was true enough. But my chairman, while promising me complete freedom and all the time a creative writer needs, made sure to involve me in every conceivable committee so that I must have ended up putting in fifty hours a week on campus one way or another. That was typical. You hear the same stories everywhere. And yet the fact is that I must confess I love teaching. By that I mean sitting at a desk or standing in front of a blackboard and talking with the kids. It’s very nice when you can reach them and get a point across.

JOB: There have been so few honest novels written about academic life; usually, however, they’re written by academics who seem to get their materials from the movies.

WM: There’s a stench given off by novels written by academics. A point in case is John Gardner. It’s a stench of unreality. There is no contact between Gardner and the real world. He’s fanciful and he has a few pathetic tricks. Another case in point is an academic named Frank Smith; he wrote something called “The Death of the Detective.”

JOB: I don’t know it.

WM: You’re not missing very much. I read it and why I finished it I don’t know. It was a terribly boring book. You know, clearly modeled upon whomever. But of no interest whatsoever in the world.

JOB: The stereotype of the college professor, which is characterized by Clifton Webb in the movies, seems to be what academics think is real when they come to write about themselves, though now of course that image has been made modern and hip.

WM: You wonder sometimes, do these people ever get laid?

JOB: Academics have such desperate lives . . .

WM: But such wonderfully long vacations . . .

JOB: What about the pretensions of the academics?

WM: Pretensions? In all honesty I must say that I’ve gotten little of that. Because I do come on campus under special status, which means that at the end of one or two years I’ll be fired. It is a special status. I’m a small time star. He’s published novels, front page of the “New York Times,” reviews, that sort of crap. And I can talk up a storm on their level. Nobody pulls that sort of thing on me or they don’t get away with it for very long. The funny thing is that academics are Uriah Heap-humble in many ways. Those that I’ve encountered have very little ego, and are uniquely bereft of savor and flavor in their conversation—which is their style. When you’re invited out to dinner, they ask:

Academic: What are you working on?

Markfield: Well, it’s sort of a political thriller and it starts off in . . .

Academic: . . .but of course writers are not supposed to discuss work in progress. Do you know Katherine Anne Porter?

Markfield: No, not really, I’m afraid not. I’ve never met her, though I am familiar with her work.

Academic: Oh are you? I didn’t think that someone in your field of work, the American-Jewish-genre-interests-background-style, would be familiar with an American-Jewish writer such as Katherine Anne Porter.

It goes on.

Academic: Say, I have a Katherine Anne Porter story if you’re interested. I happen to have met her once. You never met Katherine Anne Porter, did you, Mr. Markfield?

Markfield: No, I didn’t.

Academic: Well, I guess the circle you hang around in wouldn’t be privy to the likes of Katherine Anne Porter.

And then the inevitable Katherine Anne Porter story:

Academic: Jane and I were in Boston, it was the MLA . . . it was ’68, Jane?

Academic Wife: No, Dear, it was ’69, that when we had the trouble with our Opel, remember Dear?

Academic: Are you interested in cars, Mr. Markfield, because the Opel was a wonderful car but after 200,000 miles we had to put in a quart of oil.

This is an actual story. At this point he gives the elbow to his wife:

Academic: Jane, that looks like Katherine Anne Porter.

He goes up there and says:

Academic: Excuse me, but you look like Katherine Anne Porter.

Woman: For good reason, I am Katherine Anne Porter.

The conversations are invariable, though I am outdated. Then the bad liquor. Oh! The equivalent in New York of the housebrand, but New York housebrands are little bit better than they are out of town. And Kraft Crackerbarrel Cheese and discount housebrand crackers. . . . You mention the image of Clifton Webb. That image still shines in the minds of Americans to a certain degree. But we will never get over the notion that we have as kids, if you remember your first undergraduate class. You wait with bated breath as the man or woman wrote with palsied hand his or her name on the blackboard. This meant something to you and these were important people, which is what put me into teaching in the first place. There is always a handful of great teachers, wherever you are. Even at Brooklyn College, which is about the scummiest college you can go to. There were some fantastic teachers, but these may well have been the same sons of bitches who would cut each other’s throats in committee meetings. I was a history major, and I can think of half a dozen classes and lectures that really knocked me out. Twenty years later I still recall them and I am probably lifting lines from them.

JOB: Well, as I say, academic have strange lives. They can sit god-like in front of a classroom and ask, “What is reality?” But then they must remember to pick up a tube of toothpaste on the way home.

WM: They say it like Richard Colman: “What “is” reality?” And then you go to the blackboard and in massive print you write, REALITY. Then you underline it three times. “Yes,” you thunder out again, “what “is” reality?” And then if you are really a gifted teacher, as I am, you take that piece of chalk and whip it at a dozing student.

Professor Markfield: Miss Fineshriver, what is your notion of reality?

Miss Fineshriver: Well . . . it’s a . . . what is reality? I would say that reality is . . . Ah . . . the actual.

Professor Markfield: That’s a beginning. What is “actual”? What does Plato tell us about the actual?

Miss Fineshriver: What does Plato tell us about the actual? Actually I didn’t study Plato on the actual because I went to get his “Phaedra” and the bookstore line was so crowded.

Then you forget what you were asking about anyway.

JOB: Why not write a novel about teaching?

WM: I’ve exploited the academics as much as I can or should. In this new book I try to stand up the stereotype on its head with the hope that what is miserable, small, and petty can be, in a crazy way, made glamorous to a general reader. It’s the political activist, the academic as I remember him in the ‘60s during the “crisis,” during the night vigils, yanking off Hayakawa’s beret. It has been done before but not quite the way I wanted to do it and certainly not as quickly. He’s writing a statement of confession for the KGB and he’s remembering the ‘60s when along with everyone else at San Francisco State he was marching and singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Yet when he would go home and when it’s time for the Late Late Show, what does he respond to with all his might? To the World War II movies—”Air Force,” “Tonight We Raid Calais,” “Bomber Over Burma,” “Objective Burma.” So while he’s chanting “one-two-three four-let’s-get-out-of-the-fucking-war,” he’s thinking all the while of lines from all the World War II movies. He’s very human. And he’s a good friend to somebody, which makes him altogether different from the usual run of academics. The nicest academic novel ever written was Malamud’s “A New Life.”

JOB: What interests you in pop culture?

WM: It’s the wrong question because there’s nothing “about” it that interests me. It is me. Last night I was watching “The Dane Curse.” When I look at the screen, I’m the mass man. There’s no distinction whatsoever. I’m the worst kind of proletarian you can find. I think it was a line that Robert Warshow wrote—A man goes to the movies and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man. Which is very important. Warshow did something remarkable because he brought an acute political and social sensibility, as well as a trained literary one, to the study of films and pop culture. I’m a great lover of Westerns, crummy Westerns. When I’m watching them, I’m completely unconscious of anything except how scenes are handled—how will he die? how will he draw his gun? Later, if I have to write about it and very often I have to, I start thinking profound things and call up all the references. But I have been going to the movies and reading the comic strips and listening to the radio ever since I was six years old. That was important to my generation. Now radio, for all practical purposes, is dead. And the studio system is dead and with it the death of the star system. One movie house in town and four others have closed up or been turned into supermarkets or bowling alleys. I used to go to the movies three and four times a week and see two features, which makes eight movies a week plus coming attractions. What an escape that was. Now there are a few stars. I like Dustin Hoffman. I like Redford a little. But most actors and actresses have a moment on the screen, get critical acclaim and an Academy Award, and then you don’t see them again ever. One forgets. The studio system kept them working and their faces were before you and they had a chance to develop their talents and personalities. Their features were absolutely engraved in your mind.

JOB: At what age did you stop going to see eight movies a week?

WM: Only when it was no longer possible to see eight movies a week. I doubt that I now go more than once every three or four months. I don’t like most of the movies I see. I truly can’t recall when I saw anything that I did like. “Saturday Night Fever,” which in the ‘40s would have been the bottom half of a double bill, was mildly pleasing. “The Exorcist” is a masterpiece, though I seem to be alone in that opinion. But that’s going back a few years. My taste in movies is very conservative. I admire greatly the work of King Vidor, George Cukor, the early Vincent Minnelli, William Wellman, and Howard Hawkes.

JOB: When or how did you discover that you could use pop culture materials in fiction?

WM: I can’t think of any other writer who’s gone to pains to use them. I feel that if I’m original, it lies there. And I’m not even sure about that. When I wrote “To An Early Grave,” I was doing public relations work. There was someone I worked with there with whom I used to have great fun playing games of trivia before the word was coined. “Name fifteen movies in which Bogart,” etc. Any such question seemed to stop work. Any everybody was fascinated. It was not until I got to academia that I found nobody gave a shit. At Queens College I used to bait the chairman mercilessly. He would quiver as I came near. I would stop him every now and then and I would say, “Here’s a line from which movie?—’No, it wasn’t the planes, it was beauty killed the beast.’” Aside from academics, everybody loves trivia. About two years ago I did a piece for the Arts & Literature section in the Sunday “Times.” I forget what lead-in I had to it, but then I threw in twenty-five very tricky trivia questions. Like, “Name the movie which starred three actors holding the first same name.”

JOB: Got me.

WM: I’ll give you a hint which I didn’t give in the piece. I believe it was the first movie to deal with anti-Semitism.

JOB: Okay, let’s have it.

WM: It was “Crossfire,” and it starred Roberts Ryan, Mitchum, and Young. Anyway, nothing I have ever written elicited such a response; they even had to fill up a page two weeks later with the letters. A lot of them found me wrong in certain details. And all the phone calls and letters. I did a piece in the Mag section on the first “King Kong” before the remake came out; I must say that I was rather proud of the piece. But I received not a line, not a word from anyone. Some academics put it in an academic anthology.

JOB: I came across your little article “How to Hire a Writer” in the “Times” book section. It must have sent hundreds cringing.

WM: I heard not a word. How does anyone respond to that? The ones to whom it’s addressed are certainly not even going to read it. It’s amazing how few academics read newspapers. To writers the “Times” book section is a trade journal. I have found among colleagues that they consistently mispronounce “James Agee.” Most of them have been in their specialty for too long. I strongly suspect that these guys see very few movies. Academics say such things as, “My child watch TV?! We finally bought a three inch set from Sears & Roebuck and we keep it down in the laundry room and Fauntleroy can watch it between the drip-dry cycle and the rinse.”

JOB: They are not allowed to admit that they watch TV?

WM: Nine times out of ten. If I ever talk about a movie or TV, they look at me like I’m Jack the Ripper. They may admit they watch National Educational Television.

JOB: There are sections of “You Could Live” that I want to ask you about, but you are telling me that you don’t think the novel worked. I have Marlene’s section in mind. Why do you have it? Why not Jules continuously present, especially since her section is not directly about Jules?

WM: I was as interested in Marlene as I was in Jules. I always had the feeling that I was shortchanging women as characters. The critical response to “To An Early Grave” was unanimously favorable but I was hurt by those who said that I used women only for their “easy verticality” (I am quoting someone here). “Teitlebaum” was all right because I thought that I had done justice to the kind of women that I wanted to deal with—the mother and Simon’s girlfriend. I labor under the fear that I can’t really do a woman properly, especially after what I imagine is a failure with that aborted novel “Multiple Orgasms.” I showed it to my agent. She hated every word of it, which is a response she never had before. In “You Could Live” I wanted to deal with certain kinds of women. I guess that’s why I used Marlene.

JOB: What about the section with Jules’ sister, Mrs. Federman?

WM: That was easy. There I was back on home territory. I had no trouble. There are times when it’s as though God is whispering the dialogue into your ear and you just transcribe it. And that’s how it was. I knew exactly who and what I had in mind, simply because Jules’ sister is very much like my own. So I just spun it out.

JOB: Is she used to reveal something about Jules?

WM: She was supposed to reveal an aspect of Jules and to further the plot along, such as it was. And also to be an image of that kind of Jewish life which Jules is lacerating and loving simultaneously. I’m sure it doesn’t come off. It’s strange about that book. It has a loyal following of about twelve. Every once in a while I get a letter saying it’s the greatest thing since sliced white bread.

JOB: How did you go about structuring “You Could Live”?

WM: There again I improvised. The greatest problem I had was the gag lines. A verbal joke is one thing. To do it in print is quite another.

JOB: What is the difference in timing between what you do in print and what the stand-up comic does?

WM: That’s hard to say but there is a difference. Timing is everything, even in this thriller. I have to read aloud the stuff to somebody, interested or disinterested. I learn more from it than he or she does. I get all the timing, I learn what’s right, what’s excessive, what’s moving. Usually there’s something excessive. The chapter I’m working on for instance. I had finished the forty pages of it and I kept looking at it section by section, page by page, paragraph by paragraph, line by line—oh wowie! hallelujah! Great stretches of writing, and there “are” some wonderful stretches of writing. Then I read it aloud to my poor wife. I very deliberately picked a terribly hot day. Whenever I found those “hallelujah” sections, I either took them out entirely or cut them to the bone. For once.

JOB: Were they “excessive”?

WM: Line for line—to underpraise myself—they were nothing short of glorious. And some of the points were magnificent. I’m sure that Saul Bellow would have made whole chapters out of those lines and possibly done them very brilliantly. But they slowed things up. An orthodox novel requires other things. For me, to do is to overdo, and I’m watching myself in this novel.

JOB: Twain has a short essay on the difference between American and British humor. Have you read that?

WM: I must have.

JOB: He says that the American makes humor out of the manner of telling and that the British joke hangs on the punch line. The digression is the method of the American joke. The details themselves are what’s comic in the story.

WM: The details must be living tangible objects or events, not language. Where language becomes an obstruction, it has to go.

JOB: And you think that the chapter openings in “Teitlebaum” are “excessive”?

WM: Very much so. I think that each chapter lost another ten thousand readers.

JOB: I really don’t agree with you.

WM: I’m speaking only of the mass market. I have learned the hard way. I hope I’ve learned what pleases.

JOB: I think that it is the digressions in “Teitlebaum” that are so interesting. There’s one character, for instance, who only appears in those opening catalogues and she’s usually given only one line. After the first few chapters I kept waiting to see what you’d say about her next time, although of course she is not “integrated” into the main story. Or those incredibly funny letters that Simon and Helen exchange. I wanted to see what words they would misspell and what screwy syntax they would use. But all of this has little to do, I suppose, with moving the story along.

WM: I think that even if this new novel were back to the Jewish genre and Brighton Beach with a comparable opening, I still would have changed, or I should have at least cut out all that excessive baggage. Well, you see, in this new book no chapter is quite like another chapter. There’s no linkage in terms of style. The flow, such as it is, is done quite differently. As a matter of fact, the very strange thing about this, which bothers me to no end, is that I have no heroes. I have certain characters who appear again and again. If you mean by “heroes” someone whose plight I identify with and follow along, I don’t have any. I got rid of some of those charming, marvelous characters I’ve done, but they have to go. And I stayed with some of the most horrifying characters. One is a Presidential advisor, though I never gave him a designation; and one of course the President of the United States. I’m so inured in this new novel that a lot of my answers about the old fiction are going to seem stale and secondhand. I realize throughout this interview, and perhaps you have found this with other writers you’ve talked to, that I am so filled up with my present work in progress that I hate to go back to the past.

JOB: Yes, that has happened.

WM: You see, there’s just nothing else in one’s mind, particularly in my own case where I must unlearn everything.

JOB: Could you stop writing fiction?

WM: Any day, every day. There’s a lot of things I would like to do in non fiction. Something on the movies perhaps. And something also on low class British fiction, writers like Christopher Wren, H. Rider Haggard, and Ouida, and several others. I have a thing or two to say. Also I would like to write something on Havelock Ellis’ “Studies in the Psychology of Sex.”

JOB: Could you have written your fiction in a non-fiction form?

WM: That probably could have been done, though I don’t know that I could have done it. Take Irving Howe’s “World of Our Fathers;” that’s really a novel that he couldn’t write or didn’t want to write.

JOB: What contemporary writers to you read?

WM: I was afraid you’d ask that. I still read Bellow, with diminishing pleasure. I read everyone, as much as I have time for. I find very little that’s good.

JOB: What about comic fiction?

WM: I was in my office at Columbia looking around for a manila envelope and my hands struck a hefty envelope. I was about to throw it out when the cover letter struck me. It was rather ingenuously written. It was by a girl named Nettie Koppel, who was a student at Queens College when I was an instructor, though she had never studied with me. She enclosed a short novel and I started reading it. I read about two pages and put it down because I was afraid that if I read more I would be disappointed. So I called the number listed and found out from her mother that Nettie was now married and her name was Nettie Gross. I called her and invited her to sit in on my class. She’s a very unusual girl. I took the novel home and finished it on the train. The rest was every bit as good as the first page. I gave it to my agent. This is the first one by a student she ever agreed to handle that was brought to her by one of her fiction clients. This was over a year ago and the book has been everywhere and nobody bought it. What was the point of this anecdote? Oh comic . . . it was hilarious. It was the first thing in the Jewish genre written from the point of view of an orthodox girl. A brilliant sense of humor. She sent it to “The New Yorker” for possible excerpting and she said that she got back one of the nastiest letters she has ever in her life received. Which confirms my statement about the Jewish genre being dead.

JOB: What about classic works of comedy?

WM: Well, you can’t beat Dickens for certain kinds of things. Even from a certain perspective, Homer can be funny. I had to teach a course in classics in translation. Suddenly during my lecture I found certain things in “The Iliad” that could be seen as comic. And Chaucer and Shakespeare. Mark Twain of course. I’m leaving out what were once the black humorists. I used to find Bruce J. Friedman funny. I don’t know if I care to laugh anymore in fiction.

JOB: I want to go back to the idea of timing and humor, though it may require you to talk about your old novels. The timing in a line of comic prose is obviously different from the timing in the humor of a stand-up comic. The stand-up comic uses space, silence, gesture . . .

WM: Or stammering.

JOB: How do you do that in prose?

WM: I can’t tell you how I did it. I remember parts of “You Could Live” that gave me exquisite pain. There’s one rapping section between Farber and Chandler where each in his own way is complaining how boring it is screwing all this enraptured, writhing pussy. And Chandler is saying, “Ah yes once more into the breech with Vonnegut and Barth and Pynchon.” Each is telling his own tale. Chandler of his own women who eat all the right things and say all the right phrases, and Farber is talking about his Bronx thumpers that you had to shove up nine flights of stairs in cold water flats. And the only reason I wanted that was that I wanted to end with a rap against Pauline Kael. Chandler is saying something like, “She has everything that Pauline Kael has.” And the chapter had to end with “mustache, muscles, broad shoulders.” Oh, that cost me much work. It’s easier in set pieces such as the sister’s section where she walks and talks, a monologue that could go on for as long as I wished really. The only limitation is your own attitude. It’s really Nichols and May.

JOB: Let’s take as an example the lists in “Teitlebaum.” Is there a buildup in those that relates to the timing of the stand-up comic or are they arbitrarily strung out?

WM: A little of both I guess. Each chapter was sort of plotted. I knew I had to introduce my principal characters. After that, having hit upon the pop culture device, everything was improvised. My favorite chapters were the attempted suicide of Mr. Merz and a chapter that absolutely nobody got- this was the delicatessen store thing with Madam Ducoff, the fortune teller. Nobody seemed to realize that I meant her to be a genuine prophet, truly an augury of things to come. If people got it, nobody cared to mention it. And two more chapters I liked were the literary salon with the high school creative writers held at Mr. Sobler’s house, and finally Simon’s encounter with the Career Employment agency. Why I chose the suicide, I don’t know. That was not planned, but I definitely planned the writing class; for that I went back to my own high school days. Certainly I wanted to do the employment agency because that was the story of my life. So I would start out with such ideas and just sort of hear them and improvise.

JOB: There’s an oral quality to your style. Do you have to hear what you’re writing?

WM: Yes. Too much, so I guess. That may be my ruination.

JOB: Do you hear the sound of prose in your mind or read it out loud before you know it’s right?

WM: I still have to hear it. It’s a terrible affliction. If I hit a bad sentence, it kills me. If I find that I use the same word in the same paragraph, I kill myself correcting it. Bellow, for instance, has done some very bad writing. The son of a bitch remains line for line, I’m sure, the most gifted guy in America. But there’s an awful lot of sloppiness from “Herzog” to “Humboldt.” I can give you instances in certain paragraphs of Bellow, the early Bellow. I used to teach “Herzog” so I know this very well. There are paragraphs, for example, in which the word “powerful” appears four times and the word “with” is a great favorite of Bellow’s.

JOB: Is this oral quality the reason that you don’t have much description?

WM: That’s a good insight. I don’t have much description of what?

JOB: Scenery. You do not say things “look” like. There’s almost nothing of the pictorial in your style. That seems to be replaced with the sound of the voice.

WM: Go back to “To An Early Grave” and there are some very precise description of passing scenes as they’re driving. There is very little in “You Could Live” because it wasn’t called for. Possibly there’s little because I am bored with it or possibly because I don’t do it very well. Maybe it’s a weakness of mine, just as my women characters are. I dislike very much such things as, “He rose and crossed the living room, the freshly painted living room to the bathroom and turned on an orange-hued light.” Bellow is marvelous because he has almost total recall. I have another kind of recall.

JOB: I think that descriptive passages would interrupt your pace.

WM: They would. There’s a certain kind of description I love. It’s the camera-eye description. There’s one illustration in the first chapter of “Teitlebaum” where Simon and his mother are leaning out the window just looking. It’s a description of what they see, but again in the form of listing.

JOB: What goes into choosing a title?

WM: The working title for “To An Early Grave” was “The Mourners.” All the time I spent coming up with a title! “Teitlebaum” was originally called “Sloan” but I knew I wasn’t going to stay with it; it was just a means of identification. “You Could Live” had various working titles. I decided on “To An Early Grave” because I believe that every title should have a dual meaning or ambiguity. There’s a Jewish expression “he’s gone to an early grave” and “they,” the characters, are going to an early grave. “Teitlebaum” was simple—Teitlebaum’s window. That sort of declared itself. “With You Could Live,” there was no reason for the title except the Yiddish saying which translates, “you could live if they let you.”

JOB: It also sounds like the punchline of a joke.

WM: Yes. I wanted something that would convey comic aggravation. For my new novel I have chosen a title which I think will be “Radical Surgery.” That fulfills my earlier stricture: it has an ambiguous connotation, but I won’t go into that. The funny thing is that my wife knows that title and has seen every line of it thus far, but she hasn’t the faintest idea why it’s called “Radical Surgery.” I’m screaming to tell somebody; in fact, there’s nobody in the world who knows.

JOB: I want to ask again about dialogue. How should it work in fiction? Should it be indirect? Should it convey information

Comments are closed.