A Conversation with Paul West
From "The Review of Contemporary Fiction," Spring 1991, Vol. 11.1
By David W. Madden
The following interview was conducted in the front room of Paul West's home in Ithaca, New York, 15-17 June 1989. The discussion was memorable for many reasons, not least of which were the torrential downpour outside, a temperamental fluorescent light that hummed and buzzed on and off, and a persistent groundhog determined to drown itself in West's pool. Each day West would greet me at noon with lunch, and throughout our conversation he was patient with the questions and eager to respond. He has been equally gracious in answering further questions through the mail. In all my dealings with Paul West I have found him to be delightful—witty, considerate, solicitous, and extremely generous. In all ways, this project has been a genuine pleasure.
DM: Will you describe the importance Samuel Beckett has had for you? Much that you write has direct references, allusions, mentions of Beckett.
PW: Nearly everybody you talk to about fiction seems to think there's a fundamental incompatibility between writing fiction and having a good mind. Beckett struck me as somebody with a good mind who is able to write fiction, thus demonstrating that there is no paradox at all. On the level of sheer intellectual entertainment, he gives you nonstop fodder, and I like that about him. He is adroit and sophisticated, not showing off, but actually inventing things, in an almost Nabokovian way. When I did my Beckett seminar, we did fiction; we didn’t do the plays, and the students responded to the arc of his career. There is real trajectory in Beckett, and you can see his complex developing. His books—like "Watt"— are difficult reading, but they repay you enormously if you stay with them. They’re funny; they’re profound; they’re poignant in the extreme, more poignant than anything. When I first read him in the early sixties, I thought: Here’s a man who believes, as few do, that fiction can evolve, can mutate, can become different things at different times. It’s not fixed for all times ever, by anyone. I think "The Lost Ones" and "Texts for Nothing" are marvelous. He did something with fiction nobody else wanted to do. He shredded it and distilled it, but it’s not minimalist. Beckett is not minimalist; he has a maximal mind distilled and shrunken almost to a breaking, snapping point. That’s a very different predicament from the vacancy paraded in minimalist writing.
DM: What about Byron? Lately you’ve been returning to Byron.
PW: Byron, by and large, is a bad poet, but fascinating nonetheless. Byron is a bit like Beckett. He has a good mind, a shrewd, adroit, concise, analytical mind, and I think the real Byron is in letters, which are marvelous. The journals are even better, at least those we’ve got. If you go to them from some of the poetry, there’s a tremendous intellectual lapse.
DM: In "Lord Byron’s Doctor," this is the Byron you’re giving free play to.
PW: That’s a well-taken point, that this Byron who is I suppose vestigially there (some of the journals were actually destroyed) is worth thinking about. A human being leaves, really, a very paltry record behind, no matter how much he/she has written when you compare that with all the thinking that went on nonstop every day of that person’s life. Nathalie Sarraute calls it sub-conversation.
DM: Sub-conversation, that’s a great coinage.
PW: Sub-conversation. Krishnamurti said, "How the mind chatters to itself." The whole idea of the mind’s chattering to itself without being spoken, printed, published, or recorded fascinates me. The sub conversation isn’t available; therefore the fiction writer has to do it. In bulk.
DM: You’ve spoken elsewhere about your admiration for Sartre’s "Existentialism and Humanism;" could you talk about its effects on you?
PW: When I first read the man at seventeen, I thought: He understands. He knows what I want to do. From an early age I knew I wanted to get out of the mining village of my youth and had intimations from reading of different ways of living, but it did not occur to me that I wanted to be a novelist. I just wanted to get out of there to some university and think about it again. That was a reasonably big shift for a kid from a mediocre grammar school. Except that I had three amazing women who taught English, French, and Latin and Greek. They were marvelous to me. They encouraged me because they felt I had some gift for languages and should pursue that, and they groomed me. The one who taught Latin, her favorite reading was Proust, and I remember when I was about fifteen, she said here’s something you really ought to read, and she gave me some "A la recherche." I don’t think I did. I was reading Faulkner on my own, but I thought my god, this is wonderful; I’ve got Proust to come after Faulkner.
DM: Could you discuss what you do when you write? How do your novels start; is each a new, unique experience?
PW: There are two answers to that. All the time, whatever I’m doing, I hear this noise in my head that never really goes away. It’s permanent. I mean I’m out there throwing a ball around. I’m swimming. I’m cooking. I’m talking. It’s always there. I wish it weren’t because sometimes it’s a damn nuisance. Like a squeaky conveyor belt. There’s always something on it, and perhaps that something isn’t very useful all the time. When a novel begins, there’s just more on the belt, just images and phrases, really quite obsessive things start coming along, and I ask, "What’s this? Is this worth pursuing?" It’s very concrete and specific when I get to the point of thinking maybe I can write a book. "Stauffenberg" began with an image, and I didn’t know whose, but it was actually an image from a war magazine. The thing began haunting me. My father was half-blinded in the war, and he wore an eye-patch sometimes; but it wasn’t my father. Finally I ran it down in a very systematic way, then went and researched it and figured out who he was. But not before having written twenty or twenty-five pages predicated on the vignette of the face and sheer ignorance. I wrote a trial piece with him being hanged. Of course he wasn’t hanged. He was shot. I must have had some subliminal record of what happened to him. Then I thought, "It’s the man who tried to kill Hitler." I began using third person, wrote fifty pages and stopped. It sounded like John Toland or William Shirer, so I junked it, went back and put it in first person and immediately took off and felt right. Though I had problems because he was this German whose English was fluent. In what language did he think? I mean he thought in German. He wasn’t thinking in English, so there was a certain fraudulence to the whole thing. But I learned to live with that; whereas, writing in third person, I was less responsible for the chatter of his mind and could tell things from the outside quite responsibly.
DM: But what about a book like "Tenement of Clay"? Did that too have some vague inspiration? I know you have mentioned Kasper Hauser; was the novel a conscious attempt to produce a twentieth-century Kaspar Hauser? Or did it come about in some fluky, inadvertent way?
PW: Not really. Papa Nick, who runs the brownstone tenement, actually existed, and I found him in a news magazine with a picture. Somebody had discovered him running this place. I unwisely told Harper & Row it had come from a news magazine, and they immediately installed in the contract an indemnification clause in case this guy brought any kind of legal action. But he died soon after the book came out, so there were never any problems. Much later on, I realized I was doing another Kaspar Hauser, who in the novel is John Lacland.
DM: While the focus of attention is on Papa Nick, I found Pee Wee Lazarus incredibly hypnotic and compelling with his verbal hesitation and perverse motivation.
PW: He just came. He was not a construct. He sprang fully formed. He was fun to work with. He was fun to write. I enjoyed doing that. I remember very distinctly writing it to Prokofiev’s Fourth Symphony.
DM: This sounds very much like writing "Place" to Busoni.
PW: Yes, exactly the same. I just happened to have that record and began to associate it with the act of writing a book and eventually couldn’t split them apart.
DM: Was this in your mind before you began writing and you put the thing on and . . .
PW: It’s actually serendipity. But once it’s happened about fifty sixty times the engrams are saturated. I guess if I had dropped the bloody record I would have had to buy another. I wouldn’t have been able to continue.
DM: The entry in "World Authors" describes "Tenement of Clay" as "a cruel but also extremely funny novel." As you look back on it, how do you see "Tenement"?
PW: I see it as neither: not cruel and not funny. It’s poignant and mythic. I haven’t read it in a long time, but I’m still fond of it, even if only for the music I listened to while writing it.
DM: At one point in "Tenement" Pee Wee Lazarus writes, "I know now at least in my moments of repose that the secret of life is to learn to exclude, to achieve fullness we must achieve shutout." Do you agree with Lazarus? Much of your writing celebrates the embrace, the inclusion of fullness.
PW: I don’t agree with him at all. He’s wrong, and I never did believe that.
DM: It seems so antithetical to everything else you’ve said.
PW: He’s antithetical in every way. His resurrection is a tiny one, hence, Pee Wee Lazarus. The name, I think, was meant to be allegorical. Pee Wee is not PW.
DM: That’s not the next question by the way. Lacland reminds me very much of Bartleby, especially when he begins to revert to his former self. Knowing that you appreciate Melville, was he any inspiration for this?
PW: No way. I hadn’t read it when the work was written. To me it’s my first novel. The one I repudiated is not my first novel. I had a totally different feeling writing "Tenement" than I had writing "A Quality of Mercy."
DM: Can you explain what that feeling was? Did you know you were on to something, this was more the real thing?
PW: Writing the first novel was hard work. In writing the second, there was something compulsive. It wanted to be written. It came naturally. I wasn’t straining for effects. I wasn’t running out of characters.
DM: It sounds as if this is where you discovered your own voice.
PW: I think so. The first novel was very much an attempt to write in the manner of other writers, like Hemingway and Faulkner, and then never write like that again and to find my voice. I think "Tenement" plays the beginnings of the voice, though maybe not the complete register.
DM: You’ve commented that with "Rat Man" you learned of a boulevardier from friends who returned from Paris and told you about the fellow. All that sounds very neat and logical. Did it come at all from you seeing "mutiles de guerre" or any other people, or was it actually this one particular person who worked his way into your head?
PW: That seed burgeoned fast, but only because I had a book on the massacre of Oradour which I immediately linked with Rat Man’s possible past. All of this is vision. It’s not just music; it’s visual too. Once I get the right visual image, I know where I am; I know what I’m doing. But until I get it, I don’t think I’m in the mood.
DM: This reminds me of the watercolor illustrations you made of Stauffenberg standing before the firing squad.
PW: Yes, they helped me a great deal because I kept getting them wrong, which eye and which arm he’d lost.
DM: Were these focusing agents for you? Did they center you?
PW: This is very complex. I think that because I enjoy words as much as I do, I sometimes find it hard to see beyond the words to the simplistic, visual external of a human being. I sometimes need to see them in a different way, as if they were commonplace, as if on the street or in the toilet. I have to pin things down.
DM: With "Gala" you include all these illustrations of the Milky Way. Is this another of your attempts to give shape to something largely intangible?
PW: Yes. The missing piece here is that I began as a painter, before writing poetry. I especially enjoyed collages. Some of them are all right and won prizes. And there’s a link, I think, between collages and comparative literature and indeed between disparate objects linked together in the style. There’s a deliberate attempt to synthesize. I can see it in all aspects of things.
DM: One can see this in the manuscript version of "Rat Man," which features collages and illustrations that appear and then reappear in slightly altered form.
PW: That was deliberate. I’d been thinking about Breton’s "Nadja," and how wonderful the photographs are in that book. If I could only do a kind of flick-book novel; it didn’t work, but I made up twenty-thirty collages and spread them throughout.
DM: Yes, up to the Nice section, when it stops. Why did you abandon these? Was it your choice or the publisher’s?
PW: My choice. I looked at it and found the collages useful for these same reasons while writing the book, even though they were distortions, grotesque distortions in some cases. I took pieces of the novel and put them under the collage as captions. At some point I simply thought: "The words are good enough on their own. This is scaffolding. I don’t need it."
DM: The dust jacket of the Doubleday edition preserves one of the collages. Who are these people?
PW: Klaus Barbie. I don’t know who the other is. I got that from "Paris Match," I think. This is uncontaminated, unmessed with—the real thing.
DM: When writing, how consciously do you think of an audience? What is this audience? Nabokov, for instance, once said his primary audience is himself, and then only his wife Vera and a few select readers who know his work. But he says he never writes to the "general" reader. Who’s your audience?
PW: The same. You can’t. I go most of all with the first one. I write for me. And perhaps for nobody else. I’m not aware of trying to please anyone.
DM: Do you ever think, "Oh, this friend will like this"?
PW: Oh, I play games. I do indeed incorporate things. In the sequel to "Rat Man of Paris," which is set in New York, there is an American novelist with an eye-patch, who happens to be Walter Abish, who is an echo of the Spanish novelist in "Rat Man of Paris" who is Juan Goytisolo. And Goytisolo picked up on that so fast and was vastly amused. So there are times when I think, Bill Gass will like this section, or he will like that phrase. There are little jokes and references. In "The Women of Whitechapel," my Jack the Ripper novel, there is a deliberate parody towards the end, about ten lines long, in the prose style of Maurice Blanchot, and anybody who’s read Blanchot is going to laugh because it’s a tribute. When the writing is going full steam, I’m not even aware of being anybody at all. That’s not to say it’s orgasmic or anything, or that I’m the conduit for anything. But I have a tremendous sense not of its writing itself but of almost being along for the ride. I’m still in charge, but it’s not an audience mode at all.
DM: Yes, Nabokov utterly rejects the notion of a book just writing itself. Somewhere he says something about being the perfect creator of his little world.
PW: You’ve got to be in charge. You are in charge of keeping a team of wild horses on track. Writing depresses some people. It doesn’t depress me. I love to be doing it two or three hours a day. And that’s quite enough. It’s draining and fatiguing, but when I go back and revise, I’m in a very different frame of mind, calculating, very deliberate. And quite savage, willing to slash anything out that doesn’t seem right. You have to be ringmaster. You have to be transcriber, translator, eavesdropper; you’re all of those things. You are still responsible. If you’re a good existentialist, it’s still your fault, whatever happens. It’s not the fault of the prose; it’s not the typewriter; it’s you. You’re the only one who’s getting it wrong, and I think that’s a big responsibility. It never goes away.
DM: Is there anything more you want to say about influence or appreciation of the Mexican, Latin American, or South American writers whom you have talked about in so many places? Do you want to say anything about why you have such strong feelings of affinity with them?
PW: I think they reminded other people than me as well that it was possible to write the "total novel." I think the phrase is Mario Vargas Llosa’s. In other words, the novel is not a form of exclusion. Anything can fall into the novel, including unrespectable things like superstition. There is no taboo. In other words we can move into history and move it around. History can be imagery, and theology can be a matter of miracles and textures and impromptu discoveries. It’s all available, ransackable material. I think that the Latin Americans in their sophisticatedly innocent way remind us of that. I guess I knew it all along because I was always zooming off, thinking Europeans have a much wider horizon than the English writers I was supposed to be reading in my student days.
DM: Did it provide a shock like that of finding unknown kin?
PW: Yes, I felt less lonely all of a sudden. Reading Sarte I felt less lonely and reading the Latin Americans made me feel there are people who are doing the kind of thing I want to do and they have different reasons than I. An enormous door swung open and I thought I’d come to the wrong country. I should have gone south of the border, down Mexico way. That’s where I really belonged. You see, I don’t want the arts to linger behind. It’s not so much a matter of experiment; you can experiment in the dark or you can be deliberate about it, but I think there is an energy in a given art form that propels it. There is a potential in both the doer and the product, the book that implies further development. There is no full-fledged or consummate form of the novel or poem. Things have to evolve just as human beings have to evolve. It’s defeatist and defeating to think that back in 1927 they discovered for all time the perfect way to have the novel and everything else after that is redundant or repetitious.
DM: Don DeLillo has said that our best writers "feel that the novel’s vitality requires risks not only by them [the writers] but by readers as well." He goes on to say, "maybe it’s not writers alone who keep the novel alive, but a more serious kind of reader." What do you think the reader’s role is or should be?
PW: Accomplice. I think the reader has to be willing to work hard, has to be willing to do some work. No worthwhile book is going to go through them like a laxative. It’s not as if fiction were a recipe. If you followed it, you got a perfect meal within those parameters. It’s not. It’s a hit or miss game and the reader brings a subjectivity to another subjectivity. A very chancy game. It’s like the thing they make you sign in hospitals. Medicine is not an exact science, and I am always heartened to find readers who are willing to try. In teaching you always have to figure out: does the book you’re dealing with in any way teach you how to read it? And sometimes the answer is no, and you fall on your face; whereas a book like "Remembrance of Things Past" does teach you how to read it because you begin it by thinking it will never end, and you end up wondering if it will ever begin.
DM: You recently wrote a review of Katherine Dunn’s "Geek Love," and you were taken to task by a feminist critic. Do you think her reaction, small though it may be, reveals in a broader sense an increasing, almost ideological intolerance of literature, whether the ideology—if that is the best word—is feminist, deconstructionist, or religious (as in the case of the Salman Rushdie controversy)?
PW: Literature is here to disturb us and make us more aware. If you’re disturbed, you’re probably more aware anyway. I’ve always believed that education (and I think that reading novels is part of your education) exists primarily to unfit people for society; society has so many means of steamrolling people down, trimming them until they fit exactly. Education goes on after college in the form of reading books—if that doesn’t protect them and save them from society, then nothing else will.
DM: You’ve written books reviews for many years and still continue to write them. Why? What’s in it for you? Why do it?
PW: I used to do many more. In the old days I did it for the money because I wasn’t being paid very well, and if you did enough of it, you could actually double your income. I thought it a good discipline; I learned a lot about being concise. Why do I do it now? It keeps me up-to-date. It brings books my way which I might never read. And it’s good for me, especially when I’m not writing a novel or something. I don’t get rusty, and I think I learn something. I find writing reviews much more difficult than writing novels. The amount of work that goes into reading a novel, thinking about it, writing a satisfactory comment on it in a thousand words or so, that’s real discipline.
DM: In the preface to "Stauffenberg," you mention medieval books of hours influencing your writing of that novel. Could you comment a bit more on the nature of that influence? Were books of hours a serendipitous kick in the pants?
PW: Those books offer a way of looking at people that is heraldic and I think expressionistic. Those drawings are extraordinary.
DM: Given what we were saying earlier about existentialism and the idea of responsibility, can’t "Stauffenberg, in one way, be seen as the story of a man who comes to assume a responsibility, an awesome, arduous, terrible responsibility?
DM: But he is absolutely compelled, and books of hours are all about responsibility—who we should be and how we should live.
PW: Good point.
DM: I’m wondering if there isn’t a connection there.
PW: There probably was. I don’t remember being specific about it. I know while writing I had King Rene’s book on my desk. I wasn’t using it as any kind of stimulus, but it was there, and I distinctly remember seeing people with their faces painted gold. No doubt about it, Stauffenberg was a prince deprived of his inheritance by the Nazis, and he could get it back only by walking back into the deadly enclosure. What he didn’t realize was that in order to prevail he had to lose his life. I think that in several of the pictures in King Rene’s book; people are removing their hearts from their bodies and handing them to somebody else. I regard the book of hours as part of the nobleman’s duty. It’s all part and parcel of his responsibility to his tribe, to his people, I guess to his destiny.
DM: Stauffenberg was a Catholic, and I wonder if this suggests another connection with the notion of responsibility, what one must do?
PW: Oh, I think so. That’s the pitch he made to his friends to get them to come in with him, that to kill Hitler was the Christian thing to do, though not the Catholic thing. Lots of them had trouble with murder, and lots of them had trouble with suicide. I find it fascinating, this Hamletizing. He wants it both ways. He wants to kill the man, and he wants to inherit Germany, be one of the people who are going to run it. It seems to me almost like the core of a Greek tragedy. In order to get things back, he had to lose his life, which is a very Christian notion.
DM: Early in "The Place in Flowers" George thinks of those who admire his kachina dolls. And at one point we have this passage: "and one is a guy from Pennsylvania who flies in once a year, to see what he can pick up." I assume this is a reference to yourself.
PW: I like to fly in occasionally and see what I can pick up. You know it’s nice to have a walk-on part in your own book, especially when one is that one.
DM: And I think we’re back to something we talked about earlier, the jokes, the asides, the things . . .
PW: Little indices to me; pretty overt, I guess. Little signs of the author playing games as he’s telling you the story.
DM: In many ways "Place" strikes me as a very religious book. It deals with faith for those who have and for those who don’t have it. Could you comment on this aspect of the novel and any research you did on Hopi religion?
PW: It’s a religious book in a wide sense, not sectarian though. I really saw something in what they were doing.
DM: Did you make a study of their religion?
PW: I got into it, and I still am into it to a certain extent. They revere everything around them, never mind how paltry-looking it is. When they kill something, they actually commune with it before they kill it, and after they kill it, they see a blank where it was. They are very remarkable people. I didn’t, however, learn the Hopi language. It would take a long time to do that. But it struck me that they were almost into this I/thou thing which Buber used to talk about, which was fashionable twenty years ago. They have an ecumenical, holistic sense of everything they do. Nothing’s trivial. Everything is consequential. Everything is universal. I found that reassuring. My other research consisted of talking to some Hopi and to some experts on the Hopi as well. I found the Hopi fascinating. I began collecting kachina dolls. These are personifications, at least to the Hopi. Rehearsals and ways of getting to know their rituals and masks and images that show up in the tribal dances.
DM: Since we were talking about religion, what was your religious training, if any, and how lasting was its influence? Sectarian or not?
PW: Virtually nil. Oh, I was obliged to go to Sunday school, and that was what you would call Episcopalian until I was about ten. And then I rebelled. I was bored and used to hide out. One of the places I used to hide out was an outdoor toilet, and I used to sit in there and couldn’t wait until Sunday school was over and then come back. I did this for a year, and then was found out. My father said, "Why should he have to go to Sunday school? To hell with it." He didn’t go, and my mother said, "Fine, if he doesn’t go, he’ll be a liberal." They never were really, my father especially, devout people, so I never absorbed much of that. I have very distinct memories of being in church watching all the rituals, thinking: this is splendid, but I can’t connect it with God. This was as a kid. I didn’t really know why I was there. I used to love to go to the theater and the movies, but I couldn’t see why this particular movie theater was so special. It was obligatory. I was getting something that would improve me as a human being. I forgot it, and I’ve had very little contact with any kind of organized religion since. Several students or people who have written about my stuff have said, "You’re a real Hindu, an actual Hindu," which surprised me. Several other people said, "You’re really a natural mystic," and since the Hopi novel several other people have said it too.
DM: But the way you talk about the universe, as a beloved thing which you come to with almost reverential speculation, is almost a religious response to the all and the everything.
PW: Probably so, but it’s not sentimental. And it’s not programmatic. The universe is a hostile place, and stars are not gentle entities. Some planets are not gentle. Venus is ungentle; it’ll fry you and dissolve you. I think there’s an equal measure of revulsion and delight. It’s magnificent, but it has no brain. It has no intellect. It’s matter. It’s violent, destructive matter. Some people think the universe is a gentle, accommodating place. I don’t see how you can. Fission, fusion, quasars, novas and supernovas, red giants—ultimately the Earth will be fried by the sun, turned into a red giant. It’s benign enough now, but it won’t be. I don’t think there’s any program-creating, presiding intellect watching over it. It wouldn’t make sense to me that it was like that, which I guess is to say that it’s not there to cater to human beings, and that’s probably a stupid point of view. The universe is not cut to the human scale. It’s not there to please human beings. It’s its own project. I got into all this thinking about the absurd because there’s nothing absurd about the universe. The only absurd thing in the universe is the human being, who wants the universe not to seem "absurd," and absurd means in defiance of human desire. Camus said the absurd is the gap between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints. I don’t think the universe is going to change to please us. It’s always going to disappoint.
DM: Could you comment on the sense of time in "The Place in Flowers"? It seems to me an almost atemporal book.
PW: The Hopi sense of time is incredibly universe-ridden. Time gets abolished in certain sections, mainly via Uncle George who has absolutely no sense of where he is. He doesn’t even know if death comes after life, he’s not sure, and that was deliberate.
DM: And isn’t that what Oswald is received into when he dresses up as Mastop, the death fly kachina, at the end? His entree there is to George’s time which is no time, atemporality.
PW: Oswald has nowhere to go; essentially time swallows him, provided he puts on the garb of Mastop. As long as he is willing to make that concession to local mysticism, he can disappear from time into a universe as old as Hopi myth, which goes back to Spider Woman, rolling a bit of clay in her hands, creating the world and people in it. Originally the book had a very long pseudo-epigraph, like seven pages, from a totally bogus astronomy primer that I had broken up into various sections.
DM: And all this is spurious now?
PW: I took the epigraph out. What I was trying to do was indicate a cosmic cloud or a galaxy winding among the sections; you can’t do this in words. It doesn’t work. It’s the wrong shape. It looks like print. So I was playing with a group of galaxies called Stephan’s Quintet: five galaxies, I think of different kinds, all traveling at different speeds. Four of them coming toward us and one going away. Four red-shifted, one blue—this has always intrigued me. I wanted five sections. I still do. One of which was really going away. If I were making a mobile, I could do it. If I were painting, I could probably do it. How do you do this in words, other than sort of feeble puns about recession and distance and smaller print? So I abandoned it.
DM: But you’re talking about how to do it stylistically, linguistically, rather than referentially.
PW: Yes, absolutely. If you had enough money you could do it. If the book didn’t look like a book, but like one of those children’s books. Every thing pops up and amplifies. Origami novel.
DM: Do you think that the presence of Sotuqnangu amounts to a voice from the other side and reinforces the sense of atemporality?
PW: Yes; he’s the narrator and he’s protean. He’s sometimes a god, sometimes a narrator, sometimes a malicious eavesdropper. And I think there are other incarnations.
DM: He’s the bane of George’s existence. George can’t decide where he stands with him, invokes him, at other times profanes him.
PW: He overhears everything, and rarely intervenes. I think in the original version, I mean the manuscript of this thing was gigantic, it was 1400 pages, I thought what a wonderful thing it would be if on one page only he said one word in his own right, but I threw that idea out too. I found him fascinating because he was a repersonification of the omniscient narrator, but omniscient in a very different way. He was omniscient in about everything else as well, not just about the novel. I hope that comes through. He is interested in more than people. He’s vaguely tending his creation and saying, "Why do they make models of me; it’s stupid." He was fun to play with. He didn’t come easily. It took me three versions to realize his role.
DM: What kind of historical research did you conduct to prepare for "Stauffenberg"?
PW: The university I was teaching at had a rather splendid collection of some five hundred books on the German Resistance. I went up there one day, when I had finally realized who this guy was, that he had been shot and not hanged, and I wanted more details, and there were masses of books with photographs and everything. I read all, or skimmed most of them.
DM: How long did this take?
PW: About two years. It’s a lot quicker than you might think because you get to know what you’re looking for with good use of indexes and so on. I would sit up there every afternoon and evening making my notes, Xeroxes, sketches, etc., actually trying to read some of the stuff that was in German. I don’t know German. There’s one book, a little red book that didn’t seem very significant, "Death in Plotzensee," and it was nothing but an account for all the executions that had ever been done in that particular jail and how they were conducted and what the technique was and what they did after the execution. They either drew a line through the person’s name in pen or they drew a cross alongside.
DM: I also noticed that you began doing a clutch of reviews dealing with things related to the Third Reich. Did these stoke the fires?
PW: They provided me with other books to read, other images, and I also discovered what I guess is no discovery to most people: that history is really fiction, and that the most reliable names in history actually lie and embellish, and I would perhaps find fifteen to twenty accounts of one event. I would type them out and look at them, and ultimately give what really happened, what was true.
DM: How much variance could you find sometimes?
PW: Gigantic. Enormous. Unthinkable. And my feeling was, hey, I’m the fiction writer. Leave me alone. Leave me something to do. For instance, a number of historians contend that some of the plotters were hanged with piano wire on hooks. It wasn’t piano wire. It was cord made of hemp. Some of them went beyond even that and said Admiral Canaris was hanged seven times and lifted down six. The truth is they hanged him and hanged him just once.
DM: How free did you feel to take liberties with history?
PW: I thought I was absolutely free. I didn’t take many liberties at all. There was no need to intensify or rearrange. The whole design of the plot had an eerie symmetry. It was ready-made. And the image I was groping for earlier was, we don’t use it anymore, people buying people’s souls. He bought their souls, meaning he didn’t buy them; he redeemed them. Stauffenberg was trying to buy people’s, at least young people’s, souls. I am glad I wrote the book. It got through to a lot of people.
DM: This next question deals with the area in which I think you take the greatest liberties. Both the novels "Stauffenberg" and "The Place in Flowers," some of the stories in "Universe," and even the final section of "Lord Byron’s Doctor" revolve around voices from the other side, dead figures who people the world with language, shadowy but nonetheless palpable presences. Could you comment on this tendency?
PW: Nicely said. I agree. I hear voices. Do they hear me?
DM: And in that whole last section Stauffenberg is dead, yet he tells us of the rest of the executions.
PW: Since becoming a novelist, I’ve heard many more voices more irresistibly coming through, sometimes when I don’t want them. I think I hear a character’s voice before I see his or her face or anything else. Fiction can sometimes get close to opera, recitative, and it’s tied into what I said about the mind chattering to itself. In a way human beings, while living their lives, are singing to themselves, as if they all had a Bach cantata inside their heads. It’s involuntary. It’s not something they think about. It’s a keening noise. It’s the noise of being human, even though you don’t express it overtly in language. And I think sometimes those voices, which appear to be voices of the characters, are their covert, clandestine, underground, interior voices, not the voices they use to talk to people with, and they tend to merge sometimes; it’s a chorus, a fact or phenomenon I find very interesting and don’t quite understand. Not quite Greek chorus, not quite symphonic, operatic chorus, but voices, you know, rising out of the mud. I think Beckett is the person with the most voices, voices rising out of the mud, soaring above the mud, moving through the galaxy.
DM: Look at Molloy talking and talking, especially about the sucking stones. The major point there is the exercise of a voice. One of my friends has a phrase for this. He says it’s talking in tones. It’s not what you’re saying; it’s how you’re saying it.
PW: I believe that. And it’s rhythm too. Maybe voice is the wrong word for it; maybe that sounds too external. It’s a kind of soft, communing evocation. It’s powerful to me, and novels that I have finished still make noises as do characters that I no longer deal with. I think the sound of "Stauffenberg" will never go from my ears, whether it’s his mind I’m overhearing or his actual voice. Ah, the vox pox.
DM: In her rollicking soliloquy in "Gala," Milk makes the following remark . . .
PW: A rollicking soliloquy?
DM: That’s the way I see it.
PW: Well, that’s nice.
DM: She says, "After all, to miss a trick such as AUG and have your protagonist remind you of it through [centrifugal] ventriloquism, isn’t that a bit thick?" What exactly is the lesson she’s trying to teach her father?
PW: A good question. He is providing her with a thought that perhaps she already has but which she cannot voice. This is her interior voice talking.
DM: And his presumed ideas.
PW: Presumptions, of what her interior voice might be like although he doesn’t know and he never will. And that in a sense is another of these damned voices. It’s also an example of how in words, and maybe not in any other medium, you can do an impossibility. This is unique to words. I don’t think you can do this in music or in painting. I think that you can use the language itself. Here is an example of nonlanguage being done in a very articulate, almost pedantic, scholarly way, and the joke is that it’s unverifiable. You make a very good point. If somebody had said to me, "Can you give an example from your work of the De Quinceyan involute, in other words, a compound experience incapable of being disentangled, something very close to what Beckett has said and Keat’s negative capability?" I would pick that. One is entitled to confront the reader with responses to the universe every bit as baffling as the universe itself. I do, and that is one version of it. Not a typical version. A fairly uplift version. You said "rollicking." I think that’s a good word.
DM: In your collected papers I found something, it probably means nothing to you, in a file on deafness. On a piece of notepaper there’s one line in your handwriting that reads, "assault on the reader—ice axe." Does this fragment suggest an approach you think is consistent in most of your writing, especially in your novels?
PW: You’ve rung a bell. All I can think of is Kafka; it has something do with Kafka.
DM: The image of the ice axe is particularly compelling.
PW: The quote, as I recall it, is something like using an ice axe on a frozen sea. I think that’s Kafka. It’s a phrase I found in a review I’d written. The image has to do with getting through to the reader, which is as difficult as going out to a frozen sea with an ice axe and hammering your way through.
DM: Do you see fiction as a kind of assault on the reader in the demands that it makes?
PW: Mine sometimes, a lot of fiction, no. Much fiction is like mustard spread over the belly, take it or leave it, who cares. Some fiction has intentions on the reader and wants to inflict grievous bodily harm. My Hopi novel inflicts grievous bodily harm on the reader as does some of Beckett, and some Kafka. They create disturbances in the well-tempered harmony of everyday life. I think perhaps one novelist in twenty-five does it. Thomas Bernhard certainly inflicts something upon the reader, and Max Frisch in the very short book, "The Man in the Holocene," is trying to injure the reader. De Quincey was trying to do it. And Carlyle. Joyce certainly.
DM: I think Nabokov also destabilizes the reader.
PW: A lot. What’s that dreadful phrase? Reader-friendly? It isn’t reader friendly; it’s saying to the reader, "I bet you can’t take this, and if you can you’re the kind of reader I want and you’ll stay with me. If you can’t take it, I don’t want you to read me anyway." It’s a power play, I guess, and I do some of that. Some of that is in my Ripper novel, not half as much as you might think. There is very little of it in "Byron’s Doctor," very little indeed, but it’s in the Hopi novel.
DM: I think another novel in which you do that is "Colonel Mint." I’m curious about your reaction to the critic who objected to the whole "detectable relish with which sadism is elaborated in the novel."
PW: That reviewer thought I enjoyed my character’s sufferings. I didn’t. This is complicated. I gave a reading, and somebody said, "How did you mange to bring yourself to write about all these people being hanged and mutilated and so on," and I gave a flip answer—I thought about some heads of departments, some deans, etc. and it became easier. This was flip. As I said to somebody who had written about me, this isn’t sadism, this isn’t gloating. I have to dump my mind in this kind of thing, and the reader’s mind, at least to persuade me that this kind of thing actually goes on. I don’t believe how badly human beings behave to human beings. It’s easy to forget because it is so unpalatable and loathsome. Nothing to do with sadism. I see it as a kind of incessant reminder . . . we should not be treating one another as if we all had the license of stars.
DM: "Colonel Mint" presents one with this quasi-scientific deprogramming which turns into something out of control.
PW: They don’t know what he has seen; he tells them he’s seen an angel. Harold Brodkey wrote a long story about an angel appearing in Harvard Yard, and I think one is entitled to produce the preposterous and say to the reader what would you do? How would you verify this? Would you go through these maneuvers? I think this kind of writing is not popular among American novelists. Few do it. Extremely popular in Europe. It’s not quite absurd; it’s on the verge of it. It happens in the theater. It would be a very strange planet without violence. There would be nothing on the news. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you switched on the news, and these vastly overpaid anchor-fatheads came on and said the top story of the night was Virgil Copland had just finished a new symphony? And things of that ilk for thirty minutes: peaceful, creative news? It perturbs me and sometimes you get the feeling it’s no good writing novels about things.
DM: It should be a novelist’s place to speculate.
PW: I think so, even if you can’t achieve anything, at least you can remind yourself what life is really like. And if anyone wants to tune in, it can remind them too. I don’t think the serious novelist’s place is to cozy up to the reader. Matisse said that he painted so that the tired businessman coming home at night could look at one of his paintings and feel refreshed. Certain kinds of writers have that in mind and want to do it. I don’t think that’s me; what I tend to write is much harsher and less generous and gentle, although there are pacific sections. In other words, he painted in order to entertain, but I get bothered when I think of the serious art form like the novel or the symphony or the elegiac poem as entertainment. It may be incidentally, but primarily it’s not. It’s something much more aggressive and monumental.
DM: In a recent interview you say that you now regard "Colonel Mint" as "a little superficial and flip." Many critical responses saw a great deal more in the novel than you apparently do now. Why do you feel a little off of that work?
PW: I haven’t read it in a long time, but when I last looked at it, it seemed to me too allegorical. I’m not sure allegory is a sufficiently complex form or genre for me to be writing. It seems to me a diagrammatic book, a book with an overt message about the military, a doctrinaire book.
DM: I don’t see it that way at all.
PW: Nobody does. Only I am this critical of it. I think it should have been more a book of symbolism, more a book of myth, not so much an apparently political allegory. I’ll have to reread it. It has a following. People read it and can understand it. I won’t quarrel with anybody who thinks he/she understands.
DM: Is there any chance that you’ll produce a fourth installment to the Alley Jaggers saga?
PW: No, done with him, done in by him. I’m grateful he soared through my life, but I’m through with him. I’ve come a long way. "Alley Jaggers," the first one, was turned into an opera I never saw. Students at Manchester University put it on. Apparently it was a big success, a rock opera. They sent me photos and so on, but I never heard the music. I wonder why.
DM: How do you feel about "Caliban’s Filibuster"?
PW: I like the title and the idea of a journey across the spectrum, and I wanted the publisher to print it on different colors of paper. The book would have been priced at $75. I still think it would be nice to have five hundred handcrafted copies with the color changing. I enjoyed writing "Caliban." It was a completely self-indulgent binge, and I enjoyed doing the drawings in "Gala." Actually there’s a file of them somewhere and they’re all in color. They’re very pretty. Each one is on a separate page done in all kinds of colors, almost like an illuminated manuscript. Of course, none of that got into the book. Both "Gala" and "Caliban" are books of color whose color’s been denied them.
DM: Could you talk a little about "Portable People"? What provoked you to work in such a restricted form beyond the convenience of being able to read these pieces at different functions?
PW: I did one short-short, "The Paganini Break," for "TriQuarterly," who brought out a special issue called "The Minute Story." Then about ten years ago I wrote a long story that appeared in the "Cornell Review" called "Captain Ahab, A Novel by the White Whale." I read it and said there’s another way to do this thing and did the very short version. It was an interesting form to work with. Not quite like the sonnet and not quite like a prose form. But mainly either ventriloquial or narrative, spoken by people still alive, but mainly by people who are dead, either looking back on their careers or just sounding off in general, such as Count Basie, George Gershwin, Madame Curie, Nixon, Pele. Virginia Woolf drowning herself, Nabokov revisiting Cayuga Heights and his favorite liquor store, Goebbels, Goring, Amy Johnson, the aviatrix who crashed into the Thames and was never seen again, a lost soul in every sense. Churchill in Marrakesh. One of them is the Baba of Rai Bouba, the potentate of some weird little kingdom who, whenever he travels outside this tiny country, has two guys walk in front of him with a sack of soil and sprinkle some in front of him, so wherever he walks, he’s walking on home soil. They’re almost like stained glass windows, looking through into history. I collect such things as specimens of human behavior, and I am amazed at the originality and the vitality of people’s responses. It’s a kind of "Canterbury Tales." I wanted a lot of people together, but not to send them on a pilgrimage. I just want a prologue, a permanent prologue as in Chaucer.
DM: Earlier you mentioned about "The Place" that you wanted this five part structure but settled on four, and that fit there. In other books it’s the spectrum or the DNA chain. Is there a sense of forms that is always there and seeking expression and which precedes character or plot or anything else?
PW: I think maybe I’m some sort of composer and really want to design symphonies or sonatas or operas. I do have a strong compulsion to shape, design found-form, ready-made form. I used to look in the table of elements, among other things, and the spectrum, and Stephan’s Quintet. These were givens that I was fascinated by; I thought nobody’s used these as artificial structures in art, why not do it?
DM: Would you care to comment further on your Jack the Ripper novel?
PW: It’s a complex story, almost bloodcurdling. Long and deceptive because it begins as a romance.
DM: Who’s the protagonist?
PW: It struck me that nobody had ever written about the "victims" or regarded them as anything more than pawns, and that was worth doing. At least it was really worth doing until I had to kill them off. The Ripper’s victims are the romance interest.
DM: In your novels, some characters achieve a kind of muted triumph—Rat Man at the end holding up his thumb, Alley in the nuthouse retaining his individuality, Oswald in "The Place in Flowers" finding a place in the Hopi community and in the world at large. In the Ripper novel, though, it doesn’t sound like anyone is able to triumph over the forces of conformity. True?
PW: You sent me in so many different directions with that question. Let me interject one thing. I’m not sure that Rat Man’s holding up his thumb signifies any kind of triumph. It’s conceivable that he means let it all come down, let it happen all over again. It may be a gesture of supreme apathy or stoicism perhaps. Now what did you ask about conformity?
DM: In some of your novels there’s a qualified victory in the sense that the character continues, carries on. In this novel it sounds like all the people who either want to or try to pit themselves against conformity are annihilated or taken over?
PW: They are. There were no survivors. Sickert, for instance, is marked for life, and although he goes on and has a fairly successful career, he can’t shed the burden until the very end when he tells his son. What interests me most, though, are the women. They don’t really have anywhere they can hide, and nobody gave a damn. Retrospectively, it would be nice to have them give their account.
DM: Sickert, the painter, witnesses these murders. Is it your design to present a divided guy who on the one hand wants to find a way to save the women and get out of the whole thing, and at the same time is driven to see how awful all this can be?
PW: Absolutely right. He has this double emotion. He wants to be rid of it. He wants to get the women out of harm’s way, but another part of him wants to see it happen so he can paint it. He can’t resist. An alternative title was "The Eye of the Beholder" [since changed to "The Women of Whitechapel"]. He’s a voyeur, your friendly neighborhood voyeur who gets in too deep, and can’t get out and witnesses the murders.
DM: "The Eye of the Beholder" is an interesting title because it suggests that this eye is also that of the novelist who from a different perspective writes this from a point of view of Sickert’s son, who eventually learns of his father’s role in the atrocities. Just as the father has to carry this awful burden, here’s the son who one day discovers a new father and now he carries this burden.
PW: You’re absolutely right. The son doesn’t appear much, but I make the novelist into a voyeur too. It’s a third-person novel, and the voice of Sotuqnangu is heard again in the land. First I thought I’d write it in first person with Sickert looking back from all of this, but it didn’t give me enough range and perspective. I wanted to get away from him, had to get away from him because of the little things he wouldn’t allow himself to see.
DM: Whether it is landscape or the inner recesses of the mind or whatever, I’m concerned with your notion of setting in the broadest sense.
PW: Whitechapel was a slum. I read a powerful essay on conditions of life in Whitechapel in 1888. Apparently when children died, as they often did, they just put them under the table and left them there to rot and this brought the rats.
DM: So life here was completely expendable, especially for the most powerless—women and children.
PW: Yes, it says a great deal about the status or nonstatus of women at that time. There weren’t five hundred men being killed. Women were a lower order. Nobody cared what happened to them. They themselves had a sort of, to take your word, "rollicking" stoicism about it because they were mostly walking about blind, easy, easy prey. I thought it was interesting to look at them as the lowest of the low, sort of fighting back against the massive establishment and getting nowhere and being wiped out.
DM: In one of our conversations you mentioned that you felt any writer has a finite number of deeply held ideas to which he or she returns frequently. Without being hopelessly reductive, can you share some of those that you’re consciously aware of?
PW: That applied to other people, but one of them is the holistic idea that anything belongs next to anything else. I think the notion of decorum has stunted a lot of fiction. It has somehow stopped people from combining things which could at least be put next door to each other. I think it’s ultimately a failure of spontaneity and availability. Fiction can afford to be at least as openminded as a good essay, and often it’s not. A novel is made of prose and prose is an enormous liberty. I mean the latitude you have when you say I’m a prose writer is gigantic. I don’t see why the novelist shouldn’t exploit the liberties of the prose writer. If there’s a principle in this it’s that the fiction writer should not be intimidated or blinkered. Too much American fiction for too long has been very blinkered indeed, whereas, much of that written in Europe and Latin America is not.
DM: The theme that I’ve noticed repeatedly in your work is that of the isolated individual confronting forces sometimes hostile, at other times appealing, which demand conformity. Care to respond to that?
PW: Deep down you know it’s you, not so much versus them, but you in the context of this enormous, successful universe, that doesn’t give a darn about your writing or your reputation or your books or your prose rhythms or anything. I’m always being daunted or fazed. I think the brutality of human beings, the impersonality and the vastness of the cosmos—these are things almost incredible, and that’s why I come back to them, as if some day I’ll get the point, or come to terms.
DM: As you review your career as a novelist, how would you describe the development of your fiction and your thinking about fiction?
PW: Good question. Seems to me there was a steady movement away from realism, and realism is photographic, documentary writing. I think realism fizzles out in the second volume of the Alley Jaggers books because the third volume is not realistic at all. It’s hallucinatory, and I feel happy with hallucination. I know people whose account of the world- whose expressionistic deformation of it—is more interesting than what’s actually out there. Fiction is, to a very large extent, about emotion, though I don’t think you can have a convincing novel without emotion, or a series of emotions, that will saturate the reader. I’ve become much happier with my fiction. I don’t think I was that happy with the first four or five books.
DM: What book or books do you think you took the most chances in?
PW: I took enormous chances in "The Place in Flowers." A risky book. Very, very long and much of it slow. I’m flattered by the number of people who stayed through it. There are, however, one or two friends whom I’ve put on notice that, in the summer of 1991, there will be a short, three hour examination on the text, questions in Hopi, answers in English. Penalty for failing grade: no more gifts of autographed novels. I guess the "Stauffenberg" novel is also a risky book because some people have an immediate reflex and say, "Oh, he’s found a nice Nazi, and we don’t like books about nice Nazis. He actually sees virtue in this Nazi officer, how dare he?"
DM: I was thinking too of "Caliban;" that’s a challenge to the reader.
PW: "Caliban" is a verbal orgy. If you have a willing reader, it’s fine, but if you have the wrong reader, then that’s definitely the wrong book. What amazes me, I really haven’t quite gotten used to this, is that you write a risky, dangerous book that could be slammed, and by and large it isn’t. The few books that get querulous reviews are not the risky ones; they’re the ones a little bit closer to the predictable line. I’ve never understood that. I don’t have complaints. I’m fortunate with critics and reviewers. I know how hard reviewing is, and I know there are people who actually pride themselves on the caliber of their reviews.
DM: You have commented elsewhere about being attracted to writers like Bernanos, Saint-Exupery, Gide, Malraux, and T.E. Lawrence, whom you describe as having "a more urgent sense of life." Could you define what that urgent sense of life is, especially for you as a writer of fiction?
PW: Life is not dependable. Life can be snuffed out fast, soon, easily; it’s a gift. Almost a fluke. If you have it, you have to make as much of it as you can. I’m saying that part of the obligation, if there is one, of being alive is to realize it, to relish it. I think this is what the urgency comes from. A severe illness taught me that; it changed my way of looking at things. There’s a permanent, perpetual wake as soon as you’re born. The urgency comes when you recognize that death is not an alternative. Death is a nothing, and you have to think of life almost as an absolute. I’m not just saying you have to be grateful for life. You have to be indignant about it. In other words, I never have an emotion about it that isn’t undercut by its opposite.
DM: You’ve spoken or written about literary influences frequently, but are there other specific influences you’d care to mention, like science, cinema, art, religion? I’m speaking here quite broadly of inspiration, influence.
PW: I might have been influenced by science but not to write something scientific. I do have certain abiding obsessions like with planes and astronomy; I’m always looking for structures out there.
DM: What about cinema? Has that played any part?
PW: I watch a lot of movies. If, as I’m told, I have a strong visual imagination, that has been fed by movies. I like to look at Kurosawa a great deal, and I have a book about him, a good, detailed book. I don’t have books about any other movie-makers. I think it’s significant he’s the only one; some of his work is magnificent. I like best "Dodesukaden." Kurosawa and Bergman matter most.
DM: What about music?
PW: Music is my favorite art. All art aspires to its condition. I think my novels, as they have developed, have aspired to some such condition, in which you try for naked emotion. You can’t do it because words have meanings, you’re always running into trouble but you can try, and I think that the fact that I tend to listen to music while writing is revealing.
DM: You talked about Prokofiev an