The BOOKPRESS April 1998

Something Rotten in the State of Fiction

Christopher Furst

Paul West, author of sixteen novels and several nonfiction books, is a prolific and original voice in contemporary fiction. His work combines stylistic boldness with metaphoric power, and ranges through several periods of history: Victorian London in The Women of Whitechapel, the rape of Nanking in The Tent of Orange Mist, the life of a young John Milton in Sporting with Amaryllis. Terrestrials, his most recent novel, follows the story of two American spyplane pilots shot down over Africa, and the aftermath of their lives stateside. It explores friendship and betrayal, the poetry and technology of flight, and the seismic adjustment to ordinary life for old Cold Warriors.

West has received the Lannan Prize for Fiction, and The Tent of Orange Mist was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Sven Birkerts calls West "one of our heroic writers. Reading his novels, we remember that style wedded to imagination is a nitroglycerin compound."

I visited him in Ithaca to talk about his work, imagination, and the state of current fiction.

CF: Letís talk about the inspiration for your most recent book, Terrestrials.

PW: There was some idea plucking away at me and finally a phrase came through: "The paradox of the fortunate fall." It came back. Here are these two elite, rather self-satisfied, heroic spies suddenly brought down into the African desert. Itís a fortunate fall because they come to learn more about themselves and they discover that life can be lived on a much lower plane. Itís almost an allegorical novel, though that wasnít necessarily my intention.

CF: You have these fallen angels landing on the burning lake right there at the beginning.

PW: You see, the answer is that these images just come and I use them. I donít inspect them for their overt meaning.

CF: Which brings me to another point, the word "gratuitous," in the sense of something "freely given."

PW: At least as I experience the act of writing, the writer is given a great deal. People who ask questions about the act of writing always assume that everything you do is calculated and deliberate and planned. But a great deal of what I do is done in a sort of trance-like condition. I get into a receptive state of mind and something begins to arrive. One of the fancy words, which I guess still is current, is "donnťe." Itís a giftóa phrase, or a scene, or a sentence. You say, thank God, or thank somebody, and write it down, then something else arrives. Only people with a sort of erector-set mentality masquerade successfully as wholly calculating. I think anyone working on a fairly ambitious level who claims he is deliberate is a liar. Or else he has no imagination, no inspiration.

CF: And yet the architecture comes through in what you do.

PW: Well, it will have architecture. Iíve discovered that, maybe because the mind is the way it is, architecture builds itself. You donít write without architecture. Itís second nature to build it and to construct it carefully as you go. Do I have a systematic plan? Not really. I very often plan things in the act of writing.

CF: You experiment sentence by sentence.

PW: Yes. The experimentation is on the level of texture. There is another piece of the mind that is carefully guiding what is going on along the wayóIím trying to sum up the experience; itís very difficult to do. It seems to me writing happens on various levels simultaneously. One is the level of the architectonic, another is texture, and there are many other levels as well: interruption, the level of the lost form, the thing that wonít come back because youíre doing something else, so you waste time looking for it. All of this goes into the act of writing.

CF: This sounds very much like the Romantic idea of inspiration.

PW: Itís a dirty word nowadays. If youíre going to write for a living and you donít have inspiration, your life is going to be very, very difficult. Youíll never be dragged screaming into the next book by a new idea. The problem with wannabees is that they either donít want to do the work, or canít face the kind of honesty you have to cultivate. You have to say I know what works for me, and work within that. Most people wonít do that. Theyíll want a formulaóhow do I write a well-made novel?

CF: Iím thinking of the journalistic attack on so-called flowery writing.

PW: A lot of people slam away at what they call self-indulgence: Fancy, flowery, artsy-fartsy. They wholly ignore a great deal of the best literature. Donít forget the female judge at the National Book Award, who, apropos of nobody and nothing, screamed into the phone while we were having a conference call, "Iím sick and tired of all this masturbatory writing." And nobody knew what she meant. So I asked whoís written masturbatory work? She said Proust, Faulkner, Joyce, Nabokov, Woolf. Two of us started to laugh. I asked her what was wrong with masturbation anyway. She had no idea what she was talking about. That was her slam. I have a lot to say about the literary world, and I havenít finished. I want to write a posthumous book in which I name names. And nail nails.

CF: Do you have a title?

PW: I do. Iím going to call it Something Rotten. It will not be that long. Itíll have its good side, its genial side, but the chapter that will count is called "Proctology."

CF: Sounds like something Rabelais would write.

PW: Rabelais is not a bad precursor.

CF: He has a list of what his ecclesiastical enemies were doing in hell.

PW: Youíre right. He was one of the first writers I latched onto. My God, what wonderful freedom to do this, almost what you like. I guess people donít read the Marquis de Sade, either. Well, I got a little bored with him. Rabelais is so much better than Sade. Heís more interesting. The trouble with Sade is heís monotonous, he never saw the opposite. With really good writers like Beckett and Nabokov you always get the other idea, a shadowing. These people have enough wit to see the opposite of what theyíre doing and that always invigorates whatever goes on. In Nabokov you have the handsome son of well-to-do arty parents, but thereís always the specter of total deprivation, of all this being removed and becoming a displaced person in Berlin. Thatís what makes Nabokov so powerful: thereís the panoply and then only a millimeter away is total deprivation. I was thinking of his story "Solus Rex," about a fellow who thinks he has solved the riddle of the universe. He checks into a hotel so as to concentrate on the problem even more, and then they hear him screaming in his room. Itís one of Nabokovís more enigmatic stories.

CF: Stylistically it foreshadows Pale Fire. He was working on it just before he sailed from France in 1940, and he wished that heíd continued it, for it promised to open up a new stylistic avenue in Russian.

PW: I think itís Nabokovís most Beckettian piece, and why didnít he finish it? I suppose the answer is that he couldnít. Heíd reached the unsayable.

CF: Nabokov used to teach a course that students nicknamed "Dirty Lit."

PW: Well, Dirty Lit would be a good course. Iím not sure I have not taught it in my time. Proust is dirty lit, according to certain critics. They call him "mauvy" Proust, who writes dirty things about brothels and rats. They ignore the 99% thatís not about brothels and rats. However, dirty Proust is a great consolation to me. Heís not a phrasemaker. I was thinking the other day of the writers I still read, Faulkner and Proust, are not phrasemakers. They have a very peculiar noise that they make, and they tend to make their effects by piling things up, whereas writers like Nabokov, and maybe even Beckett, are phrasemakers. Very often a line of Beckett has more punch than a whole paragraph of some of these other guys. So Iím grateful for Beckett. Not the plays, though. I donít get much from the plays. But the novels ó superb stuff to reread, you get much more on the second and third reading. I donít think Beckett realized how close he was to himself in some of those. Someone told me they had to strap him in his chair in his last months while he watched TV. That was it. If thereís anything more Beckettian than being strapped in your chair and watching TV, with no cricket, what a fate. That was pure, pure Murphy.

CF: Talk about being absorbed by a character in your own fiction.

PW: I taught Beckettís fiction for twenty years, and I had enormous fun, and my students had fun. They used to write to him and he would send them presents, autographed books, always in French. Then they would come with trembling hands saying, "Beckett wrote to me! And he sent me this." There it was, scrawled away.

CF: Look at the different kinds of styles he wrote inóthe early freer style and then the later, pared-down one thatís nothing like the kind of minimalism you get from its practitioners here.

PW: With BeckettóI wouldnít use the word minimalismóitís a Swiftian economy. He has this wonderful mind behind it all, so that even if he seems pared down, itís only to make a certain phrase more pungent and copious beyond all measure. Beckett is in the business of distillation, of being concise. But whatís being made concise is enormous learning and a vast amount of upset.

CF: One thing I see you doing in Terrestrials is pay homage to Beckett.

PW: Yes. I learned a lot from Beckett. Perhaps all that people learn from him is the courage of their own phrasemaking. Some say Beckett comes out of the tradition of phrasemaking, and some say I come out of the tradition of stream of consciousness. I donít think thereís a stream of consciousness. Thereís a puddle, or thereís a pool, or thereís a swamp. I think I straddle both schools, and people donít know what to do with me. It seems to me that ówhat did Nathalie Sarraute call it? ó subconversation, thatís not really had its full play in the novel. People think a lot more than they actually say. Some of that is worth exploring, as she discovered. Iíve always wanted to do that. So in this case, although itís clear theyíre occupied with physical procedures, especially flying the plane, they also have bundles of thoughts that could be expressed, although they themselves are not doing so.

CF: This seems to me much more interesting than the straitened idea that such and such a character is limited by a certain education, a certain job, and therefore could never think such thoughts.

PW: I remember people in publishing houses used to push this and say, well, you can only write about a child in a childís language. Iíve never heard such twaddle in my life. A competent narrator will write in narratorial language, whatever that narrator wants to do. It has nothing to do with a childís idiom.

CF: Imagine Benjy writing his section of The Sound and the Fury.

PW: Iím very glad he didnít. Itís very strange to find people who say, hereís an orchestra, and the one thing we donít want is a conductor. They want them all playing their own version.

CF: Even John Cage conducts, if you will.

PW: John Cage is a very interesting figure, especially with Prepared Piano. If youíre dealing with an ancient language like English, youíre dealing with a prepared piano anyway. You have all of its conversations, all of its previous uses, as well as the way the thing has shaped itself through peopleís epiglottises. I find that absolutely fascinating. Youíre not dealing with something that was invented in 1945. Itís something that goes back to Indo-European, the squawks and harrumphs of people whose names weíll never know. Literature can do a lot of things. It can be almost musical in its effects, probably more than musical. You have to live dangerously to do it. You need your Rabelais behind you, and Henry James, Proust, Djuna Barnes and Woolf. These are the great models.

CF: Do you think American writing is becoming parochial?

PW: Youíve raised a very interesting point, and that is, in a sense ó putting poetry aside for a minute ó fiction has almost no standing as an art form. Itís regarded as, I donít know what category itís in, imitation margarine. Itís supposed to be a commonplace, mercantile thing like toothpaste, to be used and spat out. Not pondered, or kept, or given as a present. I think the attitude of people towards nonfiction has a lot to do with this. They say in some sort of censorious, puritanical way that fiction is not real, that fiction is cowardly and evasive, blah blah blah. Well, it always was. Fiction is metaphorical. It isnít documentary. Iím not sure where this notion came from that fiction is documentary. Maybe itís because initially, in say, the 18th century when fiction began to grow, it was an instrument used by a specific social class for defining itself.

CF: And thereís Defoe writing things that look very much like documentaries.

PW: Which is entertaining, provided you donít regard it as a novel. The novel is a wholly different growth. But it didnít begin to become so only in the l9th century, it was already there in people like Rabelais and Thomas Nashe.

CF: And if you go back to the Romans ó

PW: And the Greeks. Theyíre taking licentious liberties. Somebody like Longus is taking liberties way back when.

CF: The Satyricon, too.

PW: Thatís a good example. Why punish fiction for appearing to become what it has always been. I donít know, I havenít figured it out. It has to do with puritanism, it has to do with hypocrisy. People somehow donít like to be caught reading ambitious fiction. I donít know why.

CF: You seem to have a more receptive audience in Europe, especially France.

PW: The most considered, most imaginative, most pensive accounts of my stuff come from the French, most often in Le Monde, which is a very friendly newspaper. They always give me the front page. They have a small team who write about serious fiction. Iím very grateful to Gallimard and the French critical reviewing constituency. With them, you donít have to argue the seriousness of fiction. Itís a given. In America, and I think in England too, and possibly in Germany, fiction has somehow lost its clout. But not in Latin America.

I donít know why this curious inhibition about fiction, which is actually the magic carpet, and always was ó read the Arabian Nights for Godís sake ó itís a means of transporting your imagination in the context of the writerís imagination. Fiction is there to supplant the world that is around you, and if itís not doing that Iím not sure its fiction. Itís like this idiot who reviewed me when Amaryllis came out. He belabored the point that, in fact, Milton did not have a black girlfriend, and how could I presume that he did. And how could I read Miltonís mind? Didnít I know Milton was dead? And on and on. The other book he reviewed with mine was also about Milton, Milton in America. He actually went to the trouble of saying we know well that Milton did not go to America, as if this has any bearing on anything. Here is this gorgeous implement, the imagination, and people keep bitching at it, saying itís not trustworthy, its dangerous, itíll provoke revolution. Damn right. Iím the guy who makes Stauffenberg [Count Von Stauffenberg, in The Very Rich Hours of Count Von Stauffenberg] narrate in English his own execution twice, and then go on to write the novel. Malraux, in talking about art, had the right idea: Thereís nothing new. The things that Picasso was doing are things that were done in Africa long before. And today, the magic realists are just reclaiming ancient privileges. One should. The Bible is a monument to magical realism. Perhaps people would find 20th-century literature a lot easier if they realized how old-fashioned it was. Guy Davenport likes to bring in the classics, mixed with Kafka. Itís an exciting mix, but he gets little thanks for it.

CF: Just think if Shakespeare had never used the classics or Renaissance sources. Not a single play set in Italy, nothing set in Rome, nothing based on Holinshed .

PW: I used to say to my writing students, God help them, always write about what you donít know. For instance, if youíre determined to write and you say to yourself, what do I know about train stations in Sebastopol. The answer, obviously, is nothing. Well, go and get a guidebook and find out. Research it. imagine what itís like to go from station to station in Sebastopol.

CF: Weíve seen a spate of dramatizations of Jane Austen novels. Do you think that movies and television are reviving the publicís interest in reading?

PW: They claim this is generating a whole new generation of readers. But what are they reading? Theyíre reading kitsch. Thereís almost nothing else. If publishers insist on making 20 percent profit, instead of the traditional three, or at most five, and have gotten rid of their best editors, and are humiliating their best authors, by and large not buying the books they write, then the kitsch is going to take over. And they will make their 20 percent, which is utterly contrary to the old idea of publishing as a "gentlemanís profession" in which you expected to lose money on literature and pay for it by producing books on chess and cooking.

CF: And some publishers engage in the cant of saying they give the public what they want.

PW: The public is not as gullible and dense as some booksellers and publishers, but the public is being swindled. Theyíre being told thereís no cake, that theyíll have to eat stale bread the rest of their lives. Because if they eat cake they will get above themselves somehow, they will become intellectuals. So people are surrounded by all this swill. Badly conceived books ó theyíre really non-books.

CF: What are you working on now?

PW: Iíve finished a novel about Wyatt Earp that should be released next year. I enjoyed making up the letters he writes to a nun. And Iím working on a novel that deals with the Gunpowder Plot and Catholic martyrs.

Chris Furst is a freelance writer living in Ithaca.

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