Many years ago, when I was going to be a great writer, I used to buy the Paris Review, which always had long interviews with great writers, in which the great writers were asked questions about how they came to be great writers and then answered them at length, so that people like me could learn the truth and go away and be great writers.
Nothing is ever that easy, of course. I remember once that a young man who wanted to be a novelist wrote to all the novelists he could think of, from Graham Greene to Somerset Maugham, asking them for advice, and many of them civilly wrote back with postcards and letters bearing hints. The young man then flogged all the replies to a newspaper to make a feature. You knew then that that young man would never be a novelist, just a good journalist.
And you might think I would have learnt something from the issue of the Paris Review that contained interviews with my two great heroes, Evelyn Waugh and S J Perelman. I thought Waugh’s comic novels were the best in the world, ditto Perelman’s short pieces. So to hear what these two men had to say about the art of comic writing would, I thought, throw light into my writer’s garret.
Not at all. What transpired was that they had opposite views on almost everything. By accident, several of the same subjects came up in both interviews, and they disagreed violently on all of them.
James Joyce, for instance.
Perelman said he choked up with respect when he thought of him. Waugh, as I remember, said that Joyce had been quite a good writer ‘before he went mad and wrote “Ulysses”’.
A great man, to Perelman.
Drivel, to Waugh.
Another great man, to Perelman.
Waugh said: ‘He’s American, isn’t he? I don’t think we need pay too much attention to them . . .’
Well, I thought my copy of that Paris Review was long lost, but this morning I found a batch of old Paris Reviews on my bookshelf. One, dating from 1959, still had a pile of Metro tickets and French receipts in it, a souvenir of that year’s teenaged sojourn in France. And another (No. 30, 1963, Summer/Fall) was the very one in which Waugh and Perelman featured! I opened it with eager fingers to check my memories.
Not far off. What Waugh had actually been asked by Julian Jebb was: ‘Do you continually refine and experiment?’
Waugh: ‘Experiment? God forbid! Look at the results of experiment in the case of a writer like Joyce. He started off writing very well, then you can watch him going mad with vanity. He ends up a lunatic.’
Again, Waugh is brilliantly cutting when he is asked why he never portrays working class characters in his books . . .
Waugh: ‘I don’t know them and I’m not interested in them. No writer before the middle of the nineteenth century wrote about the working classes other than as grotesques or as pastoral decorations. Then when they were given the vote, certain writers started to suck up to them.’
Interviewer: ‘What about Pistol… or much later Moll Flanders…?’
Waugh: ‘Ah, the criminal classes! That’s rather different. They have always had a certain fascination.’
But it is Perelman who comes across perhaps as the more stylish talker. Take this.
Interviewer: ‘How do you look back on your years in Hollywood?’
SJP: ‘With revulsion. I worked there sporadically from 1931 to 1942, and I can say in all sincerity that I would have spent my time to better advantage on Tristan da Cunha.’
Again, when the interviewer mysteriously asks if Perelman ever laughs out loud at something he is writing, Perelman’s answer is both mocking and elegant.
SJP: ‘When I was young I used to literally roll over and over on the floor, marvelling at the intricacy of the mind that had wrought such gems. I’ve become much less supple in late middle age.’
But the Perelman statement which has stuck in my mind over all those forty years, which comes as balm to a would-be humorist and which may even help to explain why I never tried to do anything else, is Perelman’s response to the last question of the interview, when he is asked: ‘Have you ever considered a serious book?’
Here is what he says.
‘It may surprise you to hear me say – and I’ll thank you not to confuse me with masters of the paradox like Oscar Wilde and G K Chesterton – that I regard my comic writing as serious. For the past thirty-four years, I have been approached almost hourly by damp people with foreheads like Rocky Ford melons who urge me to knock off my frivolous career and get started on that novel I’m burning to write. I have no earthly intention of doing any such thing. I don’t believe in the importance of scale; to me the muralist is no more important than the miniature painter. In this very large country, where size is all and where Thomas Wolfe outranks Robert Benchley, I am content to stitch away at my embroidery hoop. I think the form I work can have its own distinction, and I would like to surpass what I have done in it.’
I still think that is one of the most stylish and elegant paragraphs I have ever encountered. To write it would be beyond most people. But to say it? To speak it? Breathtaking.
The Oldie Jan 30 07