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Reading Paul West

Anne-Laure Tissut

IV. Témoignages et textes inédits de Paul West

West’s Interview, Imaginary and Otherwise

Anne-Laure Tissut

Texte intégral


1Wretched: the money grubbers have taken over, and the vision of someone such as old Alfred Knopf, entering publishing in order to lose his money on geniuses, has gone. Most of the editors with taste and/or guts, have quit. Whereas, as I am told, Gallimard are happy to earn a 3% profit, American publishers insist on at least 25%, and publish only such books as will guarantee it. Good writers are scolded, and junked, like misbehaving children. They thus find their way to the smallest publishing houses, whose books are least reviewed and therefore make least profit.

2In such circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the reading public take little interest in national disasters. The cult of provincialism becomes even more parochial. Schmaltzy books about a Brooklyn childhood do well, getting front-page reviews and color features. Fiction is unpopular unless it smells like non-fiction, and imagination withers. Those of us who persist do so only, as Matthew Arnold said, to preserve a needed attitude, rather than hoping to prevail. The comparison one might make with the American literary situation in the 1960s and 70s is shocking. That old notion of the world as a wonderful, lavish place to be alive in has degenerated into a materialistic, philistine sitcom. The ethos is running down and unashamed of it. A few stylist friends and I try to get on with our work, surrounded as we are by scores of hacks latching on to the degenerate demands of the day. Yet, you see, this is the result of a constantly feebler educational system, fobbed off as a bathroom toy by the nation’s plutocrats.

3A fellow-writer has just expostulated to me, about the state of publishing, “These bastards won’t let us write the kinds of books we want, and used, to write.” In the US, alas, literature that holy reservation has become the realm of predictable, undemanding entertainment, and we have not seen the worst yet, although a whole generation of savvy editors has gone, replaced by business execs, and many newspapers no longer review serious books, and fewer and fewer in a nation of 300 million can read or, if they can, cannot bear to do it for long. The plutocracy wants its dreamers dumb.


4Because the so-called English literary tradition struck me as prosaic and wimpy (one day I will compose my own Wimpiad). The prose and verse seemed minimalist, kitchen-sinky, apart from certain denounced writers such as Dylan Thomas, Lawrence Durrell, and Malcolm Lowry, all spiritual aliens. Anyone brought up as I was, on French or even German literature would rightly scoff at the dominant mode light years from Faulkner, say. In my teens I first found Faulkner in the village library and felt stunned by so Elisabethan-Jacobean a writer. That epiphany found its objective correlative (ha ha) in the idea of the frontier discovered when I went to Columbia University for a year in 1953, just reading for the whole year: Bernanos, Malraux, Camus, Gide, St-Exupéry, T.E. Lawrence, Pater, Rilke, Jünger, and many more. I discerned horizons unknown to the English, whose class-conscious literature is as close to the Big Sky as they get. So, I had been inoculated for a return visit in 1960. These sea-changes of the mind are not tidy things. I confess I lingered on the UK’s heroic side, the Battle of Britain especially (I spent three years in the RAF). Yet I was gravitating towards a different kind of world, even though in the end my prose would become as Woolfian as Marlovian. Much later I discovered Beckett and Nabokov and Proust, writers to linger on, read again and again. I was punished for my treachery: not a single book of mine has been published in England since Rat Man of Paris (1993). Not even My Mother’s Music.


5My mother’s influence! Well, read the book. It’s all in there. Then, some day, read the finished but as yet unpublished book about my father, Prisoners of War, in which he unloads his war on to me, so we were prisoners together, and had almost a warrior’s stance vis-à-vis World War II, 1939-45. Six years of mayhem.

6If my father was war, my mother was art, teaching me grammar at four years, reading poems to me as I sat at her knee (Sir Walter Scott, Macaulay, Christina Rossetti, and novels—Dickens mainly). She even told me about theory and harmony, for if she was anything she was a pianist, the survivor of many public performances. So I could read early on and savor myths about the local literati, the Sitwell family, about whom I wrote a coloratura essay when competing for the Oxford scholarship (see Oxford Days). My mother thought I would become a pianist, which would have been the easy way to go, but instead I took to different kinds of keys, a shift she eventually accepted. She taught me perfect sentences, a refulgent and earthy gift akin to my father’s teaching me how to report the enemy’s position and strength. They must have been grooming me for the literary wars, especially the war against minimalism, in which my warcry was my mother’s: The world is a copious, lavish, chromatic plenty, so don’t sell it short. Sans blague. In my teens, she would look at me with those hazel-green eyes and say “You can become anything or nothing.”

7I now turn to hypothetical answers to questions you have not put to me, but might!


8Interiority is the latest dirty word along Publishers Row. It alludes to the ever-suspect activities of the mind, to the stream, pond, pool, or pissoir of consciousness. Which nobody has, although some introverted novelists try to persuade us otherwise. These oafs have never heard of Nathalie Sarraute, of course, still less of sous-conversation. To them, humans are external dummies, best appraised as such, and thus rid of any grand frontier of the mind, “frontier” being the bourne from which no traveler returns, to cite Hamlet, or whither all trekkies boldly go. Some old aviator must have scared half a century’s literary editors with the old saw: There are old pilots, and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots. Well, phooey. I find it preposterous that senior editors at once-prestigious publishing houses think it best to blot out all interiority of the human animal. Why, this would denude much of even Mickey Spillane, in whose works the vexed slitherings of an archaic intellect grapple with sense-data from the world. Imagine living a day without a single thought. No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. Be like the poet Thomas Gray, aridly tabulating the flowers in his Peterhouse, Cambridge court. I am not sure that the interior flux isn’t the most marvelous thing about us.


  • 1 See pages 133-138.

9Odd how many people presume you write from a design, as Madame Sarraute did (though they have never heard of her). As if it were somehow immoral, romantic, or perfidious to sit down and write, using whatever comes along, whether you call it trouvaille or inspiration. As I hope my exhibits1 reveal, I constantly make notes in vacuo, knowing that most of them will be useful sooner or later. Indeed, some half dozen of them, stitched together, may well provide the spine and flesh of an entire paragraph (or paragiraffe).

  • 2 Again, these “samples” are included in the present volume (pages 133-138) to which the readers may (...)

10One doesn’t lose control, but often assigns control to the imagination rather than to reason. Even as I write this, rather than speaking it (which is not to say it might not have occurred to me even while speaking), I have just been prompted by some internal range-finder or geiger counter to note down how, after greasy, humid weather, a light switch can stick until you shove it firmly into place, at which juncture it emits a muffled thud as if a whole lump of waiting electricity has been dumped into the light. This, I claim, is to bring the phenomena of the world into the texture of the novel. Thus a novel may become more accidental than it might have been, yet just as true to the fable’s manger. If this seems a fancy way of telling you that you make notes even while writing, then okay. It’s true, but with me these apercus have colors and twinships, they begin to unfold on sails of paper, unfurled from the debris of one novel to the next. I offer you a few samples2, interspersed with laundry lists, jokes, and of course the ritual obscenities of the profession. My waste land is full of flowers, and it is to this I turn when inspiration runs dry. I hope a quick glance shows you how my mind behaves and misbehaves while I am working, especially when I have sat down with nothing particular in mind, except to evince myself. Hence, I suspect, a certain porousness in my characters: an ideal situation when so many of them have actually existed in history, enigmas to their friends and enemies, but ready-mades for me the re-animator.


11Interviewed, the new champion appears in a costly gray shirt whose collar shows the horizontal creases of having been packed in a suitcase: the shirt for TV, mangled thus!

12Introduced by microphone, the referee goes into a writhing fit of hand movements designed to encourage trust: the thumbs up, the wagged finger that chides without deducting a point, the OK sign (forefinger joined to thumb with the other three fingers extended like a chord or wafted wafer). What a good guy he is.

13These images will make their way into an hallucinated scene in which the bloodstained portions of the ring canvas are cut out and auctioned off.


1 See pages 133-138.

2 Again, these “samples” are included in the present volume (pages 133-138) to which the readers may turn.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2009

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