STEINBECK ON HAVING A WRITER IN THE FAMILY
This is sad news, but I can’t think of a thing you can do about it. I can remember the horror which came over my parents when they became convinced that it was so with me–and properly so. What you have and they had to look forward to is life made intolerable by a mean, cantankerous, opinionated, moody, quarrelsome, unreasonable, nervous, flighty, irresponsible son. You will get no loyalty, little consideration, and desperately little attention from him. In fact you will want to kill him.
What is a twerp in the strictest sense, in the original sense?
It’s a person who inserts a set of false teeth between the cheeks of his ass.
I beg your pardon; between the cheeks of his or her ass. I’m always offending feminists that way.
I don’t quite understand why someone would do that with false teeth.
In order to bite the buttons off the back seats of taxicabs. That’s the only reason twerps do it. It’s all that turns them on.
There is still quite a lot of violent anti-bourgeois England in your early things.
I think part of it I may have got from my heroes of that time–Lawrence, as I said, and Aldington, and so on–but it’s more than just a fashionable thing. I think that, as I say, in England, living as if we are not part of Europe, we are living against the grain of what is nourishing to our artists, do you see? There seems to be an ingrown psychological thing about it, I don’t know why it is. You can see it reflected even in quite primitive ways like this market business now–the European Common Market. It’s purely psychological, the feeling that we are too damned superior to join this bunch of continentals in anything they do.
So many of your heroes have bad consciences. What sins have your characters committed in order to have such bad consciences?
Actually, I don’t know sin. I know guilt.
So there’s no connection between sin and guilt?
You know the awful thing–I know I’m not answering your question–is that we in this neoChristian age still have some fixed ideas about believing in the whole thing, the whole Christian church. For instance, let’s take sexuality. As a very young boy I was very upset when I realized I had an erection. A sin. This goddamned erection, and so on. I didn’t know who had told me about that. I wasn’t even three years old yet and already there was this burden of judgment. Everything was so unclear, it was so disturbing. The idea that by birth you are born a sinner. Why? I didn’t ask to be born. Why do I have to be born on a blacklist?
I was wondering if as you grew up you had a sense of somehow representing your culture to other cultures.
I did. Let me tell you another anecdote. I was a Mexican child growing up in Washington in the thirties. I went to public school, I was popular, as you must be to be happy in an American school, until the Mexican government expropriated foreignowned oil holdings on March 18, 1938. I became a leper in my school, nobody would talk to me, everyone turned their backs on me because there were screaming headlines every day talking about Mexican Communists stealing “our” oil wells. So I became a terrible Mexican chauvinist as a reaction. I remember going to see a Richard Dix film at the Keith Theater in Washington in 1939, a film in which Dix played Sam Houston. When the Alamo came around, I jumped up in my seat shouting “Death to the gringos! Viva México!”
In One Hundred Years of Solitude I used the insomnia plague as something of a literary trick since it’s the opposite of the sleeping plague. Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry.
Can you explain that analogy a little more?
Both are very hard work. Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques. Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved. And as Proust, I think, said, it takes ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. I never have done any carpentry, but it’s the job I admire most, especially because you can never find anyone to do it for you.
Why did you choose the farce form for a novel that is not at all meant to be an entertainment?
But it is an entertainment! I don’t understand the contempt that the French have for entertainment, why they are so ashamed of the word “divertissement.” They run less risk of being entertaining than of being boring. And they also run the risk of falling for kitsch, that sweetish, lying embellishment of things, the rosecolored light that bathes even such modernist works as Illuard’s poetry or Ettore Scola’s recent film Le Bal, whose subtitle could be: “French history as kitsch.” Yes, kitsch, not entertainment, is the real aesthetic disease! The great European novel started out as entertainment, and every true novelist is nostalgic for it. In fact, the themes of those great entertainments are terribly serious–think of Cervantes! In The Farewell Party, the question is, does man deserve to live on this earth? Shouldn’t one “free the planet from man’s clutches”?
Are you a religious man?
Not in a denominational way. I’m attracted by mysticism.
The Society for Psychical Research, ESP, that sort of thing?
I do believe that the evidence for telepathy, for example, is overwhelming and that it is a part of reality that is above science. Science allows us to glimpse fragments of reality. There is another level, for the understanding of which our brains are not programmed. In other words, there are concepts, such as infinity in space and in time, which science cannot fathom. These concepts belong to a level of reality which is above our heads.
How does the London theater world differ from New York?
Theater in New York is nearer to the street. In London you have to go deep into the building, usually, to reach the place where theater happens. On Broadway, only the fire doors separate you from the sidewalk and you’re lucky if the sound of a police car doesn’t rip the envelope twice a night. This difference means something, I’m not quite sure what. Well, as Peter Brook will tell you, the theater has its roots in something holy, and perhaps we in London are still a little holier than thou. The potential rewards of theater in New York are really too great for its own good. One bull’sand you’re rich and famous. The rich get more famous and the famous get richer. You’re the talk of the town. The taxi drivers have read about you and they remember you for a fortnight. You get to be photographed for Vogue with new clothes and Vuitton luggage, if that’s your bag.
You have been criticized for the way you live, and for your economic position. . . . Isn’t this accusation more intense because you belong to the Communist Party?
Precisely. He who has nothing–it has been said many times–has nothing to lose but his chains. I risk, at every moment, my life, my person, all that I have–my books, my house. My house has been burned; I have been persecuted; I have been detained more than once; I have been exiled; they have declared me incommunicado; I have been sought by thousands of police. Very well then. I’m not comfortable with what I have.
Critics? A critic severely criticized my lighting at a Saturday evening opening in Munich. I thanked him but there was no time to change anything for the Sunday matinee. He felicitated me on the improvement. “You see how my suggestions helped?” he said. No, there will always be a conflict between creators and the technicians of the métier.
It is claimed that you have served as a model [for the crowd of expatriate poets in Paris] and that you have strongly influenced certain American novelists.
That’s absolutely false. If I’ve been able to influence this one or that without my or his knowledge, I haven’t served as a model. It’s Victor Hugo, it’s Maupassant who served as models for them when they came to establish themselves in Paris at the end of the other war. They came to France without an afterthought, be it as soldiers, ambulance drivers, diplomats; the war over, they sojourned for a time, short or long, in Paris, where certain ones stayed during the entire time between the two wars; they frequented Montparnasse, then Saintand if they were influenced it was rather by the ambiance, the air of Paris and the way of living in France rather than by this or that French author. John Dos Passos declared to me one day: “You have in France a literary genre that we don’t know at all in the United States, the grand reportage a la Victor Hugo.”
Did you have much encouragement [of your writing] in [your] early days, and if so, by whom?
Good Lord! I’m afraid you’ve let yourself in for quite a saga. . . . I was thought somewhat eccentric, which was fair enough, and stupid, which I suitably resented. . . . Well, finally, I guess I was around twelve, the principal at the school I was attending paid a call on my family, and told them that in his opinion, and in the opinion of the faculty, I was “subnormal.” He thought it would be sensible, the humane action, to send me to some special school equipped to handle backward brats. Whatever they may have privately felt, my family as a whole took official umbrage, and in an effort to prove I wasn’t subnormal, pronto packed me off to a psychiatric study clinic at a university in the East where I had my I.Q. inspected. I enjoyed it thoroughly and–guess what?–came home a genius, so proclaimed by science. I don’t know who was the more appalled: my former teachers, who refused to believe it, or my family, who didn’t want to believe it–they’d just hoped to be told I was a nice normal boy.
Do you think there’s a connection with the American past?
Yes, but I couldn’t put it any more definitely than that, you see. It wouldn’t be what it is, and I imagine it wouldn’t be so good; putting it as modestly as I can, it wouldn’t be what it is if I’d been born in England, and it wouldn’t be what it is if I’d stayed in America. It’s a combination of things. But in its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America.
What technique do you use to arrive at your standard?
Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, be wants to beat him.
What led you to make the remark quoted by Lionel Trilling, that the older you got the less it seemed to you to matter that an artist should “develop.”
I am more interested in achievement than in advance on it and decline from it. And I am more interested in works than in authors. The paternal wish of critics to show how a writer dropped off or picked up as he went along seems to me misplaced. I am only interested in myself as a producer.
Is emotional stability necessary to write well? You told me once that you could only write well when you were in love. Could you expound on that a bit more?
What a question. But full marks for trying. You can write any time people will leave you alone and not interrupt you. Or rather you can if you will be ruthless enough about it. But the best writing is certainly when you are in love. If it is all the same to you I would rather not expound on that.
Many of your most memorable characters, Raven for instance, are from low life. Have you ever had any experience of low life? . . . What did you know about poverty?
I have never known it. I was “short,” yes, in the sense that I had to be careful for the first eight years of my adult life but I have never been any closer.
Then you don’t draw your characters from life?
No, one never knows enough about characters in real life to put them into novels. One gets started and then, suddenly, one cannot remember what toothpaste they use, what are their views on interior decoration, and one is stuck utterly. No, major characters emerge: minor ones may be photographed.
Do you believe that literature has been turned over to the philosophers by accident?
There is a historical reason for it: the tragedy of France. Sartre expressed the despair of this generation. He did not create it, but he gave it a justification and a style.
You do not consider yourself a moralist, do you?
No, I most emphatically do not. Truth and beauty are educatory in themselves. . . . Social criticism must necessarily, and always, be an extremely superficial thing. But don’t misunderstand me. Writers, like all artists, are concerned to represent reality, to create a more absolute and complete reality than reality itself. They must, if they are to accomplish this, assume a moral position, a clearly conceived political, social, and philosophical attitude; in consequence, their beliefs are, of course, going to find their way into their work. What artists believe, however, is of secondary importance, ancillary to the work itself. A writer survives in spite of his beliefs. Lawrence will be read whatever one thinks of his notions on sex. Dante is read in the Soviet Union.
What are some of the problems you have dealt with often and expect to deal with in the future?
One of them, for example, which will probably haunt me more than any other is the problem of communication. I mean communication between two people. The fact that we are I don’t know how many millions of people, yet communication, complete communication, is completely impossible between two of those people, is to me one of the biggest tragic themes in the world. When I was a young boy I was afraid of it. I would almost scream because of it. It gave me such a sensation of solitude, of loneliness. That is a theme I have taken I don’t know how many times. But I know it will come again. Certainly it will come again.
Are you worried about the future of the written word?
Not really. I get moments of alarm. Not long ago I received in the mail a doctoral thesis entitled: “Sophie’s Choice: A Jungian Perspective,” which I sat down to read. It was quite a long document. In the first paragraph it said, “In this thesis my point of reference throughout will be the Alan J. Pakula movie of Sophie’s Choice.” There was a footnote, which I swear to you said, “Where the movie is obscure I will refer to William Styron’s novel for clarification.” This idiocy laid a pall over my life for a dark brief time because it brought back all these bugaboos we have about the written word.
You tend not to write directly about particular historical crises or catastrophes, but surely the war in the Balkans underlies the bleak historical perspectives of poems such as “Reading History” or “Empires,” both from the early nineties?
I’m sure it was in the background. “Reading History” was written after going on a binge and reading a pile of books on Chinese and Indian history. Every few pages, of course, there was some atrocity, some massacre, or some battle in which thousands died, so that got me thinking. “Empires” is a poem about my grandmother on my mother’s side, who died in 1948, when I was ten. She took care of me from when I was very little while my parents were at work. She used to listen to Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and other lunatics on the radio. I understood nothing, but she knew several languages. She got very upset. She could not get over the lies she heard. What’s wrong with the world? she’d ask everyone. Good question. I still haven’t ﬁgured it out myself. There have been so many wars in my lifetime, so much killing. I’m as uncomprehending as she was. The ease and arrogance with which so many are sent to their deaths continues to astonish me.
The use of murder to improve the world, for instance, is popular in American intellectual circles as if there had never been any historical precedents. I think about these things all the time.
“All I have is a voice,” Auden wrote in “September 1, 1939,” “To undo the folded lie.” Of course he then later disowned this poem . . . But it seems to me your poems are often motivated by the desire to “undo folded lies,” or at least to expose the various complexities that politicians and pundits attempt to disguise from us.
Let’s hope so. Poetry in my view is a defense of the individual against all the forces arrayed against him. Every religion, every ideology and orthodoxy of thought and manner wants to reeducate him and make him into something else. To sing from the same sheet is the ideal. A true patriot doesn’t think for himself, they’ll tell you. I realize that there’s a long tradition in poetry of not speaking truth to power and, in fact, of being its groveling apologist. I just don’t have it in me.
On the other hand, one of the main pleasures of your work, for me anyway, is the way it reminds us of all the ordinary pleasures of life, and urges us, or rather invites us, to enjoy them while we still can—things such as fried shrimp, tomatoes, roast lamb, red wine . . .
Don’t forget sausages sautéed with potatoes and onions! It’s also highly advisable to have a philosopher or two on hand. A few pages of Plato while working on a baked ham. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus over a bowl of spaghetti with littleneck clams. We think best when we bring opposites together, when we realize that all these realities, one inside the other, are somehow connected. That’s how the wonder and amazement that are so necessary to both poetry and philosophy come about. A “truth” detached and puriﬁed of pleasures of ordinary life is not worth a damn in my view. Every grand theory and noble sentiment ought to be ﬁrst tested in the kitchen—and then in bed, of course.