The Paris Review has at last unsealed the vault and made available, online and without cost, its fifty-seven-year cache of interviews with writers. The old favorites are here – Eliot, Ellison, Henry Green, Bellow, Marianne Moore, Nabokov – though I notice an unmistakable falling-off in the last decade or so, a scraping-the-barrel-bottom sense of impoverishment: Stephen King? Joan Didion? Harry Mathews? And am I the only reader never to have heard of David Mitchell? The same period, however, also gives us interviews with Guy Davenport, Shirley Hazzard and Geoffrey Hill.
Davenport, the most gracious and articulate man I ever met, comes off fractionally more prickly than the writer I knew. He seems uncomfortable in so public a forum, especially when the subject turns uncomfortably personal. When John Jeremiah Sullivan asks, “Is anyone writing your biography?” Davenport replies: “I have no life.” This is charmingly disingenuous and, by contemporary standards, largely true. The interview documents Davenport's sense of humor. A few nuggets:
“I learned early on that what I wanted to know wasn’t what I was being taught.”
“The high schools are evidently teaching nothing. I was getting students who had read nothing, knew nothing, and thought the university existed for the sake of the Kentucky Wildcats.”
“There is really no teaching of English literature anywhere.”
“Living in Kentucky makes every other place delightful. It’s sheer joy to write about Basho in his Japan or Mandelshtam in his Russia or Dutch teenagers.”
“I think its taboo to write about any kind of happiness. I mean, Joyce Carol Oates would burn her typewriter if she accidentally wrote about some happy people.”
Here’s one that comes close to defining my debt to Davenport:
“There ought to be a phrase `fall into interest in’ to parallel `fall in love with.’ Once I’ve found something interesting, I look around for more about it.”
If only more teachers, readers and children shared such enthusiasm, the force that drives real education. I watch my sons “fall into interest in” mycology, the American presidency, Chinese calligraphy, particle physics, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, the Trojan War – you name it. For Davenport, there’s a simultaneity about all human times and places. Past and present are mutually dependent when it comes to culture. Asked about the importance of collage to his graphic and literary work he replies:
“It’s at once an acknowledgement of deep tradition and an invention of something new. This is why iconology is the true study of the world, the true way to criticize anything. Art comes out of art. You cannot have Brahms without Beethoven. You cannot have Beethoven without Bach. You cannot have Picasso without the whole history of art.”
Artists embody cultural memory. None is original and the best have deep memories. Reading Davenport’s remarks, I thought of a poem Janet Lewis wrote in her nineties, “The River” (The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis, 2000):
“Remember for me the river,
Flowing wide and cold, from beyond Sugar Island,
Still and smooth, breathing sweetness
Into still air, moving under its surface
With all the power of creation.
“Remember for me the scent of sweet-grass
In Ojibway baskets,
Of meadow turf, alive with insects.
“Remember for me
Who will not be able to remember.
Remember the river.”
Three times in eleven lines the poet says “Remember for me,” suggesting a place where memory and imagination merge. R.L. Barth, editor of the Selected Poems, writes of “The River” in his preface:
“What also impresses is the implicit trust in tradition – that there will be someone to remember and therefore keep alive the landscapes and people of the poems. Janet Lewis is, always was, in a profound and radical sense, a conservative.”
Like, idiosyncratically, Guy Davenport.